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Saturday 26 January 2013


I was a teenager at school in the 80's. It was the best of times and the worst of times. Let's face it, every teenager really wants to be popular, loved, attractive and rejection, humiliation and being an outsider can be mortifying. All you've got are your fellow 'dags', your ostracised companions and school is your battle ground.

That's pretty much the same today- but unlike today, where there are so many distractions from the despair of your own inadequacies or insecurities in places like social networking, internet porn or virtual worlds, where you can act out your fantasies, back in the 80's your virtual world was found chiefly in the music. I distinctly remember locking myself in my room, turning up compilation albums like Rocktrip '82, or Duran Duran, INXS, Haircut 100, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and imagining myself anywhere or anyone else but me. It was the music that provided an escape from reality and thus why the sounds of the 80's are burned into the memory of everyone who was a teen back then.

Look, all of that may sound very dramatic but I loved the 80's, even if I didn't love myself back then (as opposed to now where I have a very healthy sense of ego, thank you very much). The 80's had a voice. The 60's shook up the world in protest and style, the 70's brought people together with a bit of disco contact and the 80's kind of gave power to the outsider- the Boy George, Marilyn, Kim Wilde, Michael Jackson, Do Re Mi, Bronski Beat...I mean even Joe Dolce had a hit in the 80's. You didn't have to be sexy. In fact, like a Howard Jones or Nik Kershaw, we wanted you to be odd, a little bit different. We wanted stories, identities, opinions..we wanted to be hit over the head with alternative personalities because it gave power to anyone who had something to say who wasn't in the beautiful group. And the 80's had such a visual power and was a time of such massive change that it is the perfect era to explore the narrative of those who sort to be redefined or reinvented.

Matthew Whittet's 'School Dance' explores this very notion. These are teenagers that don't fit into the cool group, who are still innocent but don't know how to speak to each other of their deepest fears or hopes or even how to admit it to themselves. They suffer in acknowledged silence. They are on the periphery of any school's social hierarchy and so Whittet's metaphor of characters turning invisible is as clear as can be. The story is told with great humour (and moves) at the local school disco, the most vulnerable of stages where the only thing worse than being invisible is to actually attract attention with your abandon of the daggiest moves on the dance floor.

'School Dance' focuses on our three teen heroes, Matthew (Whittet), Jonathon (Jonathon Oxlade) and Luke (Luke Smiles), aided by the women of the story, all played by Amber McMahon, as they try to return Matthew to normal from his state of invisibility and on that journey they enter worlds where they revert back to times of simple childhood innocence, face their demons, like bully Derek Sturgess (Jack Wetere) and ultimately have to choose to grow up, risk everything and escape the chains of teenage insecurity. It's a lovely (and a love) story and being set in the 80's adds to the beauty of its telling, in all its synthesiser glory.

Originally devised by Whittet for Windmill Theatre Company and directed by Rosemary Myers, this play impressed me on many different levels. If we are embracing the notion of roles being redefined, 'School Dance' reinvents the ensemble by utilisng its creative team and putting them in the cast. Oxlade is the set designer and Smiles is the sound composer and it is tribute to the idea of the theatrical auteur- a creative team who gets to explore the story in many different roles and it is so well done it adds to the layers of the show.

Oxlade's set is fabulous. It's a school hall that we all recognise but with a series of pop ups or outs, the opening honour board, the doorway that doubles as a toilet, the stage that turns into an under the sea world or each character's home. But most loved of all was the BMX racers that emerged from the bottom of the stage. Not only is the set a reminder of the bland school environment, it then surprises and delights us with what's inside, much like our teenage characters.

The voice overs and recordings of Smiles were also wonderful and added such a sense of fun and era in 'School Dance'. The play bridges styles of heightened realism and absurdism with unabashed joy that it's easy to accept anything and everything can happen, like our own youthful hopes and fantasies.

I think you'd be hard pressed to not like this play. If I had any criticism it would be the few anachronisms, apparently deliberately placed but too few to feel like it is a choice and instead feels more like a mistake in research. Also, there are a couple of times the play slightly feels like it is dragging and may need an edit or less 'stretching the elastic' of moments that go on for just a fraction too long, such as the under the sea environment.

