Vere (Faith) (Sydney Theatre Company)

Photo by Matt NettheimVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 6 – Dec 7, 2013
Playwright: John Doyle
Director: Sarah Goodes
Actors: Paul Blackwell, Matilda Bailey, Matthew Gregan, Ksenja Logos, Rebecca Massey, Geoff Morrell, Yalin Ozucelik

Theatre review
This is a story about a highly regarded physicist, Vere, who falls victim to Parkinson’s disease. Vere has built a life based on science and intellect, but is now faced with the cruel obliteration of his mental capacities by dementia. John Doyle’s play explores the remains of a life, as its subject goes through a metamorphosis so exhaustive and fundamental. In Vere’s disintegration, we see the curious way in which memory functions, and from it, we gain an appreciation of what is immortal and invaluable. Themes of love, relationships, religion, work, mortality, and the transience of life itself, are meaningfully woven along with humour and pathos to create a show that is simultaneously entertaining and profound.

The first half is set in a university before Vere’s disorder takes effect, and the second, at his home when it is in full swing. The show speaks at first to our minds, with exuberant and witty repartee among cerebral academics, then to our hearts, as family dynamics come into play with decidedly greater sentimentality. It is as though Vere’s illness can wipe out the contents and function of the brain, but the soul is unbreakable and eternal. Director Sarah Goode’s work is quiet, and not particularly showy, but her hand is a confident one. She understands the strengths of the script, and ensures those strengths shine through with minimal intrusion.

Design elements are excellent, if a little conservative. The production is demanding of the actors, who (aside from the lead) each play two sets of characters, and they rise to the challenge beautifully. Geoff Morrell’s flamboyant style ensures that his characters are memorable, and his vivacity is a welcome addition to any event. Rebecca Massey portrays an unintelligent character with brilliant irony and meticulous timing. She delivers many laughs with a camp sensibility but is careful to retain a level of realism and believability.

Paul Blackwell’s performance is sublime. His presence is remarkable and the audience falls for his Vere from the very first words. He fascinates us, and we are completely enthralled, like putty in his hands. Blackwell’s biggest success is the ability to elicit great empathy while depicting a very sick man with utmost dignity. Through him, we see the humour in our fragility, but that frailty he depicts is also deeply touching. Blackwell, and Vere, guide us through a poignant meditation on growing old, on lost love, and on death, and we conclude at a place that is, surprisingly, not very frightening at all.

Dying For It (New Theatre)

dyingforit1Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 19 – Dec 21, 2013
Playwright: Moira Buffini (from Nikolai Erdman’s The Suicide)
Director: Peter Talmacs
Actors: Johann Walraven, Jodine Muir, Jeannie Gee, Joel Spreadborough, Peter Adams
Image by Bob Seary

Theatre review
This story comes out of 1920s Russia, and includes some very subversive dark humour, dealing with death, marriage, religion and politics. Moira Buffini’s 2007 script is an adaptation that retains the original’s time and place, foregrounding the political climate of the time. Almost a hundred years on, Russia is no longer thought of in the same light, but social dynamics do not seem to change and we recognise the mechanics at work in the narrative.

Dying For It is a very funny show. While not every moment is laugh-out-loud hilarious, each line is witty and comedic. The context is dark and twisted, but the writing is purposefully light and humorous. Buffini’s characters are irresistibly amusing, and her farce cuts to the bone. Director Peter Talmacs creates a show that is entertaining and energetic, extracting from his cast a performance style that is wild and extravagant. Talmacs is relentless at keeping things lively, and he makes full use of the abundant absurdity inherent in the play.

The cast is a strong (and big) one, with leading man Johann Walraven taking the opportunity to show off his formidable talent. Walraven plays Semyon Semyonovich Podsekalnikov with a calculated silliness, and portrays a character that the audience finds simultaneously endearing and appalling. His work is precise, in terms of his physicality as well as diction, and is an absolute joy to watch. His wife Masha is played by Jodine Muir, who excels at the kind of frantic, rambunctious performance that characterises this production, and offers an important counterbalance of rationality to the mad goings-on of the other roles. Jeannie Gee’s mother-in-law character escapes generic stereotyping, with a depiction that is charming and whimsical. She clearly has a keen sense of comedy and draws many of the biggest laughs.

