Review: Fully Committed (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 11 – Nov 16, 2019
Playwright: Becky Mode
Director: Kate Champion
Cast: Contessa Treffone
Images by Prudence Upton
Theatre review
Sam is a struggling actor, working full-time as a reservations clerk at one of Sydney’s swankiest restaurants. It is a difficult job, not only because the joint seems to be at perpetual full capacity, but also due to some extraordinarily difficult personalities, who insist on talking to Sam with no regard at all for any common courtesy.

Becky Mode’s Fully Committed is about life at the bottom rung of a revered institution, where labour is cheap and human dignity is non-existent. It is an entertaining work, that deals with the class divide in a humorous, if slightly disillusioned way. Instead of questioning Sam’s compliance, the play is concerned only with how and when she is going to be able to move up the social order. Fully Committed is about our inevitable participation in a broken economic system, reflecting the acceptance of something that causes as many problems as it solves, and our general sense of impotence in the face of all its failings.

Under Kate Champion’s direction and Jane Fitzgerald’s dramaturgy, Sam’s story of disadvantage is told with unexpected poignancy. In Champion’s efforts to elevate the writing beyond its tendency for surface comedy however, the show lacks the manic energy that could have us further invested. The decision to have a conventional switchboard stylistically transformed into thirty separate telephones, makes for a powerful visual (set design by Anna Tregloan), but often requires the performer of this one-woman piece to delay her delivery of lines.

Contessa Treffone plays Sam, and all the other, more than thirty, characters on the other end of the line, each of them thoughtfully crafted, and vividly depicted. Treffone makes the extremely demanding work look a walk in the park, for a performance remarkable in its elegance and clarity. Although effortlessly comical, the performer can at times feel insufficiently confident, for a script that seems naturally inclined to be madcap and quite hammy in tone. Nevertheless, the production remains tremendously enjoyable, and Treffone’s ability to hold us captive for the entire duration is indeed commendable.

Sam finds herself in an awful situation, but blames no one for her predicament. She has bought into the myth of capitalism, of hard work, of upward mobility, and convinces herself that literally mopping up other people’s shit, is but par for the course, if she is determined to put everything into making her dreams come true. Becky Mode’s play is approaching twenty years old, and it is tempting to now think of the new generation, as young people who know better.

Maybe when we criticise them for being entitled, spoilt and delicate, we neglect to recognise the unjust, unreasonable and sometimes inhumane conditions we have come to accept of our lives. For many years we believed that the system we build, would reward us with fairness, but time has revealed many fallacies. No wonder then, that many of Sam’s age are now turning their backs, and refusing to play by rules that make little sense.

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Review: The Last Wife (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 30 – Sep 29, 2019
Playwright: Kate Hennig
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Emma Chelsey, Emma Harvie, Simon London, Nikki Shiels, Bishanyia Vincent, Ben Wood
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
In Kate Hennig’s The Last Wife, we watch Catherine Parr make the most of an unfortunate situation when she is forced to marry King Henry VIII. Not content with being wallflower and figurehead, she finds ways to be useful, trying to place herself in a position of power, with mixed results, but hugely instrumental in the reinstatement of princesses Mary and Elizabeth to the line of succession. The play imagines its characters with contemporary sensibilities and a corresponding modern language, each one is given a sense of cheeky sass that renders an entertaining immediacy for their storytelling. Not quite an entirely feminist reckoning of the past, The Last Wife is English history from a new perspective, the reframe of which provides a richer understanding of what had happened, and more importantly, of how women continue to have to navigate the patriarchy.

Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the production emphasises dynamics in these legendary relationships, able to impress upon us the intimate family problems of the royals, that bear reverberations that continue to affect us today. Its discussions about gender politics however, feel rudimentary, as do design elements that are at best adequate. Work on sound (uncredited) in particular is disappointing, often discordant with stage action, and lacking in elegance with how its cues are executed.