But these are such minor things in a play that everyone will resonate with, as almost anyone who has ever been a teenager, whether that was in the 80's or not, knows what this feels like. It's a playful handling of the most awkward age of our lives and is a pleasure to watch, even if leaves you with Laura Branigan's 'Gloria' going through your head for days.

It's a play for everyone. It even dutifully bleeps out any expletives, heightening its innocent intentions and the time. It's Whittet's dance version of 'The Breakfast Club', complete with leg warmers.

So get your 80's robot dancing polished, practise your running man and get down to Wharf 1 to see 'School Dance'.

And just for a moment, enjoy being a teenager all over again.

Saturday 19 January 2013


I was first introduced to David Holman's plays when I started teaching in the 90's and back then the plays were a fun exploration of children's theatre using local references, reflecting current cultural and social trends and accessible for kids to perform or enjoy as audience.

So it probably felt like a good choice for the New Theatre to stage Holman's 'The Small Poppies' for this holiday season and certainly there were lots of kids in the audience who were ready to embrace the ideas and characters of the play. But there were two things that made the play feel like it was hard work to win over its audience- 'The Small Poppies' is clearly dated in its references and content and the performance is trying so hard to expend energy, it lacks control in savouring the attitudes and life of its characters.

Sometimes you can fall into the trap of thinking that more is better when keeping kids engaged in the action and perhaps that's where director Felicity Nicol made an error in judgement. The first half travels at a million miles an hour and I know my 6 year old companion sat frozen in fear in her seat because it was loud more than cheeky. But the second half shows much more control once all those characters are known to the audience and scenes like Lep's (Rosie Lourde) show and tell and her mother's day card are then quite lovely and moving scenes for the adults in the audience especially.

Overall there were some very nice moments in the play. Young Emily (my 6 year old date) loved the swimming scene with Theo (Nick Atkins) and his dad (Daniel Csutkal) or Clint's (Ben Hunter) tantrum when he doesn't get the birthday present he wanted from his mum (Danielle Baynes) and the scene at school with the computer and Theo's dad and Mrs Walsh (Sarah Hansen) was a favourite of hers. 

Now is probably a good time to talk about the terrific design aspects of the play that we have come to expect from the New. I loved all the design concepts from Andrea Espinoza and brought to life by production manager Nina Juhl. The pop out windows and cardboard boxed surburban homes and skylines, lit by Sian James-Holland, were one of the highlight's of the performance experience.

The play still has a lot of things audiences will enjoy but I challenge its young audience to know who Craig McDermott or Cyndi Lauper are and a bit more vocal coaching to master a natural expression of the snippets of Greek and Khmer languages mightn't go astray. I would also suggest that getting the actors to take more time to connect with the characters on stage and employ more control in physicality and voice might also help in the control of the play's energy and help contrast those moments that require the more flamboyant approach to humour.

It's still worth a look and your kids will probably enjoy it if they're 8 or older. It is an energetic interpretation of Holman's play and the 80's soundtrack will at least have you rocking in your seat.

Friday 18 January 2013

Sydney Shakespeare Festival's 'MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING' dissected by me

Most of the time I am grateful to live in a country where you can still express yourself through the arts. There might still be some distance to go to call ourselves a liberal arts community, where creativity is as valued as economics, but gee, it's nice to know that people are still independently slogging away for the right to showcase the words, movement, expression, passion and emotion of the performing and creative arts and finding avenues to do that when funding is so scarce.

The Sydney Shakespeare Festival is one of those little independent groups who take over a corner of the Glebe foreshore in Bicentennial Park each January evening to entertain their onlookers with Shakespeare's finest because the joy of doing it far outweighs the cost.

Last night I caught their 'Much Ado About Nothing' debut performance and the following things struck me. Firstly, how many families were there enjoying the show. Isn't it nice when you can head outdoors with a picnic rug, a bite to eat and the strong cool breeze coming off the water and just relax with a solid rendering of Shakespeare? It's a very family friendly event and the kids and adults alike were thoroughly happy with their choice to be there.

