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Monday 31 December 2012

WORST IN SHOW 2012 as dissected by me

Well, you’ve been waiting for this and I have no doubt that the’ razzies’ of the Sydney Theatre, the worst five shows I encountered this year will actually be of no surprise to you because some of them will feature heavily on your own list.
As I mentioned in the previous post, there was more to like on the theatre scene this year than last year so that’s a win in itself. There are still shows that struggle to free themselves by bad choices- whether they be in design, direction, writing, acting or all of the above, there were a few shows out there that probably ticked one of those boxes but redeemed themselves in the others and so I have let them slightly off the hook. The ones that made the list are there because they made giant mistakes that either disregarded the essential nature of the play or the audience or were so bad they were crying out for a mention. They are Bjork’s swan dress, Lady Gaga’s meat dress or they stepped out into the light naked and tried to convince us of their glory ala Emperor’s New Clothes.
I have spared some amateur shows like ‘Into the Mirror’ because there was heart in it, even if it fell over in content and Tim Winton’s ‘Signs of Life’ only barely escaped. I left half way through some shows like ‘Under Milk Wood’ because I was falling asleep through sheer boredom and whenever you light a show to be in semi-darkness, it’s asking for my circadian rhythms to go into snooze mode.  It was visually interesting initially but then felt repetitive and I don’t know that it transferred to the stage in a form to keep me engaged. But none of them made the bottom five and so here it is…
5. ‘Pygmalion’. Look, in all honesty, it only just made it onto the list because I felt there was some decent acting in there that really worked hard to keep the play afloat in extremely adverse conditions. But given that Shaw is a gift in regards of a script to perform and an STC audience are always going to be on your side because a number of subscribers were actually born when Shaw first wrote his plays (a slight exaggeration to hammer home the demographic but you know what I mean), the choices made by director Peter Evans in creating a design which was, well, non-existent in a stage crying out for it meant that the play lands in the list. The sound reverberated in this cavernous space when the lines weren’t delivered via microphones off to the side. Add to that some bizarre choices with video feeds and an ending that left the audience confused by the turn of events and bang, welcome to the number five spot. Let’s not even flag what STC charge to see their plays because it makes it a little harder to justify such poor experimentation with the classics and then try to sell it to us as 'we have made these choices so as not to distract the audience from the issues'. How stupid do you think we are?
4. King St Theatre brought us a show called ‘Deeming’ earlier this year, a show so diabolical in its script and acting that the audience sat in stunned silence during interval and only the lighting operator clapped at the end. It was so very bad and actor Anthony Hunt stuck the knife into Frank Gauntlett‘s weak writing and then turned it until Hunt’s intestines vomited onto the stage in every moment he tried to remember a line or fake an interest in showing affection, although could only muster repulsion, to the woman who was meant to be his wife. Yes, the show was amateur but to do justice to most amateur work, this play’s production standard was like watching people perform who would rather have been undergoing surgery than hop up on stage. It was pure amateur melodrama. Unfortunately it was not strictly meant to be.
3. Darlinghurst Theatre pulled out a piece for the Mardi Gras season called ‘The Paris Letter’ which failed to capture the gay experience with any form of belief whatsoever. Poor acting and Stephen Coyler’s direction of a script by Jon Robin Baitz that felt passé and pedestrian guaranteed a spot in the list. The show was lucky enough to fill the house with a troupe of very forgiving gay boys and perhaps that is because a play that deals with men trying to live in denial of their sexuality is rarely heard. But I’d like to point them in the direction of ‘Angels in America’ to see how it could be done with some level of sophistication. For the most part I was not alone in my scathing criticism of it and it did provide me with a wealth of amusing re-enactments at dinner parties so it wasn’t a complete loss, except as a piece of theatre, where it lay in a pool of its own blood on the Darlinghurst stage.
2. Belvoir’s first mention is in its second place spot. The semi-devised and semi-written piece by Raimondo Cortese and UTP called ‘Buried City’ has well and truly earned its position. Do not be talking to me about community theatre on the Belvoir stage because there was very little to engage any community with this show.  ‘Buried City’ felt like it should have been a good idea and then whether it spiralled out of control and there was a grab for ownership until stakeholders gave up on it, I don’t know. It felt like nobody wanted to really own this show and although some of the actors tried to inject some energy into it, it couldn’t replace a decent narrative, a clear through-line or an actual objective or intent to the play. This 80 minute play felt like it was twice as long. A very bad start to the Belvoir season.
1. Surely you knew it would be here, luxuriating in its number one spot. Ladies and gentleman, please congratulate ‘Every Breath’, written and directed by Benedict Andrews as supported by his mates at Belvoir. I think ‘Every Breath’ may have been the wake-up call Belvoir needed to remind them that an avant-garde director does not necessarily a writer make. Belvoir’s arrogance and closed door policy that only allows the most miniscule of entry into the creative forum of their stage and is peppered mainly by their ‘friends’ means there is a chance you are watching a lot of the same, show after show. There was a time I was calling it the Simon Stone Theatre Company as he directed almost half of their shows this year and what he left for others to pick up were snapped up by Andrews, Flack and Myers with a couple of community projects as crumbs to fight over. But whilst this three-dish-only-theatre-tapas had some redeemable moments, nothing could save ‘Every Breath’. Nothing. I think it must have been like when you were a kid and learning your dad does not know everything or for a moment Andrews must have felt like Tony Abbott in that parliamentary smack down by Julia Gillard. It didn’t matter there was no interval- people walked and were very vocal about it. My review of this show is close to one of my most popular posts because people needed to read about what it was they just saw. Even the mainstream critics struggled to say good things about this theatre corpse. This show wrote its own review and that review read like this: Kill me. Put me out of my misery and then let’s never talk of it again.
And so that’s it. The bottom five in all their glory.
Of course theatre needs to walk a line of experimentation and risk. I think these shows made the list because they slapped the audience in the face by trying to pretend that it was the audience who didn’t understand theatre instead of recognising that what they had presented was a very poor form of art.
So I look forward to what 2013 has to offer. I’ve minimised my subscriptions for next year and probably won’t be seeing as much so if you’ve got a free ticket and desire a bit of SOYP company, tweet me and I’ll be there to relish the offerings of Sydney theatre 2013.
Happy New Year everyone!

Sunday 30 December 2012

BEST of 2012 as dissected by me

Here we are, hours away from the end of 2012 and it seems to me it's time to review the theatre on offer in Sydney over the year, what made us thankful to be there and what made us think we may never return to the theatre again.

The good news is that the list of good shows I saw far outweighed the bad. Sure, there were lots of shows that sat in the middle- but only a few that jumped out as real porkers that bled to death on stage in front of a live audience.

So let's start with what were the winners (in my eyes)...

Now the interesting thing is apart from Griffin and a downstairs show with Belvoir as collaborators, no professional theatre company in their own right featured on the Top 5 final list (a few commendations but no finalists). Isn't that interesting? Here's what I say to that. Stop spending huge amounts of money on going to see the big players (Belvoir and STC in particular). Search out quality independent companies like the New Theatre, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Sport for Jove, check out what's happening in places like Riverside, the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, the Old 505, even the Seymour Centre. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised that a) they seem to care about engaging their audience, b) are a far more cost effective night of entertainment and c) program shows that showcase talents of other artists apart from the same old, same old that you see in the capital T theatres and they breathe new life into devised, local or alternative works. The days when the stamp of Belvoir or Sydney Theatre Company offered quality assurance are gone. Don't let branding fool you. Take the risk of stepping outside the (subscription) box and go further afield and discover the terrific works away from the mainstream.

Rightio- special commendations: 'I'm Your Man', devised and directed by Roslyn Oades, played downstairs Belvoir at the start of the year and was a lovely blend of recorded verbatim set in a boxing gym with players who embodied those roles; Belvoir and the Hayloft Project's 'Thyestes' at Carriageworks also shook up the scene. Loved it or hated it, it was as controversial as it was powerful and played with the contemporary idea of theatre in a way we've not seen in a long time; STC & Filter Company's 'Water' was another interesting piece that used the technical devices available to complement character and narrative and was engaging to boot; 'A History of Everything' showing at STC earlier this year and in conjunction with theatre group Ontroerend Goed, was another great piece that took you through the pace of the modern world before reeling it back in time, space and rhythm to reveal the birth of the universe in a moving and thoughtful way; STC also brought us 'Sex with Strangers', a terrific realist piece that was an intimate as it was charming; Griffin's 'The Boys' also packed a punch in revealing misogyny at its most brutal and Josh McConville was outstanding; and finally O'Punkskys' 'The Seafarer' at Darlinghurst Theatre was a top interpretation of Conor McPherson's play by a company who relish in the integrity of the writer and showcase this on the stage.

