Review: Journey’s End (The Theatre Troupe)

theatretroupeVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 21 – Nov 15, 2014
Playwright: R.C. Sherriff
Director: Will Usic
Cast: Andrew George, Will Usic, Yannick Lawry, Jack Douglas, Jeremy Bridie, Richard Cotter, Ian Bezzina, Jim Robison, Steve Tait
Image by Toby Zerna

Theatre review
Journey’s End was first performed in 1928, ten years after the end of World War I. Its playwright R.C. Sherriff based the play on his experiences as a British officer in the trenches, and what he had provided is a perspective that feels unusually personal and specific. Focus is moved from the big picture of ideology and territories, to looking at individual lives of those “boots on the ground” as they try to cope with persistent threat, danger and fear.

Will Usic’s work in directing actors is strong. He extracts thoughtful performances from the entire cast, and all are able to instil in their portrayals something that feels genuine and dignified. There are some issues with plot that indicate a need for the very long text to be edited, and while many character interchanges are dynamic and moving, several scenes of dialogue fail to ignite. Poetic license is required but not often utilised in the production. Sherriff’s writing is borne out of stiff upper lip England, so sentiment and passion are extremely restrained, and can make for uncomfortable viewing by today’s conventions.

Usic in the role of Osbourne is the stand out performance of the piece. He is palpably present, and sensitively conscious of conveying the very subtle emotional shifts that exist in those highly precarious situations of battle. His reactions to his comrade’s lines reveal as much as the words themselves do. Also engaging is Yannick Lawry’s humorous take on Trotter, who brings charming levity to the grave proceedings. Lawry pitches his character’s jolliness just right, so as to deliver comedy but also to retain the dark qualities of the narrative. Young Raleigh is played by Jack Douglas with excellent conviction, who maps out the part’s evolution beautifully and convincingly. Leading man Andrew George is believable as Captain Stanhope, with his effortlessly domineering stature, but there is a monotony to his depiction of the role’s depression that detracts from the dramatics of the production.

Set design (uncredited) is ambitious and effective. The stage is pleasantly transformed, and acting space is elegantly accommodated. Sound design (also uncredited) and Toby Knyvett’s lighting are under-explored in the first two acts, which adds to the aforementioned monotony, but both are intelligently conceived and executed thereafter to represent the horrific destruction of lives at war.

There is a delicate balance to be found when discussing the honour of people who serve in battle. Journey’s End does not glorify war, but it shows camaraderie at its deepest. The exaltation of those who have sacrificed can be worthwhile, but the condemnation of war must prevail.

Review: V.D. (Copanirvana Theatre Co / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

sitco2Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Oct 28 – Nov 15, 2014
Playwright: Pete Malicki
Director: Lisa Eismen
Cast: Eliza St John
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
This is a story about a woman in love only with two things; herself and alcohol. Pete Malicki’s script is crafted with some skill. His jokes are incessant, and timed with a natural flair. His characters are abused and ridiculed, and no one is presented in a positive light. There is very little beauty and inspiration in the play, but it has a humour that will appeal to many. It is a harsh truth that Australians find alcohol funny. We laugh at people making destructive decisions and falling over due to drunkenness, and V.D. capitalises on that unfortunate part of our culture. It also takes advantage of the fact that making women desperate and dateless gets laughs easily. Sophie Webb is hopeless, almost idiotic, but she is not unrealistic, and of course, our artistic landscape must make room for all kinds of characters no matter how undesirable.

The script is skilfully executed by director Lisa Eismen and actor Eliza St John. Presentation of the comedy is wide ranging, from the very broad to the very subtle. Character development is sometimes uncomfortable in the plot, but the women manage to create a narrative that is often believable, although the show’s ending is quite bewildering. St John’s performance is masterful. She is wild, intuitive and considered, with a conviction that can turn water into wine. Her work is completely absorbing, and she manages to endear herself to her captive crowd, like using sleight of hand techniques to mask the hideous uselessness of the woman she portrays.

The world can be an ugly place, and it is necessary to know its flaws. The theatre is not reserved for snowdrops and daffodils, and artists must not be censored, but audiences look for morals in stories, and maybe even find meaning in listening to what is being said. What V.D. articulates is sometimes true, but also very sad indeed. Life is worth living because of hope, and we need to acknowledge the darkness that we live with, but we must always recognise it as such.

