Review: Sweeney Todd (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 18 – Dec 20, 2014
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Libretto: Hugh Wheeler
Director: Giles Gartrell–Mills
Cast: Josh Anderson, Erin Bogart, Briony Burnes, Jamie Collette, Justin Cotta, Daisy Cousens, Courtney Glass, Michael Jones, Jaimie Leigh Johnson, Lucy Miller, Carl Olsen, Joel Paszkowski, Steven Ritchie, Chelsea Taylor, Aimee Timmins, Simon Ward, Byron Watson
Photographs © Bob Seary

Theatre review
We all love a musical that has everything; humour, drama, talent, surprise and great music. All this is found in Giles Gartrell-Mills’ production of Sweeney Todd for the New Theatre, along with a good deal of ingenious low budget innovation, and a healthy dose of morbidity. It appears that Stephen Sondheim’s famous work can be staged without complex set designs and special effects, as long as gifted individuals are committed to presenting the best of their abilities, and an astute director is at the centre orchestrating an amalgamation that features all the strengths of each collaborator.

With Sweeney Todd, Gartrell-Mills shows that he is a man of excellent taste who has a brave approach to the theatrical arts. The emotions are big in his musical, as are the characters and their singing, but everything converges to tell a fascinating story that grips and entertains us, while making the many outrageous scenarios seem entirely believable. He has a wonderful team of seventeen performers at his disposal, and is careful to position each one in the most flattering light, so that the best singers can deliver breathtakingly powerful notes, and the strongest actors can impress with their delicious flair and intensity.

Justin Cotta plays the Demon Barber of Fleet Street with a grand and magnetic madness. The agility in his body and face, along with a professional awareness of how his character is perceived with every subtle shift in gesture and look, contribute to a performance that is precise, polished and very delightful. His voice is not perfectly suited to the material, but he sings it all with exuberance and accuracy. Similarly, Lucy Miller is not the best singer in the world for the role of Mrs Lovett, but the abundance of skills she displays, brings to life one of the stage’s most interesting and complex figures. Miller is charming, strong and instinctual. The several startling twists her character reveals are brilliantly performed, and her star quality shines brightly in the production. We cannot keep our eyes away from everything she presents, and she deserves every ovation awarded for her work in this production.

This review will not discuss every performer’s work but the entire support cast is truly fabulous. In the role of the Beggar Woman is Courtney Glass, who steals the show at each small appearance, with her sublime vocals and meticulous acting. Glass’ part is a smaller one, but she is flawless at every turn. Byron Watson does not have the right physicality for Judge Turpin but his voice is a highlight of the production. His deep and tremorous baritone brings an operatic sensibility to Sondheim’s music, and we lose ourselves in the beautiful baroque flavour of the compositions.

Liam Kemp’s achievement as musical director and pianist cannot be understated. He has condensed the score to an absolute minimum, with just himself, plus a violinist and a double bassist providing accompaniment for the whole show. The three-piece outfit pulls off an unbelievable feat, creating a soundscape that is dynamic, emotional and theatrical, culminating in a Bernard Herrmann inspired moment where Sweeney Todd meets Norman Bates, and the suspense becomes almost too much to bear. Also outstanding is the set design, comprised of three simple pieces in a hundred configurations, exposing Gartrell-Mills’ imagination to be wildly remarkable. His use of space is quite extraordinary, and one cannot resist imagining what he may be able to achieve with a more substantial design budget.

Musicals are best consumed sentimental, and Gartrell-Mills delivers this dark tale with a big emotional punch. Many of the characters are deplorable and nasty, yet we are seduced into connecting with them, and sometimes even identifying with them. They live in a world far removed from our realities, but we understand their desires and motivations, and we invest heavily into their stories of revenge and murder. We do not think of independent theatre as the best platform for the majestic, opulent musical, but on this occasion, David has emerged seemingly out of nowhere, to slash the throat of Goliath in awesome splendour.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Leaves (Théâtre Excentrique / Emu Productions)

theatreexcentriqueVenue: King Street Theatre (Newtown NSW), Nov 18 – 29, 2014
Playwright: Steve McGrath
Director: Markus Weber
Cast: Martin Ashley Jones, Steve McGrath, Gerry Sont

