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Monday 29 July 2013


On the front of the program is a quote from Theatre Australasia about this show. It calls the play "Surprisingly sensitive, realistic and humorous". I can't think of three words less likely to describe 'Relative Merits', showing at King St Theatre.

Written twenty years ago and reprised for an anniversary outing, Barry Lowe's 'Relative Merits', directed by Les Solomon, falls straight into the trap of overplaying every moment. It tries so hard that the play is engulfed by a melodramatic desperation to make sure the point of homophobia and HIV is hammered home.

I think Lowe's material already lends itself to ham acting 101. The script does have a way of telling you something that happened or about a relationship past and then has to act out that scene or deliver a monologue that goes over all of it again. What it needs is a good edit. Instead it draws out the confusion, the disappointment, the loss, the anger by overstating it in every scene.

Maybe the script wouldn't seem so bad had the directorial choices been more subtle. The choice to make younger brother Clay (James Wright) break in through the actual window of the foyer making more noise than a cat on heat, start to pick up everything on stage and give us his attitude towards each item, answer the phone with obvious antagonism and then make himself at home with a whole lot of face acting to boot meant that from the start, this is sledgehammer drama. Don't bother signposting. Take the sign and choke me with it.

Jeff Teale, as older brother Adam, had a little more to offer on stage but in some ways, his role at least called for more subtlety so he was probably let off Solomon's hook whereas Wright was cast into the ocean.

Nick Ferranti's design, complete with posters from 1985 of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and Back to the Future (OK- only four years off when the play was set but still smacked of trying too hard) was another example of offering no credit to your audience that we are smart enough to deal with the issue instead of 'painting the whole set in the shade of obvious'. But the set was at least functional and built out in the foyer. I will give the play credit that it used every corner of the area, although it did mean that watching the action or pre-recorded segments was difficult at times.

I'm not arguing that the content matter is irrelevant. I am saying that the art of presenting it was juvenile. I'm sure a number of people will appreciate that the minority voice is represented but perhaps invest in going to see Angels in America, showing right now at the Theatre Royal, and watch a sophisticated way of presenting the same idea at almost exactly the same time period.

'Relative Merits' has very little merit indeed. 

Friday 26 July 2013

OLD 505’s ‘THE TWELFTH DAWN’ dissected by me

This play had me intrigued from the start, when they rolled one of the cast members onto the stage on a lounge from the foyer. 

‘Now that’s an entrance’ I thought to myself. 

A little bit of stage business ensued, a bit of splashing in the bath and then a couple of monologues and suddenly, I wasn’t so sure that this was anything more than a trick or two contrived into a loose narrative. ‘Indulgent’ I mused. And then came the crack about Robin Williams’ bad films and I knew that although it was going to take me into the dark crevice of grief, it was keeping it real.

Kerri Glasscock, Michael Pigott and Gareth Boylan are the performers and devisers of ‘The Twelfth Dawn’, a physical movement piece that explores the loss of a baby and in that process, time. There were moments I really enjoyed this piece. The connection between our couple (Glasscock and Pigott) was strong and the choreography as they negotiate around these endless days of disconnection from reality was beautifully crafted. Add to this moments firmly grounded in reality and playing with the non-linear time frame of events and its repetition, ‘Twelfth Dawn’ is an infinitely watchable, risk-taking yet controlled piece of intelligent theatre.

I think there are still some things to work on with this piece. Boylan’s characters still feel like they are trying to find how to utilise the third member of the group within the performance and haven’t quite succeeded in placing him in the action. This was especially true as he entered in wig and dress- comic but not necessary. I did enjoy how they used the audience space in their performance and in fact, for a small and intimate stage, they managed to create a world in every corner.

Music was used effectively and the timing throughout was well-crafted and sustained, like a clock ticking away, relentless and unavoidable. It’s a small play that delivers more than you expect.

I know there are only a few more days to catch this one hour show but if you can, pop along to Old 505 and immerse yourself in a fairly strong piece of original theatre. 

Wednesday 24 July 2013

NEW THEATRE’S ‘TOP GIRLS’ dissected by me

Caryl Churchill’s ‘Top Girls’ is a strange read. Act One’s dinner party of female historical figures can feel contrived as it transitions, non-linear, into the life of our contemporary protagonist, Marlene. This weird bridge between our understanding of the modern woman who emerged in the late 1970’s/early 80’s and these early generations of feminist icons can read like it’s forcing the message- it’s a man’s world- just a little too hard.

So cue New Theatre and director Alice Livingstone’s production of ‘Top Girls’ and suddenly, it doesn’t feel alien at all. I get it. It’s clever. What a strong production this is of Churchill’s play. Women cannot have their cake and eat it too. Ain’t that the truth.

Look, maybe I’m simplifying things but I took my non-theatre going friend to this and she even called me the next day to express how much she enjoyed it, as did I, and I’m still getting over jetlag so this play could have really hurt at almost three hours long.

There are a number of things that make this play work on the stage.

Firstly, Livingstone has taken three semi-disparate sections; fantasy, office and family, and found a way to connect them seamlessly. I love the way they dabble in the absurdity but are delivered with such clarity and belief, until we’re completely immersed in the realism of the play at the end.

