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Wednesday, 31 December 2014

SYDNEY THEATRE’S BEST AND WORST OF 2014 according to SOYP

In the last dying hours of 2014 it seems opportune to reflect on some of the best outings to the theatre over the year and those on the other side of the coin that made me want to go out the stage door and have a good cry for the state of theatre in Sydney.

This year I was joined by two other very able writers to review the plethora of choices on offer and even then, we couldn’t get to all of it. However, this post will only cover the shows I saw. That means I have to omit shows I’ve heard great things about that fell off my radar due to other commitments, like Belvoir’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ or STC’s “Switzerland’, of which I heard resounding praise. It also means that my other writers, Hayley and Rhiona, might have seen brilliant or diabolical shows that they reviewed but unless I saw it, it won’t rate a mention. And without further delay, here we go.

THE BEST:

Without a doubt, the winner this year was one company- Sport for Jove. Most recently for their production of ‘The Crucible’ but across the year their versions of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ and the one I was most impressed with, Ibsen's ‘A Doll’s House’ cements SFJ as Sydney’s most reliable, creative and leading independent theatre company. Whatever they program, see it.

On the back of that, when Damien Ryan joined forces with Bell Shakespeare to direct ‘Henry V’, he gave us one of Bell’s best renditions of the play we could have hoped to see. Bell’s ‘Tartuffe’ was also a winner with Kate Mulvany and Sean O’Shea stealing the show.

For cutting edge theatre, Perth Theatre Company’s ‘It’s Dark Outside’ with their use of puppetry, projection and integration of live action delivering a conceptual and metaphorical playbuilt show around Alzheimer’s was not only highly creative but also incredibly moving. STC, The Border Project and Ontroerend Goed brought us ‘Fight Night’ earlier in the year and for a piece of interactive theatre that made us realize as audience our profound influence on the outcome of events as well as how easy we are to manipulate was not only fascinating but great entertainment.

As far as musical theatre goes, Squabbalogic’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ was a force to be reckoned with. James Jay Moody’s direction and performance was thoroughly likeable and shows like this have certainly reinvigorated the new Hayes Theatre, formally known as the Darlinghurst Theatre, and made musical theatre trendy all over again to the more discerning theatre-goer. Musical Theatre got another gift at the end of the year with the New Theatre’s ‘Sweeney Todd’. Produced on the budget of a smell of an oily rag and the goodwill of all involved, it gave the New its biggest success all year and showcased some incredible talent on the scene.

THE WORST:

It has to be there. This year I made a deliberate effort to avoid it if at all possible. If it was panned by even the kindest of critics or friends, I tried to stay away. Honestly, when time is precious, three hours of wrist slashing theatre is the last thing I want, even if it makes good copy. But try as I may, I stumbled upon shows that unfortunately find themselves in this category.

David Williamson gets two mentions here and given his frequency in programming this year, he should be lucky to just get the two. But in fairness, if Bryan Brown hadn’t been in STC’s ‘Travelling North’, it probably wouldn’t have made it here. Watching Brown act is like trying to have a conversation with google maps. Robotic, wooden, clichĂ©d and comatose is what Brown delivers and that’s in his brighter moments. The Ensemble didn’t fare much better with Williamson’s ‘Cruise Control’ but the writing was so ordinary that they were already limited in what they could do with it. But the death scene was like the icing on the cake of contrived staging to convey contrived writing.

The Genesian Theatre’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ took a sledgehammer to Jane Austen with some poor casting and direction and STC’s ‘Mojo’ found itself in trouble having to replace Sam Haft at the last minute and it never got its mojo happening on stage after that.

But it was Belvoir who managed to kick out some corkers this year, starting with the experimental ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’. Conceptually it was a really interesting idea. As a piece of theatre it died more times than its cast. If the clean up of the stage takes ten minutes to do in a one hour show, rethink your vision. But its issues were bigger than that. It committed the crime of being extremely boring and if not for the audience stacked with friends and family of each night’s temporary cast, punters would have stayed away in their droves. I wish I had.

Controversially, I hated their downstairs production of ‘Oedipus’ almost as much, if not more. Yet it was a critic favourite, which just goes to show that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Whilst applauding the bravery of its cast, I found this cringe worthy from start to finish and I hope to never see Peter Carroll’s tackle ever again. But it was their ‘Hedda Gabler’ that seemed to unite audience everywhere to ask the same question. Why? Why make the choice to take a play with a clear message and through-line and then butcher it to have nothing to say at all? Why cast Ash Flanders and then limit everything that makes him unique? It pre-empts Oedipus plucking out his eyes because that’s how most people felt after watching this show, and that’s if they stayed till the end, which most of the audience didn’t quite manage to do.

So that’s how I’m calling it for 2014. How does it stack up with your list? And what do you think will be the must see shows of 2015 and those that already have an aura of stink surrounding them?


Bring it on 2015 and Happy New Year to you all.

