Review: Odd Man Out (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 19 – March 18, 2017
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Gael Ballantyne, Justin Stewart Cotta, Rachel Gordon, Lisa Gormley, Matt Minto, Bill Young
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Alice and Ryan meet on a bus, and are quickly drawn to each other. They have little in common, except for a shared desperation to become coupled up. Alice is sensitive about her biological clock running out of time, and Ryan is fearful of loneliness. They work hard to create a union, and in Odd Man Out, it seems tough grind is the key to success.

Marriage happens hastily for the pair. Ryan has never said “I love you” back to Alice, and proves himself embarrassing and humiliating in every social situation, but Alice decides to marry him anyway. No surprises then, that the husband turns out a disappointment. It is true, in David Williamson’s world of intractable heteronormativity, that women get into relationships to change men, while men hope for women in their lives to never grow.

We never really believe the Alice character. Maybe it is her severe lack of judgement that betrays the credibility of the narrative, or maybe, we are simply very tired of stupid girls in our stories. Turns out the “odd man out” here, could actually be a rather strange woman. Actor Lisa Gormley’s extraordinarily animated style may not have made things any better, but her conviction in spite of the playwright’s flawed imagination, is impressive. Her work is entertaining, and her aforementioned exuberance, does provide effective distraction from the play’s implausibilities.

Played by Justin Stewart Cotta, Ryan is a much more detailed and authentic personality who helps provide necessary grounding to Odd Man Out. Cotta turns in a spectacular performance, intelligent and thorough in his approach, for an interpretation that is immensely engaging and amusing, while retaining a solid amount of insightful nuance. Whether wildly rhapsodic or sensitive and quiet, Cotta provides the production with excellent layers of depth and clarity, giving the show a meaningful sense of purpose.

Mark Kilmurry’s direction of the piece is spirited and taut. The show has a vigorous energy aided by inventive use of a small chorus of actors, introduced into scenes of otherwise structurally simple dialogue. Sound design by Alistair Wallace is similarly effective in manufacturing a sense of motion and progression, for an urgency that helps us stay captivated.

The play ends abruptly, and awkwardly, with a fairy-tale conclusion that reveals a human need for hope, however misplaced it may be. Odd Man Out is fundamentally romantic, even if it is rarely sweet or poetic. Against all odds, we will dream up a way to make love happen, and that, is the essence of a life well lived.

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Review: Relatively Speaking (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 18, 2016 – Jan 14, 2017
Playwright: Alan Auckbourn
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Jonny Hawkins, Tracy Mann, Emma Palmer, David Whitney
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is a very serious case of mistaken identities in Alan Ayckbourn’s Relatively Speaking, and the hilarity that ensues is rarely surpassed. It is about Ginny leaving one lover for another, but the story is hardly important in how the play is remembered. There is no throwaway line of dialogue, with each word calibrated to a staggering precision in order that we may experience the greatest amplitude of comedy possible. The 50-year-old work may not bear any trendy trimmings or indeed, political relevance to how we now live, but its theatrical structure and language specificity still remains outstanding in our age of perpetual mobile amusement.

The four riotous roles are performed flawlessly by a cast that can only be described as magnificent. Cohesive in tone and style, but each one idiosyncratic and independently captivating, their creations are all unforgettable, but it is the chemistry they manufacture for this ensemble piece that really delivers the goods. Ginny is played by the vivacious Emma Palmer, exuberant and dignified in her interpretation of a young woman in the swinging sixties. Jonny Hawkins is her adorable beau Greg, unbelievably animated and entirely compelling. David Whitney is the other man, spectacularly charming, knowing and droll as Philip, while his wife Sheila is brought to life by the truly extraordinary Tracy Mann with understated flair and impressive confidence.

It may all seem deeply familiar, but director Mark Kilmurry’s realisation of Relatively Speaking feels as though we had never actually seen a show of this genre executed with quite as much panache. His thorough engagement with the material and its particular form, ensures that the laughs are ceaseless for all of its two hours, and that we never tire of whatever he chooses to present. Life is never this much fun, but at the theatre, we sparkle eternal.

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Review: E-baby (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 13 – Nov 13, 2016
Playwright: Jane Cafarella
Director: Nadia Tass
Cast: Danielle Carter, Gabrielle Scawthorne
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is 2015, London-based attorney Catherine travels to Massachusetts and meets her pregnancy surrogate, Nellie. Jane Cafarella’s E-baby takes place over a period of 16 months, during which the two women communicate via the internet and phones. 30 years have passed since the first cases of surrogacy, and controversy around assisted reproductive technology has diminished considerably. We are no longer surprised to hear about people conceiving with medical help, and consequently, the play raises no eyebrows.