Actor Nikki Shiels’ portrayal of the queen is delicate, and although successful with the naturalism she introduces to the show, her Catherine Parr seldom exudes enough power for the narrative to really affect or inspire. The king is played by Ben Wood, whose irrepressible comic impulses prove enjoyable. While the two have a comfortable chemistry as lovers, they lack a cohesion in styles that would help us achieve a deeper appreciation of nuances in their scenes together. A young Elizabeth, the future queen, is made thoroughly enamouring by Emma Harvie, whose immaculate timing and exquisite charm, offer a generous sprinkling of star quality in the support role.

In every tragic victim, an alternate story can likely be written about their strength and ingenuity. Old tales about sad women reflect our conditioned need to see women languish. We are accustomed to an acceptance of women’s suffering, and we have learned to think of her pain as inevitable, as though there is beauty in that resignation. In The Last Wife, we see the women around Henry VIII exercise their autonomy whenever conditions permitted. We have for centuries, made lemonade from the lemons that are given. Adversity figures in many of our experiences, but the accompanying resilience and resourcefulness that get us through hardship need to propel us to something beyond survival.

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Review: Folk (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 3 – Jun 1, 2019
Playwright: Tom Wells
Director: Terence O’Connell
Cast: Libby Asciak, Gerard Carroll, Genevieve Lemon
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Sister Winnie is planning a folk music night, and enlists Stephen and Kayleigh to help out. We see the nun orchestrating a connection, not only for the purposes of staging an event, but also for the two misfits to form a support network, with and without herself at its centre. Tom Wells’ Folk takes place in Yorkshire, more than ten thousand miles away from Sydney. It may seem that there is little that we have in common, and what should feel sentimental or moving, struggles to translate into much more than something quaint and quite foreign. Its themes are clearly universal, but its characters and language feel overly idiosyncratic, even distant at times.

Terence O’Connell’s direction does not help the work transcend our differences, and even though the viewing experience can often seem sedated, the charming cast is able to sustain our attention, particularly impressive during the play’s several musical numbers. As Winnie, Genevieve Lemon is appropriately kooky and spirited. Libby Asciak performs convincingly the part of teenager Kayleigh, with playful flourishes that reflect an irrepressible creative streak. The musical talents of Gerard Carroll are wonderfully showcased in the role of Stephen, as is his ability to portray an innocence rarely seen in the middle age man.

Winnie is not a preachy nun, but she embodies godliness in the way she conducts her relationships. Her ability to love is admirable, but it is also unremarkable. Without the usual piousness, her personality becomes one that we can readily identify with, and we recognise that love is not only sacred, it is easy. The effortlessness with which she takes care of people, and the significance she places on human connection, are only common sense from the audience’s vantage point, yet we understand that much of Winnie’s modus vivendi, are missing in our daily lives.

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Review: The Last Five Years (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 29 – Apr 27, 2019
Writer/Composer: Jason Robert Brown
Director: Elsie Edgerton-Till
Cast: Christian Charisiou, Elise McCann
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Jamie has no idea what he is getting himself into, when asking for Cathy’s hand in marriage. His writing career is going “gangbusters” and girls are throwing themselves at him, but he decides instead to get bogged down by the old ball-and-chain, who is herself a naggy talentless nobody, and who demands too much of her husband. The Last Five Years by Jason Robert Brown is an ill-advised musical about the disintegration of a relationship, in which misogyny is lavished right from the start, when Cathy is sobbing over her asshole husband moving out.

Things clearly can only get worse as the show progresses, as Jamie’s misplaced resentment becomes all-important, and he sings such charming lyrics as “I will not fail so you can be comfortable, Cathy, I will not lose because you can’t win,” and “I could never rescue you, all you ever wanted, but I could never rescue you, no matter how I tried.” The story ends with little resolution, but it does not take prodigious imagination to see Jamie turning to digital incel communities after the separation.

Director Elsie Edgerton-Till may not succeed at glossing over the many gendered affronts, but her production is undeniably polished, able to make the simple two-hander feel confident and dynamic. Daryl Wallis’ musical direction is satisfying in its sophistication, and as pianist, he is particularly memorable in “Climbing Uphill”, with a sense of humour to his accompaniment that almost makes the whining wife’s desperation tolerable. Playing Jamie and Cathy are a couple of incontrovertibly excellent performers; Christian Charisiou and Elise McCann are both charismatic and enormously talented. They explore the material with impressive zeal, bringing to the stage extraordinary vigour and skill, trying to keep us delightfully engaged.