So, that being done, here's the TOP FIVE shows of 2012 as I see it.

5. Griffin's 'Between Two Waves' makes it into the fifth spot on the leader board. Although a little rocky in preview, what was there was Ian Meadow's writing, great performances and direction. Meadows can write and his play, with another draft, is going to develop into something even better than what it is already. The intrigue, style and structure of 'Between Two Waves' allows Meadows to develop gentle layers that draw us into the tragedy of the character who does not know how to express love or receive it but who so desperate needs to reconcile what is preventing him from doing this. It was a great play and Meadows smartly played the role he wrote for himself with vulnerability and belief, thanks to some solid direction from Sam Strong.

4. New Theatre's 'The Venetian Twins' slips into the number four spot for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the incredible design employed in their shows is better than anything I've seen in Sydney for some time. The set is a character in the New Theatre's shows. Unlike some design which can compete with the action or dull it, the designers employed by the New bring a sophisticated edge to the work and reminds us as audience that design matters as evidenced in Sean Minahan's set for 'The Venetian Twins'. The New also tracks down outstanding leads and ensemble players to bring quirky, fresh work to the stage or take contemporary works that ask the audience to play with the ideas or the notion of the actor/audience relationship so that we become a character as well. The New cleverly reinvented itself when on the brink of closure to allow the community to be part of their season, as artist or audience and there is a feeling that whatever you see there will guarantee you will not be disappointed. I didn't see 'Here Lies Henry' but am genuinely sorry I missed it but if it was anything like 'The Venetian Twins' in its integrity, it would have been a winner.

3. Old 505's 'Sidekicks' jumps into the number three spot. Stephen Vagg's play was not only a witty spitfire examination of the support players in romantic comedies, it was brave enough to cast two actors, Dan Ilic and Emily Rose Brennan, who could clearly identify and express those roles in the most endearing and comedic way possible. This play took me by surprise (as did the crack house of the Old 505) but it was one of the highlights of the independent season and made me fervantly wish that more local works and writers were given the opportunity to stage their work with artists as good as those involved in this show. Kudos to director Louise Alston for bringing out the best in actors and writing.

2. I drove out to the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre at Penrith to see Lachlan Philpott's play 'Truck Stop' and I am so pleased I made the effort. Philpott is one of those local writers who can tap into the youth culture of today and give it a theatrical voice that makes you realise the pressures and influences that shape the identity and future of our young people in a powerful and provocative way. He has the ability to weave research into his work but not rely on verbatim to execute it. Instead Philpott encapsulates voices into honest, real and shocking narrative and characters whilst creating tension and it makes him a playwright with a big future.This was a very good play and the cast and director, Katrina Douglas, were outstanding in connecting with Philpott's words and characters.

And finally...

1. 'Medea'. Playing in downstairs Belvoir and in collaboration with ATYP, this rewritten version of Euripides' work by Anne-Louise Sarks and Kate Mulvany was an outright winner. Perhaps it was because it gave us a new perspective of an old play we had never seen before. Perhaps it was the writing combined with thoroughly honest direction of Sarks in treating the play with respect. But I think it was because writers and director worked so well in giving the young actors Joseph Kelly and Rory Potter ownership of their characters and situation that this play was the most profoundly moving theatrical piece of the year. 'Medea' packed a punch in every way and I can say that if you didn't see this, you have missed something very special indeed.

In summary I guess the other interesting thing I note about the top 5, quite subconciously initially, was that they were all written by Australians. Of course, of the bottom 5, which will follow in tomorrow's post, three of those were also written by Australians so it's not all roses. But here's the thing. We have an incredible amount of local talent and if we don't allow funding and expression of our local voice, the reality is that we lose out on the cultural, social, political and aesthetic history of our own writing as embodied in the theatrical space. We yearn for pieces that underpin what was happening in the now and want to see them staged to understand ourselves, who we are and where we came from. You only need to read some the writers of the 60's and 70's to see the changing world of the time. If writing resonate works of the now don't happen with more frequency and funding, what will represent the theatrical the voices of today? Action is transient. Words last for generations.

So kudos to all who made the list. You are the champions of 2012 and thank you for bringing these works to the stage and for all of those responsible for being a part of it.


Since I published this post, I have been contacted by Elly Clough at Belvoir who wishes to convey the following in regards to the production of 'Medea':

"I just wanted to clarify the credit for Medea on your Best of the Year post. Your comment ‘Now the interesting thing is apart from Griffin and a downstairs show with Belvoir as collaborators’ is a little misleading. The Downstairs productions are Belvoir productions, as of 2011 all the productions were brought in-house and are considered no less Belvoir productions than the Upstairs shows.

Belvoir commissioned and produced Medea. It was presented in association with ATYP as they assisted with casting and provided an assistant director.

We would be grateful if you could clarify the credit in the post."

And so consider it communicated to you all. Whilst I saw the show as a joint project between Belvoir and ATYP, clearly Belvoir want you to know it was a Belvoir show in association with ATYP. I'm not sure I completely get the distinction but in the interests of fairplay, I have published Belvoir's 'clarification'.

End scene.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Little Spoon Theatre’s ‘Where’s My Money?’ dissected by me

Currently playing at the Old 505 Theatre in Surry Hills, John Patrick Shanley’s play ‘Where’s My Money?’ is the offering by independent group Little Spoon Theatre Company and directed by Jodin Meyer.
First and foremost, Shanley’s play is intriguing. The blur between fiction, fantasy and fact is cleverly treated in the series of duologues between its characters as it explores what we expect from our relationships and what we're prepared to do to maintain it and ourselves.  This is good dialogue that engages you from the start and then takes you into dark corners that create an electricity of suspense, drama and humour. Straight away, Little Spoon has done something very smart. They chose a solid piece of writing, a layered canvas to showcase their company and then treated it with integrity and faithfulness in their rendition. The play does tread on some touchy issues in regards to its statements about women and the power of men but the style keeps it light and the elements of shock are handled well.
There are some good performances in ‘Where’s My Money?’, although not all the cast have mastered the belief of character and material or the timing of delivery. The highlights were Matt Stewart as Sidney and Karli Evans as Marcia-Marie in their fractured relationship as husband and wife in the sacred space of Marcia-Marie’s kitchen. Tara Newtown-Wordsworth as Celeste had some of the energy required but struggled to sustain the dimensions and belief of a woman who bounces between the security of the mundane, the paranoia of her relationships, the desires of the flesh and the excitement of her sado-masochistic affair. Whilst Lara Lightfoot as Natalie played the part of hard-nosed cold honesty with skill, her ability to convince us of her fear of Tommy was not so strong.
I enjoyed the characters’ use of the live musician, Ed Gain, and the set contained a few surprises that the audience will enjoy.
Even though there are a few wobbles on the acting front, this was a solid play and engaging structurally and narratively. The acting doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the play as each performer has moments of success in their delivery and playfulness and the tension is manifested in Meyer’s direction.
It's a good sign when the audience stay in their seats post show as they process the play and perhaps hope there's more to come.
It’s certainly worth a squiz so catch it before it finishes on the 16th of December.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

BELVOIR DOUBLE DISSECTION: ‘Beautiful One Day’ and ‘Don’t Take Your Love to Town’

