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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.