Tom Bannerman’s design shows a deep understanding of the New Theatre stage capabilities, and his ambitious set is crucial to the effectiveness of this production. Tony Youlden’s lighting is subtle but thorough, and operated flawlessly by the crew. This is a demanding show for its operating crew, who rise up to its challenge with fabulously sleek work.

Dying For It travels through bleakness, but its dark murmurs resonate silently. It expresses a poignancy that is omnipresent but gentle, even though its themes are heavy. This is a work of comedy that is reminiscent of the art that laughs in the face of adversity.

Carrie (Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre)

carrieVenue: Seymour Centre (Sydney NSW), Nov 13 – 30, 2013
Music: Michael Gore
Lyrics: Dean Pitchford
Book: Lawrence D. Cohen (based on the novel by Stephen King)
Director: Jay James-Moody
Performers: Hilary Cole, Margi de Ferranti, Adele Parkinson, Rob Johnson, Prudence Holloway, Bridget Keating

Theatre review
Transposing a well-known horror movie into the live musical genre seems a strange concept, but Carrie is mainly about life in an American high school, which is a setting that is no stranger to show tunes and dance sequences.In fact, Jay James-Moody’s direction is confident within that realm of the “high school musical”, and he steers it into family-friendly territory, which is not inappropriate but unfortunately loses the opportunity at creating something darker and edgier for the genre.

The show has a stable of outstanding singers, but casting misses the mark in a couple of cases. Three key characters, Carrie, Sue and Tommy, however, are excellently portrayed, and their work contributes greatly to the success of this production. Hilary Cole as the protagonist is convincing and heart-wrenching. Even though her characterisation of Carrie is slightly underplayed, her singing voice is strong enough to create impact whenever the plot demands drama. The penultimate and iconic scene is handled especially well, which is surprising, considering the pervasiveness of its imagery in pop culture. Cole more than lives up to expectations, and gives us a Carrie who is at once frightening and tragic.

Adele Parkinson is fantastic in her role of Sue. Her creation is the most believable in the show, and crucially, she encourages empathy from the audience with her natural warmth, and the credible affection she musters for the lead character. Rob Johnson is a charming Tommy. He is an eminently watchable actor, who seems to be at ease in any situation, and with any co-star. Johnson has a confident laid-back quality that suits his role perfectly.

This production does not have the same horror and tension that many know from the book and film adaptation, but it stands alone as a fascinating and captivating show. Carrie is an “outsider” classic that speaks to many, despite its implausibilities. We relate to the girl who is left out, and the bullying she experiences is topical for any generation.

Sweet Nothings (Pantsguys)

rsz_902884_626394167418141_1051080144_oVenue: ATYP Under The Wharf (Walsh Bay NSW), Nov 7 – 23, 2013
Playwright: David Harrower, after Arthur Schnitzler
Director: John Kachoyan
Actors: Graeme McRae, Owen Little, Clementine Mills, Matilda Ridgway, Lucy Miller, Mark Lee, Alistair Wallace

Theatre review
Sweet Nothings is an adaptation of a 118 year-old play by Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian writer whose work, in more recent times, inspired David Hare’s The Blue Room and Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Under John Kachoyan’s direction, the frank sexual content that Shnitzler is known for does feature prominently in the opening scenes but fortunately no actor is subject to gratuitous nudity. This is a difficult script to manage. Its lead character Christine tends to appear “pre-feminist”, and is challenging for contemporary sensibilities. It is a tragic love story with a gender imbalance that some of us may find hard to stomach.

Playing Christine is Matilda Ridgway who is extremely committed  but her understated performance is too internalised, which would probably suit film and television more than it does the stage. Owen Little is by far the strongest in this cast. He does have the most outlandish character to play with, but he more than fulfils his brief, giving the audience a playful vivaciousness that counteracts the low-key style of the leads. Mark Lee works hard to lift energy levels in the second half, and his experience shines through even if his role is fairly undemanding.

