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Cirque Stratosphere

The Works Entertainment. Concert Hall, Sydney House from December 24 to 29, 2019 then January 14 to 19, 2020 and Hamer Hall, Melbourne from January 3 – 11, 2020.

Reviewed : December 26, 2019

Photo : Jordan Munns

Circus is no longer just Circus! Technology has contemporised it, taken it out of travelling caravans and raised audiences’ expectations beyond the thrill of the daring performances to want more than the old “greatest show on earth”! They still want the thrills, but they want lights, sound – and even story – as well the action!

So, when the ‘big top’ is the Concert Hall of the Opera House, and there is an imaginative production team led by people like Simon Painter, Tim Lawson and Neil Dorward, the sky’s the limit – or the whole Stratosphere for that matter!

Taking the 50th anniversary of the lunar landing as their theme, they have built this year’s international acrobatic feats around the 1969 Apollo launch. They have incorporated the original recordings from NASA along with a barrage of LED lights and atmospheric digital sound to generate even greater tension than that created by the acts themselves. A DJ sits high on an octagon lighting loom that rises above the stage. Sixteen huge multicoloured spots provide a barrage of pin-point spots highlighting performances.

Stage crew in white space suits prologue each act. Dancers in white and silver assist others. Performers rise from a mist of swirling clouds to twist and contort on a hoop suspended from above; or rebound on bungee straps swinging from pulleys high in the curved ceiling under the opera house sails. Others emerge from the marching space crew to fly off an elasticised, trampoline rope held on the shoulders of fellow performers.

The “clowns’ – Steve Capps, better known as Tape Face and Salvadore Salangsang (Sal) – choose ‘assistants’ from the audience to distract attention as cosmic stage-hands remove and replace equipment. Even clowning has changed to accommodate larger venues and compete with screen magicians and sit-com pranksters. Tape face relies on things such as big balloons and nerf-type guns. Sal uses what he finds at the venue – including the chords of the huge pipe organ, two timpani drums and the willing voices of the audience. An accomplished break dancer, he moves with rubbery precision, encouraging ‘volunteers’ from the audience to follow his sinewy moves.

Photo : Jordan Munns

In the glossy souvenir program, every act is re-titled with an astronautical theme. Anna Lewandowska on the LED ‘sphere’ cyr wheel is The Orbiter. Duo roller skaters Evgenii Isaev and Natalia Korzhukova are billed as Duo Velocity. Dmitry Makrushin and Oleg Bespalov, who demonstrate incredible strength and balance are The Galactus Gods. Hoop divers Nicolas-Yang Wang and Shengpeng Nie are Submergence; trapeze artist Oleg Spigin is The Cosmonaut and Wheel of Death dare-devils Roy Miller and Luis Romero are The Flyers Valencia.

Every act is prefaced by the continuing NASA broadcast, and in the lead up to Neil Armstrong’s first “small step for man”,  Felice Aguilar, the spinning Celestial Cyclone is wheeled in on a white lounge watching the landing on a small screen TV – as so many around the world did. As the tension quickens, she takes the stage on a spinning platform twisting and twirling in a rotating tribute to that “one giant leap for mankind”.

The lights are very bright; the sound is very loud; the effect is powerfully electric and all-consuming! It might not be everyone’s nostalgic ideal of what circus ‘used to be’, but it is circus as it is now – and will be. New equipment will lead performers to create even more daring and stunning feats. And their producers and directors will use whatever emerging new technologies are available to enhance the program and attract contemporary audiences – as those behind Cirque Stratosphere have done.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Handel’s Messiah

Sydney Philharmonia Choirs. Sydney Opera House Concert Hall. November 13 – 15, 2019

Reviewed : December 13, 2019

Photo : Keith Saunders

Handel’s Messiah, composed in 1741, is an oratorio based on scriptural texts compiled by Charles Jennens from the King James Bible. It highlights three of the major events in the life of Christ. His birth (the Christmas section), the Passion (the events leading to the crucifixion) and the Resurrection (the Easter section).

It is traditionally performed leading up to Christmas – and this year in many parts of England it will be the culmination of a year of performances of Handel’s works in celebration of the 250th anniversary of his death.

For their special Christmas performances, conductor Brett Weymark and Sydney Philharmonia Choirs are always joined by The Christmas Choir, a non-auditioned choir made up of “passionate members of the community”. This year that choir numbered 475 Sydney men and women. The newly formed River City Voices from Parramatta also joined the combined choirs. Together these 651 choristers have spent eight weeks rehearsing with the orchestra and the soloists to bring Handel’s famous oratorio to Sydney audiences.

