Review: Relatively Speaking (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 18, 2016 – Jan 14, 2017
Playwright: Alan Auckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Jonny Hawkins, Tracy Mann, Emma Palmer, David Whitney
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is a very serious case of mistaken identities in Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, and the hilarity that ensues is rarely surpassed. It is about Ginny leaving one lover for another, but the story is hardly important in how the play is remembered. There is no throwaway line of dialogue, with each word calibrated to a staggering precision in order that we may experience the greatest amplitude of comedy possible. The 50-year-old work may not bear any trendy trimmings or indeed, political relevance to how we now live, but its theatrical structure and language specificity still remains outstanding in our age of perpetual mobile amusement.

The four riotous roles are performed flawlessly by a cast that can only be described as magnificent. Cohesive in tone and style, but each one idiosyncratic and independently captivating, their creations are all unforgettable, but it is the chemistry they manufacture for this ensemble piece that really delivers the goods. Ginny is played by the vivacious Emma Palmer, exuberant and dignified in her interpretation of a young woman in the swinging sixties. Jonny Hawkins is her adorable beau Greg, unbelievably animated and entirely compelling. David Whitney is the other man, spectacularly charming, knowing and droll as Philip, while his wife Sheila is brought to life by the truly extraordinary Tracy Mann with understated flair and impressive confidence.

It may all seem deeply familiar, but director Mark Kilmurry’s realisation of Relatively Speaking feels as though we had never actually seen a show of this genre executed with quite as much panache. His thorough engagement with the material and its particular form, ensures that the laughs are ceaseless for all of its two hours, and that we never tire of whatever he chooses to present. Life is never this much fun, but at the theatre, we sparkle eternal.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: The Days And Nights Of BeeBee Fenstermaker (Phable Productions)

phableVenue: The Factory Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Nov 29 – Dec 3, 2016
Playwright: William Snyder
Director: Candice Story
Cast: Jack Berry, Eileen Camilleri, Ryan Madden, Lauren Orrell, Bronte Sparrow, Helen Stuart, Charles Upton, Chantelle Von Appen
Image by Lauren Orrell

Theatre review
When we first meet Beebee, she is a young woman full of optimism and ambition, poised to conquer the world. We soon find out that although she has the ability to envision a bright future, our protagonist is ill-equipped to make her dreams come true. William Snyder’s play is about the lessons that we need for a good life. It makes us consider if all the knowledge that we inherit, from family and from school, can ever protect us from falling. Beebee takes a great big tumble, in spite of all her smarts and confidence, and we are surprised that her story is not of the fairy tale ilk, but understand simultaneously, that she can always pick herself up again. No matter how battered and bruised life leaves us, for those of us who are still here, we know that hope always remains.

Candice Story’s direction of the piece is effective in its more melodramatic sections. The stage is ignited by big, vivid emotions when characters get into fierce altercations, but the production is less resonant in scenes that require humour or melancholy. Nevertheless, it is an engaging story relayed with sufficient clarity to comfortably sustain our attention for its two-and-a-half hour duration.

Actor Chantelle Von Appen keeps us invested in Beebee’s misadventures. Her passion drives the play, and even though a more technical and precise approach would give her portrayal a greater sense of psychological accuracy and hence allow us to identify better with her adversity, we never lose interest in how the character evolves. A trio of sisters, played by Eileen Camilleri, Lauren Orrell and Helen Stuart, sends sparks flying with their depiction of complex family dynamics. All the love and hate we experience at home is never easy to articulate, but these sisters, and their understated but potent chemistry, allow us to reflect on how we act and how we feel, when dealing with the nearest and dearest.