There are promising elements in the story, but it insists on shying away from a more explosive sense of drama. Both women’s personality flaws are clearly demonstrated, yet neither are allowed to turn into villains, in a play that tries too hard to always be nice. In its attempts to be fair and compassionate to both mothers, we experience little and learn even less. Catherine is self-absorbed and humourless, while Nellie is naively content within her ignorant and fervent religiosity. The show lets us recognise what motivates them, but struggles to help us care.

Humans do ridiculous things, and often, in our failure to explain why we do what we do, we risk feeling misunderstood and alienated. Catherine is unable to justify her unrelenting desire to procreate, and Nellie’s family is unconvinced that her actions are righteous. There are times in life when we are left isolated, with only personal desires as companion. What drives us, is a great many things, infinitely variable, but all valid, and when we choose whether or not to act accordingly, the consequences that follow must never be neglected. Catherine and Nellie believe that they come from a place of generosity but society will question their decisions in bringing innocent life to the world. We may remain unpersuaded, but there is no doubt that their perseverance is admirable. As we become increasingly cynical, it is important that we appreciate optimism and hope when we encounter it, because good things can sometimes be that needle in a haystack, and life is meaningless if we give up looking.

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Review: Barefoot In The Park (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 25 – Oct 8, 2016
Playwright: Neil Simon
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Mia Lethbridge, Daniel Mitchell, Jamie Oxenbould, Georgie Parker, Jake Speer
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is the 1960s. Corie and Paul are moving into their tiny New York apartment, about to begin life together as newlyweds. After 6 days of honeymoon bliss cooped up in a hotel room, they emerge to meet us just as the reality of mundanity begins to sink in. Divorce was a topic much more controversial at that time, and the threat of a marriage breakup in Neil Simon’s Barefoot In The Park has lost considerable effect in terms of the dramatic tension it is able to create, but as a frothy comedy, its structure and dialogue retain a classic charm that many will find irresistible.

Mia Lethbridge leads a cast of actors, memorable for their bubbly playfulness and congenial warmth. As Corie, Lethbridge’s perky portrayal of naivety is consistently delightful and surprisingly persuasive, with an energetic presence that holds the show together, along with all its relentless frivolities. Director Mark Kilmurry does an excellent job of the comedy, establishing a brilliant sense of timing for the production’s entirety that ensures top entertainment value, but the development of character conflicts require greater nuance for Simon’s plot to be more believable.

When two people get together and form an intense bond, the pleasures that materialise are almost always coupled with challenges, big and small. In Barefoot In The Park, we want the lovebirds to find a way to sort out their differences. We invest in their romance, because loneliness is an abominable monster that must be vanquished at all cost. Times change, but the fear of being alone is perennial. Without each other, Corie and Paul must find meaning only within themselves but in Neil Simon’s quaint fantasy, they only have to indulge in a mutual infatuation, so that their days may be filled with joy, to have and to hold, till death do they part.

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Review: A History Of Falling Things (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 7 – Aug 20, 2016
Playwright: James Graham
Director: Nicole Buffoni
Cast: Eric Beecroft, Merridy Eastman, Sophie Hensser, Brian Meegan, Sam O’Sullivan
Image by Phil Erbacher

Theatre review
It is like a long distance love affair, except Jacqui and Robin live just 30 minutes apart. They have only ever seen each other via the internet, as both suffer from severe phobias that keep them indoors. James Graham’s A History Of Falling Things is a quirky love story about two perfectly ordinary and charming individuals who happen to be limited by mental illness, although it must be acknowledged that it is precisely their irrational fears that provide a point of connection for the two. A union of idiosyncrasies is perhaps how love happens. What sets each person apart from the rest of the world finds solace in an other, whose own oddity can cohere to form harmony.

Nicole Buffoni’s very wistful direction of the piece brings an exceptional sensitivity and tenderness to the couple’s story (with excellent help from Tim Hope’s incredibly delightful illustrated projections). Some of the very British humour requires greater creativity to involve an Australian audience, and although at times too resolutely gentle in her approach, Buffoni’s staging captures our imagination, to inspire deep interesting ideas about modern life and our primitive need for affection.

Eric Beecroft and Sophie Hensser are the leads, both impressive in their portrayals of innocence, completely convincing in the childlike quality they manifest for the story. Beecroft is animated and buoyant as Robin, while Hensser is a delicate and nuanced Jacqui, for a combination that although not overflowing with chemistry, provides the show with a dynamic balance of energies. Also noteworthy is Merridy Eastman, compelling and perfectly adorable in her support role, playing Robin’s very understanding mother.

In the play, we wonder if love conquers all. Our romantic selves want to know if we can be rescued from our dysfunctions, by someone extraordinary and beautiful. We get by with a little help from our friends, but some of us have the good fortune of meeting a special someone for a transformative experience that could make life that much easier. Jacqui and Robin find in each other, the strength that is absent within themselves. Life requires us to be self-sufficient, but it is rarely an easy journey and the promise of romance can alleviate those troubles, even if only for a moment of theatrical fantasy.

