Review: Debris (Red Line Productions)

redlineVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 24 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Sean Hawkins
Cast: Felix Jozeps, Megan McGlinchey

Theatre review
Two small children, isolated and severely neglected, completely unaware about how the rest of the world lives. Their normal is in fact horrific, but they are none the wiser. We bring innocent lives to be, and imagine that every baby is given love and care because the alternative is unfathomable and simply unbearable. Dennis Kelly’s Debris illustrates a truth that we know exist but rarely acknowledge. It exposes the ugliest of humanity, and amplifies their brutality by having them voiced by the very young, removing any possibility of moral justification on our part as viewers.

The script is highly evocative and poetic in its surreal, or perhaps fantastical approach, inspired by the minds of children, and their unbridled way of interpreting things that they encounter, but the production is a simple one, with emphasis on performance by two fine actors and not much else. Our own artistry is called upon to visualise a more vivid experience than what is actually presented on stage. Lighting has a tendency to be too obvious in its creative choices, but sound design by Tom Hogan is delicate, thoughtful and effective. Felix Jozeps and Megan McGlinchey play the forsaken children with an enormous energy that keeps the show fast paced and taut. Their roles are harrowing but ultimately straightforward, with insufficient complexity built into the performance that could deliver nuances beyond the predictable.

Debris is an intense and emotionally violent show that demands our attention, but has nothing unusual to say. It is an excellent platform for actors who wish to flex their dramatic muscles, and we are certainly entertained by the display of extraordinary passion, but for all the pain that we see unleashed, we feel little of it. The fact that there are children suffering is not news to anyone, but it is information that bears repeating. We can think about how to make lives better, but it is also true that we do not need to create more lives at all.

Review: We Are The Ghosts Of The Future (Blancmange Productions)

ghostsofthefutureVenue: The Rocks Discovery Museum (The Rocks NSW), Nov 12 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Noëlle Janaczewska, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning, Catherine Zimdahl
Director: Harriet Gillies
Cast: Ali Aitken, Darcy Brown, Emily Eskell, Alicia Gonzalez, Robbie King, Leofric Kingsford-Smith, Michael McStay, Celine Oudin, Laurence Rosier-Staines, Cody Ross, Eleni Schumacher, Eliza Scott, Donna Sizer, Pierce Wilcox
Image by Phyllis Photography

Theatre review
The event takes place in an 1835 warehouse. We wander from room to room in the 3 storey building, eavesdropping on the inhabitants of a boarding house. It is 1935, and in the privacy of their own spaces, we encounter their intimate divulgements and dark secrets. We Are The Ghosts Of The Future, transported 80 years back in time, to discover morsels of Australian life, but there are no indigenous characters in sight and we soon realise that this is yet another history lesson about the European experience of the land that we share.

Written by a group of seven, the scripts are diverse in style, each one brief but scintillating in its own way, with intriguing characters and scandalous revelations to hold our attention. A cross dressing policeman, a primitive abortion clinic, and an “idiot savant” ensure that the goings-on are kept spicy and exciting. We may not witness every segment in its entirety due to the unusual format of presentation, but Harriet Gillies’ direction is intuitive and energetic, with an excellent use of space that fascinates our senses. Hugh O’Connor’s production design and Alex Berlage’s lights are simple but highly effective in their creation of a mysteriously evocative atmosphere. The work is beautifully performed by a committed cast whose confident and idiosyncratic presences provide an engaging, often fascinating show.

It is now the twenty-first century. Telling stories of our past must no longer exclude the original inhabitants of Australia. Their invisibility in our historical memories is a problem that must be addressed, and productions like this are a perfect way to re-frame our self-image as a nation that will acknowledge and encompass the truths as understood by our Aboriginal counterparts. European histories are important in how we see ourselves, but there is a pressing need to react against the ethnic heterogeneity in our theatres, especially when dealing with issues of identity and history. For a brighter future, there is a need for our collective memories to derive from diverse cultures, not least of which are stories by the traditional owners of this land. The ghosts that haunt us should be given a voice, so that the wrongs of the past may begin to be exorcised, and our path forward can then be lived with greater dignity.

