Review: This Much Is True (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jul 12 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Toby Schmitz
Cast: Septimus Caton, Joanna Downing, Danny Adcock, Justin Stewart Cotta, Robin Goldsworthy, Alan Dukes, Martin Jacobs, Ashley Lyons
Image by John Marmaras

Theatre review
Lewis is a writer taking up temporary residence in one of his city’s few remaining ungentrified pubs. He observes the goings on, learns about the people who frequent the joint, and before too long, finds himself part of the furniture at The Rising Sun. In Louis Nowra’s This Much Is True, we hear little about the man in the middle of all the action. Unlike the navel-gazing tendencies that make up so much of contemporary art, Nowra’s interest lies not only in the colourful characters that he discovers, what he presents is an understanding of the world, from their perspectives.

A study of the modern Bohemian, we encounter personalities in This Much Is True who are either discarded by mainstream society, or have themselves chosen to reject the bourgeois. It is a weighing of values that occurs in the play, and we are challenged to assess our parallel lives, to have a discussion on what we think to be normal, desirable, and good. They are largely alcoholic, largely male, and largely white, but they are not what we usually consider to be the privileged of Australia. These are the marginalised, the ones who live on the fringe, and Nowra’s passionate depiction of their experiences, makes our own existences seem comparatively paltry and pathetic.

That genuine affection for this wayward bunch, is shared by director Toby Schmitz, who puts on a show full of reverence and warmth, with a sense of life-affirming compassion that sheds new light on a neglected portion of our community. The things they do are not necessarily nice, ethical, or legal, but it is the very embrace of human imperfection, that gives This Much Is True its power. We are moved, uplifted, for having spent a short moment, down in the dumps with those who call it their home.

The near dilapidated setting of a waterhole interior is created by Anna Gardiner, whose incorporation of varying angles and hues makes for an evocatively dynamic stage. Costumes by Martelle Hunt too, are noteworthy, for their incisive and sometimes humorous, take on the individuals and their idiosyncrasies. Matt Cox’s dramatic lighting makes vivid transitions of space and time between scenes happen effectively, and Jed Silver’s sound design manufactures an absorbing atmosphere that ensures not a second of lethargy or confusion could ever take hold.

Eight brilliant performers are assembled to create an underground world for our delectation. The ensemble is imaginative, adventurous and bold, and they each take the opportunity to showcase extraordinary skill and talent, at a standard that makes us fall in love with the theatre all over again. Justin Stewart Cotta is sensational as Venus, the drag queen icon who remains larger than life in retirement. Strikingly flamboyant, but with a thorough sense of nuance in every exaggerated gesture and in every overblown demonstration of emotion, Cotta is absolutely captivating in the role, turning the play’s only element of cliché into a real delight. The much more unorthodox Clarrie, a backyard chemist and connoisseur of experimental drugs, of uncharacteristically advanced age, is a phenomenon in the hands of Martin Jacobs, whose blinding presence and proficiency at portraying eccentricity, has us enraptured. There are laughs aplenty, but Danny Adcock is singularly exhilarating as the histrionic Cass, with vim, vigour and vociferously tall tales. Adcock channels intensity into both dramatic and comedic sections of the show, but always finely calibrated to deliver optimal results.

So much is missing from their lives, and so much goes wrong for them, but the people of The Rising Sun are never alone. In the age of technology-fuelled isolation and narcissism, characters in This Much Is True experience the kind of mateship that many of us can only reminisce with regret and resignation. We let our differences be magnified, and allow them to cause divisions. In our prioritising of personal needs and in our insular visions of happiness, along with capitalistic illusions of comfort and pleasure that are served to us every day, things that truly matter are abandoned. We may not be able to turn back time, but it is not beyond us to identify that which will make our lives meaningful and worthwhile. It is never too late to recover that thing some call a soul, and a city is never too developed to be able to recognise and value, the authentic spirit of its inhabitants.

www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: Mauritius (New Theatre / Sure Foot Productions)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 12 – 29, 2017
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Richard Cornally
Cast: Brett Heath, Kitty Hopwood, Peter-William Jamieson, Emma Louise, Andy Simpson
Image by Sundstrom Images

Theatre review
Jackie finds herself in possession of some highly collectable postage stamps after her mother’s death, and goes about trying to sell them for an enormous sum of money. The process is fraught with danger and dispute, as shady figures and family members get in her way. Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius talks about greed, and the ugly behaviour that accompanies our thirst for personal gain. It is not a work with philosophical depth, but its effective take of a classic structure, provides ample opportunity for a gripping and entertaining thriller.