Review: November Spawned A Monster (Fly-On-The-Wall Theatre / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

sitco1Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Oct 28 – Nov 15, 2014
Playwright: Alex Broun
Director: Robert Chuter
Cast: James Wright
Image by Katy Green Loughrey

Theatre review
Morrissey’s music courses through the veins of his fanatic devotees, and William is a young Melbournite who has the rock star’s records underscoring key events of his life. We meet him at a time of mourning, having recently encountered a deep personal loss. The struggle for clarity, direction and a new lease on life is a familiar experience, and Alex Broun’s script is an honest representation of that shared phenomenon. Melancholia is created beautifully in a plot that takes us from everyday banality to extraordinary circumstances, with gentle humour and a generous slew of Morrissey songs that provide poignant irony, and a remarkable coolness.

Also very cool, is Benjamin Brockman’s lighting design for the production, which gives a sense of differentiation between scenes so that we perceive a variety of moods as the leading man goes through scenes of transformation and evolution. Brockman’s work is intelligent and sophisticated, giving the show a visceral sensuality that connects with Morrissey’s omnipresence. Robert Chuter’s direction of the one-man show cleverly finds every opportunity to manufacture shifts in tone, preventing the production from ever being monotonous in spite of its monologue format. Chuter finds nuance in William’s journey and depicts the human condition at a time of sorrow with great sensitivity.

In the role of William is James Wright, who has the challenging task of memorising an eighty-minute play entirely on his own, along with singing a big selection of the idol’s highly idiosyncratic greatest hits at regular intervals. Wright is an enthusiastic performer who has the ability to be engaging, but his confidence levels are inconsistent, and on this stage, there is simply nowhere to hide when the actor’s consciousness is fractured, however briefly. Notwithstanding its energetic rhythm, November Spawned A Monster is chiefly about pain, which Wright does not sufficiently embody. It is almost a metaphysical quality that can be perceived when a person lives with a broken heart, and on the stage, that quality can be forcefully seductive, but that brand of charisma which we can see in Morrissey, is sadly absent in this show.

“Youth is wasted on the young”, said George Bernard Shaw, but William’s story is a reminder that feeling stranded in one’s youth is important for achieving an understanding of grief, and therefore, gaining an appreciation of all that is significant in life. It is not all a bed of roses, but that’s how people grow up.

5 Questions with Lucian McGuiness

lucianmcguinessWhat is your favourite swear word?
Kutwijf. It’s Dutch, and very satisfying though sexist. Look it up.

What are you wearing?
About 5 extra kilos, a fine salt, pepper and ginger moustache and some clothes I guess. For the show I dress the moustache up and wear some really spanking outfits from local and imported ingredients. That’s when I look my best.

What is love?
My daughter. She’s consistently the coolest, smartest and most beautiful person I know.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Shadow King at Brisbane Festival last month. There’s a bit at the end that ties the Shakespearean morals to Aboriginal rights in Australia that moves you. 4 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
My new show, quite frankly, is one of the best things going. All previous incarnations of this ensemble have sent the audience into a fit, and the Speakeasy takes all that and makes it bigger, tighter, better and funner. Funner is a word, right?

Lucian McGuiness is writing, directing and performing in Little Egypt’s Speakeasy.
Show dates: 6 – 9 Nov, 2014
Show venue: Django Bar, Camelot Lounge

Review: Blue/Orange (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembletheatreVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 23 – Nov 29, 2014.
Playwright: Joe Penhall
Director: Anna Crawford
Cast: Ian Meadows, Dorian Nkono, Sean Taylor
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
Health services are a crucial part of all civilisations, where access to medical professionals is a basic human right, regardless of class and creed. The subject of mental health is a growing area of concern in the West, with awareness and understanding of relevant issues fast improving through our communities. Joe Penhall’s script centres around Christopher, a mental health patient with the UK’s National Health Service. Surrounding him are two doctors, Bruce is the younger of the pair, idealistic but naive, and Robert is the authority figure of the hospital, seasoned and carnivorously ambitious. A fight ensues with Christopher caught in the middle, and as the plot unfolds, the play’s themes expand simultaneously. Christopher’s African ethnicity and low social status are the linchpin that brings into discussion, not just the intriguing process of psychiatric diagnosis and the health industry in general, but also race relations in contemporary settings and the machinations of authority (and its betrayal) in our daily social structures.

