Review: Pippin (Sydney Lyric Theatre)

Venue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 24, 2020 – Jan 31, 2021
Music and lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Book: Roger O. Hirson
Director: Diane Paulus
Cast: Leslie Bell, Simon Burke, Euan Doidge, Kerri-Anne Kennerley, Lucy Maunder, Gabrielle McClinton, Ainsley Melham, Ryan Yeates
Images by Brian Geach

Theatre review
More than being Prince of the Franks, Pippin is the prince of despair. He is the son of an ambitious and ruthless king, but what Pippin wants for himself, cannot be found in following anyone’s footsteps but his own. Although not the most memorable in terms of songs and characters, the 1972 musical by Roger O. Hirson and Stephen Schwartz, is delightfully conceived, featuring an integration of philosophy with circus disciplines, that proves evergreen and quite irresistible.

This twenty-first century version, choreographed by Chet Walker in the legendary style of Bob Fosse, is sensual and captivating as ever, with a level of sophistication that makes the experience an consistently pleasurable one. Direction by Diane Paulus is somewhat emotionally distant, but the visual splendour she manifests is quite a thing to behold.

Performer Ainsley Melham is very likeable in the titular role, not the strongest voice for a stage of this magnitude, but certainly a big presence with a palpable warmth that keeps us firmly on his character’s side. Gabrielle McClinton is striking and highly impressive as Leading Player, a ringmaster of sorts, delivering a portrayal that is precise, unyieldingly energetic and brilliantly nuanced.

Simon Burke and Leslie Bell are full of charm as Pippin’s royal parents, whilst Euan Doidge’s camp rendition of Prince Lewis is an unforgettable crowd-pleaser. Also humorous is Lucy Maunder, who plays love interest Catherine, remarkably timed and splendidly confident with the quirky comedy that she brings. Above all, the chorus is life of the party, many of whom are circus folk adept at keeping us awe-struck with physical feats that never fail to get our jaws hitting the ground. It is theatre as spectacle, and at an especially difficult time, an antidote we desperately need to help lift our spirits.

wwww.pippinthemusical.com.au

Review: The Picture Of Dorian Gray (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 25 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Kip Williams (adapted from the Oscar Wilde novel)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Eryn Jean Norvill
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Self-preservation is in our human nature, but when it manifests in forms of narcissism, we have to wonder if that urge of vanity, is in fact paradoxically self-destructive. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture Of Dorian Gray tells the story of a man so taken by his own beauty, he sells his soul in order to forever retain it. That juxtaposition of soul and beauty sets up a dichotomy, that makes us consider the inextricability of one with the other. If the soul is essentially good, Wilde wants us to think that beauty is ultimately impossible, in those who are fundamentally bad. His narrative is compelling, although the evidence in our real lives, may prove those beliefs less convincing.

Kip Williams’ ultra modern version places on the stage, front and centre, screens that display digitalised imagery, most of which can be thought of as selfies of Wilde’s nineteenth century characters, seeming to represent something more tangible than the flimsy yet seductive pixels we encounter in cinematic style. It is a thrilling production, fast-paced and very attractive, able to hold us captive with stunning sights and sounds, inventive from start to finish. Appropriate for our culture, one that has been taken over by mobile devices, and that the show so fervently interrogates, causing the viewer to oscillate between suspecting that it might all be slightly facile, and thinking that maybe there is something to be said about existence in 2020, as we obsess over all things pertaining to facades. In some ways, one could go away thinking that Williams has proven Wilde wrong.

It is the surface that we find glorious in Williams’ vision, with Marg Horwell’s work as designer, and Nick Schlieper’s lights providing an endless stream of breathtaking moments, along with David Bergman’s very sophisticated and thoughtful video work, bringing Australian theatre into a futuristic new era. Clemence Williams too, excels with sound and music, especially memorable when her approach turns baroque, and we feel aroused by the surprising dimensions she is able to build for our senses. Stage Manager Minka Stevens, along with all the crew, must be congratulated for their valiant and expert fulfillment of an exceptionally complex undertaking.

