Review: Suddenly Last Summer (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 18 – Jun 10, 2023
Playwright: Tennessee Williams
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Valerie Bader, Andrea Demetriades, Belinda Giblin, Remy Hii, Socratis Otto, Kate Skinner
Images by Jaimi Joy

Theatre review

The poeticism of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer tells a story of mystery and obfuscation surrounding the death of a certain Sebastian Venable. Violet, the mother of Sebastian, feigns ignorance and is so determined to suppress the truth that she confines Catharine Holly, her son’s cousin and eyewitness, in a mental institution. It becomes increasingly evident, that if Catharine’s testimony is allowed to emerge, untold harm would come to the Venable name.

The play was first staged in 1958, but the concept of shame, remains very much a part of the human experience. Director Shaun Rennie conveys with great efficacy, the intensity with which these characters have to succumb to the prospect of reputation ruin. There is no questioning the severity of stakes involved, and an unmistakable escalation of dramatic tension through the piece proves deliciously satisfying.

Music and sound by Kelly Ryall is crucial in communicating so unambiguously, the mounting pressure that occurs through the production. Ryall’s renderings of atmosphere bear a surreal quality, that melds beautifully with the lyrical style of Williams’ writing. Lights by Morgan Moroney too, transport us somewhere decidedly dreamlike, perhaps commensurate with the altered states experienced by a heavily medicated Catharine. Set and costumes by Simone Romaniuk are subdued by comparison, but are nonetheless elegant in their depictions of space.

Actor Andrea Demetriades is splendid as Catharine, elastic in her capacity to portray a wide variety of psychological conditions, and mesmerically powerful when required to take the theatre to a fever pitch, at its concluding moments. The deceptive Violet is played by Belinda Giblin, who impresses with a meticulous approach to her character’s obscured complexities. Remy Hii as Dr. Cukrowicz is memorable for introducing an austerity to the health professional’s ethically suspect actions. The ephemeral essence of American Southern-ness is not always represented perfectly in the show, but Valerie Bader, Socratis Otto and Kate Skinner, who although play auxiliary parts, are all marvellously adept at creating for us, that very beguiling and distinct flavour.

Tennessee Williams was prohibited from living a completely authentic life. His queerness was outlawed, and in Suddenly Last Summer we see how that homophobia had manifested, within the queer artist’s mind. The play makes statements about a kind of self-hatred that we are prone to acquire, as a result of persistent and pervasive gaslighting. It also functions as a valuable historical artefact, in which a queer artist is only able to occupy space in his own work, by inflicting on himself the same exhaustive denigration, made obligatory by dominant forces of those times. Things do change, but in Suddenly Last Summer, the appalling way we treat the marginalised, only seems to turn increasingly grim with time.

Review: Clyde’s (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 5 – Jun 10, 2023
Playwright: Lynn Nottage
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Charles Allen, Gabriel Alvarado, Nancy Denis, Aaron Tsindos, Ebony Vagulans
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review

In the run-down kitchen of a busy truck stop diner in Pennsylvania, five ex-felons navigate life and sandwich recipes, in search of purpose, hope and redemption. Lynn Notage’s 2021 play Clyde’s rummages through the discarded of American society, serving up some of the most beautiful and inspiring writing in recent years, to have been witnessed at the theatre. The comedic commotion surrounding business owner Clyde, a woman of the bitterest constitution, and her tortured employees, offers marvellous entertainment, along with some of the most profound philosophical observations, one could hope to glean from any work of art.

That poignancy is carefully uncovered by Darren Yap, whose attentive direction of the piece ensures that the countless meaningful morsels of Notage’s script, are given opportunity to resonate.  We may not always feel fully transported, to that precise location continents away where the action is taking place, but the human authenticity Yap is able to depict, is certainly convincing.

