Review: A Little Night Music (Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble)

muse2Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Mar 25 – 28, 2015
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Alexander Andrews
Cast: Stuart Bryan, Emma Elsley, Owen Elsley, Harry Flitcroft, Louise Flynn, Sarah Gaul, Bronwyn Hicks, Christie New
Image by Wenray Wang

Theatre review
Desiree and Frederik are middle-aged but they are yet to find fulfilling relationships. Sondheim’s A Little Night Music is a very adult love story that contains more farce than it does romance, and speaks to a slightly jaded audience that understands the complexities and illusions of love. The text is an intelligent but mischievous one, offering interesting insight into the personal aspects of mature lives. The most popular song of Sondheim’s entire oeuvre, “Send In The Clowns” is a prominent feature that encapsulates the experience of longing and regret. The decision by MUSE (Sydney University Musical Theatre Ensemble) to stage the work is ambitious on many fronts, but the greatest challenge is for its very young team to convincingly portray the show’s main characters who are at least twice their age. The humour and pathos of the narrative, and its musical numbers, are heavily nuanced and demanding of any cast, but to expect those who have yet to taste all the flavours of life to interpret A Little Night Music with depth and poignancy is a very tall order indeed.

Director Alexander Andrews may not have the most seasoned performers at his disposal, but his flair for musical theatre is undeniable. Andrews is careful to keep the stage active with movement and surprise, so that we are visually engaged throughout the three hour production. Dramatic tension is not always present, and the piece often lacks exuberance, but sequences are paced quickly, with fresh events unfolding consistently to retain our attention. Stronger performers include Christie New, who creates a very funny Charlotte Malcolm, endearing us with sharp self-deprecation, and a knack for delivering powerful punchlines in both speech and song. Also memorable is Madame Armfeldt, the brilliantly zany matriarch presented by Sarah Gaul with gusto and flamboyance. Stuart Bryan cuts a fine figure as the show’s leading man, but his approach is too reserved, and his self-consciousness distracts from Frederik’s emotional journey. Quality of singing in the production is accomplished. Clare Richards’ powerful soprano is a standout, and Conrad Hamill’s work as Music Director, while being fairly rigid is delightfully detailed and precise.

Mr Sondheim’s work is quite literally second to none. He is an original and an undisputed genius, whose creations are ubiquitous and magnificent. Good productions of his body of work make for sublime nights of unparalleled theatrical pleasure, but lesser attempts can still be enjoyable by virtue of the sheer prowess of foundations already laid down years before. Musical theatre is rarely reinvented, and young practitioners of the genre subject themselves to emulating successes they had witnessed before. There is a sense of duplication that exists, whether effort is put into matching what had been great, or intentions are to supercede prior manifestations. It is a true conundrum, when one considers the true essence of art and the pursuit of all that is new.

www.museatusyd.com

Review: Idle Lies (Doll Parts)

dollparts1Venue: The Nag’s Head Hotel (Glebe NSW), Mar 23 – 29, 2015
Playwright: Erin Brookhouse, Jason Pizzarello, Adrian Yearwood
Director: Erin Brookhouse
Cast: Romy Bartz, Jack Marsden, Caspar Hardaker, Jaceline Marriott, Isaac Reefman

Theatre review
Erin Brookhouse’s Idle Lies is a multidisciplinary exploration of performance that attempts to redefine the experience of theatre. The venue is an old pub, and the action takes place in several conjoined rooms. A four-piece band is in a corner, providing jazzy versions of familiar pop and rock numbers. After every two or three songs, the cast appears to present a combination of dance and drama that relates to a vague narrative, of which we never really get to understand all too clearly. The show is not about story as much as it is about experimenting with the relationship between artist and audience, and about unpacking the complex meanings of space in life and in the theatre.

Stealing the show is Irene Nicola, the adorable chanteuse who leads the band with confident singing and a sensual touch on her keyboard. The women in the show are flamboyant and glamorous, but their male counterparts are less eloquent in expression. Brookhouse has an interesting vision to share, but not all moments bear enough conviction to persuade us of their artistry. Her use of movement is accomplished, but they are not executed with enough meaning or perhaps psychology in order for us to be more captivated.

