Review: Belle Of The Cross (Harlos Productions / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

sitco2Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 18 – 29, 2014
Playwright: Angelika Fremd
Director: David Ritchie
Cast: Gertraud Ingeborg, Colleen Cook
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
Sydney’s Kings Cross is completely unique. Always controversial, vibrant and newsworthy, the area is a tiny geographical spot, but its infamy reaches far and wide. Residents of the precinct range from the very wealthy to the impoverished, including the homeless who often gravitate towards its parks and colourful alleyways. Angelika Fremd’s Belle Of The Cross is not biographical, but Belle is a composite, created from Fremd’s observations of “streeties” in the neighbourhood during her eight years at the Cross. The play is poetic, atmospheric and emotional, with only a light narrative thread holding scenes together. The writer depicts the extraordinary community with affection and dignity, rejecting contexts of mental illness that might cause a reductive reading of her subject matter.

Direction of the work by David Ritchie is sensitive to the considerations of the script, and he builds a sense of grace into the production, but its unrelenting gentleness prevents sufficient dramatic tension from taking hold. Scene changes tend to be overly subtle, with indistinct shifts in time and mood. Gertraud Ingeborg’s performance in the title role personifies warmth and sincerity. Her focus is impressive, and even though the stillness in her presence gives weight to the show, a lack of tonal variation results in a character that does not seem to develop adequately. Belle is an interesting personality that we have a lot of curiosity about, but the play needs to provide more insight to satisfy our desire to know her.

We all have times of loneliness, but Belle’s struggle is to do with isolation and aloneness. Although she is quite content with her own company, we must question our capacity and willingness as neighbours and community to furnish an environment that is safe and nourishing. Homelessness is a complex issue, one that crosses paths with a society’s stance on human rights and its economic ideologies. Belle Of The Cross gives a voice to the often seen but rarely heard, and is therefore essential and important, if we believe ourselves to be civilised.

www.sitco.net.au

Review: The Les Robinson Story (Type Faster Productions / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

sitco1Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Nov 18 – 29, 2014
Playwright: Kieran Carroll
Director: Ron Hadley
Cast: Martin Portus, Matt Thomson
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
When a person commits their life to the arts, it is often a conscious decision to go against many societal expectations, and therefore, to become resolutely anti-conformist. Many struggle to make ends meet, and few achieve great critical success, yet there are those who persist through hardship, believing that it is their devotion to their art that provides the greatest meaning. Les Robinson was a Sydney writer who had had only one book published, The Giraffe’s Uncle, in 1933. Between the 1920s and 1960s, the eccentric figure lived a one-man bohemia in shacks and caves around the Sydney harbour, listening to records, fishing and of course, writing.

Kieran Carroll’s lovingly crafted play immortalises a forgotten soul, one whose stories provide us with insight into an unusual life, and a fresh perspective of the city that we love. Carroll’s work is deeply melancholic, but it is also wonderfully inspiring. We hear about iconic artists everyday, but to learn about one of the others, is unexpectedly comforting. The Les Robinson Story could easily be a depressing one, but Ron Hadley’s direction takes care to serve up the joy with the sorrow, always leading us to the light at the end of each dark tunnel. The depiction of time’s passage however, could be made clearer, in order for us to gain a more detailed impression of the character’s evolution.

Martin Portus is not a neglected writer living under a bridge, but the actor certainly makes us believe that he and Robinson are one and the same. The level of authenticity he achieves is the great beauty of this staging. Portus’ presence is strong and sturdy, and his eagerness to share this buried tale is quite moving. As with all great storytellers, we often find ourselves suspended in time with the performer, losing awareness of before and after, completely captivated by right now.

The Les Robinson Story might be about disappointments, loss and regret, but it will be remembered for the man’s spiritedness and his tenacity at living a life of truth and honesty. Robinson never pretended to be anything but his genuine self, and that alone trumps everything else.

www.sitco.net.au

Review: River (The Old 505 Theatre)

old505Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 18 – 23, 2014
Playwright: Claire Lovering
Cast: Claire Lovering
Workshopping and Dramaturgy: Sarah Giles
Image by Gez Xavier Mansfield

Theatre review
River is a monologue about an unassuming woman. Her life is ordinary and her stories are pedestrian, but the poignancy of Claire Lovering’s work as writer and performer, forces us to look past the subject’s plainness, and relate to River as one human being should another, with empathy and a sense of generosity. Lovering’s gentle approach means that the show’s themes are kept vague, allowing the audience to find meaning however it chooses. Her truthful revelations find resonance, even though her experiences are highly idiosyncratic. We understand and identify with the humanity that is put on display, and Lovering’s thorough exploration into her character’s quirks and desires results in something individualistic finding a universality in the theatrical space.

Performance of the work is confident and very compelling. Lovering’s will to connect with the audience ensures that all the text’s nuances are delivered with clarity, and that we always feel close to the character. There is a warm openness to the actor’s presence that sustains our attention, and we find ourselves interested in every minute detail that River is keen to share. Lovering’s talent is clear to see, but the work sits a little too comfortably within her range of abilities. Finding greater challenges for the actor would provide a unique tension that only live theatre can offer.

The very subtle work by composer and sound designer Nate Edmondson and lighting designer Benjamin Brockman might be easy to overlook, but their efficacy at controlling ambience is quite perfect. Within the understated aesthetic requirements of the production, they have found creative space to demonstrate innovation and sensitive flair.

Loneliness is a strange creature. It torments, but it is also the instigator of change, and success. River travels through life with no great plan or destination, but she stops to smell all the roses, and welcomes the gifts that she stumbles upon. The cosmos does not adhere to any individual’s demands, but it holds great promise for anyone who is willing to receive its riches.

www.venue505.com/theatre

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