This year’s performance is special in that it is leads into their 100th birthday and will see them returning to their roots in the Sydney Town Hall, whilst the Concert Hall is undergoing refurbishment. 2020 promises to be a busy year with some special highlights, which Weymark describes as “an opportunity to explore our past, the present and our future as an artistic force in our city”.

Back to Handel, the soloists and the orchestra. Soprano Celeste Lazarenko, countertenor Nicholas Tolputt, tenor Andrew Goodwin and bass-baritone Christopher Richardson brought their very wide operatic and concert experience to Handel’s dramatic musical interpretation of the biblical texts – with the choir rising almost like a gentle gasp to follow with each chorus. As they rose for the Hallelujah Chorus, so too did the entire audience, as is the tradition for that universally known and loved chorus.

The orchestra elegantly executes Handel’s moving musical effects. Twenty violins, eight violas, seven cellos and four double basses lead this orchestra with the composer’s special moments highlighted by oboes, the harpsicord, the bassoons, the timpani, the organ and the gentle sound of the lute in “I know that my Redeemer liveth”.

Brett Weymark’s special skill and vast experience is evident as he brings the performers together as a united, musical whole, their 2019 Messiah a fitting Sydney celebration of the composer who left it to the world 250 years ago.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

David Campbell and the SSO Open the Coliseum

David Campbell & the Sydney Symphone Orchestra; Coliseum Theatre, 12-13 December 2019.

Reviewed : December 12, 2019

Photo : Robert Catto.

Sydney’s Coliseum Theatre opened with a Christmas ‘bang’ on December 12, 2019! David Campbell and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Nicholas Buc, wowed the 2000 strong audience with a special Christmas at the Coliseum concert that gave the creators of this great new theatre a chance to show just what it can do. Stage, lighting, acoustics, sightlines, seating! All are incredible! Just as Executive Director Craig McMasters promised they would be when I spoke with him just six months ago.

Two years and one month ago this wonderful new building was just a dream. Last night patrons walked down its graceful staircase under a sparkling green chandelier and sipped drinks from a variety of bars before making their way into its spectacular theatre. The mood was eclectically infectious! Excitement … Wonder … Curiosity … Expectation… and no one was disappointed.

There, on the fifteen-metre wide stage swathed in metres of shimmering velvet, under a plethora of LED lights shining from every direction and an enormous Christmas tree glittering with gold lights on stage left, Richard Wilkins introduced the SSO, complete with its beautiful gold harp – and the peoples’ favourite ‘swing king’, David Campbell – as the very first performers to grace this opulent, world class venue.

Grace it they did! Campbell is a very special entertainer. His repertoire is extensive, his range amazing. But more than that, he’s a man of the people. There is no pretension. He loves his audience – and he loved being the first of many great Australians to sing on this special new stage at his “favourite time of the year”.

Tina Arena will follow him on the weekend. Barry Humphries will bring Dame Edna to the west next week. John Butler will follow her. And Keith Urban will be it’s “official” opening act on 21st December – but Campbell and the musicians of the Sydney Symphony blessed the theatre with a very special festive first night.

“Winter Wonderland” was the first of the famous seasonal songs to thrill the audience, followed by favourites including Mel Tormé and Bob Wells’ famous “The Christmas Song” with  its warm image of ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire .. and new compositions such as Australian composer Rick Price’s “Baby It’s Christmas”.

Photo : Robert Catto.

As a tribute to the inspired ingenuity of those who envisaged the Coliseum, Campbell and the orchestra chose “Pure Imagination”, and the brilliant acoustics of the theatre picked up its message and took it soaring. The flute and harp led the orchestra in a beautiful classical interpretation of “Greensleeves”, and both Campbell and the orchestra paid musical homage to those affected by the bush fires – especially those who are fighting the fires– with a moving performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”.

The carols “Silent Night”  and “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” gave the evening a more traditional feeling – until Campbell gave in to a rousing rendition of the more “recent” Christmas favourite “All I Want for Christmas is You!”

What a wonderful way to christen this newest “jewel” of the West. At the beginning of the month the new Sydney Zoo opened just down the road in Doonside. Now, the Coliseum and its great gladiatorial program of world-famous Australian entertainers, will take us through to Christmas. Come by car along the M2 and the M7 – or by train to Rooty Hill station a short stroll away. There’s plenty of parking, great places to eat – and the New Year will bring more concerts and ballet, contemporary dance, musical theatre, opera and specialist acts.

