Review: Shepherd (Aya Productions)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 19 – Mar 7, 2020
Playwright: Liam Maguire
Director: Liam Maguire
Cast: Mark Paguio, Cecelia Peters, Rose Riley, Adam Sollis, Grace Victoria, Jacob Warner
Images by Matt Predny

Theatre review
Anna is sort of a charismatic cult leader, but she would of course never call herself that. Inside what might be termed a wellness facility, we meet a group of seekers, overwhelmed with a sense of inadequacy, anxiety and narcissism, trying to attain a state of bliss, by surrendering themselves to the teachings of their Gwyneth Paltrow lookalike guru. Liam Maguire’s Shepherd is a self-effacing meditation on the disquiet of modern existence, with characters full of neurosis presenting a sardonic theatre that appeals to our most cynical selves.

Operating as both playwright and director, Maguire’s idiosyncratic humour shines through for a quirky style of show, delivering big laughs as well as ample opportunity for intellectual engagement. His mischievous approach reveals the people we have become, in what is now one of the world’s richest countries; seeing ourselves represented as complete idiots, is actually highly rewarding.

Although not an extravagant production, lights by Martin Kinnane and sound by Sam Maguire, work together to provide a polish that reflects the sophistication underpinning Shepherd. Their efforts combine to shift tensions and tone between each scene, so that we interpret the action from varying heights of comedy and drama, letting us in on the play’s intentions, in subtle subliminal ways.

The cast is extraordinarily funny, including a deadpan Adam Sollis, who as Mark utters just four words, but whose depictions of wilful ignorance proves unforgettable. Anna is played by Grace Victoria, who portrays quiet malice with a powerful sarcasm, and captivating flamboyance. Also very ostentatious is Cecelia Peters, an energetic and meticulous performer, whose exquisite timing and high campery as Elsa is a delicious highlight. Mark Paguio’s overwrought earnestness leaves a remarkable impression, for an irresistibly hilarious take on lost souls and their confused desperation. Rose Riley and Jacob Warner play a quarrelling couple, both actors intense and wonderfully ironic with the parody of romance that they bring to the stage,

Anna exploits these bewildered sheep, gaining money and power from those eager to give up agency and indulge in the comfort of blindly following a false god. The world can make us acutely aware of personal shortcomings, even though these ideas of lack, are rarely genuine. We need to learn to switch perspectives, and see that it is the economy and the ways we run society that are at fault. The structures we subsist under fail to accommodate our nature, and makes us feel as though we are the ones to be blamed for not being able to cope. It then sells us solutions to problems of its own creation, and sets us on a perpetual cycle of frustration and dissatisfaction. When we recognise that the system is not serving our purpose, radical measures must be taken.

www.ayaproductions.com.au

Review: Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Feb 6 – Mar 8, 2020
Playwright: Steve Rodgers (based on a novella by Peter Goldsworthy)
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Valerie Bader, Emma Jackson, Mark Lee, Liam Nunan, Grace Truman, Matthew Whittet
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Linda and Rick are a young couple in love, full of hope for the future, and like many who had come before, they decide to have children. In Peter Goldsworthy’s Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam (adapted for the stage by Steve Rodgers), it is that collision of optimism and the inevitable harshness of real life that comes to the fore, when a happy family of four is met with the curse of a terminal illness.

The play is predictably emotional, with Darren Yap’s direction making no apologies for the extremely sentimental tone that his production takes. Death however, may seem a more vacillating topic than the show might suggest. As we watch the Pollards go through turmoil, finding ways to deal with the impending passing of a beloved, Jesus Wants Me For A Sunbeam exposes the surprisingly disparate attitudes we may hold, for a completely universal experience. It becomes obvious that because we so rarely talk about death, that we almost never have opportunities to create consensus, so it only makes sense that personal beliefs can vary greatly in relation to the topic.

Characters inhabit a relentlessly dark space, and the trauma being presented feels authentic, even if one does not share in the Pollards’ persuasions about the afterlife. The cast is uniformly strong, impressive with the chemistry they harness as an ensemble, able to give a sense of elevation to some very simple personalities. Actors Liam Nunan and Grace Truman are memorable as the children, passionate and intense with their portrayals of interrupted innocence. Emma Jackson and Matthew Whittet are their parents, both full of conviction, and remarkably elegant in their approaches for this unabashedly stirring work. Valerie Bader and Mark Lee take on a range of senior roles, precise and marvellously deliberate with what they bring to the stage.

Also noteworthy is Emma Vine’s set design, offering considerable versatility and easy scene transitions, whilst remaining pleasing to the eye. Verity Hampson’s lights, along with music and sound by Max Lambert and Sean Peter, ensure that the audience is drawn into the tragedy, through tenacious engagement of our senses.