There’s no doubt Belvoir are aware of their responsibility to recognise and stage marginal voices, especially the Indigenous community voice, and probably no other mainstream theatre in Sydney has done this more.  This is one of Belvoir’s strengths and it is certainly applauded and appreciated. We, as audience, are all culturally sensitive to the issues being presented, especially those historical in nature, and we tread carefully in our criticism of the authentic voices, even though theatrically they may be flawed.
‘Beautiful One Day’, a joint project between Belvoir, Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Version 1.0, is currently playing upstairs at Belvoir in the capital 'T' theatre, if you know what I mean.  It incorporates actors, Palm Island community members and academics and the show fluxuates between facts, re-enactments, video testimonies, casual conversations, narration, soundscapes, photo and video recordings and storytelling. The show can be summarised quite simply- it is a research piece about the origins and hardships of the people of Palm Island.  
There are some very engaging moments in this show and it rests in the re-enactments, especially that of the death in custody of the uncle of performer Kylie Doomadgee, Mulrunji. This is where the play comes to life. Paul Dwyer and Jane Phegan draw the audience in as they recreate the scene in the police station through the court evidence of the events in question and then later as the community fight back and we ‘see’ and hear the recordings as the police station is burnt down. The use of the chalk outline, the police re-creations, the becoming of real characters suddenly catapults the play into the audience's attention. The weakness of the show is that it tries to do too much the rest of the time and is in desperate need of editing. ‘Beautiful One Day’ is two hours long but someone should have taken to it with a pair of secateurs, slashed it to an hour and it would have been a much better show.
I think this is the peril of three distinct groups with an investment in the piece. The academic origins and agenda of Version 1.0 means that documentary and fact telling rate high in the expression of the piece. The issues become clouded when the first 50 minutes feels like we are so overburdened with information such as family trees, timelines and connections and the detailed reading of correspondence  about a tyre destroyed in the forced removal of Indigenous people. Whilst there is a point to every story and every minute detail, as a theatrical piece, it starts to choke itself with fact.
Rachael Maza with Ilbijerri and Belvoir further complicate the play by using ‘real’ people on stage from the Palm Island community and there are times the play feels like I’m sitting around listening to my old relatives talk about the old days for hours on end as life slowly ebbs away. Now I know that sounds harsh and that statement alone will bring out the haters (haters gotta hate) but what I’m saying is that documentary and verbatim drama can sometimes kill itself with good intentions. We want the authenticity of the voices to be represented but how do we balance that with the reality that this is also a piece of theatre? The last 30 minutes as we sit around the table listening to what we want in the future or what problems are we still encountering was frankly repetitive and pointless in that it went for as long as it did.
The video testimonies were another aspect that had nice moments but went for way too long. Way, way too long. But kudos to sound composer and designer Paul Prestipino and audio visual designer Sean Bacon who really did create the environment for us and I did like the use of the moving platform and stage door to enter and exit with some humour, as designed by Ruby Langton-Batty.
The biggest issue ‘Beautiful One Day’ suffered from goes back to the capital ‘T’ theatre syndrome. If this were playing in a small ‘t’ theatre, intimate and community in style, it would have been received much better. Without editing, this feels like an amateur piece out of place in the big league. There were too many people with their fingers in the pie and the pie could not accommodate all the stakeholders. Not enough meat to go around and the pastry was stretched so thin that no-one was completely fed by this offering.
Let’s contrast this to the show playing downstairs, ‘Don’t Take Your Love to Town’, based on the Ruby Langford Ginibi’s book and adapted by Eamon Flack and Leah Purcell. This show is a one woman performance with Leah Purcell, who also directed this show. Although it’s a mono performance, it doesn’t feel like that way because she creates this world so thoroughly for us in her descriptions, emotional connection to the material, her believability and skill. Add to that the lovely use of visuals, paintings by Lorna Munro and lighting by Luiz Pampolha and the musical accompaniment of Nardi Simpson with sound design of Steve Francis, it is a show that is both full and moving.
It took me the first 10 minutes to adjust to the idea that we were going to narrate and chronicle Langford Ginibi’s book via the first person through Purcell and after seeing ‘Beautiful One Day’ the day before, I wasn’t sure I could take another couple of hours of timelines and facts. But Purcell’s delivery is through the heart. She owns this material and we experience these events as she takes us through each moment. There is tension in the anticipation of each life event, humour interspersed in adversity. Purcell is one of the best performers you will ever see tackle any one woman show because she includes the audience in every aspect, engaging us to empathise with each heartbreaking tragedy and laugh at the ridiculousness of life too. Purcell has presence and in this small ‘t’ theatre it fills the intimate space so that audience and actor seem connected as one family.
Even though this show uses the theatrical elements available to it to tell Langford Ginibi’s book, whether they be technical or through the art of storytelling, it never feels contrived and it certainly didn’t feel as long as it was- over two hours. And when Purcell stopped after each section to take a drink as we took in the visuals of the painting she’d just hung or when she got momentarily lost in the script when the noise from the audience leaving the upstairs show interrupted her train of thought (by the way, someone had left the theatre door open), she joked with us and got on with it. The reality is that Purcell wins us over, whether as actor or character or all shades between, we accept all versions of her as person or persona and love her for it.
The art of ‘Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ is based on the personal aspect of the text. This is Ruby Langford Ginibi’s story and although it is cultural, political, social, historical and often all at once, it is her story and told with honesty and simplicity, which doesn’t make it an easy story but it is filled with an earnest sense of facts, emotion and heart. There is integrity to the stories about her relationships with men, with her children and with her friends, her battle with alcohol, grief, urbanisation, writing, etc. And at the end there is hope that through sharing this story with us, she has come to know herself better, as have we.
If Australia has a culturally binding story that we can all relate to- it is one of hardship. The convicts, the Irish, European post war refugees, Asian immigrants- Australia was ‘settled’ with an air of desperation, a whip on one hand and a willingness to dig to find a place to live in the other. Almost every family has a story of great struggle and impediment. No stories have them in abundance like the Indigenous community, who had to fight for their very existence against all others, and still find such strength and hope in each layer of adversity and tragedy. And that is what this story gives you in the end through Purcell’s telling of it as she looks you in the eye and offers us redemption.
‘Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ is an intricate script (I can’t imagine how she learnt it all) that is seemingly simple in its telling but is due to the sophistication of its teller, Purcell.  Its moving intimacy is perfectly showcased in the downstairs theatre.
‘Beautiful One Day’ suffers from too much material and too many people trying to force their own agenda and vision into the piece and it gets lost in a prison of its own making. Whilst it had much potential and some great moments, the demands of a capital ‘T’ theatre means the venue hurt it more than helped it. It’s ‘crammed full of clever’ but misses the mark as a cohesive piece of theatre.

Sunday 2 December 2012


A big fat thumbs up is in order for the New Theatre’s production of Nick Enright’s & Terence Clarke’s ‘The Venetian Twins’. This musical comedy, using Carlo Goldoni’s play as a basis and re-written to capture an Australian feel, has been given probably the best outing it could hope for what it is- a romping good frolic using the style and characters of Commedia dell’Arte.
The New Theatre, located in King St Newtown, is not afraid to take young fresh talent and new graduates and give them the chance to realise their vision on the New’s stage and from what I can see, the experiment is working very well.
‘The Venetian Twins’, directed by Mackenzie Steele, has great production values. This is as slick as any professional or mainstream production on at the moment and a much cheaper and enjoyable alternative.  My top five big ticket items I liked about this show are as follows:
Jay James-Moody as the twins Tonino and Zanetto displays terrific comic timing whilst capturing instantly two distinct characters, accents and personalities. His ability to find the joy in each moment and letting the audience in on the joke every time was a pleasure to watch. We can’t help but love him. Why else would someone in the audience hand over their cash-laden wallet and laugh as he uses it on stage? Trust me- we would have given him whatever he asked for. A less confident actor would have crashed and burned in this demanding comic role but James-Moody gives it as good as it gets. I can only imagine in the touring Commedia dell’Arte shows of old that this is what it felt to be in the audience and react with glee at the shenanigans and lazzi of the characters.
The camp and cheeky villainy of the male cast was also a highlight. Dean Vince as Pancrazio, Stephan Anderson as Florindo, Andy Johnston as Lelio and Zac Jardine as Arlecchino were a fine support cast for Jay James-Moody. They matched his energy and presence and added to the thorough entertainment on offer. Their physicality, from subtle mannerisms, choreography and reactions to each other were clear evidence of a tight ensemble, well-directed and confident in execution.
Sean Minahan’s set design and Alice Morgan’s costumes were the perfect complement to this show. I sat next to a professional designer watching this show and even she had praise for the overall design. I loved the use of hessian and the chequered scrim, hiding the band and paying homage to the traditions of the comedy. Then the addition of frames and mirrors, rolling in and out and used to capture the vanity, frivolity and pace of the show was a lovely idea. Morgan’s costumes were also layered and colourful, especially for that of Beatrice (Marisa Berzins). And when the fans emerged, I went straight into an 80's music video clip and enjoyed it as much as everyone else in the audience.
The musicians knew how to play with the material and banter and even from their hiding spot, I felt like they were a character in ‘The Venetian Twins’. They found the way to respect the cheesy musical score and add to the comedy by allowing the characters to use the music to hit comic moments.
Final call out has to be for the director Mackenzie Steele by pulling all the pieces together and making great choices with them. This production felt as fresh as the team and it surprised me how much I enjoyed this relatively superficial comic play.
The production has a just a few minor bumps. Berzins sometimes had to force the comedy in her operatic interpretation and the relationship between Arlecchino and Columbina (Debra Bryan) lacked chemistry but you’ll hardly notice and you probably won’t care because the rest of the show is strong.
Thank goodness Sydney has so many great independent options for theatre scattered across the city. Get to them and this one won’t disappoint.

