Review: Trevor (Outhouse Theatre Co)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Jun 14 – Jul 6, 2019
Playwright: Nick Jones
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Di Adams, Jemwel Danao, Garth Holcombe, David Lynch, Ainslie McGlynn, Jamie Oxenbould, Eloise Snape
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Sandra owns a pet chimpanzee, who in Nick Jones’ Trevor, fancies himself a professional performer, having appeared as a younger primate, on stage and screen. Work has dried up, and Trevor is increasingly restless about his career’s downward trajectory. This of course, is all in his own mind, with Sandra completely oblivious about the turmoil that is brewing inside of the animal. Trevor is given his own voice by the playwright, but he talks as though in a monologue, never expecting any of the humans to understand, thus setting up for the play an inter-species disconnect that figures heavily as its ultimate raison d’etre.

Actor Jamie Oxenbould is persuasive as the chimp, with animalistic energy emanating from all of his being, without excessive reliance on physical mimicry. We believe his ambitions and his frustrations as Trevor, and appreciate the dramatic escalations being presented, through every plot development. Similarly convincing is Di Adams as Sandra, whose own problems are revealed at a slower pace, although no less powerful. There is however, a significantly stronger emphasis on Trevor’s experience than there is on Sandra’s, and considering our predictable affinity with the human character, it is a strange choice that prevents us from a closer empathy with the story.

In allowing Sandra to be somewhat subsumed in the production, director Shaun Rennie risks a distance that could result in a degree of emotional detachment for the audience, but it is a show that is relentless lively, and we find ourselves consistently involved, if not always invested. In a similar vein, Garth Holcombe and Eloise Snape both play larger than life, and very flamboyant personalities, who amuse us at every appearance, but who do little in engaging us on more profound levels. Their costumes though, are notably striking, humorously assembled by Jonathan Hindmarsh, who also solves spatial challenges as set designer, with demarcations of the stage that are, by and large, surprisingly effective. Lights by Kelsey Lee and sound by Melanie Herbert too, are accomplished, for an overall theatrical impact that proves gratifying.

It is absurd that a creature like Trevor should ever be kept as a pet. Human environments are barely feasible for our own survival, yet we insist on removing animals from their natural habitats, to put up with what we know is completely impracticable for them. This is the extent of our arrogance and narcissism. We see nature as a resource to be plundered, and fail to consider the consequences of our incessant exploitation. Trevor is about nature fighting back, and a timely work that opens up discussions about extinction, of the human race.

www.outhousetheatre.org

Review: Things I Know To Be True (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jun 8 – Jul 21, 2019
Playwright: Andrew Bovell
Director: Neil Armfield
Cast: Miranda Daughtry, Tom Hobbs, Matt Levett, Tony Martin, Anna Lise Phillips, Helen Thomson
Images by Heidrun Löhr

Theatre review
Fran and Bob suddenly find themselves in their sixties, and although both have worked hard, there seems little to show for. After having put everything into raising a family, the couple is starting to have to confront their twilight years. With four adult children still struggling to find their own feet, and a marriage that has long lost its lustre, years of sacrifice seems to have delivered little contentment. Andrew Bovell’s Things I Know To Be True is a portrait of one family, in some ways typical of the Australian experience, but certainly not representative of our myriad diversities. More bitter than sweet, this family drama contains excellent humour and a great deal of sentimentality, as though trying to mask the pessimism that it fundamentally contains.

The Price family presents an admirable facade. There is undeniable love, very well depicted by director Neil Armfield, but we are encouraged to question the choices Fran and Bob had made, or more precisely, to question the options they had perceived to be available when deciding to follow the straight and narrow. Fran concedes that she had adopted others’ expectations as her own, that she believed her destiny was to be a mother and nothing else. Now observing her legacy, we see her constantly trying to find satisfaction, usually tenuous at best, with all that she had manifested. The thing about parenthood is that room for regret is virtually non-existent.