Set design by Simone Romaniuk cleverly manipulates the stage, so that the intensity of an uncomfortable workplace is clearly represented, whilst simultaneously providing ample performance space that allows for the cast’s unbridled physical expressions.  Romaniuk’s costumes help to tell a story of class and heritage, both themes fundamental to Clyde’s concerns. Lights by Morgan Moroney are memorable for manufacturing unexpected moments of humour, and for their subtle enhancements of some of the show’s more emotional sequences. Sound and music by Max Lambert and Roger Lock are minimally rendered, although it is noteworthy that multicultural influences are appropriately, and reassuringly, acknowledged.

Actor Nancy Denis brings unambiguous exuberance to the role of Clyde, along with excellent timing, but it is only when she lets the chilling darkness of her character to emerge, that we are able to see beyond the caricature. Charles Allen as Montrellous, is interminably sensitive and remarkably moving, impressive in his capacity to imbue astounding depth to the group’s wise elder. Gabriel Alvarado is a scintillating presence as Rafael, with a captivating vigour that reveals a thoroughness in his understanding of the personality and circumstances being portrayed. Likewise with Ebony Vagulans who plays Letitia, leaving us no room to question the challenges she experiences, in an accomplished performance that embraces the complicated nature of a person’s flaws and foibles. Aaron Tsindos may not always be believable as reformed fascist Jason, but his comedic talents are truly an unimpeachable joy.

There is no denying that those who have endured the worst, are also the ones who know the most, about the human condition. In Clyde’s there is no mistaking the injustices at play, in the inequitable and downright unfair ways we have to live our lives. Yet, we are able to access resilience, and through it, form narratives of hope, that can help us see trajectories of salvation which are absolutely necessary, to daily survival and sustenance.

It is true that so much of one’s circumstances are too hard for any single being to control, but a greater truth resides with the notion, that peace and happiness is often an internal function, that the stronger of us, will always be able to reach for, even when the world appears to be falling to pieces.

Review: Rhinestone Rex And Miss Monica (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 10 – Apr 29, 2023
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Glenn Hazeldine, Georgie Parker
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review

David Williamson’s Rhinestone Rex and Miss Monica is a light-hearted 2010 comedy about the romantic attraction between seemingly diametrically opposing personality types. It is on one hand an innocuous work that could not be more pedestrian, yet on the other, it is an absurd fantasy about a woman falling in love with a tradesman she hires, who repeatedly overrides her design decisions thinking he knows better, who goes on radio calling her “crazy”, and who she discovers one morning, had tried to sleep with her the night before, when she was completely intoxicated.

Actors Glenn Hazeldine and Georgie Parker prove themselves extremely endearing, as the eponymous pair, persuasive in having us ignore the inadequacies of the writing almost entirely, to simply enjoy the obvious jokes, in their perfectly timed two-hander. Under Mark Kilmurry’s direction, Hazeldine and Parker present a joyful rom-com, showcasing their talents as consummate performers any audience would be happy to spend time with.

Set design by Veronique Benett lacks versatility, but is beautifully proportioned to allow for a generous and dynamic performance space. Benett’s costumes establish character types with immediacy and accuracy; helping us know instinctively and exactly, who these Sydneysiders are. Lights by Trudy Dalgeish and sound by Daryl Wallis, add simple embellishments, to make an already tight production, feel even more polished.

There is certainly a story to be told about class distinctions in this town, for in our efforts to assert the types of people we are, it seems we habitually and inevitably create systems of exclusion, inside what should be one unified community. Monica and Rex are presented as individuals from different ends of town, but we are expected to believe that love will conquer all, that everything they are associated with, that every incompatibility can be put aside, so that their relationship can flourish.  Lust is an intense force, but every indication is that it does little to ameliorate the social differences we hold so obstinately dear.

Review: A Broadcast Coup (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 26 – Mar 4, 2023
Playwright: Melanie Tait
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Tony Cogin, Ben Gerrard, Alex King, Amber McMahon, Sharon Millerchip
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review

Michael King is one of those stars of Australian radio, a straight white man of an older generation, retaining popularity on a waning platform. He presents a decent front, conscious of prevailing social expectations, but as we discover in Melanie Tait’s A Broadcast Coup, some leopards never change their spots. His younger colleagues however, have no capacity for tolerating his archaic ways, and as the title suggests, a revolution is under way.