Without the comfortable seats of an auditorium and the assurance of a predetermined stage, we are required to move around, using instinct, and common sense, to let the performers carry out their very physical sequences. The process is inconvenient and inelegant, but very kooky and quite charming. The production would look much more effective if a stage was built to those same spacial specifications, leaving us to observe outside of it, but that would miss the point. Before the cast’s each appearance, room lights flash as though forewarning poltergeist activity. The performers walk through us like spirits of the past, unaware of our presence. As we watch them go through their paces, it soon becomes clear that we had swapped places unknowingly, for it is the audience that watches in silence, like the creepy ghosts who hang around in rooms uninvited.

dollpartsproductions.wix.com

5 Questions with Melvyn Morrow

melvynmorrowWhat is your favourite swear word?
Tony Abbott.

What are you wearing?
Shorts and a polo.

What is love?
Tis not hereafter. Present mirth has present laughter. What’s to come is still unsure.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Big Funk. 3 stars, and 5 stars to Jess Loudon who has just joined our cast.

Is your new show going to be any good?
No. It’s going to be effing sensational on every front.
 
 
 
Melvyn Morrow’s Vice is set in a Catholic boys’ school, and tackles a highly controversial subject head on.
Show dates: 21 Apr – 9 May, 2015
Show venue: King Street Theatre

Review: The Seagull (Hurrah Hurrah / The Hot Blooded Theatre Co)

hotbloodedVenue: 140 George Street (The Rocks NSW), Mar 18 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (translated by Peter Carson)
Cast: Jade Alex, Maxine Appel-Cohen, Alison Bennett, Mitchell Bowker, Daniel Csutkai, Cecilia Morrow, Julian Pulvermacher, Milan Pulvermacher, Ross Scott, Anthony White
Image by Adam North

Theatre review
The narcissistic characters in Chekhov’s The Seagull talk about the things they want for themselves, and suffer endlessly for their self-centred desires. In this production devised by a cast of ten, acting is their chief interest, and each actor’s focus on their own realm is clear to see. Without a more conventional directorial appointment, and termed an “experiment in text”, the show is without a distinct sense of what it wishes to communicate, but rich with exploratory ideas from a performance perspectives. In light of this somewhat atypical context for a show, it is not surprising to discover several scenes that appear to be relatively self-indulgent, with insufficient effort put into connecting with the audience. Also, chemistry between actors is underdeveloped, as much of the work seems individually introspective.

There is talent to be found in the group and a good deal of conviction from every player, but some of the younger actors would benefit from paying closer attention to speech accents so that a more accurate sense of time and place can be achieved. The role of Konstantin is played by Daniel Csutkai who portrays innocence well, with a sense of repression that rings true, if slightly too subdued. Alison Bennett is delightful as the flamboyant Irina, providing the show with some much needed vibrancy and exuberance that keep energy levels up, but her more sombre qualities are less convincingly imagined. The young and naive Nina is powerfully realised by Jade Alex, who introduces a wide-eyed wonderment that gives the character believability, and makes her imminent demise all the more disquieting. Her crucial last scene, however, requires better gravity, as do the other cast members, who seem to lose stamina as the play progresses towards its dark conclusion.

It is always a joy to see actors working on their craft with great devotion. They put heart and mind into making magic happen, and it often does. Staging a show involves a lot more than the art of acting, and on this occasion, the missing elements are needed to support the choice of presenting the full narrative of The Seagull. Chekhov’s script discusses various viewpoints on the nature of theatre and its practice. Every society will have divergent opinions about the function and execution of artistic endeavours, but the mere presence of art is something to cherish.

www.hurrahhurrah.com.au | www.facebook.com/hotbloodedtheatreco

Review: When The Rain Stops Falling (New Theatre)


Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 17 – Apr 18, 2015
Playwright: Andrew Bovell
Director: Rachel Chant
Cast: Olivia Brown, Tom Conroy, Peter McAllum, Hailey McQueen, Renae Small, Helen Tonkin, David Woodland
Photography © Bob Seary (top gallery) / Benjamin Brockman (bottom gallery)

