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.

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Review: Tribes (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), May 26 – Jul 2, 2016
Playwright: Nina Raine
Director: Susanna Dowling
Cast: Ana Maria Belo, Garth Holcombe, Genevieve Lemon, Stephen James King, Amber McMahon, Sean O’Shea
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Billy is the only deaf person in the family. His parents have gone to great lengths to make him feel part of the roost, no different from his siblings, and have brought him up to communicate by lip reading and speaking, both of which he does inordinately well, without ever having to learn sign language. Billy’s father, Christopher is determined to prevent his son from facing undue limitations in life, and has restricted Billy’s access to communities of the hearing impaired, which he considers to be restrictive and confining.

Nina Raine’s Tribes is a study of how people form attachments and associations, and the human need for a sense of belonging. It offers marvellous insight into lives of people who do not have the same hearing abilities as the majority, and through Billy’s story, we come to an understanding of the tensions between mainstream privileged existences and people on the fringes who experience the periphery of society. The script is comprised of exceptionally vibrant dialogue, with intriguing issues that deliver an enlightening and contemplative theatrical experience.

The production identifies the main concerns of Tribes and handles them well, but the family’s subtle dynamics require sharper elucidation. It is a complex play with complicated personalities, and although the main messages are relayed beautifully, its many smaller details if better defined, would produce a richer result. The strong cast keeps us deeply engrossed, with Genevieve Lemon and Sean O’Shea leaving remarkable impressions in the parental roles, both exuberant and mesmerising with their stage presences. Ana Maria Belo’s depth of emotion is powerfully affecting in scenes of melancholy, while Stephen James King has us endeared to the purity of his character’s demeanour and intentions. Completing the team of five are Garth Holcombe and Amber McMahon, with charmingly idiosyncratic and amusing interpretations of Billy’s problematic siblings.

When we find places that offer acceptance, they inevitably impose limitations upon how we perceive our own identities and potentials. Therein lies the conundrum of society. People are bonded by commonalities, but these same valuable qualities that are shared, can also be the linchpins that keep individuals from greater development. Groups have rules, and those rules will suppress uniqueness and originality. Geniuses are often lonely, but those who know to be dichotomous can have the best of both worlds, and if Billy plays his cards right, he can learn to have his cake and eat it too.

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Review: Good People (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Apr 7 – May 21, 2016
Playwright: David Lindsay-Abaire
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Gael Ballantyne, Drew Livingston, Tara Morice, Zindzi Okenyo, Jane Phegan, Christopher Stollery
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
When a baby is born, we want to think that the world is their oyster, and where they are today will have little bearing on where they may end up many years after. In David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, we meet two people with roots in the same rough part of town, but whose lives have taken drastically different turns over time. One is enjoying the fruits of a meteoric rise up the socio-economic ladder, while the other finds herself stagnated in poverty. It is a thoughtful play about opportunity and privilege, with the most basic of narratives, but its sharp-witted dialogue is expertly crafted not only to stimulate our minds but also to deliver some very big and clever laughs.

Tara Morice leads a formidable cast in a production that will be remembered for its outstanding quality of acting. Morice’s humour is acerbic but subtle, much like her character Margaret’s resentment. Bitterness is not her predominant feature, but it emerges periodically to overtake her easy exterior and everyone is caught off guard. The actor never makes a big deal of her punchlines, but the dryness of her delivery is somehow no inhibition to the power of her comedy. Morice is absolutely hilarious on stage, yet is able to communicate all of Margaret’s complexities with thorough clarity. Hers is not a life that every bourgeois theatregoer is familiar with, but her performance illustrates each detail and essence so that we achieve a level of understanding that feels exhaustive and genuine. Christopher Stollery’s skills are on par, and the combination of the two is pure theatrical gold. Stollery’s captivating performance brings an electrifying playfulness keeping us engrossed and alert, while portraying his character Mike with an unyielding sincerity that prevents him from turning caricature. In the role of Kate is Zindzi Okenyo who presents surprising nuance for a woman determined not to reveal much. The actor’s flair for comedy is showcased beautifully, and her warm presence brings a valuable dignity to her part in the story.

Direction by Mark Kilmurry is faithful to the spirit of the work, and provides an honest voice to the underclass being represented in Good People. Our protagonist is neither deified nor demonized, so we are able to recognise her humanity and empathise with the injustices she experiences. There is a wise restraint evident throughout the production, demonstrating Kilmurry’s emphasis on truth over the temptation to play for laughs, resulting in a show that perfectly balances its entertainment value with its sociological ideas. Working hard does not guarantee your dreams coming true, and making the right choices does not mean glory at the end of each journey. Life is not fair, and fortune will not fall evenly on every individual. Nature will take its course, but humans can take charge of our own fates. The play is about people helping each other, a simple and fundamental virtue that we should all possess, but like many virtues, we seem to leave it an abstract concept while we practise something quite contrary.

www.ensemble.com.au