Actor Eryn Jean Norvill plays Dorian Gray and all the other 25 roles. It is the tallest of orders, not only having to switch between personalities at lightning speed for the entire two-hour duration, but also for the extreme demands of an impossibly technical show, involving multiple cameras, and interactions with pre-recorded footage. Norvill’s spirit is indomitable, but we wonder if any human is able to meet every requirement of this merciless challenge.

There is no question that our lives are turning increasingly digital. Some of us might still hang on to ideas that our analogue selves will always be ultimately more genuine, but forces that want us to relinquish remaining parts that are private and physical, are winning every battle. As we transform into pixels and data, at the insistence of those capitalistic entities, we begin to learn that the digital is no longer merely a representation of something else. Images on a screen are becoming more real than what we see without devices as conduit. Also not forgetting, that we are marching towards a time, when the only images we see are either digital or dreams. No one will ever get to Dorian Gray’s flesh, only the evidence of his being, in computerised forms. There is a narcissism in our resistance to this future. We want to believe in our supremacy over technology, as we had believed in our supremacy over nature and other species. Humans seem never to learn that the world is not about us.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Rules For Living (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 2 – Dec 19, 2020
Playwright: Sam Holcroft
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ella Jacob, Keegan Joyce, Amber McMahon, Hazem Shammas, Bruce Spence, Sonia Todd, Nikita Waldron
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
It is Christmas lunch at Francis’ home in the affluent North Shore. He is a successful lawyer, and both his sons are desperately trying to follow in his footsteps, although their authentic passions lie clearly in other fields. A lot of Sam Holcroft’s Rules For Living talks about the conflict between who we are, and who we are expected to be. It is about the standards set by society, by family, friends and lovers, that have very little to do with what one needs for a satisfying existence, and everything to do with obedience, and for keeping up with the joneses. An examination of middle class mirage is plat du jour, as served up by this predictable comedy, giving us nothing edgy or indeed revelatory.

Actor Sonia Todd plays Edith, mother to the boys, especially effective when bringing emphasis to the irony of narcissistic anguish in people who have it all. Everything is too stressful in her perfect world, where not a hair is allowed to be out of place. Todd offers an accurate sense of bourgeois uptight-ness, that is valuable in our understanding of early twenty-first century Western civilisation, even though the noisy ensemble piece does ultimately prevent anything meaningful or profound to be properly conveyed.

Directed by Susanna Dowling, the show is consistently energetic, but bewilderingly unfunny. The performers work extraordinarily hard to entertain, but none seems to have located any significant humour in the piece, that they so laboriously bring to the stage. Their approaches range from realist to absurdist, all of which miss the mark, although it can often appear that there is little in the writing that is inherently amusing. Design aspects are elegant and polished, but conservatively rendered, for a production that looks, sounds and feels like the hundred Christmas comedies that have come before, always unthreatening, but banal at best.

As we try to survive a living hell comprised of Trumpism and COVID-19, telling stories about vicious family dynamics in 2020, proves to be an exercise that feels little more than a slightly quaint distraction from real life. What might have been important theatre in 2015, when Rules For Living had made its international premiere, now lacks pertinence in a vastly transformed world. There are much bigger fish to fry, and art needs to keep up.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Enemies Of Grooviness Eat Shit (Performing Lines)

Venue: The Red Rattler Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Oct 26 – Nov 5, 2020
Creator: Emma Maye Gibson
Cast: Betty Grumble
Images by Joseph Mayers

Theatre review
Understanding the power of love does not make one impervious to violence. To love thy neighbour, is a notion that should never have exceptions, but it seems our humanity has a habit of setting limits when it comes to generosity. The title of Betty Grumble’s latest outing, Enemies Of Grooviness Eat Shit feigns a sense of aggression, but its tongue-in-cheekness is evident. At the heart of Grumble’s show is a response to sexual violence, although it must be said that the artist resists constraints of any sort, leading to a nature of work that is stridently post-dramatic and non-linear, eluding categorisations at every juncture. The beauty of it is how one can bring interpretations of all kinds, no matter the viewer’s point of departure, and Grumble’s robust presence emanates a visceral power that rigorously provokes thought, even as our senses are consumed by her outrageous manoeuvres.

