Review: Muriel’s Wedding (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 6, 2017 – Jan 27, 2018
Book: PJ Hogan
Music & lyrics: Kate Miller-Heidke, Keir Nuttall (with songs by Benny Andersson, Björn Ulvaeus, Stig Anderson originally written for ABBA)
Director: Simon Phillips
Choreographer: Andrew Hallsworth
Musical Director: Isaac Hayward
Cast: Annie Aitken, Prue Bell, Ben Bennett, Briallen Clarke, Justine Clarke, Hilary Cole, Tony Cogin, Helen Dallimore, Dave Eastgate, Manon Gunderson-Briggs, Jaime Hadwen, Sheridan Harbridge, Mark Hill, Madeleine Jones, Caroline Kaspar, Adrian Li Donni, Luigi Lucente, Stephen Madsen, Maggie McKenna, Kenneth Moraleda, Laura Murphy, David Ouch, Tom Sharah, Connor Sweeney, Gary Sweet, Aaron Tsindos, Michael Whalley, Christie Whelan Browne
Images by Lisa Tomasetti

Theatre review
Like legions of girls through the ages, Muriel was brought up to believe that life is incomplete without a man. It is a fallacy so deeply ingrained into our consciousness, that many are never able to outgrow the absurd notion, that marriage is required as a fundamental validation of our very being. In PJ Hogan’s Muriel’s Wedding, we see a young woman responding to her subjugation; it is a coming-of-age story, an underdog story, and a feminist proclamation. Once a much-loved feature film, now 23 years later, it returns to prominence in the guise of a dazzling new stage musical.

Genuinely funny, and irresistibly moving, Muriel’s Wedding is an unequivocal triumph. Original songs by Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall are brilliantly conceived, telling the story of an everygirl, by rigorously combining the many facets of Muriel’s universe. Her thoughts, desires and emotions, along with the people and places that attempt to define her, and the symbolic cultural emblems of her epoch that she cannot escape (including her tremendous affection for ABBA); all are present in the songs that passionately depict her narrative of emancipation, and that envelope us with a remarkable sense of immediacy and pertinence, to have us hopelessly invested.

Direction by Simon Phillips and choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, conspire to deliver an unabashedly sentimental journey, taking us through a seamless blend of happy and sad moments that constitute all of Muriel’s bittersweet experiences. We never lose sight of the gravity so essential and universal in her painful story, but every episode of false hope and disappointment, brims marvellously with theatrical hilarity. This is Australian humour at its best, ironic and self-effacing. Supporting players Michael Whalley (as brother Perry) and Christie Whelan Browne (as arch nemesis Tania Degano) create some very sharp comedy, and we greet each of their appearances with rapturous laughter. These are ugly images of who we are, but there is no denying the authenticity of what we see, and the embarrassing social dysfunctions that they embody.

Maggie McKenna exceeds every unrealistic expectation, in taking on the role of our all-new singing Muriel. The performer is quite simply perfect for the part, with a glorious voice that drives each lyric powerfully into our minds, an extraordinary quotient of charisma that disarms and opens wide our jaded hearts, and an incredible likeness with our memory of the old film version that has proven unshakeable. The more we fall in love with the protagonist, the more we can enjoy the show, and on this occasion, McKenna has us head over heels, completely bowled over. No less wonderful, is Madeleine Jones as Rhonda, bestie and catalyst for Muriel’s self-discovery. Jones is a strong, gutsy presence, who brings in full force, the rebellious spirit crucial to Muriel’s awakening. The two make a formidable pair, invulnerably tight in harmony and chemistry, for a portrayal of a resplendent friendship that lucky ones will find deeply familiar.

There are a small number of forgivable flaws in the production, including the earless casting of Muriel’s father, a strangely flat set design involving the Sydney harbour bridge, and early portions of the book that seem to require a cursory knowledge of the film. These aside, the artistic accomplishments here are significant and monumental, not least of which, are costumes by designer Gabriela Tylesova, who draws joyful inspiration from the original, and from the work of fashion notables like Viktor & Rolf, Roberto Cavalli and Camilla Franks. Straddling opposing ends of glamour, from kitsch to exquisite, for a visual sensibility informed by a derivative and hodgepodge aesthetic, that our colonised nation is never able to rid of.

