Review: Hay Fever (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Apr 11 – May 21, 2016
Playwright: Noël Coward
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Alan Dukes, Harriet Dyer, Genevieve Lemon, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell, Helen Thomson
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Judith Bliss and her family share an exquisite sense of humour, as well as dubious moral standards. They live out their self-obsession like a flamboyant form of high art, entangling unsuspecting acquaintances into their shenanigans, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. Noël Coward’s Hay Fever is the pinnacle of British wit, transcending time and space with a style of frivolity that does not seem to age. Whether silly or edgy, the play’s air of sophistication never falters. Intelligent but not intellectual, it gives us feather light humour without ever being patronising. A sheer delight for fans of theatre, and rambunctious fun for those on stage.

Director Imara Savage finds room for creativity, and exercises her artistic freedom while retaining all the best of Coward’s essence. Savage’s rendition seems faithful to the writer’s milieu, even though its sensibilities are thoroughly modern, revealing an instinctive ability to locate the timeless and perhaps universal elements of the play. These are not characters with profound messages to convey but they offer opportunities for imaginative and extravagant use of the theatrical platform, and Savage certainly rises to that challenge. Her show is visually exciting, with an infectiously exuberant spirit that overflows the stage and demands our attention. Set and costume design by Alicia Clements is sublime. The Bliss home is rendered with a bohemian rustic beauty, and costumes although effortless, are rich with glamour and sex appeal.

A host of larger than life personalities is created with wild abandon by a remarkable ensemble, led by Heather Mitchell who appears to have amassed inexhaustible tricks up her sleeve for the depiction of a prima donna, and her Judith is spectacularly resplendent in grandiosity and excess. Performances in the production are exaggerated, but also nuanced and thoughtful. Grand gestures and overstatements are appropriately supported by its dramatic “show within a show” context. Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer play Judith’s children, both powerfully inventive in their approach, using the entirety of their beings to embody the outlandish Bliss siblings. Conroy and Dyer are charming, funny and captivating actors whose creations are as engaging as they are eccentric.

In Hay Fever, there are the Blisses, and then there is everybody else. The world seems to be split into vibrant and dull, colourful and ordinary. It is a story about the joie de vivre that we should all be mindful of holding dear, no matter what age we find ourselves in life’s journey. Playfulness is a trait that many are afraid of. In the process of growing up and in the pursuit of individual ambitions, we often find ourselves feeling defeated by the ravages of time, and we begin to lose our natural lustre as optimism becomes hard to preserve. Judith and her loved ones live like there is no tomorrow. Fearless and audacious, they forge ahead, devouring all that life has to offer.

Review: The Best Brothers (The Old 505 Theatre)

old505Venue: Old 505 Theatre @ 5 Eliza St (Newtown NSW), Apr 13 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Daniel MacIvor
Director: Gareth Boylan
Cast: Sean Lynch, Johann Walraven

Theatre review (of a preview performance)
Like many other brothers, Hamilton and Kyle Best are not an affectionate pair. There is something about the closeness of siblings that can often prevent them from expressing tenderness for each other; a kind of certainty and confidence resides in their bond that renders physical and verbal assurances of love unnecessary. Of course, there is also the issue of maleness, of always assuming a hard exterior in the daily practice of gender, that ensures minimal sentimentality between men. Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s The Best Brothers is a quirky look at family dynamics and a witty depiction of contemporary masculinity. Its comedy is subtle and unconventional, but deeply charming.

Gareth Boylan’s quiet, almost stoic approach as director provides a stylish framework for our enjoyment of the Bests. There is a story to be followed, but the play’s real concern is its characters and relationships, and Boylan’s unique aesthetic is a delightful aperture through which we explore the brothers, their mother and her dog. It is a smartly designed production, with just enough lighting and sound embellishment adding interest, in order that our senses may engage meaningfully. Set design is sleek and effective, although greater care should probably go into the masking of wings to minimise distraction from backstage activity.

Playing Kyle is Sean Lynch, dynamic and affable, with a charismatic presence bringing authenticity to the show’s artfully minimalist aura. The performer has strong instincts that allow him to connect well with viewers, and is often very entertaining with minute flourishes revealing an inventive mind. Equally enthusiastic is Johann Walraven as Hamilton, memorable for demonstrating a strong conviction but is perhaps less suited to the material at hand. There is good chemistry to be found between the two, and although their show is a well-rehearsed one, more nuance could be developed for greater emotional response. At the centre of The Best Brothers is a process of mourning, but sorrow seems to be missing from the men’s antics and high jinks. They spend all their energy taking care of things on the surface, so that no time is left for grief, allowing us only glimpses of truth behind their shiny exteriors. The Bests never wallow. Eruptions are left to subside on their own, while they keep calm and carry on.

