Review: The Angry Brigade (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Oct 1 – Nov 2, 2019
Playwright: James Graham
Director: Alex Bryant-Smith
Cast: Benjamin Balte, Will Bartolo, Sonya Kerr, Nicholas Papademetriou, Kelly Robinson, Davey Seagle, Madeleine Withington
Images by Bob Seary

Theatre review
John Barker, Hilary Creek, Jim Greenfield and Anna Mendelssohn were sentenced to ten years’ jail for carrying out a series of bombings in London, in the early 70’s. They were home-grown terrorists, university degree holders with a self-righteous streak that had clearly gone out of control. Playwright James Graham completed The Angry Brigade in 2014, at a time when terrorism is routinely presented as a phenomenon akin to foreign invasion, used by politicians and the media to capitalise on our penchant for racial prejudice.

The play demonstrates that it is far more likely to be the disenfranchised within our communities who are drawn to such extremities, that the root of these problems are well within our own purview, and much less likely to emanate from an outside enemy that can only be controlled with further violence. The way our patriarchal capitalistic societies are currently structured, necessitates that a portion of us must face disadvantage, in order that all our hierarchical systems can function. We observe the anarchic activity of The Angry Brigade with a degree of empathy, and although unlikely to agree with their radical methods, their grievances about the Western world, so wonderfully articulated by Graham, are certainly persuasive.

A wonderful passion is introduced by director Alex Bryant-Smith, who assembles a production replete with humour as well as a sense of political urgency. Set design by Sallyanne Facer manufactures distinct spaces for the two acts, each of them evocative and efficient. Lights by Michael Schell add dramatic flourish to the staging, and Glenn Braithwaithe’s work on sound ensures tension is appropriately calibrated from one scene to another.

Strong performances by a well rehearsed team keep us fascinated and invested in this true crime story, where meaningful breaking of rules lead to indefensible ethical violations. Davey Seagle leaves a remarkable impression with his actorly intensity for the dual roles of Smith and John, brought to life with wit and vigour. Madeleine Withington brings emotional authenticity to the pivotal part of Anna, deftly delivering a narrative climax that packs a punch. Benjamin Balte and Sonya Kerr play the remaining transgressors, both able to generate moments of brilliance that have us captivated. A range of smaller roles are shared by Will Bartolo, Nicholas Papademetriou and Kelly Robinson, all accomplished with admirable style and imagination.

Like many things that are dangerous, anarchy can be useful in small doses. It is undeniable that some of what has been institutionalised, would be better off demolished, and in these instances, a hint of nihilistic chaos could help instigate change. Revolutions occur because they are necessary but it is unimaginable that shifts in power can ever happen without conflict and disorder, although violence should always be regarded as preventable. Anarchy can be looked upon as a transitory concept, a methodology for those who have nothing to lose, to rise up and demand for improved conditions, even when they do not have all the answers close at hand.

www.newtheatre.org.au

5 Questions with Sonya Kerr and Madeleine Withington

Sonya Kerr

Madeleine Withington: What are you loving right now? Why?
Sonya Kerr: So many things!! Rewatching old favourite shows, trying out new recipes, working on The Angry Brigade with such an awesome cast! Haha. I’m a busy person so right now I’m actually really loving spending the small amount of time I have free hanging out with my husband.

What will always make you belly laugh? 
Monty Python. I grew up watching them and no matter how many times I’ve watched Flying Circus or any of the films I still laugh like it’s the first time. The Two Ronnies also makes me laugh ridiculously hard.

Has doing this play changed or shifted your beliefs/philosophies in any way?
I don’t think it’s changed my beliefs but it has certainly made me see how anarchy can be attractive. When you feel like the system is built against you, it certainly seems like smashing against that system is the only option. I’m a big believer in the power of protest and of the people, so I think if I was around in the 70s in London I definitely would have been a supporter of The Brigade.

Does anger come easily to you?
Not really. I get disappointed, especially in relation to politics. Irritation comes easily. Lots of things irritate me, but true anger? It takes a lot for me to get really angry. I honestly can’t remember that last time I was angry. I think I’d be a member of the Mildly Irritated Brigade.

Does violence solve anything?
That’s such a hard question! While I do believe that violence begets violence, situations occur when violence is the only effective response. From something as simple as self defence to something as complex as a world war, I think the best I can say is that we should avoid violence whenever we can and exercise restraint whenever we cannot. 