Muriel’s Wedding is the greatest Australian musical yet. Full of character and inventiveness, it is unceasingly entertaining whilst capturing so much of who we are, and who we wish to become. More than a successful reboot of a modern classic, it brings together some of our biggest talents, for the birth of something that feels new and important, having arisen from adventurous negotiations of what is usually a restrictive art form. It is a big day, and we are more beautiful than we had ever been.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Three Sisters (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 6 – Dec 16, 2017
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (adapted by Andrew Upton)
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Alison Bell, Peter Carroll, Callan Colley, Miranda Daughtry, Harry Greenwood, Melita Jurisic, Brandon McClelland, Eryn Jean Norvill, Rahel Romahn, Chris Ryan, Nikki Shiels, Mark Leonard Winter, Anthony Brandon Wong, Charles Wu
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The existential angst in Chekhov’s Three Sisters is timeless; the need to understand what we are here for, and how we can find happiness, are fundamentally human and eternal. Once again, we see Olga, Irina, Masha and all their friends babble on for three hours, about how hard it is to do life. Andrew Upton’s adaptation gives the play a slight refresh, but it is a predictably faithful rendering that takes on the burden of the original’s dreariness, as it ruminates on the tedium of the bourgeoisie.

As is characteristic of director Kip Williams’ style, the show is presented with remarkable polish and an impressive elegance. Alice Babidge’s set design establishes an inescapable air of glamour for the production’s minimalist aesthetic, while Nick Schlieper’s delicate lights bring sumptuous beauty to proceedings. Music by The Sweats and sound by Nate Edmondson help us locate the contemporary relevance in Chekhov’s story, whilst retaining its intrinsic sense of Russian austerity.

It comes as no surprise that this is yet another dry and dreary rendition of Three Sisters. For all the reverence associate with the play, it is at its core, a work about the lifelessness of the privileged. The point is its stasis, that nothing happens for years, and that these women are mysteriously incapable of taking meaningful action.

Williams is inventive in the first half, introducing energy wherever possible, but the depressive quality of the text proves insurmountable. Although some of the flourishes can be distracting and excessive, there is no denying our appreciation for the effort put into injecting animation and comedy, derived from the sheer desire to see some theatricality.

Actor Miranda Daughtry is memorable as Irina, with explosive emotions that are both captivating and genuine. The cast understandably adopts an extravagantly declarative approach to performance, but Daughtry’s way of connecting with her audience is particularly truthful. Alison Bell’s droll humour as Olga shines a light on the often neglected irony in Chekhov’s writing, and Eryn Jean Norvill’s exaggerated comedy as Masha is similarly delightful. We are glad to be spared too much bleakness, but it is arguable if these interpretations are effective, in helping us absorb the philosophies in Chekhov and Upton’s writing.

There always seems to be a Chekhov play on a stage in Australia somewhere. We are so much like the sisters, understanding the concept of progress but unable to extricate ourselves from the old and deficient. We may not be able to create anything without being informed by tradition, but this Three Sisters draws attention to the parts of us that refuse to move on, that are rigid in their worship of a conceptual “home”, undeviating from sacred points of origin. These parts of us that are backward and regressive must be interrogated, if not demolished.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: Dinner (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Sep 11 – Oct 28, 2017
Playwright: Moira Buffini
Director: Imara Savage
Cast: Caroline Brazier, Brandon Burke, Claire Lovering, Rebecca Massey, Aleks Mikić, Sean O’Shea, Bruce Spence
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Paige is throwing a pretentious dinner party, for people she dislikes. Moira Buffini’s takedown of the English upper class, Dinner, begins promisingly enough, with pathetic women and impotent men tearing into each other, to expose the ignorant indulgences of those at the top, who seem to have things much easier for no good reason. Touches of surrealism give the play an enjoyable whimsy, but we quickly discover its plot and dialogue to be unoriginal, almost generic in its castigation of the rich. Characters with a depraved sense of entitlement, all in broken relationships, engaging in hateful exchanges over an expensive meal; none of it ever ceases to feel a tad too familiar.

The action takes place in a glorious dining room (designed by Elizabeth Gadsby), behind a big glass window. Either the great unwashed has to be kept at bay, or the theatre patrons need to be protected from some big mess that is poised to take place on stage. Three words, “fuck things up”, are given grand emphasis several times in the course of the production, but the wait for radical activity proves fruitless. Director Imara Savage makes several obtuse gestures in her staging, attempting to introduce the idea of subversion to her work, but it all feels much too polite, and they fall regrettably flat.

