Friday, 27 September 2013
When I was very young my mother took me to see a live production of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, playing at the Umina Beach Community Hall. There wasn’t much to do in Umina. I believe there still isn’t but seeing live theatre as a child was an experience that provided much needed joy and excitement. More than that, it allowed me to first enter a world where you can begin to suspend your disbelief. It wasn’t like television or film that can create an absolute ‘real’ world for children (and some adults, truth be known) but can only be enjoyed from the distance behind the screen. Theatre forces you to accept that wearing that planter box really means you are a turtle, even though in three minutes you will be a bird, a snail or whale. Or it makes you believe that dogs can talk or that singing and dancing forest animals are the most natural thing in the world, all in three dimensions.
Theatre for children is one of the important foundations in activating imagination, especially in a society that does it all for you. Now more than ever is when you should give your children the opportunity to enter that world of make-believe and thoroughly entertain them and you in the process.
It was a delight to sit with my six-year old companion Emily and hear her laughter and that of the children around her at the Ensemble’s ‘A Year with Frog and Toad’. This is a polished and professional production with a quality ensemble that took me back to my own childhood love of theatre. It’s a clever and playful show that explores one year with the forest creatures, featuring best friends Frog (Stephen Anderson) and Toad (Jay James-Moody). There’s also terrific little cameos from Snail (Jonathon Freeman), Turtle (Crystal Hegedis) and Mouse (Lizzie Mitchell).
A piece of blue material and bang, I’m in the pond. A few leaves and suddenly, I’m in autumn. A rolled up backpack and zing, you’re a snail. The creativity of Anna Gardiner’s design and Shondelle Pratt’s choreography with Anna Crawford’s direction and musical direction and before you know it, I’m six again and reliving truly wonderful moments of the fantasy of theatre, its catchy songs and dancing, gentle teasing of our idiosyncrasies and a lovely tale of loyalty, friendship and adventure.
Children’s Theatre is often under-rated as an art form but with productions like ‘A Year with Frog and Toad’, there’s no excuse not to go to the theatre and start your children on a love affair with imagination and fantasy whilst teaching them some important moral messages about friendship. There’s colour, spectacle, movement and humour and this cast deliver a professional and engaging show that will please the parents just as much as the kids.
So why not include the ritual of heading off to see a great piece of children’s theatre every school holidays and if you can start with this show, you’re on to a winner.
One actor. Thirty-seven characters. Doesn’t that make you break out in a sweat just thinking about it? That was the challenge actor Nick Curnow faced performing Becky Mode’s ‘Fully Committed’ at the New Theatre as part of the Sydney Fringe.
Directed and produced by Alexander Butt, he certainly made Curnow sweat in this one hour transformational acting piece set in the engine room (read dingy windowless basement office) of a swanky four-star, award-winning Manhattan restaurant. Whilst Sam (Curnow) has to deal unassisted with the plethora of calls and demands from clients and staff, he is also trying to juggle his own family and career life choices and find the assertive man that lies within to try to regain some control of the juggernaut of pressure placed upon him. It’s a piece that shoots out of the gate and doesn’t stop until Curnow is lying in a pool of his own perspiration.
I remember seeing this piece with Jamie Oxenbould as Sam at the Ensemble well over a decade ago. He was fabulous and it still remains a highlight of tackling such a multi-character piece. But Curnow almost got there too. Certainly Curnow’s vocal skills were terrific. We recognised each character immediately and his nuance and range was impressive. He is yet to still master all the physical subtleties and there are some tiny timing issues but gee, I’ll repeat, thirty-seven characters. I challenge anyone to beat that beast. It's a performance marathon.
This was an enjoyable Sydney Fringe outing and so far, with just a few exceptions, there has been so much talent and risk on offer throughout the season. What a great avenue for non-mainstream actors to get their hands dirty and embody some strong short plays and self- devised works.
I will admit I’ll be glad when the Fringe finishes so my life can go back to normal and not the turbo-charged experience I've had as far as reviewing goes but I’m pleased to have been introduced to an 'underbelly' of Sydney talent and I wish the momentum of choice could continue for Sydney-siders.
‘Fully Committed’ is an entertaining night out and you will be rewarded with some very fine performance work on stage so get along to the New this week and check it out.
‘Camp’, playing at the Ensemble, written by Gary Baxter and directed by Mark Kilmurry, is a nice play. It’s a fun play. It’s not going to change the way you view theatre but this simple, snappy local work is a crowd pleaser.
But ‘simple’ plays are deceptive. Often they’re not simple at all because sometimes characters can seem under-developed, timing is crucial, design is integral and hitting each beat and breath is paramount in making it seem flawless and plump with possibilities. There are no tricks to hide behind, no Richard III hanging from a harness and spinning like a circus act. Nope. Just acting, tight direction and utilising every element available to keep the ball rolling till the end. I think for the most part, Kilmurry and Baxter have achieved this in ‘Camp’.
As you would imagine, the play is set in a crowded campsite on Boxing Day and our characters, three married couples and their kids (thankfully, never seen and just heard or implied) encounter every obstacle you would expect- deadly wildlife, obnoxious fellow campers, extreme weather conditions, drunks, disorganisation and marriages in crisis. We all recognise the situation and environment of camping. People either love it or hate it. I would rather donate a kidney than go camping and the misery of the experience is obvious and yet, like all adversity, there seems to be a badge of honour in also surviving it.