The Coliseum will make the heart of western Sydney pulse with a brand, new cultural beat.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

The Cranston Cup

Collaborative Comedy: The Cranston Cup, Enmore Theatre, 8 December 2012.

Reviewed : December 8, 2019

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

Colourful creativity! Terrific teamwork! Call it what you will. The Cranston Cup is the competitive culmination of weeks of impressive improvisation. Six teams strutting their stuff in sensational scenarios – simply scintillating!

This year’s Theatresports final was everything the eclectic audience expected – funny, clever, inventive, fast moving.

Compere Harry Milas worked his usual magic on the crowd. Though the cards he used for the first round were a little bigger than those he usually shuffles, Milas set pace for a cracking final. With Rob Johnson timing and tallying and Tom Cardy hitting the keys to add a bit of atmosphere, impro aficionados Kate Coates, Liz Hovey and Wean Campbell took the judges’ seats.

The stage was set forYear 6 Formal, a team of students from Newington College, joined the competition, to pitt their prowess against the ‘age and experience’ of five more practised performers. Every team showed what Theatresports is all about: working together, listening, keeping the scene going … and having fun.

One Day from Retirement kicked off in the first round with a mime on the topic “Magician” (Funny that!), and Year 6 Formal ‘died in a minute’ at a French café. The Bald and the Beautiful used gibberish in a scene set at Sydney Trapeze, while We’re Cousins composed a pithy poem about a bible salesman.

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

In round two, James Hill High built a time warp narrative around a cursed swamp and the Pash Rats built a first and last line challenge around a nerf gun. Things got a bit more frenetic in the third round. Year 6 Formal found some aliens at a dog track, We’re Cousins were cruel to a friend in a graveyard and the Pash Rats lampooned HSC Drama Group Performances on the topic of “cyberbullying”.

The final round saw some classic impro. We’re Cousins wowed the audience and the judges with an ‘epic’ on the strange topic “The Maddening Challenge of Bill” and The Bald and the Beautiful went all operatic with a dishwasher!

Highlights of the night – and there were many – were a very clever three-way Double Figures by James Hill High as theyovercame crippling anxiety at a house party…  and One Day from Retirement reminisced at a parent teacher meeting!

It was these two teams who finally shared the glory in a two-way triumph as the winners of the Cranston Cup for 2019.

Elliot Ulm, Reuben Ward & Tamara Smith and Theo Murray, Luke Tisher and Steph Ryan proudly accepted the two-metre-high trophy surrounded by their talented rivals. It was a great finale for a theatre event that has been inspiring Sydney audiences – and aspiring performers – for over 40 years.

Improvisation builds confidence, listening skills and the ability to work as a team as well as teaching acting skills. Check out the Impro Australia website to find out about courses, workshops, the Theatresports Schools Competition and all up-coming events including Celebrity Theatresports –  http://improaustralia.com.au/shows/

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Krapp’s Last Tape

By Samuel Beckett. Red Line Productions. Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo. Nov 26 – Dec 14, 2019

Reviewed : November 29, 2019

Photo : John Marmaras

Brian Thomson’s set and Veronique Bennett’s lighting at the Old Fitz embrace Krapp, providing him with the dim space and light he craves: “The new light above my head is a great improvement. With all this darkness around me I feel less alone.”

Joathan Biggins inhabits Krapp like a threadbare coat or a worn slipper. . . for us to contemplate his remarkable performance.

Sixty shabby filing drawers tower like a wall over him. A ladder propped beside allows him access to the uppermost drawers. His battered desk is centred under “the new light”. Its globe dims each time he moves away.

Joathan Biggins inhabits Krapp like a threadbare coat or a worn slipper. He shuffles in from the bathroom, obviously still suffering the digestion problem that we learn about in “Spool 5” from “Box 3”. Carefully he places the ladder and climbs to put the toilet roll he holds into the highest filing drawer.

His character is established in these first, studied actions. His Krapp is an old 69 year old, settled in his ways, safe in his “darkness”.

