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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Review: Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 11 – Jun 18, 2017
Playwright: Edward Albee
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Darren Gilshenan, Genevieve Lemon, Claire Lovering, Brandon McClelland
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is a nondescript living room but a great deal happens in it. Edward Albee’s wild imagination is let loose in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, a modern classic that seems to be about a marriage breaking down, but the volume of themes and philosophical ideas it explores over a three-hour duration, extends beyond a person’s mental capacities within that one sitting. The incredible richness of Albee’s writing, and his insistence on disobeying conventions of literary coherence, produces something sensationally anti-naturalist, at times very strange, for all its misleading construct of a realist family drama. It all comes together beautifully, the ending result is quite sublime, but it is the disparate elements and divergence of meanings in all its interminable suggestions, that makes it a unique, rarely paralleled work.

Therefore, finding a focus becomes challenging for any production. Director Iain Sinclair uses the play’s absurdist qualities to his advantage, manufacturing a black comedy that not only delivers laughs but also, through its emphasis on uncomfortable contradictions, help draw attention to the many levels of meaning that the text implies. The show is often entertaining, but in spite of the great emotional upheaval that its characters experience, we remain at a distance, always at close observation, but from the outside. Visually pleasing, the staging draws inspiration from 1960s Americana, Michael Hankin’s set design and Sian James-Holland’s lights create a performance space that feels an accurate representation of the era, while establishing a sense of stifling oppressiveness crucial to the psyche of Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.

Four actors conspire with unmistakable simpatico, to form a fascinating piece of theatre. Their personalities are individually distinct, but together they are harmonious, one engrossing organism that drives us through unexpected twists and turns. At the centre is Genevieve Lemon as Martha, ebullient and dedicated, determined to maintain a liveliness in the show even during its darkest troughs. The actor may not be able to sufficiently depict the rage crucial to the story, but there is no mistaking the turbulent existence Martha has to endure. Her husband George is played by Darren Gilshenan, who journeys into bleaker terrain more successfully, but who will be remembered for the mischievous approach he applies to the play’s cynical and sinister complexions. Effortlessly funny, Gilshenan is an engaging presence that keeps us fascinated at every audacious revelation. Similarly alluring is Claire Lovering, whose comedic confidence assures us that the tricks hidden up her sleeve are worth our anticipation. Honey is a small role, but the performer takes every opportunity to shine. Brendon McClelland brings out a complexity in Nick, a deceptively plain upstart, and surprises us with transformations that we never could see coming.

It is about marriage, it is about the way exercise control over one another, it is about the way we build meaning into our lives, it is about the futility of our pursuits. What a viewer will deduce from Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf could be a great many things, but there is no denying the nihilistic pessimism of Albee’s creation. In art we can find the truth, and it is without doubt that life can leave us bitter and hopeless. It is also true, that conflicting truths can co-exist, and whether one can perceive light through the darkness, is sometimes about luck, and sometimes about choice.

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Review: The Rasputin Affair (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 1 – 30, 2017
Playwright: Kate Mulvany
Director: John Sheedy
Cast: Tom Budge, John Gaden, Hamish Michael, Zindzi Okenyo, Sean O’Shea
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Rasputin, the divisive and enigmatic figure of early 20th century Russia, remains a figure of contention in Kate Mulvany’s new play. The self-proclaimed “holy man” found himself at the centre of political upheaval through his association with the Tsar royalty, but his position as a religious leader has kept his contribution to social unrest of the time, ambiguous and mysterious. The Rasputin Affair is about the mounting outrage surrounding his rise to power, and assassination attempts led by members of the aristocracy.

A work of comedy, it lampoons archaic personality types and pokes fun at the hypocrisy of religious organisations. There are striking similarities to Molière’s Tartuffe, although the burden of history weighs heavy on Mulvany, whose efforts at providing background information detract significantly from the play’s entertainment quotient. John Sheedy’s direction is often imaginative, but even though his embellishments are delightful, the plot can seem needlessly convoluted, particularly in the first act. Staging becomes much more jaunty post-interval, as the production shifts gear and develops a broader, more appealing approach to its comedy.

Alicia Clements’ vibrant set design contributes beautifully to laughs, along with Matthew Marshall’s lights that give the imagery its finesse. It is an animated cast, particularly memorable in sequences that allow a bolder performance style. Sean O’Shea has just the right charisma, and theatrical sarcasm, for Rasputin. Dangerous, powerful and cryptic, we perceive his allure, as well as his disingenuity, and come to an understanding of the controversial qualities of the legendary character.

The separation of church and state is a familiar concept, but religious beliefs remain chronically ingrained in systems that rule our daily lives. The men who lead religious groups are never democratically elected, yet their influence on policies and ideology are resolutely tenacious. The Rasputin Affair is concerned with corruption, inspired by stories from a hundred years ago. With the inordinate amount of talk about feuding religions in our media, we must not cease to question the extent of their interference on our civil autonomy, whichever gods we have chosen to believe in.

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Review: Two (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 24 – May 6, 2017
Playwright: Jim Cartwright
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Brian Meegan, Kate Raison
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
All kinds of things can happen in a pub, that old institution that uniquely combines commerce and community. It is wide open, with few restrictions on who and what are allowed to walk through its doors. Jim Cartwright’s Two first arrived at the very end of the 1980’s. Set in regional NSW, it paints a nostalgic picture of Australia before mobile phones, and before we began suspecting neighbours of wanting to bomb each other into pieces.