There are a few things that impressed me about this play and the most obvious is lead actress, Michelle Doake. She is incredible. Doake’s skill in comic timing, grounded in such truth, raised this play to heights that a lesser actor could not have done. You could feel the tension in the audience as we were drawn into her every moment and the joy of her presence on stage. Doake is also fortunate that she has the most well-rounded character in the play but it means the play’s success hinges on her ability to deliver and she does. She has some fairly solid support in her ensemble with David Terry and Ben Ager and it’s always good to see Jamie Oxenbould’s comic talents grace the stage. Jennifer Corren and Karen Pang are yet to fully warm into their roles but I imagine now the play is running to an audience, this will happen.
The set design is also impressive. Anna Gardiner’s replica of a grassy camp site, complete with combi van has transformed this small space thoroughly. Other design elements such as Matthew Marshall’s lighting and Daryl Wallis’ sound completes the dimensions of the mis-en-scene by bringing the stage to life in varied and subtle ways. Marshall’s lighting evokes time, place, season and situation and Wallis’ soundscapes fill the space with those sounds that provoke our characters, such as the house music, nature, off-stage voices and weather conditions. So comprehensive is the sound that you might not even notice that there is an underscore of sound throughout the play to constantly reference the environment in which the play takes place.
Kilmurry is supported by a great team and having the playwright sit in during the process so that Baxter can tweak his work during that crucial rehearsal period is a smart thing. More writers and directors should take advantage of the collaborative nature of theatre and we should see writers as part of the active creatives available in staging a show.
I think the audience that emerge each night from ‘Camp’ will exit with a smile on their faces and certainly with admiration for Doake. So if you’re after a feel-good, harmless bit of entertainment, ‘Camp’ is as close as you can get.
Wednesday, 25 September 2013
Straight up, I’m going to tell you, I know all the people involved with this show very well. We are all part of the Sydney improvisation scene. In fact, I was once in a Cranston Cup Grand Final (the big annual Theatreports competition) on the Enmore stage with teammate and performer from this show, David Callan and two other cast mates (who will remain nameless to protect their identity and reputation). We were team favourites to take out the Cup. We had charmed our way into the Grand with our wit and banter. We were verbose and hilarious and nothing could stop us from taking out the prize, we could talk our way into high marks every time…
Round One- we were challenged by our biggest competition to a mime. A MIME! We crashed and burned so badly as David blindly wandered the stage with a cow mask on, I sat in a corner making sandwiches (not that you could tell what I was doing) and our other two team members wandered about aimlessly and none of us bothered to actually look at each other as the audience sat in stunned and awkward silence as the car wreck that was our team realised that elimination could not come quick enough. The judges put us out of our misery and honked us off the stage. I have never seen a scene on the Enmore stage or any theatresports stage that was ever as bad as our ‘Butcher’s Picnic’, the title of the mime. Ever since, ‘a butcher’s picnic’ is referred to in theatresports’ folklore as a scene that turns to shit.
Now, I don’t tell you this as a prelude to what I thought of this show. I tell you this because it’s the nature of improvisation (and, after some long and arduous therapy, I can now laugh at it). One moment you’re hot, the next moment, you can crash and burn. It’s part of the risk and excitement of making things up as you go and the reward and joy of when you find that simpatico on stage is electric. But you need to remember that it’s a transient thing and one dropped offer, one missed cue, one moment that goes on too long or not long enough, everything can change. It's an incredibly difficult art form and not for the weak-hearted. It’s why I generally avoid reviewing improvisation because for every fabulous moment, there’s often a moment that doesn’t quite get there and add to that, there is no crowd tougher than a fellow group of improvisers, who recognise each moment for what it is and can judge from the easiest position in the house, in the audience. In improvisation, you have to risk failure and be allowed to experiment with all the variables that don't exist in the same way as a rehearsed and scripted drama.
So let me tell some of the really strong moments of ‘Oddfellows’, playing at the Old Fitz as part of the Sydney Fringe and starring David Callan and Marko Mustac with musician Bryce Halliday and directed by Jenny Hope. David and Marko know each other very well and have that simpatico on stage I referred to earlier. They bounce off each other’s ideas and create some entertaining and clever ideas. When I saw it they created a seedy underbelly of coffee roasters and took us on a journey that included a myriad of characters, statuses, ages, nationalities, and narratives. Some of those golden moments included the end scene where they were forced to play several characters at once during Enrique’s torture and liberation but they weren’t afraid to get serious either, with our chief protagonist’s ultimate demise. Some of Bryce Halliday’s musical underscore and narration really tapped into what the audience were thinking and even Damon Stef, up in the lighting box, worked to create appropriate atmosphere in each scene. I also note that David's mime skills have come a long way...