Review: Good People (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 7 – May 21, 2016
Playwright: David Lindsay-Abaire
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Gael Ballantyne, Drew Livingston, Tara Morice, Zindzi Okenyo, Jane Phegan, Christopher Stollery
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
When a baby is born, we want to think that the world is their oyster, and where they are today will have little bearing on where they may end up many years after. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, we meet two people with roots in the same rough part of town, but whose lives have taken drastically different turns over time. One is enjoying the fruits of a meteoric rise up the socio-economic ladder, while the other finds herself stagnated in poverty. It is a thoughtful play about opportunity and privilege, with the most basic of narratives, but its sharp-witted dialogue is expertly crafted not only to stimulate our minds but also to deliver some very big and clever laughs.

Tara Morice leads a formidable cast in a production that will be remembered for its outstanding quality of acting. Morice’s humour is acerbic but subtle, much like her character Margaret’s resentment. Bitterness is not her predominant feature, but it emerges periodically to overtake her easy exterior and everyone is caught off guard. The actor never makes a big deal of her punchlines, but the dryness of her delivery is somehow no inhibition to the power of her comedy. Morice is absolutely hilarious on stage, yet is able to communicate all of Margaret’s complexities with thorough clarity. Hers is not a life that every bourgeois theatregoer is familiar with, but her performance illustrates each detail and essence so that we achieve a level of understanding that feels exhaustive and genuine. Christopher Stollery’s skills are on par, and the combination of the two is pure theatrical gold. Stollery’s captivating performance brings an electrifying playfulness keeping us engrossed and alert, while portraying his character Mike with an unyielding sincerity that prevents him from turning caricature. In the role of Kate is Zindzi Okenyo who presents surprising nuance for a woman determined not to reveal much. The actor’s flair for comedy is showcased beautifully, and her warm presence brings a valuable dignity to her part in the story.

Direction by Mark Kilmurry is faithful to the spirit of the work, and provides an honest voice to the underclass being represented in Good People. Our protagonist is neither deified nor demonized, so we are able to recognise her humanity and empathise with the injustices she experiences. There is a wise restraint evident throughout the production, demonstrating Kilmurry’s emphasis on truth over the temptation to play for laughs, resulting in a show that perfectly balances its entertainment value with its sociological ideas. Working hard does not guarantee your dreams coming true, and making the right choices does not mean glory at the end of each journey. Life is not fair, and fortune will not fall evenly on every individual. Nature will take its course, but humans can take charge of our own fates. The play is about people helping each other, a simple and fundamental virtue that we should all possess, but like many virtues, we seem to leave it an abstract concept while we practise something quite contrary.

Review: Shut Up And Drive (Subtlenuance Theatre)

subtlenuanceVenue: Kings Cross Theatre Kings Cross NSW), Apr 9 – 23, 2016
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist, Daniela Giorgi
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Kit Bennett, Bonnie Kellett, Sam Glissan, Sonya Kerr, Jordie MacKinnon, Maddy McWilliam, Tom Nauta, Robert Roworth, Eli Saad, Michael Smith

Theatre review
It is hard to care for the environment. Lives in developed countries have grown to depend on an exploitation of our planet that now requires much more than giving up aerosol cans and recycling newspapers to offer reparation. Paul Gilchrist and Daniela Giorgi’s Shut Up And Drive talks about our love/hate relationship and dependence on cars, examining the extent at which we have allowed the automobile to become indispensable. It looks at the way we blind ourselves to its negative impact, so that we may indulge in a sordid affair with the metal beast.

Gilchrist and Giorgi’s writing is about social and environmental responsibility, but it comes from a place of generosity that acknowledges human fallibility. It points out the things that we do wrong, but it is forgiving of our actions. It shows us how we can be better custodians of earth, but the choice is ours to make. Shut Up And Drive is often funny, and sometimes touching. Its intents are serious, and can sometimes fall into a didactic tone, but its short scenes and colourful characters ensure that the play always has a sense of intrigue and enjoyment. At every step, the plot provides something to think about, but is also consistently amusing.

Gilchrist does excellent work as director for the show’s many intimate scenes. He establishes strong chemistry between players, and brings a delightful variation in tone between moments to keep us attentive. Liam O’Keefe’s lights make a significant contribution in achieving those atmospheric transitions with great efficacy and minimal fuss.

