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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Review: The Kitchen Sink (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 14 – Nov 18, 2017
Playwright: Tom Wells
Director: Shane Bosher
Cast: Ben Hall, Huw Higginson, Duncan Ragg, Contessa Treffone, Hannah Waterman
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
The story happens in a working class household, north of England. Kath and Martin are regular people with regular concerns; they worry about job security, and try their best to provide for their children. Sophie and Billy are on the precipice of adulthood, but yet to find their own wings.

There is no big drama in Tom Wells’ The Kitchen Sink, only an intimate authenticity to its depiction of family life that most will find deeply charming. The characters connect in a simple but profoundly honest way, and whether or not our circumstances are similar, it is in Wells’ acute observations of those ties that bind, that the play allows us to empathise.

A remarkable warmth pervades the stage, and it moves the audience. For the production’s duration, we are all embroiled in the daily lives of these ordinary people, who have very quickly, and magically, become our kin. Director Shane Bosher manufactures a space that puts us at immediate ease, ready to get involved in every domestic exchange that occurs. Simultaneously sensitive and robust, Bosher’s approach not only makes The Kitchen Sink an affecting experience, it is also memorably and delightfully funny.

Thoroughly rehearsed and finely considered, a cast of five quite extraordinary performers, present a work of impressive art and entertainment. As Kath, Hannah Waterman’s passion, charisma and infallible sincerity, anchors the show in a place that always feels genuine and benevolent. She exemplifies all that is good about the maternal instinct, and we in turn, become generous ourselves, in how we receive the show.

Duncan Ragg and Contessa Treffone play a young couple, close but not yet committed. Both are intricate in approach, with ingenious inventions that enrich the personalities they create so convincingly. Ben Hall and Huw Higginson are father and son, each actor extremely likeable, and we find ourselves persuaded by all that they bring to the stage.

The Kitchen Sink begins and ends at home. Whatever our individual lives may become, those of us who have a home to return to, must count ourselves lucky. Stars will rise and fall for every existence, but to have unwavering love and security from those we count family, is invaluable. We rightly put great attention on things like money and careers, but there is no fault greater than neglecting the sacred.

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Review: Buyer And Cellar (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 6 – Nov 12, 2017
Playwright: Jonathan Tolins
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ben Gerrard
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
In her book My Passion For Design, Barbra Streisand reveals a private shopping mall in the basement of her property in Malibu, California. Playwright Jonathan Tolins imagines what it must be like to find yourself the sole employee of that strange place, in his 2013 one-man play Buyer And Cellar.

Unsurprisingly, the work overflows with camp and frivolity, but Tolins anchors the fun with a genuine interest in human nature, building his narrative around our fascination with the rich and famous, and taking a look into the limitlessness of ambition, and our insatiable need for affirmation.

In Buyer And Cellar, we are presented a version of Streisand, semi-fictional, who thinks herself never beautiful enough, successful enough, or admired enough. Alex, the aforementioned shop boy, is the everyday person, positioned in close proximity, to make us examine the different lives, and to consider our own values as they relate to the meanings of accomplishment, happiness and love.

The play is witty, very creatively conceived. It will appeal to much more than fans of Streisand, but a passing familiarity with the entertainment icon, and with American pop culture, is required. A specific kind of gay sensibility, of the family-friendly flavour (more “Just Jack” than John Waters), determines the comedy style, and actor Ben Gerrard is sensational in the show.

For 90 minutes, he is bewitching, so precise and energetic, that we all find ourselves hopelessly immersed in the story, whether or not we give two hoots about Streisand and her ridiculous closets. There is a tendency for Gerrard to outshine the actual material being shown, but it is for certain that we emerge thoroughly, and fabulously, entertained. His partnership with director Susanna Dowling, is clearly a match made in heaven.

Appropriately, design is marvellous in this production of Buyer And Cellar. Alexander Berlage’s lights and Marty Jamieson’s sounds are particularly effective, as we find ourselves transported to a Hollywood dreamland. Both artists are adventurous and meticulous in what they bring to the stage. Charles Davis’ set is simple, in the most elegant way, but probably slightly understated for the Streisand brand.

It is not fair that some people should have so much, while the rest of us are deprived of ever experiencing that level of wealth, but if we believe that everything comes at a cost, it might be some consolation thinking about the things that have to be given up in order to arrive at that state of abundance. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and although Streisand has traded in huge talent and hard work, we also see the emotional deficiencies she suffers, that form the propulsive force resulting in her eminent glory. The woman we see in Buyer And Cellar is dissatisfied and often unhappy, but as the playwright keeps reminding us, this is a work of pure fantasy.

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