The show didn’t always hit its strides. Sometimes the car was driving nicely along the road and I then it would stop, have the passengers emerge, go on a stroll along the riverbank before the journey continued. There were a few dropped moments, a few lost characters but as I said, it’s the nature of the form. The initial set up could have been clearer, so the audience were completely aware that this was improvised and not pre-scripted. Perhaps more scenes could have ventured away from the idea of ‘coffee’ so that we are more invested in how everything connects at the end but I do forgive them all of this because it was mostly a good and certainly an entertaining show, it was the opening night of a new format and it was a tough crowd of your peers. But these are two very experienced and talented improvisers and I think director Jenny Hope will help the boys smooth out the ruffles as she assists them to tune into the show’s structure, to find its beats and to utilise Bryce Halliday more.
I think you’ll enjoy what’s on offer if you like a bit of improvisation in your Fringe. Who knows what you’ll get each night? That’s part of its charm, the element of the unknown.
So take the risk. I don’t think you’ll get a butcher’s picnic…
Monday, 23 September 2013
There has not been a night I haven’t feasted on the Sydney Fringe this year to the point where my cat has learned to call the RSPCA to dob me in for wilful neglect.
But if you haven’t ventured out yet, get out there now. There’s plenty of great stuff on offer so let me break down a little of what you have missed or what you should see that’s still out there.
First up, I saw Keira Daley (of LadyNerd fame) last week and her new show, ‘Keira Daley vs the 90’s’ at the Seymour Soundlounge. Now I don’t like to acknowledge that we’ve ever moved past the 80’s, a grapevine and a quick box step or big hair, bubble skirts and fluoro Wham shirts. In fact, if I ever had a Mastermind area of expertise, it is 80’s compilation albums. Rocktrip ‘82 is still on my playlist. Anyhow, Keira Daley and her band made me realise that perhaps I have been unfair on the 90’s. It’s just an unwashed and slightly bitter version of the 80’s. It made me wish I spent more time tuning into the 90’s because she does sound like my kind of girl.
The show has lots of energy and playful banter and when Keira spends time connecting musical memories to her personal high school days, she evokes a fairly universal experience for her audience (substitute the Math Club with the Drama Club and it’s my story too).
It was a thoroughly entertaining night out. Sometimes she had to strain her voice over the band, especially when singing in the lower register, but it didn’t affect the sheer pleasure of the show and the Bjork homage, that was certainly worth the ticket price. You might not recognise all the songs but you will sit there with a smile on your face.
Keira Daley is a polished performer who has certainly capitalised on her skills in this genre.
Next up was Lumi’s and SITCO’s ‘The Way of All Fish’ at the Old Fitz. Written by Elaine May and directed by Kylie Bonaccorso, ‘The Way of All Fish’ is quite a fun piece that explores a tilt in power relationships in the workplace. The two performers, Sarah Farmer and Hailey McQueen certainly have skills. They were expressive, committed and colourful in developing their two very diverse characters.
But there is something missing from this show- I think the pacing is slightly out and it’s being played just a beat too slow almost throughout the play. This means that we miss some of the comic tension and the connection between the characters is hard to sustain. Maybe it’s inherent in the script as the actors were giving it everything they had and even with this flaw, I still enjoyed the performance. However, the play needs tightening in pace and rhythm so that when the stillness and silence needs to be played, it doesn’t feel like it’s been overused.
‘The Way of All Fish’ was still worth a viewing and I loved the start (and I could not stop staring at the fabulous legs of Farmer…can I say that?) Once they keep playing with the comic timing and rhythm, these two skilled performers will have a real contender of a show.
Then off to the Factory Theatre to see Jordan Raskopoulos’ show ‘Critically Ashamed’. I bought this ticket (yes- many of the others are freebies but I tell you that I bought this ticket because Jordan is known to me through Theatresports and I didn’t want to feel compelled to review his show). So normally I wouldn’t try to review it and just leave it to the power of others but his show was so strong, I felt it was criminal not to give it a mention.
‘Critically Ashamed’ delves in Raskopoulos’ experience trying to ‘rig’ the Logie vote for Most Popular Actor through the power of social media, a promise to let those who vote for him write his acceptance speech and an acknowledgement that the Logies should never be taken seriously. You might be familiar with the outcome- he was outed and publicly crucified.
There was so much to enjoy about this show- there were even times when I felt it offered insight into the human condition, the nature of criticism and praise and the industry itself and I thought, ‘How can I get him to come to my workplace and deliver this message to every teenager I know?’ but after doing a rough count of expletives, there might be too much to edit..
It was engaging and clever and with the exception of the very end, where it struggles to find the punch it needs because it strays away from being his story and tries to be more worldy (and my advice would be to own every part of your show), I loved it. Raskopoulos is not afraid to send up his own career and it allows him a right to poke fun at the industry that sustains and labels him. If you missed this show, when it comes back, see it. It’s well-written and performed and you’ll thoroughly enjoy it.
It only seemed appropriate to catch another glimpse at media in the production of the satire, ‘Slutterati’ at the New Theatre. Written by Michael Gottsche and directed by Louise Fischer, the play explores the story of Olympic Silver Medallist, swimmer Dan Paul Newman and his B Grade Celebrity status and its downward spiral. It’s another interesting insight into believing your own publicity that somehow, you have something to offer in the world of celebrity and that it will sustain or feed you. Newman is as paralysed in this world as his own brother, who lay in the confines of his bed after a tragic childhood accident. There’s some terrific performances, especially by the actor Stephen Wilkinson is his role as Newman’s agent and Rebecca Clay as the host of what could be any sensationalist talk-show. It was another pleasing find for the Fringe. For a play produced on a relatively bare space, the performances filled the stage.