I loved the interplay of characters, jumping over each other’s lines, crafting every moment back to their own story or letting the tension rise as we hear the dramatic outcomes of each woman at the dinner party. There is sacrifice merged with self-centredness, the struggle of the female collective, how love is a test but women seem to be the only ones sitting the exam, how love can lead to disaster or you have to put up walls to never let it in. Livingstone is in control of this production and perhaps the use of Fiona Hallenan-Barker as dramaturg has been an excellent choice in helping craft this interpretation.

The second and probably the most significant reason for the production’s success is the cast. What a treat to be given the opportunity to watch an entire female cast who are also seven terrific performers. Julia Billington’s Marlene, standing out in red against this ‘natural world order’ was terrific. She made every intention and relationship feel believable. Bishanyia Vincent’s Lady Nijo captured the humour of this character and took a potentially indulgent comic role and made it natural, endearing  and real. Sarah Aubrey’s range of roles and vocal skills were a delight and Maeve MacGregor, Ainslie McGlynn, Claudia Barrie and Cheryl Ward each delivered great portrayals. Apart from some difficulty in understanding Barrie’s ‘Dull Gret’ monologue, which she more than made up for as Angie, this was a very strong ensemble.

Gina Rose Drew’s designs, particular in costume, served to show us this medieval natural order in the vines, greens and imposing stone walls that women are victims of, even now.  By then allowing Marlene to opt out of this world through her contrasting costume design and colour scheme, we see her fight to break tradition and all the obstacles in its path, some of her own making. We see the distance between the women in the space grow- a lovely use of stage proxemics in delivering this idea.

Sara Swersky’s lighting also plays with the mood of the play’s early scenes, intimate and shrouded in the shadows of the women who came before us contrasted to the ending’s stark, bright, unforgiving state of what perhaps we are doing to the next generation.

This is by far the strongest play I’ve seen at the New Theatre this year. Whether you’re looking to see a feminist piece or not, this is worth a viewing because above all, it’s a narrative that will engage you.

Friday 19 July 2013


Back from the wilds of Siberia, this week saw my return to the theatre to catch the premier of director Mark Kilmurry’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’. Tennessee Williams’ plays take me into the heart of the south and he places his characters in a present that pines for the past and despairs for its future. There’s something dreamlike that dances about his style, the expressionistic scaffolded set, the half lit stage, the abrupt ending to scenes, things half-formed that fade away to leave fragments of memory.

‘The Glass Menagerie’ is the first of his plays and in some ways, the most gentle and sad. We are told from the play’s narrator from the onset, “..I turn back time…it is sentimental, it is not realistic.” Yet amonsgt that, we are offered glimmers of hope that must fail, relationships that can reside only  in the glory of a deceptive past. This is the story of a family that begins and ends in this spot, at this time, under these conditions. A future can only be attained if you run away from the present and all you get there is a shadow of your past.  

Kilmurry found and played with the humour in the play I had previously overlooked, although I think the frustration and desperation of our characters got lost amongst some of those choices. This play felt safe and I guess after the success of ‘Frankenstein’ with Kilmurry’s risk-taking and evocative direction, ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is one to keep its subscriber base happy in its path-of-least-resistance interpretation.

The first half of the play felt a little undercooked, like a slow-cooker waiting to develop flavour. The play has an ethereal voice but sometimes the voice doesn’t seem to transfer out to its audience. It felt like it was on the wrong speed and acutely aware of itself. Partly this is the rhythm of the play slightly out of whack, which could be opening night nerves and will surely be remedied as the season continues. Mostly it’s because the intentions lack a convincing energy in the first half and therefore the stakes aren’t quite high enough for its audience to connect with either. For instance, I’m not convinced that Tom is completely frustrated by the trap he finds himself in or that Amanda is outraged by Laura’s truancy from typing classes. Both Tom Stokes (Tom) and Vanessa Downing (Amanda) took a while to warm into the play but by the second half, the simmering development of the play found its notes and was much more engaging. Partly this can be attributed to the strong acting of Catherine McGraffin (Laura) and Eric Beecroft (Jim). McGraffin managed to find the fragile vulnerability of Laura without overplaying it- a very hard ask. Beecroft also gave Jim the confidence of ambition and not the smarminess that can sometimes occur in Jim’s portrayal. Both were nicely understated. Stokes and Downing did find their moments in the play- Downing’s turn as Amanda’s southern belle at the dinner was hilariously grotesque and simultaneously sad and the ending, with Stokes giving Tom’s eulogy of regret was quite moving.

The set, designed by Lucilla Smith, and Nicholas Higgins’ lights had some nice elements to it-  the lit frame of the invisible father, the bricked up windows or walled-up memories and the use of the thin curtain scrim. To create the world of the play on this tiny stage was quite a feat and generally it worked well. The odd exit off-stage before coming back to the stairway was probably the most obvious example of trying too hard to differentiate space in Kilmurry's use of the design. It served little function and if anything, disjointed the action in the middle of scenes.

But overall, the play is a faithful rendition of Williams’ ‘The Glass Menagerie’. It’s the milk arrowroot amongst all the biscuits trying so hard to be stand out. ‘The Glass Menagerie’ was satisfyingly plain. There were times I wished for more flavour, that the play sat too comfortably in understating the dilemma of its situation, but I still feel like I got what I needed from Kilmurry’s interpretation and I think an audience will too.