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Review: Betrayal (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 16 – Aug 20, 2016
Playwright: Harold Pinter
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Guy Edmonds, Ursula Mills, Matthew Zeremes
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, everyone cheats on their spouses. The play first appeared in 1978, with a plot that moves in reverse chronological order, and in some ways, we do have to go back many years in time to find an appreciation of the work. Its drama relies on a sense of scandal and taboo that is no longer scintillating. We may still hold the concept of marriage in high regard, and still be hurt by infidelity, but as a dramatic device, we have clearly become jaded and immune to its effects. Nevertheless, Pinter’s dialogue remains delightful, almost mesmerising in its lexical beauty. His sardonic expressions bear a seductive power that keeps us eager to hear more, if only for the richly evocative, and ironic, words that the characters say to each other.

The production is saturated with tension from the very beginning. Director Mark Kilmurry’s ability to engage our thirst for intrigue is put to good use here, as we find ourselves keenly following the plot, in anticipation of dramatic revelations, which unfortunately, the script does not always deliver. A minimal approach to its staging ensures that all attention is placed on its cast of three very attractive players, each with their own allure, but all skillful and committed in their respective characterisations.

The radiant Ursula Mills plays serial adulterer Emma, conflicted yet libidinous, with an impressive confidence that makes her part in the show powerful and surprisingly believable. Emma’s husband Robert is given excellent nuance by Guy Edmonds, whose dynamic depiction of a man betrayed, is perfectly measured and consistently entertaining. Robert’s best friend Jerry, who sleeps with Emma for seven years, is an energetic and affable presence in actor Matthew Zeremes, whose caddish but sincere approach protects the production from descending into melodrama. Comprised mainly of two-hander scenes, the actors manufacture great chemistry on stage for a cohesive and compelling experience, even if the play’s age does work against them.

Jerry’s wife and best friend both fail him, but he sticks around, accepting the betrayals with little resistance. Keeping calm and carrying on, the British gentleman is dejected but does not seem to demand more of life; it is not the end of the world, after all. His tolerance is perhaps not uncommon. We imagine married couples to be monogamous, but what happens behind closed doors is anyone’s guess. Jerry has to keep up appearances, because everyone else does. We maintain a certain image required of us by society, even when under great hardship, because there are few things as painful as ostracism. We see the characters in Betrayal live their own lies, and think about the price of truth. An authentic existence is an extravagance that many do not wish to pay for, but what we are left with at the end, will only be tainted with regret.

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Review: The Big Dry (Ensemble Theatre / ATYP)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 2, 2016
Playwright: Mark Kilmurry (from the novel by Tony Davis)
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Sofia Nolan, Rory Potter, Noah Sturzaker, Richard Sydenham
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Three children are stranded and left to their own devices in a dystopian future. An endless drought has hit Australia, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. The Big Dry is about our abuse of the environment and the consequences that our children have to bear when the struggle for survival becomes abject and savage. They rely on each other to stay alive, and their bond becomes the centre of their universe. Tony Davis’ story is dark, but we respond with a natural thirst for hope, even though it gives us no indication of salvation. Mark Kilmurry’s adaptation gives mother nature a tremendous dominance, but its humans are insufficiently captivating, with dialogue and personalities that pale by comparison.

Stars of the show are lighting designer Benjamin Brockman and sound designer Daryl Wallis, both of whom use their considerable technical skills to tell a story of cruel and imminent tragedy. Brockman introduces a boundless variety of moods and spatial transformations with inventive hues that impose upon the stage, a brutal power evocative of harsh climates and their impact on our planet’s living creatures. Wallis is responsible for the show’s tensions, offering the audience a glimpse into the apocalypse with a series of clamouring and sinister rumbles that send our nerves shivering with foreboding. Young actor Sofia Nolan puts on an accomplished performance as Emily, demonstrating good focus and intensity. Her work is energetic, with a healthy dose of sincerity that helps endear herself to the audience.

The production depicts calamitous events but is itself moderate in temperament. We never quite connect with the characters, and even though we understand the high stakes involved, its scenes are unable to lead us convincingly to a suspension of disbelief. Its concepts are strong and universal, but its drama feels distant and elusive. To convey the pressing need for societies to escalate individual and political action on climate change is not an easy task, with habits of modernity firmly entrenched in all our lives and necessary sacrifices proving too difficult even to contemplate. Ecological messages are hard to take, especially it seems, when the ugly truth is revealed. The Big Dry is not a walk in the park, but to expect an easy ride from its subject matter is probably more than a little unwise.

www.ensemble.com.au