Review: Sweeney Todd (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 20, 2014
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Libretto: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Giles Gartrell–Mills
Cast: Josh Anderson, Erin Bogart, Briony Burnes, Jamie Collette, Justin Cotta, Daisy Cousens, Courtney Glass, Michael Jones, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Lucy Miller, Carl Olsen, Joel Paszkowski, Steven Ritchie, Chelsea Taylor, Aimee Timmins, Simon Ward, Byron Watson
Photographs © Bob Seary

Theatre review
We all love a musical that has everything; humour, drama, talent, surprise and great music. All this is found in Giles Gartrell-Mills’ production of Sweeney Todd for the New Theatre, along with a good deal of ingenious low budget innovation, and a healthy dose of morbidity. It appears that Stephen Sondheim’s famous work can be staged without complex set designs and special effects, as long as gifted individuals are committed to presenting the best of their abilities, and an astute director is at the centre orchestrating an amalgamation that features all the strengths of each collaborator.

With Sweeney Todd, Gartrell-Mills shows that he is a man of excellent taste who has a brave approach to the theatrical arts. The emotions are big in his musical, as are the characters and their singing, but everything converges to tell a fascinating story that grips and entertains us, while making the many outrageous scenarios seem entirely believable. He has a wonderful team of seventeen performers at his disposal, and is careful to position each one in the most flattering light, so that the best singers can deliver breathtakingly powerful notes, and the strongest actors can impress with their delicious flair and intensity.

Justin Cotta plays the Demon Barber of Fleet Street with a grand and magnetic madness. The agility in his body and face, along with a professional awareness of how his character is perceived with every subtle shift in gesture and look, contribute to a performance that is precise, polished and very delightful. His voice is not perfectly suited to the material, but he sings it all with exuberance and accuracy. Similarly, Lucy Miller is not the best singer in the world for the role of Mrs Lovett, but the abundance of skills she displays, brings to life one of the stage’s most interesting and complex figures. Miller is charming, strong and instinctual. The several startling twists her character reveals are brilliantly performed, and her star quality shines brightly in the production. We cannot keep our eyes away from everything she presents, and she deserves every ovation awarded for her work in this production.

This review will not discuss every performer’s work but the entire support cast is truly fabulous. In the role of the Beggar Woman is Courtney Glass, who steals the show at each small appearance, with her sublime vocals and meticulous acting. Glass’ part is a smaller one, but she is flawless at every turn. Byron Watson does not have the right physicality for Judge Turpin but his voice is a highlight of the production. His deep and tremorous baritone brings an operatic sensibility to Sondheim’s music, and we lose ourselves in the beautiful baroque flavour of the compositions.

Liam Kemp’s achievement as musical director and pianist cannot be understated. He has condensed the score to an absolute minimum, with just himself, plus a violinist and a double bassist providing accompaniment for the whole show. The three-piece outfit pulls off an unbelievable feat, creating a soundscape that is dynamic, emotional and theatrical, culminating in a Bernard Herrmann inspired moment where Sweeney Todd meets Norman Bates, and the suspense becomes almost too much to bear. Also outstanding is the set design, comprised of three simple pieces in a hundred configurations, exposing Gartrell-Mills’ imagination to be wildly remarkable. His use of space is quite extraordinary, and one cannot resist imagining what he may be able to achieve with a more substantial design budget.

Musicals are best consumed sentimental, and Gartrell-Mills delivers this dark tale with a big emotional punch. Many of the characters are deplorable and nasty, yet we are seduced into connecting with them, and sometimes even identifying with them. They live in a world far removed from our realities, but we understand their desires and motivations, and we invest heavily into their stories of revenge and murder. We do not think of independent theatre as the best platform for the majestic, opulent musical, but on this occasion, David has emerged seemingly out of nowhere, to slash the throat of Goliath in awesome splendour.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Leaves (Théâtre Excentrique / Emu Productions)

theatreexcentriqueVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 18 – 29, 2014
Playwright: Steve McGrath
Director: Markus Weber
Cast: Martin Ashley Jones, Steve McGrath, Gerry Sont

Theatre review
Three men from privileged backgrounds are turning fifty, and they head out for a camping trip to commemorate the occasion. It seems that their mid-life crises have not subsided, and they struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in spite of having successful careers as a psycho therapist, a barrister, and a real estate agent. Steve McGrath’s script includes many interesting elements that keep the plot layered and unpredictable, with a peculiar sense of humour that gives it an air of whimsy. Some of the jokes are corny, and the overall structure of the play is slightly inelegant, but McGrath’s themes of time, mortality, and the quest for enlightenment are contextualised with enough creativity for Leaves to sustain interest.