Monday 26 November 2012


It’s not often a review actually breaks my heart to write. I’m not afraid to give my thoughts about a show, good or bad, and certainly I try not to shy away from the truth. There are times I might give an ego a thwacking with a pointy reckoning and there are times I might gently massage that criticism to be as kind and as thoughtful as I can be. It is dependent on many different factors on which end of the stick you get but it normally boils down to the level of experience invested in creating the show, its professional standing and how much you’ve charged me to watch it. There are other factors, of course, like whether you’ve thought about your audience or your ego or does the show offer a potential that if given some honest feedback, might learn and do better? And that’s all it is really. It’s an opinion from a member of your audience who knows a thing or two about theatre in an effort to create a conversation about what’s out there. Take it. Leave it. Ignore it. Burn it. Love it. It’s up to you.
Rarely do I see a show where I can see that everyone who has invested in that show has poured their heart and soul into it and it hasn’t worked on any level. It carries their hopes and dreams of exploring issues that are so important to them, that they have exposed themselves so completely they are standing naked in that space, fragile and vulnerable to criticism. They haven’t been able to step outside the production to look at it objectively or they don’t realise how muddled it is in its expression of ideas. And I wish so very much that I could say good things about those shows. It makes me extremely sad when I can’t.
‘Into The Mirror’ at King St Theatre is one of those shows.
Shelley Wall has written and directed a show about something that she is passionate about- transgender issues. Her passion is evident as she goes from table to table at interval, greeting audience members and wishing them a pleasant evening and her hopes that they are enjoying the show. She is brimming with pride at her creation and you can feel her warmth for the whole project. I have to say that it is the first time I’ve ever been given a ‘pack’ of resources in my role as reviewer- the script, program, a CD inspired by the story and cast, a photo pack, a flyer. It becomes clear that this is not just a show- it’s a crusade. And a little piece of me just dies as I watch the show and realise there’s not much I can say about this show to justify the effort Wall and company have invested.
Like ripping off a bandaid, let’s get to it.
I’ll start with the writing. It’s naïve and juvenile in its expression and thematic explorations. In the first 10 minutes we are introduced to protagonist Kendall (nee Sally) played by Penny Day, his daughter Melanie (Amber Robinson) and housemate, old friend Sophia (Carole Sharkey-Waters). Not only do we learn that Melanie is a pop star, home to visit mum (who is now transitioning into Kendall) but we get a plethora of reported action and backstory that involves Sophia’s previous life as a prostitute, marriage break-ups, Melanie’s childhood, Sophia’s lost son she hasn’t seen in years and the play then dives into other issues such as lesbian relationships, rape, incest, adoption, abortion, Alzheimer’s, infidelity, abandonment, suicide, same-sex marriage, abuse… It’s an issues bingo that heavily relies on co-incidence, flowery clichés, unrealistic dialogue and not for one moment can we believe it.
Because Wall has crammed every idea that she wants to highlight into her play, it has no control whatsoever. If Wall was one of my students, I would have suggested she decide what was the most important idea and make that her sole focus instead of overburdening the play with too many issues that will actually detract from the very one she wanted to explore.
Without realising it, the message she has sent by throwing all these ideas into the pot is that people who are gay, lesbian or transgender are that way because of previous abuse or trauma. This is dangerous territory indeed and incredibly naïve if not just plain wrong. I’m sure that was not her intention but that is how it can be read.
The production is earnest but cannot overcome the immaturity of its writing. We can’t believe Day’s portrayal as Kendall because we can’t believe that anyone would ever mistake her for a man. Her old fashioned clothes, the hat that doesn’t fit and her feminine mannerisms, dialogue and voice are an obstacle too big to climb. Phrases like “…the different shades of green decorated by an array of colourful blooms, pollinated by those busy little bees…” or after Tyler announces her past abuse Kendall responds with the lines, “Miss Tyler, may I ask for your hand in courtship? Now may I have the honour of finishing our dance?” are dead giveaways that Kendall is a long way from discovering masculinity. Sharkey-Waters as Sophia is a mass of confusion. Is she a drag queen? In care for Alzheimer’s at one stage and labelled a man by her tormenting nurse, we are left to try to figure out who is who in this play? ‘Into the Mirror’ is a classic melodrama trying to be realism and failing on both counts.
The younger actresses give a little more to the play in their attempt to realise almost impossible one-dimensional or stereotypical roles. Helen Stuart as Tyler was probably the pick of the bunch but Amber Robinson and occasionally Katie Lees (Laura) had moments trying to make it work.
The best I could say is good on you for attempting to deal with issues that need to be heard. I love to see writers tackling such weighty and rarely explored content.
I hope that putting on this play gives Shelley Wall and her ensemble great joy. I also have an admiration for the courage it takes to stage an original work with such gusto and care and I really am sorry I couldn't find more to like about the show.
But as a piece of theatre it completely misses the mark.

Sunday 25 November 2012


Keith Huff’s play ‘A Steady Rain’ packs quite a punch. It is an artful exercise in turning monologues into dialogue. The play’s tandem narratives and perspectives of our protagonists, two boyhood friends Denny and Joey and now Chicago cops, centre around their attempts to find belonging, security, define themselves as providers and men in a world of violence, crime and corruption. The play is a great choice for any company with a hankering to explore edgy, morally ambiguous, well- written plays and I can see why Cathode Ray Tube wanted to tackle it. It’s a good fit for this company and the Tap Gallery.
This is a new experience for Cathode Ray Tube- not only performing work scripted outside of the company's own writing but also employing the services of a director. But for a company not used to working with a director, I’m not convinced they took full advantage of Owen Trevor’s creative services. Maybe it’s that Trevor has no theatre directorial experience and didn’t assert enough control of his lead Michael Booth or doesn’t understand that the subtlety of the screen doesn’t always transfer on to the stage. But really, if there is a gap in accessing the full potency of the play, it lies in Booth.
Booth, one of the founders of Cathode Ray Tube, struggled on the opening night of the play to hit the big moments of his character, Denny. It might have been his issue of trying to remember lines and missing chunks of dialogue but sometimes I feel like Booth’s need to try to underplay every moment jars like an actor whose confidence/arrogance overrides the needs of the character. The effect of this is twofold: firstly the stakes for the character are always lowered and tension is abated. Secondly, it so clearly resonates to the audience that you don’t care about them. This play is all about you.
There are times this style works well in expressing Denny’s sarcasm, his moral superiority in the minefield of his moral bankruptcy or his undercutting of partner Joey’s feelings. But to so steadfastly play it all in this style was a poor judgement from my point of view. I can understand why Booth was attracted to Denny. Denny likes to do things his own way, regardless of the consequences and so there are moments he perfectly captures the essence of the character but it felt like a lazy interpretation. There’s little to risk in playing it so flat-lined.
Contrast this to the only other actor on stage, Sam O’Sullivan (Joey). O’Sullivan was terrific. His portrayal captured the complexity of his character’s inner conflict, his desires, the tensions that drive him into action or oblivion. His dimensions were gently manipulated to present a character with integrity and belief. It is O’Sullivan that makes this show succeed.
There are a few technical issues that plague this production. The lighting stakes seem confused. Victor Areces was a bit all over the shop on the night and the soundtrack loop, designed by Brendan Woithe, was disjointed in its playing on stage. The moments of silence before the loop would restart often came at critical moments and the interruption of forced sound negated some of the tension happening on stage because of these timing issues.
There are good solid workable things about Cathode Ray Tube’s production of ‘A Steady Rain’ that make it enjoyable but the company does feel like it’s led by people who have little experience in theatre, except what they produce themselves. It is most successful when they bring actors and artists in with training and broad experiences in the live theatrical form. But unless they are prepared to expose themselves to less indulgent choices and expand their company’s experience in theatre, Cathode Ray Tube may never achieve the ‘spontaneity of the moment without behavioural affection’ of their mission statement.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

