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Thursday 28 March 2019

The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race @ Ensemble Theatre, dissected by me

Like I've experienced a few times in my short journalistic career, Ensemble Theatre's The Appleton Ladies' Potato Race is a show that I must review with a grain of salt. Weary of the fact I'm not female, nor from a regional area, a play that exclusively focuses on the female gaze and the gender politics of a small country town makes me something like the Bess Denyar of a real-life Upper Middle Bogan - high-paying job, bearded Aussie husband, and twin boys aside (last time I checked at least).

Luckily, even with that being the case, there's still a whole lot to enjoy in Ensemble's latest 90-minute spectacle.

The beauty of playwright Melanie Tait's script is its creation of characters that can resonate with the audience on both an individual and collective level, closing the gender, age and location-based gaps one could reasonably expect between a play of this nature and a lower North Shore demographic. For the older members of the audience, there's the dominant Bev Armstrong (Valerie Bader) and the submissive Barb Ling (Merridy Eastman), an odd couple-esque duo and the Appleton locals least willing to change the 30-year-old race. For the parents, there's Nikki Armstrong (Amber McMahon), the local longtime champion of the potato race and the mum who yells as the teenage Saturday sport referee, asks to speak to the manager, and probably has kids named Jaxxon and Keightlynn. Alongside the misunderstood and racially discriminated migrant Rania Hamid (Sapidah Kian), those born and raised in the city will find the main character Penny Anderson (Sharon Millerchip) a hit way too close to home in her highly progressive, highly educated, and at times highly annoying nature as she tries to provide equal prize money to the male and female winners of the potato race. Together, this quintet manage to draw on their differences to tell Tait's story exactly the way it was supposed to be told, with their ensemble work the show's biggest strength and a further credit to Priscilla Jackman's already well-known directorial skill.

On an individual level, the performances are a little more mixed. In a play that is intended to be both comedic and affirming of the strength of women, much of the latter is left to Eastman, Millerchip and Kian, who struggle to reconcile the demands of this with the comedy they also have to provide. Of these three, it is Eastman's character development, one of the play's most important, that is the most sudden (and therefore the least impactful); if we were given adequate time to reflect on this development like we are that of the other characters, whose moments of reflection bring about well-orchestrated pauses in comedic action, then the play's themes would resonate more strongly. Khan, even though taking on the play's smallest role, manages to have a strong stage presence, providing a unique perspective on the play's central themes that just avoids being cliché. Millerchip and McMahon - the former of which could be considered something of a white saviour; make of that what you will - hardly ever drop from the high bar they set themselves and deserve acclaim for their comedic performances, which includes a knockout dance routine in an 80s flashback scene. It must be said, though, that the real delight of the show is Bader. Don't ask me why, but there's something about watching old people interact with technology that never ceases to be funny. Yet, even when she's not talking about 'The Facebook', the clear attention she has paid to the character and innate understanding of how an individual deals with unprecedented social change makes her the unexpected pick of the cast.

Couple the existing merits of the performance with a banging Tegan Nicholls soundtrack (which, obviously, features Hot Potato) and an inventive Michael Scott-Mitchell set design (albeit only noticeable around the end of the play) and, as usual, I'm continually impressed with Ensemble's attention to detail.

Ultimately, even though there might be a development or two missing, the comedic strength of TALPR's team makes the show worth watching. It'll be interesting to see how this fares alongside Ensemble's immediate follow-up The Last Five Years, but in any case, Appleton should be the next stop on your theatrical road trip.

Sunday 24 March 2019

Once in Royal David's City @ New Theatre, dissected by Matt

Love it or hate it, Christmas is a time of great emotion. For many, it is a time of love, merriment and mirth. I myself love a good Christmas complete with ham and a big slice of pavlova. It was the use of Christmas, capitalising on that indescribable set of feelings that made Michael Gow’s Once in Royal David’s City by the New Theatre a real cracker.

The play follows the life of Will Drummond (Fernando Lopez), a young man of the theatre and unabashed Marxist. It follows snippets from an early childhood mishap at Bondi Beach to his self-described ‘German phase’. The primary focus, however, is on one particularly tumultuous Christmas, where Will is forced to confront his relationship with mortality and becoming a mature autonomous individual. It’s my belief that this could have been a very complicated play if Christmas was not used to ground the emotionality that came with Will’s personal upheaval. As you can tell from the title of the play, and the number of times I’ve referenced it in this review, Christmas was fundamentally woven into the fabric of this story. I’ll never forget the duality between the pure voice of a choir boy singing the traditional Christmas hymn ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ embodying the true warmth of Christmas and Will desperately slagging it off as being sung by the ‘toffee-nosed’ establishment during his time of crisis. In some ways, this version of a more traditional Christmas felt a little foreign despite having been written by an Australian playwright. However, I found it satisfyingly profound and without a doubt added that hauntingly beautiful element to it.

