Review: 1984 The Musical (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jan 8 – 25, 2020
Book and Lyrics: Tom Davidson McLeod, Diana Reid (based on the novel by George Orwell)
Music: Riley McCullagh
Directors: Tom Davidson McLeod, Georgia Vella
Cast: Christie Auchamp, Jordan Barnes, Vevie Brook, Tom Davidson McLeod, Alex Gonzalez, Charlie Hollands, Jude Horsburgh, Elizabeth Jones, Joshua Karras, Jessica Loeb, Joshua Macqueen, Anna Della Marta, Ezara Norton, Emilie Ritchie, Sophie Roderick, Coco Veksner-Shaw, Olivia Siegloff, Georgia Vella, Olivia Wolff
Images by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
Turning George Orwell’s 1984 into a musical comedy, is more than a novel idea. The exasperation of experiencing, in the current political climate, a totalitarian dystopia so close to Orwell’s predictions, is indeed worthy of satire. With book and lyrics by Tom Davidson McLeod and Diana Reid, this farcical revisit to Orwell’s familiar text, is an appropriately sarcastic affair, as we witness imaginary scenarios from 7 decades ago come to pass, both here and overseas.

Music by Riley McCullagh provides consistency to McLeod and Reid’s humour, which ranges from clever to puerile. Although a raw work, 1984 The Musical is energetic and inventive on many fronts, with direction by McLeod and Georgia Vella contributing a valuable exuberance to the staging.

Performer Charlie Hollands is a likeable Winston Smith, able to balance tragedy and comedy in his interpretation of the everyman under tremendous stress. His love interest Julia is played by Anna Della Marta, who impresses with a sonorous voice. The memorable Joshua Mcqueen demonstrates considerable comedy chops as the antagonist O’Brien, although his singing does leave a lot to be desired. The role of Charrington is taken on by director Vella, who proves herself equally accomplished on stage, delivering many laughs as the unscrupulous undercover agent.

Sometimes all you can do is laugh, and it does feel as though we have arrived at a point in our evolution, where we can only respond to the state of things with incredulity. There is an idealism in Orwell’s writing that represents a spirit of resistance against what he knew was to come, but it may seem today that most of us have submitted to the tyranny not only of governments but of corporations, that conspire to exploit and subjugate all of us. We have become accustomed to constant surveillance, and are no longer fearful of our desires being manipulated by nefarious interests. Increasingly, we learn to sleep with the enemy, to accept catastrophe as the new normal, and understand reality to be disappointing and irredeemable. In 2020, Orwell’s 1984 no longer reads like a precautionary tale, but a documentation of the beginning of our extinction.

www.1984musical.com/

Review: Six (Sydney Opera House)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Jan 4 – Mar 5, 2020
Creators: Toby Marlow, Lucy Moss
Directors: Jamie Armitage, Lucy Moss
Cast: Kiana Daniele, Kala Gare, Loren Hunter, Vidya Makan, Courtney Monsma, Chloé Zuel
Images by James D. Morgan
Theatre review
King Henry VIII of England is famous for having had six wives, and each of those women are in turn remembered only for her short reign as queen, having to share that position with many others. To tell the story of quick successions between the years 1509 and 1547, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss create a work of musical theatre, by having the queens form a pop group in the tradition of the Spice Girls; each member bears a distinct personality type, but are collectively a cohesive whole. The show takes the form of a pop concert, comprising solo numbers during which each individual provides an account of her instalment in the narrative arc, and two group songs bookending those episodes.

Cleverly conceived, but insufficiently witty, Six feels to be squarely targeting a teenage crowd, complete with a multitude of bleeped out expletives. Composition and arrangement of music is undoubtedly joyful, and completely scintillating, and like most pop concerts, Six relies on a connection of instincts, rather than appealing to our analytical capacities. At just 75 minutes, many stones are left unturned, but the show is probably satisfying enough for those seeking light entertainment without a lot of nuance and complexity.