Death can be thought of as more than a mournful occurrence. In fact, some think of it as a welcome end to suffering. In the lightness of romance, Linda and Rick create new life, unafraid of all the hardship that is sure to come. In sickness, one is made to confront mortality, with fear and sadness invariably becoming part of that process. Along with having to say a long goodbye to loved ones, it is perhaps the uncertainty about what happens thereafter, that causes the greatest despair. We may differ in how we regard the nature of death, but the beauty of life that we have all witnessed, does not have to end when the lights are turned off for the last time.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.riversideparramatta.com.au/NTofP

Review: Kasama Kita (Aya Productions)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 20 – Dec 7, 2019
Playwright: Jordan Shea
Director: Erin Taylor
Cast: Kip Chapman, Jude Gibson, Kenneth Moraleda, Monica Sayers, Teresa Tate Britten

Theatre review
It is 1974, and we follow three student nurses, as they leave the chaos of Marcos’ Philippines, for Whitlam’s newly progressive Australia. Jordan Shea’s Kasama Kita is a look at success stories of the Asian migrant experience, featuring colourful characters making unexpected and diverse journeys, in the land of their adopted country. Perhaps inevitable with its focus on adversity, Kasama Kita is however, remarkably humorous, and fascinating in its depictions of the different ways in which individuals are able to be of value to society.

The play’s unmistakable sentimentality is showcased powerfully by director Erin Taylor, who does not shy away from moments of melodrama. Its comedy too, is vigorously explored to deliver thoroughly satisfying entertainment, as it works simultaneously, on a separate quieter level, for a more heartrending result. Design aspects are fairly minimal, but the production’s subtle approach for sound and visuals, proves effective in keeping us attentive and emotionally invested.

In the role of Nancy is Monica Sayers, whose strong presence provides a sense of gravity to the model citizen narrative. Teresa Tate Britten plays the less honourable but equally impressive Cory, with excellent sass and dignity. Memorable, and very endearing, is Kenneth Moraleda who brings on the laughs as Antero, wonderfully authentic in his proud portrayal of a gay Filipino. Kip Chapman and Jude Gibson are delightful in multiple parts, both actors highly accomplished and full of conviction with all that they put on stage.

After 45 years, Nancy, Cory and Antero are still required to justify their place as Australians. Their achievements have far exceeded expectations, including their own, but their legitimacy still feels questioned, by a colonial establishment that itself struggles to be persuasive with its own validity. We can get into all kinds of discussions about prejudice and injustice, as we have done for many lifetimes, but it is evident that for as long as we do not adequately address the issue of land rights and ownership, all talk that pertains to race can only be rendered erroneous. If only 3% of Australians are Indigenous to this land, the 97% of us needs to find new ways to understand our positions here, in relation to the rightful custodians who must, for the foreseeable future, always be centred and prioritised.

www.ayaproductions.com.au

Review: Packer & Sons (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Nov 11 – Dec 22, 2019
Playwright: Tommy Murphy
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Nick Bartlett, John Gaden, Anthony Harkin, John Howard, Brandon McClelland, Josh McConville, Nate Sammut, Byron Wolffe
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is assumed in Tommy Murphy’s Packer & Sons that we would be interested in three generations of awful men, simply because they rank amongst some of the most notorious people in the country. The play makes little effort to elicit our emotional investment in these repulsive characters, relying only on their celebrity to fascinate, as it dives straight into the nitty-gritty of their ruthless business dealings. Frank, Kerry and James Packer wield a lot of power as media moguls, and as the top one percentile their every major financial decision causes reverberations for the rest of us, yet the family shows nothing but contempt for consumers who they only seek to exploit and never to serve.

Packer & Sons seems to have an abundance of misplaced empathy for the Packer boys. James at its conclusion especially, weeps and wails as though innocent of all sins, begging for father’s approval, in an extended sequence that we can only regard with incredulity. We want to laugh at these animals, but the production is reluctant to heap scorn, expending its energy instead on the inner mechanics of the empire, as though offering something revelatory or profound.

The production is remarkably unimaginative, with too great an emphasis on a realism that works only to inform us on things that have long been public knowledge. Eamon Flack’s direction is able to convey with accuracy, dynamics between the men, which form the crux of the piece, but this focus on father-son relations is ultimately insufficiently substantial to sustain our engagement. Design elements of the presentation are accomplished, if slightly underwhelming, in their representations of some of the world’s wealthiest. The staging misses an opportunity to mock the Packer’s obsession with money and commercial success, especially in visual terms.

Actor John Howard is effective as tyrants of the dynasty, the grumpy old men Frank and Kerry, persuasive with the cunning he depicts, as the cruel instigator of chaotic discord at home and at work. Howard’s portrayal of toxic fatherhood in both roles, is a captivating feature of the show. As James and young Kerry, Josh McConville is irrepressibly vivacious. The energetic desperation that he embodies for Kerry, almost makes up for Packer & Sons‘s lacklustre drama.

