Review: Under The Covers (Hayes Theatre)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Jul 19 – 23, 2017
Playwright: Matthew Mitcham
Director: Nigel Turner-Carroll
Cast: Matthew Mitcham, Rhys Morgan, Matthew Ogle

Theatre review
It has been 9 years since Matthew Mitcham won a gold medal at the Olympics for his diving. At 20 years old, he was on top of the world, having the time of his life, bathed in glory. Normalcy afterwards, has been understandably challenging. Under The Covers is a cabaret presentation in which Mitcham searches for something satisfying, in his current status as a retired athlete. It is an experience we rarely encounter, a young man having to come to terms with the idea that his best days are probably over. He names his state of anxiety, “midlife crisis”, which is outlandish for a person in his twenties, but Mitcham helps us understand his emotional struggles in this earnest, if slightly clumsy, string of autobiographical disclosures.

Linking episodic thoughts and recollections, mostly presented through a monologue style, are songs that Mitcham sings, sometimes with his ukulele as accompaniment, and sometimes with a pianist and a drag performer for added interest. It is a raw performance, relying on honesty and sincerity to capture our attention. Even though he seems less seasoned than most musical theatre artists who take centre stage, there is an undeniable charm in Mitcham’s childlike innocence (he compares himself to Peter Pan), and gifted with a warm timbre that he uses remarkably well for his penchant for pop, the hour long show is ultimately an entertaining sojourn, if oddly unaffecting.

There are clear parallels between sport and art, most obvious of which is the endeavour for triumph. To strive, is to have the capacity to fail. In Under The Covers, Matthew Mitcham is humbled, brought to his knees almost, having to admit that that defining moment of heroism, has to be left behind, if the rest of his days is going to be meaningful. On this stage, we watch him shine, and witness instances of floundering, but the champion’s spirit remains intact and resolute, showing us how he cannot help but put up the best fight, no matter the circumstances.

www.underthecoverslive.com

Review: Only Heaven Knows (Luckiest Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), May 26 – Jul 1, 2017
Music, Book, Lyrics: Alex Harding
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Mathew Backer, Blazey Best, Tim Draxl, Ben Hall, Hayden Tee
Image by Robert Catto

Theatre review
Tim and Cliff’s love story begins in 1944, probably the most dangerous of times for gay men, with many impounded in European concentration camps, and the rest of the world correspondingly paranoid and cruel in their treatment of homosexuality. Alex Harding’s Only Heaven Knows remembers queer life in mid-20th Century Sydney, and the resilient community that persisted to thrive, with a dignified integrity, in the face of unrelenting and brutal persecution.

It is the subplots that captivate. Minor characters who chronicle struggles of a traumatic past, retain their pertinence, proving themselves more resonant than a central romance that seems unremarkable by comparison. The work is flamboyantly sentimental, but is only occasional moving. We are engaged instead by its textual complexity, seduced by an opportunity to analyse its sociopolitical connotations and to examine the degrees of relevance its narratives continue to hold over our existence today.

Production design attempts to address the frequent changes of settings, but scene transitions can often lack elegance. Performers take awkwardly long walks before finding the stage. Entrances and exits notwithstanding, the show is sensitively brought together by director Shaun Rennie, with a warm sincerity that elevates a slightly dated play from 1988, to something that is strikingly urgent. The ghost of Lea Sonia, a drag queen character, has the freedom to travel through time, to make references about marriage equality, and Grindr, so that history is resurrected for good reason.

There are marked divergences in terms of singing ability, but the cast is surprisingly cohesive. In the world of musical theatre, scene-stealing show-offs are almost encouraged, so it is a rare treat to be able to adore every performer equally. Matthew Backer is impressive with the thoroughness of nuance he introduces to all his roles, and is truly unforgettable in a scene that brutally portrays the experience of electroconvulsive therapy inflicted upon “sexual deviants” of the time. Blazey Best and Hayden Tee are excellent with their comedy, both actors sharp and confident, while adhering to the subtle tones of the production. The lovebirds, played by Tim Draxl and Ben Hall, are tender and effortlessly convincing, making the most out of fairly colourless material.