The six Australian performers present an imaginary girl group so dynamic and technically proficient, one can hardly recall ever seeing the real thing anywhere near this level of expertise. Kiana Daniele and Chloé Zuel are sassiest of the bunch, with presences so strong, one often wishes that the staging focuses only on their two characters, Cleves and Aragon. Funny ladies Kala Gare and Courtney Monsma bring on the laughs, as Boleyn and Howard, both with splendid timing offering a sense of much needed theatricality to proceedings. Big sentimental ballads are sung by Loren Hunter and Vidya Makan, memorable for knocking our socks off with some truly remarkable vocal acrobatics.

Six tries to offer an opportunity for the queens to reclaim power, even if they seem destined to remain in their king’s shadow. It is now the dawn of 2020, and the Duchess of Sussex has announced intention to “step back” from responsibilities as a senior royal. This comes after persistent abuse by the English press since announcement of her ascendance in 2017. It can be interpreted that Meghan Markle is in fact taking charge of her personal destiny in the most daring and radical way. We have all operated within systems not of our own choosing, but few of us have been willing to cut our losses, and go where our integrity tells us. For women, this is the difference between yesterday and today. It might be true that we continue to find ourselves inadvertently falling into situations that we recognise to be unjust, but for many of us, to disengage is now a realistic option.

www.sixthemusical.com | www.sydneyoperahouse.com

Review: Lady Tabouli (National Theatre of Parramatta)

Venue: Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Jan 9 – 18, 2020
Playwright: James Elazzi
Director: Dino Dimitriadis
Cast: Nisrine Amine, Deborah Galanos, Antony Makhlouf, Johnny Nasser
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Danny is compliant and cheerful, as he lends a hand to his sister Josephine, who is causing a frenzy at home, preparing for her son’s christening. They are modern day Lebanese-Australians, very much a part of mainstream contemporary life, but not without their own traditions, as is common amongst minority groups. In James Elazzi’s Lady Tabouli, we celebrate the uniqueness of that cultural heritage, but together with everything good that contributes to the diverse tapestry defining our experience of identity on this land, comes a regressiveness determined to oppress the same people who wish to preserve those values.

As the hour draws close for the big event, in the midst of a lot of spirited hullabaloo, Danny decides to come out of the closet. The incongruity of sensibilities in Lady Tabouli, of a man revealing his true self whilst his family attempts to enact the most symbolic of ceremonies, forces us to acknowledge the complexities of our multiculturalism, especially in terms of LGBTQI issues, and how Australia must look beyond legislation to address the prejudice inherent in so much of our cultural practice. Gayness may no longer be illegal, but in so much of Australian society, gay people continue to be shunned.

Elazzi’s writing is powerful and passionate. Its incisive honesty provides an urgency that grips us, having us invested in the family’s story, regardless of where we stand in relation to its arguments. An abrupt conclusion however, suggests that more could be explored, even if we do appreciate the ambiguity pertaining to Danny’s subsequent developments. Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, the work is mesmerising when emotions run high. Early scenes are appropriately manic, but its humour never really takes flight. When things turn serious is when the magic happens. There is a depth to the way its characters and narrative are presented that absolutely captivates, alongside a sorrow that sings with disarming authenticity, of rejection and of loss.

That melancholy is exhaustively manufactured by the formidable partnership of Benjamin Brockman’s lights and Ben Pierpoint’s sounds, both elements hellbent on having our emotions respond with intense empathy. The show begins in the kitchen, depicted by production designer Jonathan Hindmarsh with middle class respectability, prosperous but ordinary, that transforms into the proverbial good room, where a more idiosyncratic notion of selfhood can be expressed.

