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.

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.

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.

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.'”

Review: My Zinc Bed (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Oct 10 – Nov 22, 2015
Playwright: David Hare
Director: Mark Kilmurry
Cast: Danielle Carter, Sam O’Sullivan, Sean Taylor
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Addiction might be termed a modern phenomenon. In recent years, conditions of all kinds ranging from alcohol and drug use, to sexual and stealing behaviours, have become forms of addiction, almost achieving medical or pathological legitimacy in the general discourse of Western life. David Hare’s My Zinc Bed examines the meanings behind this contemporary way of looking at human volition and responsibility, and the quality of human weakness versus expectations regarding the individual’s contribution or dependence on society. The script is extremely contemplative, punctuated by stimulating and controversial ideas that can be challenging, although the tone of the work is notably gentle and compassionate. We are encouraged to examine the human condition from a refreshing perspective and to evaluate our assumptions about addictions of different kinds, but always being mindful about the vulnerabilities that we share.

Mark Kilmurry’s direction is interested in all the philosophical content of the text, and succeeds in making his play a relentlessly thoughtful one, while maintaining a dramatic tension that keeps us engaged throughout. Characters in the play are not particularly likeable, but their experiences are readily identifiable, and Kilmurry ensures that their exchanges never fail to fascinate. Visual elements are effectively minimal, but subtle design flourishes are executed with remarkable elegance. Tobhiyah Stone Feller’s set and Nicholas Higgins lights provide the illusion of emptiness, but provide immense scope for sentimental fluctuations. What appears to be cold and hard on the surface, is actually quite subconsciously moving with each transition of scenes.

There are breathtaking performances to be found in the production. All three actors demonstrate a thorough understanding of text and characters, and their interactions are consistently powerful. Every line is delivered with the sizzle of subtext and mystery, and we are seduced into worlds of imagination and reflection. The rhapsodic Sean Taylor is as magnetic as he is convincing. We are lured into studying his every minute gesture, believing them to be of great significance, and his commanding voice is simply irresistible. The actor’s presence is an overwhelming one, and it is fortuitous that his abilities at storytelling are no less impressive. Danielle Carter’s part requires her to display extraordinary inner complexity and also to portray the somewhat customary femme fatale with a forceful allure, both of which she performs with tremendous impact. The central Paul Peplow is played by Sam O’Sullivan, who brings earnestness, passion and emotional intensity to a personality that is more than familiar to many of our lives. His work feels genuine, and the believability of his creation is crucial to the show’s success.

Being social means that we rely on each other. Every person is both strong and weak, and there is a constant negotiation that happens in how much we are willing to forgive, how we apportion blame, and how far we can extend kindness. Paradigms of illness and disease demand of us generosity, but like anything social, they stand to be exploited in ways that will not always find universal agreement. Addiction is real, but also false. Like any label of identification, it provides an indication of circumstances, that must always be prepared to be questioned.

Review: The Book Club (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 26 – Oct 3, 2015
Playwright: Roger Hall (adapted by Rodney Fisher)
Director: Rodney Fisher
Cast: Amanda Muggleton
Image by Tom Blunt

Theatre review (of a preview performance)
The Book Club by Roger Hall takes a light-hearted look at the follies of a middle aged, middle class Australian woman, who without the stresses of a career or financial uncertainty, occupies her time by indulging in love affairs with books and sex. It is a joyful life, and while her story is mostly inconsequential, it does offer a refreshing way of looking at marriage in contemporary times. Traditional notions of monogamy and fidelity persist, but what actually happens in secret is anybody’s guess. Husbands and books are entirely different things but the effort required to remain faithful to either, can be equally onerous under certain circumstances.

Hall’s script has several disparate focuses, and runs at approximately 90 minutes, which is a longer duration than most monologues can sustain. This production by director Rodney Fisher struggles to establish a comfortable plot trajectory, and the play takes a lot of time before getting to the crux of its own existence, but it is fortunately able to deliver more than a few laughs along the way to keep us entertained. Star of the show Amanda Muggleton is an exuberant and affable presence as Deb, with a natural innate ability to charm as the sole performer of the piece, but on the occasion of this final preview before opening night, it is clear that further rehearsal time is required. In sections of the play where the actor is confident, the rhythms and nuances she creates are completely delightful, but in her many unsure moments, tensions are lost and concentration proves challenging. There were 5 requests for line prompts, which demonstrate quite obviously the prematurity of the work, and we are prevented from engaging with the show at any valuable depth.

