Review: Hell’s Canyon (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 1 – 11, 2018
Playwright: Emily Sheehan
Director: Katie Cawthorne
Cast: Isabelle Ford, Conor Leach
Images by James John

Theatre review
Caitlin and Oscar are close friends, but things have been challenging lately and their relationship is suffering a moment of discord. When they meet to patch things up, the friction in between instigates a flurry of unexpected activity, revealing the troubles that are consuming each of the young characters. Hell’s Canyon by Emily Sheehan is an intriguing representation of our youth, particularly memorable for the authenticity of its dialogue. Speech patterns, as well as the psychology that it showcases, bear an admirable sense of accuracy, but the story can feel deficient in parts, as we try to find explanations for their behaviour. There is a whimsy to its approach that appeals, and an interest in the supernatural that gives the play an added dimension of theatrical flamboyance.

Actors Isabelle Ford and Conor Leach are engaging personalities, both absolutely persuasive and likeable, in this portrait of teenage angst. Ford demonstrates a strength that gives substance to Caitlin’s rebellious edge. Leach’s blend of vulnerability and ebullience makes for a charming Oscar. There is a sadness to the story that seems elusive in their performance, but the splendid chemistry that they harness, keeps us attentive. There is an enjoyable intensity and vigour to director Katie Cawthorne’s work, even when it falls slightly short of the emotional depths required of Hell’s Canyon‘s depictions of trauma.

We all know how it is to feel misunderstood, but the real danger is when we begin to believe in other people’s fabrications about ourselves. When Caitlin and Oscar find themselves ostracised, that rejection is all-consuming, and they lose sight of themselves, hence unable to find a way to arrive at a sense of peace. The two are intimate but there is no harmony, only confusion and self-doubt. Reaching self-acceptance can be a huge undertaking, one that requires at least as much introspection as it does an understanding of one’s environment. Caitlin and Oscar have to wade through the noise, to get to something real. This can happen in an instant, or it can be a lifetime’s drudgery.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: The Widow Unplugged Or An Actor Deploys (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 26 – Sep 1, 2018
Playwright: Reg Livermore
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Reg Livermore
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Arthur Kwick fancies himself a performer but possesses no discernible talent. Nevertheless he does persist with his passion and has devoted his entire life to finding opportunities to jump on a stage, and make a fool of himself. Reg Livermore’s The Widow Unplugged Or An Actor Deploys is a work about an actor, by an actor. It is also a meditation about approaching the end of life, and whether one should go quietly, or to resist the notion of complete retirement. It is not a biographical work, but the parallels are absolutely clear.

The show bears a tone of abstraction, requiring its audience to work hard to decipher whatever it is that is being presented. There is a chance that the incoherence we encounter has more to do with Livermore’s current abilities, than with any artistic intention to confuse its audience in a purposeful or meaningful way, but that of course shall remain a mystery. The comedy is extremely corny, incessantly so, and would probably appeal only to the star’s devotees. Jokes about Chinese people eating their pets, and a Chinese laundry’s success being due to not using any MSG, are only the tip of the iceberg, in two large sections where he decides, with very poor judgement, to lampoon a Chinese woman character in Mosman. There may not be a substantial number of Asian patrons at Livermore’s show, but it still astounds that such insensitivity could find a place in Australian theatre today.

One of the allures of acquiring power, is that those who wield it, suffer little consequence for their actions. We make heroes of people, forgetting that they too are capable of failure, and we find ourselves at a loss when they cause offence using the very platforms we had gifted. Big names and great reputations are intrinsic to our social nature. We want to see people do well, and we want to raise them up as glorious examples of humanity at its best, but every person makes mistakes, and when luminaries disappoint, communities must acknowledge the new epiphanies.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: The Almighty Sometimes (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 27 – Sep 8, 2018
Playwright: Kendall Feaver
Director: Lee Lewis
Cast: Penny Cook, Brenna Harding, Shiv Palekar, Hannah Waterman
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Anna started medication for mental illness at the age of 8. Ten years later, and no longer a child, she decides, on her own accord, to suddenly discontinue the drugs. The repercussions are dire, of course, and as she unravels, her relationships convulse and deteriorate, revealing the social value of those pharmaceuticals. In Kendall Feaver’s The Almighty Sometimes, we see sickness from the perspective of the one personally afflicted, as well as the wider reverberations of what is usually considered an isolated condition. Much of what the play conveys is not new information, but its characters are extraordinarily conceived, each one authentic and rich in their depiction, with very persuasive scenes of conflict that provide The Almighty Sometimes its excellent sense of drama.

It is a fiery piece of theatre, featuring high stakes and big emotions, that director Lee Lewis integrates powerfully for a tense, affecting experience. The play features a lot of fighting, but it is really the intense love underscoring the strife and angst, that we connect with. Actor Brenna Harding is marvellous as Anna, complex but precise in her interpretation of a difficult personality, allowing us to comprehensively understand and empathise with her plight. Whether delicate or savage, Harding is full of enthralment, and we luxuriate in the diligence she brings to the stage.

Similarly captivating is Hannah Waterman, who plays Renee the long-suffering mother, with an impressive nuance, delivering a realistic and moving portrait of a woman at wits end, but who remains determined to do her best. The resilient spirit being presented is embodied, very convincingly, by Waterman’s compelling presence. Penny Cook and Shiv Palekar offer excellent support, both creating intriguing roles that give the issues at hand, unexpected dimensions, for a show memorable for its intricacy. Also noteworthy is work on music and sound by Russell Goldsmith, who keeps us on tenterhooks, with subtle and steady manipulations to atmosphere that prove to be immensely potent.

We look to medical professionals to fix us, often forgetting that there is no one ideal for how we should live. When discussing mental health, our subjective opinions have to find ways that can accommodate both the patient’s well-being and its impact on the wider community. If what is best for society is incongruous, with what individual sufferers consider to be best for themselves, that negotiation will turn persistently fraught. Anna’s sickness consumes herself, along with all who come in close contact. The Almighty Sometimes demonstrates unambiguously that mental health is a social issue, and if we are unable, as a nation, to focus on both cure and prevention, it will be a failure to truly be ashamed of.

www.griffintheatre.com.au