Review: Grey Gardens (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 12, 2015
Book: Doug Wright
Music: Scott Frankel
Lyrics: Michael Korie
Director: Jay James-Moody
Cast: Sienna Arnold, Caitlin Berry, Maggie Blinco, Kelly Callaghan, Beth Daly, Blake Erickson, Sian Fuller, Jenna Keenan, Simon McLachlan, Russell Newman, Timothy Springs
Images by Michael Francis

Theatre review
The legendary Edies made their way into public consciousness through the now classic Maysles documentary film of 1975, Grey Gardens. It was an instant hit, but unlike many documentaries that seem to lose relevance beyond the time of their emergence, this is a story that has captivated every subsequent generation. The last decade especially has been particularly illustrious for the mother-daughter pairing, with the Maysles releasing a second documentary about the same subjects on home video, along with a prominent feature film by HBO, and a Broadway musical paying tribute to the famous eccentrics.

The musical commences in the heyday of Grey Gardens, a time when glitzy parties at the East Hamptons property saw the rich and important mingle, and where social status was the greatest of currencies. It is soon revealed however, that all is not well in the Beale household. Big Edie has been abandoned by a philandering husband, and finds herself left with nothing but the mansion and a daughter desperate to be married off to a Kennedy. In Act Two, we return thirty-three years later to discover the two women in their famous dilapidation. We are bewildered by their spectacular descent from glory to squalor, and the failure of the Edies to explain the predicament only makes us more intrigued.

Their allure is beautifully encapsulated by the writing. Larger than life personalities, frightful circumstances, piercing humour and cruel social realities; all the best ingredients of the beloved documentary have made their way into the musical. There is an abundance of wit for endless amusement and enjoyable tunes that have us entranced, inspired by the stranger than fiction characters and their delightfully curious ways.

The songs are performed marvellously under Jay James-Moody’s direction. Every musical number is conceived with flair, creativity and nuance, utilising the cast’s considerable talents to great effect. Sequences between songs are less successfully realised, with chemistry between performers faltering in the absence of choreography and singing. The production suffers from an overall lack of precision and polish, but it is a show with spirit, buoyed by Beth Daly’s astonishing portrayal of middle-aged Little Edie. Breathtakingly accurate re-enactments of iconic film moments and a thorough understanding of her character’s traits, allow Daly to create a theatrical marvel that is deeply endearing and incredibly impressive. The effect her Little Edie has on us, is little different from what the real McCoy delivers in the original film. We are shocked, confused, saddened but powerfully moved by her extraordinary story. Maggie Blinco and Caitlin Berry play the other Edies (at different ages), both accomplished and compelling with their respective interpretations. Blake Erickson is memorable in the supporting role of George Gould Strong, providing a dramatic but subtly comical performance, accentuated by a remarkable singing voice that never fails to seize our attention.

The production is ambitious with its visual elements but does not quite hit the mark. Lighting design by the inventive Benjamin Brockman is heavily relied upon to depict time and spacial shifts in the presence of a domineering yet inflexible set. Costumes are charming when imitating the documentary’s looks, but they fall short at delivering the extravagant decadence necessary in Act One. On a brighter note, the show’s sound design by Jessica James-Moody and music direction by Hayden Barltrop are executed with great fervour and brilliant sensitivity. The aural landscape of the show is the chief element that takes us through every step of the plot, and it does so thoughtfully, with an effortless elegance.

What the Edies represent, is the notion of freedom, or more accurately the lack thereof. Grey Gardens insists that we consider how the women had arrived at their disappointing state of affairs, and through that discussion, to go on and think about issues of personal volition, kinship and the consequences of forsaken responsibilities. Big Edie’s father, husband and sons had all but discarded our protagonists, and what we encounter is the harsh truth of what remained. We wish that the Edies had been stronger and more resourceful, but the irrefutable fact is that they were deserted and destroyed. We all have a right to live the lives we dream, but we are also bound by the people who need us. We can simply walk away, but the price to pay can sometimes be too great.

Review: Dinkum Assorted (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 19, 2015
Playwright: Linda Aronson
Director: Sahn Millington
Cast: Debra Bryan, Melissa Burgess, Colleen Cook, Emily Crotti, Bodelle De Ronde, Alison Eaton, Sonya Kerr, Denise Kitching, Gemma Laffan, Amanda Laing, Cassady Maddox, Lois Marsh, Patricia McLoughlin, Hannah Raven Smith, Alizon Vosburgh
Photography © Bob Seary

Theatre review
It is wartime 1942, and the fictional Australian country town of Warrabadanga is left with only its womenfolk to fend for themselves. They find plenty to keep busy with, and thankfully, spend little time worrying about the ones who have gone to battle. They are a spectacularly confident group determined to make the most of their situation, and go about their business in fine form. Linda Aronson’s Dinkum Assorted is an idealistic portrait of our country women. Dynamic, fun-loving , resourceful and optimistic, their strengths encompass the best of humanity, and represent an excellent example of how communities should view themselves.