Add to the list the one-woman show, Brave Theatre Company’s ‘Jane Austen is Dead’, also at the New Theatre. Originally performed in New Zealand, Mel Dodge gives a terrific turn in this one-woman play, transforming herself from character to character and drawing us into her world as she contemplates whether romance like this truly exists today.
Audience loved it and her witty and expressive performance could win over even the Mr Darcy’s in the crowd. I’m not surprised the theatre was packed and she sold out in Wellington. This is a sharp and poignant play that uses humour to diffuse loneliness and desperation. But the play also explores the wonderful state of singledom and Dodge has carefully crafted a character to represent all personalities on their own quest for love or self-enlightenment in her one hour show.
So if you missed out on seeing any of these shows, make sure you catch something this week. It’s theatre at its most affordable and there’s some great talent out there you might not have seen yet and lots of risk-taking at its best.
Friday, 20 September 2013
Sometimes you find yourself watching a play that has plenty of interesting ideas but struggles with its narrative coherence. ‘Return to Earth’ is one of those plays.
Lally Katz’s play feels like she’s exploring theatrical metaphors personal to her but they don’t quite gel as a complete play…yet. This play needs more drafting and given that she wrote it in 2006 and it had a Melbourne season back then, I’m surprised she hasn’t taken to it with a pen and a pair of scissors and played around with it more. It needs a rewrite to help iron out the kinks. I’m sure I’ll be accused of petty griping when I say that little things like the parents having American accents but there’s no trace of it with the children seemed like an odd choice. It might actually be real but theatrically, it’s confusing. Or Theo’s spurs and wounds. Is he a fish that’s been caught, some mythical sea creature like a merman or an alien entity? The play is full of questions left hanging there and although some people love a mystery, I like to see where it connects to the whole, especially when ideas are constantly dispersed in the play. Is it old-fashioned to say that everything should add to the dramatic meaning of a piece? It might not be till the end we see how all the pieces fit, but they should fit, yes? This was a series of jigsaw puzzle pieces that aren't all from the same picture. Because the play delves stylistically into magic realism, there are a number of threads left unwoven and so the over-arching ideas just fall short of hitting the mark. As a result, the ending lacks the punch we would hope for and as an audience member, I’m not concerned by the implications of its reveal and therefore I'm not invested in the outcome.
But director Paige Rattray has certainly worked hard with her cast to try to make the production as workable as it could be. It’s what I’d call a good production of an ordinary play. There’s a nice use of lighting where Ross Graham creates a patch of corn-field-styled -grids that can be used to ‘deliver’ parts of our protagonist’s journey. I do hope they bought a new pineapple after the show I saw…it was one of the few times I was menaced by tension as it leaked over the stage and became a work safety issue. It had nothing to do with my handbag in the firing line, I assure you…
There were times I thought the play was taking me somewhere and the commitment and energy deployed by the cast to try to overcome the narrative gaps were impressive. This is particularly true of Shari Sebbens as main character Alice, who carried the bulk of the play and tried to find the conflict and dimensions to Alice. Wendy Strehlow as Wendy, Yure Covich as Theo and Catherine Terracini as Jeanie were a terrific support cast and the rest of the cast, Laurence Coy, Ben Barber, Mark Langham and Tahlia Hoffman Hayes/Scarlett Waters gave it their all in their smaller scenes too.
Kudos to Rattray and team for bringing something to this play and making it watchable and interesting. The problems aren’t in the production in so much as they are in the script and I imagine it’s a play that might get tucked back in the draw for another seven years if Katz doesn’t tweak out its flaws.
Thursday, 19 September 2013
I’ve seen the original ‘Miss Julie’ quite a few times. Strindberg’s classic is a powerful indictment on class and examines the perils of defying strict social conventions. I like the original, firmly set in the late 1800’s and although it can feel like a period piece, it still has themes that resonate today.
But- surprise, surprise: Simon Stone has rewritten Strindberg’s play. That’s his thing. Simon Stone after (Strindberg, Ibsen, Seneca, O’Neill, Brecht). One might argue that perhaps he could have a go at writing his own narrative but after seeing some of Belvoir’s acting and directing buddies have a turn at putting pen to paper and watching those plays disappear into a fiery pit of hell, at least Stone knows his strengths and for the most part, they do work. More surprising is how much I enjoyed Stone’s version (helped tremendously probably by the fact that he didn’t direct it so he couldn’t up the stakes and have Christine screaming like a banshee on a revolve as she prepared dinner).
