Review: Barbara And The Camp Dogs (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Dec 2 – 23, 2017
Playwrights: Alana Valentine, Ursula Yovich
Director: Leticia Cáceres
Cast: Troy Brady, Elaine Crombie, Jessica Dunn, Michelle Vincent, Debbie Yap, Ursula Yovich
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Barbara has a lot of fun in the city, singing at bars and events, being independent and vivacious. She is a mischievous character, and together with her cousin René, they paint the town red on the regular, determined to devour all that life has to offer, and to escape the troubling roots of their outback origins. Barbara And The Camp Dogs by Alana Valentine and Ursula Yovich, falls into categories of the musical and the epic journey, but it is a consistently surprising ride that defies all manner of expectations.

Barbara does well in life, but as an Aboriginal woman, the scars that she carries are deep, agonising and easier left ignored. When she finds herself having to return home to fulfil her filial obligations, all that she tries to deny, come flooding back to taunt her. The play expresses the nature of that immense suffering, with extraordinary acuity. Barbara and René sing, because so much of Indigenous experience is beyond our usual capacities of speech. In Barbara And The Camp Dogs, we are able to connect with the injustice and pain that have become entrenched in Black Australia. It divulges with power and wit, through its songs and storytelling, the darkest, most hidden of many Indigenous women’s lives.

It is impossible to overstate Jessica Dunn’s achievements as musical director. Barbara’s secret inner world turns intimately palpable, via influences of rock and soul, for a mode of communication sublime in its startling veracity. The songs move us as though a spiritual entity has taken hold. We are guided from scene to scene, with emotional intensity, precise and lush at every juncture.

Director Leticia Cáceres imbues the show with a warm glow, enchanting and irresistibly alluring. Everything about Barbara And The Camp Dogs is designed to have us fall in love with its characters and their narratives, and we endear to it all, readily and completely. There are occasional instances of abruptness in the transition of scenes, that can be slightly disorienting, but the raw aesthetic of the production is a forgiving one. Moreover, any blemishes would be easily shielded by the show’s incredibly charismatic stars.

The sensational voices and effervescent personalities of Ursula Yovich and Elaine Crombie win us over effortlessly, from the very beginning. The harmony forged between the two is a delight to our ears and to our hearts; what they present is wonderfully tender and exceptionally real. Yovich in particular, moves us in the most profound but unexpected ways. Telling us Barbara’s story of intolerable suffering, is not for a moment of catharsis, but a lasting gift of inspiration. We observe and learn, and promise to do better, to do more.

Barbara is not a social justice warrior. She is not a conscious activist, but she has to fight every day of her life, to defend herself against structural forces determined to keep her down. Australia’s shameful history of genocide, originating from the illegitimate claim of terra nullius in 1788, has reverberations that remain cruel and potent in the twenty-first century. A semblance of equality is not sufficient to heal these dreadfully severe wounds. Meaningful reparations will cost, but they must be made.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Atlantis (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Oct 28 – Nov 26, 2017
Playwright: Lally Katz
Director: Rosemary Myers
Cast: Paula Arundell, Lucia Mastrantone, Amber McMahon, Hazem Shammas, Matthew Whittet
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Lally Katz’s Atlantis is an autobiographical fantasy. It sprouts from the personal and authentic, then leads to something entirely imaginary. Lally, the protagonist, is consumed by anxiety, when at 35, she finds herself single and childless. We follow her on an odyssey that takes her from Sydney, to the USA’s east coast; an eventful, wacky journey that comprises a string of amusing characters and incidents. Lally goes through many discoveries, fuelled by a desperate search for love, or at least a husband and a baby.

It is not a quest that all will find persuasive. The deliberately silly scenes in Atlantis are certainly a lot of whimsical fun, but the central disquiet that motivates all the action seems too trivial, perhaps even narcissistic, to allow us to invest in a meaningful way. Through the plot, Lally comes in contact with more worthy concepts, of climate change, of poverty and of mortality, but they affect her only momentarily. We can all see that her problems diminish in significance as time passes, but nonetheless, Lally persists. She must find a man to fall pregnant with, or she simply cannot go on.

