Review: Sorting Out Rachel (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 19 – Mar 17, 2018
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Nadia Tass
Cast: Chenoa Deemal, Glenn Hazeldine, John Howard, Jenna Owen, Natalie Saleeba
Image by Heidrun Lohr

Theatre review
Bruce is an old man with a lot of money, sixty million dollars to be exact, and a life with no troubles except in deciding what to do with it all when he dies. David Williamsons’ Sorting Out Rachel is clearly not a story for the “ordinary Australian”, although some of its scenes where family members connive and fight over inheritance would resonate with many. It is also a “father knows best” story where the patriarch interferes with his daughter Julie’s life, and manages to solve all her problems over a few days quite miraculously, as though a knight in shining armour had descended upon her household, out of the blue.

The play never feels very realistic, with Julie’s unexplained ineptitude particularly conspicuous, but the conflicts that arise from Williamson’s depictions of a feuding family, are nonetheless entertaining. The eponymous Rachel is played by the very compelling Jenna Owen, who impresses with an energetic, if slightly too histrionic, portrayal of a recalcitrant teenager. John Howard is suitably august as her grandfather Bruce, and Natalie Saleeba becomes increasingly believable, as Julie gradually gains strength through the later half.

Glenn Hazeldine is a mischievously charming presence, and probably the most convincing of the group, even if his ploys as Julie’s husband Craig, are far too transparent to hold water. Chenoa Deemal is memorable as Bruce’s illegitimate daughter Tess, the Indigenous personality brought into the story, not only as inspiration for Bruce to think about his wealth as a vehicle for benevolence, but also for us to understand the cultural dimensions of the middle-class crises we encounter.

Ideas about inheritance in Sorting Out Rachel seem in many ways, to be borne out of the family’s European heritage and the individualism that whiteness extols. Wealth, and property, are essentially personal, almost never communal, to the extent that even family members are routinely refused access. Bruce’s prosperity comes from real estate, but in Australia, issues of land ownership remain gravely contentious.

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Review: Taking Steps (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 23, 2017 – Jan 13, 2018
Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Emma Harvie, Peter Kowitz, Drew Livingston, Simon London, Christa Nicola, Andrew Tighe
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
We can all have an appetite for a silly comedy, but how much frivolity a person is able to handle in one sitting, is certainly a variable factor between individuals. There is nothing in Alan Ayckbourn’s Taking Steps that pretends to offer more than simple laughs, but the 1979 play does seem to think, erroneously, that its sense of humour has stood the test of time. It is all terribly old-fashioned, and at two-and-a-half-hours, very arduous indeed for those of us who have moved on from Fawlty Towers and The Two Ronnies.

The production is a sleek one, with good energy from a well-rehearsed cast that has figured out their ordered trajectories within the erratic chaos of a classic farce. Some actors do however, appear to be more naturally suited to the genre than others. Peter Kowitz is particularly credible in this presentation style, appropriately nostalgic in approach and effortlessly charming in the part of Roland. Emma Harvie and Drew Livingston are refreshing presences, who bring a sensibility that is slightly more au courant, through their idiosyncratic interpretations of supporting roles.

Humour can be general or very specific, but there is perhaps not one show, that will make every person laugh. Taking Steps still has an audience; its jokes have after all, been tried and tested. Theatre has the responsibility to do many things, and providing comfort has always been one of them. The familiarity of an old play, that transports us back to an idea of better times, is valuable, and for some, that reminiscence represents the best form of entertainment. There is always the temptation to live in the past, when the present and future look to be persistently disappointing. This is understandable of course, but tomorrow will come, come hell or high water, and we need to find a way to just get on with it.

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Review: The Kitchen Sink (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 14 – Nov 18, 2017
Playwright: Tom Wells
Director: Shane Bosher
Cast: Ben Hall, Huw Higginson, Duncan Ragg, Contessa Treffone, Hannah Waterman
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
The story happens in a working class household, north of England. Kath and Martin are regular people with regular concerns; they worry about job security, and try their best to provide for their children. Sophie and Billy are on the precipice of adulthood, but yet to find their own wings.

There is no big drama in Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink, only an intimate authenticity to its depiction of family life that most will find deeply charming. The characters connect in a simple but profoundly honest way, and whether or not our circumstances are similar, it is in Wells’ acute observations of those ties that bind, that the play allows us to empathise.

A remarkable warmth pervades the stage, and it moves the audience. For the production’s duration, we are all embroiled in the daily lives of these ordinary people, who have very quickly, and magically, become our kin. Director Shane Bosher manufactures a space that puts us at immediate ease, ready to get involved in every domestic exchange that occurs. Simultaneously sensitive and robust, Bosher’s approach not only makes The Kitchen Sink an affecting experience, it is also memorably and delightfully funny.