There is a great deal to commend Stone’s play (after Strindberg). Director Leticia Caceres has taken Stone’s work (after Strindberg) and let it simmer until it overflows as an ultimate revenge tragedy. It does speak to the current generation of audience goers, tapping into one of the only social mores still considered an unbreakable convention today- sleeping with a teenager (bad enough) but also one that you are meant to serve and protect (much, much worse). By making Miss Julie sixteen and a virgin, Stone (after Strindberg) heightens the themes of political and social ambition, familial neglect and a desperate and misguided need for love and attention. So when middle-aged Jean (Brendan Cowell) tosses aside fiancé and housekeeper Christine (Blazey Best) to act on the temptations of his young charge Miss Julie (Taylor Ferguson), this barely legal relationship has you reciting child protection legislation from your seat and only disaster can ensue. Stone’s (after Strindberg) choice to include the naked aftermath of Miss Julie and Jean’s passion in the hotel room increases how uncomfortable the audience are with the action that has taken place, especially as Jean sets about controlling Miss Julie through sexual degradation and humiliation. Even Christine’s response to Jean’s actions are humiliating- sexually and domestically. We see the contrast in the seemingly calm rationality of Christine’s compromise or blackmail to Miss Julie’s passionate response to her rejection. Now normally this would set me off on a tirade of Stone’s (after Strindberg) desire to objectify women but Strindberg (before Stone) has plenty of original text that does exactly this and Stone (after Strindberg…ok, you get the point) has just heightened it to reflect popular culture and concerns of today...well…of all ages actually.
What I most enjoyed was Stone twisting the final outcome of ‘Miss Julie’ that actually, as horrifying as it is, feels so right. If you take the child away and then remove the promises made, she won’t sit quietly and take it. With the fervour of a teenage girl spurned, it will fuel a desire to hurt and destroy. I must admit, I didn’t feel for any of the characters and wondered then how powerful the play really was if I dislike each and every one of them. Any pity I may have felt was negated by their actions throughout the play. The only sorrow I felt was for the budgie. But this play is thoroughly engaging and the choices made are strong and layered.
Directorially, Caceres has found great ways to show the contrast of characters, choices, action and environment. It starts with the design. Robert Cousins’ set conveys Act One’s clean lines, affluent and open space, white and neutral sanitised kitchen and living area contrasted to Act Two’s chaotic, dingy and functional hotel room. It not only shows the emotionless home juxtaposed to emotions out of control but also we see the house is stripped of warmth and the hotel is stripped of order. This is enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting of the exposed light of Act One and the shadowy secrets of Act Two. Neither space flatters nor showcases the needs of those who abide within. Even the way Jean speaks forced French opposed to Miss Julie’s natural flow highlights the different circles and education our characters have.
The music that barrages its audience, composed by The Sweats, at the start and finish is another one of Stone’s trademark moments and utilised by Caceres. It signposts for us this discordant world we are about to enter and then the brutality of the finish. The play’s conversational opening with Christine and Jean, ground us in the normality of events and action and until Miss Julie enters, flinging her shoes and storming off, clearly upset like a precocious teenager, we are seduced by the domestic every day of the space (and it made me very hungry, lusting after the salmon risotto) but the music at the start tells us that this world is a natural disaster waiting to happen.
Of course, there are nude bodies on stage (hello..I am at Belvoir after all, or Cockoir, as I call it). But this adds to the stage picture of the uptight and curtailed formality of Act One and Act Two’s quiet, awkward inappropriateness. Contrast drives the characters and events of this play and there are so many dimensions to it, I keep finding them as I deconstruct the effect the play had on me.
One of the strongest elements to ‘Miss Julie’ is the acting. I could not have asked more from this cast. They were superb. But most of all, I was impressed with Taylor Ferguson, whose Miss Julie was completely believable in age, role and predicament. This becomes alarming, given what happens, because it reminds you how significant the breach of trust and responsibility is towards a sixteen year old and we are disquieted by its very happening. Ferguson was incredibly convincing and if not for Cowell and Best’s ability to serve as contrast in role, it would not have been so good.
I think this is Stone’s best piece of writing yet and he should hand his work over to other directors like Caceres from now on so that the subtlety can be allowed to brew and his work is not overburdened with the double-Stone treatment. Caceres lets the piece sit when it needs to and I think it has made it stronger.
Go and catch ‘Miss Julie’ and decide for yourself. I think it’s worth it.
Tuesday, 17 September 2013
I have a rule I apply to all Agatha Christie plays: if you find yourself cast in one, pray you are the first to die. This then affords you the opportunity of being able to sit back and enjoy the comically absurd reactions to your death. And here’s a tip- if anyone shows the slightest bit of emotion or regret, they probably killed you.
Armed with this knowledge I headed off to the Genesian Theatre on Saturday night to see their production of ‘Murder on the Nile’, directed by Nanette Frew. The production manages to find a balance between not taking itself too seriously and not obviously sending itself up too much either. The play’s inherent racism is alive and well and it does make you want to grab the gun and kill a few characters yourself (how on earth did Miss ffoliot-ffoulkes not die within the first few seconds?)
But the cast tackle the show with aplomb, especially veteran actor Michael Barnacoat (Canon Pennyfather), who is the glue that binds the events, backstories and characters. Yes- there’s a few guffaws too many, some stilted lines and accents and a bit of sound effects work in the first half that sounded like Egypt was being bombed and didn’t quite make sense but at least it drowned out the commentary from the old couple in Row G who were narrating their ideas on what was going to happen. God bless them and their dinner that they ate during the show.
I still found the play entertaining and it was a fun piece of theatrical fluff. Special mention to the set designer, Owen Gimblett for a fantastic visual creation of the boat (complete with smoke), beautifully juxtaposing the touristy tackiness of its bright colours and lines yet trying to look authentic in this foreign environment. There was a nice use of contrast of class, some very good comic timing and the pacing of the show felt right.