Theatre review
Three men from privileged backgrounds are turning fifty, and they head out for a camping trip to commemorate the occasion. It seems that their mid-life crises have not subsided, and they struggle to find meaning and fulfillment in spite of having successful careers as a psycho therapist, a barrister, and a real estate agent. Steve McGrath’s script includes many interesting elements that keep the plot layered and unpredictable, with a peculiar sense of humour that gives it an air of whimsy. Some of the jokes are corny, and the overall structure of the play is slightly inelegant, but McGrath’s themes of time, mortality, and the quest for enlightenment are contextualised with enough creativity for Leaves to sustain interest.

Like one of the presenting companies’ names, direction of the work by Markus Weber is eccentric. The production is vibrant, often with a frenzied, almost childlike energy that translates passionately, but there is a general lack of focus that can make narrative details hard to follow. Visual design is adventurous and very colourful, but lighting cues tend to be haphazard and poorly timed (or the show might have been suffering from technical troubles on the night of review). The cast is committed, especially Gerry Sont in the role of Chas, the realtor, who drives the action with a blend of exuberance and frailty that characterises the dilemma being explored. Each actor possesses a degree of authenticity, and they manufacture a lively and noisy atmosphere, but their chemistry is not always convincing. They seem to understand their own parts well, but are detached from the others. Similarly, the play struggles to find coherence, although its philosophy does manage to come across surprisingly clear.

Growing older is no walk in the park for the men in Leaves, and perhaps for men everywhere. There is an interesting link between masculinity and the ageing process, where a shedding of exteriors becomes almost inevitable, and the exposure of weaknesses presents an unexpected challenge. Death for the fifty year-old is a conflicting concept, working as a reminder of the brevity of life, yet bringing to attention, the vulnerability of the body. The remaining years are short, but also long, and it is with a zestful maturity that one can navigate the autumn of life and turn it into days of wine and roses.

www.theatrexcentrique.com

Review: A Christmas Carol (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 8 – Dec 24, 2014
Playwrights: Benedict Hardie, Anne-Louise Sarks (after Charles Dickens)
Director: Anne-Louise Sarks
Cast: Kate Box, Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato, Eden Falk, Robert Menzies, Steve Rodgers, Miranda Tapsell, Ursula Yovich
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Religion provides salvation, and the most enduring stories touch us in a similar way. Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks’ adaptation of A Christmas Carol does not include Christianity as a theme in its structure and composition, but the play uses Dickens’ tale of redemption to affect a spiritually uplifting experience for its audience. Ebenezer Scrooge’s journey from darkness to joy is an inspiring one, and this new retelling of his tale keeps focus on providing a tender optimism against the familiar backdrop of the Christmas season. The production is child-friendly, with simple characterisations and narratives, all serving to drive the basic, but important, point of happiness.

Sarks’ direction is vibrant, emotional and poignant. There is a depth to her work that prevents the show from feeling like a children’s production, but she encourages us to observe with wide-eyed wonder, as pains are taken to create a dreamlike quality with the text’s supernatural elements and colourful personalities. There is a heavy dose of playful energy that contributes to the festive atmosphere in which we find ourselves immersed (complete with overwhelming volumes of confetti snow), and performances are sensitively tuned to bridge the gap between spectators young and old. Robert Menzies is perfect as Scrooge; the man looks almost to have been born to play the role. The clarity of his trajectories and the conviction he applies to his motivations give shape to the plot, allowing us to follow his compelling evolution with palpable empathy. The ensemble is a delight, with Steve Rodgers leaving an impression as the very warm Bob Cratchit, and Miranda Tapsell stealing our hearts as the lovable Tiny Tim. Ursula Yovich’s beautiful singing voice finds opportunity to shine in the carols that feature in several scene transitions, and her tears as Mrs Cratchit are equally exquisite.

