Theatresports Cranston Cup Grand Final 2013 (Impro Australia)

rsz_113-12-01cranston_cup1052_winners_hans_and_ottoVenue: Enmore Theatre (Enmore NSW), Nov 30, 2013
MC: Jim Fishwick
Director / Referee: Marko Mustac
Judges: Michael Gregory, John Knowles, Susie Youssef, Ewan Campbell, Lyn Pierse
Participating teams: Yay! It’s Pat Magee and Friends, Middle Rage, Bridie of Frankensteen, Hans and Otto, The Browntown Three, Kavalier
Image by Stephen Reinhardt

Theatre review
The annual Cranston Cup sees teams compete through several rounds to reach the grand final, a night that celebrates the best of improvisation and unscripted comedy. Theatresports has thrived for nearly thirty years, and judging from the turn out and response at the Enmore Theatre, it is a part of Sydney culture that has a particularly loyal and colourful following. In fact, the crowd is an important element to the night’s proceedings, and they are a group who are up for a big laugh and know how to get it.

Early rounds see two teams, The Browntown Three and Kavalier, battle it out for the Fresh Cranston Cup, which rewards the best of young and emerging improvisers. All players presented no hint of green, and performed as well as their more seasoned counterparts. As a result, both groups tied for the fresh cup, although an all girl three-way affair depicted by Kavalier remains particularly memorable.

For the main event, a pair of “German gargoyles” Hans and Otto took out not just the Cranston Cup of 2013, but an additional Clem’s Chicken Award was also awarded to one of the duo Edan Lacey for most consistent performance throughout the various stages of competition. Although not always the clear winner, they demonstrated many moments of genius and were a definite crowd-pleaser. Bridie of Frankensteen were first runner-up in spite of a particularly powerful performance in their final challenge, showcasing a vicious tuck shop conflict. Third place went to Yay! It’s Pat Magee and Friends, who are made up of four members of varying abilities, and Middle Rage came in fourth even though their onstage bravado was most impressive.

It is unclear what the winners receive in prizes on top of the flamboyant trophy and prestige, but all performers were certainly fighting hard to put forward their very best. Each segment might be short and sweet, but the participants work hard at delivering incessant waves of laughter, and this tremendous collection of comedic talents undoubtedly found our funny bones and tickled us pink on their night of nights.

The Star Child (The Genesian Theatre)

rsz_starchildVenue: The Genesian Theatre (Sydney NSW), Nov 23 – Dec 14, 2013
Book & Lyrics: Roger Gimblett (based on story by Oscar Wilde)
Music: Nicholas Edwards
Director: Roger Gimblett and Stephen Lloyd Coombs
Actors: Ben Bennett, Elizabeth MacGregor, Robert Green, Martin Searles, Amber Wilcox, Michael Jones, Dominic Scarf, Timothy Bennett
Image by Mark Banks

Theatre review
Based on a children’s story from Oscar Wilde, The Star Child is a new family musical about a boy acquiring the virtues of humility and generosity. It is a moral tale told through humour and fun, and would appeal to audiences across different religious backgrounds. Most of the songs are well-written, with several memorable jazz tunes standing out. Choreography is careful to accommodate the various skill levels in the cast, who all appear to be comfortable with their moves.

Ben Bennett plays the Star Child, with impressive vocal range and power. He is a confident performer and has a youthful vigour that is perfect for the role. Bennett’s keenness for the comedic elements in the story helps with keeping the show buoyant, and his chemistry with co-performers is a joy to watch. Dominic Scarf’s scene as the Rabbit is cheeky and delightful. His performance adds colour and pizzazz to the proceedings, and delivers some of the funniest moments in the show. Timothy Bennett and Daniel Hitchings play multiple roles and although they do not have solo numbers in the show, both shine with the comedy they introduce throughout the course of the production.

Children are impressionable. It is important they hear stories that feature worthy role models and extoll true virtues. The Star Child is a show that will hold every child’s attention, entertain them and most importantly, inspire them.

The Cake Man (Yirra Yaakin / Belvoir St Theatre)

thecakeman1Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 14 – Dec 8, 2013
Playwright: Robert J. Merritt
Director: Kyle J. Morrison
Actors: Luke Carroll, Oscar Redding, George Shevtsov, James Slee, Tim Solly, Irma Woods

Theatre review
The Cake Man was written and staged originally in the early 1970s, from the perspective of Aboriginal Australians, about life on a mission in country NSW. Forty years on, a contemporary staging remains relevant and poignant. There is nothing dated or unfamiliar about the characters and their plight, and therein lies the tragedy. Robert J. Merritt’s script is colourful and textured. It is also honest and brave, giving voice to the original occupants of our land who are now ethnic minorities as a result of systematic genocide over generations. Works of this nature are highly important, and fundamental to the rebuilding and atonements that need to be made.

Director Kyle J. Morrison’s use of space is sensitive, instinctual and intelligent. He creates a sense of campfire storytelling that draws us in, and the earthiness he evokes by keeping all actors on stage at all times, gives the production a rare intimacy and purity. The work has a beautiful languidness, but a couple of scenes could benefit from a tighter pace, or maybe slight edits would add further interest to the plot.

Young actor James Slee is certainly one to watch. He has a natural ease on stage, and performs with a kind of naturalism that is striking in its simplicity but also lively and passionate. Irma Woods is above all, a performer with great sincerity and authenticity. There is no sense of a character being put on, only the most thorough blurring of lines between actor and role. Luke Carroll in The Cake Man shows himself to be one of the best actors of his generation. His charisma is undeniable, magnetic and powerful.  His use of voice and movement is animated yet realistic, and completely delightful to watch. The fearlessness in Carroll’s portrayal of Sweet William elevates the play, giving it an emotional quality that all audiences will find irresistible.

At the heart of The Cake Man is a burning desire for recovery, progression, and emancipation. It is a small morsul of the Aboriginal experience, but it encapsulates so much that is true in contemporary Australian lives, and so much that needs to be examined and advanced. We need stories like this, and we need them to propel from the fringes to the big, wide mainstream.

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.