Friday, 26 December 2014

SPORT FOR JOVE’S ‘A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM’ and ‘THE CRUCIBLE’ dissected by me

It may seem an odd combination reviewing these together but as they are playing in rep by the same company currently out at Bella Vista Farm and soon on to The Leura Everglades, let’s knock them over and tell you all the reasons why seeing them both is a good idea.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ is a Shakespeare classic and let’s face it, it’s probably the most performed play in the canon of Shakespeare’s works and is so well known it can feel like it’s churned out a little too often because it is a crowd pleaser. It’s for that reason, the familiarity we all have with this play, I know I can confidently take the whole family to watch it and they’ll thoroughly enjoy it. It has something for everyone (and as a side note, eight year old Emily hasn’t stopped talking about it since we saw it almost a week ago and her Christmas gift bounty was heavily influenced by her new love of Shakespeare, Titania and Bottom). Smart move parents- get your kids into theatre and Shakespeare and you’re already off to becoming Parent of the Year in my book. But because of its frequency in staging, 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' can make me feel like I'm going to see the same old interpretation all over again, like a living experience of Groundhog Day. However, this version has some sparks of originality whilst still paying homage to previous successful productions of Shakespeare's play. 

Susanna Dowling has directed ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ this time round for Sport for Jove. There is a heavy contrast evident with her vision of this military, regimented world of duty, service and even love is won through force compared to the frenzied punk and party influence of the forest, fairies portraying that youth culture of excess after dark, away from the prying eyes of their parents, in this case Titania and Oberon. Sometimes the military aspects, particularly in the opening scenes, felt a bit heavy handed but once we moved, literally, to the forest, the play comes alive and the possibilities, confusion and chaos unravels and we like it a whole lot more. I particularly enjoyed the use of the showman in Puck (Felix Jozeps) and the audience interaction of the fairies as well as the karaoke segments with Bottom (Jonathan Mill) and Titania (Francesca Savige) and the dynamic between Puck and Oberon (Christopher Tomkinson) was well executed.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ makes great use of its environment and although it can feel slightly contrived at times, there’s nothing there that will make you regret taking the trek out to the hills or mountains to catch this classic. And be prepared to get into the groove and pull out a few dance moves of your own. You might welcome it if you eat as much cheese at the picnic as I do…

‘The Crucible’, Arthur Miller’s play on the Salem witch-hunts in response to the anti-communist trials of the House of Un-American Activities in the 1950’s, is given a new life under the company’s artistic director Damien Ryan. Ryan has to be one of Australia’s best directors currently working on the scene, as evidenced most recently in his production of ‘Henry V’ for Bell Shakespeare. What Ryan knows how to do is share the vision with the rest of his team. It’s like every creative at work on the play becomes a co-director- Scott Witt with his movement and fight choreography, Anna Gardiner’s design, David Stalley’s sound design, Sian James-Holland’s lighting- Ryan knows how to get all the stakeholders to contribute to creating a full picture of the play and then impressively expressed through his actors as a final brushstroke in the narrative’s painting.

The old shed of Bella Vista Farm is the perfect setting for ‘The Crucible’. Rustic and natural enough to feel apt for the pilgrim tale, the intimacy is heightened and tension is inescapable.  We are in a space where the hundreds of burning candles not only create this old world atmosphere and location but they symbolize the short life of this burning courtroom and the Christian pretense of godly sacrifice when the potential of power abounds.

But even before the show starts, we are herded through the homestead to see rooms filled with the characters in role and in action; the stony faced Putnams (Jonathan Mill and Wendy Strehlow), Giles Corey (John Keightley), Rebecca and Francis Nurse (Annie Byron and Alan Faulkner), Elizabeth Proctor (Georgia Adamson) and Reverend Parris (Matt Edgerton) sermonizing in a way that makes us very much aware of why John Proctor (Julian Garner) would rather plough the fields on a Sunday than go to church. We see the girls dancing in the woods, abandoning all pretense of childhood compliance, their subsequent shock of discovery and then we return to our makeshift theatre to begin the play with Betty Parris (Emma Chelsey) virtually comatose on her bed, fussed over by Tituba (Suzanne Pereira), Abigail (Lizzie Schebesta) and Reverend Parris (Edgerton), filling the space with panic and fear. 

Every subtlety is within our grasp in Ryan’s production because it’s happening only a few feet away but no matter where you’re sitting, what you can’t miss is the superb acting of Garner as Proctor, closely followed by Anthony Gooley as Reverend Hale, Philip Dodd’s Judge Danforth, Schebesta’s Abigail, Adamson’s Elizabeth and Matilda Ridgway’s Mary Warren. The whole cast deliver and it feels almost unfair to not mention everybody who appears on stage- there are no weak links- but Garner in particular demonstrates such passion and range that even though I can eyeball the other side of the audience on the opposite side of the stage, we are totally engaged in the action of the play and convinced by the belief of the characters throughout.


So before you head off to all the Sydney Festival choices on offer, avail yourself of this summer of Sport for Jove. No-one quite knows how to master outdoor theatre like they do and to make you look in a new way how to interpret old works to feel as audience we are as much a part of the show as the actors.

