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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Review: A Letter For Molly (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 9 – Jun 4, 2022
Playwright: Brittanie Shipway
Director: Ursula Yovich
Cast: Nazaree Dickerson, Joel Granger, Lisa Maza, Paula Nazarski, Brittanie Shipway
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Renee has an accidental pregnancy, and because she lives in modern day Australia, obtaining a termination does not become too big an ordeal. The incident however, does prompt her to reflect on issues of motherhood, family and ancestry. Thinking about where one comes from, and what one is to leave behind, is an important piece in the process of maturation. In Brittanie Shipway’s A Letter for Molly, we watch Renee consider the possibility of motherhood in her future, by looking back at the three generations of women before, and all their bonds as mothers and daughters.

The play is a tenderly funny take on family dynamics. Renee’s Indigenous background is a very charming influence on the show’s style of dialogue. The women speak with extraordinary vibrancy, but deeper issues pertaining to our history of colonialism are only briefly hinted at. Those of us who do not share their heritage, can make our own interpretations, should we choose to do so, about the repercussions of being Black in Australia, simply by observing the lives of the women in A Letter for Molly. We gradually become aware that none of them owe us any expositions, about the trauma and marginalisation they may or may not experience. The fact that some have formed any such expectations of Black writers, is further evidence of how colonisation operates in our artistic landscape. A Letter for Molly is storytelling on one woman’s own terms, and that is always a powerful statement to make.

Director Ursula Yovich brings a light touch, to this story of motherhood through the generations. These are consequential matters that are being discussed, albeit treated very gently. Yovich’s approach is one that feels distinctly simple, but there is not a second that passes, without a sense of real emotional investment being dedicated, to the honouring of motherhood.

In the role of Renee, is playwright Shipway herself, who brings an immense sincerity to the stage. Lisa Maza is flawless with her comedy, and a wonderfully captivating presence as Mimi, the most senior of these women. Next in line is Darlene, played by Paula Nazarski who is as capable at delivering jokes, as she is at delivering breath-taking poignancy. Then comes Linda, with the exuberant Nazaree Dickerson offering gleeful joy to her audience, at every given opportunity. The hilarious Joel Granger plays a wide range of support roles, demonstrating admirable commitment to his craft, and an undeniable knack for humour of a more heightened kind.

The closeness between mothers and daughters, is portrayed with exceptional verisimilitude in A Letter for Molly. We believe all the relationships, and we understand precisely the choices Renee makes. In 2022 it is still refreshing to see a woman take control over her destiny, instead of relenting without questioning, to tradition and convention. No woman should need to subscribe to any notion or definition of what a valid woman is. We are infinitely diverse, and it is that freedom to be, that we should forever embrace.

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Review: Unqualified 2: Still Unqualified (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 29 – Jun 4, 2022
Playwrights: Genevieve Hegney, Catherine Moore
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Genevieve Hegney, Catherine Moore
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Felicity and Joanne have progressed from being business partners, to now being housemates. In Unqualified 2: Still Unqualified, the pair is back with more shenanigans, which is entirely unsurprising, as their first outing three years ago at the very same theatre, had proven an unequivocal blast. Creators Genevieve Hegney and Catherine Moore seem a bottomless pit of jokes, and in this sequel we again encounter a barrage of hearty laughter, about a fictitious temping agency, and the desperate ineptitude that sustains it.

Directed by Janine Watson, the show is relentlessly exuberant, and extremely light hearted. Its sense of humour comes from a profound understanding of grace; ambitious women are given little room to fail, but in Unqualified 2, we delight in the knowledge that none of us need to be superwomen, to feel deserving. Design aspects of the production are accomplished in unassuming ways, with video projections by Morgan Moroney playing an integral part, in taking us from one unlikely place to another, as the women try to earn a buck.

Watching Hegney and Moore on stage, is an absolute treat. Both performers have commanding presences and an unassailable confidence, that make us putty in their hands. The chemistry between these two powerhouses, is a rare gift, and a reminder that theatre at its best, is about an ephemeral magic that is often hard to pinpoint, and impossible to replicate.

It almost becomes irrelevant what the story is, that Hegney and Moore are telling, but it is certainly apt that the essence of what they present, is a statement about friendship. Dynamics between women often involve a sense of competition. We observe that spaces for women can be scarce, and are taught tacitly, that only one of us can rise, which means celebrating other women often becomes complicated and challenging. In Unqualified 2 however, we see that success only comes when both (Felicity and Joanne, as well as Hegney and Moore) are completely in support of each other. Moreover, one comes to the realisation, that a success that cannot be shared, is not success at all.

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Review: Nearer The Gods (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 4 – Apr 23, 2022
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Violette Ayad, Jemwel Danao, Rowan Davie, Gareth Davies, Sean O’Shea, Sam O’Sullivan, Claudia Ware
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It was the age of Enlightenment, and the beautiful mind of Isaac Newton held volumes of pivotal information, if only they could all be transformed into ink on paper. David Williamson’s Near the Gods pays particular attention to Newton’s seminal Principia, and the arduous three-year process by which the astronomer Edmund Halley had to coax the book into materiality. A somewhat quirky work of theatre, Williamson’s narrow focus on that singular historical incident, is unexpectedly idiosyncratic, although unlikely to be widely appealing.

The soporific subject matter of Near the Gods may not feel a natural fit for the modern stage, but director Janine Watson’s detailed and nuanced handling of the play, helps ensure that the audience is able to stay the course, whether or not we are ever able to really invest, in any part of the antiquated story.

Hugh O’Connor’s production design is extremely restrained, with the rejection of any faithful-to-period renderings, proving to be a wise and elegant decision. Lights by Matt Cox, along with Clare Hennessy’s sound design, too are conceived with an appropriate sense of minimalism, able to help move the narrative along effectively, with only slight embellishments introduced during opportune moments.

Actor Gareth Davies is amusing as the mad genius Newton, adept at bringing valuable liveliness to proceedings, even though the role is written with an excess of dry reverence. Halley is played with admirable commitment by a very passionate Rowan Davies, whose determination to entertain helps keep us engaged. Also noteworthy are Violette Ayad as Mary Halley, who offers flashes of genuine emotion in an otherwise distant and stolid affair, and Sean O’Shea’s flamboyance as King Charles II is an irresistibly funny element, if not always cohesive with the rest of the show.

It is arguable that creative people are only worth their salt, when something actually comes to be, as a result of their talent. Newton was at risk of having all the brilliance kept only on the inside of his mind. So many of us hold within ourselves, great insight and perspectives, that could benefit and inspire others, if only we knew how to make tangible, all that remains mere potential. Having written well over 50 plays, the writer Williamson is clearly not lacking in capacity for expression; if only this proficiency was available to more of us.

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Review: Killing Katie: Confessions of a Book Club (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 9 – Feb 26, 2022
Playwright: Tracey Trinder
Director: Francesca Savige
Cast: Valerie Bader, Chantelle Jamieson, Bron Lim, Kate Raison, Georgina Symes
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Katie is the new addition to a small book club, of which Robyn is the unofficial head. The two women are diametric opposites, with Katie being the vivacious and carefree one, and Robyn showing herself to be quite the stodgy, uptight character. In Killing Katie: Confessions of a Book Club, playwright Tracey Trinder does not quite pit women against each other, as much as she tries to portray the challenges in how we are able, or not able, to find inspiration in one another, especially when coming from a range of diverse experiences.

The vast difference in personalities gives rise to immediate conflict, which lends to great humour, but not all of Trinder’s dialogue is consistently witty. The production relies on an unrelenting effervescence, that director Francesca Savige so cleverly manufactures, to keep us in a cheery mood. Tobhiyah Stone Feller’s set and costume designs are suitably whimsical and colourful, proving effective in foregrounding amusing aspects of the story. Kelsey Lee’s lights, along with Daryl Wallis’ sound, provide valuable variation in tone between scenes to sustain our attention, in addition to the many subtle enhancements for when nuance in the text needs to be highlighted.

A wonderfully cohesive ensemble of five, comprising women across three generations, deliver a show that practises exactly what it preaches. The cast’s extraordinary camaraderie demonstrates the successes available to us, when our forces are joined in good faith. Chantelle Jamieson’s natural and confident charm, turns Katie’s grating tendencies into something altogether more appealing; we can see how the unrelenting exuberance is gnawing to Robyn, but Jamieson ensures that her character translates only with joy and glee, to her captive audience. The exasperating Robyn is played by a deeply committed Kate Raison, who brings maddening authenticity to a painful personality we have all encountered.

Bron Lim does marvellously as Linda, with a warm sincerity and an endlessly reliable instinct, that allow everything she offers, to feel believable and immediate. Georgina Symes is quirky as Sam, with an enjoyable intensity that keeps the stage abuzz with energy. Valerie Bader’s flawless comic timing makes unforgettable her turn as Angela, whose pointed quips are counted on, to provoke some of the show’s biggest laughs.

Plurality is surely better than singularity, in how we perceive our identities as women. The more we are able to be appreciative of other women’s idiosyncrasies, the more likely it is for us to be individually self-accepting. Invariably, we have all suffered from having been conditioned into believing that certain women are good and many, many others are not good enough. We are all trained to be convenient, and in turn, we routinely impose those same constrictions on everybody else. Most of those rules are in desperate need to be broken, and the permission to do so, can only come from within.

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