Review: Avalanche: A Love Story (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Aug 29 – Sep 14, 2019
Playwright: Julia Leigh
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Maxine Peake (with Jethro Jensen, Amy Wahhab)
Images by The Other Richard

Theatre review
Humans have an inexhaustible capacity for obsession. As individuals, we see the world in infinitely different ways, and each of us has our own private passions that can easily be seen as meaningless or bizarre by others. What is of fundamental importance to one, can be interpreted as totally nonsensical by another, yet we all cling on to these idiosyncrasies, often letting them consume and define us.

In the case of Julia Leigh’s Avalanche: A Love Story, an unnamed protagonist spends years absolutely absorbed by the notion of having to bear a child, and subjects herself to expensive and traumatising IVF treatments in hope of falling pregnant. She sacrifices relationships and a prestigious career in film making, to devote all her energies and resources, into the seemingly uncontrollable urge to have a baby. The play comprises scene after scene of one woman’s deep disappointments, and her inability to extricate herself from a suffering that only ever looks to be self-imposed. We watch in amazement, her persistence with this pipe dream, but certainly not all of us will be able to muster up the empathy that the playwright is intent on appealing to.

At best, the show is an honest and painful examination of experiences many have shared, but at its worst, Avalanche: A Love Story is a melodramatic and highly indulgent study of rich people’s problems, manifestly unaware of the way it opens itself to ridicule. The very skilful Anne-Louise Sarks brings, as director, an atmospheric intensity that almost has us forgetting, that the story requires our emotions invest in a kind of torment that can only befall the privileged.

There is no question that the production is adroitly assembled. Everything is considered, purposeful and remarkably polished, with not a hair out of place. Marg Horwell’s spectacular set design is unforgettable. Lizzie Powell’s lights and Stefan Gregory’s sounds are incredibly delicate in their rendering of a woman’s very genuine struggles. The contentious nature of this subject matter notwithstanding, the creative forces have no doubt accomplished a work of theatre replete with technical brilliance.

Maxine Peake too, is precise and inspired as performer of this 75 minute monologue. She holds our attention throughout, and convinces even the most sceptical, of the profound sorrow being expressed on stage. Her efforts are detailed and sensitive, always aiming to communicate at a level of uncompromising accuracy.

It is unlikely that Avalanche: A Love Story can preach beyond those already converted. The character’s anguish is undeniable, but the more that we delve into that narrative of grief, the more we question her choices. A woman can make any choice she so desires, but whether her need for sympathy as a result can ever be satisfied, is quite another matter.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Idam Sondhi and Nicole Wineberg

Idam Sondhi

Nicole Wineberg: You play 4 characters, 3 of which are puppets… what’s that like?
Idam Sondhi: It’s both a great challenge and rewarding playing several characters. 3 of which are puppets – it’s something I’ve never done. However, the nature of the play and the amount of time we got to improvise and try different things out was very liberating. The time allowed me to get comfortable in the skin and souls of our fabric friends.

Why is U.B.U relevant to today’s audiences?
U.B.U touches upon some extremely important issues which effect each individual on this planet. Our environment is sacred and a home we often take for granted. U.B.U deals with the repercussions of neglect which are caused by human tendencies such as greed, power and money. We need to have more self awareness and work at getting better and sharing vital knowledge to the future generation at restoring what’s broken about our environment. It takes each and everyone one of us to make a change and take care of the planet.

Is U.B.U just potty humour or is there something in there for the more discerning of tastes?
U.B.U is for everyone! It allows us to self-reflect and does it in a tasteful way (even though all the flavours might not taste good). It’s theatre you’ve never seen before!

What’s your favourite character and line in the play?
I love all the characters so much! Especially because we explored each one individually! But Bob and Bill (the royal twins) have a special place in my heart – played wonderfully by Shane and Rachel. My favourite line is “grotty, snotty, spottibots!” You will only know what that means if you come and watch the play!

Could you please sum up our version of U.B.U in 5 words?
Grotesque, truthful, hilarious, experiential, memorable!

Nicole Wineberg

Idam Sondhi: Tell us a bit about your character.
She’s a princess who has never faced anything resembling hardship who then is thrust into a horrible situation by Ubu and his followers. She also has a really good wig. The Sansa Stark of white privilege! 

What was it like being part on an ensemble cast like this?
Exciting, entertaining, terrifying and educational, all rolled into one spicy burrito. It was invigorating working with a group of people who were so willing to look foolish and grotesque for the sake of storytelling and humour.

