Review: Simple Souls (Fringe HQ)

Venue: Fringe HQ (Potts Point NSW), Nov 13 – 30, 2019
Playwright: Paul Gilchrist
Director: Paul Gilchrist
Cast: Alison Benstead, Julia Christensen, Lisa Haanssens, Simon Lee, Thu Nguyen, Madeleine Withington

Theatre review
Frustrated with the senseless jibber-jabber she encounters on the internet, Marguerite embarks on creating a work of theatre, with people who have responded to a paper sign she had stuck onto a lamppost. Using the parody of a TV game show, Marguerite and her new friends proceed to criticise their audience for the stupid things being said on social media, but soon discover the exercise to be futile, as they fail to move beyond this easy act of castigation.

With Simple Souls, playwright Paul Gilchrist expresses a burning desire to determine how we can be better persons, in this age of high technology and deep divisions. He passionately explores why we are so poorly behaved, asking if our nature is capable of improvement, or if we are in an immutable state, on the road to no return. Simple Souls implores us all to be more reflective, and is itself very analytical, about how we are with one another, and how it thinks we might be able to learn to get along.

Gilchrist’s approach for direction is much more basic than how he writes. Early sections of the staging are enjoyable, with less complicated ideas accompanied by a playfulness that keeps us amused, as it prepares us for more sophisticated ideas to come. As the text gets increasingly dense, the performance ramps up in intensity, which may be appropriate in terms of the tension it conveys, but the speed at which Gilchrist dispenses his philosophy can prove too challenging. His thoughts are undoubtedly fascinating, but they race past too quickly for us to attain full appreciation.

Actor Madeleine Withington brings a convincing despondency to Marguerite’s story, and a dissatisfaction with the world that is understandably emphatic. Julian Christensen and Simon Lee play Trudy and Thomas respectively, flamboyant characters with admirable energy, both effective in injecting a valuable sense of theatricality that sustains our attention. The introverted Veronica who is never without her glove puppet, is brought to life by Alison Benstead whose depiction of naivety and idealism, gives the play unexpectedly meaningful balance.

Marguerite toys with the notion that stupid people have it easier, but there really is no way for anyone to know if other people’s lives are truly any better. The weight of the world is heavy on the shoulders of our protagonist, who is doing the right thing by resisting evils, and trying to invent solutions for the problems that she has identified. However admirable her efforts, it seems that the only one facing defeat is herself, as we watch Marguerite gradually consumed by anger and resentment. There is much that needs to be done, but part of the project is to survive one’s own darkness, even if unjustifiable optimism that makes one look a simpleton, is required.

Review: Water (Fringe HQ)

Venue: Fringe HQ (Potts Point NSW), Nov 5 – 16, 2019
Playwright: Mark Langham
Director: Mark Langham
Cast: Tristan Black, Lib Campbell, Mark Langham, Stephen Lloyd-Coombs
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It may seem peculiar that an incompetent undercover operative from the First World War should be memorialised, but Carl Hans Lody is certainly not the only mediocre man to have left a mark. Water by Mark Langham is a biographical work about Lody, a somewhat naive man who had inadvertently become a historical figure, for being the first German spy to be put on trial and subsequently executed in the UK. There is little in the story that could elicit emotional investment, but Langham’s humour is nonetheless enjoyable, and Water represents amusing theatre for those in search of light entertainment.

Langham’s own direction of the piece provides a style of comedy that is crisp and confident, featuring a uniformly delightful cast of four. Leading man Stephen Lloyd-Coombs is a compelling presence, able to introduce considerable charisma to what is essentially a diffident personality. Lib Campbell demonstrates great versatility and vibrancy in all her roles, as does Tristan Black, who impresses with an intense and captivating energy that he brings to the stage. As performer, Langham is exacting, able to portray a wide variety of roles with admirable clarity and contrast. Also noteworthy is sound by the aforementioned Black, and lighting by Sophie Pekbilimli, both minimal and unobtrusive in approach, yet effective in helping us navigate the play’s swift spatial transformations.