Set design by Sophie Fletcher is effective and beautiful. The transformation from an apartment in Act 1 into Christine’s home in Act 2 is well-considered and executed with elegance. The contrast between both sets helps convey character dynamics and provides colour to the plot. Not all facets of the show are quite as accomplished, but the show is in general, a polished one, and would no doubt act as a springboard for further achievements.

Atomic (Dreamingful Productions)

rsz_1400420_585853668128395_551489903_oVenue: NIDA Parade Theatres (Kensington NSW), Nov 16 – 30, 2013
Music and Lyrics: Philip Foxman
Book and Lyrics: Gregory Bonsignore, Danny Ginges
Director: Damien Gray
Actors: Michael Falzon, Bronwyn Mulcahy, David Whitney, Christy Sullivan, Lana Nesnas, Simon Brook McLachlan, Blake Erickson
Image by Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Theatre review
Atomic is a musical about two things; the invention of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima in 1945, and Leo Szilard, the man who was chiefly responsible for the science behind it. It is admirable that the writers had afforded a substantial portion of the show to historical aspects of the story, but the nature of musicals always seems to favour less solemn content, even if they are highly emotional. It is hard to make a dignified musical work, but the efforts here are laudable. One is reminded of Miss Saigon and Madame Butterfly, where war provides the backdrop, but personal devastation is given the spotlight. The result is a stronger, and more effectively emotional experience, but those sentiments are clearly not of the best taste. Atomic would perhaps be a more conventionally engaging musical if it dwells more heavily on Szilard’s personal predicaments and crises, but it is understandable that the show chooses to adopt a more refined approach to its storytelling.

On the technical front, Michael Waters’ sound design is most accomplished. NIDA’s Parade Playhouse’s acoustic potentials are exploited thoroughly, and the venue proves itself to be an outstanding option for more intimate stagings of musicals. There are some issues with lighting and set, but they are a result of being over-ambitious rather than negligence.

The strongest element in this production is the quality of its performers, who each have their moments of undeniable brilliance. Leading man Michael Falzon invests a great deal of psychological authenticity into his characterisation, and puts on a subtle yet strong portrayal of Szilard. Falzon’s success at transforming an unassuming scientist into a musical protagonist without the use of stage cliches is impressive and remarkable. He also happens to be the performer who executes the show’s choreography most effectively. David Whitney plays Enrico Fermi, the show’s only flamboyant character, and stands out appropriately with a joyful and effervescent performance. Christy Sullivan plays a wide range of ensemble characters, consistently delighting with conviction and a natural charm. It must be said that all performers sing their parts beautifully, and this is an Australian cast to be very proud of.

Waiting For Godot (Sydney Theatre Company)

godotVenue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 12 – Dec 21, 2013
Playwright: Samuel Beckett
Director: Andrew Upton
Actors: Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Luke Mullins

Theatre review
Andrew Upton was brought in last minute to direct Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Waiting For Godot. The original director had taken ill, so the company’s artistic director steps up to the challenge, and, like a blessing in disguise, presents to us a skilfully crafted rendition of Samuel Beckett’s masterpiece. The script’s absurdist nature, along with its surreal elements are retained, but the work lays emphasis on psychological validity, which allows for a more accessible reading and indeed, a very entertaining night at the theatre. Upton’s interpretation of Beckett’s words encourages his audience to reflect upon existentialist themes, such as death, memory, isolation, time, and of course, life itself. One would argue that Beckett’s script might be legendary, but when in the wrong hands, those themes easily become muddled and obtuse, In this case however, his ideas are intriguing and thought-provoking. There is still a sense of abstraction in Upton’s version of events, but the show provides excellent inspiration for a good intellectual work out.

The star studded cast does a great job of luring huge numbers of punters into the theatre, and they do more than their fair share of pleasing the crowds. Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh are truly brilliant. Their genius fills the auditorium, and we are privileged to witness their craft in motion. Of course, having such a rich text to play with does provide them with a solid platform on which to showcase the depth of their abilities, but they are both able to bring out so much life and meaning from it, and the level of poignancy they create in a single show is a remarkable achievement. Roxburgh is a surprisingly funny performer. His comic timing is impressive, and the laughter he creates prevents the show from developing overly dark. Weaving has the uncanny ability to make every utterance sound profound, and his use of silence and stillness to drive a point through is simply masterful.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Waiting For Godot is a hit. As a theatrical production, it entertains and inspires; and as a work of art, it challenges and confounds. It gives you a guiding hand to hold on to, but will not give away all its secrets and mysteries. It strikes the balance between accessibility and wonderment, and leaves us with a better, more open (and thinking) mind.