The production is incredibly well-crafted, with every faculty operating at levels of excellence, keeping us enthralled from beginning to end. Armfield magnifies all the comedy and drama, for a show determined to entertain, even if its emotional resonances tend to feel highly romanticised. Lights by Damien Cooper warmly lull us into a daze of tenderness, making us a forgiving audience for Things I Know To Be True, almost oblivious to its characters’ flaws and frequent moments of stupidity.

Terribly ordinary people are turned captivating, by a cast of actors brimming with charm. Tony Martin is especially charismatic as Bob, beautiful with the vulnerability that he so effectively depicts, alongside a convincing rendering of archetypal suburban masculinity. The very funny Helen Thomson, who never misses any opportunity to create laughter, plays Fran, a wonderfully complex character, able to sustain our empathy even after some very unkind behaviour. Miranda Daughtry is notable as youngest daughter Rosie, whose unyielding innocence sets the tone from curtain-up, allowing us to see the story with her eyes, often too pure for our own good.

Things I Know To Be True does not intend to be a cautionary tale, but one could be tempted to interpret it as such. Aside from Fran who had worked tirelessly for decades as a nurse, there is no evidence of any great contribution to society or to humanity, in these small, albeit painful, existences. The Prices think about nothing but themselves, and are perhaps unsurprisingly, overwhelmed with frustration and anguish. Fran and Bob were committed to being the best parents, but never found a way to impart a sense of fulfilment to their offspring. If we return to the initial unexamined notion of procreation as an obligatory social and personal imperative, we might be able to draw from Fran and Bob’s story, the consequences of doing things without thinking them through.

www.belvoir.com.au

Review: Anatomy Of A Suicide (Sugary Rum Productions)

Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jun 12 – Jul 6, 2019
Playwright: Alice Birch
Director: Shane Anthony
Cast: Danielle Catanzariti, Jack Crumlin, Andrea Demetriades, Teale Howie, Charles Mayer, Guy O’Grady, Natalie Saleeba, Anna Samson, Kate Skinner, Contessa Treffone
Images by Kate Williams

Theatre review
Suicide always seems just a breath away for Annie, Bonnie and Carol. Alice Birch’s Anatomy Of A Suicide follows the struggles of three women, all of them skating dangerously close to the ultimate act of self-destruction. The play asks very big questions, but it is the way its provocations are dispensed, that makes it remarkable. The three leads exist in independent chronologies, but their stories are told in tandem, often overlapping, for a theatrical experience highly unusual in its plot structure. Parallels are drawn across narratives from different decades, to examine generational implications, in the way things may or may not change over time, in relation to women’s autonomy over their existences.

There is tremendous pleasure in seeing women lead the play, but it can also feel problematic that their neurotic behaviour is consequently associated with their gender. The only people out of control in the story are these women, and we find ourselves tempted to think of the issues being raised as being specifically gendered, when their femaleness should on this occasion, be a secondary concern.

Director Shane Anthony brings a mesmerising urgency to his staging; the stakes always feel high, and we are seduced by the intensity of his dramatic flair. His set (designed in collaboration with producer Gus Murray) is graceful and efficient, and along with Veronique Benett’s dynamically emotive lights, the visuals are sumptuous, for a deeply satisfying aesthetic that is always in dramaturgical harmony. Damien Lane’s music too, is beautifully rendered, memorable for being appropriately sentimental, able to help us access reservoirs of visceral sensations that resonate at every crucial plot point.

The cast is consistently impressive, with all members demonstrating excellent focus and a sense of disciplined precision reflecting consummate preparedness. Anna Samson is a wonderfully idiosyncratic Carol, convincing in her portrayal of mental illness, always rich with nuance and complexity as the subjugated, and gravely despondent, 60’s housewife. Anna, the addict who resorts to motherhood for salvation, is played by a powerful Andrea Demetriades, who delivers a severity for the character that persists in securing our empathy. A more naturalistic approach by Kate Skinner, allows us to relate to her Bonnie as a contemporary, and therefore more immediate, figure. In the singular scene in which she does turn rhapsodic, the atmosphere erupts and none can escape its poignancy.