If you had have told me that I would come out of watching an Agatha Christie play and have enjoyed it, I would have told you that you were crazy. I used to run out of the room screaming every time my mother forced us to watch Miss Marple on a Friday night. But I did enjoy ‘Murder on the Nile’ and the infectious joy performing it as shown by its cast.
So if you want a harmless bit of fun, catch it before the season ends.
Saturday, 7 September 2013
Last night I popped along to the PACT centre for emerging artists, now complete with a lovely area to sit, drink and have those ‘foyer conversations’. It is the start of my ‘Binge on the Fringe 2013’ and here’s the verdict on the first three pieces on offer.
The first show, ‘Jude the Obscure’, written and performed by Alice Williams, was the weakest of the bunch. It’s part homage to Judith Lucy, part exploration of self-deprecating humour and part cosmic creation and destruction. It is most kindly described as awkward. Whilst Williams predominantly tries to emulate Lucy’s persona on stage and she has her mannerisms down pat, she hasn’t yet mastered her comic timing. There are many times I felt I was questioning my own existence during this show and I know that’s partly the point but I don’t think she was hoping to achieve it in this way. Williams’ eclectic material doesn’t hang together so there are some narrative issues also getting in the way of this show’s success.
I know how hard it is to do a one-woman (or man) show but ‘Jude the Obscure’ is a flawed vehicle for a public performance piece. My advice would be for Williams to develop her own stage persona, work on the coherence of the material to clarify its intention and workshop, workshop, workshop.
The second show, ‘The Defence’, directed by Chris Dunstan and written by Dunstan, Matt Abotomey and Catherine McNamara, had me initially thinking I’d stumbled into a try-hard experimental university laboratory. But that’s its gift. Dismiss it and then let it turkey-slap you. Apart from a few editing issues, I was pleasantly surprised by ‘The Defence’ and the clever way it explored misogyny and hypocrisy using Strindberg’s troubled relationship between his wife and the strong literary female characters he created. The show delivers its ideas through gender role-swap, a ‘director’s mind’ role-play and a breaking of the fourth wall. I won’t give much more away because I suggest you check it out for yourself.
Be prepared for some equal opportunity nudity but it is surprisingly integral to the piece and adds to its potency. I did feel their last twist probably over-salted the meat but it didn’t detract from a good night out and an expression of some clever staging and ideas. Performers McNamara, Brett Johnson and Douglas Niebling did a great job embracing Dunstan’s words and concepts, so for those looking for a Fringe experience that is worth the price and don’t mind a tea-bagging with their ticket, I’d recommend ‘The Defence’ should go on your dance card.
Last cab off the rank was ‘Shootin’ Sadie’, written and performed by Natasha Soonchild and directed by Gwenda Blackwell. ‘Sadie’ is a one-woman show with Soonchild bringing all the characters to life in quick and nuanced succession as part of this western genre narrative. Whilst the piece takes a little while to warm up, she has terrific transformational acting skills and creates a myriad of clear and evocative characters on stage. She’s a talented performer and this is an enjoyable show. I think it still needs to find its ending and the longer she sits with this material, the better Soonchild will be at finding the piece’s rhythm and drawing us in a little quicker and will be a tight, polished show, ready for touring. It’s another show that’s worth a viewing, even just to watch an accomplished performer on stage.
And that’s it for the first foray in the Fringe Binge. ‘The Defence’ and ‘Shootin’ Sadie’ get the thumbs up.
Friday, 6 September 2013
I’m back in fourth class, watching the movie ‘Storm Boy’ and sobbing uncontrollably. At that moment, the decision was made at the tender age of nine to avoid movies where animals die, which has served me well, thank you very much. I just forgot to include theatre in that list because really, you can’t have animals on stage, unless it’s some tacky circus extravaganza, so it can’t affect me in the same way, can it?
Simple answer. Yes it can. In fact, I sat in the audience with 40 students and I was the only one crying like a child. Under this hardened exterior beats a sensitive soul and ‘Storm Boy’ took me there.
Based on Colin Thiele’s book and adapted for the stage by Tom Holloway, director John Sheedy, designer Michael Scott-Mitchell and a cast of gruff men and superbly made puppets, created by Annie Forbes and Tim Denton, took their audience on a journey that is much more than a narrative about loss, love, loyalty and loneliness. It firmly plants itself as Australian as it pays homage to the spirit of the land, our transience on it and the traditional, sacred and generational respect and ownership slipping away under the brutality of the new world.
Scott-Mitchell’s set, a combination of an enormous wave, a ruined ship and the skeleton of a whale’s jaw was a beautiful metaphor for the natural wilderness of the Coorong National Park and the futile attempt to tame nature. The opening moments of lightning (Damien Cooper) and thunder (sound designer Kingsley Reeve) rock the stage and set the children into screams of delighted terror and again, in the storm scene as they run through the audience with some incredible accompanying lighting and sound effects. One of the great elements to any good children’s theatre is to scare children without traumatising them. Cleverly done, especially when actors and puppeteers Shaka Cook and Michael Smith suddenly appear in traditional Indigenous paint and costume, reinforcing the heritage and history of our setting and their constant presence in our environment. The set’s muted colours, its sense of abandonment, like the men and animals who temporarily inhabit it, create a natural stage picture, perfect for the action to take place.
