Review: Grand Horizons (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 7 – Jul 3, 2021
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: John Bell, Linda Cropper, Vanessa Downing, James Majoos, Johnny Nasser, Zindzi Okenyo, Guy Simon
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Nancy has asked for a divorce. Instead of congratulating her on daring to reach for happier days in the twilight years, her adult sons desperately try to change her mind, determined to keep her tethered to a life that she clearly deems unsatisfactory. At the centre of Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons is Nancy and Bill’s 50-year marriage, offering a framework through which our basic values as individuals and as collectives, are interrogated. The very idea that a person’s efforts to end a bad relationship, are met with despair, is a clear indication of our capacity to be so distorted in the ways we conceive of existence.

It is a surreptitiously philosophical work, accomplished with a wonderful sense of humour, and often with a subversive streak. Wohl diminishes the persuasiveness of her own arguments however, by rendering the family’s wealth invisible in her discussions about female independence. The desire to lead us to a pleasing conclusion too, can feel somewhat of a cop out, but the play is undeniably enjoyable, full of wit and whimsy that makes for a hilarious and thought-provoking experience.

Nancy’s big beige sterile house, is an ironic picture of middle-class mediocrity and boredom. Production designer Renée Mulder delivers a comedic conflation, of aspiration and of depression, in her interpretation of boomer suburban resplendence. Lights by Verity Hampson and sound by Clemence Williams are subtly resolved, to honour all the clever ideas and the incessant jokes, that make Grand Horizons quite the unforgettable experience.

Certainly memorable is actor Linda Cropper, who brings extraordinary complexity, along with brilliant timing, to the role of Nancy. It is a remarkably intelligent performance, conveying great integrity for the older woman who finally realises that she deserves better. Also highly entertaining is Guy Simon as Brian, the gay son, who has a difficult time extricating his own identity from his parents’ parting of ways. Simon plays the flamboyant drama teacher with a dazzling theatricality, keeping the laughter sustained for as long as he remains on stage.

It is a strong cast overall, but supporting player James Majoos is exceptional in his single appearance, as the carefree Tommy, incredibly extravagant in approach, for one of the play’s more outrageous scenes. Director Jessica Arthur proves herself a formidable creator of comedy; her strategies vary from delicate to bold, demonstrating an adventurous creative spirit, and a serious commitment to tickling her audience.

We place far too much emphasis on the length of relationships, and invest far too little into understanding what makes a good one. Elizabeth Taylor married and divorced eight times, because she knew when she had become unhappy, and made sure to improve conditions whenever necessary. For that, she was routinely ridiculed and insulted. On the other hand, people like Nancy who tolerate untold decades of misery, are revered solely for the longevity of their unions, with the actual experience of those years and years, seemingly irrelevant. Few things are worth greater celebration, than when a woman finds the courage to walk away from a failed marriage. The danger and humiliation that she has to contend with, is a price that she is willing to pay, for the promise of a better life.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Come From Away (Capitol Theatre)

Venue: Capitol Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 3 – Aug 22, 2021
Book, Music & Lyrics: Irene Sankoff, David Hein
Director: Christopher Ashley
Cast: Zoe Gertz, Sharriese Hamilton, Douglas Hansell, Kolby Kindle, Phillip Lowe, Simon Maiden, Sarah Morrison, Emma Powell, Katrina Retallick, Kellie Rode, Ash Roussety, Gene Weygandt

Theatre review
At the moment the disaster of September 11, 2001 occurred, hundreds of aeroplanes were mid-air across the Americas, thrust into utter chaos. Thousands of passengers had to be diverted as a result of the terrorist attack, to safer harbours, including the island of Newfoundland, at the outer east of Canada. The musical Come From Away comprises a collection of anecdotes from the five days, during which international strangers were welcomed by country folk into their homes, at a historic time.

Written by David Hein and Irene Sankoff, the material is warm and witty, offering a way for us to look back at a traumatic event, without having to engage directly with its immense darkness. Instead, it is the overwhelming goodness of ordinary people that comes to the fore. Directed by Christopher Ashley, the show eschews the usual manipulative cheesiness of the musical format, trusting in our collective memory of that fateful day, to transport us to a space of deep emotion and great empathy.