Secondly, these performers are giving it everything they've got. It's a tight ensemble and the pleasure of performing is obvious and that effort can be infectious. There are genuine moments of laughter from the audience from some of the antics and delivery from the tiny makeshift stage.

And finally, there are actually some good performances happening in the show. John Michael Burdon's Benedick demonstrates that Burdon has a great ear for the language of Shakespeare and immense energy in transferring it out with ease to the audience. He is also a very good physical performer and so there is something magnetic in watching him. He is ably matched by Brendon Taylor as Don Pedro, who is one of the more natural performers and does not have to rely on 'stage business' to communicate character but just gets on with the art of belief and acting. Jacob Thomas as Claudio was also good and Emily Elise as Hero and Dogberry so utterly transformed herself in each role that we had to check the program to see if it was the same actress.

'Much Ado' is directed by co-founder of the Sydney Shakespeare Festival, Julie Baz. Baz also had to step in at the last minute to take on the role of Beatrice- a director's nightmare and not one she would have planned and so well done to her to make the leap from the sideline to the spotlight. 

The play does lean heavily on idle actions- stage business that can sometimes seem too contrived and distracting and there are times you really want the actors to find stillness and breath. There are also times when the cadence of iambic pentameter is a challenge a little too great for some actors or scenes and the difficulty of projecting out to the audience can make the dialogue feel declamatory. But mostly, it is a lovely night out with friends and family and a much better way to spend an evening than indoors watching non-ratings TV.

So take a jumper- it gets quite cool out there- a comfy seat with friends or the kids and get out there to enjoy a fine show. It's value for money and keeping the creative dream alive.

Thursday 17 January 2013

SHORT & SWEET WEEK 2 dissected by me

Well hoorah.

After years of watching some fairly pedestrian Short & Sweet offerings, this is one of the better weeks presented.

That's not to say it's all roses but at least the ordinary wasn't dire and every piece had redeeming qualities but what made this week a stand-out was that for the first time, it was actually tough to choose the top two plays because really there were at least four or five strong options. So if you've been put off going from pluck-your-eyes-out-of-their-sockets past experience but wouldn't mind revisiting and supporting the festival, this is probably the week to do it.

My pick for this week would have been 'Waiting' by Kylie Rackham and directed by Heidi Lupprian and starring Sandra Campbell and Challito Browne. Campbell was so good in this piece that she's also my pick for best actress in the entire Short & Sweet season. It was a moving account of loneliness and loss and for what is essentially a ten minute play, I was impressed with how the play encompassed such a journey. Well done to writer and all involved in the performance.

Another couple of good choices go to comedies 'The Gospel According to Bowser' and 'Richard and Rod'. Whilst the first, written by Dan Borengasser and directed by Susan Kennedy, was a fun insight into the attitudes and beliefs of our pets and the second, written by A. Patrick Nilan and directed by the performers Aaron Nilan and Alastair Buchanan, was a tongue in cheek play on the life and troubles of a penis. It seems anthropomorphism is a great choice of material and style to cover in these short vignettes and the energy of Chris Miller as Bowser made him a crowd favourite and who doesn't want to see two men dressed up as a penis? It makes a change from men just acting like one...(well not most men, of course, but I couldn't resist).

Kathryn Yuen's 'Bus Trip' was also a pleasant attempt to delve a little deeper beyond the comic in her ten minute play and Alison Albany's direction of performer Michela Carattini was especially good and Carattini gave the piece some solid acting chomps with integrity and commitment.

A few other quick mentions to Gabriella Florek in 'A Burning Ambition'- she has the makings of a confident and talented performer, 'Disposable' has a good energetic cast as does 'Count', both written by Jodi Cramond and as soon as both plays find their ending in the writing, there's a lot there to enjoy. 'Diet Dilemma' is a bit of fun and cast just need to beware of corpsing on stage so they can lift the material to match their playfulness with it.