Performances feel predictable, in this obvious and conservative take on a story about the patriarchy. Everything seems to be done the most convenient way, and the result is just banal. These characters are hateful, and if we are to spend any theatrical time with them, the approach should not be any less controversial than the way these assholes have always presented themselves, and prided themselves to be.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Slaughterhouse (25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 16 – Nov 2, 2019
Playwright: Anchuli Felicia King
Director: Benita de Wit
Cast: Romy Bartz, Adam Marks, Tom Matthews, Brooke Rayner, Stephanie Somerville
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The action takes place at a tech start up, where Bianca is trying to expose the meat industry for cruel practices at its abattoirs. Slaughterhouse by Anchuli Felicia King talks about the upsurge of ethical products being offered at the marketplace, by companies that continue to be breeding grounds for mercenary corporate cannibals. We see personalities who have little concern for for what is right, building careers out of peddling apparently wholesome concepts that exploit our desire for responsible consumption.

Consisting of five monologues, Slaughterhouse is a dark comedy, often wildly imagined, and edgy with its humour. It is a spirited work, passionate with its moral stance, but is simultaneously pessimistic in its understanding of the world. Directed by Benita de Wit, the show is energetic and appropriately boisterous, accurate in its depiction of us as a culture that is overfed with noise, but always failing to listen. Extensive use of video projections foregrounds the fact that in the selfie era, everybody wants to say something but nobody is paying any meaningful attention.

Bianca is played by a very earnest Brooke Rayner, who performs with great vigour, the ever-escalating mania that perfectly reflects the state of anxiety that we experience, as individuals and as collectives today. As Hannah the unscrupulous entrepreneur, Romy Bartz captivates with a persuasive combination of ruthlessness and vulnerability, able to portray complexities that prevent us from relegating the monster to otherness. Tom Matthews’ enthusiastic embrace of the bizarre in the role of DJ is a delight, for a character that demonstrates pointedly, the social consequences of unadulterated hedonism. Also noteworthy are Brendan De La Hay’s costumes, polished and flamboyant, for a series of striking looks that provide a sense of theatricality to proceedings.

Like Bianca, most of us know right from wrong, but are unable to find ways to operate in clear conscience, within pervasive structures that are inherently harmful. We watch Bianca turn into the very devil she despises, as she tries to push an honourable agenda, inside a system that seems only able to deliver evil. Deciphering good and bad is the easy part. To dismantle the bad, when it is long-established, and when it has become the very definition of ‘normal’, calls for a courage and an imagination that few are capable of.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Fangirls (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 12 – Nov 10, 2019
Book, Music & Lyrics: Yve Blake
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Aydan, Yve Blake, Kimberley Hodgson, Chika Ikogwe, Ayesha Madon, James Majoos, Sharon Millerchip
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Edna is head over heels in love with Harry, except Harry is miles away in the UK, and a member of a boy band oblivious to Edna’s existence. Yve Blake’s Fangirls details the experience shared by many, ever since the advent of pop music in the middle of the twentieth century, where teenagers develop crushes on stars the intensity of which can often be overwhelming. They had fainted at Beatles concerts in the 60’s, thrown panties at Tom Jones in the 70’s, and now they write fan fiction as a manifestation of their fantasies, and a declaration of love, to share with vast communities of like-minded youth.

Fiction and reality however, become dangerously blurred in Fangirls, as Edna’s obsession grows completely out of hand. It is admittedly surprising, that what seems to be a pedestrian premise for a show, would emerge being the foundation for one of the cleverest and most entertaining musicals to grace our stages. Its dialogue is inexhaustibly witty, partnered by songs that are as inventive as they are powerful, with a plot structure that casts a hypnotic spell over our heads and hearts. Proving that storytelling does not always require subject matter that obviously resonate, Fangirls enthrals with its colourful yet authentic characters, who navigate the modern world in a way that can be thought of as peculiar, but also unequivocally essential in our understanding of humanity. Perhaps it is precisely in these instances of insanity, that we can locate our true nature.

Directed by Paige Rattray, the show is a joyful exercise in feminine vivacity, deliciously exuberant as it celebrates the foibles of adolescence that define us all. Fangirls is hilarious, even at its darkest moments, always insisting that we laugh heartily at situations that evoke memories that were once deathly embarrassing, but are now freshly endearing. Music direction by Alice Chance and music production by David Muratore, draw inspiration from recent trends in pop, for a remarkably exciting score replete with energy, surprise and fabulous irony. Leonardo Mickelo’s choreography is similarly accomplished, making every number a visual thrill. Video by David Fleischer and Justin Harrison help depict the new media environment that informs the sensibilities of our youth, but it is Emma Valente’s lighting design that delivers spectacle and atmospheric augmentation, which really get us in the mood.

