Review: The Realistic Joneses (Patina Productions)

Venue: Limelight on Oxford (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 13 -30, 2019
Playwright: Will Eno
Director: Julie Baz
Cast: Jeff Houston, Suzann James, David Jeffrey, Jodine Muir
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
There are two straight couples living across the street from each other, both named Jones. In The Realistic Joneses, characters go about their average mundane small town lives, but there is something distinctly strange about the way they talk. Playwright Will Eno’s dialogue feels like high art, bizarre yet completely believable, for a way of excavating truths about the human condition, that only the medium of performance can deliver. Resolutely quirky, The Realistic Joneses brings upheaval to concepts of normalcy that inform Western life. The Joneses speak what they are supposed to, but also what they are not. They portray the ordinary in a manner that creates turbulence, making us laugh because we understand all the arbitrariness of rules that fundamentally govern the politeness of society.

Actor David Jeffrey finds the right pitch for conveying the play’s humour, deadpan but deliberate in an interpretation of John that almost makes him seem an alien pretending to be human. There is no doubt that we can all relate to this sense of displacement, of being awkward in social situations. Director Julie Baz’s understated approach is surprisingly effective in depicting the comedy inherent in our daily lives, but an emphasis on naturalism can sometimes take away from Eno’s heightened style. The very subdued closing scenes abandon the laughs, in search of poignancy, which sadly never quite materialises.

It is a splendid title, that reveals so much about how we present our selves to the world. We aim to be realistic, of appearing to look real, probably because actually being real is not something our collective existence is able to cope with. Those who truly speak their minds are ostracised, maybe even cast as insane, so we learn where the limits are, and negotiate within those rigid borders. There is always something false in how we communicate, especially when in groups. The answer is not to withdraw and hide in arrogant isolation, but to question all that is shown to us. Cynicism, one would argue, is necessary in one’s participation in the world. The real challenge is making that cynicism sit side by side, with an earnestness we must never give up, in our involvement with this world.

www.limelightonoxford.com.au

Review: Once In Royal David’s City (New Theatre)

Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 19 – Apr 13, 2019
Playwright: Michael Gow
Director: Patrick Howard
Cast: Alana Birtles, Ben Brighton, Amy Victoria Brooks, Sandra Campbell, Nathalie Fenwick, Nicholas Foustellis, Angela Johnston, Alice Livingstone,
Aimee Lodge, Francisco Lopez, Martin Portus, Bryden White-Tuohey
Images by Bob Seary

Theatre review
Will is on the verge of beginning a new job, just as his mother coincidentally lays dying in hospital. It is a new life that beckons, and with all the emotions that should feel overwhelming, Will retreats into a lot of academia, as is typical of theatre directors and educationalists. He spends his time thinking about Marx and Brecht, dealing with ideas of resource ownership and distanciation; not quite preparing for the period of mourning that is sure to come. Michael Gow’s Once In Royal David’s City is a piece of writing perhaps not entirely interested in coherence, allowing itself to move in various directions, almost defying our need to condense its contents into a more conventional narrative form.

Patrick Howard’s direction reveals with honesty, the often contradictory states of being human. Will never quite behaves the way we expect him to, yet there is nothing unbelievable about how he goes about his business. There are some hallmarks of Brechtian theatre in the presentation, although those expressions can seem perfunctory. It is a handsome looking show, put together with excellent taste by production and lighting designer Victor Kalka, and costume associate Luciana Nguyen. Their minimalist style suits the bluntness of Gow’s writing, unpretentious but elegant.

Actor Francisco Lopez brings an unassuming geniality to the lead role, effective in monologues that allow him to directly address the audience, but too mellow in contrast with scene partners. More compelling performances come from the likes of Sandra Campbell, whose commanding presence in several small parts proves refreshing. Amy Victoria Brooks too, is memorable as Gail, an anguished soul roaming the hospital, in search of connection and consolation. Will’s mother Jeannie is played by Alice Livingstone, ironically lively, able to bring verve to a character that is otherwise written with little originality.