Thoroughly rehearsed and finely considered, a cast of five quite extraordinary performers, present a work of impressive art and entertainment. As Kath, Hannah Waterman’s passion, charisma and infallible sincerity, anchors the show in a place that always feels genuine and benevolent. She exemplifies all that is good about the maternal instinct, and we in turn, become generous ourselves, in how we receive the show.

Duncan Ragg and Contessa Treffone play a young couple, close but not yet committed. Both are intricate in approach, with ingenious inventions that enrich the personalities they create so convincingly. Ben Hall and Huw Higginson are father and son, each actor extremely likeable, and we find ourselves persuaded by all that they bring to the stage.

The Kitchen Sink begins and ends at home. Whatever our individual lives may become, those of us who have a home to return to, must count ourselves lucky. Stars will rise and fall for every existence, but to have unwavering love and security from those we count family, is invaluable. We rightly put great attention on things like money and careers, but there is no fault greater than neglecting the sacred.

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Review: Buyer And Cellar (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 6 – Nov 12, 2017
Playwright: Jonathan Tolins
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ben Gerrard
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In her book My Passion For Design, Barbra Streisand reveals a private shopping mall in the basement of her property in Malibu, California. Playwright Jonathan Tolins imagines what it must be like to find yourself the sole employee of that strange place, in his 2013 one-man play Buyer And Cellar.

Unsurprisingly, the work overflows with camp and frivolity, but Tolins anchors the fun with a genuine interest in human nature, building his narrative around our fascination with the rich and famous, and taking a look into the limitlessness of ambition, and our insatiable need for affirmation.

In Buyer And Cellar, we are presented a version of Streisand, semi-fictional, who thinks herself never beautiful enough, successful enough, or admired enough. Alex, the aforementioned shop boy, is the everyday person, positioned in close proximity, to make us examine the different lives, and to consider our own values as they relate to the meanings of accomplishment, happiness and love.

The play is witty, very creatively conceived. It will appeal to much more than fans of Streisand, but a passing familiarity with the entertainment icon, and with American pop culture, is required. A specific kind of gay sensibility, of the family-friendly flavour (more “Just Jack” than John Waters), determines the comedy style, and actor Ben Gerrard is sensational in the show.

For 90 minutes, he is bewitching, so precise and energetic, that we all find ourselves hopelessly immersed in the story, whether or not we give two hoots about Streisand and her ridiculous closets. There is a tendency for Gerrard to outshine the actual material being shown, but it is for certain that we emerge thoroughly, and fabulously, entertained. His partnership with director Susanna Dowling, is clearly a match made in heaven.

Appropriately, design is marvellous in this production of Buyer And Cellar. Alexander Berlage’s lights and Marty Jamieson’s sounds are particularly effective, as we find ourselves transported to a Hollywood dreamland. Both artists are adventurous and meticulous in what they bring to the stage. Charles Davis’ set is simple, in the most elegant way, but probably slightly understated for the Streisand brand.

It is not fair that some people should have so much, while the rest of us are deprived of ever experiencing that level of wealth, but if we believe that everything comes at a cost, it might be some consolation thinking about the things that have to be given up in order to arrive at that state of abundance. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and although Streisand has traded in huge talent and hard work, we also see the emotional deficiencies she suffers, that form the propulsive force resulting in her eminent glory. The woman we see in Buyer And Cellar is dissatisfied and often unhappy, but as the playwright keeps reminding us, this is a work of pure fantasy.

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Review: Lip Service (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 17 – Sep 30, 2017
Playwright: John Misto
Director: Nicole Buffoni
Cast: Tim Draxl, Amanda Muggleton, Linden Wilkinson
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Helena Rubinstein founded one of the world’s first cosmetics companies, whilst living in Australia early last century. Subsequently establishing herself as a businesswoman of international fame and fortune, we meet her later in life, in John Misto’s Lip Service, picking up from when she meets Patrick O’Higgins, who becomes her personal assistant, friend and surrogate son. Rubinstein’s extraordinarily flamboyant personality and a concomitant acerbity is the centrepiece of the play. Misto appropriately eschews sentimentality in this biography of a very hard woman, crafting instead lines of dialogue that are relentless, and exquisite, in their bitchiness, for a show that proves itself tremendously funny by any standard.