All Lody really wanted was to sail the oceans and see the world, but he ends up in our history books, completely by accident. It is perhaps true that there is nothing more meaningful than to follow one’s bliss, even when the act can seem entirely selfish and indulgent. Only in the pursuit of something that is authentic to one’s nature, can one ever imagine attaining a state of peace and purity. To understand that which fundamentally constitutes authenticity however, is the inexhaustibly difficult part. Often it is much easier to make an evaluation of what the world needs, and commit to serving those purposes. Ultimately, it is a question of doing good, the definition of which seems always to be contentious.

5 Questions with Alison Benstead and Thu Nguyen

Alison Benstead

Thu Nguyen: What aspect of your character, Veronica, do you relate to the most?
Alison Benstead: Veronica could definitely be seen as being a bit of an air head. Her whole vibe is introspection, and commenting on the world in a way that only she sees it. I very much relate to this (can I blame my star sign?), however I wish that I had answers like she does. I’m definitely more concerned about how my peers might interpret my what I say, and I think this sometimes restricts our ability to look at the world from that beautiful child-like, uninhibited perspective. I think there’s nothing wrong with taking a leaf out of Veronica’s book.

Who do you draw most inspiration from for your character, Veronica?
Veronica definitely has a Luna Lovegood vibe about her. I haven’t watched the Harry Potter series since this was mentioned at our table read for fear of re-creating that character, but I think a HP marathon is definitely on the cards once we close the show.

Your character Veronica carries around a hand puppet. When you were younger did you have a favourite item/toy that went around with you everywhere?
I had this doll when I was a child that had big, curly hair. My aunty named her Curly Mop Head, and said that she looked like me because her hair was so big. I loved her so much. I didn’t take her everywhere with me like Veronica does her puppet, but she did move house with me four time. I wish I could have kept her forever, but she got a bit old and crusty so I threw her out in my most recent house move. It was time, though it wasn’t easy saying goodbye.

If Veronica had a favourite colour, what do you think it would be?
Silver, for sure. It has something ethereal about it, and its metallic, reflective quality is very fitting.

Simple Souls pokes plenty of fun at social media interactions – have you been guilty of any of the behaviours the play satirises? If so, which one? (e.g. I know I’ve posted up a picture of some natural disaster and told people to share it haha)
I remember when the Je Suis Charlie tragedy happened in Paris and everyone was putting #prayforparis up on their Facebook walls. I got to work that day and was questioned by my colleague as to why I cared so much about Paris and didn’t acknowledge a particular event that had just occurred in India, which was equally as horrible. I was definitely taken aback, and it absolutely made me stop and think about what we choose to acknowledge in our social media, and that it doesn’t give us as much awareness of the world as we think it does. We still only see what others want us to see.

Thu Nguyen

Alison Benstead: Simple Souls is ‘an experiment in comic magical realism’. Which of these words would your character Bridget resonate with the most and why?
Thu Nguyen: I think Bridget would identify most with realism because she takes everything to heart. She is down to earth and very of this earth. There are many times in the play that she doesn’t seem to get sarcasm or she would question flippant remarks way too earnestly!

What was your first impression of Bridget?
My first impression of Bridget was that she was upbeat and chirpy but a little bit too eager to please, kind of like a lap dog. It became clearer as we went along that underneath all that, she is a really lonely person who just wants to connect with other people. She means well and has a kind and caring soul, but for some reason, people don’t tend to see her. 

Your dog goes missing, so you put up posters in the street. A stranger calls to offer their condolences, though they haven’t actually seen your lost dog. How do you react?
I would be really weirded out but I think I would be too polite to hang up! I would most likely listen to them for a while and then eventually make up some excuse like I’m late for work and then be apologetic for ending the conversation even though they are the weird ones for calling me!

What do you hope audiences will come away from Simple Souls with?
Simple Souls is a fun but poignant play commenting on the way the modern world deals with political and social issues. I hope it gives audiences some food for thought in terms of how to make our interactions with each other less superficial and more meaningful. It definitely pokes fun at some of the things I have done in the past!

