Review: The Time Machine (Strange Duck Productions)

Venue: NIDA Parade Theatres (Kensington NSW), Apr 11 – May 2, 2018
Playwright: Frank Gauntlett (based on the novella by HG Wells)
Director: Gareth Boylan
Cast: Mark Lee
Images by Robert Catto

Theatre review
In the space of science fiction, our imagination of what is yet come, reveals less about the truths of the future, and more about the values and beliefs that we hold today. In Frank Gauntlett’s adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, an Englishman travels from Victorian times to the year 802,701 AD, where he encounters an evolutionary state of humankind, split into clear distinctions of species, good and bad.

Instead of luxuriating in the welcoming utopia that he stumbles upon, our protagonist pursues the evil creatures who had stolen his machine, and in the process interferes with the ecosystem that he discovers. There is also a romantic encounter, with the hero claiming a female character from the new world, as he tries to bring themselves back to the 19th century. The Time Machine is an action-packed one-man show that puts on display, the narcissistic self-aggrandising tendencies of men, who are persistent in figuring themselves as braver, more righteous, more long-suffering and under attack than anyone else in their fictional narratives.

The true hero is actor Mark Lee, whose energetic precision provides all the theatrical entertainment we require. He is a captivating presence, interminably persuasive with all that he serves up. A highly skilled performer, with an astonishing familiarity with the text, Lee is intense, inventive and tenacious in approach, leaving his audience impressed, even if the material he presents is less than inspiring. Director Gareth Boylan introduces a healthy quantity of visual variation to the show that helps draw our attention back, when we begin to lose interest in the monotonous narration of unwavering gallantry. Lights by Martin Kinnane are particularly useful in this regard. Michael Waters’ sound design too, works hard to facilitate our concentration.

It is a recurring theme in our stories, where we find ourselves in places belonging to others, then quickly and convincingly asserting our victimhood, before successfully overcoming the enemy. There is truth in saying that life requires us to move outside of ourselves, that the spirit of curiosity and discovery is essential to a meaningful existence, but the belief that “the world is your oyster” must be examined with greater sensitivity. Spaces are defined long before we enter them. Wherever we choose to venture, we must be mindful of how it is configured. If we decide to cause disruption, we must tread with utmost care and caution.

Review: Blonde Poison (Strange Duck Productions / Red Line Productions)

BP2 CREDIT MARNYA ROTHEVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jul 28 – Aug 15, 2015
Playwright: Gail Louw
Director: Jennifer Hagan
Cast: Belinda Giblin
Image by Marnya Rothe

Theatre review
Stories of Jewish experiences during World War II continue to appear on our stages and screens with an urgency that refuses to be eradicated. The sheer volume of narratives means that there is a tendency for characters, emotions and perceptions to be conflated into a certain uniformity, providing impressions and understandings of a time that seem to vary little. Gail Louw’s Blonde Poison is a true story based on the life of Stella Goldschlag, a provocative character with incredible complexity, and whose involvement with Nazi Germany offers a powerful and controversial extension to our increasingly superficial memories of those horrific times. Louw’s writing however, fails to live up to the scintillating potentialities of the protagonist’s tales. The use of a realistic monologue format seems to restrict the amount of tension and drama that lies dormant in Goldschlag’s recollections. The shocking and duplicitous nature of her history holds the promise of a much more explosive presentation than Louw’s plot structure allows.

Direction of the work is a conservative one that dares not to depart from the script and its flaws. Jennifer Hagan’s faithfulness to the text leads to a thorough illustration of the author’s ideas, but greater gumption is required to fill in the blanks, and to elevate a play that needs more flair. Performance of the piece however, is marvellously captivating. Goldschlag is played by Belinda Giblin who is completely masterful on this stage. Her clarity of intent, along with her intelligence and agility (both mental and physical), deliver an impressive portrayal that is equal parts dynamic and intimate. Her emotions are expansive, immediate, and highly legible, but the decision to refrain from eye contact with the audience, along with the staidness of the script, prevents the work from making a connection that matches the poignancies of the actual events in discussion.

Humanity is at its most striking when revealed with its contradictions and imperfections. There is much ugliness in Blonde Poison that expose us to our own fallibilities, but it is too quick to forgive. We need to feel the gravity and realise the repugnance of the dark sides of our selves, before the light can resonate. Villains are indispensable, for they show us the truths within that we fail to acknowledge. Stella Goldschlag ultimately did arrive at confrontations with her own demons, and in those moments of malevolence on stage, poison tastes sweet, and we want more. |

Review: Howie The Rookie (Red Line Productions / Strange Duck Productions / Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

redlineVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Sep 30 – Oct 25, 2014
Playwright: Mark O’Rowe
Director: Toby Schmitz
Cast: Sean Hawkins, Andrew Henry
Image by Kathy Luu

Theatre review
Howie and Rookie are two young Irish men who live epic nights and emerge to relay their experiences to anyone who would listen. They are base and depraved, with values a world away from the middle classes of theatre-land, yet their lack of pretension and extraordinary candour allow us to find identification with a shared essence of humanity. Their stories are terrifying and sickening, but they are never alien, for our instincts understand what it is to be like them, much as we spend our days fighting tooth and nail to create distance from their godforsaken universe. Mark O’Rowe’s script is a detailed look into a life driven by impulse and unaffected appetite, formed by two monologues written with a brand of poetry that is gritty and coarse, although irresistibly beautiful at many points. It is geezers doing lyricism, and art in its enemy’s territory.