I'd say this is your week to head along to King St Theatre and savour the taste of Short and Sweet. It's much more sweet than sour and I think this week you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Monday 14 January 2013

Stories Like These & Griffin Independent's 'RUST AND BONE' dissected by me

If you like your men crippled and flawed, you're going to love 'Rust and Bone' at Griffin as part of their independent season and produced by company Stories Like These.

That may soumd flippant but actually this play has a lot to recommend it. 'Rust and Bone', written by Caleb Lewis from the short stories of Craig Davidson, has three parallel narratives of men who are entrenched in the violent trappings of male conditioning but yearn unknowingly for a "deeper human connection".

Through the skilful use of transformational acting and instant intersections of each storyteller we see the common threads of machismo that stifle each man's ability to connect and identify with their needs and wants. It heightens not only the tragedy of male violence but also the epiphanies of love and belonging when they stumble upon it.

Corey McMahon, director of 'Rust and Bone' , has brought out the best in this short 65 minute play. There is an  inherent trust in his actors Wade Briggs, Renato Musolino and Sam Smith that they can tap into vulnerability, bitterness, anger or all at once and play not only the journey of their own characters but instantly transform into other characters and the audience will follow. It's a good instinct and I would argue that for a director, this is a much harder ask than planting tricks on stage to cover narrative and acting holes. McMahon has made the most complicated of tasks and made it look simple.

Of course he's chosen an excellent cast that can bring out the ugliness of these men and still give them a soft underbelly, dancing between the light and dark of masculinity. These are men we all know on one level and even though their stories are heightened, they are believable to us.

Quick mentions and kudos to the technical team but most significantly to designer Michael Hankin. His set of the unforgiving,  immovable concrete box that works as a pool, a boxing ring or a dog fighting arena adds to the grey hardness of a man's denial of weakness.

'Rust and Bone' is three engaging monologues made to feel interactive and is well-executed. And at Griffin Independent's price, it's great value for money.

I recommend you go and see it and this is probably one to take those guys who  hate going to the theatre because if art mirrors life, they're going to love it. Just be careful how you discuss the show afterwards and assure them it's all going to be ok...

Sunday 13 January 2013

STC's 'THE SECRET RIVER' dissected by me

There is a great deal written about Australian history and its bleak and brutal past. There has been a real attempt to tell the stories of white man's 'arrival', the harsh treatment of convicts and their treatment of others, of settlers, of trying to impose an English approach to living off the land and most importantly of all, the prevalence of Indigenous massacres. 'The Secret River', Sydney Theatre Company's first play of 2013, written by Andrew Bovell from Kate Grenville's book of the same name can now be added to that canon.

I have often said that watching the dramatisation of our history is like watching the Titanic hit the iceberg over and over again. I'm not sure who would qualify as the Titanic in that simile- is it the white man's good intentions, is it our Indigenous culture, is it humanity? All I know is that whatever hope you had for our story to turn out for the best, encompassed in each narrative of man's will versus man's morals, it will be shattered by the end and the debris of what was once grand will lie, floating beyond fixing and forcing us to consider not only the consequences of these actions but also what might have been. The iceberg is the 'tipping point', of course, and every damn time we make the decision to abandon ethics and integrity, that ship is going to smash into smithereens.

'The Secret River' is not a new story but it's the story of humanity and it is certainly an accurate representation of our history, more's the pity. It is a faithful artistic and cultural rendering that reminds us that not every man is a villain but he can become one out of fear. See the ordinary villains, like Smasher Sullivan (Jeremy Sims), him we expect to act with deplorable immorality. But it is the character of William Thornhill (Nathaniel Dean) we mourn for because he is our everyman. We like him and worse, we are like him. And if he can fall, what does it say about how we might have acted or do still act? That's where the heart of shame lies in our story.

