Review: Shit (Seymour Centre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jul 18 – 29, 2017
Playwright: Patricia Cornelius
Director: Susie Dee
Cast: Peta Brady, Sarah Ward, Nicci Wilks
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
It is the story of three wasted lives. Awful women whom we marginalise and detest, the ones we are contend to let rot. The question of course, is how they have come to be. In Patricia Cornelius’ Shit, Billy, Bobby and Sam never had a chance, abandoned as children, lost in a broken system of foster homes, they have grown up hopeless and beyond repair.

Cornelius’ writing is undeniably powerful, in terms of its social pertinence, as well as its extraordinary representation of language. For some, the work may be entertaining, but for many, it is a highly discomforting experience having to be in the presence of these monsters, although the moral that it carries is applicable to all.

Faultlessly executed, the production is directed with ingenuity and incisiveness by Susie Dee, who translates the uncompromising vision of the piece with remarkable potency. Marg Horwell’s set and Rachel Burke’s lights provide unexpected dimension within its sophisticated theatricality, allowing us to see deeper into the recesses of the difficult tale.

The actors are uniformly marvellous, creating a type of character rarely seen on Australian stages. Their voices are deeply familiar, so too are the physicalities they present, yet we are shocked by the incongruity of their appearance at the theatre, within our structure of bourgeois art. Peta Brady, Sarah Ward and Nicci Wilks form an ensemble precise and accurate with all of their depictions, aggressively challenging but shrewdly vulnerable, in a discussion about humanity at the fringes.

The boldness of Shit is provocative, but its ugliness is alienating. Tough art and tough issues bear that same pull-push quality. We understand that everything that is considered defective has to be mended, but it is easy to turn a blind eye. The neglected is given a voice in this play, but how we deal with the information being dispensed, is the crucial other half of the dialogue.

www.seymourcentre.com

Review: The Plant (Ensemble Theatre)

Venue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jul 8 – Aug 5, 2017
Playwright: Kit Brookman
Director: Elsie Edgerton-Till
Cast: Briallen Clarke, Helen Dallimore, Sandy Gore, Garth Holcombe, Michelle Lim Davidson
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Suddenly widowed, Sue buys a Rex Begonia plant to keep her company. Her three children are grown-ups with other priorities, and even though they meet on weekends, Sue finds herself having to deal with bereavement and loneliness on her own. She names the plant Clare, and begins speaking with it, understandably, in the absence of human interaction.

Kit Brookman’s The Plant is a sweetly melancholic meditation on family and the mourning process. It offers an intimate look into life as an older person, and although its depiction of our middle-class existence contains more than a tinge of sadness, Brookman’s beautiful use of language makes his play an ultimately uplifting one.

The production is assembled with few bells and whistles, but director Elsie Edgerton-Till has us enthralled, with a wonderful ability that makes every word of dialogue sing with poignancy. It is a detailed and sensitive work, determined to reveal something truthful of the human experience, although its gentleness can feel slightly underwhelming, and perhaps evasive of some brutal realities that our old endure.

Sue is played by Sandy Gore, restrained but powerful in her portrayal of a neglected mother. Michelle Lim Davidson is delightful as the mysterious Clare, especially effective when playing up the ambiguity of her plant/human role. Briallen Clarke, Helen Dallimore and Garth Holcombe are the siblings, a proficient trio that tells us all we need to know, without too much fuss. A bigger dose of theatricality could make things more entertaining, but there is an elegance to The Plant that sets it apart.

