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.

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Review: Jack Of Hearts (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jan 29 – Apr 2, 2016
Playwright: David Williamson
Director: David Williamson
Cast: Paige Gardiner, Christa Nicola, Peter Mochrie, Brooke Satchwell, Craig Reucassel, Isabella Tannock, Chris Taylor
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It is probably a common fantasy to have multiple lovers vying for one’s attention, so it is understandable that David Williamson would use the idea to spark his new play Jack Of Hearts. The quirk is that lead character Jack is a thoroughly ordinary man, with no substantial talents, wealth or looks to speak of. He is not a particularly kind or caring man, and as a middle-aged divorcee, it is quite a mystery that he thinks that three very attractive women would be desperate for his affections. Except, the play is not a mystery at all, not in the conventional sense at least. It is a straightforward and very old-fashioned comedy about Jack’s ridiculous delusions. Often unintentionally laughable, and frequently offensive to audiences with even the slightest of feminist sensibilities, this is certainly not a show for everyone.

Nevertheless, it is without question that there are those who will enjoy the confident and energetic rhythm of the production’s humour. Its thorough and determined need to entertain will be pleasing to some, especially those who are able to leave political correctness and intellect outside of the auditorium. Theatre should have no rules. It can be frivolous, shallow and rude if it chooses to be, and in fact, millions have been made from entertainment of this description. Jack Of Hearts is the kind of work that will have many detractors, but also many fans. It can be described in many words, but boring is not one of them.

The cast of comedians is well-rehearsed and spirited. Characters do not make much psychological sense, but the actors are able to convey a good level of authenticity in individual scenes to keep us engaged. Jack is played by Chris Taylor, whose energy sustains the surprisingly lengthy show. His charisma shines through in sections in which he performs stand-up comedy (to adversaries who attend on multiple nights, voluntarily subjecting themselves to humiliation for no good reason). It is a very animated performance by Taylor, and although a healthy dose of naturalism would help us identify better with his story, there is a remarkable clarity achieved in his quite nonsensical circumstances. Craig Reucassel is similarly vivid in his portrayal of Stu, the stereotypical Sydney cad who also finds himself in the middle of two women with mystifyingly low levels of self-esteem. Reucassel is naturally charming, with a quality of mischief that makes Stu as engrossing as he is intolerable. Brooke Satchwell does her best with the role of Denys, almost disregarding the complete illogic of all the character’s decisions, to deliver a performance that is consistently funny and very amusing. The actor’s irresistible flair is one of the show’s few highlights.

There are no likeable personalities in the play. These Australians are at worst repugnant, and at best, banal. Theatre is often a reflection of real life, but on this occasion, it is fortunate that nothing seems believable, and we can allow ourselves to think of the people in Jack Of Hearts as entirely fictitious and thus form a disassociation. It however, cannot be overlooked that women continue to be accessories in many of our stories about men, even very unremarkable men. The women here exist only in relation to their husbands and lovers, but incredulous as it might seen to some, this is not how we are in reality, and the reflections offered here are profoundly stupid.

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Review: The Good Doctor (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Nov 27, 2015 – Jan 17, 2016
Season continues at Glen Street Theatre (Belrose NSW), Jan 19 – 24, 2016
Playwright: Neil Simon
Director: Sandra Bates
Cast: Chloe Bayliss, Adriano Cappelletta, David Lynch, Kate Raison, Nathan Wilson
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Anything can happen in live theatre. Adriano Cappelletta was engaged to perform the lead role in The Good Doctor less than a week before opening night, replacing Glenn Hazeldine who had unfortunately sustained an injury right before preview performances were due to begin. It is a strange conundrum that happens on stage. We want a sense of danger and aliveness that recorded media is not able to replicate, but we admire the high polish a group of geniuses can cultivate in the flesh. At this early period of The Good Doctor‘s performance season, both are vigorously present.

The show consists of 10 or so short plays, all based on the writings of Anton Chekhov, and woven through a narration provided by Chekhov himself. It is pure entertainment, with some of his politics still recognisable, but Neil Simon’s script certainly does not dwell heavily on the deep and meaningful. Director Sandra Bates takes her cue from Simon and orchestrates a delightful production that makes no bones about playing for laughs. There is excellent and expert comedy in every scene, often nuanced and intricately conveyed, in a confident manner that never feels crude or patronising. For all its spirited frivolity, there is a sophistication to be found in Bates’ approach that reflects skill and flair for this genre of farcical classic comedy.

The Good Doctor boasts a cast of very strong players. Each is given four to six parts, and their versatility is demonstrated with great aplomb. Cappelletta is understandably short on fluency for opening night, but his thorough understanding of the material is frankly astonishing. We see the actor’s memory struggle on a few occasions, but the clarity at which he delivers each intention is commendable, and his natural charm keeps us firmly on his side from the very start. Equally endearing is Chloe Bayliss who captivates in every role. Her humour is sublime, and her presence magnetic. Bayliss is flawless in the production, and we are enchanted by her every appearance. Nathan Wilson plays the less mature men in the show, but his theatrical abilities are well-honed and impressive. There is a quality of exuberant abandonment to his style that appeals, along with a mischievous energy that contributes to the show’s enduring buoyancy.

Chekhov is not every person’s cup of tea, but he is a crowd-pleaser in The Good Doctor, a 40-year-old play that refuses to turn grey. It is true that there is fun to be had in our city’s many theatres, but it is not every day that a show appears, able to make us laugh without insulting our intelligence. It is indeed, very “charming and clever” (Neil Simon’s words), offering necessary respite in our much too serious and dreary lives.

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Review: Blood Bank (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 16 – Nov 22, 2015
Playwright: Christopher Harley
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Meredith Penman, Gabrielle Scawthorn, Tom Stokes
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
At a hospital, death is everywhere, but characters in Christopher Harley’s Blood Bank experience life while the palpable presence of time hangs over each of their heads. The script is tender and sensitive, with humour always close at hand in its explorations into our darkest moments of illness. It is an imperfect script, with dubious relationship dynamics and a plot structure that requires further refinement, but each scene is charming, and beautifully rhythmic. Its themes keep the play firmly in a space that is thoughtful and profound. We can all relate to the narratives that unfold; whether light or heavy, its ideas appeal to our deepest feelings relating to the biggest of concerns, love and death.

Blood Bank is a consistently engaging work, buoyed by strong performances. Gabrielle Scawthorn is powerful at both ends of the emotional spectrum. She is an effective comic who identifies every opportunity for laughter, keen to bring a joyous energy to the stage, and does not hesitate to plunge into her character Abbey’s guilt and grief, with a resonant authenticity that can be quite touching. Her counterpart Tom Stokes takes a more subtle approach, but is no less convincing in his portrayal of psychological truths. The part is a sorrowful one, and it is to the actor’s credit that there is little self-indulgence to be found. Instead, Stokes’ honest interpretation creates moments of poignancy, and establishes a brilliant chemistry in the cast that is often the highlight of the production. Director Anthony Skuse magnifies all the nuances of the script so that our experience of the show is a rich and vibrant one. He holds our attention by tapping into our intimate fears, and makes believable what could have been tenuous at best.

There are things that we sweep under the carpet, so that life can move on. It is true that no matter how much philosophising we put it through, death must be, but it is also the awareness that all things come to an end, that gives us the desire to cherish them. Art about mortality therefore serves an important function. In shining a light on the end, we become acutely mindful of the now. Blood Bank talks about the choices we make, when we have little time left. It also reminds us, that time is always scarce, whether we are living or dying. To quote Kurt Vonnegut, “Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, ‘It might have been.'”

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