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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.