Amber McMahon plays a juvenile, although very likeable, version of the playwright. As though in a pantomime, McMahon’s exaggerated effervescence proves to be captivating, as she keeps us attentive through the highs and lows of Lally’s stories. The production is unquestionably humorous, directed by Rosemary Myers with a relentless sprightliness that offers entertainment and laughter, even when the narrative turns tiresome. Four other actors are called upon to perform a big roster of small roles, and they are all remarkable. The infinite versatility of the ensemble astounds us, with what they are able to achieve through sheer inventiveness. Also noteworthy are Damien Cooper’s lights and Jonathan Oxlade’s set, creating exciting images full of colour and movement, increasingly mesmerising as the show turns hopelessly hallucinatory.

Like in all our lives, the promise of a utopia propels the action in Atlantis. We need to believe in something, like that pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, in order that we can set ourselves in motion, so that we can fill time with meaning. Lally Katz does so much in the play, through all its scenes of mischievous adventure, but we see her being neglectful of each moment, keeping her mind focused instead on a puerile objective. When there is joy surrounding us, we must take notice and take pleasure in it. Better days will come, but understanding that they have a propensity to surprise us, and learning to see the signs that wish to evolve us, is how we can experience the magical unpredictability of this existence.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Ghosts (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 16 – Oct 22, 2017
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen (adapted by Eamon Flack)
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Tom Conroy, Taylor Ferguson, Robert Menzies, Colin Moody, Pamela Rabe
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is late 19th century, and the widowed Mrs Alving is building an orphanage so that her dead husband’s money can be released from her conscience. She is still unable to find peace, even though her poisonous marriage is now over, after having suffered in silence for decades. Ibsen’s Ghosts is about the incontrovertible links between past and present. It looks at how we are controlled by beliefs, events and decisions of days gone by, and the unconscious ways in which we keep ourselves and one another bound to societal rules and conventions.

Mrs Alving understands that a better life is possible, yet she persists with misery. Director Eamon Flack prompts us to question the nature of our protagonist’s volition, whilst simultaneously placing emphasis on external forces that insist on her compliance. From all our personal experiences, we know the tension that lies inevitably between others and the will of the self. The concept of a self-determined existence is an attractive one, even though none of us can lay claim to have fashioned an entirely independent state of being.

Ghosts is an inherently challenging work, and with the passage of time, its narrative has turned predictably archaic, leaving only its central philosophies to speak with pertinence. Tradition and religion no longer hold the same power, so the Alving family’s story is in many ways only a relic, but Flack’s ability to turn the essence of Ibsen’s writing into a resonating force for his show, is certainly admirable.

Pamela Rabe’s performance as Mrs Alving has an understated charm, that shifts the play’s old melodramatic quality to something that is altogether more elegant and naturalistic. It is quite extraordinary, the way Rabe sublimates obsolete details into her very convincing storytelling. All the actors are worth their salt, successful in bringing invigoration and surprising nuance, to some very dry material. Equally remarkable are Nick Schlieper’s lights, especially noteworthy in the final act, when imagery turns breathlessly sublime, and we see baroque paintings come to life.

Artists need knowledge of the past, in order that they may forge new ground, but like characters in Ghosts, their work is constantly under threat of being undermined by the reverence we so often attribute to the historical. The continual resurrection of dead white males like Ibsen can be considered necessary, but it can also be thought symptomatic of problems that the Australian artistic landscape faces. Our art means little if it hinges so strongly on traditions of olden Europe. The Alving patriarch might be dead and buried, but those he had left behind are doomed to perpetuate his agony. We want them to renounce those burdens and henceforth, prosper with the current of their own autonomy, but it seems easier said that done.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Hir (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Aug 12 – Sep 10, 2017
Playwright: Taylor Mac
Director: Anthea Williams
Cast: Kurt Pimblett, Greg Stone, Helen Thomson, Michael Whalley
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Paige is suddenly emancipated. By a stroke of luck, her abusive husband Arnold has turned invalid, revealing a fortuitous way out of misery. She revels in her new freedom with a maniacal glee, and together with her now transgender son Max, their household is transformed to radically embrace every concept of anti-patriarchy that they come across. Taylor Mac’s Hir is a revenge story, centring on a protagonist who tries to find independence and a better life by subverting prevailing notions of gender, the very thing she identifies to have been responsible for her adversities.