Madeleine Withington

Sonya Kerr: What makes you angry?
Madeleine Withington: So many things. I get angry a bit too easily, I feel. There are things that are worth my anger and there are things that aren’t. I’m still learning to tell the difference. Injustice gets me, when people are disrepectful, if someone does something to hurt someone I love. I get angry at the media, and the politicians, and Australia in general, very often. Capitalism. That gets me furious. The kyriarchy. That’s a bit general, but it is probably best not to turn this into a dissertation. I got mad at the Angry Birds 2 film recently. I haven’t seen it. Just that it exists. See? Still learning. There’s so many things, I honestly don’t know if I can go into them all. 

Do you believe in the power of protesting?
Yes I do. Even outside of creating change at a structural level, I think it can be very important in showing people that they aren’t alone. At the climate strike that was the feeling I had. After months and months of crumbling internally, to show up to thousands of people demanding change together, it definitely made me teary. It was weirdly nourishing? And definitely made me eager for more action on a personal level, rather than encouraging complacency. I think in that sense particularly, protest can be crucial.

What do you hope audiences will get from The Angry Brigade?
Hope and fury. Momentum. An impulse to examine their convictions? Questions for themselves. I really hope that people come away feeling a little bit uncomfortable, like there is something in the corner of their vision they don’t really want to look at, and that they then work up the courage to look at it directly. Does that make sense? If someone came out and said they weren’t sure how to feel, I’d be happy with that I think.

What brings you joy?
Again, so many things! I guess that’s a good balance? Working, I love working. I feel very joyful onstage. My partner. Drinking coffee with my partner on the weekend in our flat. My friends. My friends are incredible. Playing pool badly and having a beer and talking absolute nonsense. Writing. Being underwater, I love being underwater. Animals, any animals at all, they’re all hilarious, except for moths, not a fan of moths. Terry Pratchett books. Music. My family. Showers. Oh god, hot showers. Shower oranges. If you know, you know. I have reasonably simple joys I guess.

You play the role of Anna in The Angry Brigade. Do you identify with anything in her personality or politics? 
Yes, quite a lot actually. It was her who initially drew me to the play. She is going through this very human thing of trying to align her ideas of what should be, with what “the soft animal” of her body wants. I think if you are someone who is at all given to introspection, that that is a very recognisable feeling. She also keeps questioning what “real” is, trying to keep her ideas free of influence. I mean that’s fighting a losing battle, but again, relatable. Also, destroy capitalism. The system is broken. I think Anna would be on board with that.

Sonya Kerr and Madeleine Withington can be seen in The Angry Brigade, by James Graham.
Dates: 1 Oct – 2 Nov, 2019
Venue: New Theatre

Review: Doctor Shopping / In The Bag (Cobbstar Productions)

Venue: Cobbstar Productions (Paddington NSW), Sep 11 – 22, 2019
Playwright: Shaun Angus Hall

Doctor Shopping
Director: Tamara Cook
Cast: Patrick James, Rory O’Keeffe, Monica Sayers, Kristian Schmid

In The Bag
Director: Brian Cobb
Cast: Angela Elphick, Michael Kotsohilis, Giuseppe Rotondella, Lukey Timmins
Theatre review
The late Shaun Angus Hall was only in his twenties when he wrote these two plays in the 90s. Both very broad comedies with intentions only to entertain, they bear a sensibility that seems dated now, as we go through an era of hypersensitivity in relation to issues of race, misogyny and homophobia, but Hall’s proficiency with dialogue remains evident.

Doctor Shopping takes place mainly in a living room with four people who do nothing but abuse prescription drugs, while action in In The Bag happens at the race course, with goofy men gambling big bucks to dire results. Well crafted, but lacking in sophistication, these are plays with a specific appeal, that will prove very popular with the right crowd.

Direction for both shows prove accomplished. Tamara Cook gives Doctor Shopping an enjoyable playfulness, notable for her non-judgemental representation of addiction. Brian Cobb embellishes every moment of In The Bag with an overt humour, delivering robust energy from start to end.

Each story features four performers, all of whom are focused and enthusiastic; the quality of acting is an unequivocal highlight of the event. Kristian Schmid demonstrates excellent range as Ferris in Doctor Shopping, able to convey the light and dark of his character with ease. Giuseppe Rotondella’s strong presence as Angus provides In The Bag with a reliable anchor, and Angela Elphick’s multiple roles too are memorable, each one distinct and confident.