Actor Antony Makhlouf is a compelling Danny, accurate in his portrayal of frustrated despondency, for a young man caught between two worlds. His mother is played by Deborah Galanos, a big presence bringing resonance to themes of piety and control, in a story about emancipation and freedom. Josephine the overbearing sister, is made scintillating by an exuberant Nisrine Amine, and Johnny Nasser is wonderfully nuanced in dual roles, adding intriguing texture to the show.

We have always tried to exercise control over nature, whether using commerce as a form of logic to plunder earthly resources, or to obliterate the most beautiful of human connections in the name of religion. We constantly position ourselves above, interpreting our variety of intelligence as solution for what we deem to be chaos in the world. More than ever before, we can see clearly that rather than being able to achieve order, what we do best is destruction. In pessimistic times, it is hard to talk about growth and progress, but our capacity for evil becomes painfully comprehensible.

www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP

Review: Black Ties (Ilbijerri Theatre Company / Te Rēhia Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Town Hall (Sydney NSW), Jan 10 – 18, 2020
Playwright: John Harvey, Tainui Tukiwaho
Director: Rachael Maza, Tainui Tukiwaho
Cast: Brendan Boney, Jack Charles, Mark Coles Smith, Mayella Dewis, Lana Garland, Laughton Kora, Tawhirangi Macpherson, Lisa Maza, Tuakoi Ohia, Brady Peeti, Tainui Tukiwaho, Dalara Williams, Dion Williams
Images by Luke Currie-Richardson

Theatre review
Love is in the air, but Hera is a Māori woman and Kane an Aboriginal man, each with strong connections to their respective families and lands. When the pair decide to marry, the place at which they choose to settle down, becomes a matter of serious contention for all their kin. As colonised peoples, Hera and Kane’s relations take with utmost seriousness, the manner in which their roots are to be planted. Each group is determined to maintain its own bloodline, and from the many conflicts that soon arise, it would appear that love may not conquer all so easily.

Black Ties by John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho tackles meaningful subjects, but does so with glorious humour. The play is endlessly amusing, impressive in its ability to balance serious with silly, for an experience that is at once poignant and hilarious. Directed by Rachel Maza and Tukiwaho, the production has a tendency to feel somewhat haphazard, but the enormity of its ambition is truly remarkable. Jacob Nash’s set design is a huge undertaking that thrills us with its capacity to surprise, effectively assisted by James Henry’s video projections that move us quickly between New Zealand and Melbourne. Live music by Brendon Boney, Mayella Dewis and Laughton Kora is consistently delightful, and a real highlight of the presentation.

Performers Mark Coles Smith and Tuakoi Ohia are the adoring couple, both very likeable, and appropriately wholesome in their depiction of the young innocents. Scene stealers include Jack Charles and Brady Peeti, who bring exquisite timing and captivating presences to this staging. Lana Garland and Lisa Maza play maternal roles, each one as strong and commanding as the other. Playwright and director Tukiwaho proves himself a compelling comic, delivering a great number of laughs as Hera’s oafish father.

We can hold firm to our cultural identities, but there must always be room for evolution and compromise. Thinking about our ancestors as monolithic is unhelpful and probably inaccurate. Allowing ourselves to progress with the times, in a manner decided upon by ourselves, and not by colonisers, is a realistic way of retaining valuable aspects of our heritage. Our only option is to adapt, and to trust in the fact that after centuries of diasporas and imperialism, we are still here.

www.ilbijerri.com.au | www.terehiatheatre.com

Review: Black Cockatoo (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 4 – Feb 8, 2020 | Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Feb 18 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Geoffrey Atherden
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Joseph Althouse, Luke Carroll, Chenoa Deemal, Aaron McGrath, Colin Smith, Dubs Yunupingu
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
When Johnny ‘Unaarrimin’ Mullagh went to England in 1868 as part of Australia’s ‘First XI’, he probably never expected to become our first international cricket star. A century and a half later, his descendants probably never expected that the legend would today be so easily forgotten. Black Cockatoo by Geoffrey Atherden reintroduces the historical figure as a true Indigenous trailblazer, an Aboriginal example of black excellence that the white patriarchy of our sporting arenas seems so determined to wipe away from memory. The play has a tendency to feel overly wholesome, as though sanitised for public consumption, but its importance as cultural emblem cannot be understated.