Alison Benstead and Thu Nguyen can be seen in Simple Souls by Paul Gilchrist.
Dates: 13 – 30 Nov, 2019
Fringe HQ

Review: Rogues Double Bill (Fringe HQ)

Venue: Fringe HQ (Potts Point NSW), Oct 9 – 19, 2019

Gravity Guts
Playwright: Sophia Simmons
Director: Erica Lovell
Cast: Naomi Belet, Angie Brooke, Kathryn Edmonds, Jessica Loeb, Emily McKnight, Monika Pierprzyk, Monica Sayers

Playwright: Peter Maple
Director: Simon Thomson
Cast: Jessie Lancaster, Emily McKnight, Nell Nakkan

Images by Robbi James, Christopher Starnawski

Theatre review
In two separate plays, actor Emily McKnight plays two young women, both trying to grow out of their parents’ shadows. In Sophia Simmons’ Gravity Guts, a young Sophia wishes to become an astronaut, because her intelligence refuses to be contained by the planet, and also because she needs to flee as far away as possible, from an angry alcoholic father. Peter Maple’s Ginger.Black.Brunette.Blonde. features Sarah, traumatised by her mother’s death, and unable to establish a selfhood independent of painful, cancerous memories. Both plays are spirited and imaginative, with Simmons’ work memorable for its thoroughly realistic depiction of a triumphant character, while Maple’s writing goes very melodramatic and abstract, perhaps too pretentious for meaningful resonance.

Directed by Erica Lovell, Gravity Guts boasts excellent use of a chorus, comprised of six energetic women, perfectly choreographed to enhance its protagonist’s story of defiant resilience. McKnight is convincing as Sophia, very passionate with the way she presents the role’s irrepressible ambitions. As Sarah however, her emotions are similarly intense but rarely authentic. Directed by Simon Thomson, Ginger.Black.Brunette.Blonde. is appropriately heightened in style, although sound and lighting requires greater finessing. Jessie Lancaster and Nell Nakkan make the most of this opportunity of an unusually flamboyant piece, both performers leaving good impressions with their interpretations of powerful personalities.

It is likely that there is no surer way for a person to mature, than when they come to accept their parents’ flaws. When one is able to completely recognise their parents to be unremarkable humans, capable of the worst behaviour, one can begin to develop a true adulthood. Some believe that we are all damaged, no matter how well-intentioned the ones who bring us up, but we must believe that old wounds can heal. Whether permanent or not, the problems we inherit, must be thought of as amendable, even if they require a lifetime’s attention.

Review: We Are The Himalayas (Brave New Word Theatre)

Venue: Fringe HQ (Potts Point NSW), Jul 3 – 21, 2019
Playwright: Mark Langham
Director: Richard Cornally
Cast: Charlotte Chimes, Steve Corner, James Gordon, Chelsea Hamre, Ben Mathews, Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou
Images by David Hooley

Theatre review
It was 1938 when Anna Larina was first incarcerated. With her husband Nikolai Bukharin charged with treason against the Soviet Union, Larina found herself similarly persecuted by the paranoid state, for simply being a wife. Mark Langham’s We Are The Himalayas tells the tale of the individual versus an oppressive regime, featuring characters from a specific point of history, but is timeless in its relevancy. Scintillating dialogue is the work’s greatest pleasure. Its narrative can be slightly lacklustre, but there is much to enjoy in the dynamics between characters, and in Langham’s words themselves.

Leading lady Charlotte Chimes offers focus and intensity, although a greater exploration of range and depth for Larina would create a stronger sense of empathy for her audience. A more complex rendering of personality comes from Ben Mathews who gives a Bukharin that feels layered, and hence intriguing. As secret police apparatus Lavrentiy Beria, is the exceptional Steve Corner, whose nuanced dramatics has us enthralled. His scenes with Chimes and Mathews have them lifting their game, for a second half of We Are The Himalayas that quite suddenly turns explosive.

Not every actor is able to deliver with enough resonance for the show to be consistently meaningful, but director Richard Cornally keeps his storytelling disciplined, with a considered approach that successfully accumulates tension over the duration. Sound design by Patrick Howard is especially noteworthy for its impressive precision, guiding us across time and space with remarkable sensitivity.

There is strength in numbers, although our collectivism can easily turn evil when left unchecked. The greater good is always a noble consideration, but the autonomy of singular entities must never be conveniently disregarded. In 2019, we can see with great clarity, the corruptible nature of power, with those in high places becoming increasingly wanton in the way they execute their affairs. It is tempting to think that our Western democracy is a world away from Stalin’s communism, but the second we ease pressure on the brakes, our ruling class will no doubt drive us to a destination that few will appreciate.