The play is uproarious, with Paige in various states of hysteria, desperately seeking redefinition for her existence. The action begins when her elder son Isaac, having been dishonourably discharged from war, returns to the deliberate chaos at home (set design by Michael Hankin is remarkably mirthful). Unable to come to terms with the shock of the new, Isaac attempts to restore the old order, and things quickly escalate. We watch Paige being confronted by her position as mother and wife, as she persists with the project of queering everything, and are enthralled by the brutal tenacity at which she sticks to her guns, in a face off with a past she is determined to be rid of. It is a wild premise that the playwright establishes, and the ride that we get taken on, is as emotionally powerful as it is entertaining, all the while maintaining a level of intellect that many will find irresistible.

It is a spectacular production, painstaking in the way its progressive, and sometimes obscure, ideas are interpreted with brilliant lucidity, to be presented alongside some thoroughly enjoyable comedy. Director Anthea Williams brings to the piece, a boldness of spirit, that allows its controversial qualities to speak poignantly and persuasively. Hir is political theatre, unapologetic in its desire to make an impact on the way we think.

Playing Paige is the absolutely scintillating Helen Thomson. The actor is gloriously funny, with perfect timing and faultless instincts that have us hopelessly captivated. A portrayal of a woman reclaiming space, strength and sovereignty, Thomson is commanding and, when required, vulnerable. She is called upon to make some very extreme statements about womanhood, and although not to everyone’s tastes, the way she delivers each audacious proclamation, is beyond gratifying.

If Paige finds the answers she wants, she will discover that it is not necessarily happiness, but a heavy burden that she will encounter, when living a life of integrity and enlightenment. When we reject conventions and systems that are unfairly stacked against us, we are guaranteed only honesty and liberation. To not expect hardship is foolish. In the struggle against deceit and inequity, fulfilment when derived, is often more painful than joyous. It is how the bastards keep us dishonest, by issuing modicums of petty bribery that offer an illusory sense of security and comfort, so that we maintain the eternally exploitative status quo. In cases when a straw does break the camel’s back however, a woman scorned will unleash a fury of mythical proportions, to seek redress and to aggravate for a revolution.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: The Rover (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jul 1 – Aug 6, 2017
Playwright: Aphra Behn
Director: Eamon Flack
Cast: Gareth Davies, Andre de Vanny, Taylor Ferguson, Leon Ford, Nathan Lovejoy, Elizabeth Nabben, Toby Schmitz, Nikki Shiels, Kiruna Stamell, Megan Wilding
Image by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
It is mid 17th century, and a bunch of rowdy English tourists descend upon Naples to partake in the masqueraded festivities of Carnival time. Aphra Behn’s depiction of wild revelry may be restricted by mores of the Restoration era, but its spiritedness is nonetheless unmistakable. In its atmosphere of debauchery, the characters talk of love and marriage, preoccupied with the sport of spouse hunting.

The play is conventional, but as the production’s prologue asserts, we cannot ignore Behn’s position as England’s first woman playwright, or the feminine perspective that her work brings to the stage. Although women are again, and literally, divided into virgins and whores in The Rover, they each act with agency, and their desires are provided due significance. Whether nuns or courtesans, we always know what it is that they want for themselves, and we watch them going about procuring what are essentially self-determined lives.

Director Eamon Flack delivers a thoroughly enjoyable work of high octane comedy, playfully inventive in approach, and unabashedly raucous with its expressions. Details can become confused, as the show’s humour takes first priority, but narratives are of slight importance in a show of this nature. It dazzles and it delights, with Mel Page’s brilliant work as set and costume designer scoring high; the imagery presented by The Rover is deliciously colourful and consistently alluring. Lights by Matt Scott are jaunty and energetic, with the inclusion of a “follow spot” enhancing the vaudeville quality of performances.