Like one of the presenting companies’ names, direction of the work by Markus Weber is eccentric. The production is vibrant, often with a frenzied, almost childlike energy that translates passionately, but there is a general lack of focus that can make narrative details hard to follow. Visual design is adventurous and very colourful, but lighting cues tend to be haphazard and poorly timed (or the show might have been suffering from technical troubles on the night of review). The cast is committed, especially Gerry Sont in the role of Chas, the realtor, who drives the action with a blend of exuberance and frailty that characterises the dilemma being explored. Each actor possesses a degree of authenticity, and they manufacture a lively and noisy atmosphere, but their chemistry is not always convincing. They seem to understand their own parts well, but are detached from the others. Similarly, the play struggles to find coherence, although its philosophy does manage to come across surprisingly clear.

Growing older is no walk in the park for the men in Leaves, and perhaps for men everywhere. There is an interesting link between masculinity and the ageing process, where a shedding of exteriors becomes almost inevitable, and the exposure of weaknesses presents an unexpected challenge. Death for the fifty year-old is a conflicting concept, working as a reminder of the brevity of life, yet bringing to attention, the vulnerability of the body. The remaining years are short, but also long, and it is with a zestful maturity that one can navigate the autumn of life and turn it into days of wine and roses.

www.theatrexcentrique.com

5 Questions with Rika Hamaguchi‏

image002What is your favourite swear word?
Shit. I don’t like to swear much but that one would definitely be the most frequently used.

What are you wearing?
My rehearsal gear which consist of 3/4 pants and a tank top.

What is love?
Love is unclothed, pure and shameless.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
iOU Dance 3 at Carriageworks and I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
It will be my last so I hope to make it my best. You can be the judge of that though!

 

Rika Hamaguchi‏ is one of many dancers at Your Skin My Skin, NAISDA Dance College’s end of year performance.
Show dates: 10 – 13 Dec, 2014
Show venue: Carriageworks

Review: A Christmas Carol (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 8 – Dec 24, 2014
Playwrights: Benedict Hardie, Anne-Louise Sarks (after Charles Dickens)
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Kate Box, Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, Robert Menzies, Steve Rodgers, Miranda Tapsell, Ursula Yovich
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Religion provides salvation, and the most enduring stories touch us in a similar way. Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol does not include Christianity as a theme in its structure and composition, but the play uses Dickens’ tale of redemption to affect a spiritually uplifting experience for its audience. Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from darkness to joy is an inspiring one, and this new retelling of his tale keeps focus on providing a tender optimism against the familiar backdrop of the Christmas season. The production is child-friendly, with simple characterisations and narratives, all serving to drive the basic, but important, point of happiness.

Sarks’ direction is vibrant, emotional and poignant. There is a depth to her work that prevents the show from feeling like a children’s production, but she encourages us to observe with wide-eyed wonder, as pains are taken to create a dreamlike quality with the text’s supernatural elements and colourful personalities. There is a heavy dose of playful energy that contributes to the festive atmosphere in which we find ourselves immersed (complete with overwhelming volumes of confetti snow), and performances are sensitively tuned to bridge the gap between spectators young and old. Robert Menzies is perfect as Scrooge; the man looks almost to have been born to play the role. The clarity of his trajectories and the conviction he applies to his motivations give shape to the plot, allowing us to follow his compelling evolution with palpable empathy. The ensemble is a delight, with Steve Rodgers leaving an impression as the very warm Bob Cratchit, and Miranda Tapsell stealing our hearts as the lovable Tiny Tim. Ursula Yovich’s beautiful singing voice finds opportunity to shine in the carols that feature in several scene transitions, and her tears as Mrs Cratchit are equally exquisite.

