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: 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: Velvet (Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Venue: Roslyn Packer Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Jul 26 – Aug 20, 2017
Director and creator: Craig Ilott
Musical director: Joe Accaria
Choreographer: Lucas Newland
Cast: Joe Accaria, Kaylah Attard, Emma Goh, Marcia Hines, Mirko Köckenberger, Rechelle Mansour, Tom Oliver, Craig Reid, Stephen Williams

Theatre review
The show begins when a young man appears on stage with luggage. Dressed as a Jehovah’s Witness, or maybe a Mormon, the wide-eyed innocent finds himself in a new city, and we imagine that he encounters disco for the first time. This would mean that the action takes place in the late 1970s, when Donna Summer and the Bee Gees ruled the charts, and in New York, the notorious night club Studio 54 was the epicentre of society and culture. Craig Ilott’s Velvet is essentially a variety show, an homage to the era of the hustle, the afro and cocaine. All is light and frothy, with the protagonist’s journey offering a vague sense of narrative, that holds everything together.

At the centre is a slew of hits, unforgettable songs that defined a generation, marvellously reassembled and executed by musical director Joe Accaria, who ensures that their sparkly appeal is always accompanied by a deep appreciation for the soul and funk roots of these dance-floor stompers. Living legend Marcia Hines plays the diva with effortless grace, trusting that her exceptional voice to take us away from daily humdrum to her realm of sequinned ethereality. Leading man Tom Oliver works harder to prove himself, in archetypal musical theatre style, energetic and earnest in his efforts to reach out to everyone in attendance. Acrobats and circus performers provide excellent spectacle and thrills, each of them accomplished and beautiful. The production relies heavily on two very versatile talents Kaylah Attard and Rechelle Mansour, to maintain its effervescence but later sections require more surprises, perhaps in the form of bigger costumes or additional dancers, to sustain our enthusiasm.

Colours of the rainbow flag make more than a few appearances. We cannot be sure if our boy comes out as gay, but he certainly does come out of his shell in the process. Disco may be about debauchery and hedonism, but we remember it also, for the liberation it inspires and represents, even today. At its best, disco is uplifting while it keeps us feeling dirty. It makes us think of sex as salvation, and creates a space where heaven and hell can meet to reveal so much that is dichotomous about being human.

www.velvettheshow.com

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

Review: Black Is The New White (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 5 – Jun 17, 2017
Playwright: Nakkiah Lui
Director: Paige Rattray
Cast: James Bell, Kylie Bracknell [Kaarljilba Kaardn], Tony Briggs, Luke Carroll, Vanessa Downing, Geoff Morrell, Melodie Reynolds-Diarra, Shari Sebbens, Anthony Taufa
Image by Prudence Upton

Theatre review
Charlotte worries about being too white, or to be more accurate, she carries shame about her life not being black enough. The blood in her veins is Aboriginal, but having been born into great privilege, she can only observe, what she considers an authentic black experience, from afar. In Nakkiah Lui’s Black Is The New White, we visit a wealthy black home, through what could be the whitest of storytelling genres possible, the Christmas family comedy.

The show is very funny. Indeed, the jokes do at times, sit on a level of superficiality characteristic of the format, but Lui’s relentless need to interrogate the state of Aboriginal politics allows her show to speak in any tone it wishes, while always retaining a gravity that justifies the exercise, along with providing an extraordinary level of intellectual involvement that keeps us firmly engaged. The work has a specificity that feels completely of the moment; its language, its concerns and its ideas are thoroughly modern. It articulates what we are thinking, but have hitherto been unable to discuss with great fluency. It allows the convoluted disarray of contemporary Aboriginal perspectives surrounding issues of colonialism, be magnificently displayed in all its unresolved vexations. The play is an important timestamp that chronicles the discontent inherent in today’s social dynamics, and a fantastic piece of entertainment with a surprisingly wide appeal.

Paige Rattray demonstrates excellent flair for the sardonic with Black Is The New White. Very pointed observations are made agreeable, and dark subject matter is turned satirical; we are all compelled to have a sense of humour, at Rattray’s insistence. Big conversations between its characters about Australian morality are finely gauged, so that we receive the full impact of what each person is saying. We analyse their upper-middle class lives as their stories unfold before us, but cannot escape shades of complicity, while we inevitably recognise ourselves in so much of the blistering dialogue.

A spectacular cast of nine is fiercely present, determined to enthral and educate. Each vibrant actor offers up a personality that is detailed and authentic, and we get to know them with extraordinary familiarity. Not all are picture perfect and several prove themselves to be quite nasty people, but we fall head over heels nonetheless. They are all very charming.

Charlotte is played by Shari Sebbens, a performer especially effective when things gets politically combative. The conviction she brings is impressive, leaving no room to doubt her very edifying intentions and desires. Melodie Reynolds-Diarra is commanding in her maternal role, incisive with her humour, but adoringly warm as leader of her pack. Remarkably elegant, she delivers some of the play’s biggest laughs with what looks to be little effort. The narrative’s pivotal parts of duelling fathers, are played mischievously by Tony Briggs and Geoff Morrell, both imaginative and effervescently confident with what they introduce to the stage. Their bickering is hilarious, and the actors’ chemistry as an unexpected pairing, is a highlight.

Set design is brilliantly conceived by Renee Mulder, who establishes five separate performance spaces within the interiors of a very glamorous house. Aesthetically refined and superbly functional (without relying on moving parts), it presents comfortable aspects to all seats in the auditorium, although decoration and costumes could benefit from a bolder, more adventurous style.

There are many ways to talk about race and Indigenous experiences, and in Black Is The New White, we find several of them co-existing. The joy of being able to partake in its pluralist approach to these difficult matters, makes the play uniquely refreshing. The people we meet have differing views, but they are all likeable. As audience, we are then given permission to agree with contradictory points of view, or at least, are encouraged to take moments to appreciate what our adversaries value. It is a messy affair at the Gibson household (complete with an epic food fight), and although the stories all conclude nicely, à la Hollywood (and Bollywood), the issues that had been brought up do not diminish. Money can solve many problems, as we witness at this spirited Christmas gathering, but it is how we move our rich resources around that will bring about the improvements we desperately need.

www.sydneytheatre.com.au