Review: Desperately Young At Heart (New Theatre)

roberthofmannVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 23 – 27, 2014
Director: Stuart Maunder
Cast: Robert Hofmann, Cherie Boogaart, Tommaso Pollio
Image by John Marshall

Theatre review
Robert Hofmann’s work Desperately Young At Heart features the singer in various guises, performing humorous renditions of jazz and musical theatre classics. The show’s title reveals the fun-loving approach taken by Hofmann, but it serves also as a warning that nothing particularly poignant transpires. The songs are linked by a performance that sees Hofmann transform with wigs and costumes, although no obvious narrative connects each incarnation. Its sense of pageantry feels at home in the cabaret format, and while not terribly original, the show does afford an amusing glimpse into the creative mind of its author.

Hofmann’s baritone voice is accomplished and confident, with shades of opera that give his singing an enveloping power. The gender diversity of his characters is a key feature of the show, but Hofmann’s liberal use of falsetto is less effective. Mezzo-soprano Cherie Boogaart’s appearance is brief but memorable. Her comic abilities are competent, but it is her voice that truly delights. Pianist Tommaso Pollio is the unsung hero of the piece, single-handedly controlling the many mood transitions with ease and flair.

The presentation tries to be loud and outrageous, but it is the quieter moments when Hofmann works with more subtlety that resonate better. Desperately Young At Heart strength is the matured skill of its performers, whose expertise is clear to see. It is an opportunity for the artists to practise a genre of theatre different from their usual vocations, and results are mixed. It is not an enormously adventurous venture, but their enthusiasm in presenting a labour of love is quite infectious.

Review: Aunt Agony (New Theatre)

auntagonyVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 15 – 22, 2014
Director: Michael Campbell
Playwright: Richard Black
Cast: Sasha Dyer, Dave Kirkham, Taylor Owynns

Theatre review
In a society that overvalues youth, we often forget that quirky old people are much more amusing and fascinating creatures than their offspring. Richard Black’s Aunt Agony is a farcical black comedy that imagines the secret wild life of Aunt Lynn from the conservative Upper North Shore of Sydney. Lynn is an eccentric and flamboyant lady who lives with a cat and a dark side. Her niece Christine has just ended a relationship and seeks refuge in Lynn’s apartment. Their love-hate relationship reveals a series of antics, funny and sinister, that forms the plot of this surprisingly textured show. Black’s characters are vibrant and his scenarios whimsically formulated, with punchy dialogue and timely sociopolitical references.

The work becomes tighter in pace after the halfway point. Early scenes move a little slow, preventing tension from taking form satisfactorily. Perhaps some edits to the script can provide some energy. The actors’ rhythms can also benefit from an increase in speed, but Michael Campbell’s direction is quite accomplished. He injects a wonderful playfulness to the production, and makes brave choices that befit the idiosyncrasy of the lead character. The play’s more nefarious elements are handled with just enough seriousness to retain their sobering reverberations, but they do not get in the way of the overall joviality of the show.

Lynn is played by the effervescent Taylor Owynns who is endearing from her very first entrance. She has a likability that keep us on her side no matter how abhorrent her shenanigans become. Owynns performs a charming madness, but some of her techniques can feel slightly repetitive. The show requires a high level of energy from her, and she delivers on most occasions especially when in close collaboration with Sasha Dyer who takes on the role of Christine. Dyer comes to life when the show’s brashness escalates. She is a spirited performer who works well with physical comedy, and there are many opportunities for her talents to shine through on this stage. Dyer’s firm commitment and focus makes substantial what is essentially a supporting part. Also providing effective support is Dave Kirkham whose good humour makes his brief appearances delightful and memorable.

Design of the show is pleasant and efficient, but the set leaves empty space in the down stage area, which is not often utilised. Moving set pieces closer to the audience would allow more intimacy and hence create greater impact. The production leaves a lasting impression with meaningful morsels littered through its text. It is often hilarious with a giddy silliness, but its entertainment value is sometimes coupled with poignancy, proving itself to be the kind of madcap comedy that refuses to underestimate its audience.

Review: The Sheds (New Theatre)

theshedsVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 17 – 21, 2014
Director: James Cunningham
Playwright: James Cunningham
Cast: Patrick Chirico, Ludwik Exposto, Andii Mulders

Theatre review
James Cunningham’s The Sheds begins when an AFL player Darren Anderson decides to reveal his homosexuality to his team and the public. It is not about the experience of being in the closet, but what happens after one decides to come out in an almost entirely male environment. Cunningham’s concepts for the play are strong. The tensions between the sporting industry and the very rare occurrences of fracture in its overwhelming heteronormativity are fertile ground for exploration, and indeed an area that our society needs to examine more closely. It is also a credit to the script that Anderson is portrayed as a liberated personality, without emphasis on his struggles, thus preventing the context from being dated and banal. Anderson’s character is paralleled by his friend and colleague Jimmy Davis, who has his own secrets, and the narrative is made substantial by Davis’ repression and its subsequent dramatic consequences.