Michael Hankin’s set design is cleverly conceived and efficiently executed, with trapdoors and an elevating platform maximising theatrical effect with little fuss. Lights by Benjamin Cisterne are lively and dynamic, adding visual panache to every sequence. Mood transformations are very successfully manufactured, not only by lighting design, but also with the use of Stefan Gregory’s sound and music, which are particularly powerful in moments of mystery and surprise. The show will be remembered for several outlandish costume pieces by Mel Page, but her more subtle work is also effective and should not be overlooked.

Scrooge’s story is well-known, but it bears repeating. Its central message needs reiteration, and Belvoir’s production this Christmas time is a fresh approach that manages to connect with audiences of all ages. We need to instill in Australia’s children, a culture of theatre attendance and art appreciation, and shows like A Christmas Carol are an excellent introduction. It is entertaining, creative and meaningful, and significantly, it leaves you satisfied yet wanting more.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Candy Royalle

candyroyalleWhat is your favourite swear word?
Cunt. But I don’t use it to swear. I use it for what its meant for – simply another name by which we call that part of a woman’s body. CUNT. You should say it right now – let it roll around in your mouth for a second. Nice and slow like. C U N T. See? It’s not that bad is it? In fact, it’s rather nice sounding…

What are you wearing?
Acid wash shorts, boy cut underwear in the colour of black, denim shirt (yes, I love double denim), black lace bra. Oh wait. Do you mean what labels am I wearing this season? Was that too much information?

What is love?
The essence of being human. Our single saving grace. It’s what separates us from the monsters we detest (those reflections we abhor). It’s the action of conscious beings. It is a radical act. It is my meaning of life.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Is This Thing On? at the Belvoir. 3/5 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
It’s going to be so good, that if you don’t like it, I’ll give you your money back (after costs).

Candy Royalle is appearing in Frida People, alongside Sloppy Joe and Betty Grumble.
Show dates: 20 Nov – 4 Dec, 2014
Show venue: Seymour Centre

5 Questions with Martin Portus

martinportusWhat is your favourite swear word?
Bum. My father used to say it, along with something else very odd – a load of old cock!

What are you wearing?
Black. Going to Melbourne for a few days to chair an ideas forum.

What is love?
Steadfastness, patience and laughter.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Switzerland, the terrific new thriller and ideas comedy from Australia’s Joanna Murray Smith, which will be an international hit and, I’m sure, a film. Four and a half stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Yes, we’ve perfected it now with two earlier seasons and it avoids those pitfalls of one person-shows. This eccentric Sydney writer Les Robinson really wants to reach his audience, and win their laughter and empathy for him and his times.

Martin Portus is starring in The Les Robinson Story, with Type Faster Productions.
Show dates: 18 – 29 Nov, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel

Review: Cyrano De Bergerac (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 11 – Dec 20, 2014
Playwright: Edmond Rostand (adapted by Andrew Upton)
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Alan Dukes, Gabriel Gilbert-Dey, George Kemp, Dale March, Josh McConville, Kenneth Moraleda, Eryn Jean Norvill, Yalin Ozucelik, Michael Pigott, Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan, Bruce Spence, Emily Tomlins, Aaron Tsindos, David Whitney, Julia Zemiro
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
A star is more than a celebrity. Richard Roxburgh is one of Australia’s greatest actors, the kind who seems to be able to turn everything he touches into gold. It is no wonder then, that Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is once again revived, with Roxburgh in the title role. Cyrano’s magical gift with words, coupled with his extraordinarily tenacious and passionate unrequited love for Roxane, provides a foundation for a performer to demonstrate his wealth of talents, and as director Andrew Upton puts it, “Richard’s wit, his erudition, his depth, his classical nous and – as he showed in Waiting For Godot last year – his capacity for clowning. They’re all on show here.”