The staging feels deceptively simple, but in the absence of predictably flamboyant manoeuvres, thoughtful details are introduced instead, notably by Kelly Devine’s choreography, for a theatrical experience that is surprisingly sensitive in its rendering, to achieve an authentic expression of the human need for connection. Howell Binkley’s lights too, are memorable for delicately shifting us from nuance to nuance, never overly dramatic, but always precise in how they convey mood and tone for each scene.

The ensemble cast is brilliantly cohesive. Each performer is given plentiful opportunity to shine as individuals, but it is their tightness as a group that makes their presentation feel bulletproof. All are required to play multiple characters, and for the audience to discover every personality to be a likeable one, is truly remarkable. Similarly, musicians in the productions are no less than awe inspiring. Their work is spirited and exhilarating, incredibly rousing in this story about humans at their best, at a time of crisis.

Come From Away emerges from a horrific incident, yet we find it to be full of light and hope. In some ways, there is a sense that twenty years ago, even in the midst of tragedy, we knew clearly the distinction between right and wrong, good and bad. With the passage of time however, it may seem that an erosion of innocence has accelerated, probably through the Trump years, where seeing the worst of people is no longer a shock, but almost a matter of course. Fortunately though, the good people of Newfoundland do not seem fictitious; they only seem very far away.

www.comefromaway.com.au

Review: The Cherry Orchard (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 29 – Jun 27, 2021
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Eamon Flack)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Peter Carroll, Priscilla Doueihy, Nadie Kammallaweera, Kirsty Marillier, Lucia Mastrantone, Mandela Mathia, Sarah Meacham, Josh Price, Pamela Rabe, Keith Robinson, Jack Scott, Charles Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The Russian aristocracy as we had known them, were no longer to be, in Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Members of Ranevskaya’s household scramble around, filled with anxiety at the prospect of the old world’s demise, completely at a loss as to what to expect of the future, and how to continue existing as the inevitable begins to set in.

In director Eamon Flack’s 2021 version, the power transitions that occur in The Cherry Orchard are represented not only by the idealism of our young. An unmistakeable racial dimension is introduced, with the emergence of the middle classes expressed as a parallel dialogue, about the changing status of Australia’s people of colour.

It is a valiant attempt by Flack to breathe new life into the play. Aside from successfully locating a contemporary resonance for the old tale, he replaces early twentieth century naturalistic styles with a theatrical exuberance, that makes the show more appealing to today’s compromised attention spans. The freshly sharpened farcical tone is enjoyable, as are its efforts at broadening the scope of Chekhov’s work, to be inclusive of the marginalised, such as the LGBT community, and people living with disabilities.

Actor Mandela Mathia is captivating as Lopahkin, the businessman with a recent background of peasantry. Now riding on the wave of new money rising, the Black man is confident but still humble, which Mathia portrays with admirable exactitude. It is a precise and varied performance, from one who proves as likeable as he is compelling. The old white guards are exemplified in The Cherry Orchard by Ranevskaya, slothful and ignorant, but nonetheless well-intentioned. Played by Pamela Rabe, the role is appropriately comical, with an air of deteriorating glamour that becomes progressively fragile.

Funniest in the ensemble include Lucia Mastrantone, unforgettable as the kooky governess Charlotta, and full of mischief as she invents one trick after another. Charles Wu takes a more understated approach, but is no less hilarious as the incredulously suave Yasha, complete with perfectly timed hip thrusts, almost convincing us that it might be possible to bring sexy back to Chekhov.

Set design by Romanie Harper is surprisingly stark, but its clean lines and minimal approach deliver an elegant, if slightly nondescript vista. Harper’s costumes are more imaginatively rendered, with each character’s appearance distinctly and eccentrically conceived. Lights by Nick Schlieper provide a warmth that keeps us reminded of the notion of home, that is fundamentally embedded within this narrative about power and property. Stefan Gregory’s use of eclectic music styles bring valuable energy to the work, whilst establishing a sense of indeterminacy to time and place, that allows us to connect with The Cherry Orchard in personal ways.

A little more than a century after the completion of Chekhov’s final play, we find ourselves back at a point of disgraceful wealth disparity. What may have been a hopeful forecast of a new way of life, can now be seen to be overly optimistic. There is no doubt that things have improved on many fronts, but the inordinate concentration of wealth today at the top end of town, reveals the failure of efforts to redistribute wealth, and to alleviate poverty. People might no longer wish to call themselves aristocrats and peasants, but all we have to do, is to look at all the numbers, that never lie.

www.belvoir.com.au