Michael Hankin’s set design is cleverly conceived and efficiently executed, with trapdoors and an elevating platform maximising theatrical effect with little fuss. Lights by Benjamin Cisterne are lively and dynamic, adding visual panache to every sequence. Mood transformations are very successfully manufactured, not only by lighting design, but also with the use of Stefan Gregory’s sound and music, which are particularly powerful in moments of mystery and surprise. The show will be remembered for several outlandish costume pieces by Mel Page, but her more subtle work is also effective and should not be overlooked.

Scrooge’s story is well-known, but it bears repeating. Its central message needs reiteration, and Belvoir’s production this Christmas time is a fresh approach that manages to connect with audiences of all ages. We need to instill in Australia’s children, a culture of theatre attendance and art appreciation, and shows like A Christmas Carol are an excellent introduction. It is entertaining, creative and meaningful, and significantly, it leaves you satisfied yet wanting more.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Cyrano De Bergerac (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 11 – Dec 20, 2014
Playwright: Edmond Rostand (adapted by Andrew Upton)
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Alan Dukes, Gabriel Gilbert-Dey, George Kemp, Dale March, Josh McConville, Kenneth Moraleda, Eryn Jean Norvill, Yalin Ozucelik, Michael Pigott, Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan, Bruce Spence, Emily Tomlins, Aaron Tsindos, David Whitney, Julia Zemiro
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
A star is more than a celebrity. Richard Roxburgh is one of Australia’s greatest actors, the kind who seems to be able to turn everything he touches into gold. It is no wonder then, that Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is once again revived, with Roxburgh in the title role. Cyrano’s magical gift with words, coupled with his extraordinarily tenacious and passionate unrequited love for Roxane, provides a foundation for a performer to demonstrate his wealth of talents, and as director Andrew Upton puts it, “Richard’s wit, his erudition, his depth, his classical nous and – as he showed in Waiting For Godot last year – his capacity for clowning. They’re all on show here.”

Upton’s production for the 896-seat Sydney Theatre is ambitious in scale, but the show depends heavily on the efficacy of its singular, central character. Cyrano remains in focus for the entire duration, even in his brief moments off stage. That omnipresence requires of the actor a magnetism that captures our imagination, empathy and admiration, and Roxburgh’s powerful capacities as a star of the stage are brilliantly showcased here. His telling of the classic tale has an intellectual and emotional resonance that sheds new light on an old story, restoring a jaded love story back to the swooning masterpiece that befits its canonical status. Perfectly cast as the romantic figure with a rough exterior, Roxburgh is a leading man whose appeal lies with his talent, and whose allure is about ability rather than physicality. He is easily convincing as an ugly man, not because we ever think of him that way, but because his looks were never relevant to his acclaim. Roxburgh can play Cyrano, or the handsomest man in the world, and we would not question his validity.

The production’s comedy takes on many shades, from the very silly to the very dark, from the cerebral to the deeply ironic. Roxburgh’s versatility and sensitivity to the plot’s transfigurations guide us through an engrossing journey that retains a sense of humour even through pits of war and death. Upton’s adaptation and direction give Cyrano de Bergerac a radical update that reflects modern sensibilities. It insists that romance is still alive, but our relationship with it has evolved. The narrative is the same, but in order that the play’s original intentions may be uncovered, the story is told differently. Indeed, the show is overwhelmingly romantic. We love Cyrano, Roxane, and their tortured tale of mistaken identities, unrequited and lost love, but even more, we love Cyrano’s words. They cut through space and speak to our hearts, and we are moved the same way Roxane is moved. She attributes the letters and poetry to the vacuous Christian, but how we channel those wondrous evocations become entirely personal, and this is where connection happens. Upton does not shy from the grand sentimentality of the piece, but his work never feels schmaltzy. Great care is taken to steer emotions away from the cheap and inauthentic, and what we witness, although highly theatrical and dramatically intense, has a believability that associates closely with our personal experiences.