Theatre review
Upon entering the auditorium, the rumbling sounds of a tropical monsoon emanates from the stage to greet us. Without characters and narratives, we sit listening, surrendering to the voluntary effects that our physical selves cannot help but react with. Emotions surface, seemingly for no rhyme or reason. The art that we experience changes us, without letting us know how and why. A delicious melancholy, like a calm sadness, washes over. When the story begins, we are already hypnotised. Andrew Bovell’s When The Rain Stops Falling is a play about family ties and the challenges that can be passed on from one generation to the next. Personal anguish and relational discordance affect the development of children, and we see the inevitable inheritance of wounds that result from flawed parents and imperfect parenting. Bovell’s poetic use of language and his liberal approach to plot construction, make for an intriguing script that is dramatically unpredictable and achingly beautiful. Its outstanding storytelling connects with every person’s complex feelings about home, and appeals to our thirst for a brand of theatre that is deeply moving.

Direction of the piece is provided by Rachel Chant, who impresses with an extraordinarily deft hand at emotive expression. Our senses are captivated for the entire two-hour duration, by her sensitive and adventurous exploration of sound and sight, along with an inventive use of the cast’s physical and spiritual presence in the space, to create a quality of pathos that is intensely lyrical but never melodramatic. Chant succeeds in reaching us through atmospherics and narrative, enveloping us both consciously and unconsciously, so that our attention is steered carefully through every twist and turn of the play. Excellent work is achieved in establishing a singular vision through an evidently trusting collaboration with every actor and designer of the production, although one bizarre blemish does exist in the unexplained transformation of character Gabrielle’s speech accent, which goes from a broad Australian voice to an unmistakably British one with the passage of time.

The ensemble of seven is uniformly arresting, each with their own distinctive presentation styles, but all are able to find for the piece, an exacting cohesion in tone and pace. Tom Conroy is thoroughly convincing, giving a performance memorable for its heartbreaking vulnerability and almost unbelievable simplicity. Conroy’s pared-down approach is a refreshing one, filled with subtleties that reveal just enough, and also, everything. The stoic Elizabeth is played by Helen Tonkin who mesmerises in extended sequences of Butoh-esque silence, with unwavering concentration and a painful depiction of inner struggle and sorrow. Suffering is also portrayed brilliantly by Peter McAllum, whose moments of quiet authenticity turn a small role into a profoundly meaningful one.

Hailey McQueen’s naturalistic interpretation of her role is solid and elegant, but a decision to downplay a crucial scene of confrontation is questionable. Similarly, David Woodland’s performance is most compelling, but an opportunity to erupt with greater wildness is foregone perhaps unwisely. The play is rich with regret, despair and longing, qualities that tend to be dark and heavy, and even though its sombre beauty is unquestionably enthralling, a hint of brutality would provide a greater sense of theatricality, .

From a design perspective, the creative team is a formidable one. Tom Bannerman’s set carves out modern shapes that delineate spaces quietly but efficiently. Its hard lines and sparseness represent the chilling emptiness that is at the centre of much of the text, and ensures that the audience is affected accordingly. Lights by Benjamin Brockman provide spacial transformations and emotional cues, constantly evolving on stage to manufacture shifts in time and space, and to reflect fluctuating states of minds, and hearts. It is a rare occurrence to have the sound design of a non-musical theatre production steal the thunder, but Nate Edmondson and Alistair Wallace’s partnership is a clear triumph. Their work is original, surprising and experimental, but always effective and often powerful. It is omnipresent, but never distracting. There is an accuracy to the way the sound of When The Rain Stops Falling parallels, or perhaps determines, the stage action that makes the show inexorably involving and at many points, sublimely devastating.

There is a masochistic pleasure in witnessing the secrets of broken families unravel. We are relieved that our own private pains are shared, and we gain a sense of redemption from the realisation of that universality. At the theatre, we are never alone. With good plays, we can gain insight, and think of impending rainbows.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Fallout (Smoking Gum Theatre)

smokinggum1Venue: Exchange Hotel (Balmain NSW), Mar 18 – 27, 2015
Playwright: Lauren Pearce
Director: Finn Davis
Actors: Michele Conyngham, Ian Ferrington, Jim Fishwick, Louise Harding, Moreblessing Maturure, Patrick Trumper

Theatre review
It is admirably audacious that artists go out on a limb, almost as part of their job description, to experiment in public and to risk failure in spectacular style for all to see. The nature of theatre as a commercial experience requires that strict deadlines are to be adhered to, so that a show has to have at least a semblance of readiness on its advertised opening night. Smoking Gum Theatre’s Fallout needs, among other things, more time in its creative process. Lauren Pearce makes her debut with an apocalyptic script, ambitious with big ideas, but her characters are not sufficiently formed, and its structure is not yet settled.