What should people take away from the messages in U.B.U?
a) Take climate change seriously and do something about it! It doesn’t matter how little or insignificant it is, just make a start and commit to making a change!
b) There’s a fart joke to suit every taste!

What was your most memorable moment during the rehearsal process?
It was actually the audition process! We were stunned with the sheer amount of talent and weirdness Sydney actors have! The stuff we saw will haunt us till the day we die, that’s for sure!

If you could eat any dish every day for the rest of your life what would it be and why?
A medley of deep fried potato: your standard hand-cut chip, crinkle-cut and shoestring fries, gems and wedges. Delish. If you have to ask why, you’re an idiot.

Catch Idam Sondhi and Nicole Wineberg in U.B.U A Cautionary Tale Of Catastrophe, by Richard Hilliar.
Dates: 10 – 21 Sep, 2019
Venue: Kings Cross Theatre

Review: Betty Breaks Out (Life After Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 7, 2019
Playwright: Liz Hobart (after Maurice G. Kiddy)
Director: Ellen Wiltshire
Cast: Tommy Misa, Annie Stafford
Image by Jasmin Simmons

Theatre review
Betty and Fred are kidnapped, locked up in adjoining rooms to ponder their fate. Both are actors, trying to take control of a situation in which there is little hope of autonomy. Set in 1919 England, when moving pictures were silent, and damsels were always in distress, Liz Hobart’s Betty Breaks Out is a quaint piece that gives voice to characters that were previously one dimensional and mute. Whimsical and experimental, it resists clear narrative structures in favour of something offbeat and playful.

Directed by Ellen Wiltshire, the show is an effervescent, if slightly puzzling, exercise in theatre making. Without a straightforward plot, it is perhaps surprising that the staging takes a naturalistic approach, instead of a more abstract mode of expression, especially with a writing style that seems intent on creating a poetic experience. It is noteworthy however, that music by Alexander Lee-Rekers is an enjoyable aspect of the production, able to enhance mood and rhythm to keep us engaged. The performing duo too, brings a gratifying charm. Tommy Misa and Annie Stafford are delightful presences, even if they do seem somewhat restrained by a presentation that feels insufficiently adventurous.

It is true that much of how we face the public, can be described as performative. We all have to operate within structures that do not always make room for what our individual beings might think to be authentic. We are urged to play along with the game, to adopt pre-determined codes and languages, so that a semblance of harmony can be attained. We rarely feel at liberty to deviate, as ostracism is a threat that few can bear to endure. When it becomes clear that the notion of a greater good, is almost certain to only benefit communities disproportionately, our commitment to obedience must then be questioned. There will always be people who want us to stay in our narrow lanes, but the second that we begin to identify our own complicity in this oppression, is the moment that we begin to set the self free.

www.lifeafterproductions.com

Review: Caroline, Or Change (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Aug 23 – Sep 21, 2019
Book: Tony Kushner
Music: Jeanine Tesori
Lyrics: Tony Kushner
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Nkechi Anele, Andrew Cutcliffe, Alexandra Fricot, Amy Hack, Emily Havea, Tony Llewellyn-Jones, Genevieve Lemon, Ruva Ngwenya, Elenoa Rokobaro, Elijah Williams and Ryan Yeates
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Caroline works in the basement of the Gellman household, washing and drying clothing in the stifling heat of Louisiana, 1963. Eight year-old Noah Gellman had recently lost his mother, and the Jewish boy is forming a fixation on his African-American cleaning lady, the intensity of which is amplified by his stepmother’s decision to have Caroline keep any money that the child may forget to remove from his pockets, before sending them to get laundered. Tony Kushner and Jeanine Tesori’s Caroline, Or Change is set during the peak of America’s civil rights movement, and although political marches and demonstrations are occurring far away, a distinct sense of resistance is beginning to take hold in the Gellman basement.

The material is poetic, and operatic. Often darkly humorous, Caroline, Or Change is an unconventional musical that does not rely on catchy melodies or cheap sentimentality, to sustain our interest. It intrigues with its powerful narrative, and its two very fascinating central characters. Directed by Mitchell Butel, many of the writing’s deeper resonances can seem lost in the cacophonous renderings of the musical format, but the show’s highly polished look and sound proves seductive, and along with some truly outstanding performances, we are kept absolutely enthralled.