Playing Roxane is Eryn Jean Norvill, who injects an intelligent dignity to a part that can easily be interpreted dull and ornamental. Much is made of Roxane’s beauty and her many suitors, but her search for love is portrayed with an insistence for an intellectual equal. Norvill’s Roxane knows what she wants, and is determined to acquire it. Her work is quiet but solid, with a considered emphasis on the character’s earnest qualities. Her penultimate scene however, takes an unconvincing turn when she discovers her lover’s true identity much too suddenly. The scene works well in its pace and drama, but Roxane’s psychological transitions are quite implausible. Another character who goes through substantial transformations is the Comte de Guiche, performed with excellent aplomb by Josh McConville. The laughter he creates out of de Guiche’s vanity and haughty demeanour is a real joy, and his comic chemistry with members of cast is consistently impressive. McConville’s work in the final act is also remarkable, perhaps surprisingly so. After endearing us with consecutive scenes of flippancy, he returns a changed man at the end with a new gravity, quickly changing our attitude towards the Comte.

Alice Babidge’s set design provides levels and spaces within the very generous proscenium stage for Upton and his cast to tell a colourful and exciting story, but the creation of a first level catwalk around the perimeter is not visually resolved. The nondescript and generic dark grey areas are probably meant to disappear from sight but they are often jarring contrasts with Babidge’s own period costumes and set pieces on the lower level. It must be noted though, that costume design is beautifully and flamboyantly executed, with imaginative use of textures including leather, suede, velvet, brocade, feathers and lace, to create visions that are luxurious and vibrant. Also wonderful is Lauren A. Proietti’s wigs, worn by virtually all of the sixteen-strong cast. Her work is detailed, balanced and full of flair, giving an excellent polish to the presentation of each personality.

Classics are exhumed and rehashed more than often in Australia, but not always for good reason. They constitute a large portion of our main stage seasons, which in turn consigns new scripts to much smaller audiences, or never to be produced at all. New writers can tell new stories, and also old ones, but Andrew Upton proves with Cyrano de Bergerac that true masterpieces are rarely surpassed. Rostand’s play about broken hearts comes from a simple conceit, yet its access to our emotions is unequivocal. Many romances have traversed creative landscapes over the years, but Cyrano is uniquely moving. We all understand the feeling of inadequacy, and we have all experienced despondency. Many artists have attempted to capture those aspects of humanity, but it is the big nose that expresses things best.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Platonov (Mophead / Catnip Productions )

mophead1Venue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Nov 5 – 22, 2014
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Anthony Skuse)
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Gary Clementson, Charlie Garber, Suzanne Pereira, Amy Hack, Geraldine Hakewill, Graeme McRae, Sam O’Sullivan, Jason Perini, Matilda Ridgway, Eloise Snape, Dorje Swallow, Sam Trotman, Terry Karabelas, Edward McKenna
Image by Matthew Neville

Theatre review
“Impoverished nobility, bored gentry, long afternoons, and a gun” is Anthony Skuse’s characterisation of Chekhov’s legacy, and in this new adaptation of Platonov, Skuse constructs a languid late nineteenth century Russian town, focusing on the title character’s love affairs, and the acquisition of an estate by the underclass. Skuse’s script contains several strong narratives with complex psychological and emotional dimensions, but the work is surprisingly comical, buoyed by a young cast who seems determined to keep proceedings light and frothy.

Skuse’s use of space is aesthetically outstanding. His stage design is minimal, but through the sensitive positioning of a generous number of chairs and actors, scenes come to life and we experience a sublime transformation of time and space. Lighting design by Chris Page and sound by Alistair Wallace are subtle but powerful in effecting atmosphere with a dramatic elegance. The innovative use of chorus and Russian folk songs further enhances the theatrical experience, and this is where most of the performers excel. Direction of performance timing and energy is executed well, but motivations tend to be surface, and it is this lack of gravity that tarnishes the production. Costume is not credited, and the cast often looks as though they are still in rehearsal garb, which detracts from the social and class structures that inform much of the play’s content.

Leading man Charlie Garber is charismatic, with an impressive presence, but his approach is persistently farcical, and he anchors the production in a frivolity that sits uncomfortably with Chekhov’s weighty themes. Platonov’s spinelessness can be humorous, but it is also a serious element that ultimately represents the core reason for the destruction of lives in the story. We may perceive the responsibility associated with the lack of courage and virtue in key personalities, but the show needs to deliver something more poignant in order for its audience to connect on a personal and emotional level. Sam Trotman as Sergei demonstrates a much stronger commitment to the role’s authenticity. His ascension from puerility to anguish over the course of the play is thoroughly compelling, and his fierce vitality adds a much needed edge to a production that tends to be too understated in its storytelling.