It is a remarkable cast, unrelenting with their extraordinary exuberance and skill. Flack showcases each of the player’s idiosyncratic sense of humour, while maintaining a cohesion to the comedy style of his creation. Megan Wilding is a standout in dual roles, seductive as the saucy temptress Lucetta, and delightfully foulmouthed as the maid Moretta, but always irresistibly funny and disarmingly magnetic, no matter the personality we encounter. As the charming cad Willmore, Toby Schmitz is a refreshing presence, theatrical but with a striking spontaneity that introduces a hint of danger, to the inevitable predictability of the story.

American comedian Beth Stelling says, “nothing makes a dick go softer than a funny woman.” The fallacious idea of women being less effective in comedy, still persists, but in The Rover, five comical women and five humorous men demonstrate that the funny bone recognises only talent, unconstrained by notions of gender. From Shakespeare to Gogol, and from Chaplin to Gervais, male geniuses have staked their dominance in the field. Spaces in art, like in commerce and politics, continue to be usurped by the masculine, but feminine retaliation is underway, as it has for generations, in this seemingly unending operation. After all, a woman’s work is never done.

www.belvoir.com.au

5 Questions with Thomas Campbell and Jane Phegan

Thomas Campbell


Jane Phegan: What attracts you to Enda Walsh’s writing? Misterman is the second play of his that you have performed.
I love Enda Walsh’s plays and characters because I pick up a script of his and have no idea where to start and that excites me. There’s a consistent theme through most of his plays where his characters are searching for love so there’s a deep truth to them. Added to that, he uses extraordinary language and word play so it’s a delight and a challenge to speak his words. He’s effing brilliant.

Why do you want to take this work or work in general to the Edinburgh stage?
Edinburgh Fringe has always been a bit of a bucket list thing for me but it’s a very expensive exercise so seemed like a bit of an impossibility. When we took Misterman to Hobart last year and had a mini tour experience, Hartley, our lighting designer, suggested we look at going to Edinburgh so we started to put the wheels in motion. Also, Misterman is just a great showy piece for all of us and then I thought I should take my comedy piece, One Hander, as well. Why not?

What inspired you to write and perform One Hander?
I was living in London, having my UK ‘experience’, pretty depressed and artistically deprived. I’ve always had these stories about people’s reactions to my hand, or lack thereof, which have been great dinner party fodder. So at about 3am one morning, after my 10th episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, I decided to get off my arse and face a fear and do a stand up comedy open mic night. I started writing, did the open mic night, and a month later I did a full hour show at the Battersea Barge in London. That’s where it began.

Like myself, you have worked with Kate Gaul several times – what keeps you coming back for more?
Kate Gaul is a genius. She’s unbelievably hard working and has such rigour to her work. She’s constantly asking questions of herself and her creatives right up until the show closes. She always asks ‘what is the story we are telling?’ which seems like basic question but it’s the most important and tends to get forgotten in a lot of productions I see. She’s also not afraid to be ‘direct’ as opposed to ‘polite’ in a rehearsal room which I respond well to and believe it’s a short cut to the best work.

What’s your favourite musical?
I love musicals but my favourite changes daily depending on the mood I’m in. Today it’s probably my old favourite, Into The Woods, because I remember getting a VHS copy of the OBC production with Bernadette Peters, when I was about 13 and watching it 4 times back to back in the one day. It was the first musical I saw that showed they didn’t have to just be frothy and shiny but could have cracking acting as well. I’m also a little bit obsessed with Dear Evan Hansen at the moment- I have a dodgy bootleg copy- but I’m yet to work out if it’s just Ben Platt’s performance that is the extraordinary thing or the show or both.

Jane Phegan


Thomas Campbell: Tell me about the play and your role?
It is a beautiful piece by Noelle Janaczewska that takes the audience on a wild adventure down the Amazon, a long dreamed of destination, and through the history of that part of the world. At the same time the character is coming to terms with her father’s illness and exploring their relationship which centres around a shared love of literature. They are both venturing into other worlds and the unknown. It is in turn a poetic, funny and, as Ben Neutze described, “ultimately heartbreaking piece of theatre”.

What’s it been like to revisit a role for the second time?
I am just beginning to revisit the role and Noelle has made some minor edits – that is one of the brilliant aspects of being able to do a piece more than once – the ability to refine and go further. I hope to do the same with the performance! I’m looking forward to going back into the world of the show and finding new gems with a sense of knowing.