Some words seem to move with the times, but others can feel like relics. The nature of theatre allows old writing to be revived, and when necessary, it provides the opportunity for obsolete ideas to find relevance in a different era. Audiences however, can be stuck in the past, whether nostalgic or simply traditional. Theatre too, can decide whether to progress, or to ignore the future.

www.cobbstarproductions.com

Review: Trojan Barbie (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 16 – 21, 2019
Playwright: Christine Evans
Director: Maddison Huber
Cast: Anthea Agoratsios, Sophie Avellino, Deng Deng, Sam Flack, Cathy Friend, Tristen Knox, Anjelica Murdaca, Taleece Paki, Lisa Robinson, Shannon Rossiter, Amy Sole, Kristelle Zibara

Theatre review
An homage to Euripides’ The Trojan Women, Christine Evans’ 2009 play Trojan Barbie places focus on legendary women of the Trojan War. Modern day tourist Lotte, who restores dolls in her normal life, is flung back to ancient times, where she is trapped in a women’s camp, witnessing the atrocities of war. Evans’ work is suitably tragic, but also surprisingly humorous in many of its early scenes. Familiar characters are rendered with a contemporary sensibility, allowing us to relate better to their stories, and to keep us amused.

Time travel aspects are not always presented effectively in the production, leaving us confused at several points, but director Maddison Huber ensures that each personality we encounter in her show, is distinct and memorable. Actor Lisa Robinson demonstrates strong comic abilities as Lotte, adept at delivering laughs even in the midst of battleground horrors. Kristelle Zibara is a convincing Hecuba, intense with the sorrow her maternal role is charged to convey. Sophie Avellino and Cathy Friend take on different kinds of madness, for Helen and Cassandra respectively, both performers bringing appropriate flamboyance to invigorate the stage. The show succeeds at dramatic moments of catastrophe, but when the action calls for a gentler touch, its lack of nuance can make for a less than satisfying experience.

A Chinese proverb says that women hold up half the sky. Even as men insist on occupying positions of power, we are always required to be on hand to pick up the pieces, whenever they bring degradation and destruction to the world. It is important that we look beyond how things currently operate, and commit to working towards a new system that does not simply replace men with women. These hierarchical modes of organising society have proven to be severely deficient, no matter who sits on top of the pile. If we want to ensure that nobody loses, it must mean that old ways of thinking about success, about winning, must be radically eliminated.

www.facebook.com/Scribe-Theatre

Review: The Becoming (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 15 – 20, 2019
Playwright: Katie Pollock
Director: Brett Heath
Cast: Alison Benstead, Jo Goddard, Ben Hanly, Patrick Holman, Sarah Maguire, Paul Wilson

Theatre review
Greta and Gregor are rich kids from the eastern suburbs of Sydney, both going through significant transformation, as a response to the world’s current state of tumult. Katie Pollock’s The Becoming can be seen as a coming-of-age tale, but is more likely to be taken as commentary on the sociopolitical mess we are experiencing today. We see Greta deciding to be a nicer person, whilst Gregor turns angry and militant; it is as though one environment has bred two extremists on either ends of a spectrum, both of which the play presents as ineffectual and regrettable. It is an amusing context that Pollock has located, inspired by Franz Kafka, and obviously pertinent with its thematic concerns. As a work of absurdist comedy however, its characters never really depart sufficiently from the mundane, with a sense of humour that is probably too subdued.

Directed by Brett Heath, the show is thankfully raucous in atmosphere, although the players never really attain a level of authenticity that would allow its ideas to resonate. Each role is approached with an enjoyable sense of theatricality, but we struggle to connect with anything meaningful even if the text does point to matters contemporary and troubling. Sarah Maguire’s indefatigable ebullience as Greta helps sustain our attention, and Patrick Holman is suitably offbeat as the misguided Gregor, particularly noteworthy for his performance of live drums that prove to be a rousing and sophisticated touch.