The show successfully removes conventional stylistic touches that could be thought of as clichéd in standard representations of Chekhov’s scripts, but the vacuity left behind in their absence is not sufficiently compensated by the show’s moderate sense of originality. Skuse wishes to expose the essence of these character’s very beings, to achieve an understanding of how we function as individuals and as societies, but the language required to communicate those concepts seem to ask for something more elaborate and substantial. It turns out that stripping something bare does not necessarily give easy access to the truth, and what we think of as cosmetic could actually hold significance and meaning.

www.mophead.com.au | www.catnipproductions.com

Review: The Way Things Work (Rock Surfers Theatre Company)

rocksurfersVenue: Bondi Pavilion Theatre (Bondi NSW), Nov 5 – 29, 2014
Playwright: Aidan Fennessy
Director: Leland Kean
Actors: Ashley Lyons, Nicholas Papademetriou
Image by Zakarij Kaczmarek

Theatre review
Aidan Fennessy’s The Way Things Work is about betrayal, corruption and greed. It is also about maleness, focusing on its ambitious manifestations that can often be dishonourable and undignified. The six men in Fennessy’s play are deeply flawed, and their stories reveal them for the low lives that people are capable of becoming. Constructed of three acts, each with a different pair of characters in almost entirely separate scenarios, the script is a dynamic one, with carefully plotted points of tension, drama and danger. The narratives in The Way Things Work are thoughtful expressions that reflect its author’s social concerns. It might not be easy to relate to the contexts Fennessy presents, but his acute observations of the human condition allows us to connect with the material at hand.

Direction of the three long scenes by Leland Kean is challenged by the casting of only two actors, Ashley Lyons and Nicholas Papademetriou, who each take on three parts. Kean manages to create enough differentiation between each segment to keep us engaged, but the cast is not always a perfect fit for every set of characters they tackle, resulting in a show that is unevenly realised. Nevertheless, the production’s use of space is accomplished, and the powerful physicality of both players is used effectively to create lively action from the written pages. Both Lyons and Papademetriou have affable presences that endear us to their time on stage, even though what they put on display is fairly alienating. They are particularly compelling as a couple of Greek-Australian brothers in the second act, with charming idiosyncrasies and a brilliant chemistry that delivers some breathtaking scenes of confrontation and savagery.

Kean’s stage design is a strong feature that provides a confident backdrop, with an appealing aesthetic that relates to some of the themes and concepts, but the three pieces of furniture used to create spacial configurations are very pale by comparison. Also unsuccessful is lighting design that seems to lay dormant during each act, and atmosphere becomes lacklustre without sufficient flourishes in illumination to accompany tonal shifts in the story. The space is persistently dimly lit, which can detract from energy levels in plot and performance. The production’s inadequacy on this level is surprising and confounding.

Our sons’ lives are shaped by families, schools, and communities. How they grow up relies on the environment in which they live, and the men that they become is a consequence of the societies we construct. It is tempting to view adults as self-made individuals responsible for all their own choices, but our personal circumstances cannot be divorced from the people who surround us. Men are not all violent and selfish, as the play might suggest, but there is certainly good reason to examine the reasons behind how we behave, if only to gain control of elements that will improve civilisations for the betterment of humankind as a whole. The Way Things Work talks a lot about power, and our system of government is implicit in its discussions. The media portrays many of our leaders as vile and despicable, but we need to take a closer look at what it is that bestows upon them that privilege and sovereignty.

www.rocksurfers.org

Review: Switzerland (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 3 – Dec 20, 2014
Playwright: Joanna Murray–Smith
Director: Sarah Goodes
Cast: Eamon Farren, Sarah Peirse
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
The term masterpiece is used to describe a work of outstanding creativity, skill and workmanship. Although it is far too early to declare that Switzerland is Joanna Murray-Smith’s most celebrated work, there is no doubt that the playwright has founded something extraordinary with this fictional account of American author Patricia Highsmith’s very last days. Along with Sarah Peirse’s phenomenal performance as Highsmith, this is a production that will be remembered as one of the grandest achievements from two of contemporary theatre’s geniuses.