Although written in the late 1980’s, the script is a predictably old fashioned one that feels faithful to language and presentational styles of the time it depicts. It is nostalgic and quaint, with a sense of humour that would appeal to those who have a taste for more traditional types of theatre. Direction by Sahn Millington brings out the vibrant spirit of all its characters, but the show struggles to captivate. The players are raucous but rarely meaningful, unable to deliver nuance or authenticity to help us locate points of identification or emotional involvement.

There are however, smaller scenes that feature pairings of actors that work well to offer glimpses of poignancy. Amanda Laing and Hannah Raven play wannabe showgirls, whose friendship is portrayed with good chemistry, along with a purity that resonates endearingly. Bodelle de Ronde and Debra Bryan create memorable characters who connect in a scene about being outsiders, both thoughtful and sensitive in their approaches.

It is in hardship that the best in humanity shines through. War takes on a different form in the twenty-first century, but we must only face it with that same bravery and positive outlook. The women in Dinkum Assorted are undefeated because they are engrossed in life, and they shun thoughts of demise. They are constructive in their own town, while the ravages of destruction take hold overseas. It is this simple lesson that our real lives need today. The purpose of war is destruction, and we must respond with the most vibrant and spirited ways of living out our each and every day.

Review: I Am My Own Wife (Oriel Group / Red Line Productions)

orielVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 17 – Dec 5, 2015
Playwright: Doug Wright
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Ben Gerrard
Image by Rupert Reid

Theatre review
There is something unique about representing queer life on stage. Like many minority groups who have experienced persecution, LGBT stories need to create a legacy from hardship and struggles, so that injustices are prevented from recurring, and also for future generations to understand the histories from which they emerge. Unlike issues around ethnicity and religion that can have greater levels of visibility, LGBT identities have a tendency to be subsumed by a sense of normativity. The more gender and sexual diversity becomes accepted, the more it disappears from public discourse. A tension exists between the attainment of equality and the loss of nuances in individual differences.

Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife documents the controversial life of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a German museum curator and transgender celebrity, through the tumultuous years of the Third Reich and East Berlin. The play takes the form of a monologue, but does feature a multitude of minor characters, including the playwright himself. As von Mahlsdorf’s story unfolds, we are reminded of Wright’s presence as an interpretor of events, and correspondingly, the ambiguities between truth and fiction in the details being uncovered. The writing is full of charm and humour, with a plot that intrigues at every juncture. Vividly descriptive, we find ourselves immersed effortlessly in its slightly alien but seductive narrative.

Direction is provided by Shaun Rennie, whose outstanding use of space keeps our senses engaged and active, astutely controlling our perceptions of the show’s frequent contextual transformations, in terms of personalities, time and place. Excellent work on lighting by Hugh Hamilton and a subtle but highly effective set by Caroline Comino add greatly to the quality of unpredictability of the viewing experience. Nate Edmondson’s complex sound design is executed with impressive refinement and is noticeably adventurous with its concepts.

The play could however, benefit from a graver exploration into the darker aspects of von Mahlsdorf’s story. There seems a reluctance to portray her duplicitous nature with a stronger sinister edge, and we are kept somewhat distanced by that jovial artifice, perhaps just the way she would have wanted. Ben Gerrard is marvellous in the production. The speed and clarity at which he alters voice and physicality to depict all his different characters, whilst maintaining psychological accuracy and an air of authenticity through every change, is astounding, and very satisfying theatre. The actor exhibits wonderful commitment, along with an exquisite creativity that is remarkably intelligent and sensitive.

I Am My Own Wife entertains and fascinates. It is strangely lighthearted, given the brutalities that appear in the text. The production should hold more poignancy in its observations of war, Nazism and queerness, but as though borrowing from Charlotte von Mahlsdorf’s strength of character, unpleasant parts of the story are diminished with an unconscious ease. There certainly are lessons to be learned here, that may pertain to personal identity or to social concerns, but they require an investment of thought and attention. Alternatively, a very pleasant jaunt is offered by the show, with resonances that last until the inevitably enthusiastic curtain call. |

5 Questions with Caitlin Berry and Beth Daly

Caitlin Berry

Caitlin Berry

Beth Daly: What movie would Little Edie star in if she were around today?
Caitlin Berry: Edie would be the most sensuous Bond girl you’ve ever seen! She would also star in the opening credit song; lots of daring silhouettes.