To love books is in some ways better than loving people. Books can be crafted to perfection, and we as readers can hold dear, words and ideas that we deem to be impeccably arranged. To love humans however, is quite another thing. Not only are we deeply flawed, we are transient, destined to break hearts wherever bonds are created. Death and impermanence, however are the ultimate provocation, intensifying all the sensations that define love. The heart wants what the heart wants. Mortal or immortal, it is hardly up to us to choose for whom we fall.

www.newtheatre.org.au

Review: Wrath (Jackrabbit Theatre)

Venue: Kings Cross Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Mar 8 – 22, 2019
Playwright: Liam Maguire
Director: Liam Maguire
Cast: Madeleine Vizard, Adam Sollis, Jonny Hawkins, Elle Mickel, Amy Hack and Emma Harvie
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
It all kicks off when the CEO spots a pubic hair in the boardroom. Liam Maguire’s Wrath is an absurd and very grotesque look at corporate culture, that dog-eat-dog world in which some of the most brutal of human behaviour can be found. Disguised behind a pretence of uncompromising suit-and-tie civility, with the notion of profit maximisation as guiding principle, these people are entrenched in a system that is profoundly immoral and surreptitiously harmful. The play amplifies all that is wrong about a segment of our lives that has grown substantial and ineludible.

There is semblance of a narrative, but it only serves as conduit for comedic sequences that attack and satirise out institutions of greed. Maguire’s exaggerated approach to humour makes for a flamboyant presentation; Wrath is often hilarious, with a wild spirit that persuades us to luxuriate in its artistic risks. Sound by Sam Maguire and lights by John Collopy, are valuable in creating the show’s faux display of overwrought melodrama, but design schemes eventually turn repetitive, and their efficacy markedly fades in later segments.

An eccentric cast keeps us amused from start to finish. Madeleine Vizard’s extravagant interpretation of CEO Stockwood is brilliant, in its unrelenting incisiveness for a scornful embodiment of the ruthless and power mad. It is a deliciously camp performance, satisfying with the textures she is able to provide in spite of all the exaggerated embellishment. There is a lot of big acting in the piece, and Elle Mickel is chief offender, in the best possible sense. As Daphne, she does not hold back, and we go along with where she dares to tread. Emma Harvie executes perfect timing for the mousy January, a secretary of few words, but all uttered with sublime precision.

These monsters of industry are pervasively and deeply woven into the fabric of our lives, and to wish to have them completely extricated is a pipe dream. We can however, restrict our individual participation in their dominion. We can find ways to retreat from them, to identify their competitors and adversaries, and work to boost those who will bring a greater sense of balance to how power is distributed in our economies. We need to resist the allure of the shiny seductive exteriors, of corporations that can never live up to what they promise. If we can take down the big guys, then those of us who are small can flourish.

www.jackrabbittheatre.com

Review: The Divorce Party (Life After Productions / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: The Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Mar 12 – 16, 2019
Playwright: Liz Hobart
Director: Alexander Lee-Rekers
Cast: Meg Clarke, Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn, Ariadne Sgouros, Alexander Stylianou
Images by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
We are in a car park behind a restaurant with four attendees of a divorce party, taking a cigarette break from the unusual festivities. Liz Hobart’s The Divorce Party is a curious work, structured like a puzzle to involve our participation in figuring out the stories therein. Although mildly intriguing, the play’s deliberate abstruseness never pays off. Barely an hour long, we lose interest early in the piece, and by the time its mysteries are revealed, none of it is able to cause a stir.

Set design by Damien Egan however, is charming with its accuracy in depicting contemporary Australian life, complete with push bin and bad graffiti. The actors demonstrate adequate familiarity with their individual roles, even if their collaboration feels incohesive. Ariadne Sgouros and Alexander Stylianou bring energy at every opportunity, and succeed in creating momentary stimuli for the piece. Meg Clarke has little to work with in terms of storyline, but manages to build a character of some authenticity. A very subtle performance by Badaidilaga Maftuh-Flynn helps create an enigmatic, if slightly too sombre, quality for his role.