In a world determined to tell us what we cannot do, it is the brave and resilient who will get the most out of life. Nothing special comes from an easy ride, and the ones who refuse to accept defeat, will always emerge greater. Beebee may not have begun her journey with every privilege to make everything run smoothly, but the hard knocks that she endures, will provide what is necessary for her to survive and thrive. It may not be that she will end up where she had wanted at the play’s beginning, but with some luck, she will discover peace of mind and happiness, as we should all hope for, for ourselves, before too late.

www.facebook.com/PhableProductions

Review: Morgan Stern (Company Of Rogues)

companyofroguesVenue: Blood Moon Theatre (Potts Point NSW), Nov 23 – Dec 3, 2016
Playwright: Gina Schien
Director: Goldele Rayment
Cast: Graeme Rhodes
Image by Chrissie Ianssen

Theatre review
The Gent awakes in 1972 after a deep slumber. The Edwardian era is now long gone, but there is unfinished business still to be taken care of. He returns to this mortal coil, to find resolution, as a ghost and as guardian angel to a certain Morgan Stern, who faces a set of problems not unlike the ones our Gent had had to deal with, when taking care of his own daughter, back in those less than halcyon days. It was early 19th Century when he last found himself in these challenging circumstances, and it appears very little has changed after two hundred years.

Complex and incredibly rich, Gina Schien’s imaginative writing offers extraordinary insight into the human condition and the glitches in our lives that so often surprise and derail. The language is beautiful, with sensitive attention paid to rhythms and imagery that makes the play an involving one. Dramatic tension can sometimes be lost in its poetic approach, but director Goldele Rayment’s manipulations of atmosphere and spacial configurations are cleverly calibrated, with only one actor and one swivel chair sustaining our concentration. Tegan Nicholls’ work on sound and Roderick van Gelder’s lights are both noteworthy in their efforts to transform and transport our consciousness through the production’s mystical qualities.

Graeme Rhodes delivers an astonishing performance for the one man show, completely captivating with a presence full of conviction and a mental focus impressive with its precision. His voice and physicality are both commanding, both exactingly channelled in each of the play’s sequences, to impart meaning and enthralment. We are amazed by the way his memory is able to contain so much text, seemingly effortlessly, but more importantly, his airtight authority over the material’s depths and expanses, and his ability to exercise inventiveness along with elucidating the writing’s trickier ideas, have us flummoxed, in awe.

When art talks about reality, it does so differently from science. Morgan Stern is about contradictory realities, and how it is necessary for us to be able to encompass things that are not subjectively logical into existence. The world is infinite, in scale and in possibilities, and much as we think that the stuff we know is all there is, art will tell us that the opposite is true. The stuff we know, and the stuff that is knowable, will always and forever be infinitesimal, and every life must count, however inconvenient the other may be.

www.companyofrogues.com

Review: iDNA (PACT Centre for Emerging Artists)

pactVenue: PACT Centre for Emerging Artists (Erskineville NSW), Nov 16 – 26, 2016
Created & performed by: Bonnie Cowan, Emily Dash, Alison Eaton, Alex Ford, Cheryn Frost, Jorjia Gillis, Cath McNamara, Keila Terencio, Anna Thomsen, Sam Wang, Natalie Wilson
Directors: Fred Copperwaite, Katrina Douglas

Theatre review
Whether cyclical, linear or however else we wish to conceive of time, being human will always require that we look at the past in order to achieve an understanding of the phenomenon that ensnares us today. The investigation into who we are, will always be deemed necessary. Being human is a constant process of philosophical reflection, and art is one of its best manifestations.

iDNA is a series of meditations on identity, as inspired by the very contemporary interest in DNA. The science of DNA promises to reveal things about us that we yearn to know. It might be thought of as a kind of religious text that we access, a form of knowledge that seems to exist outside of our bodies, that informs on our very corporeality. Science and religion is how we talk about ourselves, by reaching out, if only for a moment, to discover what it is that feels like truth.

