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Sunday, 10 February 2013


This is my first Ensemble outing in years. Normally I avoid crossing the bridge unless it's an emergency or someone is paying me to enter the unchartered waters of the northern suburbs. I'm an inner west girl. I'm comfortable drinking my organic coffee from a recycled cup in a cafe where are all the seats are plastic milk crates. As for the Ensemble Theatre, if the demographic of the STC subscribers are retirement age, the audience of the Ensemble exceed that still. You might call them the parents of the STC patrons. So going to see anything at the Ensemble had fallen off my 'to do' list years ago. I remember being bored by poor man's slapstick comedy and dry kitchen sink dramas.

So can someone tell me when the Ensemble Theatre actually started producing work worth crossing the bridge for? Have I been missing out? If 'Great Falls' is anything to go by, it may be time to invest in a train ticket to Milson's Point on a regular basis because I certainly liked what I saw.

'Great Falls', written by Lee Blessing and directed by Anna Crawford was a pleasant surprise. The play revolves around two characters, 'Bitch' played by Erica Lovell and 'Monkey Man' Christopher Stollery. Sure, my first impression when you see those names is 'if you can't even give your characters names, what am I about to watch?' But the names are a key part of the relationship and perception these characters have of each other and themselves. Monkey Man is the ex-step-father of Bitch, who convinces her to take a road trip to try to rekindle an understanding of the trust and fatherly affection once felt and to find a way to reconcile and say goodbye. Of course, that's no easy task as Monkey Man struggles to express the breakdown of his marriage to his ex-wife and Bitch struggles to let him. Add in a tilt or two when suddenly Monkey Man gets what he wants in the most unexpected way and must now decide what he needs to do with this new found responsibility.

Stollery and Lovell are a strong duo. Whilst Stollery has been a class act on stage for years and I had no doubt I'd see good work from him (which I did), I was most impressed with Lovell. There was never a moment I didn't believe her and she had some very difficult material to unpack on stage. They both convinced me of their relationship, their flaws, their history and in their journey I felt for each of them.

Whilst I'm always going to prefer a play that doesn't need to dress itself up to convince me of how clever it is, of a narrative where the relationships are at the heart of the play and in that, we are subject to issues that resonate with a reality of our world, it is a play out of fashion with what we're seeing right now. 'Great Falls' is all of those things, told simply and with respect. Blessing's writing is at the core of Crawford's direction and the actors have been allowed to enter the characters from the words and not swing from a trapeze or fly across the stage to communicate that to us.

Michael Hankin's design allows for a versatily of location; two car seats that double up as motel beds, park benches, etc. Even nuance of who moves what and when is interesting, from the early days when Monkey Man is left with the labour to a joint action until Bitch is left in the driver's seat. It's a little thing, I know, but nice to see Hankin's set used to further explore this relationship through some clever directing.

Another shout out to lighting and AV designer, Verity Hampson and composer/sound designer Stephen Toulmin. I loved Hampson's visual representations of middle America's famous landmarks and the mood they provided on stage or even the contrast they supplied to the action and relationship of the characters, as enhanced by the soundtrack of Toulmin's. Even the wall can be lit in a way that makes you feel like you're looking at a map of the USA and the colours of muddy and red brown highlight the dusty road our characters travel. Given that 'Great Falls' is playing in rep with another show, it's a clever use of elements so as not to mark the stage for one narrative only.

So may I be so bold to suggest that those who have avoided the Ensemble might want to revisit that idea. I think you'll like what you see. And to all those school students who bash the 'Bombshells' play to death for the opportunity to sport a wedding dress and panic at the ceremony for your HSC monologue, may I point out that the Ensemble is bringing the play back to the stage in March so maybe this will be a good time to go.

For everyone else, maybe it's 'Great Falls' that will get you there and without a harness in sight.


  1. My suspicion is that the Mark Kilmurry era has seen the Ensemble back to doing relevant interesting work again.

    Also, unlike the STC that has an aging demographic but has a management that is determined to be "young and exciting" (honestly, it's like Andrew Upton is going through a midlife crisis), the Ensemble knows the traditional virtues. Which, dare I say it, seems to be up your alley. Yes, it could be that the great and glorious Play-Shitter may have got old enough to like the Ensemble.

    1. God bless middle-age.

      Does theatre ignore the 30-60 age category? Is there a movement to try to entice us back?

      I will be attending all shows from now on with my butterscotch lollies and unwrapping them every time I get bored, just to make a point.

  2. Other things to remember about the older demographic are: they are broader-minded than many younger people, Y gens having been brainwashed from birth in conservatism and neo-liberalism; they have little entertainment directed at them beyond the execrable murder shows on TV; they have the wages/super to pay the high price of tickets.

  3. VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE, MARY STUART, RED, SKYLIGHT, CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION, BECKY SHAW, HAMLET, WARNING EXPLICIT MATERIAL, THE ACT ... GREAT FALLS, upcoming LIBERTY EQUALITY FRATERNITY... are just some of the great productions on at the Ensemble. Joint artistic directors Sandra Bates & Mark Kilmurry, associate director Anna Crawford...great variety of plays, and with David Williamson, Neil simon and other social comedies - keeps the Ensemble well-balanced and viable, exciting and ... entertaining. Best kept secret your side of the bridge.

  4. Yes, Ensemble has done some fantastic shows in the past couple of years and has been unfairly maligned at times by the main press critics. 'Red' last year was superb. We should also remember that this company receives no government subsidies, but has continued to draw huge audiences for decades. Given the small size of their actual theatre - around 280 seats and that they continue to run and pay proper professional rates to actors, directors and writers, shows they are definitely doing something right. They have no choice but to have a program balancing of mainstream commercial plays alongside more cutting edge productions. I'm really looking forward to their production of Frankenstein coming up in March at the Opera House.
    Congrats Jane(SOYP)for your refreshingly honest reviews of the Sydney theatre scene.

  5. Great Falls - Its excellent. One of the best the Ensemble have done. Brilliantly acted and definitely should not be missed by those who love theatre.