Marriage and art are constantly under scrutiny. There is an idea of success that we apply not only from within but that we also invite from the public. Our social nature means that we crave approval for the things we do, no matter how personal, and we want things to always work out. When writing a book, the process can be intensely insular, but ultimately, the finished product goes out into the big wide world, and the author opens themselves to criticisms of all kinds. In a marriage, a couple works in private to find harmony and happiness together, and then present to society the best image of unity they can muster. Not every book will be deemed a success, and not every day in married life is perfect, but it is in the doing, not the accolades, that true meaning is found, successful or not.

Review: Mothers And Sons (Ensemble Theatre)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Aug 21 – Sep 27, 2015
Playwright: Terrence McNally
Director: Sandra Bates
Cast: Tim Draxl, Thomas Fisher, Jason Langley, Anne Tenney
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In Mothers And Sons, Terrence McNally uses the simplest of stories to present a range of thoughtful and provocative themes that are relevant to both our contemporary concerns, and to perennial troubles of human nature. Katharine comes to visit an impossibly perfect gay couple, Cal and Will, at their apartment in Manhattan. Andre (Katharine’s son and Cal’s previous partner) had died of AIDS 20 years ago, and it is only now that Katharine decides to pick up the pieces, and to find resolution with demons of the past that continue to haunt her. McNally’s writing is emotional, intelligently meaningful, and striking in its lyrical beauty. There is also an engaging humour in its dry wit and dark comedy that underscore the tormented relationships being dissected.

Sandra Bates’ direction of the piece explores with sensitivity, the many social issues and personal afflictions characteristic of the play. There is a deliberate gravitas that gives the production its integrity, and whether dealing with intimate matters like resentment and regret, or wider subjects of kinship and homophobia, Bates is able to give them all a reverential emphasis that encourages its audience to handle with care. The play tends however, to be too serious in tone, especially at its early stages, where our encounter with personalities require a lighter touch.

Played by Anne Tenney, Katharine is a staunch figure, a mean old woman whose incessant use of the word “hate” reveals as much about herself as it does her pessimistic view of, well, everything. Tenney’s portrayal is psychologically convincing and ultimately a moving one, but the comical eccentricities of her character’s melancholic despair are not embraced with enough power. The actor delivers a few laughs over the course of the show, but the exuberance of the text is frequently downplayed to accommodate a more literal interpretation of Katharine’s depressed experience of the world. Jason Langley is an extremely gentle Cal, very amiable and authentic, but insufficiently agitated in his tensions with Katharine, and often too subtle with his passion for his gay rights and lovers. Both actors create together, a stunning final scene of breathtaking sentimentality, but the arduous journey towards the play’s conclusion could be managed with greater, and more entertaining, turbulence. Adding a dimension of liveliness to proceedings is Tim Draxl in the supporting role of Cal’s husband Will. Draxl sustains an impressive energy through sequences of shifting temperaments, and is relied upon to provide breaths of fresh air at each entrance, to a very restrained stage.

We all feel the trajectory of time and the way it moves things forward, with or without our selves. Katharine is deeply unhappy, but she refuses to accept the transformations that occur around her, and withdraws from participating in the joys of life that are easily within reach. The feelings of being hard done-by are familiar to everyone, and Mothers And Sons illustrates with excellent clarity, the anguish of being enslaved by one’s own obstinacy. It also persuades us on the changing nature of the family unit; how we conceive of same-sex marriages and the bearing of children within those unions. A woman unable to reconcile her homophobia with her son’s sexuality punishes much more than herself. Hate tries to contaminate its environment, and often it succeeds, but truth and the human conscience has a way of defeating its poison, even if the process needs to drudge through generations of struggle and wasted lives.