Highsmith died in Switzerland in 1995, but the story takes place in 2001. In her austere living room, she receives a guest Edward Ridgeway, who has arrived from New York as a representative from her publisher, despatched to obtain Highsmith’s signature on a contract for a new instalment to her famed Ripley series of novels. The young Ridgeway is bright and aspirational, but timid in the presence of the great writer, who has no qualms about berating and offending the rookie at every opportunity. Ridgeway presents himself as a devotee of Highsmith’s oeuvre, and uses all his might to complete the task at hand. The subject of his imploring however, is difficult and mean, and she proceeds to turn his visit into a living hell. Like Highsmith’s books of suspense in the crime fiction genre, Switzerland too is intriguing and seductive, with an unmistakeable Hitchcockian sensibility to its plot and pace. The breathtaking work is a remarkably gripping experience not commonly found in live performances that tend to appeal to emotions more than they do our very visceral responses and indeed, nerves.

It is always tempting to think of writings about writers to be at least partially autobiographical, and Murray-Smith does seem to be extremely personal and revelatory about that creative process in the palpable intimacy witnessed here. Highsmith was more interested in the “why” of murder, than the “how” of it, and this play thoroughly explores human behaviour and psychology, providing a window through which we discover the manifold logic behind the way we tick, especially in our dark moments. The characters thrive in their morbidity; conversations rarely veer from death and destruction, but the play is not deadly serious. It is often piercingly funny, particularly in the way Highsmith’s eccentricities and nastier qualities are accentuated. More than entertaining, Murray-Smith’s comedy helps with her macabre narratives, making them more convincing and threatening. It is the way light and dark vacillate that makes us lose ourselves, and fall headfirst into this indulgently baroque world of deception and narcissism.

Sarah Goodes’ direction is tense, taut and terrific. The deeply complex text is brought to life with crystal clarity in its narrative and characterisations, yet the astonishing multilayeredness of its themes is retained. It is the kind of play that seems to touch on everything, even though its story is ostensibly about something simpler. The context of a hermitic novelist is far removed from many of our own lives, but at no point does Goodes allow us to feel estranged from its themes and ideas. The script’s ambitious structure switches mode constantly within its three single-scene acts, taking cue from Highsmith’s unpredictable and capricious temperament. The direction’s acceding variances in tone and atmosphere are sensitively formed, and the results are edge-of-the-seat exhilarating.

In Switzerland, leading lady Peirse is perfection incarnate. She is at once Maria Callas, Greta Garbo and Bette Davis, bringing to the production a charisma that outweighs the Sydney Opera House, and a storytelling ability that seizes and manipulates our imagination as though reducing us to children hypnotised by a lullaby. Her Highsmith is obnoxious, contemptible, almost evil, yet we are drawn to her helplessly, desperate for her every utterance and gesture. There is a mysterious skill involved in the way Peirse makes each moment of her performance seem majestic, while letting us see textures of subtlety and importantly, authenticity. A real character exists on that stage, but the enormity of the actor’s power is its awe-inspiring double. Many excellent actors grace the stages in the lucky city of Sydney, but it is the splendour on this occasion that causes one to bemoan the ephemerality of the theatrical form.

The role of Ridgeway is equally substantial. The character is half of the story and script, even though he is necessarily subservient. Eamon Farren is a strong actor who tackles the role thoughtfully, and with evident conviction, but he is often eclipsed by Peirse. There is an unfortunate imbalance arising from the difference in levels of experience that is almost inevitable. Pitting an 80 year-old character against a twenty-something, and casting actors with over twenty years’ discrepancy in their respective craft maturation in a two-hander, proves to be more than a little precarious. Our attention resists being split 50/50, and Farren is outclassed and relegated to unofficial supporting actor. Nonetheless, the actor’s accomplishments in creating an interesting personality is significant and so is his contribution to the effectiveness of the plot. The chemistry of the pair is also noteworthy, with an impressive fluency to their dialogic rhythms.