Tiny Stadiums Theatre Double Bill (PACT)

friendshipbluewizardVenue: PACT (Erskineville NSW), Nov 13 – 23, 2013

Friend Ship
Devisor: Kenzie Larsen
Actor: Kenzie Larsen

Blue Wizard
Devisor: Nick Coyle
Actor: Nick Coyle

Theatre review (of preview performance, Nov 13)
Tiny Stadiums this year presents a double bill at the PACT theatre, comprising two pieces by two artists, both quirky, and both working around concepts of loneliness.

Kenzie Larsen’s Friend Ship is a thoroughly funny exploration into the nature of human connection. Larsen is an unusual but strong performer with a sense of fearlessness, and uncanny comic timing. She reads her audience well, and is able to pull us into her eccentric world quickly and effectively. Her use of multimedia is intelligent and measured, even though the visuals do not attempt to be polished or sophisticated. The short films interspersed throughout her performance are as comical as the woman herself, and they are woven effortlessly into the live action. Larsen’s material is not particularly poignant, but it is extremely playful and the level of whimsy she achieves on stage is truly delightful. Her voice is a unique one, and must be encouraged to develop even further.

Blue Wizard features Nick Coyle playing a Windex-drinking intergalactic wizard who babysits and breast feeds a baby alien. The show commences with Coyle singing extravagantly to announce his arrival on Earth. His performance style suits the cabaret genre well, but unfortunately, no further songs are introduced into the show. Coyle has endearing idiosyncratic traits that suit the live stage well, and his material bears an uncommon queer sensibility. His skills do need refining, but there are glimpses of genius evident in his work.

All My Sons (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

allmysonsVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Nov 1 – Dec 1, 2013
Playwright: Arthur Miller
Director: Iain Sinclair
Actors: Toni Scanlan, Marshall Napier, Andrew Henry, Anthony Gooley, Ann Deever
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
All My Sons is a lesser known Arthur Miller work, but the decision to produce it today is entirely appropriate. One of its central themes is the relationship between war and commerce, which is a subject of interest for contemporary audiences in today’s socio-political climate. The idea of businesses profiteering from war deaths is a controversial one, and when intertwined with familial discord, the result is surprisingly explosive.

Certainly, Iain Sinclair’s direction is keen for the play to erupt at every available opportunity. Elements of Greek tragedy are characteristic of this work, and Sinclair boldly employs them to enthral and overcome his audience. His care in creating moments of silences before storms, makes for a plot that is seriously exciting. Even though the show is essentially a family drama, this is edge of the seat stuff. The nature of the story is dark and heavy, with deaths, lies and betrayals lurking at every corner, but Sinclair expertly balances the gravity inherent in Miller’s writing with great surges of energy, ensuring that emotional punches are all hits and no misses. It is noteworthy also that sound design by Nate Edmondson is subtle and indispensably effective.

Acting is excellent throughout. The sense of time and space (mid-west USA in the 1940s) is accurately and faithfully re-created by the entire cast. Andrew Henry’s high octane outbursts are crucial to the climax of the play and he delivers them with no reservation. Anthony Gooley plays a supporting role but his portrayal of a man bordering on insanity is fascinating. He brings a lot of colour and drama to the show, and the intensity in his work is truly remarkable. The production however, is dominated by Toni Scanlan who turns in an astounding performance as Kate Keller. The range of emotions she portrays is beyond impressive. This actor owns the show’s funniest and saddest moments, and her depiction of grief and disintegration is unforgettable. The psychological foundation in her characterisation is solid and crystal clear, and she defines the play’s other characters for the audience as much as she does her own.