It is true that so much of what we observe to be happening in society, can be infuriating. Greta and Gregor may have found radical ways to express their dissatisfaction, but they achieve nothing, other than to escape that dreadful sense of helplessness when one is crippled with inaction. When the system is broken, those of us who are more intrepid, like the siblings in The Becoming, might be moved to try for solutions, but it is revealing that the two do not confer, choosing instead to operate independently even though they live under the same roof, and share the same blood. They are unable to listen to the other, each so certain of their own beliefs. Watching the collapse of this kinship, of humans failing to connect, it becomes unsurprising that disaster should unfold.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Cats Talk Back (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 9 – 14, 2019
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Sahn Millington
Cast: Callum Alexander, Jason Blake, Taylor Buoro, Shayne de Groot, Jodine Muir, Daniel Mulholland, Julian Ramundi, David Woodland
Image by Elissa Blake

Theatre review
Not long after the closure of Cats the musical after an 18-year run on Broadway, five of its performers converge at a small panel event, to talk about life on the legendary show, and to relive, quite publicly, their glory days. Bess Wohl’s Cats Talk Back captures a moment of limbo, during which we see people stranded, cut off from the past, yet unable to move forward. The writing is often amusing, if slightly twee and predictable with its comedy.

Directed by Sahn Millington, the production is excessively naturalistic in approach, with a humour that seems needlessly restrained. Actors with a tendency for a more exaggerated style of performance, like Daniel Mulholland and David Woodland, are able to create distinctive characters that add spark to the production, but can also at times, seem discordant with the show’s overall subdued tone. Chemistry between players is hesitant, with each personality taking on separate approaches, unable to establish a cohesive sense of play as an ensemble. Theatre critic Jason Blake presents a version of himself, acting as moderator of the panel, notable for his easy charm and a sardonic timing that delivers several memorable laughs.

Nobody cares about these ex-cats, except the artists themselves. Every human is part of something bigger, but as is so clearly demonstrated in Cats Talk Back, we are almost always interested only in our individual experiences of the world. Narcissism is relentless, and it makes us fail to see that what feels like self-preservation, is actually gradually harming us all. Like characters in the show, we obsess over our little lives, consumed by the anxiety derived from notions of personal inadequacies, of not being loved. We long for personal satisfaction, and spend all our energies in pursuit of an elusive happiness, when it is abundantly clear that there are much more important things to do.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: The Grapes Of Wrath (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Aug 6 – Sep 7, 2019
Playwright: Frank Galati (based on John Steinbeck’s novel)
Director: Louise Fischer
Cast: Matthew Abotomey, Peter David Allison, William Baltyn, James Bean, Ted Crosby, Shayne de Groot, Simon Emmerson, Angus Evans, Peter Irving Smith, Brittany Johnson, Caroline Levien, Madeline MacRae, Ryan Madden, Kirsty McKenzie, Rowena McNicol, Matthew Raven, Andrew Simpson, Lily Stirling, Loki Texilake
Images by Bob Seary

Theatre review
It is the Great Depression, and the Joad family is on the road, having left Oklahoma, in search of opportunities for a better life. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath details economic hardships of barely a century ago, that seem so far removed from our twenty-first century realities. We can however, discern that although the conditions in which we operate have drastically transformed, the challenges and threats to our mortality remain. It may look like life has become easier, but to be human, it seems, will always involve a struggle for survival.

This stage version is a fairly concise adaptation by Frank Galati, and under the direction of Louise Fischer, its scenes move along swiftly, for a historical drama that does not demand too much of its audience. Tom Bannerman’s set design is notable for its elegance and efficiency, and along with Sharna Graham’s understated work on costumes, a visual authenticity is achieved for this American tale of adversity. David Cashman’s songs are a highlight, each one rich and evocative, often outshining the actual scenes that they are placed between.

The show is performed by a very big, and very strong, cast. Each character is lively and convincing, and as a team, they manufacture a sense of time and space effective in having us feel virtually transported. Actors Matthew Abotomey and Rowena McNicol are particularly impressive in scenes together as mother and son, both energetic and detailed, able to communicate the urgency of their situation, for moments of entrancing drama.

As with many other old stories, one could struggle to find the relevance in The Grapes Of Wrath, but the kind of fear that it encapsulates, is quite eternal. We worry about poverty and unemployment, afraid of being left behind. We see the destitute on our streets, and pray that our loved ones be spared from ever having to experience that calamity. One difference that can be observed in our narratives, after the 80 years since the publication of Steinbeck’s novel, is that his characters have each other to rely on, to suffer with. Their fears, unlike ours, do not include abandonment and isolation. We are never guaranteed absolute safety from the tides of time and natural chaos, but they at least had each other.

www.newtheatre.org.au