The production is well-rehearsed, with actors demonstrating excellent conviction. There is good energy on the stage, but a strange and awkward lack of humour tarnishes the show. Chemistry between players is present, although their focus on drama is often misplaced, during sections of the play that seem to offer favourable circumstances for comedy. Lighting and sound could help lift atmosphere, but both are severely neglected.

Kitty Hopwood is a very intense Jackie, always looking as if she is consumed by fear. Her steadfast approach reveals a part of the character that is anxious about her situation, but her scenes have a tendency to feel monotonous as a result of that unwavering artistic choice. More motivated by laughter is Peter-William Jamieson, who thankfully brings some joviality to the role of Dennis. A memorable performance is given by Brett Heath, who plays the villain of the piece Sterling, with a sense of creativity and playfulness that delivers theatricality, to this otherwise overly stiff and serious presentation.

www.surefootproductions.com

Review: Australian Graffiti (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 7 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Disapol Savetsila
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Gabrielle Chan, Airlie Dodds, Peter Kowitz, Kenneth Moraleda, Mason Phoumirath, Srisacd Sacdpraseuth, Monica Sayers
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Asian restaurants are a familiar sight in Australian towns everywhere, but what we know is restricted only to their dining rooms and service areas. In Australian Graffiti, Disapol Savetsila presents a fantastical, but bleak, look at what happens behind the kitchen door of these inscrutable spaces.

It is a story about Thai-Australians, both immigrants and native-born. Ben is a teenager, born in Sydney but who has since moved to an unnamed country town with his mother Baa, proprietor of the local Thai restaurant. Boi, Loong and Nam are employees stuck in the kitchen, with only work as salvation, completely cut off from mainstream society. When graffiti appears on one of the local churches, bearing Thai characters, the town takes the opportunity to carry out their racism, boycotting and harassing the group of five outsiders.

Savetsila’s seamless interweaving between surrealism and realism, creates his own universe of storytelling, where fact and fiction, tangibility and metaphysical, coexist to reveal truths of Australian life from the perspective of cultural minorities. Australian Graffiti is a play for the marginalised, speaking to and for communities with a voice rarely represented in our artistic landscape. It is a sign of the times, a valuable work that heralds the arrival of a new generation of creators that can only materialise with a certain level of social maturation.

The production is sensitively rendered by director Paige Rattray, whose gentle melancholy allows the play’s poignancy to sing through, with a deep and painful authenticity. Australian Graffiti is often darkly humorous, and Rattray’s depiction of its personalities is suitably nuanced, revealing both the good and the faults of the people we meet, even the ones who experience persecution.

Tenderly and imaginatively lit by Sian James-Holland, with music by Max Lyandvert and sound by Michael Toisuta that take us through subtle fluctuations of emotional states, the design creatives do an excellent job of turning a vast auditorium into a surprisingly suitable stage for Savetsila’s intimate writing.

Mason Phoumirath is impressive as Ben, passionate and convincing with what he presents as lead actor. His relation to place and people feels remarkably genuine, even though the circumstances are highly unusual. There is a psychological accuracy in his portrayal that gains our empathy, and the stories we hear become believable as a result. Gabrielle Chan and Kenneth Moraleda bring vulnerability and sentimentality to the show, with intensely moving expressions of the migrant experience, bringing attention to the play’s humanitarian concerns.