More than the women before her, Bonnie is conscious of the forces that work to undermine her autonomy. We observe however, that knowing one’s demons does not necessarily spawn the capacities to defeat them. Being human, we almost always know good from bad, but the eternal conundrum of being able to do the right thing is what haunts us. Bonnie’s determination to outsmart her fate seems almost superhuman. She rejects that which seeks to entrap and define her, and in her story we see how hard it can be, to simply be your own woman.

www.facebook.com/sugaryrumproductions | www.redlineproductions.com.au

Review: Sweeney Todd (Life Like Company)

Venue: Darling Harbour Theatre (Sydney NSW), Jun 13 – 16, 2019
Book: Hugh Wheeler
Music & Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Theresa Borg
Cast: Anton Berezin, Debra Byrne, Michael Falzon, Jonathan Hickey, Genevieve Kingsford, Owen McCredie, Gina Riley, Daniel Sumegi, Anthony Warlow
Image by Ben Fon

Theatre review
Stephen Sondheim has under his belt, countless celebrated works, and Sweeney Todd is amongst his most popular. It is masterfully crafted, with ample humour and drama to accompany some sensational songs, all guaranteed to please, and to secure bums on seats. The story is macabre, involving a crestfallen old barber trying to murder his way to salvation, and in the process victims are turned into pie fillings fed to an unknowing public. There is meaningful symbolism that could be deciphered, but depending on the quality of a presentation, as on any theatrical occasion, we might prefer to enjoy only the surface, to revel in its song and dance, and ignore any possibility of deeper resonances.

Theresa Borg’s direction may not inspire an experience that is particularly contemplative, but what she assembles is a professional staging showcasing a splendid piece of writing that proves itself virtually fail-safe. Its star Anthony Warlow is certainly a bankable resource, demonstrating his own infallibility, along with an immense likeability, that simply does not allow us to regard anything he offers as less than magical. In the midst of mediocrity, Warlow’s talent is still an exquisite beacon. Mrs. Lovett the baker is played by television icon Gina Riley, whose comedy chops justifies her shared top billing with theatre veteran Warlow; her vibrancy is the saving grace in a presentation needlessly, and strangely, safe and predictable. Genevieve Kingsford and Owen McCredie are the young lovebirds Johanna and Anthony, both performers suitably beautiful in appearance and in voice, able to provide a believable sense of romance to their scenes.

Vanessa Scammell serves as musical director, bringing considerable spirit to proceedings but as a whole, the production never really feels much more than a rudimentary effort. Mrs. Lovett’s customers love her pies. Their satisfaction with her product does not require any explanation about ingredients or methods. Likewise, when art is effective, one is tempted not to ask how things are put together, we simply indulge in the wonder that it delivers, allowing the mystery to wash over us, a transcendental moment likely to be diminished when deconstructed and understood. When art is less than enchanting however, it is perhaps wise to investigate failures, but always remembering to question why anyone should think that they deserve better.

www.lifelikecompany.com

Review: Collaborators (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 6, 2019
Playwright: John Hodge
Director: Moira Blumenthal
Cast: Michael Arvithis, Audrey Blyde, Ben Brighton, Elsa J Cherlin, Richard Cotter, Peter Farmer, Dave Kirkham, Madeline MacRae, Dominique Purdue, Joshua Shediak, Andrew Simpson, John van Putten, Annette van Roden, David Woodland
Images by Bob Seary

Theatre review
Near the end of his career, Mikhail Bulgakov wrote a play about Joseph Stalin. In John Hodge’s Collaborators, we examine that relationship between artist and dictator, speculating on the integrity that becomes compromised, when creativity is exposed to politics. From having his work banned, to completing Stalin’s flattering portrait, we observe the ease with which institutional power can infringe upon expression, and how the dissemination of information is always a precarious enterprise when governments and businesses are involved. Hodge’s play is imaginative, and quite dynamic, but the journey that it plots for Bulgakov is predictable; having sold his soul to the devil early in the process, it is a challenge for the narrative to go anywhere surprising.