The destination is predictable. From the play’s very first minutes, we can see no where else for the story to end, but thankfully the journey getting there proves to be deeply satisfying. Tait’s exhaustive representation of the nuances pertaining to current discussions, about gender and about power in general, are finely observed and thoroughly considered. Her dialogue is captivating, and her characters feel richly imagined. Her plot for  A Broadcast Coup is engaging throughout, with a narrative that tells us categorically what our future is going to look like, and how we must act today, not only to be magnanimous, but also for reasons of self-interest and self-preservation.

Janine Watson’s direction of the piece is passionate, with an unmistakeable generosity that allows each personality we encounter, to be convincing and compelling. Watson frames the show’s arguments in ways that appeal to our humanity, preventing any assertions from coming across lofty, radical or exclusionary.

Set and costumes by Veronique Benett take inspiration from real-life examples of broadcast studios and media companies, accurate with the obsolescence and dourness being portrayed. Lights by Matt Cox are sensitively calibrated, to precisely articulate all the tonal shifts, for a show that moves effortlessly between comedy and tragedy. Clare Hennessy brings dramatic tension with her music and sound design, especially memorable for the hyper-realistic audio documentation, of sexual assault victims and their testimonies.

Actor Alex King plays with conspicuous dedication and charisma, a modern ingenue Noa, slightly naïve but mostly gregarious and impressively erudite. The role of the villain Mike is performed by Tony Cogin, who although lacks the swagger of a celebrity Casanova, speaks with the persuasive voice of a veteran radio star. Amber McMahon’s admirable dynamic range as podcaster and antagonist Jez, delivers scenes that are full of gripping intrigue. Louise, the faithful radio producer, is given emotional authenticity by Sharon Millerchip. Ben Gerrard’s comic timing is an undeniable highlight, as executive Troy who struggles to keep his troublesome headliner under control.

The story comes to a gratifying conclusion, only because enough people in the story decide to do the right thing. It is evident that what the system encourages, is for individuals to turn a blind eye, and allow bad things to persist. The system rewards such behaviour, because it does not wish to change. What we think of as rot, is to the system, beneficial elements that keep it perpetuating.

What we see in A Broadcast Coup is that humans know instinctively and objectively, right from wrong, yet many of us are comfortable, from a lifetime of habituation, to accept deplorable conditions. We need to stop protecting a system that does not serve us, and distressing and awkward as it may be in the interim, to disrupt everything that we know to be appalling.

Review: Boxing Day BBQ (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Dec 5, 2022 – Jan 15, 2023
Playwright: Sam O’Sullivan
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Danielle Carter, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Aileen Huynh, Brian Meegan, Jamie Oxenbould
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review

Peter takes Boxing Day celebrations very seriously. It is a family tradition that he clings on to desperately, for reasons of nostalgia and of sentimentality, even though the occasion is a frustrating one for all involved. Sam O’Sullivan’s Boxing Day BBQ is a satire on middle class Australia, critical of our values, yet generous in its portrayals of our behaviour. O’Sullivan captures with admirable accuracy, the zeitgeist as it pertains to attitudes about issues like the economy and the climate. Although the work has a tendency to be overly earnest, thus diminishing its comic qualities, Boxing Day BBQ is ultimately politically convincing, which is undoubtedly a favourable outcome.

Mark Kilmurry’s direction of the piece ensures a dramatic tautness, that keeps us invested in the story. Characters and relationships are believable and compelling, and their interchanges are imbued with a sense of consequence and urgency, to sustain our attention. Set design by Ailsa Paterson is a charming representation of the classic suburban backyard, that allows for an abundance of visually pleasing spatial configurations. Genevieve Graham’s costumes help establish personalities quickly, with appropriate colours and shapes that tell us who these people are, even before they begin to speak. Lights by Matt Cox and sound by David Grigg, offer subtle unobtrusive renderings, which honour the art of storytelling above all else.