Upton’s production for the 896-seat Sydney Theatre is ambitious in scale, but the show depends heavily on the efficacy of its singular, central character. Cyrano remains in focus for the entire duration, even in his brief moments off stage. That omnipresence requires of the actor a magnetism that captures our imagination, empathy and admiration, and Roxburgh’s powerful capacities as a star of the stage are brilliantly showcased here. His telling of the classic tale has an intellectual and emotional resonance that sheds new light on an old story, restoring a jaded love story back to the swooning masterpiece that befits its canonical status. Perfectly cast as the romantic figure with a rough exterior, Roxburgh is a leading man whose appeal lies with his talent, and whose allure is about ability rather than physicality. He is easily convincing as an ugly man, not because we ever think of him that way, but because his looks were never relevant to his acclaim. Roxburgh can play Cyrano, or the handsomest man in the world, and we would not question his validity.

The production’s comedy takes on many shades, from the very silly to the very dark, from the cerebral to the deeply ironic. Roxburgh’s versatility and sensitivity to the plot’s transfigurations guide us through an engrossing journey that retains a sense of humour even through pits of war and death. Upton’s adaptation and direction give Cyrano de Bergerac a radical update that reflects modern sensibilities. It insists that romance is still alive, but our relationship with it has evolved. The narrative is the same, but in order that the play’s original intentions may be uncovered, the story is told differently. Indeed, the show is overwhelmingly romantic. We love Cyrano, Roxane, and their tortured tale of mistaken identities, unrequited and lost love, but even more, we love Cyrano’s words. They cut through space and speak to our hearts, and we are moved the same way Roxane is moved. She attributes the letters and poetry to the vacuous Christian, but how we channel those wondrous evocations become entirely personal, and this is where connection happens. Upton does not shy from the grand sentimentality of the piece, but his work never feels schmaltzy. Great care is taken to steer emotions away from the cheap and inauthentic, and what we witness, although highly theatrical and dramatically intense, has a believability that associates closely with our personal experiences.

Playing Roxane is Eryn Jean Norvill, who injects an intelligent dignity to a part that can easily be interpreted dull and ornamental. Much is made of Roxane’s beauty and her many suitors, but her search for love is portrayed with an insistence for an intellectual equal. Norvill’s Roxane knows what she wants, and is determined to acquire it. Her work is quiet but solid, with a considered emphasis on the character’s earnest qualities. Her penultimate scene however, takes an unconvincing turn when she discovers her lover’s true identity much too suddenly. The scene works well in its pace and drama, but Roxane’s psychological transitions are quite implausible. Another character who goes through substantial transformations is the Comte de Guiche, performed with excellent aplomb by Josh McConville. The laughter he creates out of de Guiche’s vanity and haughty demeanour is a real joy, and his comic chemistry with members of cast is consistently impressive. McConville’s work in the final act is also remarkable, perhaps surprisingly so. After endearing us with consecutive scenes of flippancy, he returns a changed man at the end with a new gravity, quickly changing our attitude towards the Comte.

Alice Babidge’s set design provides levels and spaces within the very generous proscenium stage for Upton and his cast to tell a colourful and exciting story, but the creation of a first level catwalk around the perimeter is not visually resolved. The nondescript and generic dark grey areas are probably meant to disappear from sight but they are often jarring contrasts with Babidge’s own period costumes and set pieces on the lower level. It must be noted though, that costume design is beautifully and flamboyantly executed, with imaginative use of textures including leather, suede, velvet, brocade, feathers and lace, to create visions that are luxurious and vibrant. Also wonderful is Lauren A. Proietti’s wigs, worn by virtually all of the sixteen-strong cast. Her work is detailed, balanced and full of flair, giving an excellent polish to the presentation of each personality.

Classics are exhumed and rehashed more than often in Australia, but not always for good reason. They constitute a large portion of our main stage seasons, which in turn consigns new scripts to much smaller audiences, or never to be produced at all. New writers can tell new stories, and also old ones, but Andrew Upton proves with Cyrano de Bergerac that true masterpieces are rarely surpassed. Rostand’s play about broken hearts comes from a simple conceit, yet its access to our emotions is unequivocal. Many romances have traversed creative landscapes over the years, but Cyrano is uniquely moving. We all understand the feeling of inadequacy, and we have all experienced despondency. Many artists have attempted to capture those aspects of humanity, but it is the big nose that expresses things best.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au