Unfortunately, execution of Cunningham’s concepts are disappointing. His script is too obvious and plain, with unimaginative dialogue that feels compelled to tell too much, as though it is playing to a radio audience. Speech patterns for each of its three characters do not seem to vary. The way language is used does not sufficiently relay the differences in background and personalities. We appreciate that they are close compatriots who play for the same team, but the story requires a more distinct style of conversation for each character. Cunningham’s direction tries to create movement for the stage, but it can feel superfluous at times. There is a lot of pacing around, and changing of clothing, as though the actors are unable to deliver their lines without being told what to do with their hands. Transitions between scenes are handled without finesse. The actors often leave the stage, only to walk back in, a quick moment later. The passage of time can be conveyed more creatively than simply providing exits and entrances.

The cast is a good-looking one that represents a contemporary multi-ethnicity. The men are all athletic, which makes their depiction of the sporting space convincing, and while their instances of full-frontal nudity can seem a little gratuitous and distracting, it is nonetheless pleasurable to watch. The acting is not strong, with stilted performances and poor diction that make the plot a challenge to follow, but their energy levels are generally buoyant and there is a good level of enthusiasm that fills a lot of the show’s fifty minutes.

There is an urgent need for diversity in Australian theatre, and The Sheds makes a contribution. It talks of ethnicity, sexuality and mateship in a way that is fresh and timely. Cunningham’s voice is unseasoned, but it is a necessary one. We do not expect success to come out of every experimentation, but it is the courage to try that will always impress.

Review: This Is Our Youth (The Kings Collective)

thekingscollectiveVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 16 – 21, 2014
Writer: Kenneth Lonergan
Director: Dan Eady
Cast: Joshua Brennan, Scott Lee, Georgia Scott
Image by Kate Williams Photography

Theatre review
Not all stories are universal. There will be characters we are interested in, and others that we do not give two hoots about. Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth is a lamentation of sorts about spoilt rich kids. It is concerned with the neglected offspring of wealthy baby boomers, providing a perspective of new money in 1980’s Manhattan and the repercussions on its subsequent generation. Lonergan’s script is full of mischief and energy, but embodies the pointlessness of the characters it portrays. Their lives are lost, frivolous and sordid. Everything is dazed and confused, but the writing provides a rich and colourful inventory of drama and jokes for an electrifying work of theatre, and this is what The Kings Collective delivers.

The cast is extraordinary. Three young actors, sublime as a group but individually sensational, give a performance that is quite literally flawless. They all make bold choices that delight and surprise us, but are always thoughtful and sensitive to the creation of depth in their characters. We are enthralled by the dynamism in their work but never lose sight of contexts and circumstances. Joshua Brennan is Dennis, the misguided alpha male, whose bravado, anger and aggression are the only things getting him through life that do not come in small self-sealing plastic bags. Brennan’s range begins at bombastic, and then escalates further. His work is outrageously flamboyant but completely engaging, and one is able to sense a lot of substance behind his delicious madness. The material gives him many opportunities for comedy and he executes them brilliantly, but poignant moments at the end are slightly less effective even though his portrayal continues to be convincing.

Georgia Scott transforms the supporting role of Jessica into a memorable one. She fools us with a Barbie-esque appearance and surreptitiously shifts the play into intellectual gear. Scott brings a palpable complexity with strength, humour and tenderness, creating an authentic sentimentality that gives the production its humanistic aspect. Her romantic scenes with Warren are beautiful and real, allowing the play to speak compassionately, albeit fleetingly. The feminine voice is only secondary in the play, but Scott’s work is disproportionately impressive.

Warren is a clever young man who suffers from a lack of confidence and direction. He allows his father and friends to dominate him, and seeks refuge in drugs to silence his intelligence. Scott Lee’s moving depiction of that impotency gives the play its weight, and his comedic flair sets the tone of the production. Lee’s phenomenal chemistry with both colleagues shows an openness in approach that gives theatre its sizzle, and every second is kept lively by his marvelous commitment and presence.

Direction of the piece by Dan Eady ensures excellent entertainment and precise storytelling, without an instance of misplaced focus or loss of energy. This is the tightest of ships that any captain can hope to deploy. Audiences will laugh, be touched, and be provoked into thought, but the play’s social message is not a particularly potent one. It is hard to summon up any empathy for the very rich, even if they are innocent young adults. This Is Our Youth is thrilling and amusing, and while it does have some depth, they can be tenuous. Fortunately, theatre is about the craft as much as it is about meanings, and on this occasion, the artists are alchemists that have turned lead into gold.