The character we come into contact with can be seen as a love warrior, oxymoronic but completely appropriate for our times of division. As North Americans march to their voting stations this week, we see a nation fighting for its survival, even though they may look more to be fighting one another. In truth, no fight is devoid of love. Humanity has been tied to death and destruction since the dawn of time, but all our transgressions are executed in the name of love, no matter how gruesome or savage. Even the Nazis say they kill for the love of their race. In Enemies Of Grooviness Eat Shit we confront the concept that hate seems always to be bred from love, yet if one is to be truly loving, ideas of revenge and justice will only turn painful and messy.

Grumble wrestles with herself and the world, as she tries to make things right. It is essentially a one-person show, but our star is constantly invoking others, most notably and with great veneration the artists Candy Royale and Annie Sprinkle, always naming collaborators and inspiring figures, as she takes charge of our communion. It is a deep understanding that for the world to be better, there can be no room for narcissism. We might only be able to speak one at a time, but efforts must find unity.

Grumble’s theatrical language prevents fissures resulting in us and them, so to talk about enemies, and to tell them to eat shit, always takes the attack back to the self. The violence if not turned inward, is certainly shared. In Grumble’s universe, Gaia and Karma are fundamental to how things are understood, and how things should be carried out. She offers a spiritual experience, but one that is devoid of naivety. If there are solutions, they can be found in guiding principles that the show teaches, not very much in words, but through the sensual and visual manifestations of what she puts her body through for our benefit.

Grumble may not have solved the world’s problems with her show, but she succeeds in introducing a moment of transcendence into each of our lives, and because to meet this artist is unequivocally unforgettable, the messages that she imparts will stick. Returning to spaces less sacred, less sublime, a part of us can sense the lingering presence of what had been witnessed, and we know that if everyone can get in touch with the Betty Grumble within, things will be all right.

www.performinglines.org.a

Review: Superheroes (Griffin Theatre Company)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Sep 25 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Mark Rogers
Director: Shari Sebbens
Cast: Gemma Bird Matheson, Claire Lovering, Aleks Mikic
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Superheroes by Mark Rogers tells the stories of two women at opposite ends of the world; Jana is near Sarajevo, and Emily is near Sydney. Their lives are different as can be, but on this one stage, we cannot help but draw parallels, such is the nature of being human. We create meaning from things we observe, and make distinct each personality whom we encounter, focussing quite naturally on how they are separate, but in this strange juxtaposition of experiences within Rogers’ text, we are additionally compelled to find ways to see ourselves as a unified species. We examine microcosms in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and a more privileged Australia, finding ways to understand the people that we are, wondering if vastly different environments mean that we are necessarily disparate, or essentially one and the same.

Rogers’ scintillating writing is brought to life by Shari Sebbens’ dynamic and vigorous direction. The show brims with passion, offering emotional intensity from start to end. Claire Lovering is exquisite as Jana, delivering a deeply considered and precise portrayal, of a woman unable to emerge from the trauma and conflict that has shaped her community. It is an unequivocally profound performance by Lovering. Emily is played by Gemma Bird Matheson, memorable for her exuberance and an enjoyable sense of rawness she introduces to the production. It is an extremely likeable presence that she brings. Aleks Mikic takes on separate roles as male counterparts to the leads, succeeding on both counts, with his uncanny ability to convey authenticity whilst dispensing generous measures of natural charm.

Also noteworthy is lighting design by Verity Hampson, efficient yet refined as it helps us navigate movements in time. Production designer Renée Mulder exercises restrained elegance for her work on costumes and set. David Bergman’s sound and music are dramatic but unobtrusive, surreptitiously manipulating our emotional responses as the plot unfolds.