Are you nervous about taking your work to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
Of course!! What a loony thing to do! It’s bad enough taking to the stage on your own in Sydney let alone in front of an international audience. But that is what we do, is it not? Move toward that which scares us the most. Now I’m really nervous – thanks Tom!

What’s Kate Gaul like as a director?
I have worked with Kate a number of times now and that is because I trust her 100%.That trust extends to both the bigger picture and also my performance. Because of that I can push the boundaries of what I think is possible (and be pushed!) and know that she will never let me (or her) look foolish or the show be under par. She is imaginative, forthright, assured, switched on and fun. I admire her drive and Kate is such an intelligent director, in tune with the work and only taking on what she is truly inspired to bring to life.

How are you travelling with a group of misfits like myself?
Actually travelling? By plane. Maybe a train here and there. And I hope we can walk to the venue! How am “dealing” with the group of misfits? I am one! We’re going to have a ball and we get to showcase some Australian work on the international stage. Super excited.

Tom Campbell and Jane Phegan are in Siren Theatre Company’s Edinburgh Program season of Misterman, Good With Maps and One Hander.
Dates: 14 – 18 June, 2017
Venue: Belvoir St Theatre

Review: Mr Burns (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 19 – Jun 25, 2017
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Music: Michael Friedman
Lyrics: Anne Washburn
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill, Ezra Juanta, Jacqy Phillips
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
There are three distinct acts in Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play. First, we discover that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket; it is the apocalypse, and we have run out of electricity. A small group of survivors huddle together, trying to keep themselves sane by retelling episodes of The Simpsons. They each contribute fragments, but memory, like all human ability, proves to be considerably less than infallible.

Over the next decades, this compulsion to hark back to when things were better, grows in magnitude. The act of storytelling becomes grander, so do the increasingly fabricated remembrances of how things had been, back in the day. Eventually, we see that The Simpsons is turned into a kind of origin story that no longer accurately recreates the real thing.

Anne Washburn’s play is wildly imagined, but not always successful in its ability to aid our suspension of disbelief, as is necessary for all styles of science fiction. At each step of the narrative, we are bothered by questions left unanswered, that create an expanding sense of implausibility to the narrative. It is appropriate then, that the show turns progressively extravagant, until in Act Three, where we are presented with something that looks no different from standard Broadway musical fare.

The production begins dour, perhaps understandably so, but its long and enduring dullness marks a disappointing start for a crowd that has clearly amassed for that very particular Simpsons sense of humour. Satisfaction eventually arrives with Act Two, as the tone turns quirky and playful, and stimulating philosophy is introduced to its existentialist explorations.

The first musical number appears, quite unexpectedly, weaving American pop references into a kind of campy postmodern mash-up, to excellent effect. We see the characters desperately trying to hold on to all things bright and shiny from the past, much like the conservatives in our real life, unable to come to terms with their new circumstances. Entertainment continues to be dispensed henceforth, but we discover that the show had reached its peaked too soon. It all comes to a somewhat underwhelming conclusion.

It is a proficiently designed production. Mr Burns’ black sequinned catsuit by Jonathon Oxlade is very fabulous indeed, an unforgettable vision for the theatrical annals. Oxlade’s sets are appropriate to each sequence, but the show offers only a few surprises with its imagery, presumably restrained by its context of resource depletion.

Mitchell Butel leads an endearing cast of enthusiastic and colourful performers. As Mr Burns, Butel’s gangly limbs attempt to steal the show with their incredible animated dexterity, but the actor’s comedic capacities are impressive, and a real asset to this tenaciously serious creation.

It really is no joke, that we refuse to adequately address our energy crisis. Those with a stake in industries that are bringing devastation to the environment, like the villainous Mr Burns, continue to be allowed to plunder and destroy. We have to keep optimistic in order to be of any effect as opposition to their corruption, but the prevailing state of confused democracy seems to be getting us nowhere. Knowing right from wrong, is no longer sufficient in mobilising power and generating action, in our current climate of fake news, alternative facts, and insatiable greed. If history teaches us anything, it is revolution that will shift paradigm, but there is no hint even of burgeoning insurgency, in this age of despondent complacency.

www.belvoir.com.au