It is important that young ones know our queer histories, and it is important that love stories are made for people who identify differently from the mainstream. In 1944, queer folk had few past lessons to draw upon, and nothing in the future that they could look forward to. Only Heaven Knows allows us to grow with the knowledge that people had been through worse, but things keep getting better. It also serves as reminder the depth of depravity that societies are capable of, and that a sense of moral vigilance must never be taken lightly. The game of endless persecution may shift its focus away from one community to another, but those who had suffered must not be complacent in their newfound emancipation, but continue with a resistance against senseless violence and oppression.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Mr Burns (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 19 – Jun 25, 2017
Playwright: Anne Washburn
Music: Michael Friedman
Lyrics: Anne Washburn
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Paula Arundell, Mitchell Butel, Esther Hannaford, Jude Henshall, Brent Hill, Ezra Juanta, Jacqy Phillips
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
There are three distinct acts in Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play. First, we discover that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket; it is the apocalypse, and we have run out of electricity. A small group of survivors huddle together, trying to keep themselves sane by retelling episodes of The Simpsons. They each contribute fragments, but memory, like all human ability, proves to be considerably less than infallible.

Over the next decades, this compulsion to hark back to when things were better, grows in magnitude. The act of storytelling becomes grander, so do the increasingly fabricated remembrances of how things had been, back in the day. Eventually, we see that The Simpsons is turned into a kind of origin story that no longer accurately recreates the real thing.

Anne Washburn’s play is wildly imagined, but not always successful in its ability to aid our suspension of disbelief, as is necessary for all styles of science fiction. At each step of the narrative, we are bothered by questions left unanswered, that create an expanding sense of implausibility to the narrative. It is appropriate then, that the show turns progressively extravagant, until in Act Three, where we are presented with something that looks no different from standard Broadway musical fare.

The production begins dour, perhaps understandably so, but its long and enduring dullness marks a disappointing start for a crowd that has clearly amassed for that very particular Simpsons sense of humour. Satisfaction eventually arrives with Act Two, as the tone turns quirky and playful, and stimulating philosophy is introduced to its existentialist explorations.

The first musical number appears, quite unexpectedly, weaving American pop references into a kind of campy postmodern mash-up, to excellent effect. We see the characters desperately trying to hold on to all things bright and shiny from the past, much like the conservatives in our real life, unable to come to terms with their new circumstances. Entertainment continues to be dispensed henceforth, but we discover that the show had reached its peaked too soon. It all comes to a somewhat underwhelming conclusion.

It is a proficiently designed production. Mr Burns’ black sequinned catsuit by Jonathon Oxlade is very fabulous indeed, an unforgettable vision for the theatrical annals. Oxlade’s sets are appropriate to each sequence, but the show offers only a few surprises with its imagery, presumably restrained by its context of resource depletion.

Mitchell Butel leads an endearing cast of enthusiastic and colourful performers. As Mr Burns, Butel’s gangly limbs attempt to steal the show with their incredible animated dexterity, but the actor’s comedic capacities are impressive, and a real asset to this tenaciously serious creation.

It really is no joke, that we refuse to adequately address our energy crisis. Those with a stake in industries that are bringing devastation to the environment, like the villainous Mr Burns, continue to be allowed to plunder and destroy. We have to keep optimistic in order to be of any effect as opposition to their corruption, but the prevailing state of confused democracy seems to be getting us nowhere. Knowing right from wrong, is no longer sufficient in mobilising power and generating action, in our current climate of fake news, alternative facts, and insatiable greed. If history teaches us anything, it is revolution that will shift paradigm, but there is no hint even of burgeoning insurgency, in this age of despondent complacency.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Big Fish (RPG Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Apr 18 – May 14, 2017
Book: John August (based on the novel by Daniel Wallace and the screenplay by John August)
Music & Lyrics: Andrew Lippa
Director: Tyran Parke
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Kirby Burgess, Seth Drury, Joel Granger, Brendan Godwin, Zoe Ioannou, Brenden Lovett, Phillip Lowe, Alessandra Merlo, Adam Rennie, Katrina Retallick, Brittanie Shipway, Aaron Tsindos, Zachary Webster
Image by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Edward Bloom spins yarns that only he can believe. He deals with reality using outrageous embellishment, but these tall tales have alienated his son Will, who struggles to connect with the man behind the illusions. Big Fish is about life and death, love and family, all the emotional stuff that make musicals work. A formula exists because it is effective, and here, we see all the obvious manipulations that get us to a predictable sentimental peak, yet we cannot help getting ourselves entangled in all of the Bloom family’s drama.