The play was generally well executed by Director Patrick Howard. Indeed, there were at a few moments in the play when you could genuinely hear a pin drop. My inclination, however, is that while the play had some really amazing moments, there were others where I was left feeling a little underwhelmed. I could feel the sense of awkwardness in enacting a very different experience of Christmas as both a very unhappy experience and having to utilise largely foreign elements to an Australian Christmas. This led to what felt like an occasional emotion translation issue. Lopez’s performance was very good; the rebellious and that coming-of-age aspects were well engaged with, however, I would have liked to have seen him saturate the role a little bit more in responding more engagingly (in Will’s own way) to the elements given from this more alien form of Christmas which is at the very heart of the play. The performance by Alice Livingstone as Jeannie, Will's mum, was excellent; I felt a genuine engagement with these themes.

This play offers true warmth and a sense of the kind of redemption that can symbolically be found around Christmas time, even if the protagonist isn’t willing to openly admit it. Often in plays I’m left unhappy by the way it eventually wraps up, but in this case, I was left feeling pretty satisfied. There was a reality and truth behind the development of Will come the end of the play that felt refreshingly authentic having still remained true to himself yet changed. I couldn’t help but be left a bit giddy from the very Brechtian ending which epitomised Will’s authentic self. Ultimately, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is difficult to find a play at the New Theatre that is hard to enjoy. I congratulate the director, cast and creative team on a strong execution of a fantastic play.

Enright on the Night @ Genesian Theatre, dissected by Marina

Almost 16 years after Nick Enright’s death, the Genesian Theatre pays a heartfelt tribute to their departed friend. Director Roger Gimblett’s Enright on the Night promises a fun, entertaining, somewhat nostalgic show that, at the very least, will have you leaving the theatre with the warm and fuzzies.

Enright on the Night is for long-time followers of the Genesian Theatre, the fans who would’ve heard the echoes of Enright’s name in Sydney’s theatre scene decades ago. His music, adapted by David Mitchell and Melvyn Morrow, is performed between original songs that celebrate Enright’s career and life with a genuine appreciation only amplified by both men’s personal connection to the late legend. The diverse range of music, from lonely ballad to a forceful salsa, appears daunting to the untrained eye: but choreographer Debbie Smith and musical director and pianist Dion Condack step up to the task, capturing the different emotional touches in each performance with lovely piano riffs and impressive ensemble dances. Lighting by Michael Schell amplifies the experience - his bold use of colour enchants you to the cast’s performances.

At its opening, you are promised a fun night with sing-alongs and party games - where the first act of the production begins to feel monotonous as it continues, the second act picks up and steps up in all aspects. The first hour can sometimes feel like you’re watching a documentary - a performer laying out facts of Enright’s childhood, then a musical interlude, then a description of Enright’s early career, then a musical interlude, rinse and repeat. However, where the second half picks up the slack is in Gimblett’s desire to share his love of Enright’s life and legacy with the audience, incorporating a gameshow-style segment that makes you guess the last line of one of Enright’s poems, and the promised sing-along to Peter Allen’s ‘I Still Call Australia Home’, made famous from its origin in Enright’s The Boy From Oz. During the sing-along, I link hands with the older couple next to me and, when the song’s chorus arrives, we wave our arms in sync - it’s at this moment, with a hundred others beside you, that you truly realise the magnitude of impact Enright’s legacy has.

Special guest Angela Ayers is dazzling and unforgettable on stage in her every appearance and solo performance. Cast member Rosanna Hurley’s performance is similarly authentic and captivating. Alongside Juliette Coates and Lana Domeney, the quartet’s performance constantly makes you laugh at their classic Australian lingo or fall into quiet contemplation during a piano ballad, feeling the exact emotions they want you to.

Ultimately, At the end of the night, you’ll leave the theatre with a true appreciation for Enright and the family that the Genesian Theatre has built deep in Sydney’s business sector.

Sunday 17 March 2019

The Realistic Joneses @ Limelight on Oxford, dissected by Matt

Like me, I am sure many of you have had the urge to pack up and move out to a non-descript town in America, bathing in the sumptuous American Dream. No? Your loss.

The image of the non-descript American town in middle-America pervades many imaginations, having been used in so many of the great American novels and plays of the 20th century. It shows the universality of our ingrained individual and societal problems. The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno follows the lives of two couples living next door (both incidentally named Jones) in their interactions and personal challenges. Jennifer Jones (Suzann James) is stoically taking care of her sick husband Bob (Jeff Houston), who is struck with a rare disease similar to Alzheimer’s. There is denial and genuine suffering as they live life day-by-day not knowing how soon Bob may succumb to the disease. They become friends with John Jones (David Jeffery) and Pony Jones (Jodine Muir) who are suffering from their own challenges of denial and lack of authenticity.