STC & BLACK SWAN’S ‘SIGNS OF LIFE’ dissected by me

Tim Winton is a great novelist. I’m drawn into the myriad of characters, their inner conflicts, flawed tactics, troubled relationships, disappointments, hopes and dreams.  I love his landscapes, the barren and faded locations, past care and struggling for survival. With his artful narrator’s voice capturing the psychology and turmoil of his character’s choices blended with his Australianness and an understanding of our culture and its complications- Winton one of our finest living novelists.
What Tim Winton is not is a playwright.
‘Cloudstreet’ was a triumph but it was a clever team of other writers and creatives who brought Winton’s novel to life. ‘Signs of Life’ is showing at the Sydney Opera House and is a collaboration between W.A's Black Swan State Theatre Company and Sydney Theatre Company. It is Winton’s second writing specifically for the theatre and it feels distinctly incomplete. You can dress it up, you can punch out the energy but there is no disputing that ‘Signs of Life’ is a failed experiment for a gifted novelist trying to make a transition into playwriting. Whilst ‘Dirt Music’ may have been his inspiration, the play itself was a vignette that misses the tension and rhythm of the book.
The art of writing a play is a challenge I can hardly imagine ever mastering and that is why I have such respect for those who do it so well. The effective choice of language and action in creating powerful relationships, characters, subtext, backstory, imagery, tension and then manipulating space, time, mood…and then add people we recognise or issues that resonate- the melting pot of skill is a phenomenal ask and I don’t begin to say that I could do it. I am not a playwright. Some would argue I can’t write at all but I can recognise when the core of the problem is in the writing and thus we have ‘Signs of Life’.
I was bored. Firstly, Georgie’s story feels irrelevant. Let’s acknowledge that when your protagonist doesn’t engage in her own story, you’ve got problems. Heather Mitchell was fine. She emoted when she needed to, her energy didn’t falter. She tried to breathe some life into a role that was underwritten and lacklustre. As for the ghost of her dead husband Lu (George Shevtsov), what was Winton thinking? It was a role that would have been much better implied than enacted. It felt forced and contrived, much like the monologues of Georgie’s character. What works well in the novel- the slow reveal of the psychological voice, unpacking the mind’s conversation, was like trying to speak gibberish on stage. It didn’t work. We didn’t care. I feel like there’s no subtext in this play. It’s missing the tension in the space between words, between conversations, in the silence of what’s left unsaid or in the implication of those words spoken and then it doesn’t know how to resolve itself when everything is on the table.
And so what are we left with? Probably the most interesting character for us was Bender (Aaron Pedersen) whose stories towards the end of the play, of his father and his relationship with the river were the actual moments when the play showed signs of life, literally. We saw the young boy hiding from his fate at the Mission, a moment of connection with the land and finally the stakes were raised. Pedersen was certainly the strongest on stage and maybe it was because his character had more meat on the bones and perhaps it gave him more of a chance to showcase his skills but he was the pick of the cast.
Pauline Whyman’s Mona was a tough role and I don’t know whether I believed the complexity Winton had written for her- there were just too many overt issues crammed into a limited role that required too much running off stage and banging fists on head.  Refer to my notes above on lack of subtext for clarity here. That could also be a directorial issue- I am not familiar with Kate Cherry’s work but given the thinness of the script, I don’t know what she could have done with it to make it better.
Zoe Atkinson’s design was interesting and certainly set the landscape to create the imagery of desolation. But whilst the set was beautiful in design, it still felt linear in action and I wonder if playing with levels could have given it more depth. Ben Collins' sound composition really enhanced the environment of abandonment and emptiness and was a thoughtful element in trying to mirror the intentions and location of the play.
‘Signs of Life’ lacks substance. The first hour in this 80 minute show stalls in action and engagement and then ends as abruptly, just when we feel it’s going somewhere. As a play, it doesn’t work and you’re likely to forget the whole thing by breakfast the next morning.
Winton’s transition to playwright is a long, long road to drive and feels like it’s using the wrong petrol in the tank. Here’s hoping that this great writer has better theatrical offerings in the future.

Monday 19 November 2012

Darlinghurst Theatre’s 'MISS JULIE' dissected by me

I have been fortunate to have seen a number of good productions floating around Sydney at the moment. ‘Miss Julie’, showing at Darlinghurst Theatre, was one of those shows.
This new contemporary version made me think of a cross between a Britney Spears public breakdown, a tragic ‘Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘Brynne’s World’.  The similarities may seem tenuous but seeing this strong, playful, feisty woman destroyed by her defiance of convention, her desire to live by her own means, her naiveté towards money, her daddy complex and then finally brought down by a man who needs to use her to serve his own ambitions makes me think of a twisted, dark version of all of the above.
Miss Julie is smart and sassy but she wants to defy expectations of class and gender, she wants to control and manipulate then enjoy the hedonistic pleasures like a drug that temporarily makes you forget how much you hate yourself.  Most of all, she wants to escape the spiral of self-loathing and the sense of hopelessness of where she came from, who she is and what she may become.   
Miss Julie is trapped, quite literally, at the start of the play in a glass box filled with dirt and shrubbery. Her metaphorical microcosm has her flinging the soil in her frenzied dance, perhaps hoping to uproot the pain and find some sort of catharsis. Unsuccessful, she turns to Jean, her father’s servant and suddenly her world is much smaller, her problems are much bigger and her destiny has written itself.
Sved and Box have remained faithful to the play with a few changes- Jean is an older father figure, the language is more contemporary and the rhythm captures this in its phrasing and silences. There is less emphasis on specifics of the 19th Century but the sense of class and status feature heavily. Miss Julie’s backstory is also further fleshed out in this version. I liked it very much.
Box is outstanding. Firstly, her sheer presence on stage fills the room. She’s an intimidating force, physically and vocally. So by adding class and authority to her character, she would have me, like Kristen, slinking out that door and getting away from the storm brewing.
It is great seeing a play that offers such a strong female character as Miss Julie and Kate Box was superb in her portrayal. I have a lot of respect for her as an actress and even after being subjected to last year’s extremely ordinary and underwritten ‘The Business’ at Belvoir, she was by far the standout. Seeing her carry a vehicle that allowed her to show such diversity of skill was engaging.
I thought James Lugton as Jean was also strong in finding the line between servile etiquette and ambitious opportunist. We don’t like him and yet... We see he can be cold and brutal but Sved and Box also paint for us the social reasons for his persona. He has been placed in this emotionless vacuum to survive the futility of ambition. All he needed was a reason to hope and suddenly life drives you to drastic measures when the pot of gold could appear at the end of the rainbow.
It’s a fool’s gold, of course, and both our protagonists must suffer for trying to break social convention. They’ve played with fire and both are consumed by it.
Sophie Gregg as Kristen was a good side player but unlike Lugton and Box, who I feel the play was converted or written with both of them in mind, Gregg doesn’t seem to quite fill the role in the same way as the others. But I can’t complain about what she brought to it and her contrast with Box in status and stature was clear and meaningful and her commitment evident.
You know that glass boxes and I have not always been friends but I didn’t mind this design construct. Michael Hankin and design team created a terrific ambience light, sound, set and costume, demonstrating decadence amongst the very antithesis of social hierarchy in the servants' kitchen. It was also a clever use of space in using the theatre’s actual balcony to enter and exit through the world of the play, with Miss Julie on display, as if we were all party guests there to view the Queen.
Cristabel Sved has done a very good job in directing this play. I’ve seen many different versions of ‘Miss Julie’ and this one would be one of my favourites. The collaboration has served the play well and there is respect for writer, ideas, actors and creative team.
This was a lovely way to finish off the Darlinghurst theatre season before it moves off to its new home. I hope you got to see this play. I really think you would have been impressed.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