Thursday, 25 December 2014

BLUE SAINT PRODUCTIONS’ ‘GUILTY PLEASURES’ dissected by me

Popping off to Hayes Theatre, new Sydney home to local cabaret and musical talent, I caught Blue Saint’s ‘Guilty Pleasures’ in its last show on Sunday. Like most shows I turn up to these days, with the exception of most of those in print, I really don’t know what I am walking in to see. I cross my fingers and hope for the best and with ‘Guilty Pleasures’, I got it.

The show, book by Josh Robson with music and lyrics by Hugo Chiarella and Robert Tripolino, is a new Australian cabaret that has already had a run in Melbourne before it landed here, created from a new company with an impressive pedigree. Most are fairly recent graduates from VCA and, like most artists in an over-flooded market, they have created their own work to showcase the wealth of talent at their disposal.

‘Guilty Pleasures’ tells the story of five women, trapped in situations either beyond their control or of their own making and each commit great acts of violence to extricate themselves from the threats they see in front of them. It’s ‘Bombshells’ meets ‘Chicago’ and beautifully performed by Angelique Cassimatis, whose triple threat skills of acting, singing and dancing are all utilized with deft ability. She manages to create five distinct women for us on stage, all different from the next and draws the audience in to this extreme world of choices and consequences.

Choreographed by Amy Campbell (top three in So You Think You Can Dance and now a very accomplished choreographer), the ending sequence of dance captures the frenzy and flight of our women. Peter Amesbury’s lighting design also enhances the transitions between characters and creates a distinct environment that reflects the personalities and duties of each woman, whether that is  the gentle world of the domestic or the grimy world of prostitution.


‘Guilty Pleasures’ may only be 45 minutes in length but it packs a punch and all the more so in discovering that it is an original local work from such young artists. As the company’s first major work, I expect we are going to see great things from Blue Saint Productions in the future.

Monday, 15 December 2014

ENSEMBLE THEATRE’S ‘ABSENT FRIENDS’

I think I’ve seriously underestimated Alan Ayckbourn after I was subjected to dodgy amateur outings of his plays in my younger days. But the Ensemble Theatre have done their best to quiet the cynic in me in their production of ‘Absent Friends’, Ayckbourn’s 1974 satire on the disappointments of marriage and identity.

The first thing that strikes you about the play is the classic 1970’s set and costumes, designed by Ensemble favourite, Anna Gardiner, combined with a soundtrack of the era, epitomized in the sounds of Skyhooks, raw enough to be dirty and tongue-in-cheek to capture Ayckbourn’s damning indictment of relationships where one person has all the power and the other is the martyr of their own making.

‘Absent Friends’ explores three couples, Diana (Michelle Doake) and Paul (Richard Sydenham), Marge (Queenie Van de Zandt) and Gordon, (absent) and Evelyn (Jessica Sullivan) and John (Brian Meegan). They have gathered to await the return of old friend Colin (Darren Gilshenan) after the death of his fiancĂ©, with a promise to offer him comfort and support. During the course of the evening each couple hits an inevitable marriage crisis and suddenly Colin, who is upbeat, demonstrating positivity towards the quality time spent with his now absent love, is the only one whose future offers a glimmer of avoiding a complete nervous breakdown.

Director Mark Kilmurry has produced a tight, clever comedy and has chosen a cast worthy of hitting each note. I could be content watching Doake open a tin can on stage, such is the depth of her talent but the show was stolen by Van de Zandt, whose Marge was part desperation, part maternal and part crazy cat lady (but insert Gordon for cat). Gilshenan will always please and Meegan and Sullivan gave fine performances. And although I can find Sydenham a bit wooden, his arrogance as Paul was captured suitably and he is infinitely unlikeable.


This play is another great choice for the Ensemble and as an independent company with no government funding, I think we often take for granted the quality of what they produce. They are by far one of Sydney’s most impressive independent theatre companies and this show is a win for couples of all ages and for smug singles who have avoided matrimony. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

DAVID CALLAN’S ‘I SPIED’ dissected by Rhiona

The poster for David Callan’s 'I Spied' suggests a certain kind of camp comedy- a slapstick romp through the world of espionage, complete with inappropriate depictions of terrorists and all the worst bits of Get Smart. The poster, fortunately, is entirely misleading.

‘I Spied’ is based on Callan’s experiences as a former employee of ASIO, combining anecdotes with moments of mime, absurdist and dark humour.

One of my favourite moments caught me in the second half when he compares ASIO to the arts, and terrorist organisations to theatre companies; he likens STC to Al Qaeda because they’re major and noteworthy, and Boko Haram to Bangarra “because no one’s really sure what they’re on about, but we know they’re important.”

Indeed, it is in these moments where Callan allows the darker shades of his comedy to appear that the show really hits its stride and are the show’s highlights. Not all of Callan’s jokes hit but when they did, they really did.

Therein lies one of the issues with ‘I Spied’- it never seems to fully be aware of what sort of show it wants to be, and its attempts to please everyone can leave it feeling hollow on occasion. The show opens with mimed escapades and a sketch- neither of which are styles touched upon again. Both are well performed and enjoyable, but slightly stall the show from finding its footing.

Callan is undeniably a true and quick-witted showman, and the show is a fine piece of comedy that simply needs a more focused approach.