Set design by Simon Greer is wonderfully evocative, and with four tiers of performing space, the small stage is quite miraculously expanded to accommodate the complex spatial requirements of the text. Lights by Alexander Berlage are romantic and lyrical, yet effective in providing dramatic punctuation whenever required. Anthony Lorenz’s sound design is excellent, able to make cohesive, and pleasurable, the multifarious dimensions emanating from singers and instruments.

Elenoa Rokobaro brings her phenomenal voice to Caroline, with a quality of singing that is impressive by any barometer of assessment. Her creation is an appropriately stoic personality, who gradually unravels, for a sophisticated and dignified depiction of resilient blackness. Ryan Yeates is a compelling Noah, technically precise but also emotionally authentic, almost effortless in his passionate expressions of a child discovering the harsh realities of existence. Rose, the stepmother, is played by an exuberant Amy Hack, whose faultless comedy is hugely gratifying, in this otherwise despondent tale. Ruva Ngwenya is a scene-stealer in her various parts, whether presenting herself as soul chanteuse or opera diva, we revel in all that she delivers.

The show ends on a note of hope, with Caroline looking to the future for solace and salvation. More than 50 years have past, and although there is comfort to be found in the strides that have no doubt been taken, there is clearly a long way yet to go, before Martin Luther King’s dream can be fully realised. In the progress towards equality, there are always those who will fight back against what is right. It seems today, that those who are wrong, are gaining momentum in their deplorable efforts to bring regression to how our lives are structured. The Gellmans look on the surface to be good people, but their inability and refusal to make things better for their wider community, is a problem that many of us have inherited and continue to persist with.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Chicago (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Aug 20 – Oct 20, 2019
Music: Fred Ebb, John Kander
Lyrics: Fred Ebb, John Kander
Book: Fred Ebb, Bob Fosse, John Kander
Director: Walter Robbie
Cast: Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Amy Berrisford, Tom Burlinson, Alinta Chidzey, Andrew Cook, Todd Dewberry, Rodney Dobson, Samantha Dodemaide, Casey Donovan, Mitchell Fistrovic, J. Furtado, Ben Gillespie, Chaska Halliday, Travis Khan, Hayley Martin, Kristina McNamara, Joe Meldrum, Tom New, Jessica Velluci, Romina Villafranca, Rachael Ward, Zachary Webster, Mitchell Woodcock
Images by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
Roxie and Velma are in the slammer, but it would appear that they are having a great time, having learned that in America, it pays to kill. Chicago deals with the subject of the celebrity criminal, and the conventional notion that in whatever realm of achievement, no matter how sordid, we insist always only on having one victor, if the parties involved are women. The story may be approaching a hundred years old, but the enduring musical retains its feeling of thorough modernity, thanks in large part to Bob Fosse’s unparalleled choreography (interpreted by Ann Reinking in 1997), giving the show an air of scandalous edginess that is as yet unsurpassed.

This Australian revival, with resident director Karen Johnson Mortimer at its helm, is sophisticated and sexy, an exceedingly accomplished rendition of one of Broadway’s longest running musicals. Beautifully arranged by musical director Daniel Edmonds, the songs of Chicago are once again vibrantly rousing, proving the timelessness of this legendary work.

The ensemble is unequivocally sensational. Each performer delectable, skilful, and incredibly tightly rehearsed, for a presentation that leaves us breathless from the very get go. Roxie Hart is played by a luminous Natalie Bassingthwaighte, who brings a surprising and highly effective humour to the role, marvellous in her ability to elevate the well-worn campness of her material to something quite unexpectedly exquisite. Alinta Chidzey is impressive with the technical proficiency she brings to Velma Kelly, a consummate professional who hits every mark with admirable precision.

Tom Burlinson is slightly less charming than he needs to be, as the unscrupulous lawyer Billy Flynn, and although able to hold all the notes, Burlinson’s voice is unfortunately quite underwhelming. Rodney Dobson is on the other hand, charisma personified, winning the hearts of every audience member as Roxie’s husband Amos, especially during his much-loved “Mr. Cellophane” number. The part of Mary Sunshine is perfectly sung by J. Furtado, and Casey Donovan is simply divine as Matron ‘Mama’ Morton, replete with superstar quality.