OLD 505’s ‘SIDEKICKS’ dissected by me

The Old 505 Theatre at 342 Elizabeth St, Surry Hills is a venue I’ve never been to before and it does feel like I’m entering one of those crack houses as I am buzzed in to the building, pass the graffiti walls, salacious offers of sexual acts scrawled in texta on the elevator and then, wham, there’s a theatre, a cosy arts space, ripe for experimental and new local works.
This is the premier of Stephen Vagg’s newest play ‘Sidekicks’, directed by Louise Alston. It is a witty two-hander exploring our two main characters, CB (Emily Rose Brennan) and Mac (Dan Ilic). CB and Mac are the ‘sidekicks’ to their best friends, Robyn and Hunter. The play delves, through flashbacks, flashforwards and some transformational acting into how these two slightly dysfunctional, anti-heroes might be able to take control of their own lives instead of revolving around the ‘sun’ of their glamorous, successful best friends. Of course there’s romance, intrigue, break-ups, deceit, lies, love and a quick dash to the airport.
This is a thoroughly enjoyable show.  Both Ilic and Brennan pump out that dialogue like they were in an Aaron Sorkin series that had mated with an episode of Gilmore Girls. You might not even catch all the dialogue but it doesn’t matter- the play won’t lose coherence and the energy is palpable. Vagg’s play is a clever, witty vehicle for its confident cast that also allows a sense of play and the ability to comment on itself, Brechtian style, when actor overlapped with character. It was a great touch and often they included us in on the joke. It looked like it was fun to be in and it was certainly fun to watch.
I particularly enjoyed the moments when Ilic and Brennan had to play each other’s best friend, Robyn and Hunter. Let’s just say hirsute Ilic makes for very unconvincing ‘man-bait’ as Robyn but that was part of the humour.  And then…there’s the sex scene. I don’t even know where to start but the sheer energy and awkwardness of the whole moment, complete with action and sound, without ever touching was enough to break the most serious of theatre-goers into laughter or at least drive them to therapy. Never has a park bench been utilised so well.
There were a few beats of serious intention and both performers managed to deliver these with skill and pathos. They create, manipulate and extend both comic and dramatic tension and you would be hard pressed to come out of that show not having enjoyed yourself in the 80 minute performance.
Louise Alston has tightly constructed her direction of Vagg’s play to best maximise the small open space of the theatre and complement the personalities of her cast. I thought the visual overlays of Lexie Tanner’s graphic design, especially in the opening scenes that place us squarely at the airport or at the law firm, CB's home, etc were another great touch. The soundscapes from Adrian Bilinski implied movement and enhanced the dynamic sense of location, ably aided by Grant Fraser’s lighting design.
There were a few rare times the play felt like it lagged a little, weighed down by the huge amount of material, inner monologues and shifting thoughts and intentions but it is all forgiven in this play of flavour and fun.
If you can brave entering the space, you won’t be disappointed. Check it out.

Monday 5 November 2012

BELVOIR & ATYP’S ‘MEDEA’ dissected by me

This is a terrific play.
Belvoir, in association with Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) have crafted a top notch play, utilising the writing talents of Kate Mulvany and Anne-Louise Sarks, who have reinterpreted Euripides’ classic to suit the intimate downstairs theatre and its young and small cast.
This is reimagining a play at its best. If you’re going to rewrite a play, can you give it more life, a different perspective, a new understanding of the issues and characters, a new world in which the events unfold and still maintain the integrity of the original story, its purpose, its characters? Mulvany and Sarks overwhelmingly tick every box with a resounding yes and Sarks, as director as well as co-writer, has beautifully captured the play and its real victims on stage in this Belvoir and ATYP co-production.
I am full of praise for ‘Medea’. The first, as evidenced above, is in the writing. It is the story of a marriage lost, an outcast to ambition and betrayal. Replaced by a younger, more powerful and connected version of herself, Medea is banished from the kingdom to return to her homeland, where all ties have been severed. Her husband Jason has demanded full custody of the children.  Thus we see Medea’s plight. Abandoned, the futility of her future commands her to make extreme emotional decisions and the most obvious tool in which to exact revenge is her children. Consumed by grief and anger, she does the unthinkable.
Euripides and subsequent translations spend most of the play focussed on Medea, her relationship with Jason, King Creon and the chorus, who report to us the off stage action and question the characters in their responses and intentions. What Mulvany and Sarks do instead is bravely focus their version on the children and most of the 80 minutes of text is delivered by the children. Sons Leon (Joseph Kelly) and Jasper (Rory Potter) play in their bedroom, whilst they are locked out of the parents’ fight, happening offstage as implied. The boys’ games centre on typical adventures of the imagination, innocence, grand death scenes, gladiatorial conquests and sibling rivalry as well as love. There is a roguish naïve charm in their antics and it resonates throughout the play as they contemplate their future, their present and as play turns into reality. They give us the backstory as needed and from their perspective. They love their parents. They are desperate to please and be loved and they are still children, excited by the possibilities but starting to understand the consequences of decisions made by the ‘grown-ups’. They are the pawns in an adult world. The world of the children is brilliantly bookended and their humanity and fragility is played out before us.
The young actors, Joseph Kelly and Rory Potter, were superb.  Not for one moment did we doubt their relationship, their care for each other or that they were children at play in a high-stakes world. And these boys had to carry this play (it also explains the early start time of the show and its limited run- it’s a big ask of such a young cast). Impeccable focus and belief- what a great casting choice. Blazey Best as Medea appeared only rarely to deliver news, raise the stakes and shift the focus to advance the story until the unhappy ending itself. But when she did enter the space, she delivered a performance of a woman whose world has been ripped apart, who has to gently hold those moments of utter despair as a woman who must also keep a happy face for her kids so as not to distress or terrify them. It was a quality performance.
Sarks as director must be credited for her work with her young charges. She has created a safe and real environment for her cast to act out the breakdown of the family unit under the spotlight of the boys’ bedroom. This was aided by a fabulous design from Mel Page, who gives the boys a realistic and vivid canvas to play, hide, challenge, rest and wait. All we need to know about the world of the play is in that room. I saw the play with two of my students and one of them even remarked that it was very much like her little brother’s room (complete with the nerf bullets that she often fell victim to). We believed every moment.
There are so many layers and echoes of every parent’s nightmare and imminent tragedy interwoven into this play. It is a sophisticated production and you really must see it. Snap up a ticket. Beg, borrow or steal but don’t miss this one.

Sunday 4 November 2012

Sydney Independent Theatre Company's 'When the Rain Stops Falling', dissected by me

It's a bold move to tackle an Andrew Bovell play, especially 'When the Rain Stops Falling'- it's a journey through generations, time and locations, all often overlapping with each other,  out of sequence, all in the confines of the stage. Sometimes the audience need to work hard to put the pieces together but for the most part, Bovell respects his audience to keep up and once you've worked out the conventions being employed early on, it really is clear.

Bovell would be one of my favourite Australian playwrights. There's a sophistication in his understanding of people, their failings and strengths, their relationships as well as a theatrical mastery in which to express these ideas. He knows how to extrapolate sympathy and disgust for characters at the same time, beautifully manipulates inner voices and asides into monologues and dialogue whilst dancing between dramatic forms, styles, symbols and capitalising on theatre's technical elements to enhance mood, space and motifs.

But his plays demand a lot from actor and director. These are not archetypes. They are three-dimensional characters, all with their own stories to tell. There needs to be a subtlety that expresses history, present and future, a depth in every minor choice and often a casualness to big actions. Boy, that's a big ask. So you can imagine for Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO), the text was sometimes bigger than they could manage. But Bovell spent an extensive period developing this text with its original cast, a live musician and a design team. Not many companies get that luxury and so I can't be too hard on SITCO for falling short of the original.

Here are a few commendable things I can say about SITCO's production:

On a very small budget they have created an imaginative set to showcase the intricacies of space and function, especially in creating the effect of rain. Well done to designer David Jeffrey in defying the impossible in the company's small factory performance space in Alice St, Newtown.

