Review: Crunch Time (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Feb 14 – Apr 9, 2020
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Diane Craig, Megan Drury, Guy Edmonds, Matt Minto, Emma Palmer, John Wood
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Although a grown man and father of two, Luke is unable to grow out of the shadow of Steve, his own father, whom he perceives to not have been a loving parent. Now that the old man is approaching end of life, things must come to a head or risk being unresolved for many years hereafter.

David Williamson’s Crunch Time is a family drama, but one that struggles to resonate, featuring a collection of unlikable characters in situations that are unconvincing and distant. We recognise the dynamics at play, for we all have experiences relating to problematic kinship, but few of its ingredients feel authentic, and meaningful emotional investment into any part of the story proves elusive.

Mark Kilmurry’s direction capitalises on comical aspects of the writing, always taking care that the humour is conveyed with clarity. Actor Guy Edmonds is effortlessly funny as Luke, and a charming presence, even though a strange casting choice for an entirely charmless role. Daddy Steve is played by an elegant John Wood, whose restrained approach tends to downplay tensions of the piece.

Other parts in Crunch Time are performed well, despite their unfortunate lack of complexity. Matt Minto is appropriately comical as favourite son Jimmy, and Diane Craig brings a degree of self-respect to Helen, the strangely overlooked mother who does little more than orbit around the disputes within her household. Daughters-in-law are played by Megan Drury and Emma Palmer, who retain some integrity for a couple of women burdened by some shockingly unimaginative dialogue.

It is curious that Steve’s family does little to question his decisions pertaining to euthanasia, but Crunch Time is a rare example of how the matter of death, can be dealt with in a less than tragic fashion. Traditionally, we have insisted that people bear with terminal illnesses, no matter how painful and dehumanising. For years, we have debated as a community on how dying can be made dignified, but that journey to legislative change has been at snail pace. It is hard to understand that anyone who has witnessed unimaginable suffering on deathbeds would argue against assisted suicide, but our conservative culture is determined as ever, to keep us in the dark ages.

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Review: Black Cockatoo (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 4 – Feb 8, 2020 | Riverside Theatres (Parramatta NSW), Feb 18 – 22, 2020
Playwright: Geoffrey Atherden
Director: Wesley Enoch
Cast: Joseph Althouse, Luke Carroll, Chenoa Deemal, Aaron McGrath, Colin Smith, Dubs Yunupingu
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
When Johnny ‘Unaarrimin’ Mullagh went to England in 1868 as part of Australia’s ‘First XI’, he probably never expected to become our first international cricket star. A century and a half later, his descendants probably never expected that the legend would today be so easily forgotten. Black Cockatoo by Geoffrey Atherden reintroduces the historical figure as a true Indigenous trailblazer, an Aboriginal example of black excellence that the white patriarchy of our sporting arenas seems so determined to wipe away from memory. The play has a tendency to feel overly wholesome, as though sanitised for public consumption, but its importance as cultural emblem cannot be understated.

Directed by Wesley Enoch, the show is a sincere and tender proclamation, paying tribute to Indigenous identities past and present. The complexity of black experiences as colonised peoples, is meaningfully, albeit politely, portrayed in Black Cockatoo. We see our protagonist in a state of conflict, able to recognise his privilege as star on the field, but never ignorant of injustices that befall himself and those he considers his community.

Set design by Richard Roberts establishes elegance for the production’s overall visual aesthetic, but requires greater versatility to help us imagine dramatic shifts in time and place. Lights by Trent Suidgeest and music by Steve Francis are sensitively rendered, both proving effective in conveying poignancy for the piece.

Actor Aaron McGrath is full of charm as Mullagh, dignified and beautifully nuanced in his depiction of a true blue hero. Black Cockatoo‘s narrative does not offer very much that is emotional or surprising, but McGrath makes us fall for the central character effortlessly. In the role of Lady Bardwell is the noteworthy Chenoa Deemal, who brings to the stage an august presence. Also impressive is Colin Smith as coach of the team, remarkably convincing as an ethically dubious Charles Lawrence.

Our Indigenous continue to have to navigate the absurdity of being seen as exotic on their own land. The ‘First XI’ went to England to play cricket, but often found themselves perceived as a circus act, a curiosity that robbed them of their humanity, a persisting strategy that provides legitimacy to mistreatment at the hands of colonisers. We need to hear the voices of minorities, because an understanding of their autonomy is fundamental to the betterment of all our lives. We no longer want our stories told by others. We want the right to talk about ourselves, whether or not the others are willing to listen.