Edie is very eccentric, what is your most eccentric quality?
She is indeed. Caitlin is not as eccentric, but I’d say I have the loudest laugh at a party and I like to count tiles when I’m in a bathroom. I also (stupidly) get superstitious around show time; no new shoes on the table, or saying “the Scottish play” backstage.

How did you create your younger version of Edie when there is no documented footage?
When Edie was filmed in the 1975 documentary, she was still very childlike and playful. I don’t think her youthful energy ever lessened. I can only imagine it was more intense when she was 24. I researched the era very well, and made sure I took note of the times Edie spoke about her younger years. Drew Barrymore also does a great interpretation of Little Edie in the HBO series, which I used as a reference too, when imagining my own Edie.

What draws you to Grey Gardens the musical?
This musical is so beautifully written. The music captures the era and the writing serves the women very well. It’s very special to be part of something that is based on real life events. Their story is stranger than fiction, and deserves to be told.

What’s your favourite thing about working with Beth?
Beth is a hoot. She is very warm and funny in rehearsals. We share the same dorky characteristics, and can both poke fun of ourselves with ease. My favourite thing about working with Beth is also that it’s never happened before! Beth and I have known each other for many years and had always hoped there would be a day we could share the stage!

Beth Daly

Beth Daly

Caitlin Berry: What bits of Beth can we see shine through Little Edie?
Beth Daly: My marching skills definitely – I was Physical Culture champion girl for 7 years running. Finally I get to use it! And I think I can be just as cute as Edie.

What clothing label would Edie pioneer in this era, and why?
No doubt recycled clothes re-invented. And she would have an absolutely fabulous line of capes for the staunch woman!

How do you get your head around playing two different characters? What helps you get into each one?
I love that each women is so physically and vocally different. So I walk around as each one saying a key phrase for each. For Edith: “Sing… me? Twist my arm, blackmail me, threaten my very life, and who knows? You might get a verse of something!” For Edie: “I’m extremely organised, I’ve got everything under control, kid.”

What would you say to Little Eddie, if you could?
Let’s put on a cabaret together!

Are these women tragic or heroic?
Both. I feel the depth of the tragedy of what could have been, but I revel in the power of these two women to stay true to themselves and make the best of what comes their way.

Caitlin Berry and Beth Daly are the two Edies in the Grey Gardens musical, by Squabbalogic.
Dates: 18 Nov – 12 Dec, 2015
Venue: Seymour Centre

Review: Dot Dot Dot (The Old 505 Theatre)

old505theatreVenue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Nov 10 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Drew Fairley
Director: Gareth Boylan
Cast: Matt Bell-King, Gerard Carroll, Lucy Miller, Natalie Venettacci

Theatre review
Dot Dot Dot involves a Victorian era prostitute getting high, a psychic medium speaking with ghosts, a serial killer on the loose, and a newspaperman with dubious intentions. The ingredients are certainly spicy, but the concoction is not always an easy one to digest. In its efforts to provide both entertainment and social commentary, the play struggles with its balancing act, and falls short on both counts. There are interesting characters and fascinating scenarios to be found, but for a show in the mystery/suspense/thriller genre, its plot struggles to deliver the tension and intrigue it sets out to achieve.

The cast of four is not sufficiently cohesive, but actors are individually accomplished. Lucy Miller is captivating as Babette, with a solid and seductive presence that helps sustain our attention. There is a quality of natural and sultry darkness in the actor’s approach that gives the production its eerie, Gothic flavour. Equally appealing is Matt Abel-King, whose portrayal of young men in the late 19th century provides a sense of accuracy to the time and space his characters inhabit. Abel-King is a charming performer, with a whimsical edge that enlivens the stage.

The play talks about democracy today, and the impact upon it by the disparity in power and wealth of our classes. Our media landscape is being sequestered slowly but surely, by a rich few, and their insidious control over the information we receive has unquestionably changed the way we perceive and live our lives. Political decisions are made through a semblance of democracy, but what we believe to be true, and therefore the way we exercise our voting rights and consumer decisions, are largely doctored by the powers that be. It is a grim situation we find ourselves today, and there seems no solution in sight, except for a healthy dose of cynicism, and prudent vigilance.