We often hear about the fear of death, but it is really the ones left behind who have to go through immense hardship. Loss is inevitable, but the lucky ones will have companionship and love, to get them through tough times.

www.ensemble.com.au

Review: Front (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: The Depot Theatre (Marrickville NSW), Jun 28 – Jul 15, 2017
Playwright: Michael Abercromby
Director: Michael Abercromby
Cast: Jack Angwin, Charlie Falkner, Elle Harris, Andreas Lohmeyer, Mary Soudi, Lincoln Vickery
Image by Tom Cramond

Theatre review
They are called Rough Cut Punt, a band that is going places, fuelled by big dreams, and even bigger egos. In Michael Abercromby’s Front, we meet four young men, talented but naive, trying to foster a career with only passion as guidance. Before too long, things begin to unravel, of course, in this age old tale of a partnership gone sour. Its narrative might be predictable, but the show is nonetheless enjoyable. Front is a story we have heard before, but its themes of betrayal and of innocence lost, will always retain their pertinence.

It is a tight and energetic production that Abercromby has directed. Scenes move past efficiently, with transitions, of time and space, handled remarkably well. The stage is effectively demarcated, by lighting designer Liam O’Keefe and set designer Shaynee Brayshaw, to offer a sense of vigour and action to keep us involved. Our frontman is played by Lincoln Vickery, whose vulnerability prevents us from being alienated by his poor behaviour. Vickery can seem a reluctant villain, but his charisma holds our attention even when the going gets tough. Charlie Falkner is relied upon to provide the comedy, as band guitarist and resident stoner, with his impeccable timing giving the production a much needed lustre. Also memorable is Mary Soudi as a recording executive, vicious and vile, accurately presented for some of the play’s more dramatic moments.

Like most people who fear being ordinary, artists are aghast by the thought of being generic. Rough Cut Punt wants to have a good time, but it knows that its survival depends on finding something original. Front may be an entertaining work, but we want it to say something new, so that its effects can last beyond the curtain call. Its prologue and epilogue are one and the same, both expressing the artist’s zeal for the vocation, but we see success eluding our protagonist, as he continues to ignore his craft.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com

Review: This Much Is True (Old Fitz Theatre)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jul 12 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Toby Schmitz
Cast: Septimus Caton, Joanna Downing, Danny Adcock, Justin Stewart Cotta, Robin Goldsworthy, Alan Dukes, Martin Jacobs, Ashley Lyons
Image by John Marmaras

Theatre review
Lewis is a writer taking up temporary residence in one of his city’s few remaining ungentrified pubs. He observes the goings on, learns about the people who frequent the joint, and before too long, finds himself part of the furniture at The Rising Sun. In Louis Nowra’s This Much Is True, we hear little about the man in the middle of all the action. Unlike the navel-gazing tendencies that make up so much of contemporary art, Nowra’s interest lies not only in the colourful characters that he discovers, what he presents is an understanding of the world, from their perspectives.

A study of the modern Bohemian, we encounter personalities in This Much Is True who are either discarded by mainstream society, or have themselves chosen to reject the bourgeois. It is a weighing of values that occurs in the play, and we are challenged to assess our parallel lives, to have a discussion on what we think to be normal, desirable, and good. They are largely alcoholic, largely male, and largely white, but they are not what we usually consider to be the privileged of Australia. These are the marginalised, the ones who live on the fringe, and Nowra’s passionate depiction of their experiences, makes our own existences seem comparatively paltry and pathetic.

That genuine affection for this wayward bunch, is shared by director Toby Schmitz, who puts on a show full of reverence and warmth, with a sense of life-affirming compassion that sheds new light on a neglected portion of our community. The things they do are not necessarily nice, ethical, or legal, but it is the very embrace of human imperfection, that gives This Much Is True its power. We are moved, uplifted, for having spent a short moment, down in the dumps with those who call it their home.

The near dilapidated setting of a waterhole interior is created by Anna Gardiner, whose incorporation of varying angles and hues makes for an evocatively dynamic stage. Costumes by Martelle Hunt too, are noteworthy, for their incisive and sometimes humorous, take on the individuals and their idiosyncrasies. Matt Cox’s dramatic lighting makes vivid transitions of space and time between scenes happen effectively, and Jed Silver’s sound design manufactures an absorbing atmosphere that ensures not a second of lethargy or confusion could ever take hold.