Photo : John Marmaras

Gale Edwards has directed this version of Krapp to uncover the incredible complexity that Beckett wrote into the character. His youth. His love affairs. The few copies of his books sold. The death of his father. The death of his mother. The feel of a rubber ball in his hand. Every little revelation in the text has been assiduously included in the character she and Biggins have developed – every action and reaction thoughtfully considered and intuitively paced. The way he fiddles with his keys. The way he peels the banana. The way he eats it. The crooked smile as he recalls the woman in the punt.

And the way he waits, at the end of the play, as the “new light” above his head gradually fades … for us to contemplate his remarkable performance.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

 

Coram Bay

Adapted for the stage by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin’s novel. bAKEHOUSE Theatre and KXT. Nov 22 – Dec 7, 2019

Reviewed : Novemeber 28, 2019

Photo : Clare Hawley

In England and America Coram Boy has been played on vast stages with large casts, lush costumes, a chorus and an orchestra. It’s an epic tale, set in eighteenth-century England, with Dickensian themes and characters – a perfect vehicle for a main stage extravaganza!

Yet its Sydney premiere, on the small transept stage of the Kings Cross theatre, loses none of the dark drama or redeeming love of this beautiful adaptation. In fact, the proximity of the performers spreads like a cloak that wraps around the audience, gathering them into this poignant tale of greed, betrayal, love and music, and transporting them into a time when the English government condoned slavery and children could be sold as commodities. It is a “spell-binding, heart-breakingly beautiful tale” told by a company that has the courage to do big things in small but clever ways.

It is a “spell-binding, heart-breakingly beautiful tale” told by a company that has the courage to do big things in small but clever ways.

Doing so takes guts, time, innovative ideas and a production team that knows how to realise them. Directors John Harrison and Michael Dean, producer Suzanne Miller, composer Nate Edmondson and lighting designer Benjamin Brockman are such a team. It also takes a very dedicated and responsive cast – like the fifteen actors who carry over twenty characters into the jaundiced society of the early days of the industrial revolution and portray the horror and anguish that often occurred.

A society where people like Otis Gardiner take babies from unmarried mothers, promising they will be brought up and educated in the Thomas Coram orphanage – then bury them and use the money to fund other more devious exploits. Where fathers like Lord Ashbrook deny their sons the chance to follow their dreams. Where women are bought to sell on as slaves. Where those who are a little different are ridiculed and abused, and those of another colour are shunned and abused. Fortunately, these almost gothic themes are lightened by hope and redemption – and the music of Handel, that inspires the two young musicians about whom the plot revolves.

Photo : Clare Hawley

The ways in which Harrison and Dean have manipulated the many characters, the multiple scenes and a plethora of props to achieve such a complex production is testament to their intimate understanding of the script and the possibilities they can see in the space. Physical theatre plays a huge part in this production, implying moods, changing pace, transitioning scenes, evoking tension, introducing different dimensions of the script.  In a ballroom scene, choreography that is vertical rather than horizontal, lifts the action up rather than out.

Encompassed by Edmondson’s sound design, this action creates an atmosphere that is eerily isolated at times, frighteningly congested at others. Brockman’s lighting is equally evocative, softly touching motionless forms, sifting through misty ‘streets’, washing over drowning bodies.

In this created world, the company works together as a committed collective, their characters clearly defined as they expose the twisted moralities that affect their lives. Ryan Hodson and Joshua Wiseman begin the tale as Alexander Ashbrook and Thomas Ledbury, teenagers from different social backgrounds, linked by their love of music.

Lloyd Allison-Young frighteningly creates the appalling Otis Gardiner and his sickening deeds. Ariadne Sgouros is formidable as Mrs Lynch, the woman who ‘procures’ the babies for him. Amanda Stevens-Lee plays the benevolent Lady Ashbrook, Andrew Den her insensitive husband who disowns his son because he chooses to study music.

Photo : Clare Hawley

Petronella Van Tienen is naively endearing as Ashbrook’s illegitimate son, Aaron, and it is her wide-eyed trust and beautiful voice that brings the estranged family back together. Annie Stafford is Melissa Milcote, his young mother. Suz Mawer plays Mrs Milcote, the typical ‘poor relation’ anxious to see her daughter in better circumstances.

Tinashe Mangwana makes his theatre debut as Toby Gaddarn, an African orphan dreaming of finding his mother. Giddeon Payten-Griffiths plays a tutor, a judge and the composer Handel. Emma O’Sullivan, Violette Ayad and Rebecca Abdel-Messih play the many other characters that people the story – unmarried mothers with unwanted babies, Alexander’s sisters, children in the chapel choir.