The feuding women come together at the end, after being chewed up and spat out by the patriarchy. Women are told that there is only ever room for one, and so many fight tooth and nail to get to the top, forgetting that a hierarchy will always require the subjugation of entire populations, and that no woman is allowed to stay eternally supreme in accordance with this mode of doing things. Competition may be healthy, but whenever we are made to betray the sisterhood, we must remind ourselves that much as we are seduced by the feeling of attaining personal gain, the real beneficiaries of the system is never us.

www.chicagothemusical.com.au

Review: A Deal (Chippen Street Theatre)

Venue: Chippen Street Theatre (Chippendale NSW), Aug 22 – 31, 2019
Playwright: Zhu Yi
Director: Shiya Lu
Cast: Paul Chambers, Abigail Coffey, Edric Hong, Suzann James, Simon Lee, Katherin Nheu, Simone Wang, Sally Williams, Susan Young, Shi-Kai Zhang
Images by Kelvin Xu (Luky Studio)

Theatre review
Li Su comes from the middle classes of China, but in her efforts to make it big as an actor in New York, she pretends to be a tragic stereotype, the kind of immigrant that the West likes to think of as a subject of oppression and persecution, victimised by an inferior authoritarian government. When Su’s parents pay a visit, bringing a million dollars in cash to buy her an apartment, the truth becomes a matter of grave inconvenience that she struggles to navigate. Zhu Yi’s A Deal details the experience of a new American, one who chooses to leave the East for the West, at a time when economic power is at an unprecedented equivalence.

The play is a fascinating exploration of timely issues, from a cross-cultural perspective that introduces an unusual complexity to some otherwise hackneyed topics. Directed by Shiya Lu, the production is intellectually engaging, even if pacing does require tightening up at various points. There are compelling performances from its cast, with Shi-Kai Zhang particularly strong as Su’s father, with a combination of heightened drama and understated humour keeping us thoroughly bemused. Also memorable are Susan Young and Edric Hong, both ebullient with the conviction they bring on stage. Su is played by Katherin Nheu, energetic and convincing in the role, although a greater investment into comedy aspects would help provide a more nuanced interpretation of the narrative.

In A Deal, Su’s own desires and ambitions are in constant battle with expectations of her family and those of her new adoptive country. It is almost as if the young woman can never achieve autonomy, even with all that money in the bank. In some ways, we see that she cares too much about external opinion, but we also understand that these are impinging forces that make it difficult for Su to become her own person, on her own terms. Negotiations have to be made, between her authentic self, and the environment in which she lives. If one chooses to pay indiscriminate attention to every source of influence, the demands that can be made of any single person are interminable. Noise that surrounds Su will never cease. It is up to her to recognise which are superfluous, and do away with them.

www.chippenstreet.com | www.flyinghouse.art

Review: An Intervention (The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 20 -31, 2019
Playwright: Mike Bartlett
Director: Erin Taylor
Cast: Jessica-Belle Keogh, Bardiya McKinnon
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
They are best friends, perhaps even soul mates, but we meet them at a point where these unnamed characters begin to diverge, as they start developing in directions that seem to be in mutual conflict. There is no doubt however, that these two, in Mike Bartlett’s An Intervention, are bonded on a level of essence, that they connect on a fundamental level beyond the surprising choices that they now make. How people experience the world can only ever be unique, and friends growing apart seems almost inevitable. Bartlett’s play is keenly observed and irresistibly witty, a truthful work that reveals meaningful aspects of ourselves, able to demystify parts of human nature that we rarely bring articulation to.

Directed by Erin Taylor, the show is jaunty and engaging, sensitive in its rendering of a story about careless friendships. It is an attractive production, with Jonathan Hindmarsh’s set design and Liam O’Keefe’s lights bringing a sense of flamboyant theatricality to the intimate two-hander. Actor Jessica-Belle Keogh is mesmerising as the one who drinks too much, impressive for the exquisite thoroughness with which she attacks the role. Her performance is intelligent and deliberate but never feels forced, consistently thought-provoking while keeping us wonderfully entertained. Bardiya McKinnon holds his own as the one who marries for convenience, convincing in his natural approach, if slightly too simple in comparison. Excellent chemistry between the two sets the stage alight, for 90 minutes of comedy delivered with an unexpected sophistication.

We may not always be able to intervene when friends make mistakes. Life is often out of our control, and many occasions seem to require that we sit back and watch the unfolding of a car crash. We can however, always be there to help pick up the pieces. The people in An Intervention spend an inordinate amount of time in judgement of each other, but it appears that this constant disapproval amounts to nothing. A life without fuck-ups is no life at all. To have good friends witness every embarrassment, is perhaps a crucial element in the foundation of real love.

www.old505theatre.com | www.facebook.com/LastOneStandingTheatreCo