There are eleven performers in the piece, each with a distinct personality, each given space to articulate something personal about identity. The resultant work struggles to find cohesion, but its fractured nature communicates an important notion of diversity, that although our instincts wish for us to see the self in everybody else, we must come to an acceptance that each creature who walks the planet is an individual, and our survival depends upon an understanding, that much as we wish, difference will never be obliterated from our essence. We have to live together somehow, flora and fauna, water and earth. The science shows us unequivocally, that we exist means that we are all connected, but how we prevent destruction inside and outside of our species, is the key to a good life, natural as that annihilation may seem.

www.pact.net.au

Review: Mack & Mabel (Working Management)

workingmanagementVenue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 18, 2016
Book: Michael Stewart (based on an idea by Leonard Speigelgass)
Music: Jerry Herman
Director: Trevor Ashley
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Angelique Cassimatis, Shay Debney, Adam Di Martino, Sally Hare, Scott Irwin, Caroline Kaspar, Shaun Rennie, Kuki Tipoki, Stephen Valeri, Jessica Voivenel, Zachary Webster, Mikayla Williams, Deone Zanotto
Image by Lightbox Photography

Theatre review
Set against a backdrop of early Hollywood, Mack & Mabel is about a love that never happened, a romantic tale that is more “coulda woulda shoulda” than happily ever after. Created in 1974, the musical is in essence a damsel in distress story, where the girl is not strong enough to get what she wants, and in this case, the guy never quite gets his act together to rescue her. The songs are fun and perky, but mostly unmemorable. Every imaginable cliché of the genre is enlisted for a show that works hard to entertain, and although it is never able to surprise, the experience it delivers is nonetheless an enjoyable one.

Directed by Trevor Ashley, with choreography by Cameron Mitchell, the show is highly animated, and relentless with its pizzazz. Every song is staged with great detail and deliberation, but while there is no shortage of energy and action, its comedy is not always effective, and its pathos is insufficiently potent. It is a diverse cast with varying levels of competencies, but their conviction keeps us attentive to every sequence being presented. Leading lady Angelique Cassimatis charms us with indefatigable flamboyance, and her male counterpart Scott Irwin provides grounding with a melancholic sincerity. Deone Zanotto is outstanding as Lottie, a secondary character called upon to bring all the bells and whistles needed to spice things up. Zanotto’s physical discipline and vocal agility are a joy to witness. Also noteworthy is Neil McLean’s sound design achieving excellent dynamism and clarity with how we hear music, lyrics and dialogue in the production.

There is little in Mack & Mabel that we can relate to, but it is a good excuse for some exhilarating song and dance. There is a frustration in seeing Mabel’s life presented as a failure due to her fruitless dedication to Mack. What might have been a kind of beautiful resignation and saccharine sentimentality in the past, is now just far-fetched, and tedious, whether or not one reads the musical from a consciously feminist perspective. The drama relies on our submission to its dated sensibilities about romance, and thankfully, many of us have progressed far beyond that.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: The Screwtape Letters (Clock & Spiel Productions)

clockspielVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Nov 22 – Dec 10, 2016
Playwright: C.S. Lewis (adapted by Hailey McQueen)
Director: Hailey McQueen
Cast: Yannick Lawry, George Zhao
Image by John Leung

Theatre review
Based on the novel by C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters follows the correspondences of senior demon, Screwtape, as he mentors his nephew Wormwood, who is learning the ropes of the devil’s business from his evil uncle. There is a “patient” in question, a case study if you will, and the heat is on, to lead him to temptation, and away from God. Contrary to popular belief that immorality is easy, the troublemakers have a difficult time, and we are challenged by notions of good and evil as they relate to our impulses and tendencies.

Having been adapted directly from Lewis’ writing, the play demonstrates that the efficacy of words is reliant on the context within which they are presented. At the theatre, we are not able to glance back at previous sentences, or look away to let meanings merge with imagination at a pace of the reader’s choosing. Words that had been designed for one purpose, might not necessarily translate conveniently for another, and in The Screwtape Letters, the challenge of adapting a novel for the stage, is bravely taken on by Hailey McQueen who also doubles as director. Although unable to repurpose the text entirely satisfactorily, McQueen delivers a charming show that holds appeal for those of us with a wicked streak .

