Review: The Verbatim Project (Canberra Youth Theatre)

Venue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 19 – 22, 2017
Director: Katie Cawthorne
Cast: Jean Bennett, Jasper Kilby, Denise Druitt, Jack Hubner, Katie Hubner, Merilyn Jenkins, Carol Mackay, Charlotte Palmer, Sao Hom Palu, Yarno Rohling, Diana Sandeman, Kate Sherren, Elektra Spencer, Ted Stewart, David Turbayne, Quinten Van Rooy

Theatre review
The cast is comprised of ten young Canberrans, from 14 to 16 of age, and six seniors, 65 to 80 years old. The Verbatim Project is a conversation across generations, offering an opportunity to look at how we contrast, and how we are consistent, within this unusual juxtaposition of peoples.

In their show, we hear thoughts about things that matter to Australians today, political, social and personal, through a wide variety of theatrical devices that help keep things interesting. Sound and video recordings, accompany the live physicality of its performers, consciously presented in movement and installation; using a multi-faceted approach to speak, without the use of a conventional narrative.

Director Katie Cawthorne and lighting designer Brynn Somerville, have structured a show that reveals the best of its cast. It is not a professional troupe, but all their strong suits are sensitively emphasised, with no distractions permitted to shift us away from a tightly assembled production. The text can sometimes be refreshing, but is generally predictable, with nothing controversial ever finding itself in the mix. It is a middle class look at middle class Australia, polite and well-meaning, and very civilised indeed.

There is a rigidity in The Verbatim Project that prevents anything from going wrong, but because nothing is left to chance, we are rarely able to discern the genuine connections between the personalities we meet. They are all too busy following instructions to let us in, on something more impulsive or spontaneous. Behind smoke and mirrors, we never really discover if the chasm of half a century can be bridged. Age can be made irrelevant, or it can mean everything.

www.cytc.net

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: 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