Actors Tom Nauta and Eli Saad partner up for two memorable sequences that employ their individual and divergent comedic styles. Nauta’s ostentation and Saad’s wryness meet like hot oil and water for riveting and combustible results. Also very funny is Sam Glissan, a quirky individual with an idiosyncratic approach to performance that tickles all the funny bones. On the other end of the spectrum is Kit Bennett who leaves a remarkable impression with her sensitive portrayal of loss and regret. Her work is delicate and understated but disarmingly captivating, with an intense emotional power.

When we talk about environmentalism, conservation and sustainability, we are in fact talking about the future. Shut Up And Drive has a caring heart, and does its best to connect with our conscience. It makes us question how we feel about all this degradation, and presents a test of our selfishness. The car represents comfort, convenience and luxury, but it is also undoubtedly harmful on many levels. Life’s decisions are full of complications, but often, we actually do know right from wrong.

5 Questions with Dion Bilios and James Maxfield

Dion Bilios

Dion Bilios

James Maxfield: So you play Thalia, the muse of comedy in Xanadu. Who would you say your comedy inspirations are?
Dion Bilios: I grew up watching Jim Carrey movies. Ace Ventura and The Mask were my favourites. But you can’t go wrong with Eddie Murphy or Will Ferrell.

Have you been mused or had a muse in your life before?
I like to think I’ve been a muse. Some people would say that I inspired the character “Donkey” from Shrek.

If you could have been born in an another era, what would that be?
Definitely the 70’s. I would have rocked a big afro. I can’t help myself when I hear a sexy disco bass line.

Your beautiful wife Danielle is also a performer. How do you two juggle your marriage, career and the on-and-off distance that so delightfully comes with working in this industry?
Yes, she is beautiful and extremely talented too! I’m very lucky to be married to someone who truly understands what being a performer entails. It’s not easy, I’ll tell you that! But setting goals and knowing that you have each other’s back no matter what is a huge part of it. Also, flying… lots of flying.

So you’re a bit of a foodie. What’s your favourite go-to places to eat in Sydney?
Oooooh I do love my food! Let’s see, I’m a big fan of A’Tavola in Darlinghurst (beautiful Italian). Also, if you feel like a treat with your significant other (or just yourself) spend 4 hours overlooking the harbour at Quay, it’s amazing.

James Maxfield

James Maxfield

Dion Bilios: Hey Jimmy, Xanadu is set in the 80’s. Some hated the era but I’m a fan. What are your thoughts about it?
James Maxfield: Massive fan! Who doesn’t love shoulder pads and power ballads, am I right?! Plus, nothing compares to the dance style of the 80’s. Stayin’ Alive, Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing. Classics!

So I know you’re an animal lover. Tell me about your pets.
I have two dogs. A pug named Bentley and a French bulldog named Tyson. I’m just a little obsessed with dogs that have squishy faces, breathing problems and a complete lack of gross motor skills.

We spent a lot of years dancing and performing together when we were younger. On a scale of 1 to I love you, how much would you say you love me?
Marry me! I mean, I would say you’re kinda up there in the “I Love You” league… I guess.

Now that you’re a Xanadu pro roller skater, what are your thoughts on competing in the world championships?
(Laces up roller skates, performs a perfect triple axle into arabesque., skates towards camera.) I’m a little rusty but I’ll give it a go *wink*

Any tips for young performers wanting to get into the industry?
Never stop learning! I’ve been doing this for 12 years now and there’s not a job I do where I’m not learning something new about my craft. The more boxes you tick, the more work there is out there for you. And just be nice. To everyone. It makes life so much easier.

Dion Bilios and James Maxfield can be seen in Xanadu the musical.
Dates: 12 May – 12 Jun, 2016
Venue: Hayes Theatre

Review: The Great Fire (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Apr 2 – May 8, 2016
Playwright: Kit Brookman
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Sarah Armanious, Peter Carroll, Lynette Curran, Eden Falk, Sandy Gore, Shelly Lauman, Marcus McKenzie, Geoff Morrell, Yalin Ozucelik, Genevieve Picot
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
For many people, having children is considered natural and something that does not require questioning. In Kit Brookman’s The Great Fire, we see the complications that arise, not when toddlers are misbehaving, but when children become adults and their struggles can no longer be quelled by their parents. Judith and Patrick are affluent Australians of the baby boomer generation, with a strong marriage and three grown children. The couple is in their 60s and is beginning to contemplate their autumn years. Unlike their own parents, Judith and Patrick do not have the luxury of only considering their own needs. Their children might be adults, but they are not yet financially independent.