Even in the most ordinary of lives, courage is paramount. Even the most cowardly, have known moments of bravery in order that they may survive. In these challenging times of 2020, we are startled to realise the strength and resilience each can possess. The most noble of us however, have the capacity not only to stay afloat, but to keep making the best choices for the sake of all, when self-preservation seems the order of the day.

www.griffintheatre.com.au

Review: Wonnangatta (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre (Sydney NSW), Sep 21 – Oct 31, 2020
Playwright: Angus Cerini
Director: Jessica Arthur
Cast: Wayne Blair, Hugo Weaving
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We see in Angus Cerini’s Wonnangatta, two men in various states of distress, coming to grips with the murder of a friend. The story takes place in the remote Victorian Alps, one century ago, inevitably taking the familiar tone of the Australian gothic fable. Our obsession with the landscape, and the nature of our mateship, come to the fore as the characters wrestle with isolation, despair and terror. Cerini’s writing is remarkably visceral in quality, allowing for ample manifestations of mood in the theatrical form to activate various aspects of our imagination.

Production design by Jacob Nash is sparse but highly evocative, featuring a structure reminiscent of a meandering cliff, that works in conjunction with Nick Schlieper’s lights to convincingly shepherd us into the abyss of Wonnangatta‘s haunting realms. Music and sound by Stefan Gregory provide valuable demarcations that shift our perceptions of time, in accordance with the men’s increasing bewilderment.

Actors Wayne Blair and Hugo Weaving bring undeniable charisma and gravity to the experience, although multiple blunders with collisions of their dialogue prove distracting. Director Jessica Arthur introduces a gradual crescendo to tension levels that sustains our interest, and it becomes evident that the performance is at its most enjoyable when the duo invests in the kinetic poeticism of the writing. An emphasis on the narrative’s linearity can however, work against the strengths of the show. We want to indulge in the despondent beauty of its netherworld, but often find ourselves trying to pay attention to details that detract from its more ephemeral pleasures.

Stories about our forefathers tend to involve hardship, and in 2020, that resonance is certainly apparent. There is a constant sense of foreboding in Wonnangatta that relates so directly to our lives today, as though fear, misery and anxiety are the most fundamental features of our humanity. We are reminded that survival is what we have to do. For decades, many have lived with lofty ideals, thinking that the meaning of life relates to so much more, than keeping alive to welcome the morning. It is a humbling moment, one most of us could do well to appreciate.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Distorted (Fixed Foot Productions)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 10 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Xavier Coy
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Michael Arvithis, Xavier Coy, Emma Louise, Poppy Lynch, Lex Marinos, Tristan McKinnon, Kate Rutherford, Jack Walton, David Woodland, Sheree Zellner
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Xavier Coy’s Distorted comprises short episodes, involving ten main characters, all of whom are connected, and all of whom have less than joyful lives. They look like people from any Western city, who have struggles that look ordinary, yet none of which can be easily dealt with. Life is hard, by Coy’s estimation, but what he presents is perversely delightful. There is a veiled humour to the despondent scenarios being enacted, that feels like a bitter irony acknowledging that our complaints can only ever feel haughty when there are roofs over heads, and no shortage of food in bellies.

In Distorted, we observe the all-consuming nature of these personal problems, whilst forming a perspective that reveals these frustrations to be ultimately inconsequential and somewhat narcissistic. Director Richard Hilliar does an excellent job of depicting both the accuracy of these egocentric experiences, and a wider view that it all amounts to little. The show is captivating in every moment, with Hilliar’s knack for drama keeping us mesmerised.

Stage design by Hamish Elliot is gracefully rendered, and effective in facilitating the quick scene changes that happen throughout the duration. Jasmin Borsovsky’s lights too, help us instinctively navigate spacial transformations, as do Martin Gallagher’s sounds that work with our subconscious to make sense of the many abrupt shifts in time. A strong cast performs the piece, with each character believable and realistic. The team tells a cohesive story, remarkable with the even focus they provide so compellingly, to have us invest in every little detail that is being conveyed.