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Review: The Odd Couple (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 22 – Dec 29, 2019
Playwright: Neil Simon
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Laurence Coy, Katie Fitchett, Robert Jago, James Lugton, Brian Meegan, Nicholas Papademetriou, Olivia Pigeot, Steve Rodgers
Images by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Felix has left his wife, and is moving in with Oscar who is himself also a divorcee. The two are good friends, but also vastly different personalities, which means that their newly single lives are proving to be less harmonious than either had hoped for. Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple is over half a century old, but much of the comedy, largely based on laddish antics, still works. It would appear that the man-child trope still resonates, in fact its interest in the immature adult is probably more pertinent in our age of high tech comfort and reduced responsibilities. A pervasive and perpetual state of arrested development seems to be taking hold, and the farcical childishness of characters in Simon’s play becomes surprisingly relevant.

Energetic and entertaining, Mark Kilmurry’s crowd pleasing direction revives the work for an audience hankering for 1960s American nostalgia. Costumes and a set by designer Hugh O’Connor are effective contributions to the overall vibrancy of the production, along with Christopher Page’s lights maintaining a sense of joviality for the staging.

Actor Steve Rodgers is endearing as the fun-loving easy-going Oscar, able to turn the slob into someone disarmingly likeable. Felix the neat freak is played by Brian Meegan, who demonstrates unexpected range for the role, delivering charming humour alongside the portrayal of someone struggling with the difficulties of divorce. Stage chemistry is enjoyable, not just between the two, but also for all other members of cast. The group of eight embodies a cohesiveness that ensures solid comic timing from start to end, with Katie Fitchett and Olivia Pigeot particularly remarkable, in their ability to manufacture hilarity for scenes involving a couple of very poorly written female characters.

The success of relationships should be judged by their quality, and not in accordance with duration, yet we obsess over the number of years that people stay together, ignoring all the times those individuals may be suffering inside unhappy unions. Divorces are celebratory occasions, as they mark an end to one’s hardship, allowing them to begin again and find ways to welcome better days, that may have been elusive for considerable lengths of time. Narratives determine so much of our behaviour and emotions. If we know to make better sense of our stories, how we feel about our lives can be correspondingly improved.

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Review: Baby Doll (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 18 – Nov 16, 2019
Playwright: Tennessee Williams (adapted by Pierre Laville, Emily Mann)
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Kate Cheel, Maggie Dence, Socratis Otto, Jamie Oxenbould
Images by Prudence Upton
Theatre review
A young woman finally has to consummate her marriage, on her twentieth birthday, after two years of being with a much older husband. On the eve of that fateful night however, a tall, dark and handsome stranger appears, as though poised to rescue the girl from the event she has long dreaded. Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll takes place in Mississippi Delta, at a time when women, even those who were young, white and beautiful, had few rights and opportunities to speak of. We observe the restrictive circumstances faced by the protagonist, and how her choices are limited to just two men, neither of whom have her best interests at heart, but in this adaptation by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann, we are able to see her desires and fortitude come to the fore, and it becomes evident that the girl is not giving up without a fight.

Directed by Shaun Rennie, the scintillating production grips us, not only with the exciting paradigm shifts deliberately introduced to the old story, but also with its exhaustive efforts at imbuing every theatrical moment with a rich sensuality, able to have us captivated on levels beyond character and narrative. Lights by Verity Hampson convey an intense sexuality, oppressed yet untameable, a wild undercurrent emerging from all sides of this lustful triangle. Sound and music by Nate Edmondson moves effortlessly from episodes of rhapsodic extravagance, to sequences filled with hushed precarity. We always know what the people on stage are thinking and feeling, even if their words are designed to disguise the truth.

Actor Kate Cheel plays the girl named Baby Doll, with a delicious intellectual aplomb that powerfully resists the relentless sexual objectification imposed upon her from all directions. The character we see is libidinous, seductive and strategic, courageously using everything she owns to make the best of a terrible situation. The shrewd defiance being portrayed by Cheel elevates the entire exercise, for a surprisingly modern take of an otherwise outdated Lolita tale.

The repellent husband Archie Lee is depicted in full bigoted glory, by an exuberant Jamie Oxenbould, who keeps us engaged by his bold embodiment of the deplorable antebellum hangover. Stoking the fire as Silva Vacarro, is Socratis Otto who manipulates levels of authenticity for a deceptive type who seems only to have ulterior motives. Otto makes every line of dialogue believable and enthralling, so that we may follow Baby Doll as she falls hopelessly under his spell. Maggie Dence is memorable in the subsidiary role of Aunt Rose, absolutely charming and humorous at each appearance.

There is little Baby Doll could do to make things better for herself, but she pulls out all the stops. Women today do not experience the same level of subjugation, but we certainly do have to rely on ingenuity and resourcefulness, to navigate a world that continues to be unjust and dangerous. Most of us can now walk away from failed marriages, but few of us can turn our backs on a culture determined to limit our identities, and an economy built on our servitude. Our survival requires that we participate within structures that routinely place us at a disadvantage. We may feel duplicitous and hypocritical, when we bite the hand that feeds, but there is no escaping that which we wish to demolish. As demonstrated in Baby Doll, we can never be prevented from being instigators for change, no matter how small a part we play in whatever revolution that may be brewing.

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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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