Eight brilliant performers are assembled to create an underground world for our delectation. The ensemble is imaginative, adventurous and bold, and they each take the opportunity to showcase extraordinary skill and talent, at a standard that makes us fall in love with the theatre all over again. Justin Stewart Cotta is sensational as Venus, the drag queen icon who remains larger than life in retirement. Strikingly flamboyant, but with a thorough sense of nuance in every exaggerated gesture and in every overblown demonstration of emotion, Cotta is absolutely captivating in the role, turning the play’s only element of cliché into a real delight. The much more unorthodox Clarrie, a backyard chemist and connoisseur of experimental drugs, of uncharacteristically advanced age, is a phenomenon in the hands of Martin Jacobs, whose blinding presence and proficiency at portraying eccentricity, has us enraptured. There are laughs aplenty, but Danny Adcock is singularly exhilarating as the histrionic Cass, with vim, vigour and vociferously tall tales. Adcock channels intensity into both dramatic and comedic sections of the show, but always finely calibrated to deliver optimal results.

So much is missing from their lives, and so much goes wrong for them, but the people of The Rising Sun are never alone. In the age of technology-fuelled isolation and narcissism, characters in This Much Is True experience the kind of mateship that many of us can only reminisce with regret and resignation. We let our differences be magnified, and allow them to cause divisions. In our prioritising of personal needs and in our insular visions of happiness, along with capitalistic illusions of comfort and pleasure that are served to us every day, things that truly matter are abandoned. We may not be able to turn back time, but it is not beyond us to identify that which will make our lives meaningful and worthwhile. It is never too late to recover that thing some call a soul, and a city is never too developed to be able to recognise and value, the authentic spirit of its inhabitants.

www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: Mauritius (New Theatre / Sure Foot Productions)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 12 – 29, 2017
Playwright: Theresa Rebeck
Director: Richard Cornally
Cast: Brett Heath, Kitty Hopwood, Peter-William Jamieson, Emma Louise, Andy Simpson
Image by Sundstrom Images

Theatre review
Jackie finds herself in possession of some highly collectable postage stamps after her mother’s death, and goes about trying to sell them for an enormous sum of money. The process is fraught with danger and dispute, as shady figures and family members get in her way. Theresa Rebeck’s Mauritius talks about greed, and the ugly behaviour that accompanies our thirst for personal gain. It is not a work with philosophical depth, but its effective take of a classic structure, provides ample opportunity for a gripping and entertaining thriller.

The production is well-rehearsed, with actors demonstrating excellent conviction. There is good energy on the stage, but a strange and awkward lack of humour tarnishes the show. Chemistry between players is present, although their focus on drama is often misplaced, during sections of the play that seem to offer favourable circumstances for comedy. Lighting and sound could help lift atmosphere, but both are severely neglected.

Kitty Hopwood is a very intense Jackie, always looking as if she is consumed by fear. Her steadfast approach reveals a part of the character that is anxious about her situation, but her scenes have a tendency to feel monotonous as a result of that unwavering artistic choice. More motivated by laughter is Peter-William Jamieson, who thankfully brings some joviality to the role of Dennis. A memorable performance is given by Brett Heath, who plays the villain of the piece Sterling, with a sense of creativity and playfulness that delivers theatricality, to this otherwise overly stiff and serious presentation.

www.surefootproductions.com

Review: Australian Graffiti (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 2 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 7 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Disapol Savetsila
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: Gabrielle Chan, Airlie Dodds, Peter Kowitz, Kenneth Moraleda, Mason Phoumirath, Srisacd Sacdpraseuth, Monica Sayers
Image by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Asian restaurants are a familiar sight in Australian towns everywhere, but what we know is restricted only to their dining rooms and service areas. In Australian Graffiti, Disapol Savetsila presents a fantastical, but bleak, look at what happens behind the kitchen door of these inscrutable spaces.