And Joshua McElroy is Meshak and Mish. It is his performance that lingers at the edges of the memory, just as his characters linger at the edges of society. Whether hugging the sides of the stage as he stalks his “angel”, sobbing over the dead babies he buries, cowering under Otis’ harsh beatings or reaching up through waves of haze to save his “angel baby”, McElroy’s performance captures symbolically the downtrodden and neglected that hover on the outskirts of society. Such evocative direction is a distinctive feature of Harrison’s work

Though I have singled out specific performers, it is the ‘whole’ that impresses most about this production. The cruelty and pain of life, as well as its hope and joy are portrayed in a true ensemble production that has become bAKEHOUSE’s trademark.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Seraphim Trio and Martin Alexander

ANAM Artists. Independent Theatre North Sydney. 24th November, 2019

Reviewed : November 24, 2019

Photo : supplied

If seraphim are ‘six winged angels’ with “a fiery passion for doing God’s good work” (Isiah, Chapter 6), then this trio plus one is aptly named. Anna Goldsworthy (piano), Helen Ayres (violin) and Timothy Nankervis (cello) and Martin Alexander (viola) – are certainly ‘musical angels’ with a fiery passion for what they do! And their work? Taking beautiful music around the country as representatives of the Australian National Academy of Music Artists (ANAM).

ANAM is dedicated to “the artistic and professional development of the most exceptional young musicians from Australia and New Zealand”. The ANAM Artists program showcases some of their alumni in series of recitals. Last Sunday’s recital saw Seraphim return to Sydney after an exhaustive inter- and intra- state tour. Despite their wide travels, they were brightly fresh and brilliantly entertaining.

Martin Alexander introduced Mozart’s Piano Concerto in G Minor as written in the “key of Fate” because G Minor is regarded as a “painful, sorrowful key”. Seraphim’s program notes expand on this by explaining that the G minor “gravitas” of the first movement is “dispelled in the second movement, followed by the third movement in the key of G major which unfolds as a visitation of joy”. And so it did! It was a joy to see and hear four talented musicians working together so harmoniously to show how Mozart balanced the interplay between piano and strings in this exceptional work that cleverly blends the instruments to accentuate and intensify every change in tone and emotion.

Timothy Nankervis introduced the second part of the program, Dvořák’s Piano Quartet in E flat major Op. 87, in a little double divertissement about Dvořák – namely that he started his career as a violist and how his love of the instrument shines in this piece, and that he also loved trains, often spending hours ‘trainspotting’. He went on to explain the intricacies of the piece including its wonderful melodies, the lovely cello solo and “the joy, excitement and mercurial, bohemian quality” of the themes.

Photo : supplied

This was all certainly evident in the quartet’s rendering of the piece. Gentle beginnings allowed the voices of the instruments to blend yet remain delicately distinguishable, before rising to more compelling emotional shifts of mood. The mellow voice of the cello underlined the lyrical moments of the piece and the viola shone at others. Motifs referencing gypsy themes are reflective and melancholy. In the 4th and final movement themes are brought together in an intense harmony that thrills and leaves one wanting more.

This was certainly a program that exemplified ANAM’s ongoing contribution to the Australia’s musical talent and its commitment to taking music to far and diverse audiences. The Seraphim Trio and Martin Alexander are great ambassadors of the aim of the ANAM Artists program. Their love of music, their carefully honed talent and their enthusiasm are constantly evident – and their knowledge about the composers and their lives brings humanity and humour to their performances.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Nell Gwynn

By Jessica Swale. Castle Hill Players. Pavilion Theatre, Castle Hill Showgrounds. Nov 15 – Dec 7, 2019.

Reviewed : November 11, 2019

Photo : Chris Lundie

Theatre stages see many transformations, but surely there are few more different than that which has occurred at the Pavilion Theatre over the past few weeks. From Anne Frank’s crowded, dimly lit garret in war-time Amsterdam, it is transformed to 17th century England and the reign of the “Merry Monarch”, King Charles II.

It’s a time of change. Oliver Cromwell is dead, and with him the austerity of his governance. Charles has returned from exile in France, has reopened the taverns and theatres and, in the royal circles, extravagance and debauchery rule.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Designer Maureen Cartledge has set the royal throne between marble pillars surrounded by shimmering red velvet curtains. A series of steps leads down to the wide stage where players rehearse under the guidance of Thomas Killigrew, and John Dryden desperately pens the missing scenes of his next play.  Ribbon sellers ply their wares and stage-hand Nancy organises costumes and wigs.