The Great Fire is about one family’s woes, but also an experience shared by many. For what seems to be the first time in human history, apron strings have become hard to sever. With the aggressive growth of capitalism occurring at the same time as baby boomers having children, much of the world has now evolved into a new economy where the chasm between the haves and have-nots is larger than ever. Judith and Patrick never foresaw that their offspring would find it hard to make a living, and certainly never expected their retirement plans to include their children’s well-being, but the current state of the world is no longer offering the same opportunities. The younger generation is brought up in the image of their parents, and they find themselves lost in this new social system, where no one is guaranteed an income, and where building careers is a privilege increasingly out of reach.

The story is not an easy one to articulate. We are perhaps too close and too new to its concepts, and unable to see the forest for the trees. Brookman’s script contains many ideas, observations and philosophies, all relevant to contemporary life, and even though it is admirable that the work feels uncompromised, it is not always focused enough for dramatics to work effectively. The plot is long and meandering, often with enjoyable moments but also overly complicated and overladen by details. Nevertheless, characters and their narratives are authentic, and we recognise their individual challenges easily and intimately. Direction by Eamon Flack brings attention to the wider social aspects of the family drama. We are not left indulging in bourgeois pettiness, but are asked to consider the play’s bigger contexts, which affect us all. The Great Fire takes its time to get to the point, but the poignancy at its end is deeply satisfying.

Production design is accomplished with quiet elegance, and Michael Hankin’s set is undeniably beautiful. Sound and lights are gently executed, making their presence felt without drawing undue attention. There is excellent chemistry in performances that makes us believe in the play’s complex family dynamics. Genevieve Picot brings a warm and organic instinct to her portrayal of Judith, while Peter Carroll and Yalin Ozucelik leave strong impressions in their powerful and prominent stage moments. It is not a simple piece to communicate, but the actors convince us of its core messages.

The characters in The Great Fire do not live in poverty, but their struggles are real. Like most of us, they have obligations that need to be met, but resources always seem to lag behind. We may have learned life lessons from our parents, but we do not always realise that the skills they had acquired for their lives may no longer be sufficient for dealing with ours. When we bring children into the world, optimism can overwhelm and blind us from the cold face of reality, and how much protection a parent can afford seems always to be a difficult question. The pursuit of prosperity is linked to what our planet can give. There is no end to how much we want, but the planet is finite, and we feel very close to that limit.

Review: The Naked Truth (Act IV Theatre)

activVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Apr 6 – 16, 2016
Playwright: Dave Simpson
Director: Ruth Fingret
Cast: Melanie Araya, Kaitlin de Lacy, Hayley Flowers, Jeannie Gee, Melinda Ryan, Wendy Winkler

Theatre review
A small group of women in Northern England sign up for a pole dancing class. They learn little about the art form, but end up with deep knowledge about themselves. Dave Simpson’s The Naked Truth is a classic British comedy, featuring colourful people, naughty jokes, ordinary adversities and a very feel good ending. The play is predictable in many ways, but its formula is tried and tested, and we cannot help but get drawn into its sentimentalities, and become emotionally invested into its various narratives of human drama. The bawdy jokes give an occasional edge that helps prevent it from becoming too sappy, with its humour cleverly positioned within the plot to create enjoyable mood fluctuations.

The cast of six is clearly dedicated and invigorated, but they struggle to find a naturalistic tone that the writing requires. Although the production is awkwardly stagy, admirable effort is put into its comedy. Kaitlin de Lacy and Melinda Ryan especially, hit many of their punchlines effectively, delivering big laughs and delighting us with their enthusiastic portrayals of larger than life women. Jeannie Gee as Sarah gives the show a sense of authenticity, with sensitive moments that are truly touching, and Melania Araya’s gravity-defying skills on the pole are simply staggering.

The women in The Naked Truth hold each other up, in spite of all their differences. They each make their individual life choices, and have encountered dissimilar obstacles, but with the strength of their sisterhood, are able to find ways to provide support for one another. It is a poignant story about how people can live in love and harmony, without having to conform and assimilate. It encourages each person to embrace their own uniqueness, and shows us how to appreciate others for their idiosyncrasies; a lesson which is probably the most important thing to learn in these days of fracture and pervasive segregation.