Most of the people in Distorted find the world a difficult place, but they do little to seek to change it. One of them spends considerable time in psychotherapy, where he tries to find ways to fix himself, even though the play gives no evidence of the young man suffering any illness. We have become conditioned to always think that it is the individual who needs improvement, that when things go wrong, we need to fix ourselves, without ever questioning if it is the external environment that requires interrogation. Happiness must come from within, but when we encounter anxiety and exasperation, we must not forget to transcend the self, and identify first, the structures we operate under that are determined to beat us down.

www.facebook.com/fixedfootproductions

Review: Cusp (ATYP)

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 11 – 28, 2020
Playwright: Mary Anne Butler
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Stevie Jean, Josh McElroy, Nyasha Ogden
Images by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
In a Northern Territory rural town, three young people are about to leave their teenage years behind. Unlike many of their counterparts in big cities, Elvis, Maddie and Rosie have no time to waste. Mary Anne Butler’s Cusp tackles the worlds of those who do not have the luxury to slowly figure things out. It is a story about class and poverty, an exploration into structures we have to operate under that are manifestly unjust and inadequate, yet are rarely questioned. At seventeen or eighteen, characters in the play have to deal with matters as severe as pregnancy and incarceration, with little support and guidance from those who should know better.

Butler’s scintillating dialogue keeps us engrossed in the personalities she introduces. Director Fraser Corfield brings sincerity and honesty to the play, creating a show with genuine resonances, even though its staging can at times feel static and visually repetitive. Lights by Jessie Davis and sound by Brad Fawcett are sensitively designed, for a remarkably elegant style of presentation.

Three impressive actors bring passion and conviction to their roles, all of them adept at having the audience spellbound. As Rosie, Nyasha Ogden is a captivating presence, warm and very believable as the Indigenous girl trying to reconcile wishes of her community with personal desires. Stevie Jean depicts Maddie’s loss of innocence with a charming boldness, effective in helping us contemplate how a very young woman can exercise her agency. A memorable Josh McElroy is detailed and delicate as Elvis, a familiar juvenile type with troubling anger issues.

The sentence “some people get better choices to choose from” is uttered twice in Cusp. There is overwhelming evidence that wealth inequality in Australia has risen to an unprecedented level, with the general population experiencing over half a decade of stagnating wages, while constant reports of GDP growth fool us into thinking that the country is being managed well. We continue to think of ourselves as an egalitarian people, but are simultaneously, completely comfortable with ignoring the fact that only a small percentage is reaping the rewards of a strong economy. The rest of us are stuck with the indoctrination, that if life is not working out well, we only have ourselves to blame. We are in fact kept in the dark, whilst the few who are much better off, steal everything they can, in broad daylight.

www.atyp.com.au

Review: Everybody (Cross Pollinate Productions)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 6 – 21, 2020
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Gabriel Fancourt
Cast: Kate Bookallil, Caitlin Burley, Annie Byron, Giles Gartrell-Mills, Isaro Kayitesi, Mansoor Noor, Kate Skinner, Samm Ward and Michael Wood
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The idea is to think of that one thing you can take with you, when you die. Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins talks about the most common of denominators. A woman named Death has come knocking, and is asking Everybody to bring along one other, to meet their maker. It is worth pointing out that Everybody is played by any one of five actors, determined at each performance by lottery. As we watch ourselves shuffle off this mortal coil, leaving behind all things material, we are urged to consider a certain distillation of being, that occurs in the final hour, and come to a conclusion of what it is that might accompany the departure of each spirit.