The ideas are big, but Penhall’s story is precise and simple. His captivating dialogue is rich with humour, controversy and intellect, consistently entertaining our senses and challenging our ethics. Some portions could be more succinct, but Penhall’s words and their rhythms are brilliantly crafted, as evidenced by the thrilling and energetic narratives that the show’s cast and director are able to create from the text. Anna Crawford’s direction is decidedly wonderful. The comedy of the piece is powerfully delivered, and the immense joy of being in an auditorium with laughter erupting at every turn is simply theatrical magic. Crawford introduces a daring freedom that encourages her actors to make risky choices, and much to our delight, they all seem to work. Likewise, the many scenes of altercation are loaded with explosive drama, always with a threatening tension and dangerous intrigue. Philosophical and ethical arguments in the work are the ingredients that make it feel substantial, and they are perfectly tuned, disallowed from disrupting dramatic flow, but often given an ambiguity that makes the ideas seductively confronting.

The use of space is however, not always elegant. Actors are frequently positioned so that their facial expressions are not available to big sections of the audience, which can be frustrating as well as distracting. Set pieces are composed of generic furniture elements from public sector offices, all terribly unattractive. The space has not been designed to be a realistic one, yet the several chairs and tables seem to use the notion of realism or accuracy as a convenient justification. A work of this calibre requires greater imagination and creativity in its visual design, and not be allowed to pale in comparison.

In the role of Robert is Sean Taylor, whose virtuoso performance bears the kind of astonishing glory that leaves a lasting impression. The most dangerous villain is the one who combines truths with lies, so that you are kept on his side, giving him benefit of the doubt until too late. Taylor makes it hard for us to know if his character is an evil racist doctor, or a progressive thinker, and our struggle in trying to figure him out is a masochistic pleasure. The actor is full of confidence and his presence is all-consuming; we cannot keep our eyes off of him. Taylor’s marvellous voice provides all that we need to know, and his face expresses everything his character wishes, but also contradicts the doctor’s intentions.

The show is thoroughly rehearsed, with every actor appearing to know exactly what they wish to achieve, yet the stage feels to be a spontaneous one. Dorian Nkono is extremely lively and likeable as Christopher, the patient who may or may not be schizophrenic. Nkono’s control over his physicality and the way he uses movement enrich the role and provide a vibrant energy that elevates the play to a level of theatre that is more than words. His sense for comedy is outstanding. Nkono is a truly funny actor whose approach ranges from subtle to slapstick, but an emphasis on storytelling makes his work authentic and compelling.

The young Dr Bruce is played by Ian Meadows who has the arduous task of maintaining composure as the only unassertive personality in the show. He often gets overwhelmed by his gargantuan counterparts, but he resists irrelevant exaggeration, and delivers a performance that is ultimately a truthful one. Meadow’s work is less flamboyant, which means that the ideological arguments he represents can get subsumed at certain points, but he manages to find a climax at the concluding moments to match in energy and produce an impressive ending to the piece.

Racism and mental illness are contentious issues that elude easy definition. We understand them in abstraction, but how they are discussed and dealt with in reality involves constant negotiation between vacillations of subjectivities. In Blue/Orange,  the powerful and the powerless collide in a system that attempts to be fair, just and democratic. We might all want the best for the world that we share, but our perspectives are different, and finding agreement on a unified destination becomes problematic. The doctor should know what is best for the patient, but the patient is not without rights and opinions. In assigning authority to some, society risks the removal of rights from others, but the ironic creation of power structures seems to be the only mechanism we have for finding harmony.

5 Questions with Helen Vienne

helenvienneWhat is your favourite swear word?
Fudge. Very G rated, I know.

What are you wearing?
Gingerbread pajama pants and an ex boyfriend’s T-shirt.

What is love?
Being a Beatles fan, I would have to say love is all you need 🙂

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
The Glass Menagerie at the Belvoir. It was a very simple but brilliant interpretation. They had video cameras set up to capture the actors in quieter moments and these images were projected on large screens in black and white, giving it an old Hollywood movie feel. I would give it four stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Bet your bottom dollar! (As Annie would say).

Helen Vienne is appearing in Haus by Black Raven Productions.
Show dates: 5 – 15 Nov, 2014
Show venue: King Street Theatre

Review: Five Women Wearing The Same Dress (Act IV Theatre Co)

activtheatreVenue: TAP Gallery (Darlinghurst NSW), Oct 28 – Nov 2, 2014
Playwright: Alan Ball
Director: Deborah Jones
Cast: Nadim Accari, Kaitlin DeLacy, Chloe McKenzie, Eleanor Ryan, Melinda Ryan, Wendy Winkler
Image by Tim Levy

Theatre review
Weddings are traditional affairs that expose the roles that we play for others in daily life, and our obligations as friends and family members. Participation in weddings often involves some level of reluctance, and most would probably prefer to be some place else doing something less painful. Alan Ball’s fabulous script is about the interactions between five bridesmaids after a wedding ceremony. The women have distinct personalities, with nothing in common, except for the hideous purple dress forced onto their bodies, and an unconcealed dislike for the bride. The play’s context positions the women in relation to the concept of marriage, and we observe how the supposed universal ideal of matrimony is no longer relevant to modern lives. Ball’s fascinating characters reveal their individual idiosyncrasies and it becomes clear that fulfilment and happiness might have little or nothing at all to do with marriage.