Underneath so many of our world’s surfaces, resides a threat of violence. Australia’s colonisation, our history of it and the continuing project of it, is rarely spoken of with sufficient honesty, and like any human defect that is left unattended, disease inevitably transpires. Ben’s family is of Thai origin, and their enemies are European. The lack of an Indigenous presence in their battle, is symptomatic of our inability to recognise what is fundamentally true of the land that we share, and whenever we are unable to acknowledge the root of our problems, they can only persist.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Before Lysistrata (Kings Cross Theatre / Montague Basement)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 10 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Ellana Costa
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Ellana Costa, Alex Francis, Michaela Savina
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
We know Lysistrata as the one who convinces the women of Greece to deprive themselves of sex, in order that their men would cease fighting each other in the Peloponnesian War. In Before Lysistrata, playwright Ellana Costa imagines a scenario that leads up to that audacious act. Lysistra and Lampito are the first ladies of Athens and Sparta, each representing a different side of politics.

It is the left and right wings of society, again at loggerheads. Whether 400 BC or 2017 AD it seems, we are determined to make enemies of one another, unable to be at peace with the idea of disagreement. The men go to war, determined to quash the other side, so that the world only needs contain one uniform ideology. With the death of sons that inevitably result, the ladyfolk band together, and hatch a plan to end the atrocities.

At points where the lines of good and evil are blurred, when us and them are disrupted, the show becomes refreshing. Its message can however, feel simplistic, as do its characters and dialogue. Wit and drama can be found in Costa’s well-meant text, but performances are unfledged, and the production never really builds enough tension that would allow sparks to fly. Few artistic risks are taken that will offer elements of surprise or intrigue. Its political interest holds court, central and singular.

Where there is solidarity, great things can be achieved. For each generation that experiences increasing social fragmentation, the idea of organised processes of action becomes correspondingly alien. That we can be unified, must not only be an abstraction, but how we get there, is more bewildering than ever before.

www.montaguebasement.com

Review: Neville’s Island (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 29 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Tim Firth
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Andrew Hansen, David Lynch, Craig Reucassel, Chris Taylor
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Four men are stranded on an island, after a corporate team building exercise takes a wrong turn. Neville is the senior of the group, who tries to keep things in order, while the other three middle aged men unravel, descending into various states of hysteria as the hours pass by.

Tim Firth’s 1992 comedy has at its centre, issues surrounding modern masculinity and the anxieties it triggers, but that important social concern only becomes a serious point of discussion, very late into the piece. For at least three quarters of the duration, its characters fumble around, struggling with having to deal with their sudden exposure to the wild. Their antics could mean hilarity to some, but depending on the sense of humour one possesses, the play could also be unbearably corny, tenaciously so, for many.

The actors are well rehearsed, each one demonstrating excellent conviction, but the writing offers little in terms of nuance that could allow any of them to truly impress. Quite remarkably, the cast succeeds at making individual characters believable, even though the play’s attempts at depth are precarious at best.

The stage is consistently lively, and when chemistry does take effect, their show can offer quite compelling entertainment. Neville’s Island is determined to amuse. Even if one is not tempted to laugh out loud, there is something satisfying in its earnest and enthusiastic tomfoolery, like every well-meaning dad joke that one would hate to miss.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Little Borders (Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 4 – 15, 2017
Playwright: Phillip Kavanagh
Director: Dominic Mercer
Cast: Lucy Goleby, Brandon McClelland
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Elle and Steve are moving houses, because they have convinced themselves that their Middle Eastern neighbour is a terrorist. Little Borders by Phillip Kavanagh, is about the paranoid, fearful and narcissistic people that many of us have become, in a confused world that has us believe that things will go wrong in an instant, and that other people are to blame.

The young couple is bestowed every social and economic privilege that could give them the best opportunity at a comfortable existence, yet they are full of volatility and hostility, obsessed with the idea that their lives are going to fall apart at any given moment. Their self-destructive behaviour is depicted with biting astuteness by Kavanagh, who reveals the insidious nature of hate in our contemporary communities.