It is a story about Thai-Australians, both immigrants and native-born. Ben is a teenager, born in Sydney but who has since moved to an unnamed country town with his mother Baa, proprietor of the local Thai restaurant. Boi, Loong and Nam are employees stuck in the kitchen, with only work as salvation, completely cut off from mainstream society. When graffiti appears on one of the local churches, bearing Thai characters, the town takes the opportunity to carry out their racism, boycotting and harassing the group of five outsiders.

Savetsila’s seamless interweaving between surrealism and realism, creates his own universe of storytelling, where fact and fiction, tangibility and metaphysical, coexist to reveal truths of Australian life from the perspective of cultural minorities. Australian Graffiti is a play for the marginalised, speaking to and for communities with a voice rarely represented in our artistic landscape. It is a sign of the times, a valuable work that heralds the arrival of a new generation of creators that can only materialise with a certain level of social maturation.

The production is sensitively rendered by director Paige Rattray, whose gentle melancholy allows the play’s poignancy to sing through, with a deep and painful authenticity. Australian Graffiti is often darkly humorous, and Rattray’s depiction of its personalities is suitably nuanced, revealing both the good and the faults of the people we meet, even the ones who experience persecution.

Tenderly and imaginatively lit by Sian James-Holland, with music by Max Lyandvert and sound by Michael Toisuta that take us through subtle fluctuations of emotional states, the design creatives do an excellent job of turning a vast auditorium into a surprisingly suitable stage for Savetsila’s intimate writing.

Mason Phoumirath is impressive as Ben, passionate and convincing with what he presents as lead actor. His relation to place and people feels remarkably genuine, even though the circumstances are highly unusual. There is a psychological accuracy in his portrayal that gains our empathy, and the stories we hear become believable as a result. Gabrielle Chan and Kenneth Moraleda bring vulnerability and sentimentality to the show, with intensely moving expressions of the migrant experience, bringing attention to the play’s humanitarian concerns.

Underneath so many of our world’s surfaces, resides a threat of violence. Australia’s colonisation, our history of it and the continuing project of it, is rarely spoken of with sufficient honesty, and like any human defect that is left unattended, disease inevitably transpires. Ben’s family is of Thai origin, and their enemies are European. The lack of an Indigenous presence in their battle, is symptomatic of our inability to recognise what is fundamentally true of the land that we share, and whenever we are unable to acknowledge the root of our problems, they can only persist.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Before Lysistrata (Kings Cross Theatre / Montague Basement)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jul 10 – 22, 2017
Playwright: Ellana Costa
Director: Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Cast: Ellana Costa, Alex Francis, Michaela Savina
Image by Zaina Ahmed

Theatre review
We know Lysistrata as the one who convinces the women of Greece to deprive themselves of sex, in order that their men would cease fighting each other in the Peloponnesian War. In Before Lysistrata, playwright Ellana Costa imagines a scenario that leads up to that audacious act. Lysistra and Lampito are the first ladies of Athens and Sparta, each representing a different side of politics.

It is the left and right wings of society, again at loggerheads. Whether 400 BC or 2017 AD it seems, we are determined to make enemies of one another, unable to be at peace with the idea of disagreement. The men go to war, determined to quash the other side, so that the world only needs contain one uniform ideology. With the death of sons that inevitably result, the ladyfolk band together, and hatch a plan to end the atrocities.

At points where the lines of good and evil are blurred, when us and them are disrupted, the show becomes refreshing. Its message can however, feel simplistic, as do its characters and dialogue. Wit and drama can be found in Costa’s well-meant text, but performances are unfledged, and the production never really builds enough tension that would allow sparks to fly. Few artistic risks are taken that will offer elements of surprise or intrigue. Its political interest holds court, central and singular.

Where there is solidarity, great things can be achieved. For each generation that experiences increasing social fragmentation, the idea of organised processes of action becomes correspondingly alien. That we can be unified, must not only be an abstraction, but how we get there, is more bewildering than ever before.

www.montaguebasement.com