Most things can be said to have room for improvement, especially in art where nothing is perfect, but Fallout is a distance away from being able to communicate its intentions. Direction by Finn Davis does not deviate from the writing, and he show signs of an adventurous spirit in the way he choreographs physical movement for the piece. Performances are apprehensively grounded. It is a very quiet approach that shows little inventiveness, but actors Moreblessing Maturure and Patrick Trumper demonstrate good focus and conviction. Design is a challenge in the makeshift venue, and the creative team’s efforts are evident especially Angela Toomey’s video projections, which add a touch of polish to the production.

Outside of our education institutions, young artists have to brave the same conditions as all other theatre practitioners. Any paying audience will have expectations, and it can be a cruel world for those who achieve less than desired. Fortunately, it is rarely a dramatic case of sink or swim, because the factor of time is crucial to all artistic practice. It is the body of work over the expanse of a career that matters, and it is longevity and tenacity of the last persons standing that will make an impact.

www.smokinggumtheatre.com

Review: The Big Funk (Suspicious Woman Productions)

suspiciouswomanVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 11 – 21, 2015
Playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Director: Michael Dean
Cast: Michael Drysdale, Jasper Garner-Gore, Alixandra Kupcik, Jess Loudon, Bali Padda

Theatre review
Philosophy and theatre are bosom buddies. Theatre means little without an attitude that is intent on questioning the nature of things, and philosophy becomes significantly more meaningful when brought to flesh beyond the realm of ink and paper. John Patrick Shanley’s The Big Funk looks at life with wonderment and passion. The writer’s words are powerful and his ideas are exciting, with an abstraction at its core that disallows narrative and simple logic from diluting its sophisticated concepts. The play positions itself outside of real life, examining it at a distance, always extricating itself when it becomes too involved in drama and emotions. There is a great deal of intellectualism to enjoy, but what a viewer can garner here, as is for every piece of complex work of art, depends largely on their own worldview and mental capacities.

Michael Dean’s direction adds a playful dimension to the piece, with an eagerness for creating a lively theatre that locates all the physical and interactive potentialities in Shanley’s writing, turning a cerebral text into an effervescent stage experience. Dean does well at introducing some elucidation to the often convoluted existential reflections of characters in The Big Funk, but much of their rumination remains out of reach. Original thought is rarely easy, and we should probably not expect to be able to absorb everything from a single encounter of a dense script, especially when presented at a jaunty pace. Nevertheless, moments of resonance occur throughout the production, and although inconsistent, they are often effective and poignant.

Performances are thoughtful and well-crafted, with excellent chemistry between all members of cast. Alixandra Kupcik is memorable for her vulnerability, and Jasper Garner-Gore for his exuberant and authentic presence, but both are to be lauded for their extremely confident approach to their prolonged sequences of nudity at Sydney’s most intimate venue. Annabel Blackman does solid work as designer, with a set that does very much with very little, and elegant costuming that helps with characterisations and storytelling. Lights and sound, however, do not contribute sufficiently to manufacturing ambience that would live up to the extravagant surrealism and absurdity of contexts being explored.

We live in a world filled with uncertainty and angst, but life is how we choose to interpret and understand it, and in The Big Funk, we are encouraged to reflect upon the way we think about our environment and how we interact with it. It is important that life has a sense of meaning, and Shanley is right in saying that each person should determine their own relationship with their own existence, without the burden of inheritance and baggage. There is a way to make rules and to establish codes from one’s own consciousness, to provide guidance for our days on this earth but it is the ambiguous and tricky hazard of the human conscience that we need to be mindful of.

www.suspiciouswomanproductions.com