The Last Five Years reminds us that, for all the heartache associated with it, divorce is always a wonderful relief. In the throes of passion, and romantic naivety, we make mistakes, because being human, we never fail to want to make promises to horrible people, or to people who will eventually turn horrible. Love is natural and necessary, but rarely eternal. When time comes to call it quits, the apparatus is available to leave them to rot in their own filth. Cathy does not see it yet, but it is clear to us that although five years were lost, she has dodged one very toxic bullet.

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Review: The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Mar 22 – Apr 27, 2019
Playwright: Melanie Tait
Director: Priscilla Jackman
Cast: Valerie Bader, Merridy Eastman, Sapidah Kian, Amber McMahon, Sharon Millerchip
Images by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
Like many of our little country towns, the fictional Appleton struggles with the idea that women should be able to enjoy the same privileges as men. They fool themselves into thinking that the genders simply belong in different domains, rather than admitting that people are being unjustly deprived of spaces and experiences. Worse, they habitually overlook power imbalances, allowing inequalities to exist, under the guise of having to keep the peace. In Melanie Tait’s The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, Penny moves home from the city, to a township busying itself with having to gear up for show day. When she discovers that the day’s highlight, the potato race (involving people running with sacks of potatoes on their backs) awards the winner in the women’s category only $200, or $800 less than the men’s, she decides to take action.

It is not an easy task of course, to find backing for her cause, in this conservative community where it can feel as though tradition is all they have. As is crucial in any feminist story, persistence is the key, and in Tait’s play, that persistence is embodied by a mild-mannered protagonist, who instead of going into her project all guns blazing and feisty, takes it upon herself to do all the hard work with inconceivable politeness. Her only true ally is a Syrian sidekick, Rania, who provides moral support, and little else besides. Penny is a GP, and Rania an unemployed refugee; they both wish to affect the same change, but Australian currency clearly has its biases. Nevertheless, The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race is funny, passionate and rousing, an uplifting romp that many will find irresistibly delightful.

Director Priscilla Jackman imbues the show with extraordinary warmth. A palpable sentimentality colours this sojourn into mystical rural Australia, where people with good hearts never fail to charm our pants off, even if they are a little ignorant. Jackman’s representation of modern sisterhood is edifying, thoughtfully nuanced in all the complexities it is able to convey in regards the always painful job of galvanising people against the patriarchy. Actor Sharon Millerchip leads the charge as Dr Penny Anderson, perhaps a trifle too sweet in approach, but a persuasive presence who disallows us from ever questioning her intentions.

Rania is played by an understated Sapidah Kian, who introduces a distinct quotient of realism to the otherwise stridently fairy-tale quality of the production. Excellent narrative tension is created by Valerie Bader, august and compelling as Bev, a marvellous boss about town, unofficially in charge of everything. Splendid humour is brought by Merridy Eastman and Amber McMahon, both fabulously imaginative, and faultless with their comic timing. It is an impressively well-rehearsed presentation, featuring five actors in a cohesive and joyful collaboration that perfectly illustrates the point of the whole exercise.

The men carry 50kg sacks but the women carry 20kg. In real life, men do carry heavier loads than women in some places, and the reverse is also true. We hear of young men killing themselves in the bush, but rarely connect these dots. There is no need for any of our burdens to be allocated unevenly. In The Appleton Ladies’ Potato Race, women are fighting not only for equal prize money, but also for the opportunity to let every person have equal footing in their society. The consequences to disadvantage are obvious, but in our neo-liberal world, we neglect to recognise the problems that arise within loci that are concentrated with power. If we can orchestrate a dispersion of power, money, privilege and advantage, hardship at the bottom and at the top, must surely begin to evaporate. If this sounds an unconvincing argument, we can understand why arms have to be twisted in order to make things better.