It is however, a splendidly designed production, with Colleen Cook’s set and Martin Kinnane’s lights offering sumptuous imagery, and Patrick Howard’s luscious sound design adding to the surreal aesthetic being manufactured. The audience is immersed in a stylistic landscape inspired by Bulgakov and by Stalin’s Russia, one that feels accurate in its invocation of a time and space that feels historic, but not too long gone. Director Moira Blumenthal’s calibration of atmosphere for each scene is precise and passionate, but although tone is consistently well rendered for this staging of Collaborators, some of its dramaturgy proves insufficiently thorough, and what should clearly be a poignant experience, leaves us somewhat underwhelmed.

Leading man Andy Simpson brings a rich authenticity to Bulgakov. We believe this rendition of the struggling dramatist, even if his essence can eventually prove monotonous. Although not entirely convincing as a heavyset autocrat, Stalin is depicted by Richard Cotter, whose playful exuberance is an entertaining asset for the production. David Woodland impresses as Vladimir, secret police agent turned theatre director, bringing flamboyance as well as nuance to the show, keeping us riveted to his character, to deliver effective expositions when the story turns convoluted.

We need our art to be pure, but it is unrealistic to expect incorruptibility of our artists. More than anyone, they have to be open to the world, free to absorb anything that appeals to their senses. It is the nature of their vocation to be exposed to influences, but at the same, we need them to know the difference between right and wrong. In Collaborators, we see Bulgakov lose his way, as the propaganda machine gradually takes him over, reminding us that no artist is spared of human fallibility. People will fail, and failure must be acknowledged, so that we can recognise success when it appears.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Gloria (Outhouse Theatre)

Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jun 6 – 22, 2019
Playwright: Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Alexander Berlage
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Annabel Harte, Reza Momenzada, Michelle Ny, Georgina Symes, Rowan Witt
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
The story happens at the most innocuous of places. In offices and a Starbucks cafe, characters from Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ Gloria do their best to stay afloat, in what feels like a never ending rat race. These humans are flesh and blood, but we see them caught inside machines, trying to navigate circumstances that are highly unnatural, and failing to do anything with integrity. Almost everyone ends up looking like a bad person, but it is hard for the audience to cast blame on any individual. It becomes clear that it is the environment that is toxic, and collectively we encourage horrible behaviour in one another. Gloria is about culture; the state we are in, and how we are trapped in a quagmire of our own doing, yet unable to figure a way out of it.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ penetrating look at Western civilisation is composed of fascinating dialogue and scintillating diatribes. A passionate expression of the frustrations we experience of city life, Gloria offers in theatrical form, an astute and scathing reflection of the games we play on a daily basis, that only serve to drag us down. The production opens with absorbing exuberance for a first act that portrays regular moments between colleagues at a publishing house. Jeremy Allen’s set design is commendable for its very persuasive insistence on incorporating a conventional proscenium, perhaps as representation of “the establishment”.

Director Alexander Berlage’s rendering of a bitchy workplace, communicates with a mischievous familiarity that many will find irresistible; we laugh at how mean-spirited we can be, with people we see every day, who should be our closest allies and compatriots. Acts 2 and 3 turn much darker, and the show’s energy dissipates slightly. Where it should begin to speak more stirringly, as we get closer to the crux of the issue, the staging struggles to maintain a focus on the essence of what is being said, leading us to a conclusion that feels somewhat cool.