It is a beautifully designed production, with Isabella Andronos’ set and costumes providing appropriate sharpness of style to Screwtape’s world of decadent luxury. Chris Page’s elegant lighting helps us move through scene transitions effectively, and his careful calibration of mood changes keeps us visually fascinated. Music and sound design by Adam Jones is very impressive. Much of how the audience responds and what it feels for The Screwtape Letters is controlled by Jones, who significantly elevates this theatrical experience with admirable precision and creativity. Actors Yannick Lawry and George Zhao are a well-rehearsed duo that puts on a presentation with professional polish. Zhao’s comic physical inventiveness is especially memorable. The two men are warm, likeable personalities, but we wish to see something much darker and menacing. We want the fiction to take us to a place unthinkably taboo, somewhere so close to hell that we can only react with the extremities of either being frightened away or helplessly seduced in, but Screwtape seems too much of a gentleman to afford us that pleasure.

www.clockandspielproductions.com

Review: Summer Rain (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 15 – Dec 17, 2016
Book & Lyrics: Nick Enright
Music: Terence Clarke
Director: Trent Kidd
Cast: Rebecca Burchett, Daisy Cousens, Laurence Coy, Anna Freeland, Catty Hamilton, Tom Handley, David Hooley, Nat Jobe, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Michele Lansdown, Joy Miller, Jacqui Rae Moloney, Clare Ellen O’Connor, Brett O’Neill, Steven Ritchie, Andrew Sharp, Chris Wilcox
Photography © Chris Lundie

Theatre review
In Nick Enright’s wonderful Summer Rain, we are transported back to 1945 Turnaround Creek, a sleepy town in the Australian outback. A show troop arrives Christmas time hoping to make a quick buck, and to reconnect with a place they had visited 15 years ago. The “showies” are received warmly by the township, buoyed by the promise of a jubilant reprieve from their daily humdrum, but patriarch of the Doyle family responds with hostility, indicating a hidden history that can only reveal itself in dramatic fashion.

The genius of this collaboration between Enright and composer Terence Clarke, is evidenced by how unmistakably moving Summer Rain is. Some of it is thoroughly conventional, and some of it is completely unexpected of the genre, but what results is full of heart. Trent Kidd does an extraordinary job of telling the melancholic yet whimsical story, as both director and choreographer of the production, delivering a theatrical experience that engages our emotions and captivates all our senses. It is a remarkably good looking show, highly detailed with its visual presentations. Mason Browne’s work on sets and costumes, along with Juz McGuire’s lights, are impressive elements that contribute to the overall sophistication and power of this staging.

A very large cast of 17 performers lend their talents to the show, with some very strong portrayals adding high polish and wow factor. Most notable is Anna Freeland, who plays Peggy with charm, conviction and a sensitive authenticity. Freeland’s voice is a highlight, confident and rich in its accurate depiction of Peggy’s inner world. Catty Hamilton is similarly likeable, and comparably beautiful a singer, additionally memorable for her dance sequences with Nat Jobe, both entertainers accomplished and delightful in their Fred & Ginger style offerings. Andrew Sharp anchors the show as troop leader Harold with gentle humour and excellent chemistry with every colleague, but it is Laurence Coy’s Barry who produces the most poignant moment of the show with “The Eyes of Nancy Keegan” a song of loss and yearning.

The halcyon days in Summer Rain give us more than nostalgia. It speaks to our sentimentality not only through various romantic touches, but more importantly, it depicts human connection in ways that are perhaps deeper than its familiar contexts would initially lead us to imagine. Each of its little narratives begin from ordinary points of departure, but Enright’s musical takes us to conclusions that are not about happily ever after, but about hope. The people we meet have not yet landed in a place of complete and fantastical resolution, but we see them embarking on a trip that looks to be brighter, and merrier, than before.

www.newtheatre.org.au