Darlinghurst Theatre’s production of All My Sons validates the timelessness of Miller’s writing. Other recent examples have demonstrated that current interpretations do not always work, but under Sinclair’s directorship, we have a show that speaks to us deeply, perhaps even more so than most new works from the twenty-first century.

La Sylphide (The Australian Ballet)

lasylphideVenue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 7 – 25, 2013
Choreographers: Marius Petipa (Paquita), Erik Bruhn after August Bournonville (La Sylphide)
Image by Jeff Busby

Theatre review
The Australian Ballet’s latest classical offering is a double bill with works from the Romantic era, La Sylphide from 1836 and Paquita,1847. The “grand pas de deux” from Paquita opens the program with electric vibrancy. It is an exciting extract from the original full length work, with principal dancers Lana Jones and Kevin Jackson showcasing their extraordinary technical abilities. Jackson has a dynamic hold of the stage, with magnetic presence and a strapping physique that is undeniably exquisite. Jones’ confidence is spellbinding, and puts on a riveting performance that thrills with its sheer beauty.

In La Sylphide, the story of a Scottish farmer who falls in love with a forest spirit is brought to life with some of the most stunning set and lighting design on the Australian stage. The sense of ethereality they produce is seductive, and the fantasy the audience craves is magically rendered so that we are transported through time and space. Vivienne Wong is memorable as the farmer’s fiancee, impressing with her dancing as well as acting abilities. Madeleine Eastoe is the Sylph, creating lines and movement that are delightful and almost supernatural in their delicacy and lightness, but the slightness of her frame does mean that she can at times, be obscured by the vastness of the production. Daniel Gaudiello as the farmer James is handsome and strong (physically and technically), and every bit the leading man of fairy tales but requires a small dose of artistic hubris to be even more compelling.

Modern lives are increasingly mundane. Technology encourages us to retreat and evolve into beings more and more insular and impassive. Witnessing the dancers of our national ballet company is a reminder of the human capacities at achieving unfathomable heights of beauty and athleticism. Like all great artists, they bring to us the great gift of inspiration that uplifts us from our daily lives; as we stop to smell the roses at the theatre, and realise the potential each ordinary day may hold.

The Maintenance Room (King Street Theatre)

rsz_a_maint_room_gs_-_124_lowVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 7 – 30, 2013
Playwright: Gerry Greenland
Director: Allan Walpole
Actors: Kim Knuckey, Lynden Jones
Image by Geoff Sirmai

Theatre review
Every show is a collaborative effort comprised of many disciplines and disparate elements, but in The Maintenance Room, the actors’ performances are so fine that it is hard for the audience to focus beyond their spectacular work. Gerry Greenland’s script has an excellent plot that never gives room for any predictability, and its every twist and turn keeps us engaged and fascinated. The story might not be particularly interesting, but Greenland’s storytelling is calculatedly clever. However, his depiction of the two women characters (who we hear a lot about but do not appear on stage) disappointingly utilises the madonna and whore dichotomy, which is convenient and somewhat regressive.

Allan Walpole is director and set designer, and he does both jobs marvelously. The set is complex, realistic and believable, providing a wide variation of levels and spaces for movement and activity during performance. Walpole’s work as director is much more subtle. He wields an invisible hand through the show, but we see extraordinary chemistry between the actors, and their many dialogues are timed to perfection. It is impossible to divorce the actors abilities from Walpole’s direction, but he must be given credit for the liveliness they bring from start to finish, even when the scenes are quiet and sorrowful.

The Maintenance Room is really about the actors, Kim Knuckey and Lynden Jones. Their portrayals of the complicated experience of human suffering, and the constant shifting of emotions in that space of grief and fear, are incredibly real and compelling. Jones masterfully manipulates physical performance and internal authenticity, accurately balancing emotional realism with theatricality. Knuckey’s work impresses with the remarkable believability of his character. The being he creates on stage is palpable, and the rawness of his crisis is felt as undeniable as the flesh and blood right before our eyes.

Theatre is about many things, but when it is about stunning performances, the experience is immensely rewarding. Most of us are likely to remember that when we fell in love with the stage, it was the work of actors who first drew us in. Great acting is divine, and The Maintenance Room is magnificent because of it.