Director Neil Armfield has taken the beautifully crafted words of Bovell (and Grenville) and created the most important play you'll see as an Australian this festival season. The mise-en-scene of designer Stephen Curtis is breathtaking and this is one of the smartest uses of the Sydney Theatre- filling the stage with what appears to be the base of a eucalytus tree, thousands of years old, left to grow undisturbed. The added sensory details of the fire, bush clearing, charcoal drawings, rain, all come together to create the aesthetic experience of the Australian landscape at its best with appropriate grand artistry.

Mark Howett's lighting and the live music provided by Iain Grandage, accompanied by the cast at certain times in the story with Steve Francis' sound design means that this soundtrack, especially composed for the play, feels like an authentic response to the action, atmosphere and emotions that enhance the epic quality of 'The Secret River'. It is part of the magic we have come to rely on from both Armfield and Bovell, experts at their craft.

Tess Schofield's costumes capture the harsh demands of the environment but also the cultural divide and differences whilst allowing the actors every practicality and modesty of situation in the expression of the narrative.

And to the acting. Outstanding. Although an ensemble piece in feel it is led by Nathaniel Dean as Thornhill and Anita Hegh as his wife Sal. They make you believe so solidly in the experience that unfolds in front of you and this is made possible by the incredible support offered by the rest of the cast, too many to mention because each of them deliver in this play. Special mention also for the choice of accent and the vocal coaching of Charmian Gradwell, often overlooked but essential to the historical underpinning of belief in this interpretation.

Some of the golden moments include the transformation from man to dog of Bruce Spence, Daniel Henshall and Matthew Sunderland- a metaphor for mankind and how quickly he can revert into a savage beast ready to protect what he considers his own. There's the scene where young Dick Thornhill (Tom Usher/Rory Potter) is playing with the Aboriginal boys Garraway (Kamil Ellis) and Narabi (James Slee) with the joyful spirit of a child yet to be corrupted by fear and prejudice or when Gilyangan (Miranda Tapsell) and Buryia (Ethel-Anne Gundy) visit Sal and exchange goods. But most powerful image of all is towards the final stages as the men fill the stage with guns in hands, singing their 'war cry' and Thornhill's fence as the sanctity of the untouched tree base is defiled as Ngalamalum (Trevor Jamieson) lies prostrate by the extinguished fire. Whilst some moments felt a little contrived, ultimately it all created the contrast of culture, of lands and of attitudes and those choices were easily forgiven. Those final lines delivered by our narrator, Ursula Yovich, as she states (and I'm paraphrasing here) that whilst Thornhill was waiting for the Aboriginals to move on, they were waiting for Thornhill to do the same hits you over the head like a hammer. How true that must have been.

I could go on but I suggest instead you go and see it. Whilst I came out believing that this was a good play, the more it sat with me made me feel like it was a great one.

If you want to learn about Australian history, read Grenville's book or the excellent accounts in Bruce Elder's 'Blood on the Wattle'. If you want to experience Australian history, see this play.

And that pit of shame you feel for what happened and what might have been? Remember it.

Saturday 12 January 2013

SHORT & SWEET 2013 Week One dissected by me

Here we are back at 'Short & Sweet' and I'm reminded of all the best and worst things in these 10 minute plays in what is dubbed 'the biggest little play festival in the world'.

So let me quickly address the worst of it. To those plays that are so obvious that the onion has been peeled, lying exposed and wilted on the floor, no layers, no subtlety, no nuance, I say the following: thanks for knowing your lines, getting your cues right, for your commitment, your energy and bringing your family and friends to the theatre to support you. Good on you. Thanks for turning up and giving it a red hot go.

To the rest I say this:

Kerry Bowden's 'Handyman', directed by Stephen Wallace and performed by Emily Kivilcin showed the makings of something more. Just a little work on mastering the psychological shifts of the ending and this one will go off.

Mathivanan Rajendran's 'My Name is Cine-Ma', the Chennai, Mumbai and KL winner and performed by Pooja Balu, Venkatesh Harinathan and Ajay Ayyappan has great energy and passion. The trio of performers are certainly dynamic but I don't know whether it was originally performed in English but there is a lack of control in timing and delivery that affects its coherence so once they iron this out, it could also be a contender.