Dubbed the “12 Chairs Version”, this rendition may be streamlined, but director Tyran Parke brings a richness to the staging, with simple but exciting visuals that live up, surprisingly, to the story’s imaginative landscapes. The cast is buoyant and bubbly, determined to entertain. Leading man Phillip Lowe is fabulously charming, but problems with a throat infection seriously impair his ability to deliver the show’s many very grand showtunes. Instead, on hand to offer vocal magic is Adam Rennie in the role of Will, who is nothing less than sensational when the songs get chipper and stirring.

Women characters in Big Fish are often pathetically conceived, but the players do their best to bring life to their parts. Katrina Retallick takes the role of an embarrassingly docile mother, and turns her into a memorable figure; warm, generous and full of spirit. Her delivery of the heartbreaking “I Don’t Need A Roof” is a highlight, with Retallick’s performing talent proving to be the most captivating feature of the production. Also delightful is Brenden Lovett, simultaneously grotesque and adorable as circus ringmaster Calloway. The most over-the-top of Edward’s fantasies is also one of the most moving, when given the Lovett treatment.

We all know that our lives are finite, but we rarely think about how our deaths affect the way we live. We go about our daily business as though there is always tomorrow to worry about, but the unassailable truth is that death will come too soon. Edward was offered, as a child, a glimpse of his final moments, and what he saw was joyful. If we can all believe that what we eventually leave behind is going to be good, then our experience of today, must surely be replete with contentment.

www.bigfishaustralia.com.au

Review: Calamity Jane (One Eyed Man Productions)

Venue: Hayes Theatre Co (Potts Point NSW), Mar 8 – Apr 1, 2017
Book: Ronald Hanmer, Phil Park (from the play by Charles K. Freeman, and film by James O’Hanlon)
Lyrics: Paul Francis Webster
Music: Sammy Fain
Director: Richard Carroll
Choreographer: Cameron Mitchell
Cast: Laura Bunting, Virginia Gay, Anthony Gooley, Sheridan Harbridge, Rob Johnson, Matthew Pearce, Tony Taylor, Nigel Ubrihien
Image by John McRae

Theatre review
It is the story of a frontierswoman from American history, a tomboy type with a big heart and very tall tales. A neglected musical from mid-20th century, Calamity Jane is probably best remembered as a film starring Doris Day in 1953. No surprises then, that the writing is squeaky clean, conforming completely to the ideology of the McCarthy era, when the USA convulsed at its height of moral panic.

Director Richard Carroll’s version aims to subvert the obvious camouflages at work in the original, especially in terms of its delusory representations of gender and sexuality. Archaic notions of how a woman should dress, and how her libido should manifest, are confronted head on, in this uproarious and very likeable comedy about a woman in charge. This iteration of Calamity Jane does not obliterate the existence of patriarchal oppression, but it foregrounds our heroine’s resistance, culminating in the spectacular exposure of her homosexual impulses in the number A Woman’s Touch. Originally conceived to inflict upon her, the sacrosanctity of housework, Calamity takes the opportunity here to find redress and expression instead, for the lustful desires she feels for another woman.

Virginia Gay is irresistible in the title role, charismatic, supremely confident, and hilarious. Her singing alternates between musical theatre, country and jazz, bringing a surprising quality of rejuvenation to the show tunes. Although not all performers are equally suited to their parts, it is overall an effective cast, with Sheridan Harbridge and Tony Taylor particularly delightful, and very gleeful, as residents of the Golden Garter. The majority of instrumental accompaniment is provided by lone pianist, and musical director Nigel Ubrihien, who brings tremendous atmosphere and excellent character to the staging.

The production succeeds in its efforts at sending itself up, and in the process, confronts the subjugation of femininity in traditional forms of storytelling. There is a sense however, of the show losing steam, as it progresses into a more sentimental second act. Its actors remain strong and convicted, but the audience needs greater convincing to adapt to the significant change of mood, and its subtle shift in meanings. We stay loyal to the riotous nature of Act 1 because it strikes a chord. It is a time for wild women and unruly behaviour, and now is when we fall in love with Calamity Jane.