Ball’s writing is entertaining, whimsical and punchy. The charming language of the American South is showcased beautifully, and the women’s lives are vividly imagined, with a familiarity that allows us to find points of association. Their worlds seem real, because Ball exposes their imperfections in a way that demonstrates a humanity that we can relate to. Direction of the work is provided by Deborah Jones who brings a clarity to narratives and motivations. She keeps energy levels high, but there is a stasis to the atmosphere that prevents the show from providing a more dynamic experience. The comedy is written well, but it is not a uniformly strong cast, so the results of delivery are mixed and chemistry is not always fine. It must be noted that although some performances are less effective, every actor is clearly full of conviction and focus, and the stage is always an engaging one.

Eleanor Ryan is outstanding in the role of Mindy, a jovial lesbian who exemplifies the liberated individual in a world overrun by peer pressure and broken promises. Ryan’s comic timing is a highlight of the production and her creation is the most endearing of the group. Her style is much more flamboyant than her colleagues, but she retains a grounding authenticity that keeps her character believable and interesting. The complex role of Georgeanne is played by Wendy Winkler, who captivates with a clever blend of tragedy and irony. Her depiction of strength and optimism in the role’s banal existence is delightfully inspiring.

This is a play about women from a man’s perspective, and even though it is debatable if the writer knows the gender well, he certainly does understand the human condition. The anxieties it expresses and the desires it explores are absolutely real for many of us. Five Women Wearing The Same Dress often feels like light entertainment, but what it leaves behind is altogether more deep and meaningful. We think about the choices that present themselves, and the ones that seem elusive. The decisions that we make shape the life that we live, but so do the circumstances that seem to be beyond control. When a wedding invitation arrives, one can only choose to accept or decline, but to respond with honesty and truth is infinitely more perplexing.

5 Questions with Jacob Warner

jacobwarnerWhat is your favourite swear word?
Strewth. Which I only recently learnt is a contraction of ‘gods truth’. And by recently I mean just then, when I googled the word to check the spelling.

What are you wearing?
A suit. I am about to go to my graduation ceremony. I just finished the full time course at The Actors Centre.

What is love?
Baby don’t hurt me. Don’t hurt me. No more.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Writing For Performance by Michael Gow at NIDA. It was wonderful. Duncan Ragg was particularly moving as Roland. 4 stars out of 5.

Is your new show going to be any good?
Better bloody be. I dyed my hair blonde for it.

Jacob Warner‏ is appearing in Daylight Saving, from Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s 2014 season.
Show dates: 31 Oct – 30 Nov, 2014
Show venue: Eternity Playhouse

Review: Once (The Gordon Frost Organisation / Melbourne Theatre Company)

Venue: Princess Theatre (Melbourne VIC), from Oct 1, 2014
Playwright: Enda Walsh (based on film by John Carney)
Music & Lyrics: Glen Hansard, Markéta Irglová
Director: John Tiffany
Cast: Tom Parsons, Madeleine Jones, Anton Berezin, Ben Brown, Gerard Carroll, Colin Dean, Brent Hill, Keegan Joyce, Amy Lehpamer, Jane Patterson, Greg Stone, Susan-ann Walker,
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Once is probably not the first musical that makes understatement its central intention, but it is certainly the most celebrated of the kind. Enda Walsh’s quietly sentimental work is not ambitious in a conventional sense. There are no stunning set changes or breathtaking costumes, nobody dies and no predictable resurrections occur. Instead, it is determined to find poignancy and emotional resonance through story, characters and songs. There is a distinct and appealing simplicity to Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s musical compositions that make an impact in the absence of ostentatious spectacle, and Walsh’s ability to create affable yet colourful personalities make for a show that is powerfully endearing.

Direction by John Tiffany is sensitive to the melancholic sensibilities of the work, although the presentation of a large scale production in muted tones is sometimes clearly challenging, especially in the few, but important, scenes where music acquiesces to dialogue. An inordinate amount of versatility is required of the performers, including the ability to play instruments (accompaniment is provided by the cast itself) and in the case of leading man Tom Parsons who is a highly impressive vocalist, but a less compelling actor, several crucial sequences of emotional gravity tend to feel weaker when he communicates without the aid of music. His counterpart Madeleine Jones is more evenly talented, and she executes comedic aspects with an elegant flair. Tiffany handles lighthearted moments brilliantly, allowing an intimate connection with its audience that elevates the musical to something quite visceral, and spiritual.