The production is suitably dark, if slightly too predictable in its despair. The important messages of Little Borders are given remarkable elucidation by director Dominic Mercer, and we leave shaken by our disastrous reflection, but the show has a tendency to feel too safe and slightly unambitious in its interpretations of Kavanagh’s bold writing. We sense that the words provide room for a greater theatricality, although its minimalism is nonetheless effective, and beautifully executed. Set design by Charlie Edward Davis and Jeremy Allen, is understated but charming, and undeniably memorable.

Actors Lucy Goleby and Brandon McClelland prove themselves to be highly accomplished in the piece. Goleby’s intensity, although quiet and contained, is a captivating study of Elle, a woman gripped by insecurity and irrational anxiety. She keeps us inquisitive, and terrified, by her authentic manifestation of a person that we sometimes find ourselves being. McClelland is a charismatic presence, with immaculate hair and perfect teeth providing disguise for a character that has no redeeming features. His juxtaposition of clean cut suburban wellness against the pure evil of Steve’s words and actions, is chilling, and perversely entertaining.

It is a frightening look at the psyche of our worst neighbours. The play resonates with an alarming accuracy, even though the events that unfold are very dramatic and extreme. It is truthful in what it says about modern life; the interminable feeling of inadequacy, and the need to infringe upon the lives of others, as we proceed to suppress everything that we have no understanding of. We are not told however, how it is that Elle and Steve have become such monsters; Kavanagh’s deliberate omission is provocative. We should really know those reasons for ourselves. These are our middle class lives, and we know these people. All the evidence that would explain their madness must already be in plain sight, if we choose to examine it.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Cloud Nine (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 1 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Matthew Backer, Kate Box, Harry Greenwood, Anita Hegh, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell, Anthony Taufa
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Betty takes a long time to grow up. In fact, it is centuries before she becomes her own woman. In Act I, she lives in Victorian era Africa, having moved from Britain with her husband, a “colonial administrator”. In Act II, we find that not only has she advanced in age, time itself has moved abruptly to the current day.

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is about the way gender, with all its associated contrivances and constraints, is imposed upon individuals in Western societies, ruthlessly reinforced time and time again, in service of a white patriarchal project that seems to have no beginning and no end. It is a scheme that benefits few, and as we see in the play, no one is left unscathed by its oppressive nature.

The absurdities inherent in the practice of gender and whiteness, are shrewdly re-purposed for all of Cloud Nine‘s outrageous comedy, as well as its very scintillating drama. Churchill’s creation might be near on 40 years old, but its uncompromising boldness remains deeply affecting. Ensuring that the work’s confrontational qualities are retained, is director Kip Williams who pairs a flamboyant theatricality with a keen eye for detail, to deliver a show that is as entertaining as it is challenging, and quite surprisingly, profoundly moving.

Actor Heather Mitchell is phenomenal in the production. Playing Betty in Act II, and Betty’s young son in Act I, she works her magic to elicit our compassion, demanding that we respond with the best of our humanity, even when her characters are going through the most precarious of story lines. Whether playing a woman her own age, or a boy of nine, we believe all that she offers, and allow her to take our emotions on an intense but rewarding ride.

Also very memorable is Josh McConville, effortlessly but uproariously funny, again in dual roles of adult and child. As Betty’s husband Clive, he amuses us without giving access to any empathy for his despicable character, and as little Cathy, we fall for the wonderful innocence and irresistible cuteness he introduces, never mind that he looks nothing like a 5 year-old girl. The show is remarkably well-performed. Each member of the ensemble feels a star, and we connect with every personality being presented.

A pristine glass box sits upstage, tightly shut, desperately trying to enclose and protect itself. Representing a Western civilisation that insists on maintaining its incongruity with nature, Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design is a simple concept that speaks volumes. Times can change, and our societies have made progress, but that instrument of containment stays resolutely in place. As our efforts to erode structures of injustice and inhumanity continue, and as we observe transformations occur slowly, we can reach for ourselves, the experience of personal emancipation, so sweet, so wonderful, even if it is actually, no more than a state of mind.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au