All the action takes place in the living room. Michael Scott-Mitchell based his set design on Highsmith’s final home, suitably bringing to focus the Brutalist environs in which she dwelt. Taking a sharply angled perspective of the house, the stage is shaped like a dagger, reflecting Highsmith’s love of weaponry, and the harshness she had embraced into all aspects of life. Scott-Mitchell’s creation is masculine and perversely beautiful, with a large working fireplace in the centre that provides warmth to the visual aesthetic, but also a menacing sense of impending doom. Lighting is subdued but is central to mood changes and assists in illustrating character transformations. Nick Schlieper’s work is unassuming, but very elegant. Steve Francis’ memorable music compositions between scenes are cinematic and evocative, bringing to mind Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann’s more noir opus.

In Switzerland, Highsmith humorously claims to be neutral, never judging the actions of her characters, content to sit back and observe things unfolding, seemingly on their own accord. She washes her hands of all their sins and misdeeds, almost extricating herself from the part she plays as their sole architect. The show however, bears the fingerprints of all its authors and they should be immensely proud of their artistic marvel. Tom Ripley lives on as a literary landmark, and Joanna Murray-Smith’s play will likely go on to be a considerable part of Australian theatre legacy.
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www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Little Egypt’s Speakeasy (Grand Moustache / Django Bar)

grandmoustacheVenue: Camelot Lounge (Marrickville NSW), Nov 6 – 9, 2014
Writers: Luke Escombe, Lucian McGuiness, Dominic Santangelo
Director: Lucian McGuiness
Cast: Brian Campeau, Kelly Ann Doll, Amos Elroy, Luke Escombe, Danica Lee, Lucian McGuiness, Katie-Elle Reeve, Dominic Santangelo, Damien Slingsby, Elana Stone, Aaron Flower, Nick Hoorweg, Evan Mannell, Mathew Ottignon
Image by Frank Farrugia

Theatre review
The term speakeasy refers to the illegal trade of alcohol during the American “prohibition” period from 1920 to 1933, and Little Egypt is the name of an exotic dancer from even earlier in the twentieth century. Lucian McGuiness’ show Little Egypt’s Speakeasy draws inspiration from both, to recreate the setting of a nightclub filled with sounds and sights from the 1950s. McGuiness is leader of the handsomest band in town, with four kooky vocalists, and a beatnik MC who provides the thread that helps us imagine the narrative that the show is vaguely built upon. Incorporated flawlessly are two burlesque dancers and the band leader’s comedic brother Don who owns the joint.

There are some stellar performances in the piece. The dancers Kelly Ann Doll and Danica Lee are both scintillating and drop dead gorgeous. The MC and narrator Amos Elroy has the deepest voice imaginable from a baby face, with a use of words and humour that is transportative and quite magnificent. Singer Elana Stone is vibrant in personality and in voice, and her male counterpart Brian Campeau is simply divine with a Chet Baker style sensuality, only with much stronger pipes. McGuiness is star of the show with an extraordinarily sharp presence that exemplifies the irresistible sexual allure of the entire evening.

Don and his club’s story do not quite take hold, but the introduction of a through line for a cabaret show is ambitious and astute. It is almost human nature to want to follow a plot, and the experience is certainly enriched with Don and the MC bringing cohesion to the many separate items presented. Little Egypt’s Speakeasy brings a taste of the bohemian life to Sydney, and it is delicious.

camelotlounge.wordpress.com | www.lucianmcguiness.com

Review: Daylight Saving (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

darlotheatreVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Oct 31 – Nov 30, 2014
Playwright: Nick Enright
Director: Adam Cook
Cast: Helen Dallimore, Belinda Giblin, Rachel Gordon, Ian Stenlake, Christopher Stollery, Jacob Warner
Image by Helen White

Theatre review
Nick Enright’s Daylight Saving was written at the dawn of the 1990s. Director Adam Cook’s straightforward staging in 2014 preserves its original sensibilities, but time has not moved on far enough for the play to feel like a classic. Instead, the production appears outdated despite its very polished execution on all fronts. Enright’s story about the farcical turmoil of well-to-do north shore Sydneysiders no longer bears an edge to rival the more relevant comedies of today, and its “first world problems” context can be quite grating when presented without sufficient mockery.