Direction by Toby Schmitz delves into the psychology of his actors, to create characters that feel palpable and real, although both are highly theatrical in expression. A thorough authenticity is manufactured by instituting clarity in thought and intensity of emotion in the performers, which translates into wonderfully vivid storytelling and stunning performances. Schmitz reduces the stage into an exaggerated intimacy so that the only thing that matters is the cast.

Design aspects are extremely subtle, for they aim to disappear, but all elements contribute effectively to the power of the men’s dynamic presence. Lights by Alexander Berlage and sound by Jeremy Silver are sensitive and elegant, with many manoeuvres that are practically undetectable but crucial to atmosphere transformations. Stage manager Nicholas Foustellis executes these changes perfectly. Lisa Mimmocchi’s set and costume design takes a minimal approach but the vision she creates resonates with accuracy, even in its spacial abstraction.

Andrew Henry performs the first half of the piece in the role of Howie. He first addresses the audience out of character, with mundane information about mobile phones and emergency exits, using the opportunity to establish humour and a camaraderie that he brings into the play. Henry maintains eye contact with us throughout, insisting that we hear every word, and we do. The actor’s delivery in both physical and vocal terms is almost acrobatic in its agility. He is funny, outrageous and disturbing, always keeping us firmly in the palm of his hand, and the range of emotion he portrays can only be described as impressive. A major mood transition occurs at the end of his soliloquy that is absolutely breathtaking, and a must-see for any fan of the dramatic arts.

Also remarkable is Sean Hawkins, who takes on the latter half of the production as Rookie. Hawkins’ energy is vibrant and sprightly, providing a clever contrast to the darker Howie. Hawkins is a passionate raconteur who brings brilliant animation to his tales, and the stripes shaven into his temples to match his Adidas tracksuit, indicate the depth at which the actor has absorbed the text. Revealing all that the character believes and feels, Hawkins’ face is mesmerising. It tells us all that Rookie wishes to divulge, and then some. The performer lays bare an honesty that lets us read into a complex portrayal of what seems to be a simple existence.

Small theatre can refer to budgets, venue sizes, or the actual scope of content being produced. In the case of Howie The Rookie, it is the serendipitous meeting of all three that has created something sublime. More extravagant expenditure or auditorium capacity will not improve the colossal genius presented on this very special occasion.

5 Questions with Sean Hawkins

seanhawkinsWhat is your favourite swear word?
It’s cunt. The Rookie gets to say it quite a bit, so I’m enjoying that.

What are you wearing?
Jeans and a tee shirt.

What is love?
Back scratches from your partner.

What was the last show you saw, and how many stars do you give it?
Out Of Gas On Lover’s Leap by The Kings Collective. 4/5 stars.

Is your new show going to be any good?
It’s going to be corker.


Sean Hawkins is appearing in Howie The Rookie, with Strange Duck Productions.
Show dates: 30 Sep – 25 Oct, 2014
Show venue: The Old Fitzroy Hotel

Freud’s Last Session (Strange Duck Productions)

freudVenue: Theatre Royal (Sydney NSW), Aug 14 – Sep 1, 2013
Playwright: Mark St. Germain
Director: Adam Cook
Actors: Henri Szeps, Douglas Hansell

Theatre review
Theatre Royal is one of Sydney’s more beautiful theatres, usually showcasing large scale theatrical and musical productions due to its stage size and audience capacity. With just two actors and no scenic changes, Freud’s Last Session comes to Royal with extraordinary confidence. Mark Thompson’s set design is elegant, charming and effective, carefully carving out a perfectly sized performance space out of a very vast stage. It is, however, unfortunate that less attention is paid to acoustics resulting in poor volume levels for seats further back. The actors do not appear to be assisted by microphones, which is peculiar and fairly disappointing.

Henri Szeps is endearing as Sigmund Freud in his final days. His outlandish and controversial statements are presented with conviction and humour by Szeps, who presents to the audience a Freud who is unexpectedly affable. His masterful physical depiction of a feisty old man suffering from cancer is a joyful vision of experience and skill. Douglas Hansell is meticulous and detailed in his portrayal of C.S. Lewis. He delivers to the audience a sense of what London must have been like in the 1930s. Through his performance, we experience a time and place that is at once amusing and magical. The actors work well together, with a comfortable chemistry and excellent timing as a result of thorough familiarity with the material.

This is not a play with hugely dramatic moments that manipulates your emotions but its themes of religion and death are eternally fascinating, and they are dealt with with maturity, creativity and intellect. The characters see themselves as polar opposites, an atheist and a Christian, and argue engagingly about the differences in their belief systems and moralities. The play appeals to our human need to understand the afterlife and to question the existence of God, and it addresses the constant tension that resides between every point of view. Its conclusion is surprisingly universal and strangely satisfying.