With the proliferation of divorces, it is perhaps not entirely surprising that some people might want to commemorate the event. What was once a catalyst for vehement disapproval from all quarters, is now an ordinary part of life. When a relationship ends, it often means that suffering too, begins to find relief, so it does make sense that celebration is in order. As long as people wish to get married, there needs to be a liberal attitude towards divorce. Nobody should be tethered to any misery, and we should all know to walk out, if the heart so desires.

www.old505theatre.com

Review: Jess & Joe Forever (Sugary Rum Productions / 25A Belvoir)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 13 – 30, 2019
Playwright: Zoe Cooper
Director: Shaun Rennie
Cast: Nyx Calder, Julia Robertson
Images by Kate Williams

Theatre review
The children are on a mission to tell their story. It takes place in Joe’s hometown of Norfolk, where Jess had begun spending her summer holidays at 9 years-old. The two become fast friends, and go through thick and thin together. In Zoe Cooper’s Jess & Joe Forever, they find a way to recount seminal events of their young lives, like an informal kind of psychotherapy, not because there is anything wrong with them per se, but because the world seems intent on inflicting a very hard time on them both. Cooper’s writing is extraordinarily tender, beautifully authentic in the way these young voices are rendered. Its structure is suspenseful and intriguing, for a narrative that does much more than entertain.

Director Shaun Rennie takes great care to manufacture a sensitive atmosphere in which we can only receive Jess and Joe with hearts wide open, and in the process, come to an intimate understanding of how children respond to the bigger world, and all the the difficult things we cannot shield them from. The emotional crescendo Rennie is able to build into the plot of Jess & Joe Forever, is representative of theatre at its most captivating.

It is a wonderfully designed production. Isabel Hudson’s playground is perfectly proportioned for the small auditorium, with quaint illustrations along the backdrop reflecting an innocence so crucial to the play. Lights by Benjamin Brockman help to amplify the emotions of both characters and audience, so that none of the sentimentality escapes us. Ben Pierpoint’s work on sound provides for the mind’s eye, an evocative picture of what that small English seaside town must look like, and his music gives the show a sense of elevation, with its unmistakable sophistication.

We fall in love right away with the very excellent cast, both actors adorable and completely believable as our little hosts. As Jess, Julia Robertson brings to the role a strength and defiance that absolutely charms. Her effervescence is infectious, and even though her penchant for machine gun speed recitation of lines can sometimes be a challenge, the precision of her approach is unequivocally affecting. Nyx Calder is perfect as Joe, disarmingly poignant but also effortless and delightful in their depiction of youthful purity. The extraordinary vulnerability that Calder is able to convey, fills the gaps purposefully left behind by the playwright, impeccably addressing parts of Joe’s story where words can prove inadequate.

Watching these kids, we feel compelled to protect them, but we also know that their struggles will make them into resilient and wise adults. It is true that there is much sadness in the world. The societies we manufacture often seem to be endlessly flawed, and the thought that those who have done no harm, would still be subject to injustice and inequity, is devastating. Some of us will respond with resignation, but some will fight for things to be better. Jess & Joe Forever is bittersweet, because its anguish is palpable, but it also provides inspiration, so that we can know to always do the right thing.

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

Review: Russian Transport (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 9 – 31, 2018
Playwright: Erika Sheffer
Director: Joseph Uchitel
Cast: Ryan Carter, Rebecca Rocheford Davies, Nathan Sapsford, Hayley Sullivan, Berynn Schwerdt
Images by Jeremy Ghali, Nino Tamburri

Theatre review
The lives of a Russian family in Brooklyn are turned upside down, when a relative comes to stay. Ex-crim Boris’ arrival leads us to question if turning a new leaf can ever be a simple proposition, for those who have spent all their lives exposed to immorality. Erika Sheffer’s Russian Transport is a slow burn, with drama that starts to engage late in the piece. Its themes are intriguing, but the promise of philosophical resonance is subsumed by a narrative that can feel somewhat hesitant, with perspectives that are inadequately critical. The characters we encounter are fiery, but the play is oddly short of passion.