Caroline Brazier gives a polished performance as Paige, and although we can certainly see the disquiet and the deceptive fragile glamour of the lady of the house, we never really come to an understanding of the source of her immense toxicity, which underpins the entire narrative of Dinner. Aleks Mikić plays Mike, the outsider who stumbles in, representing the working class, in a juxtaposition of the privileged against the concept of an everyman. In spite of the actor’s strange and unexplained use of a posh accent, the enigmatic qualities created for his persona, makes him one of the more intriguing aspects of this production.

There are laughs to be had, and valuable concepts to chew on, but Dinner needs a lot more spice if its ambitions are to be fulfilled. Social inequity is a problem of great severity, especially troubling in the Trump age, and when we decide to challenge the imbalance of wealth, any hint of the perfunctory would risk the exercise turning inadequate and hypocritical. It is never sufficient that artists are well-meaning. We rely on them to tell the truth in a way that the truth may have an effect on how we think and live, and when the message is hard to digest, their arguments need to find a way to make themselves persuasive. A gentle simmer might be an easy way to broach the subject, but it rarely manages to get the job done.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: The Father (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 19 – Oct 21, 2017
Playwright: Florian Zeller (translated by Christopher Hampton)
Director: Damien Ryan
Cast: Faustina Agolley, John Bell, Marco Chiappi, Glenn Hazeldine, Anita Hegh, Natasha Herbert
Image by Philip Erbacher

Theatre review
André is getting on in years. He remains in good physical condition, but his mind is failing. The protagonist’s disintegrating memory in Florian Zeller’s The Father brings us through a narrative that vacillates in its reliability. We are constantly disoriented, like its subject, confused by the incoherence of people, place and time. Without any dependable means to decipher and interact with the world, André struggles to maintain a cogent sense of self; if the external cannot be appropriately explained, so too will the internal begin to lose meaning.

Zeller’s depiction of that mental decline, in its theatrical form, offers a valuable opportunity for the condition to be better understood. What could only be an abstract concept, that hitherto relied only on our emphatic imagination, becomes a much more powerful appreciation of an unfortunate state of being. Damien Ryan’s direction makes us feel as though we experience it firsthand. The 90-minute play however, has little new to say besides. After early scenes of quite thrilling revelations, things get old quickly. The show dissolves into predictability and repetitiveness, and when we arrive at what should be an emotional zenith, a surprising placidity is encountered instead.

The roles are performed well, each one lucid and believable. John Bell’s star quality keeps us firmly engaged with André’s plight. It is a robust portrayal, with an emphasis on the character’s dignity at a time of hardship, although a greater sense of vulnerability would make for more poignant drama. Daughter Anne, is played with an admirable realism by Anita Hegh, but the writing seems to restrict the actor to a slightly monotonous interpretation of her role. In the absence of a congruous timeline, characters are prevented from developing very dynamically. They appear in fragments, and the players are accordingly concise.

The production is simple and elegant, with Alicia Clements’ set design placing us confidently, in an upper class existence, where carers and nursing homes are matters of remorse rather than cost. André and Anne have the financial means to ease the pain of fading health, so we are protected from real catastrophe in The Father. Age and death however, will come to all, and as we watch a good man deteriorate, it should only be with resignation and acquiescence that we regard the closing scene, yet we resist, instinctively rejecting the truth of our mortality.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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: Cloud Nine (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), Jul 1 – Aug 12, 2017
Playwright: Caryl Churchill
Director: Kip Williams
Cast: Matthew Backer, Kate Box, Harry Greenwood, Anita Hegh, Josh McConville, Heather Mitchell, Anthony Taufa
Images by Daniel Boud

Theatre review
Betty takes a long time to grow up. In fact, it is centuries before she becomes her own woman. In Act I, she lives in Victorian era Africa, having moved from Britain with her husband, a “colonial administrator”. In Act II, we find that not only has she advanced in age, time itself has moved abruptly to the current day.

Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine is about the way gender, with all its associated contrivances and constraints, is imposed upon individuals in Western societies, ruthlessly reinforced time and time again, in service of a white patriarchal project that seems to have no beginning and no end. It is a scheme that benefits few, and as we see in the play, no one is left unscathed by its oppressive nature.

The absurdities inherent in the practice of gender and whiteness, are shrewdly re-purposed for all of Cloud Nine‘s outrageous comedy, as well as its very scintillating drama. Churchill’s creation might be near on 40 years old, but its uncompromising boldness remains deeply affecting. Ensuring that the work’s confrontational qualities are retained, is director Kip Williams who pairs a flamboyant theatricality with a keen eye for detail, to deliver a show that is as entertaining as it is challenging, and quite surprisingly, profoundly moving.