Men were masculine, women were feminine, and everyone was heterosexual. A comforting predictability existed, along with an indeterminate air of stifled constraint. The play features two actors in a series of roles that explore love and relationships, from an innocent time and space.

Kate Raison plays all the nice ladies with an admirable strength, bringing dimension to their predetermined passivity, and Brian Meegan keeps us entertained by introducing imaginative variation to his wide range of male characters. They make a confident and jubilant pair, adept at providing entertainment and pathos with each of Two‘s warmhearted vignettes. Director Mark Kilmurry stays out of the way of his actors’ talents, and leaves Cartwright’s vision intact, for a production that offers no surprises, but that communicates fluently with a remarkable simplicity.

For those of a certain age, there is no greater romance, than the romance one has with the past. We retain only the sweet, and those memories can make the living of today seem less dulcet. The Aussie pub is required to preserve tradition, but the financial imperative forces it to move along with the times. It is an allegory for us all. The past is often warm and comfy, but it is the essence of life that will insist we be taken in unexpected directions. The local watering hole may no longer know your name, but it still stands, awaiting new stories to be writ.

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Review: Odd Man Out (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 19 – March 18, 2017
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Gael Ballantyne, Justin Stewart Cotta, Rachel Gordon, Lisa Gormley, Matt Minto, Bill Young
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Alice and Ryan meet on a bus, and are quickly drawn to each other. They have little in common, except for a shared desperation to become coupled up. Alice is sensitive about her biological clock running out of time, and Ryan is fearful of loneliness. They work hard to create a union, and in Odd Man Out, it seems tough grind is the key to success.

Marriage happens hastily for the pair. Ryan has never said “I love you” back to Alice, and proves himself embarrassing and humiliating in every social situation, but Alice decides to marry him anyway. No surprises then, that the husband turns out a disappointment. It is true, in David Williamson’s world of intractable heteronormativity, that women get into relationships to change men, while men hope for women in their lives to never grow.

We never really believe the Alice character. Maybe it is her severe lack of judgement that betrays the credibility of the narrative, or maybe, we are simply very tired of stupid girls in our stories. Turns out the “odd man out” here, could actually be a rather strange woman. Actor Lisa Gormley’s extraordinarily animated style may not have made things any better, but her conviction in spite of the playwright’s flawed imagination, is impressive. Her work is entertaining, and her aforementioned exuberance, does provide effective distraction from the play’s implausibilities.

Played by Justin Stewart Cotta, Ryan is a much more detailed and authentic personality who helps provide necessary grounding to Odd Man Out. Cotta turns in a spectacular performance, intelligent and thorough in his approach, for an interpretation that is immensely engaging and amusing, while retaining a solid amount of insightful nuance. Whether wildly rhapsodic or sensitive and quiet, Cotta provides the production with excellent layers of depth and clarity, giving the show a meaningful sense of purpose.

Mark Kilmurry’s direction of the piece is spirited and taut. The show has a vigorous energy aided by inventive use of a small chorus of actors, introduced into scenes of otherwise structurally simple dialogue. Sound design by Alistair Wallace is similarly effective in manufacturing a sense of motion and progression, for an urgency that helps us stay captivated.

The play ends abruptly, and awkwardly, with a fairy-tale conclusion that reveals a human need for hope, however misplaced it may be. Odd Man Out is fundamentally romantic, even if it is rarely sweet or poetic. Against all odds, we will dream up a way to make love happen, and that, is the essence of a life well lived.

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Review: Relatively Speaking (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 18, 2016 – Jan 14, 2017
Playwright: Alan Auckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Jonny Hawkins, Tracy Mann, Emma Palmer, David Whitney
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is a very serious case of mistaken identities in Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, and the hilarity that ensues is rarely surpassed. It is about Ginny leaving one lover for another, but the story is hardly important in how the play is remembered. There is no throwaway line of dialogue, with each word calibrated to a staggering precision in order that we may experience the greatest amplitude of comedy possible. The 50-year-old work may not bear any trendy trimmings or indeed, political relevance to how we now live, but its theatrical structure and language specificity still remains outstanding in our age of perpetual mobile amusement.

The four riotous roles are performed flawlessly by a cast that can only be described as magnificent. Cohesive in tone and style, but each one idiosyncratic and independently captivating, their creations are all unforgettable, but it is the chemistry they manufacture for this ensemble piece that really delivers the goods. Ginny is played by the vivacious Emma Palmer, exuberant and dignified in her interpretation of a young woman in the swinging sixties. Jonny Hawkins is her adorable beau Greg, unbelievably animated and entirely compelling. David Whitney is the other man, spectacularly charming, knowing and droll as Philip, while his wife Sheila is brought to life by the truly extraordinary Tracy Mann with understated flair and impressive confidence.

It may all seem deeply familiar, but director Mark Kilmurry’s realisation of Relatively Speaking feels as though we had never actually seen a show of this genre executed with quite as much panache. His thorough engagement with the material and its particular form, ensures that the laughs are ceaseless for all of its two hours, and that we never tire of whatever he chooses to present. Life is never this much fun, but at the theatre, we sparkle eternal.

www.ensemble.com.au