The Realistic Joneses is a recent attempt at recapturing this genre for the 21st century. Indeed, the play somewhat familiar in relation to popular 20th-century classics. However, it felt tangled, straddling genres that had the potential to work, but ultimately just didn’t work. To put it into perspective, it felt like a hybrid between Waiting for Godot and All My Sons - a combination that seems like it very well may work, but I’m afraid it just didn’t cut it for me. The conclusion seemed like a compromise between these two plays, offering both no satisfying resolution nor a flawed but meaningful end. All the characters were forever trapped in their lies and denial, but the play dressed it up as a non-issue, enviably leaving the confused and dissatisfied. If the elements ran deeper this may have been okay, however the perpetual superficiality destroys the chance for this to be meaningfully achieved for the characters or audience as you cannot draw blood from stone. If the playwright creates characters who display constant superficiality then inevitably this is going to rub off on the rest of the play, despite other possible intentions. 

Yet, there were elements in the play that did work. Whilst in one sense it felt like we had all gone through the looking glass, alternatively the play felt confrontingly familiar if one was raised in middle-class suburbia. Conversations have the propensity to lean towards the superficial, demonstrating an eternal paradigm of monotony. The play actively attacks the superficiality of the day-to-day but failed to restore meaning to these devoid lives, which I believe was by far the most dissatisfying element of the play.

Further, the execution by director Julie Baz is to be commended. I honestly felt that this play could very easily descend into the very problematic if it were not as well interpreted. Also, It was thankfully largely redeemed by the fantastic performances of the four cast members in combination with elements such as the excellently designed three-scene set. This made the important fundamental messages clearer and more accessible for the audience, helping in to draw some blood from stone.

Ultimately, the ideas behind The Realistic Joneses have a lot of potential, but the performance was only occasionally able to synthesise these into something tangible. Nonetheless, the execution by Baz, her design team, and the cast are commendable in their illumination of the play’s potentialities to its audience.

Thursday 14 March 2019

The Divorce Party @ the Old505, dissected by me

Talking to the Birkenstock-rocking Producer Jordy Shea after the opening night of this show, he told me that The Divorce Party is a listener. Something you really have to pay attention to in order to get the most out of it. That makes sense; I've lauded Liz Hobart's scriptwriting for that sort of quality before, and will continue to do so here. In my opinion, the show is quite a fitting end to the Old 505's FreshWorks season. The ensemble work, sound design, and direction is of an unusually high standard for a show of this level, making the play's 50-minute run time go by quickly when these elements are at their best. However, I will admit one does need to listen quite intently - the gift that is a 50-minute show is cursed by a plot that needs to flesh out its climactic points further in order to have a greater impact on the audience, especially when we have taken the effort to become invested in the story and its characters.

Akin to a grown-up, suburban Australian version of The Breakfast Club, we've got a mismatched group of people trying to figure out both how the hell they got where they were and why they're actually there. Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, the actor whose name strikes fear into baristas, Microsoft Word spellchecks, and ATO forms without enough blank spaces everywhere, takes on the role of Gene; the outsider of the quartet who stumbles into the divorce party bleeding from the back of his head. Ariadne Sgouros, who for the first time doesn't have the most unusual name in a group, plays Dora; the deceptively able-bodied postie for the local area who cracks the most jokes but is the most insecure. Meg Clarke, whose name has likely been stolen by the Betoota Advocate for an article about someone's fitspo Instagram or extended European holiday, is Annette; the only close family member of the divorced couple and a hairdresser who loves a bit of gossip. Finally, there's Alexander Stylianou as Frank; the divorce party's photographer and, to be frank, someone I couldn't think of a name-based joke for. Linked by the need to spend some time away from the divorce party, this team takes the audience from the underwhelming backyard environment they find themselves in into the realities behind the play's divorce, its effect on the town they live in, and the lives it has ruined both intentionally and incidentally.