Actor Heather Mitchell is phenomenal in the production. Playing Betty in Act II, and Betty’s young son in Act I, she works her magic to elicit our compassion, demanding that we respond with the best of our humanity, even when her characters are going through the most precarious of story lines. Whether playing a woman her own age, or a boy of nine, we believe all that she offers, and allow her to take our emotions on an intense but rewarding ride.

Also very memorable is Josh McConville, effortlessly but uproariously funny, again in dual roles of adult and child. As Betty’s husband Clive, he amuses us without giving access to any empathy for his despicable character, and as little Cathy, we fall for the wonderful innocence and irresistible cuteness he introduces, never mind that he looks nothing like a 5 year-old girl. The show is remarkably well-performed. Each member of the ensemble feels a star, and we connect with every personality being presented.

A pristine glass box sits upstage, tightly shut, desperately trying to enclose and protect itself. Representing a Western civilisation that insists on maintaining its incongruity with nature, Elizabeth Gadsby’s set design is a simple concept that speaks volumes. Times can change, and our societies have made progress, but that instrument of containment stays resolutely in place. As our efforts to erode structures of injustice and inhumanity continue, and as we observe transformations occur slowly, we can reach for ourselves, the experience of personal emancipation, so sweet, so wonderful, even if it is actually, no more than a state of mind.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au

Review: 1984 (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jun 28 – Jul 22, 2017
Playwrights: Robert Icke, Duncan Macmillan (based on the George Orwell novel)
Directors: Robert Icke, Duncan Macmillan
Cast: Molly Barwick, Paul Blackwell, Tom Conroy, Terence Crawford, Coco Jack Gillies, Ursula Mills, Renato Musolino, Guy O’Grady, Yalin Ozucelik, Fiona Press
Image by Shane Reid

Theatre review
People often look back at calamitous histories, and are grateful that they had emerged unscathed. In Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s version of 1984, dystopia is not only an imagined future, but also a tragic past that its characters are happy to have left behind. When the worst is over, we think that life returns to a state of healthy normalcy. We choose to believe that those who had committed atrocities are wiped away, and all is good in the world again.

In our need to survive, memory has to become elastic. Self-preservation necessitates that we forget the painful, and in the case of 1984, forgive the unforgivable. Facts are erased, so that ideologies can dominate. The play portrays a simultaneous past and future, but its concern is firmly on the now. It believes in an essential sense of truth, along with the human tendency to obfuscate those truths, in order that power may be won and lost.

With obvious parallels with current political events, it is tempting to say that Orwell’s story is more pertinent today than ever before, but societies have never been pure. Certainly, technology does play an important part in how we control one another, but long before the discovery of electricity, men had sought to suppress thought and expression, with the sole intention of gaining influence and authority. Using lies as apparatus and methodology, devious personalities have risen to positions of leadership, while the rest of us are turned complicit, through acquiescence, obedience and silent surrender.

It is a sleek production, conceived and executed with an admirable sophistication. Orwell’s philosophical interests are powerfully presented, translated from book to stage effectively, though not always with great clarity. The protagonist Winston’s existence is a confused one, and on certain levels, we are accordingly, perhaps appropriately, bewildered. Its messages are unambiguous, however, with all of 1984‘s prominent themes and ideas, articulated emphatically, with conspicuous relevance and urgency.

Chloe Lamford’s scenic design transforms Orwell’s original futuristic outlook into a retrogressive frame of reference; after all, we are now looking at the world 33 years ago. Lights by Natasha Chivers and sound design by Tom Gibbons, play integral roles in the brutal depiction of ruthless tyranny. The assault on our senses is indeed severe, with aggressive noises and strobes unrelenting in trying to seize our nerves and inflict terror.

Actor Tom Conroy has the unenviable task of performing Wilson’s extended suffering, including a lengthy scene featuring quite gruesome physical torture. His work is painfully convincing, and the vulnerability he brings to the role, insists that we are affected by all his adversities. Terence Crawford turns up the drama as the frighteningly menacing O’Brien. His operatic approach to the enigmatic personality seduces us, keeps us on edge and captivated, as the play’s savagery escalates.

The deep pessimism of 1984 demands a strong response. It aims to provoke us into radical thought, if not radical action, with its revelations about a world ruled by evil. We think about governments, religions and corporations, the insidious ways in which they impact upon our lives, how they encroach upon our liberties, and the deficiencies of our resistance. Survival requires degrees of submission, but within any submission, the spirit of defiance can always be found, whether minuscule or vigorous, to spark a change that could pivot the course of history, one can only hope, for the better.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au | www.1984play.com.au