Designed by Anna Gardiner, the production bears a striking appearance, with a robustness that keeps our eyes active and involved. Joseph Uchitel’s direction ensures an energetic, quite raucous stage, but struggles to achieve meaningful cohesion between his actors for their story to really captivate. Rebecca Rocheford Davies and Berynn Schwerdt play mother and father, both actors imposing and dynamic, but are ultimately insufficiently convincing with their portrayals of two very complex personalities. Troublemaker Boris is on the other hand, a more obvious role, given appropriate vigour by Nathan Sapsford. The show is stolen by Ryan Carter and Hayley Sullivan, who bring life to teenage parts in Russian Transport. Sullivan’s ability to inject nuance into her 14 year-old Mira is commendable, and Carter’s exceptional fastidiousness and intensity as Alex, is responsible for the show’s most powerful moments.

The loss of innocence is eternally fascinating. In migrant families, that process of a teenager having to emerge into adulthood is additionally complicated, with influences and expectations coming from disparate sources, all simultaneously insisting on adherence. Alex and Mira are American kids, but Russia is in their blood. The play allows us to see the extent to which cultural heritage can dominate the development of our young. Even when we have the privilege of choosing where to raise your children, it seems inevitable that the baggage we had intended to leave behind, can so easily return to materially affect future generations. We have ghosts that are both good and bad. The challenge is our own ability to discern, before having them unleashed on our nearest and dearest.

www.fishyproductions.com | www.darlinghursttheatre.com

Review: Every Brilliant Thing (Belvoir St Theatre)

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Mar 8 – 31, 2019
Playwrights: Duncan Macmillan, with Jonny Donahoe
Directors: Kate Champion, Steve Rodgers
Cast: Kate Mulvany
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
The narrator began compiling a list of brilliant things, when her mother first attempted suicide. In trying to understand why one should go to such extremes, the narrator, at the time a seven year-old child, focused her thoughts instead on all that is good about the world, whether they be ice cream, things with stripes, opening presents, or watching things grow. The list is then used as a vehicle for communication with her mother, who continues to struggle with depression, in the narrator’s efforts to connect, and to heal. Initially intended to be itemised at a thousand, the number keeps growing as our narrator herself grows up. We witness the list assume a bigger life, as it transforms into a basis on which the narrator deals with her own life.

Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe’s Every Brilliant Thing is full of sincerity, in its discussions about suicide, and the inter-generational effects of depression in families. The piece feels authentic with its explorations, and offers a theatrical intimacy for its sensitive subject matter. There is little however, that is unexpected, and it alternates frequently between poignancy and banality, in its attempts at informing and entertaining its audience. The themes are extremely delicate, and as such, we approach them sensibly, for a play that never turns very dramatic.

House lights are on for the entirety, during which performer Kate Mulvany addresses us directly. Many members of audience are given cards denoting an item from the narrator’s list, and are invited to read them out loud when asked. More extensive interactions are required of luckier attendees, who take to the stage briefly to play several small roles in the story. Mulvany’s charm proves boundless, as she opens herself up to a swarm of unpredictability in this theatre-in-the-round configuration. Her confidence and preparedness is thoroughly impressive, but pacing of the production can suffer in moments when she has more to manage than to simply tell a story. The show runs very long on opening night. Even though there is much to enjoy in watching live theatre do its magic, we do experience the disruption of plot tension, for better or for worse, at many points.

In the production and consumption of theatre, we form communities that must hold each other in mutual care. Sat face to face, Every Brilliant Thing gives us the opportunity to look at each other, and learn to look after each other. It reinforces the understanding that parts of us are frail, that we all have weaknesses behind our smiling faces. There may be a million wonderful things to encounter, but there is no denying that life is hard. The only way we can make it through, is to do it together.

www.belvoir.com.au