It was also nice to see a darker and more real attempt at a children’s theatre piece, kept light in play through Fingerbone Bill’s (Trevor Jamieson) jokes and most enjoyably, our pelican puppets playing fetch and snapping Hideaway Tom (Peter O’Brien) on the bum. Lucky pelicans I say (watch out Ewen Leslie- if it came down to a choice between you or O’Brien for man-bearded handsomeness, I don’t know which way I’d go and no doubt, one day, I’m sure I’ll be forced to choose). But ‘Storm Boy’ is not afraid of showing death on stage and I’m glad they went there, even if through my tears my normal tactic of counting lights didn’t stop them flowing. It was done through the beauty and skill of the puppets and I was most impressed how real they felt and how Cook and Smith manipulated them so effortlessly. I completely entered the spirit of the action. And to make the choice to have two Indigenous actors being the ‘hands of nature’ was another smart allusion by Sheedy to the connections of sacred totems and symbols, culture and man.
I was also fortunate to catch Rory Potter in the main role as Storm Boy. He’s an exceptional young actor and if he’s performing like this at the age of 12, I can only imagine how outstanding he’s going to be as he matures. If you ever doubt the ability of young performers to create complex, moving and subtle characters, go and see Potter in any play. He’s remarkable.
So it appears I now have to ban myself from watching plays where animal puppets die, just to keep my emotions in check and maintain my hard-edge mantel as the bitch reviewer of the scene. How pathetic.
Now someone pass the tissues.
Wednesday, 4 September 2013
Camus’ ‘Caligula’ explores the absurd notion of the human condition and the idea of what right we have to oppose tyranny, what limits can we place on them or, in fact, ourselves. When Caligula states, “Ah, my dears, at last I’ve come to see the uses of supremacy. It gives impossibilities a run...What's the use of this amazing power of mine if I can't have the sun set in the east? ” he may well be describing Toby Schmitz and his new play/spectacle ‘Empire: Terror on the High Seas’. I say this, not calling Schmitz’s play a great example of Theatre of the Absurd (although I think ultimately that's what it's trying to be, mixed with a stir of Dadaism) but because Schmitz, Emperor of the Sydney scene, has just pulled a Caligula. He has murdered theatre in front of us, firmly stuck his fingers up at his audience and told us to suck it.
I think we’re all in shock with how mind-boggling bad this spectacle (as Schmitz calls it in the program) was. My first thought was ‘You can’t be serious’ and I don’t think he is being serious. I genuinely think Schmitz is having a go, via an attempt at Theatre of the Absurd, but at what and at whose expense? At theatre? At his own reputation? At the worst he's ever been forced to watch or partake in? At the genre in some sort of Agatha Christie parody? In his playwright’s notes he refers to the British Empire Exhibition and war poetry but skims completely over the play, leading me to think, this is not a serious attempt at writing a piece of theatre. He’s just testing the waters to see if he can get away with it. If so, it's a pretty expensive joke on its cast, crew and audience to make a rather dated point about the human condition.
So let’s get stuck into some details about the play (spoiler alert…in fact, the whole play might fall into this category). When did I truly dismiss this spectacle as a pie in the face? It might have been when we got to the 68th murder on board the Empress of Australia circa 1925. Perhaps it was when our murderer, revealed at the end of Act One, plays with his deformed (self-harmed) penis as he strangles yet another victim. Could it have been when Mr Richard Civil-Lowe Cavendish had his intestines tied to a rope, with a knife at the other end, so he had to gut himself in order to free himself or kill our serial killer. Maybe it was the international cast of characters with bad accents; the twee allusions to homosexuality; the sinking of the ship so the murderer can get away as the perfectly timed bomb goes off; the chemical-weapons-infected-steward, John Rowling, jumping overboard; the characters who almost never spoke and when they did, we still don’t know why they did; the detective grabbing the conveniently placed broom, only seconds before moved into position, to unlock his handcuffs that he put himself in; the ghost of the singer Poppy Mitchell rising up to sing and be killed all over again or the voice overs from the lighting box at the end? Each and all of the above.
But really, it was probably in its opening minutes I knew the play had hit an iceberg as Mr Frey read us a bit of dadaist poetry and the cast of thousands walked out from the audience to stand in front of us in the spotlight with a pleading look of mercy in their eyes. ‘Empire’ was a hot mess and its audience were left in stunned silence over the atrocity in front of them (not the murder, the actual play). Even at the end of it, we still are left unsure as to the reason that our killer was doing it all in the first place. If you ever wanted an example of how intention and effect can be completely unrelated, look no further. I kept waiting, ala ‘The Producers’ and ‘Hitler in Springtime’, for someone to yell out “It’s a comedy”. No-one did.
I cannot express to you enough just how surprisingly bad this play was and I don’t know that director Leland Kean or his cast could fix it. It’s straight out melodrama with a nod to the Absurd with a few witty lines but lacks control of the form and has misread its target audience. It felt like one of those dodgy amateur high school shows with an element of the risqué. I don’t even feel like there’s much point criticising the acting or direction because I think they know that ship sunk before it even sailed. This is the Rocksurfers’ Titanic.