It is evident that Cook has an excellent understanding of the text and the way dynamics are ingrained into the dialogue. His work feels faithful to the author and to the milieu being referenced, and if produced in ten or so years, the play might come across more charming and nostalgic. Cook’s flair with actors gives the show a confidence that allows it to gleam with impressive professionalism, and the cast is an endearing one, even if the characters they play tend to be annoyingly lightweight. Leads Rachel Gordon and Christopher Stollery provide the narrative with a sturdy anchor, and a surprising authenticity, but they are also less colourful than supporting players, resulting in a loss of emotional connection with the audience.

Jacob Warner lights up the space with his entrance late in the piece as Jason Strutt, a spoilt and insolent tennis star. The part is small, but the actor leaves a lasting impression with enthusiastic and risky comedic choices. Also quirky is Helen Dallimore’s madcap rendition of the desperate girl next door Stephanie, who exists mainly to make the protagonists look good, but Dallimore’s gleeful performance is a fiercely delightful one. Belinda Giblin’s sharp humour as Bunty sees her coming on and off stage like a mini hurricane, and Ian Stenlake’s compelling mix of casanova and goofball is oddly alluring.

Daylight Saving is a story about small things that disrupt very comfortable lives. Its frivolity will certainly appeal to some, but its lightness would also prove unbearable to others. Although Enright’s comedy is not quite universal, the conviction of performances on this occasion is magnetic, and audiences will engage and respond, if only in appreciation for the vibrant energy that fills the theatre.

www.darlinghursttheatre.com

Review: Journey’s End (The Theatre Troupe)

theatretroupeVenue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Oct 21 – Nov 15, 2014
Playwright: R.C. Sherriff
Director: Will Usic
Cast: Andrew George, Will Usic, Yannick Lawry, Jack Douglas, Jeremy Bridie, Richard Cotter, Ian Bezzina, Jim Robison, Steve Tait
Image by Toby Zerna

Theatre review
Journey’s End was first performed in 1928, ten years after the end of World War I. Its playwright R.C. Sherriff based the play on his experiences as a British officer in the trenches, and what he had provided is a perspective that feels unusually personal and specific. Focus is moved from the big picture of ideology and territories, to looking at individual lives of those “boots on the ground” as they try to cope with persistent threat, danger and fear.

Will Usic’s work in directing actors is strong. He extracts thoughtful performances from the entire cast, and all are able to instil in their portrayals something that feels genuine and dignified. There are some issues with plot that indicate a need for the very long text to be edited, and while many character interchanges are dynamic and moving, several scenes of dialogue fail to ignite. Poetic license is required but not often utilised in the production. Sherriff’s writing is borne out of stiff upper lip England, so sentiment and passion are extremely restrained, and can make for uncomfortable viewing by today’s conventions.

Usic in the role of Osbourne is the stand out performance of the piece. He is palpably present, and sensitively conscious of conveying the very subtle emotional shifts that exist in those highly precarious situations of battle. His reactions to his comrade’s lines reveal as much as the words themselves do. Also engaging is Yannick Lawry’s humorous take on Trotter, who brings charming levity to the grave proceedings. Lawry pitches his character’s jolliness just right, so as to deliver comedy but also to retain the dark qualities of the narrative. Young Raleigh is played by Jack Douglas with excellent conviction, who maps out the part’s evolution beautifully and convincingly. Leading man Andrew George is believable as Captain Stanhope, with his effortlessly domineering stature, but there is a monotony to his depiction of the role’s depression that detracts from the dramatics of the production.

Set design (uncredited) is ambitious and effective. The stage is pleasantly transformed, and acting space is elegantly accommodated. Sound design (also uncredited) and Toby Knyvett’s lighting are under-explored in the first two acts, which adds to the aforementioned monotony, but both are intelligently conceived and executed thereafter to represent the horrific destruction of lives at war.

There is a delicate balance to be found when discussing the honour of people who serve in battle. Journey’s End does not glorify war, but it shows camaraderie at its deepest. The exaltation of those who have sacrificed can be worthwhile, but the condemnation of war must prevail.

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