Edna is triumphantly portrayed by Blake, whose skills in acting, singing and dancing, are quite astonishingly on par with what she achieves as songwriter and playwright. She is simultaneously heartbreaking and comical, persistently nuanced even if the performance is relentlessly extravagant in tone. The mononymous Aydan is thoroughly convincing as the object of desire, a marvellous caricature who is clearly in on the joke. Five extraordinary supporting players in a wide variety of roles, leave us hopelessly thrilled by their impressive talents. Chika Ikogwe is absolutely glorious with the sassy humour and parodic hip hop stylings she brings, in addition to the moments of piercing poignancy she introduces as the less than best friend Jules.

Caroline, the mother at wits end, is played by an impossibly versatile Sharon Millerchip. James Majoos is unforgettable as Saltypringl, and for dialling up the camp factor in all his scintillating representations of gender diversity. Very big laughs are delivered by Kimberley Hodgson, who is brilliantly incisive as the naive Briana, and Ayesha Madon takes every opportunity to tickle us with excessive vocal flourishes, along with multiple absurd appearances as an overzealous ribbon gymnast.

We can give our children everything they need and want, and still have to live with the idea that they will inevitably go out and court trouble. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that when we leave them with nothing to want, is when they would find ways to create havoc. People need to feel in control of their own existences. Adults take it upon themselves to provide every kind of order, so that the young can have peaceful and rewarding lives, but without experiencing chaos and failure, it is hard to imagine that anyone could truly welcome everything that should be cherished. We dread our kids ever having to hit rock bottom, but we know that that is in many ways, absolutely necessary.

www.belvoir.com.au | www.atyp.com.au | www.queenslandtheatre.com.au

5 Questions with Brooke Rayner and Stephanie Somerville

Brooke Rayner

Stephanie Somerville: What’s your favourite pre-show pump up song?
Brooke Rayner: “Joyful Joyful” from Sister Act. Gospel choir and Lauren Hill’s voice – amazing. I remember dancing to it at one of those area spectacular school shows, maybe it’s the muscle memory but makes me want to laugh and cry.

What show have you seen in the last twelve months that’s really stuck with you?
Blackie Blackie Brown. Who doesn’t want a kick ass political comedy about an Indigenous Superhero and too many wig changes to count!? I was screaming in my seat. It was like watching a comic book open and come to life. In the words of the Hot Brown Honeys “Moisturize and Decolonise”.

What made you want to be an actor?
I think having access to theatre in high school and watching these amazing transformations happen and then having the opportunity to do it myself. Once I realised I could explore and feel out someone else’s story there were endless possibilities like … Why be one thing when you can be everything else?

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Tripe. I love tripe. It’s cow’s stomach. But specifically Dim Sum style. It appears spiky but is quite soft and chewy, a lot of people reel at it. I ate it for years not knowing what it was. There’s some kind of irony in eating stomach.

What’s something that you and your character have in common that surprised you?
I think Bianca and I share a similar way of communicating. It’s knowing what you want to say but everything coming out of your mouth is disjointed, three different versions of saying the same point at once. Word vomit and then back tracking to try and fix what you’ve said. I’ve always been told I have terrible sentence structure.

Stephanie Somerville

Brooke Rayner: If you were an animal what would you want to be and why?
Stephanie Somerville: I’d like to be a big, fat, cat that belongs to some little old lady who feeds it fresh tuna and lazes around in the sun all day. Because honestly wouldn’t that be the life?

If you could eat one meal every day for the rest of your life what would it be?
Hot chippies with lots of salt.

What excites you about getting to know a character?
I get excited about that moment when you fall in love with a character. Sometimes it’s love at first sight when you read a script, but sometimes it takes a bit of digging. I think it’s the things that surprise you about a character that make you fall in love with them, and I always get excited about that.

What do you want to see when you go to the theatre?
That depends on what I’m going to see! But hopefully a good show? I like to see something that makes me think in a way I’ve never thought, jabs me in my heart, or a story I’ve never heard. I also really like to see kick-ass POC actors doing incredible work, and it’s something I don’t see enough.

What grabbed your attention about Slaughterhouse?
When I first read the script I felt like I was reading a good crime novel and I was trying to piece together this great mystery. I’m really looking forward to our audience having that same experience. What grabbed me though was how intelligently Felicia writes these intricate and complex characters, there’s just so much to excavate. She’s really very good, hey? And how lucky are we to be working with her words!

Brooke Rayner and Stephanie Somerville can be seen in Slaughterhouse by Anchuli Felicia King.
Dates: 16 Oct – 2 Nov, 2019
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre