Review: The Widow Unplugged Or An Actor Deploys (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 26 – Sep 1, 2018
Playwright: Reg Livermore
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Reg Livermore
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Arthur Kwick fancies himself a performer but possesses no discernible talent. Nevertheless he does persist with his passion and has devoted his entire life to finding opportunities to jump on a stage, and make a fool of himself. Reg Livermore’s The Widow Unplugged Or An Actor Deploys is a work about an actor, by an actor. It is also a meditation about approaching the end of life, and whether one should go quietly, or to resist the notion of complete retirement. It is not a biographical work, but the parallels are absolutely clear.

The show bears a tone of abstraction, requiring its audience to work hard to decipher whatever it is that is being presented. There is a chance that the incoherence we encounter has more to do with Livermore’s current abilities, than with any artistic intention to confuse its audience in a purposeful or meaningful way, but that of course shall remain a mystery. The comedy is extremely corny, incessantly so, and would probably appeal only to the star’s devotees. Jokes about Chinese people eating their pets, and a Chinese laundry’s success being due to not using any MSG, are only the tip of the iceberg, in two large sections where he decides, with very poor judgement, to lampoon a Chinese woman character in Mosman. There may not be a substantial number of Asian patrons at Livermore’s show, but it still astounds that such insensitivity could find a place in Australian theatre today.

One of the allures of acquiring power, is that those who wield it, suffer little consequence for their actions. We make heroes of people, forgetting that they too are capable of failure, and we find ourselves at a loss when they cause offence using the very platforms we had gifted. Big names and great reputations are intrinsic to our social nature. We want to see people do well, and we want to raise them up as glorious examples of humanity at its best, but every person makes mistakes, and when luminaries disappoint, communities must acknowledge the new epiphanies.

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Review: Unqualified (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 22 – Jul 21, 2018
Playwrights: Genevieve Hegney, Catherine Moore
Director: Janine Watson
Cast: Genevieve Hegney, Catherine Moore
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Centrelink offices are not generally considered places of serendipity, but when Felicity and Joanne meet, an unlikely and fortuitous union occurs. They join forces to set up a temping agency, creating opportunities for themselves, to leave the past behind and to become gainfully employed in a manner that gives them a new independence. Finding your own feet, however, is never an easy task. The women fly before they walk, and with a hilarity derived from their naivety, we watch them in Unqualified, fumbling and learning to come into their own.

Genevieve Hegney and Catherine Moore’s play contains a suite of excellent jokes, all stemming from a meaningful concept, involving women resisting their societal obligations as wives and daughters. Its general plot is insufficiently taut, but the show is a successful expansion of the skit format, with speedy exchanges between the two designed to provide what seems an endless amount of very clever punchlines.

The writers present their own creation, both impressive with the detail that they bring on stage, along with a sensational display of chemistry determined to hold us captive. Moore is particularly delightful as the jovial Felicity, delivering a comic performance astonishing in its efficacy, precision and inventiveness. Director Janine Watson orchestrates the action so that there is plenty of colour and movement to occupy our attention. Even when the story stagnates, we find ourselves luxuriating in the laughs that come through incessantly, and effortlessly.

Few people seem to be able go through life never having to make any sacrifices; many of us look as though we are never capable of putting ourselves first. Unqualified is a work celebrating the discovery, when it finally dawns upon us, that there is a finite amount to what we can owe, and that true fulfilment requires an individual to understand what it is that will realise their true potential. Felicity and Joanne spent many years cultivating a sense of worth, by following prescribed rules. It is satisfying to witness their moment of self-determination, as they make the decision to break free. Humour can help us through anything, but emancipation is ultimately the biggest reward.

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Review: Marjorie Prime (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 15 – Jul 21, 2018
Playwright: Jordan Harrison
Director: Mitchell Butel
Cast: Lucy Bell, Maggie Dence, Jake Speer, Richard Sydenham
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Holograms are a reality, and so is artificial intelligence. Combining the two could garner extraordinary results, and in Jordan Harrison’s Marjorie Prime, we see what happens when the memory of lost loves are calibrated through technology, and people are able to re-materialise in three dimensional pixel form. A widow speaks to her late husband, who appears to exist right before her eyes, a digital simulacra assembled from information that she provides. This is science fiction that all can relate to. Universally intriguing notions around the extension of life, is a powerful subject, but the play’s sense of drama is subdued, and its intellect seems curiously restrained.

The production is elegantly assembled, on a very fabulous set, designed by Simon Greer. Director Mitchell Butel gives us only the essentials in a remarkably low-key approach, but the text seems to offer little that is exciting, besides its initially enticing conceit. Scenes become increasingly repetitive, and we find ourselves gradually alienated from a story that struggles to progress meaningfully. Its conclusion however, is once again provocative, as it takes the plot, finally, to somewhere surprising and quite fascinating.

The show might prove underwhelming but it is a polished and professional cast that takes the stage. In the role of Jon is Richard Sydenham, whose emotions are conveyed with an admirable precision that invites us at key points, to attain truthful connection with themes being discussed in Marjorie Prime. Maggie Dence is charming and humorous as Marjorie, cleverly introducing moments of levity to prevent the piece from turning monotonously serious. Lucy Bell and Jake Speer are competent and committed to their parts, although predictable with the interpretations that they bring.

There is a heavy scepticism in the play, that relates to the synthetic portions of our high tech existence, even though it does acquiesce to the inevitable development of civilisation down the futuristic path. Technophobia should never be the default position when talking about tomorrow. We should question everything, but whenever we submit to convenient attitudes of “natural is always better,” we deprive ourselves of empirical truths. It is tempting to want things to stay the same, but the only constant, as always, is change.

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Review: Shirley Valentine (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 3 – Jun 9, 2018
Playwright: Willy Russell
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Sharon Millerchip
Images by Anna Kucera

Theatre review
It was only 30 or so years ago, that millions of women had lived like Shirley Valentine; lonely housewives who spoke to walls at home, subsisting with no real purpose, and suffering from the ill effects of misplaced self-esteem from years of marriage and motherhood. After decades of obeying rules of society and religion, id est to wed a man and fall pregnant, and then realising that the second half of their lives could easily turn meaningless, when their assigned function in procreation expires at middle age.

Willy Russell’s 1986 monologue Shirley Valentine can seem a relic, about a type of repressed womanhood, which has disappeared from our new century, but even though that particular archetype no longer occupies front of our minds, Shirley’s challenges remain resonant. Many of us adhere to the expectations of others, trusting in the promises of tradition and convention, rather than determining for ourselves, the constituents of a personally fulfilling life. The argument of course, is that it is never too late to start living, although to break free of one’s own shackles, is always easier said than done.

Even though the play is no longer the breath of fresh air that some remember, Mark Kilmurry’s direction ensures that its ageless pertinence is kept pronounced and pervasive. Alongside the highly entertaining whimsy of Shirley’s personality, is an ever-present sense of profundity accompanying all phases of the joyful evolution that we watch her undergo. Full of charm and airy wit, it is an engaging show from start to end, with actor Sharon Millerchip’s charisma proving irresistible, tenaciously so, as we observe her transformations, from strength to strength. Millerchip invites us, with exacting resolve, to root for her character, and we feel as though we take the journey together, with her as captain and us the motor that propels her forward. Shirley’s successes need to be witnessed, and we are there, happily, for her.

Shirley Valentine is a vaguely feminist piece, showing little resentment for power structures determined to keep women subjugated, but celebrates instead, its protagonist’s ability to fight for her own emancipation. The play ends where a new chapter is about to begin. That ambiguity is an accurate representation of many who dare to rise up and reclaim power. For a moment at least, the individual will have to come face to face with opposing forces, that had been hitherto dormant and appeased. Once materialised, this re-positioning of status and relationships, is an unknown quantity, that may lead to a new equilibrium, or more likely, cause ruptures that if sufficiently substantial, will deliver a greater sense of independence and self-determination. To achieve what is fair and just, often involves significant sacrifices that are initially inconceivable. Shirley wants her cake and eat it too. We can only keep our fingers crossed.

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Review: Diplomacy (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 23 – Apr 28, 2018
Playwright: Cyril Gély (translated and adapted by Julie Rose)
Director: John Bell
Cast: John Bell, John Gaden, Genevieve Lemon, James Lugton, Joseph Raggatt
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
On the eve of Paris’ impending decimation by the Nazis, Raoul Nordling a Swedish diplomat, pays a surprise visit to the hotel suite of German military governor Dietrich von Choltitz. In Cyril Gély’s Diplomacy, we witness the intense negotiations that lead to Choltitz’s eventual surrender. We always knew how the play was going to conclude, so it is the dynamics between the two men that are crucial to the drama that ensues.

These historical facts, albeit amplified, are fascinating. The idea that one man could thwart an operation of such scale, should prove to be quite astonishing, but the production is tepid, unable to convey the tension of war, and the very serious stakes never become sufficiently persuasive.

It is a good looking show; Michael Scott-Mitchell’s set design is sophisticated and inventively functional, while Genevieve Graham’s costumes are detailed and impeccably tailored. Lights by Matt Cox and sound by Nate Edmondson, are elegant, both suitably restrained and minimal in approach.

As Choltitz, John Bell is appropriately imposing, but it is a portrayal that can feel surface and impenetrable. John Gaden plays up the charm of Nordling, and makes good use of comic opportunities, but chemistry between the two leads struggles for authenticity, and their story ends up being told with only grandiosity and no discernible nuance.

Stories of war will always be worth recounting, as long as we continue to undertake them. Histories repeat, as though human nature will forever be doomed to replicate all its mistakes. Some will consult the annals to try for improvements to our behaviour, but others it seems, will look to the past only to learn how to win at meaningless battles of our future.

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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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