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Review: The Big Time (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 18 – Mar 16, 2019
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Claudia Barrie, Zoe Carides, Aileen Huynh, Matt Minto, Jeremy Waters, Ben Wood
Images by Brett Boardman
Theatre review
Celia and Rohan are lovers in the film industry, both trying to advance their careers onto the next step. In David Williamson’s The Big Time, we see the dirty business of betrayal, jealousy and deception, operating in a dog eat dog world, in which integrity seems almost certain to make one a loser. Laden with cliché and implausible characters, the play’s narrative never manages to become convincing, even if the story does feel like it has been told a hundred times before. The shallowness of the people we meet may bear some semblance of truth, but there is little that we are able to relate to, in Williamson’s oversimplified depiction of their approaches to work and life.

As Celia, Aileen Huynh is able to bring some emotional intensity to the piece, but her sense of humour proves incompatible with what the show requires. Jeremy Waters’ energetic presence as Rohan helps to sustain our interest, particularly enjoyable in a handful of scenes with Ben Wood’s Rolly, in which we witness the only moments of chemistry on this stage. Director Mark Kilmurry keeps a close eye on performances, careful to prevent his actors from transforming the production into a campy farce, but the earnestness at which the show is calibrated, does make the experience somewhat lacklustre.

It is funny that we take show business so seriously. The billions of dollars poured into the entertainment industry can seem a waste of resources, but it reflects the lightness of our beings that can never be underestimated. We want to have a good time, and it can often seem that escapism comprises a substantial portion of our realities. Business does however, on occasion, make transactions with art, when a deeper investigation into the human condition can accompany the procurement of enjoyment. It is a rare beast that can combine things amusing with that which is truly important, and most of the time, we are grateful to encounter just one of those elements.

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Review: The Norman Conquests (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 2, 2018 – Jan 12, 2019
Playwright: Alan Ayckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Danielle Carter, Rachel Gordon, Brian Meegan, Sam O’Sullivan, Yalin Ozucelik, Matilda Ridgway
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Ruth’s husband is having dalliances with her sister and her sister-in-law. These extramarital trysts with Norman are at least momentarily pleasurable, but it comes as no surprise that there is pandemonium when the cat is out of the bag. Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy The Norman Conquests takes place in a weekend, with each instalment encompassing the action at a specific area of the family’s country home. Table Manners occurs in the dining hall, Living Together in the living room, and Round And Round The Garden in the garden. They form a cohesive whole, but each part stands alone, for this intricate 1973 comedy about the meaning of marriage, at a time of sexual liberation as Britain emerges from the swinging sixties.

Its humour is of a classic style, with 45-year-old jokes likely to divide audiences, but at the heart of the piece is Ruth’s surprising permissiveness, still refreshing by today’s standards. Her reluctance to see the affairs as necessarily catastrophic, but more of an annoyance, leads us to a progressive evaluation of monogamy, still relevant to how we conceive of relationships and marriages today. This revival, directed by Mark Kilmurry, is bright and bubbly, a compelling jaunt back in time that is surprisingly resonant, even if its language is obviously outdated.

The characters may sound like the past, but they are made to feel current, by an excellent, and tireless, uniformly captivating cast. Yalin Ozucelik gives Norman an appropriate sex appeal, cleverly depicting that familiar blend of naivety and cunning, to convey the ambiguously deceptive quality of men who love too many. Matilda Ridgway is a marvellously complex Annie, the aforementioned sister, richly imagined with veraciously human conflicts, clearly presented for a personality sensual and intelligent. Ruth is played by Rachel Gordon, wonderfully vivacious and highly sophisticated, for an exemplary portrait of a woman with an open mind, unafraid to set her own rules.

When Ruth declares that she does not own her husband, we are urged to re-examine sexual relationships, and perhaps define them anew. In letting our loved ones go, we in turn disallow ourselves from ever being enslaved. Love, however, can make free people want to be bound. To have and to hold is a divine notion, but life without freedom is abhorrent, just as life without love is unbearable. In every intimate connection, whether fleeting or longstanding, delicate negotiations are required; traditional prescriptive methods, when adopted unquestioned, rarely deliver satisfactory results. Congress between organic beings can never be completely predictable, for every entity is different and in constant flux. We just need to make sure that nobody gets hurt, although it seems always to be easier said than done.

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