Actress Christina Falsone (as the younger Elizabeth Law) was the stand-out performer in this play in accent, character and belief. I was very impressed with her ability to grapple with this complex material with integrity and focus.

The cast also gave the play lots of energy and guts in trying to realise its 'weight'. They really did try to deliver Bovell's play, the best way they could.

There are times the play shows a little too much 'acting', standing in their well-rehearsed or blocked cues, looking out to the rain and feeling forced. Sometimes the accents took over the dialogue and the words became secondary to the accent and therefore detracting from the text. And the piano refrain on loop was driving me slightly insane by the end.

I think the text was an ambitious choice for director Julie Baz and cast but there were times they really delivered some moving moments of tension and emotion amongst other times when it fell just a bit flat.

But I am appreciative and respectful of the drive and passion to create theatre for audiences and set up shop in your own space with an ensemble whose love for performing is obvious. It is a space to hone your craft, tackle big ticket items and grow in skill and repertoire. SITCO is a group that I hope will continue to develop in their expression of plays and maybe, when the ensemble is more confident, they might even dabble in devised work. Certainly I suggest they start showcasing the talents of their more proficient cast members by developing or finding material that allows them to shine.

Keep working at it guys and good luck.

Sunday 28 October 2012


Independent company, Workhorse Theatre, back up their earlier debut 'That Pretty Pretty; or The Rape Play' with their latest offering, John Patrick Shanley's 1985 play, 'Savage in Limbo' at the Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst.

Director Stuart Maunder and the creative team have put together a fairly engaging show in this intimate space. It's another reminder how much talent is on the independent scene. I'm not convinced that Shanley's play is the strongest material to showcase the skills of the cast- it's full of what feels like monologues- and yet the play works best when they finally get to dialogue with each other.

Maunder has kept this play set in its original time and place, mid 80's in the Bronx. It is resplendent with designer Jasmine Christie's costumes, not to mention the terrifying memories of 80's make-up. The play explores the lives of three women, all ex-students from the same school, April White (Christina O'Neill), Linda Rotunda (Zoe Trilsbach) and Denise Savage (Katherine Beck). The women, all now 32, sit on the precipice of big decisions- to change, to fight the fear of change or to settle completely into the choices that have led them to this point. These characters are then 'bookended' by the two men in the play- Murk (Daniel Cordeaux) and Tony Aronica (Troy Harrison), each of them representing either the desperate need to stay exactly as they are or to change everything.

The play certainly has plenty of conflict but struggles to capture or sustain any tension and I am attributing that to the writing and its plethora of monologues that seem to halt action for much of the play.

But Beck, Trilsback and O'Neill are a great trio of actresses and really pump out the energy and passion of their character's dilemmas. Cordeaux took a small role and turned it into something very impressive and fun and Harrison warmed into the role of Tony. It's a tight acting company and although the play's 'larger than life' characters means that sometimes the portrayals felt like you were watching the acting more than the action, there are great moments too, especially between couples or duos in the play, like Murk and Alice and Denise and Linda.

I hope their next play allows them more opportunities to dialogue and interact as an ensemble rather than in a play dominated by solo pieces but it's worth seeing these talented performers and hopefully they'll continue to grow and experiment.

Saturday 27 October 2012

DOUBLE DISSECTION: STC’s ‘Sex With Strangers’ & BELVOIR’s ‘Private Lives’

Both of these plays, currently showing in Sydney, have two things I want to address in combining them in this review. The first is the use of accents. The second is the romance that permeates both plays. Naturally the unspoken third is the time crunch I’m currently under. But let’s imagine I’m far more organised and calculating than I actually am and that this was always going to be a double review.
STC’s ‘Sex With Strangers’ is a made for theatre realist rom com. Now, as we know- I’m a chick. But I’m also a sucker for romance and I now have a big crush on Ryan Corr so let’s just say, I really enjoyed this play.
Yes- it’s an expensive night in the theatre watching what is essentially a performance that can go straight from stage to film. It’s a realist relational piece, a two-hander, two-act romantic comedy. For those who want a more eclectic staging and style, this play perhaps is not your best outing this year. But for me, I was engaged from the start and relished every moment of the interactions between the characters.
Directed by Jocelyn Moorhouse and starring Jacqueline McKenzie and Ryan Corr, Laura Eason’s play gets a faithful rendering on stage and so it’s no surprise, given Moorhouse’s experience directing film and television that this play reads that way. Even the text on screen on the backdrop, juxtaposing designer Tracy Grant Lord’s great wilderness scapes and then the urban sophisticated bookshelves was a lovely filmic device that added to the feel of this play, especially aided by lighting designer Matthew Marshall and Steve Francis’ sound composition.
‘Sex With Strangers’ certainly has the skilled hand, experience and depth of all the talented women working on it. They knew how to develop this material and still respect the differences in gender, age and social politics. The play is more than a romantic weekender- it explores generational sensibilities, creative angst, the role of social media and the power of human connection.
This play is clearly set in the States and yet, for me, the choice to do Australian accents didn’t bother me in the slightest. Unlike a classic piece of American Realism, like a Miller or Williams play, where the themes are also caught up in the American dream, experience or character, Eason’s play is far more universal in its characters’ journeys and if not for the reference to the occasional American city, you would not have known any different. In fact, you could argue they may have been Australians living in the States if it bothered you. The Australian accent was not out of place and the play flowed freely in its voice.
Again, Lord’s design was clever in its use of levels, in how it allowed actors multiple ways to use the space, to create this entire world and give us insights into what was ‘out of shot’. I loved the use of the stairs, the open planned living areas, the world of the rustic retreat as opposed to the sterile whiteness of Olivia’s (McKenzie) home. This was a play where the design clearly enhanced the action. There was also chemistry between the actors and the contrast of the characters’ personalities, their writing, goals, choices, passion, was enchanting to watch.
If I had questions about the play it would be whether men who watch this play would be as engaged? Is this a play designed for younger to middle-aged women to thoroughly enjoy and fantasise over Ryan Corr and immerse themselves in the romance of the plot and its natural conflicts? Will the style of it feel passé to a younger generation who have been brought up on a diet of glass boxes? Will men feel like they’ve been conned into watching a chick-flick on stage? I’m not sure but I would be interested to hear what those responses were. I’m also interested in Ryan Corr’s number, if anyone has it…
Backing up Ryan Corr with a smattering of Toby Schmitz, let’s move on to Belvoir’s ‘Private Lives’. Directed by Ralph Myers and designed by Ralph Myers, Noel Coward’s script is thankfully left intact and is just as funny in text as we would hope. In some ways, ‘Private Lives’ is an anti-romance. In the classic style of farce, there are couples abandoned on their honeymoon, couples who reunite to discover why they left each other in the first place and then the chaos of all couples on stage at the end.
I think we all know about Belvoir and what staging any classic play means. The Belvoir set is anti-historical, meaning that there is a deliberate move away from staging anything in its original setting, original design and original voices. It must be made to be ‘contemporary’. Honestly, I’m not convinced when they do it. It feels forced and at times, contrived. If the statistics that the adolescent male brain doesn’t stop developing until the age of 35 are true, it certainly explains almost every choice the artistic team make at Belvoir. There is a lack of maturity in many of the choices made by Ralphie and team.
Look, I did enjoy this play. This is Coward’s best and as long as you hire the right cast and leave the text to do its work, it’s going to be a funny play. It’s what the director does with it that will either make it funnier by working with it or impose a vision out of step with the writer’s intention and make the natural comedy of the play harder to stage for its actors. Enter Ralphie, his cardigan blowing in the wind, his torn corduroys flapping about with the intensity of the inner west grunge and his insistence that the themes of the play are as valid to us now as they were back then and that we should use our Australian accents and our contemporary dress. Then he spends his entire director’s notes trying to convince us of that. When he says that “class is incidental” in this play, I thought, ‘Poor Ralphie. If he thinks class is irrelevant in ‘Private Lives’, he just doesn’t get it’.
The characters of ‘Private Lives’ are British upper class. They live decadent, idle lives. They have too much money and not enough meaning, they are distracted by the trivial and make light of the significant events that occur or that they enact. They are whimsical and hedonistic. I’m not surprised the Belvoir set found this contemporary. It describes half of them.
Coward makes a pointedly funny issue on class and when you read his play, you hear that voice. And saying it in that voice, that accent, makes the play even funnier. This is a social satire on class, done tongue-in-cheek. To do this play in Australian accents actually makes it less funny. Sure, we can say that everyone, regardless of class and culture, can live idle lives but you see, the common man living without meaning seems a bit sad. However, the rich man in a society built on class and of “no fixed occupation” living this way, that’s comedic, especially when the statement being made on class and lifestyle is so beautifully explored in the original.
Add to that the bland costumes of Alice Babidge, as instructed by Ralphie’s vision. How many people were a little disappointed to see Amanda wearing leggings and a sweat top for most of the play? Is not some of the humour found in the idea that the ‘glamorous’ set wear their elegance only superficially and underneath is a naked hollowness? Dumbing down those costume choices is a dumbing down of the characters. You’ve just lowered the stakes and dismissed one of the most important ideas that Coward magnifies under his class microscope. Yes- ladies- I saw you shiver in excitement when you got to see Schmitz in his white undies. I’m not taking that away from you. But would you perform Wilde’s ‘Importance of Being Earnest’ in Aussie accents and track pants? No you would not. Could you? Sure.
The play feels dull in colour. The tasty flavour of Coward’s work has been stripped down to its core ingredients- the words only. The dialogue still contains all the humour you’d hope but it feels bland in performance because of Ralphie’s directorial choices. His decision to make sure that the director is king, as is Sydney’s penchant, is all over it but it does him no great favours. I will say his set works and allows for all the entrances and exits in quick succession you could hope for. He’s a good designer. The play works. He understands the themes and the form. It's just the play could have been better had he trusted the writer and the cast. It is Belvoir’s greatest indulgence throughout this and last season, to tinker with the work, especially when it is unnecessary. The adolescent male brain is still under construction.
Toby Schmitz as Elyot was as predictably good as always and I will admit, I loved the mime-show guitar hero inclusion of Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’. I thought Eloise Mignon was perfectly cast as whiny Sibyl. Toby Truslove coped exceedingly well with his fractured foot as stoic Victor (poor Truslove is destined to play the man who weds all of Schmitz’ cast offs). And Mish Grigor’s Louise captures the absurdity and comedy of the maid, whose attitude towards ‘class’ is left in no doubt.
If there was a performance that didn’t always work it was Zahra Newman as Amanda. I felt there were lapses in comic timing, vocal clarity and pace. I welcome the colour-blind casting- I hope to see more of it- in fact I’m laying down the challenge for a black Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ next year right now. But Newman wasn’t always in control of the role. When it worked best was in the conspiratorial silences or in the ‘time-outs’ on stage, in her actions and interplay. It forced her to engage in what was happening on stage. Other times, it felt like when she was speaking, she was banging out that dialogue as if the show had to come down 20 minutes early. It may be a farce but the flow of pace and rhythm should feel natural and not forced. Newman still had plenty of good moments in her actions and movement but I don’t think she hit the beats like the rest of the cast. There were definitely vocal issues.
All I ask, as do most audiences everywhere, is for the best theatrical experience you can have of the play you’re watching. Sometimes that means keeping traditions, sometimes it means reinventing it. It’s the power to know what and how that seems to elude Club Belvoir.
Thank God Coward’s Estate doesn’t insist on accent and glamour. Who wants another Belvoir scandal…sorry…I mean ‘miscommunication’? But if you had to have one, wouldn’t it be funny to do it in clipped British accents? Yes. Yes it would.
Now someone get me Ryan Corr’s number. Stat.