The cast of five is evenly matched, each with opportunities to shine at centre stage. Danielle Carter, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Aileen Huynh, Brian Meegan and Jamie Oxenbould demonstrate great capacity for listening to one another, forming a team that impresses with its chemistry. There is an integrity to their approach to performance, that makes us receptive to the play’s important message.

Family members in Boxing Day BBQ argue about human civilisation, and its culpability on the state of the world. Some of us will acknowledge all the harm we have caused, and some of us will choose not to. Either way, there should be no dispute about the fact that should we want a bright future, it is incumbent upon us to do all we can, to make it happen. It seems we have not been able to agree on the truth of the past, and worse, there is often divisions about where we are today, but to have no consensus about what tomorrow should look like, is perhaps the biggest danger that we face.

Review: A Christmas Carol (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 25 – Dec 29, 2022
Playwright: Hilary Bell (based on the story by Charles Dickens)
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Valerie Bader, John Bell, Jay James-Moody, Emily McKnight, Anthony Taufa, Daryl Wallis
Images by Jaimi Joy

Theatre review

The timeless tale of Scrooge’s awakening, was first published 178 years ago. With billionaires making news every day in 2022,  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol resonates anew, although it is only wishful thinking that our overlords should find their souls overnight. Nonetheless, the story remains heart warming, and with Hilary Bell’s stage adaptation taking the form of a pantomime, featuring delightful music by Phillip Johnston, we are re-acquainted with the classic at year’s end, to be reminded of what is truly important.

Charming direction by Damien Ryan delivers nostalgia and sentimentality in spades, although humour in the production could benefit from being less restrained. It is a beautifully designed show, with Alisa Paterson’s set and Genevieve Graham’s costumes leaving a strong impression. Lights by Mat Cox too are sumptuous, and indispensable in delivering for the story, its crucial supernatural elements.

John Bell is believable as the misanthropic Scrooge, suitably mean and cruel, playing one of the best known characters of the festive season. Anthony Taufa brings wonderful exuberance to a great number of roles, full of charisma and playfulness, encouraging us to respond with appropriate cheer. Daryl Wallis provides live accompaniment on piano and percussion, adding blitheness with his sensitive musical direction.

It is right that we should expect more of the rich, but it is also necessary for governments to insist on redistribution of wealth, when disparities are so severe. Dickens did his best to appeal to the human conscience, but it is clear that not many at the top of town are ever going to be sufficiently conscientious. We simply cannot sit and wait for the rich to do the right thing.

Review: The Caretaker (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 14 – Nov 19, 2022
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Anthony Gooley, Henry Nixon
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, an unhoused man Davies is given a place to live, but with stipulations attached. Brothers Aston and Mick are the homeowners, ambiguous or perhaps complicated with their intentions, in bringing Davies into their fold. First performed in 1960, Pinter’s play remains pertinent, especially for what it says about housing and property ownership, as they relate to issues of safety and of human connection. With home affordability ever worsening, the discord between have and have-nots is only escalating, and The Caretaker, proves sadly to still be terribly relevant.

The show however, is rarely a lugubrious experience. Under Iain Sinclair’s directorship, the meanings of Pinter’s writing are kept gently subsumed, as the exuberance of that characteristic mid-century English absurdist humour, is painstakingly amplified. The Caretaker in 2022 is not only more incisive than ever, it proves itself to be extraordinarily funny, even for out times.

Actor Darren Gilshenan is a wonderful presence as Davies, relentless in his need to offer amusement. No stone is left unturned, in Gilshenan’s pursuit of comedic impeccability, and we reciprocate with hearty laughter, for all two-and-a-half hours of his thoughtful buffoonery. Anthony Gooley’s immense restraint as Aston has tremendous, and surprising, pay-offs. The quiet strength he brings to the stage, adds a fascinating dimension, to an otherwise rowdy presentation. Henry Nixon is remarkably intense as Mick, highly satisfying with his bombastic approach to the material, but also able to demonstrate a great capacity for nuance and precision. These are three very impressive performances, blended perfectly to deliver something thoroughly entertaining.