The humorous role of Billy is played by Colin Dean who has the kind of eclipsing presence that wins our hearts with minimum effort. His authenticity is compelling to watch, and the confidence he displays gives his work an uplifting quality. Also memorable is Amy Lehpamer as the fiery Czech, Reza. Lehpamer is a quadruple threat who inspires with proficiencies in singing, dancing, acting and on the violin. Her comic timing is a marvel, and even though the supporting role is a small one, the vibrant performer finds opportunities to steal the limelight with delightful results.

The production is finely balanced, relying heavily on the shifting elements of live performance on each night to make the experience rewarding, leaving little room for complacency. The silences in the show mean that imperfections can become glaring, even if they are few and far between. Choreography by Steven Hoggett is effective and beautiful at times, but also awkward and overdone in certain numbers. The cast moves well, but when gestures become elaborate, the performers tend to appear uncomfortable. The story of Once talks about art and aspiration, dreams and conviction, and the way life can be designed by one’s own imagination. It swims against the tide with an unusual determinedness and audacity, to create something original, moving and thoroughly surprising.

Review: Henry V (Bell Shakespeare)

bellshakespeareVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 21 – Nov 15, 2014
Playwright: William Shakespeare
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Danielle King, Darcy Brown, Keith Agius, Ildiko Susany
Images by Michele Mossop

Theatre review
As the years pass, we become increasingly accustom to war being a fact of life. Wartime is no longer a set of specific and exceptional circumstances, especially with the proliferation of mass media and the normalisation of conflict as a topic of daily interest. Shakespeare’s Henry V includes the ambiguities and tensions between tragedy and heroism, but four centuries on, we seem no longer able to tell a story like this without letting casualties take centre stage.

Damien Ryan’s vision certainly reflects contemporary attitudes on the essential destructiveness of war. The injured and the dead are not obliterated from our sight, but are left critically present on stage to abate any hint of glory that might surface. The use of symbols and the visual lavishness of Ryan’s work is fiercely thoughtful, almost omnipresent. Space is explored to its creative limits, with the astonishingly dynamic use of bodies, sets and props to convey emotions and concepts. Ryan’s brand of theatre is captivating and exhilarating, but also undeniably sensitive and intelligent. His Henry V is complex but accessible, innovative but unpretentious. It aims to be a theatre for all, catering to aficionados, students and everyone else, encompassing every age and background. Shakespeare’s language is challenging for many, and the director works thoroughly to bring elucidation, although detractors are unlikely to have a change of heart with this text, which is probably one of Shakespeare’s more obscure pieces.

The production is visually beautiful, with accomplished and adventurous work from designers on all fronts. Anna Gardiner’s intricate set gives the stage an intimacy and provides performers with extensive possibilities for inventiveness. Gardiner’s costumes are not extravagant but accurately and astutely conceived, consistently effective in each character transformation and evolution. Sian James-Holland’s lighting design is one of the show’s main features. Her work is ambitious and powerful, at times conveying the plot more completely than other more tangible elements can manage. Also outstanding are music and sound designer Steve Francis’ achievements in his very specific control over atmospherics, and vocal composer Drew Livingston’s many charming and surprising songs accompanying the script.

Clearly, the performances are not the only stars of the show, but this is an undeniably excellent ensemble of actors. The chemistry they have found with each other, and in every scene, is exemplary. There is an athleticism to their creation, assisted by movement director Scott Witt, that is often breathtaking and marvelous to behold. The constant variation in tone and mood that they manufacture gives the production an extraordinarily textured feel. Keith Agius plays the more mature roles and is memorable for the depth of meaning he is able to bring to his lines. It is the gravity and an intensity that he puts into speeches that sets him apart. Matthew Backer shines with a distinct sense of humour that follows his assured presence, and his singing voice is quite sublime. The most vibrant actor will always leave an impression, and on this occasion, it is Damien Strouthos who wins us over with his agile, flamboyant and impossibly energetic approach.

It is clear that Shakespeare is revered internationally, but the universality of his writing is arguable. As societies become more aware of ethnic, gender and other differences in experience and background, it becomes less likely that any artist can claim to be relevant to everyone, but theatre is in a unique position of sheer proximity where it has the potential to move and touch, in a visceral manner. Shakespeare’s words might not always make sense, but what it gives birth to, is often blisteringly remarkable.