Sunday 14 October 2012


Fact: Griffin is the only theatre in Sydney I can confidently say I get value for money whilst supporting new works and local talent. The casting net is thrown a little wider and the intimacy of the stage most often works in its favour. Writers, directors and designers can get creative on a small scale budget, actors can play with their audience and, if you can find a place to breathe in the foyer, it’s a nice place to hang out with friends. The works produced there aren’t always the best works you’ll see on the Sydney stage for the year but there is a genuine attempt to nurture and develop our national stories and voice. Let me make it clear- they’re not comping me to say this- no professional theatre in Sydney will comp me without legitimising my blog and facing the wrath of their ‘artistic’ team. But I have just subscribed again for 2013 and next year’s program contains a lot of promise.
‘Between Two Waves’ is a Griffin commissioned work, written and starring Ian Meadows. It is his vehicle and he is impressive in it. Meadows plays Daniel, an anxious climatologist who gets caught in a ‘storm’ (literal and metaphorical) and the play takes us on a journey of present day and flashbacks into Daniel’s failures and hopes as a scientist, government advisor, brother and boyfriend. I did see this play in its first preview and I am told that the major lighting effect didn’t work and there were a few kinks to work out so please understand that it has probably gone through the steamer and if you’re seeing it now, hopefully many of those kinks are now ironed out. It does mean that there isn't much point talking about the lighting design in this review, even though it may be a very significant thing when you see it.
Let me spend some time discussing the play as it is written to inform the choices in how it was performed. This play isn’t quite sure if it wants to be a film or a theatre piece. It’s engaging and has terrific ideas that pulse throughout it but some of those ideas are screaming out to be told through the camera lens- through strong controlled angles and images with a soundtrack emoting mood. What is not necessarily clear to us as a theatre audience could be made clearer through filmic devices. I certainly think it’s clear in Meadows’ mind but there are a number of loose threads that are left dangling at the end- his sister Claire, the relationship he has with his father, what made him anxious in regards to these events and relationships in the first place. These are the things as an audience member my friends and I went away discussing, what we presumed might have happened. And yes, it’s perfectly okay to come out and be asking questions but if they are the sort of things that make the difference between engaging in a good play or being affected by a powerful play, you probably don’t want your audience to be doubt.
The other thing Meadows still has to work on as the writer of this script is his supporting cast. Whilst the play hinges around his character Daniel and was written quite specifically for him to perform that character (I’ve never met Meadows but it feels to me that Daniel is a clear reflection of him). Meadows is great and he does capture the anxious but affable insecurity of a man who hasn’t found his place in the world or understand the worth he could bring to it. It does make you want to go and give him a big hug and make him a cup of hot cocoa and tell him it’ll be alright.  
Meadows hasn’t given the same opportunities for the support cast to be fully utilised. They don’t seem to get the chance to be layered, vulnerable characters, even for their big scenes with Daniel. Rachel Gordon’s character of Grenelle probably comes closest as she at least has to work between being a mother of a difficult teenager and as an assessor of damage for the insurance company. Meadows has ensured that she is plunged into situations she can’t control. She has levels of vulnerability and functionality and Gordon does a good job in playing with those layers.
The character of Fiona (Ash Ricardo) doesn’t get the same attention and as a character whose choices clearly and most profoundly affect Daniel, it is a pity he has written her with such continuous aggression. Maybe there was a bit of Sam Strong’s direction driving that but if Fiona and Daniel don’t have moments of calm waters before the storm hits then we can see that wave coming a mile off and it lacks the power of impact that it should have on its audience. Even scenes that have this potential are quickly dismissed by her suspicion or ridicule of Daniel. Ash Ricardo certainly punches out the energy and I wonder, if given the chance of more nuance and softness instead of a shrewish character for most of the play, we would have engaged more with her character. Sam Strong (who I should add is probably one of the better directors working on the Sydney stage at the moment and Adelaide is very lucky to get him) might have also explored other ways to express conflict on stage apart from yelling at each other. This distinctly felt like it was an over-utilised choice. If I have a criticism of Strong it would be that sometimes less is more and I’d like to see him scale back some of the choices he makes on how his actors have to express emotion and angst, especially in this play.
As for Jimmy (Chum Ehelepola), I’m not sure whether Ehelepola was having a wonky preview or that his character is so obviously and mistakenly played as a blokey, matey archetype that it never rang true and his moments of contemplation lacked real belief that as a character, Jimmy feels a bit mostly obsolete.
The play is undercooked. But Meadows has something really good to work with and another draft or two should have it as quite the gourmet selection in the smorgasbord of Sydney theatre. And now it’s had the chance to get comfortable in its own skin, go and see it. Even with its flaws, it’s one of the better offerings on our local scene for 2012. Good performances, good direction, strong design and a solid engaging play.