Alexander Lee-Rekers' direction of their ensemble work manages to give Hobart's script the support it needs to be a good script. Thanks to his work, there's an instant chemistry on stage that is bolstered by Sgouros' performance; as the closest thing to an everywoman in the show, she establishes herself as a voice of humour (and later reason) amidst the chaos of Hobart's plot. Lee-Rekers allows the actors and audience alike feed off Sgouros' energy, strong comedic ability, and subtle displays of emotion with ease. This is best seen when she interacts with Clarke and Maftuh-Flynn, with Clarke's bitchy performance going from strength to strength at those points and Maftuh-Flynn giving more of himself to those moments than when he's on his lonesome. Stylianou, however, never really seems to find his niche in the play, the duality of his character having a similar effect on his performance, due to the contrived nature of his role and the random comedic lines/out-of-the-blue bombshells written for him. Even though he's on stage for quite a while, I feel we don't quite see or hear enough substance from him; the same goes for Maftuh-Flynn, who seems to be on stage because there's nowhere else for him to be. In the context of the plot this makes sense, but otherwise indicates a potential lack of opportunity in the short script.

That shortness, to me, is the play's biggest issue - disallowing Hobart, Shea, Lee-Rekers, and the rest of the team to tell the story they intended. If the play ran for a more conventional time, the male leads would have the bigger responsibilities they need to make a greater contribution to the show. Jokes about bankers and poodles wouldn't be as (slightly) overdone as they were. The numerous climaxes in the script would get the build-up they deserve, rather than be fitted in because otherwise there wouldn't be a cohesive story. Most importantly, the end of the play might make a bit more sense. With such a small timeframe (I mean, this is just under the length of a Narcos episode), and not knowing how especially important it was to listen, there is a lot that can fly over the heads of an audience that is used to (and subconsciously expects) shows that last for over an hour. Which, I would assume, is essentially all audiences.

Ultimately, given my previous ambivalence to FreshWorks shows, I can happily say that I am starting to enjoy the concept a bit more. There aren't many performances of The Divorce Party left, but if you think you're quite the professional in the field of listening, check this out and see what you think.

Every Brilliant Thing @ Belvoir St Theatre, dissected by me

This. After a week of making bail applications, reviewing case after case of niche contract law, getting home at midnight only to leave at 7am, and surviving almost exclusively on a diet of hastily-prepared ham sandwiches and under-nourishing ice coffees, this is exactly what I needed to see.

If what you're looking for is a sleek, high-brow, immense-production-value extravaganza akin to Mulvany's Mary Stuart, this isn't for you. What we have instead is the exact opposite: a down-to-earth, heartfelt, and above all else relatable story of the highs and lows of life as we know it. Mulvany, with the help of audience members she randomly selects before and during the show - though, to the best of my knowledge, no selecting of any critics :( - takes us on a journey through the life of her character, from dealing with their mother's depression as a child to the stresses of university, marriage, and beyond. The only constant force in their life is an ever-expanding list of self-proclaimed 'brilliant things', including but not limited to piglets, the colour yellow, sax solos (see: Careless Whispers), and every minute detail of Christopher Walken. As a means of dealing with the peaks and troughs of one's human experiences, this list (written in its entirety on loose scraps of paper contained in several storage boxes and wheeled on stage for the audience to sift through after the performance) takes centre stage both literally and metaphorically.

All aspects considered, it's a faultless production. Though the script gets a little cheesy at times, Mulvany demonstrates a control over both her character and the audience that keeps both forces equally engaged in each other's stories, with her outstanding pacing and comedic timing keeping things ticking along smoothly. Her ability to read the audience and work with the energy in the room is second-to-none, particularly as the people she consistently comes back to (who adopt roles such as her husband Sam, her father, and school psychologist) are eventually accepted simultaneously as characters in the story and regular audience members. There are so many ways this metatheatricality, so crucial to the performance, can go wrong - but it simply doesn't. That being said, you'd be perfectly within your rights to believe these are plants - everyone who has a line knows well in advance, and just manages to fit in to the show. Don't. Seeing the absolute fear in the eyes of someone in front of me who was asked to feature in the performance five minutes before it began, they were either brilliant actors or I am a terrible critic.

That also being said, please don't quote me as a terrible critic. I'd accept above-average. Or Indian.

Back to the performance, I must also commend the team for their addressing of mental health issues. Though it may come across as a bit underwhelming at times given the amount of humour in the show, for those that know what it's like to go through that I can imagine this being an accessible performance. It doesn't gloss over the issues, go too far into them, or make too many assumptions. Therefore, my utmost congratulations to Mulvany and Directors Kate Champion and Steve Rodgers for making this show, the brainchild of Englishmen Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe, even better than it already should be.

Ultimately, Every Brilliant Thing is another strong Belvoir show. No matter what your schedule's like, make time for this. You won't regret it.

P.S., If you're hoping to steal the spotlight for a small moment, here are my tips: Bring chocolate. Bring a book. Wear a striped shirt. Bring your old white balding friend. Sit in the front row. Go bald. Be good-looking, tall and white. Wear a striped shirt. Finally, study the nuances and intricacies of being a human portable piano stand. It's harder than you think.