Review: Procne & Tereus (Montague Basement)

montaguebasementVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Sep 16 – 20, 2014
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Playwright: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Christian Byers, Lucinda Howes, Victoria Zerbst

Theatre review
Philomela visits her sister Procne’s home. Procne and her boyfriend Tereus are only a little older but their lives seem a world away from Philomela’s university student existence. The couple is expecting a child, but Tereus is more interested in the wine. He enjoys the intoxication and likes the way its price tag makes him look. The play begins in a space of middle-class ordinariness, but like in many middle-class spaces, there is an insidious deluge of quiet anxiety. Not enough happens to write home about, but its inanity gradually wears you down into sickness. In Procne & Tereus, we associate that anxiety with early adulthood, and a sense of being at crossroads, always wondering what that crucial next step holds. The young cast play older characters, and we see our frightening reflection in their portrayal of innocence lost.

Saro Lusty-Cavallari’s script is simple but poignant. His love for the art of inference makes that which is not being said, speak louder. His direction is even more accomplished, with a brave and adventurous spirit that emerges alongside thoughtfulness and subtlety. Not all manoeuvres are elegant, but there is always clarity in intent and a theatrical flair that feels natural yet purposeful. Lusty-Cavallari’s work is conceived with complexity, but his execution is articulate and concise. His talent is real, and its development is incredibly exciting.

Tereus is played by Christian Byers who deceives us with a surface of frivolity. His darkness within is almost completely hidden but Byers drops hints of malice that unnerve with a dangerous delight. It is a relaxed performance, sometimes silly in tone, but there is an impressive measuredness that accompanies his exaggerated nonchalance. Lucinda Howes as Procne, brings realism to the production with a restrained and minimalist approach that is strangely engaging, but her energy levels can read a little muted at times. Victoria Zerbst’s commitment to the role of Philomela is spine-tingling, and her presence shines through when performing the more surreal sections of the play.

Lighting by Eunice Huang and sound by Lusty-Cavallari and Byers, are key features of the production. Atmosphere is shaped and varied beautifully, contributing substantially to the narrative’s coherence. This Greek tragedy leaves us at a satisfying, albeit apocalyptic end. It relates marriage and family to questions about gender and sex. The story is grim because it is about our taboos. It shows us some of our greatest fears, and warns us about our unexamined but commonly-held beliefs. It leaves us nowhere to hide because its truths prevail.

5 Questions with Sean Hawkins

seanhawkinsWhat is your favourite swear word?
It’s cunt. The Rookie gets to say it quite a bit, so I’m enjoying that.

What are you wearing?
Jeans and a tee shirt.

What is love?
Back scratches from your partner.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Out Of Gas On Lover’s Leap by The Kings Collective. 4/5 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
It’s going to be corker.


Sean Hawkins is appearing in Howie The Rookie, with Strange Duck Productions.
Show dates: 30 Sep – 25 Oct, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel

Review: Four Dogs And A Bone (Brief Candle Productions / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

briefcandleVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Sep 16 – 27, 2014
Playwright: John Patrick Shanley
Director: Kate Gaul
Cast: Amanda Collins, Melinda Dransfield, Paul Gerrard, Sonny Vrebac
Image by Katy Green-Loughrey

Theatre review
There are four actors and only four scenes in John Patrick Shanley’s Four Dogs And A Bone. It is a work about horrible people trying to make a film, and their self-serving manipulations to change the film to their advantage. The personalities are thoroughly caricatured, and the script derives its humour from their absurd behaviour.

Performances are uneven in the production. The first scene features the stronger players Melinda Dransfield and Sonny Vrebac kicking off with some promise. Brenda is a starlet who lies and sleeps her way up the career ladder. Dransfield has moments of brilliance in the role and delivers laughter with a more subtle approach than her cohorts. Sonny Vrebac plays the film’s penny-pinching producer Bradley, who is so highly strung that he develops a canker sore the size of a jumbo shrimp in his rectum. Vrebac’s comedy is the most consistent in the piece, and the personal narrative he is able to communicate for his character is clearest in the group. Vrebacg’s vibrancy is an asset to the production, and the slump in energy levels is noticeable in scenes without him.

Chemistry between actors is an issue that seems to arise from their focus on individual styles. We do not see a sense of cohesion, which results in missed opportunities for laughter and amusement. Amanda Collins focuses her efforts on creating a snake-like persona for Collette but does not manufacture enough substance for her story to resonate. It is noteworthy however, that she displays good commitment and focus, and leaves a memorable impression with a flamboyant display of devastation from being described as a “character actor”. Paul Gerrard as Victor, the screenwriter for the film, tends to underplay his role, allowing his more extravagant colleagues to overwhelm his work, but he does have a solid presence that gives the show a firm grounding.

This is a staging that does not quite take off until its final scene. Economic realities mean that much of what we see in the theatre can be revealed too early in the creative process, and opening night of Four Dogs And A Bone feels prematurely presented. Art strives for an imagined notion of perfection, but no art of great merit is created in an idealistic environment without challenges that need to be overcome. The factor of time and the practicalities of money can be cruel to artists, but they are also what compels us to hold their work in great esteem. |