Enjoyable performances include Michelle Ny as Kendra and Jenna, both roles sassy and strong, with the actor’s beaming confidence holding us captive, and head-over-heels dazzled. Rowan Witt is very funny as Dean and Devin, and highly impressive with the inventiveness that he is able to summon in bringing them both to life. Georgina Symes as the diametrically opposed Gloria and Nan, proves herself effective at each end of the hierarchy, powerful whether playing high or low on the social scale.

Like nature documentaries with predictable predator-and-prey patterns of behaviour in all manner of species, Gloria shows us to be a tribe engaging in ruthless activity, as though free will is but a figment of some crackpot imagination. The truth however, is that although there is no question of our causing harm to one another, many of us do think and try to do better. The argument therefore, is about how much control we believe ourselves to possess, and how much each person is able to manoeuvre themselves to try evade these narratives to which we seem to be condemned. If we understand ourselves to have been indoctrinated, we must believe that deprogramming is possible. The nature of culture is that it is pervasive, but history shows that it is never insurmountable. Change happens all the time, and it might as well begin with the self.

www.outhousetheatre.org

Review: The Cherry Orchard (Chippen Street Theatre)

Venue: Chippen Street Theatre (Chippendale NSW), Jun 6 – 16, 2019
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Victor Kalka)
Director: Victor Kalka
Cast: Martin Bell, Garreth Cruikshank, Dominique de Marco, Zacharie di Ferdinando, Suzann James, Craig James, Laurel McGowan, Martin Quinn, Alannah Robertson, Benjamin Tarlinton, Caitlin Williams, Harley Wilson
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
In Victor Kalka’s adaptation of The Cherry Orchard, we revisit Lyubov Andreyevna’s property and the anxieties surrounding its impending transfer of ownership. This story of old money versus new money, as it relates to the evolution of the Russian economic system just over a hundred years ago, bears themes pertaining to social equality that will always be relevant, but Chekhov’s characters and their idiosyncratic concerns, from 1904, seem to have retained little lustre and resonance. We no longer struggle with the notion of work as virtue, as Chekhov seems to present as the work’s integral assertion. In fact, it can be argued that another point of progress has been reached, where we begin to question that very assumption of honourable labour, that has informed so much of our participation in twentieth-century capitalism.

The production allows us to look back at the dawn of these modern times, to observe the naive optimism with which we regarded that model as mechanism for a redistribution of wealth. We had hoped that the new system would once and for all eradicate poverty, that aristocracy would relent and be relegated to the dustbin of history, but we find ourselves in 2019, talking about the top 1% and trying to solve problems of a similar nature. In addition, as an Australian audience we have to confront the concept of land ownership, as beneficiaries of a cruel and ongoing colonisation, and consider the meaning of resource allocation, when rightful owners of all our wealth are routinely kept deprived and subjugated.

Kalka keeps his show moving swiftly, at a pace suited to our contemporary tastes, although we never get to know any of the twelve personalities sufficiently to really care about their individual or collective predicaments. Performances are uneven but it is, on the whole, an adequate ensemble that has us following the narrative and that helps us gather some of its more intellectual aspects. The production is strangely deficient in eliciting any emotional involvement. Even though relatively vibrant in parts, this iteration of The Cherry Orchard struggles to communicate beyond the cerebral.

When we trust in work, we believe in a system of reward that is intrinsically just. Power imbalances however, will always mean that those who provide labour are constantly under the control of those who pay the wages. In order that we may feel fairly rewarded, we need extensive knowledge about resource distribution, but it is precisely this information that is rigorously kept behind closed doors. We are made to believe that we are given what we deserve, and we are taught to accept class and wealth distinctions, so that we accept our lot as somehow natural, and keep working in accordance with rules that only favour those on top. Perhaps the optimism in The Cherry Orchard is indication that big changes do occur, that a revolution, as impossible as it may seem in our indoctrinated minds, will arrive one day.

www.chippenstreet.com | www.virginiaplaintheatre.com