And I love a bit of Schmitz. I'm gutted at what I just sat through. I don’t think I’ve ever given him a bad review but Emperor ‘Caligula’ Schmitz has stuck the knife in, ripped out the baby and has left us all gaping at the carnage.
Heaven have mercy.
Tuesday, 3 September 2013
Not sure that I completely understood this play but I didn’t hate it so that has to count for something. I do love a piece of theatre that polarises, and when I say love, sometimes I mean hate. But not ‘Persona’, which was a pleasant surprise, from all accounts.
Many friends had trashed it, which made it a very attractive option to buy a ticket, as sadistic as that sounds. I thought, ‘I could do with a bit of SOYP action’. And yet, there I sat, bewildered but intrigued by Belvoir’s bizarre offering directed by Adena Jacobs.
Would it have made more sense if I had seen the Ingmar Bergman film? Probably. But had I seen the film it was based on, I would think seeing it as a piece of theatre would have been redundant and as I say many a time, if it can’t stand on its own, it ain’t worth the money you paid.
So I gathered from the play that the nature of reality is distorted- who are the people we invent for and of ourselves and what drives us there? Our world is a reveal of its different parts for different times and we can easily sabotage our own dreams and desires- we don’t need anyone else to do it for us. And I found myself sitting in the audience asking who is real and who is a manifestation of our imagination- who is Elizabeth and who is Nurse Alma and who on earth is looking after who, as the curtains open and close on this glasshouse (a box, yes, a glass box) and the dialogue (virtually a monologue with other voices either as voiceovers or mechanically/staccato delivered questions) juxtaposed with images of mundane acts of stagnant life. Even as I describe it, I think, ‘how on earth did you not hate it?’ and I can’t explain it, except to say this: the two female leads were outstanding. Meredith Penman and Karen Sibbing sold me on the play’s dilemma from the start with the integrity of two terrific actresses who have committed to this nightmare-of-loneliness experience.
I didn’t need the boy at the start, I probably didn’t need the nudity (but a girl doesn’t knock back a chance for a bit of flesh on stage, just for the challenge in focus) but I’m glad I caught this play. It’s one worthy of a conversation at the drink cooler, even just to work out a consensus about the play’s intent and ideas.
I can understand why this play had people walk out and why friends are seeking out a good therapist post-viewing experience and it’s not a play I would freely recommend you see. But if you do (or did, as I write this past its season), it’ll get your synapses working.
I saw ‘Seminar’ about two weeks ago, on its opening night and, as life would have it, I have not had a moment since to write this review (I am constantly thankful that I have no deadline or that I don’t work for the Daily Telegraph…I mean, how would I fit in anti-Labor vitriol and bias into every review?)
Anyway, as I have a moment of breath right now, I’ll keep this short and sweet. ‘Seminar’ is good. Very good in fact. Written by Therese Rebeck and directed by Anna Crawford, it’s made me want to search out work from both of these practitioners in the future. If you’re looking for a really solid piece of realist theatre that’s also current, witty, well-acted and engaging, I think this is your play.
If I get technical first, Alisa Paterson’s set design is fabulous. The slick, expensive, neutral New York apartment contrasted to the grungy chaos of Leonard’s (William Zappa) loft as revealed at the end of the play takes us straight into the personalities and their elitist and aspiration worlds and completely typifies the rise and fall of our characters. The doors to the reveal were clunky so it felt like an old train leaving the station but what a minor criticism of a great moment.
Ross Graham also provides us with some lovely subtle lighting states and how I loved some of those costumes coordinated by Margaret Gill, especially those of our party girl social climber, Izzy (Michelle Lim Davidson).
But mostly I’d like to commend some superb acting (and by implication directing) from a top cast. Zappa is perfectly cast as editor Leonard. He terrifies me like walking over hot coals and yet, the temptation and desire to be affirmed from a man who will cut out your heart for breakfast, ram it down your throat and that you will beg him to do it, is too great, as each of our characters finds out. Even Zappa told me in the foyer that I look like a teacher and I can only presume that wasn't a compliment. But I still thanked him. Yep...he terrifies me... Whilst Felix Gentle and Matt Zeremes put in fine performances, it was the girls who struck me with their skill, belief and energy. Matilda Ridgway as Kate put in one of the best lead performances in a realist piece I’ve seen for some time and Davidson found the perfect balance in creating Izzy’s charm, ambition and ruthlessness. Crawford has tightly directed this comedy drama and what a pleasure it was to watch. I felt it probably needed ten minutes shaved off the end as the pace starts to slow and all the pieces of the play are neatly wrapped up but I’m not complaining. I’m just old and cynical.
Which leads me to my last point…enough Ensemble bashing people (yes- I’ve been guilty of it too). This year’s return to the Ensemble after a long hiatus has uncovered what a diverse theatrical experience the Ensemble offers and it is time to take them more seriously as a theatrical force than perhaps we have. They won’t always create magic but so far they’ve offered strong and varied theatre in the Sydney scene. The fact that Lee Jones as Frankenstein's Creature didn’t even crack a mention in the recent Helpmann Awards reminded me that we are a small pool that only selects and acknowledges its talent from an even smaller pool. It’s time to reassess quality based on more than who gets government funding.
May I suggest if you want a good night out at the theatre, ‘Seminar’ would be an excellent way to go.