Directed by Wesley Enoch, the show is a sincere and tender proclamation, paying tribute to Indigenous identities past and present. The complexity of black experiences as colonised peoples, is meaningfully, albeit politely, portrayed in Black Cockatoo. We see our protagonist in a state of conflict, able to recognise his privilege as star on the field, but never ignorant of injustices that befall himself and those he considers his community.

Set design by Richard Roberts establishes elegance for the production’s overall visual aesthetic, but requires greater versatility to help us imagine dramatic shifts in time and place. Lights by Trent Suidgeest and music by Steve Francis are sensitively rendered, both proving effective in conveying poignancy for the piece.

Actor Aaron McGrath is full of charm as Mullagh, dignified and beautifully nuanced in his depiction of a true blue hero. Black Cockatoo‘s narrative does not offer very much that is emotional or surprising, but McGrath makes us fall for the central character effortlessly. In the role of Lady Bardwell is the noteworthy Chenoa Deemal, who brings to the stage an august presence. Also impressive is Colin Smith as coach of the team, remarkably convincing as an ethically dubious Charles Lawrence.

Our Indigenous continue to have to navigate the absurdity of being seen as exotic on their own land. The ‘First XI’ went to England to play cricket, but often found themselves perceived as a circus act, a curiosity that robbed them of their humanity, a persisting strategy that provides legitimacy to mistreatment at the hands of colonisers. We need to hear the voices of minorities, because an understanding of their autonomy is fundamental to the betterment of all our lives. We no longer want our stories told by others. We want the right to talk about ourselves, whether or not the others are willing to listen.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Meet Me In St. Louis (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Dec 17 – 21, 2019
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Songs: Ralph Blane, Hugh Martin
Director: Matt Hourigan
Cast: Denzel Bruhn, Jayden Castle, Phoebe Clark, Sinead Cristaudo, Lana Domeney, Grace Driscoll, Lincoln Elliott, Amy Humphreys, Claudia Joller, Katelin Koprevic, Victoria Luxton, Alexis O’Donnell, Jared Palessen, Matthew Predny, Oliver Roach, Caitlin Shannon-Duhigg, Jerome Studdy, Andrew Symes

Theatre review
Young Esther is in love with John, the boy next door, but her family is set to move to New York as a result of her father’s recent promotion at work. It is clearly not the story of Meet Me In St. Louis that captivates, but its celebrated songs that we connect with. Based on the legendary 1944 film, this is a musical production of the most traditional kind, that holds special appeal for audiences of a conservative vein. There is nothing unpredictable or original here, only an abundance of nostalgia that many will no doubt find satisfying.

Matt Hourigan directs and choreographs, displaying considerable theatrical flair, although use of space can be more inventive. The band can sound somewhat distant, but music direction by Oscar Balle-Bowness remains a delight. Visual elements are adequately assembled, to help us imagine America at the dawn of the previous century. Performers look, comically, either too old or too young for their roles, but the quality of singing is consistently high, with leads Phoebe Clark and Matthew Predny leaving strong impressions with their vocal abilities.

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” has since become one of the most popular songs of the festive season. A deeply melancholic lyric that wistfully harks back to an idealistic past, “once again as in olden days, happy golden days of yore,” overzealous with the trust we place on old memories, and the frankly strange belief that things always used to be better, back in the day. The truth is that we have progressed in many ways, and although life is never without its challenges, to yearn for anything that might involve a regression of our existences, is simply unwise.

www.facebook.com/starkeeperproductions/

5 Questions with Nisrine Amine and Antony Makhlouf

Nisrine Amine

Antony Makhlouf: You play Josephine in Lady Tabouli, how would you describe her?
Nisrine Amine: She’s a handful. Lol. She is a strong woman, with a hard set of beliefs. Quite stubborn. But with a deep faith and loyalty to family. She is almost like the burghul (wheat) in a bowl of tabouli – a little hard on the teeth yet necessary for the salad to come together. She’s quite different to characters I’ve played in the past; not immediately likeable but you definitely grow to understand her as the play goes on. And that’s the main thing with characters on stage – not that we like them but that we can understand them.