It is a cleverly structure play, featuring thought-provoking and immensely enjoyable dialogue. Its raison d’etre may ultimately feel somewhat prosaic, but the journey Everybody takes us on, is a very satisfying one. Dynamic work by lighting designer Morgan Moroney and sound designer Felicity Giles, ensure that the production is consistently energetic and vibrant. Set design by Stephanie Dunlop makes effective use of space, with a simple solution that keeps us all engaged with every stage activity.

Gabriel Fancourt’s direction delivers a show that entertains from start to finish, able to position a compelling sense of theatricality alongside earnest explorations of the text’s philosophy. A charming cast, including five brave performers who allow a nightly act of chance decide their fate, collaborate on a presentation unique to the live form. When playing the part of Everybody, Isaro Kayitesi is tremendously impressive, with a glorious combination of vulnerability, complexity and authenticity, that she renders with apparent ease. Giles Gartrell-Mills is our usher, comfortably authoritative in the role, but also disarming with a sincerity that he exudes quite naturally. Death is a comical character when portrayed by Annie Byron, whose unremitting joviality brings splendid contrast to the grim notions that she embodies.

God is omnipresent in Jacobs-Jenkins’ writing, but Nature scarcely gets a mention. In 2020, it is our natural world and environment that has become a major factor in how we conceive of mortality and the future. Perhaps God has all along been indivisible from Nature, yet so many of our minds have learned to have them separated. There is a lot of truth in saying that we create God in our image (and vice versa), and for those of us who think of God and Nature as different, this must be the day of reckoning, the final opportunity for us to come to grips with the fact that it is us who are at the mercy of Mother Earth.

www.crosspollinate.com.au

Review: The Bridges Of Madison County (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 6 – Apr 5, 2020
Book: Marsha Norman (based on the novel by Robert James Waller)
Music & Lyrics: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Neil Gooding
Cast: Michael Beckley, Anton Berezin, Beth Daly, Kate Maree Hoolihan, Zoe Ioannou, Katie McKee, Ian Stenlake, Grady Swithenbank
Images by Grant Leslie

Theatre review
When we encounter Francesca, she is a housewife in 1960s Iowa, with 2 kids and a husband, seemingly happy to be on a farm living the simple life. A fortuitous meeting with photographer Robert however, reveals that she does want more. The Bridges of Madison County is one of the most famous of American romances, a novella by Robert James Waller that has sold over 60 million copies since its initial publication in 1992. Francesca’s struggles about fulfilling her duties as wife and mother, are presented as completely incongruent with what might be a greater happiness. For a moment, she experiences exhilaration with Robert, but must weigh the consequences should she dare to follow her heart.

This musical version, first created in 2013, features strong songwriting by Jason Robert Brown, but its individual numbers, although delightful, do not necessarily add up to a satisfying plot for the show. Direction by Neil Gooding is able to suffuse a sense of intensity to the emotions being depicted, but the general pace for its storytelling is unsatisfying. Design and technical aspects of the production are on the whole accomplished, with Phoebe Pilcher’s work on lights noteworthy for bringing valuable flamboyance to the staging.

Performer Kate Maree Hoolihan plays a very sentimental Francesca. Her interpretation tends to be simplistic, but proves ultimately to be a moving one. Ian Stenlake looks every bit the National Geographer photographer and love interest Robert, but some of his singing at crucial points are not quite up to scratch. Although evident that the couple works hard to find chemistry, the attraction between the two is never really convincing. Beth Daly and Michael Beckley however are memorable as Marge and Charlie, quirky neighbours who bring occasional but very needed humour to the staging.

In the song “Almost Real”, we hear Francesca talk about her relationship with Chiara, her sister in Naples, who “would open her legs just as easy as speaking.” In her efforts to separate herself from that negative perspective of a free woman, Francesca spends her life doing what she thinks is the right thing, but it is clear that all she does is dedicate herself to being a subject of conformity. Although an indisputably credible character, the writers of Bridges refuse to allow Francesca the gratification she craves, and deserves. We are made to think that to be a good mother, Francesca simply has to give herself up, and that we must all realise, is a lie.

www.goodingproductions.com