www.hayestheatre.com.au

Review: Ladies In Black (Sydney Lyric Theatre / Queensland Theatre)

ladiesinblackVenue: Sydney Lyric Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jan 3 – 22, 2017
Book: Carolyn Burns
Music & Lyrics: Tim Finn (based on Madeleine St John’s novel, “The Women In Black”)
Director: Simon Phillips
Cast: Kate Cole, Carita Farrer, Bobby Fox, Natalie Gamsu, Madeleine Jones, Kathryn McIntyre, Sarah Morrison, Ellen Simpson, Greg Stone, Trisha Noble
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
There is no question that the world needs more stories about women and our solidarity. Examples of how we tear each other down are aplenty, but the ways we offer love and support need to be better envisioned in art and in life, so that we may begin to subvert systems of patriarchy that rely on our disunity to thrive.

Ladies In Black features a group of “shop girls” at a Sydney department store in the 50’s, each of them consummate professionals, all of whom get on remarkably well. There however, is little else to enjoy about the musical. Thoroughly lacklustre, unable to deliver the exuberance and glamour it wishes for its characters to portray. Its humour is underwhelming, with narratives that fail to resonate, and even though Tim Finn’s songwriting could be admired for its slightly unconventional take on the musical theatre format, much of it is uninspiring and forgettable.

For a show that makes fashion one of its central interests, the production is designed with little imagination or innovation. Choreography never offers anything more than the bog-standard, and the cast rarely looks to be challenged or excited by what they have to present. Occasional appearances by Natalie Gamsu, Greg Stone and Bobby Fox as “continental migrants” introduce moments of exhilaration, but they are few and far between.

Young Lisa confronts parochial Australia in Ladies In Black. She is at a crossroads, encountering choices that stoke her passions, versus others that feel easy and normal. We observe a blandness that can take hold, and ways of living that can pale our existences into insignificance. The women go to work everyday, and in their camaraderie, attempt to find deeper meanings to their existences, but the struggle to prevent their black clothed power from fading into a repugnant beige is ever-present, and often defeated.

wwww.queenslandtheatre.com.au

Review: Bare (The Depot Theatre)

supplyevolutionVenue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Nov 30 – Dec 17, 2016
Book: Jon Hartmere, Damon Intrabartolo
Lyrics: Jon Hartmere
Music: Damon Intrabartolo
Director/Choreographer: Hannah Barn
Cast: Aaron Robuck, Sophie Perkins, Alex Jeans, Natalie Abbott, Timothy Langan, Teale Howie, Alexandra Lewtas, Caroline Oayda, Matt Laird, Stephanie McKenna, Ibrahim Matar, Tara Hanrahan, Annette Vitetta, Penny Larkins, Gavin Leahy

Theatre review
The musical is set in a Catholic high school. Peter and Jason are secret lovers struggling to come to terms with their gay relationship and the identity markers that will inevitably become a matter of controversy given the social context. It is an age-old story, but one that bears repeating. Our religious institutions remain unkind to those who do not conform to their narrow definition of acceptable sexual behaviour, and Bare‘s response is still important, even if its story offers little that would be refreshing for the twenty-first century.

Hannah Barn’s direction of the piece pays strong attention to the show’s emotive qualities. Every melodramatic flourish is amplified to passionately drive its point, and to captivate. The more humorous portions of the musical seem to be neglected, which results in a production that can feel slightly unvarying and predictable, but there is plenty of dynamism to be found in the music. Musical director Matthew Reid does wonders with his 8-piece band, providing injections of energy whenever required, and calibrating atmosphere with remarkable sensitivity throughout, but sound design, especially in the first half, needs to be refined.

It is a very committed cast of performers that take to the stage. Alex Jeans and Aaron Robuck play their leading parts with integrity, and even though their interpretations of characters can feel somewhat one-dimensional, both young men tell their stories with impressive enthusiasm. Along with Jeans and Robuck, accomplished singing by Natalie Abbott and Penny Larkins give the production a surprising polish that reflects a good level of professionalism and admirable devotion to the time-honoured craft of musical theatre.

Bare is yet another work that documents the struggle of gay men in a society that refuses to accept them as equals. We have heard it all before, but we must not stop telling these tales of oppression as long as the cruelty persists. For some of us, progressive political movements have brought us better lives, but for many others, the chains of injustice are a daily reality. We might like to think of ourselves as first world civilisations, but if we have children living in fear and in some tragic cases, taking their lives, our complacency has to take responsibility.

www.thedepottheatre.com