Set and costume designs by Veronique Bennett, are proficiently rendered, to convey time, place and characters, with clarity and accuracy. Matt Cox’s lights and Daryl Wallis’ sounds add elegant touches, to a production that does not wish to reinvent the wheel.

We all know to treat people well, that we should afford dignity to one another in all our exchanges, yet generosity seems always to be a scarce commodity, in a world determined to relate everything to the bottom line. The men in The Caretaker are unable to find harmony; they want to take advantage of one another, and they want to bend others to their own will. This of the human experience however, is neither universal nor immutable. There are cultures and peoples who have done better, if only we had the wherewithal to take heed.

Review: Photograph 51 (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Sep 2 – Oct 8, 2022
Playwright: Anna Ziegler
Director: Anna Ledwich
Cast: Toby Blome, Garth Holcombe, Robert Jago, Amber McMahon, Jake Speer, Gareth Yuen
Images by Teniola Komolafe

Theatre review
When Dr Rosalind Franklin began working at King’s College London in 1951, full of promise and on the precipice of hugely consequential discoveries, not only was she one of the scarce few women scientists at the institution, she was the only Jew. Anna Ziegler’s Photograph 51 discusses the discrimination Dr Franklin suffered in a man’s world, as it tells the story of the chemist and X-ray crystallographer’s ground-breaking inventions, and how her male colleagues had taken credit for her achievements.

Ziegler’s is a piece of writing with integrity, containing a substantial amount of scientific information that, unfortunately proves difficult to turn entertaining for general audiences. Director Anna Ledwich ensures that all the comedy incorporated into the text, is painstakingly fleshed out, but they never really feel intrinsic to the tale. The core of the exercise, of seeking justice and empathy for Dr Franklin, remains sombre and distant; it is clear what the play intends, but it struggles to connect.

Actor Amber McMahon brings natural charisma to a personality expressly described as charmless, but Dr Franklin’s characteristic coldness only further alienates. Garth Holcombe has greater scope for theatricality, in the role of reluctant associate Dr Wilkins, and succeeds in delivering sporadic moments of genuine amusement. Four additional players (Toby Blome, Robert Jago, Jake Speer and Gareth Yuen) appropriately focus on bringing levity to the piece, but for all the blitheness they wish to introduce to Photograph 51, it insists on a certain aloofness.

A highlight of the presentation comes in the form of lighting design, by Trudy Dalgleish who conveys  variations to spatial and emotional dimensions, in subtle but satisfying ways. Her sumptuous illumination of Emma Vine’s imaginative and cleverly rendered set design, offers beautiful interpretations of clinical laboratories, sparing us the sterility usually dominant in those rooms. Similarly, Jessica Dunn’s music and sounds attempt to bring a tenderness and a sense of humanity, to a tale that is essentially concerned with the molecular structure of DNA.

It is arguable that little has changed since 1951 in terms of men habitually claiming recognition for women’s work, but it is undeniable that there are mechanisms today that were unavailable to Dr Franklin, that could help women bring disruption to the boys’ club. We have learned to organise, and have access to technologies, that can assist in levelling out the playing field. We have men who now acknowledge gender disparities, and are trying to interrogate the system from within. If only Dr Franklin’s mode of radical thinking in the realm of science, was applied to social justice at a earlier time, it is likely she would have seen a greater glory.

Review: The One (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 22 – Aug 27, 2022
Playwright: Vanessa Bates
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Gabrielle Chan, Angie Diaz, Aileen Huynh, Damien Strouthos, Shan-Ree Tan
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In Vanessa Bates’ The One, siblings Mel and Eric are mixed-race Malaysian-Australians, who have lived in Australia all their lives, but who have never really felt completely accepted, by either side of their combined heritage. This is not a point made too obviously, with playwright Bates choosing instead to amuse us with events surrounding the impending visit of the pair’s flamboyant mother. Much of the writing sparkles with a delightful wit, but the plot lacks focus, involving many moments that feel superfluous, and in need of a more succinct edit.