It is a story of unbridled ambition and searing ruthlessness. Misto uses Rubinstein’s rivalries with Elizabeth Arden and Charles Revson (of Revlon fame) to reveal a woman of remarkable intelligence and fortitude, along with unmistakable flaws, creating for our heroine, a magnificent aura of mythical proportions. It is possible that direction and design elements of the production could deliver something more elaborate, but Misto’s script is strong enough to hold its own, especially with a leading lady of dazzling charm at its helm.

Amanda Muggleton plays Rubinstein with a great deal of diligence. Her approach is considered and precise, so that every hilarious quip hits its mark, but there is also a definite soulfulness in her portrayal that has us endeared throughout. Opening night is not quite flawlessly polished, but we go away impressed by both Muggleton and Rubinstein, wishing to be entertained further, even after 2-and-a-half hours of incessant laughter. Also memorable are supporting actors, Tim Draxl as O’Higgins and Linden Wilkinson as Arden, both with comic ability and remarkable presences that ensure our satisfaction.

To reach such heights of commercial success, sacrifices must be made. Some might say that Helena Rubinstein goes to her grave not knowing true happiness, but it is undeniable that her accomplishments are greater than most could even imagine. In Lip Service, we watch her give a poorly received speech at a college, about work being the only real salvation. Mere mortals might be able to experience love and other simple joys, and it is regrettable that those pleasures had eluded Rubinstein, but what she was able to achieve as a Jewish woman in the twentieth century was exceptional, and the enduring legacy she leaves behind is a phenomenon that far exceeds any reasonable criterion. Few would dare follow her path, but the inspiration one can draw from it, is inexhaustible and divine.

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Review: The Plant (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 8 – Aug 5, 2017
Playwright: Kit Brookman
Director: Elsie Edgerton-Till
Cast: Briallen Clarke, Helen Dallimore, Sandy Gore, Garth Holcombe, Michelle Lim Davidson
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Suddenly widowed, Sue buys a Rex Begonia plant to keep her company. Her three children are grown-ups with other priorities, and even though they meet on weekends, Sue finds herself having to deal with bereavement and loneliness on her own. She names the plant Clare, and begins speaking with it, understandably, in the absence of human interaction.

Kit Brookman’s The Plant is a sweetly melancholic meditation on family and the mourning process. It offers an intimate look into life as an older person, and although its depiction of our middle-class existence contains more than a tinge of sadness, Brookman’s beautiful use of language makes his play an ultimately uplifting one.

The production is assembled with few bells and whistles, but director Elsie Edgerton-Till has us enthralled, with a wonderful ability that makes every word of dialogue sing with poignancy. It is a detailed and sensitive work, determined to reveal something truthful of the human experience, although its gentleness can feel slightly underwhelming, and perhaps evasive of some brutal realities that our old endure.

Sue is played by Sandy Gore, restrained but powerful in her portrayal of a neglected mother. Michelle Lim Davidson is delightful as the mysterious Clare, especially effective when playing up the ambiguity of her plant/human role. Briallen Clarke, Helen Dallimore and Garth Holcombe are the siblings, a proficient trio that tells us all we need to know, without too much fuss. A bigger dose of theatricality could make things more entertaining, but there is an elegance to The Plant that sets it apart.

We often hear about the fear of death, but it is really the ones left behind who have to go through immense hardship. Loss is inevitable, but the lucky ones will have companionship and love, to get them through tough times.

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Review: Neville’s Island (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 29 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Tim Firth
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Andrew Hansen, David Lynch, Craig Reucassel, Chris Taylor
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Four men are stranded on an island, after a corporate team building exercise takes a wrong turn. Neville is the senior of the group, who tries to keep things in order, while the other three middle aged men unravel, descending into various states of hysteria as the hours pass by.

Tim Firth’s 1992 comedy has at its centre, issues surrounding modern masculinity and the anxieties it triggers, but that important social concern only becomes a serious point of discussion, very late into the piece. For at least three quarters of the duration, its characters fumble around, struggling with having to deal with their sudden exposure to the wild. Their antics could mean hilarity to some, but depending on the sense of humour one possesses, the play could also be unbearably corny, tenaciously so, for many.

The actors are well rehearsed, each one demonstrating excellent conviction, but the writing offers little in terms of nuance that could allow any of them to truly impress. Quite remarkably, the cast succeeds at making individual characters believable, even though the play’s attempts at depth are precarious at best.

The stage is consistently lively, and when chemistry does take effect, their show can offer quite compelling entertainment. Neville’s Island is determined to amuse. Even if one is not tempted to laugh out loud, there is something satisfying in its earnest and enthusiastic tomfoolery, like every well-meaning dad joke that one would hate to miss.

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