'G', Miranda Drake's piece, has an honesty and realness about it that makes you forgive its lack of sophistication, Robert Sharpe's 'Do Not Disturb' and Phillip Gallop's 'Team Building Activity' has some decent acting but the night's winner surely has to be 'The Fox and The Hunter' written by Simon Godfrey, directed by James Hartley and performed by Hartley and Tom Green. This was by far the most engaging and skilled piece on offer. Actors managed to tilt the audience's expectations many times throughout the play's allocated 10 minutes and I see a bright future for these young men.

Whilst a masterclass on timing, rhythm, subtext and belief might not go astray with many Short & Sweet pieces, it's when you as audience stumble upon the gold and its inclusivity for the performers and artists that makes this festival worthwhile. And never has an audience been stacked with so many people who want to love you or a stage crew who act with the speed and dexterity of a special ops team.

So pop along, cast your vote and pray there's a 'Fox and Hunter' piece there amongst the choices for you to thoroughly enjoy.

Monday 7 January 2013

SPORT FOR JOVE'S 'Shakespearean Duo' dissected by me

Just like days of old, it seems the only way to see Shakespeare is out in the elements and Sport for Jove have cornered the market in the art of the outdoor classics.

I headed out to Bella Vista Farm, braving the M4, a hastily packed picnic of New Year leftovers and a local swarm of European wasps to see two of Shakespeare's shipwreck plays, 'The Comedy of Errors' and 'The Tempest'.

When you first arrive and walk up the 'yellow brick road' to the first play's performance location, prepare to be greeted by the Duke of Ephesus himself, Christopher Tomkinson (and I do love a man in uniform), as he checks the crowd for potential spies and directs you to the safe haven of the grassy knoll to unpack the food for nature to devour. It's a lovely way to start, combined with a raffle for Shakespeare's Complete Works signed by the cast, and sets the scene to come.

First up was 'The Comedy of Errors' directed by Terry Karabelas. 'Comedy' is probably the easier of the plays for a general audience to engage in, given it's lighter and less problematic than the darker 'Tempest'. The use of the homestead and all its surrounds is a real highlight of 'Comedy'. I'm not sure how much was established and how much set designer Nick Catran built but it's a clever use of location by director Karabelas. It embellished scenes where confusion was ripe for comedy, quick entrances and exits and classic slapstick, making it all the more enjoyable for its audience.

There are some great performances from the entire cast and special mentions to the Antipholus', Scott Sheridan and Anthony Gooley, the Dromio's- George Banders and Aaron Tsindos, Amy Mathews as Adriana and a shout out to the lovely physical interpretation of her character Luciana, Eloise Winestock. It's what we've come to expect from Sport for Jove- a polished and professional interpretation.

'The Tempest' takes you away from your picnic blanket and uses processional theatre, moving us from the woolshed to the huge oak trees with the moon as a spectacular backdrop. Whilst director Matt Edgerton creates some beautiful images and moments, there is a sense the constant movement to locations slightly reduces the momentum of the play and the actors have to work hard to get us back into the performance. Thankfully the skill of actors Damien Ryan as Prospero, Lizzie Schebesta as Miranda and Yalin Ozucelik as Caliban deliver the goods.

The addition of original songs by actress Naomi Livingston as Ariel were a nice inclusion, although they didn't always hit the mark but her scenes with Ryan's Prospero were the magic that was missing in her other scenes, especially those that delved into a sexual tension between the two in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome relationship.

Another highlight is lighting designer Toby Knyvett for making sure that each outdoor location was lit to perfectly capture the atmosphere of each play and try doing that in an outdoors space. An outstanding achievement.

One of the smart choices Sport for Jove understand is how to best combine the experience of practitioners like Karabelas and Ryan and young talent like Edgerton to not only inject the fresh vision of an up and coming talent but to temper this with the steady hand of those at the top of their game.

These plays may not pack the punch of their 'Hamlet' or Jeffreys' 'The Libertine' but it is infinitely enjoyable and well worth the trip into the sticks to see them.

But make sure you pack the Aeroguard and a banana lounge.