The comedy is given effervescence by Darren Yap, who directs the piece with charm and spirited vigour. Set and costumes by Nick Fry are whimsical in their appeal, and along with Verity Hampson’s lighting design, the production offers satisfyingly exuberant imagery. Music by Michael Tan is inventive and meaningful, effective at conveying a soulful quality that relates closely, to the themes of the story being told.

Lead performers Angie Diaz and Shan-Ree Tan are both captivating presences, who deliver a sense of integrity, alongside the buoyant humour that they exteriorise for the staging. Diaz and Tan demonstrate great flair for the playfulness of The One, but it is their commitment to the depth and substance of the material that keeps us attentive. Gabrielle Chan is suitably glamorous and evanescent as Helen, the self-absorbed mother. Damien Strouthos brings great energy and believability as Cal, the devoted beau of Mel. Aileen Huynh’s exaggerated approach to waiter Jess, can initially look somewhat startling, but makes good sense later in the show.

There is nothing fundamentally real about what draws the boundaries between countries, just like much of our identities are comprised of little that can be thought of as concretely material and unyielding. What is true however, is that individuals experience all manner of prejudice and degradation, based on how people think of one another. Mel and Eric have a right to feel that they belong, and it is up to us to define the meaning of inclusivity, wherever we call our home.

Review: A Doll’s House (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 10 – Jul 16, 2022
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen (adapted by Joanna Murray-Smith)
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Chantelle Jamieson, James Lugton, Lizzie Schebesta, David Soncin, Tim Walter
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Nora has committed a victimless crime, in efforts to rescue her family from financial ruin. With her husband Torvald installed as the unequivocal head of household, Nora can only operate furtively, even though her actions are anything but selfish. The themes in Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 play A Doll’s House demonstrates that things may improve with time, but meaningful change occurs at a painfully slow pace. This new modern day adaptation by Joanna Murray-Smith is a concise revisiting of the classic, updated for audiences with reduced attention spans, but retains all the essences of the original. It is alarming, how little the story needs to change, to bring Nora convincingly back from a century-and-a-half ago.

Mark Kilmurry’s direction bears the formalness of a period piece, even though letters have been replaced by emails, and ostracism is now partly evidenced as a fall from grace on social media. Design aspects are minimally, and slightly unimaginatively, rendered, but there is a passionate urgency, especially at the conclusion, that makes this version of A Doll’s House a memorable experience. Kilmurry’s sincere commitment to making heard, the play’s central point of gender equality, keeps it resonating long after curtain call.

Lead actor Chantelle Jamieson’s commanding presence is responsible for the vivacious energy of the entire production. She brings a valuable acuity that Nora lacks, so that we may gain important insights, including ones that her character is yet to understand. Jamieson begins her performance with an abundance of manic intensity, appropriate for a woman with secrets to hide, but it is after the truth comes out, when a stillness takes over, that we truly see the depths of this actor’s abilities.

Torvald is played by a generous James Lugton, who is suitably patronising and patriarchal in his depictions of an antiquated being. He becomes increasingly despicable as the show progresses, culminating in a chilling moment in which he calls his dark-skinned wife “genetically doomed”, for a moment of dramatic danger that reminds us of the racial dimensions of this new retelling of an old tale. Lizzie Schebesta, David Soncin and Tim Walter are the remaining cast members, all impressive with the level of professional dedication they bring to their roles, delivering a great sense of believability to Nora’s little world.

In the space of ten minutes, we watch Nora grow exponentially, as everything around her falls apart. It is true that life will give us many pivotal moments, but these are really only opportunities that could ultimately mean nothing, unless one finds the courage to make them consequential.