Who is Lady Tabouli?
In the first iteration of the play (at Griffin Theatre as part of Batch Festival), Lady Tabouli was very clearly Danny’s alter ego; she was a vibrant and free sense of self that he was so desperately wanting, but struggling, to become. In this new version of the play, I think she is more elusive than that – she is up to individual interpretation and maybe sits somewhere between convention and progression? Shackles and freedom? She is the clash of culture and individuality; group identity and personal truth. Maybe I’ll have a better answer for you once she comes to life in January.

What are your thoughts on the “other” Lebanese salad, fattoush?
Oooo, I am a big fan. I like a good ‘crunch’ in my food. And we all know a good fattoush has some serious bread crunch game happening. So I think I might take a bowl of that over tabouli. Oh no, I have blasphemed. Alas.

Who’s your favourite character in the play?
I dunno but (director) Dino’s is ‘the heat’. (You’ll know when you watch).

So you’re directing James Elazzi’s Son of Byblos for Belvoir 25A next year. What are you looking forward to the most about this experience?
All of it! It’s going to be surreal moving ‘behind the scenes’ for one of James’ works (all of my connections with his work up to now has been as ‘actor’). There’s definitely going to be (self-imposed) pressure to continue Dino’s great directing work on a piece of Elazzi writing, but I’m up for the challenge. The main thing I’m looking forward to, in all honesty, is working with my actors. I am soooo eager to get into that rehearsal room and start building character and relationships. And to help lead the actors to beautiful and truthful moments.

Antony Makhlouf

Nisrine Amine: How similar are you and your character of Danny?
Antony Makhlouf: The similarities of Danny and I is that we’re both Australian-Lebanese men who need to balance two separate cultures. Despite the tug-of-war effect this can have at times, I love sitting within two cultures for it provides me with an insight into two worlds. This has broadened my outlook and enriched my understanding of people. I like to think I’ve created a hybrid culture of my own. Whereas with Danny, his circumstance does not afford him the space to do the same. Instead he needs to be ruthless in his pursuit of self-determination. This is where our similarities end.

What’s your favourite part about the rehearsal process?
I love those moments when you crack the scene open and the words on the page, that you’ve been reading for a while, come to a new and bigger meaning.

What mark are you hoping this play will make on the Sydney theatre scene?
Foremost, I hope Lady Tabouli draws in the people that it depicts. Don’t get me wrong, the play is open to all audiences, however there are members of the community that will see themselves on the stage and benefit from that experience. In Lady Tabouli’s preliminary version at Griffin Theatre’s Batch Festival, a large chunk of our audiences were just that, and the response was real and overwhelming. There is something very special and powerful about this work. It transcends the theatre and offers a release I believe certain marginalised communities are craving to experience. Thus, and with all respect, I am more interested in talking and affecting those people, above anything else.

What’s the key to the perfect bowl of tabouli?
You should probably ask my mum that one. But, I do love tabouli that is a day old – the flavours really settle in by then. Refrigerate overnight and then eat it with warm Lebanese bread.

Where to from here?
After Lady Tabouli, I finish filming season four of Get Arty. I also want to get cracking on creating a new collection of art prints. And I hope to continue to develop and grow as a performer, so a short course overseas somewhere is on the cards.

Nisrine Amine and Antony Makhlouf can be seen in Lady Tabouli by James Elazzi.
Dates: 9 – 18 Jan, 2020
Venue: Riverside