Anthea Brown’s costumes are fashioned in rich brocades, lace cuffs, gold braid and long curling wigs … and that’s just the men! Skirts swish, fans flutter and elegant hats bob.

From the stalls in the theatre, prostitute turned orange seller Nell Gwynn cheekily heckles stammering Prologue Ned Spiggett, drawing the attention of the King’s Company’s leading actor, Charles Hart.

So begins her story. Under the tutelage of Hart, Nell becomes the first female actor in the company – and attracts the roving eye of the lascivious King, who sets her up as his latest mistress. It’s a tale told in words and song, with minstrels strumming and piping, and a cast of over twenty performers proving that they “can dance and sing”.

Tiffany Hoy leads the merriment as Nell, taking her character boldly from cheeky strumpet to popular thespian to loving mistress to devastated ‘widow’. Hoy finds the different dimensions of the character – sassily disrespectful, openly ambitious, unsophisticatedly lovestruck and wickedly satirical. It is not an easy role and Hoy carries it well.

Dan Ferris plays actor Charles Hart, confident, much revered and intriguingly taken in by Nell’s impudent confidence and charm. Ferris takes Hart from actor to tutor to rejected lover with seeming ease.

Photo : Chris Lundie

As does Richard Littlehales as Edward Kynaston, the actor displaced by Nell as the company’s leading ‘lady’! Littlehales pouts and poses, his fake breasts jiggling as he sulkily bemoans his loss of stature in the company. Dan Byron plays the nervous Ned Spiggett, Marilyn Parsons the busy dresser Nancy, and Kimberlea Smith is Nell’s sister and confidante, Rose.

Murray Fane is Thomas Killigrew, director of the King’s Company and Jason Spindlow plays the near-sighted, idea-blocked playwright, John Dryden.

The folk at Whitehall Palace are far more sophisticated and worldly. Paul Sztelma reigns benevolently as King Charles – and wears his brocade and lace with stylish ease. Sztelma moves elegantly in true ‘Restoration-mode’, stepping lightly and posing gracefully – as does Stephen Snars as his prudent and pretentious equerry, Lord Arlington.

Michelle Masefield delights with a rant in Portuguese as Queen Catherine, and Madeleine Dart and Samantha Camilleri are fashionably condescending as the King’s other mistresses, Lady Castlemaine and Louise de Keroualle. Both wear their elaborate costumes with as much style as their elevated positions grants them! Kate Foote and Cody Brown are palace retainers and Zac and Jayden Bishop make brief appearances as Nell’s children to the king.

Michelle Masefield also plays Nell’s proud but drunken mother, who has brought Nell and Rose up on her earnings as a madam.

This play depicts a little slice of theatrical and social history in an entertaining way. Though it’s not a musical, it requires a cast that can sing – and in this production, dance – as well as depicting a host of different characters. It’s not an easy play to undertake, but director Jennifer Willison had a vision and the determination to make it happen.

With musicians Geoff Jones, Murray Fane and George Trippis, choreographer Jan Mahoney and a talented and dedicated cast and crew, Willison’s production is colourful historical cavalcade to bring the Pavilion’s busy 2019 to a close.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart. Richmond Players (NSW). November 2 – 23, 2019

Reviewed : November 9, 2011

Photo : Samantha O’Hare

First produced in New York in 1962 and London in 1963, this musical based on a comedy written by the Roman playwright Plautus some time in the second century BC, has graced many stages – if ‘graced’ is the correct word for a musical that is full of puns, naughty innuendo and pratfalls! Whatever, it’s been around for a long time and it still makes people laugh!

The witty Latin names, Sondheim’s clever lyrics and the crazy plot, lets A Funny Thing Happened compete with the ‘darker’ more ‘meaningful’ plots of modern musicals. But it needs to be fast, and at the same time clear, so that the humour of the script isn’t lost. Much of that depends on the narrative charm and charisma of Pseudolus, played in this production with enthusiastic style by Matthew Barry. Under the practised direction of Diane Wilson, Barry carries the weight of this role with admirable ease, his chatty banter coaxing the audience into relaxed acceptance and expectant laughs.

Barry moves energetically around the stage, singing, dancing, introducing characters and manipulating them through the bizarre plot with the help of the busy Proteans, played by Nelle Grimshaw and Catherine Gregory, who take on a multiplicity of roles and responsibilities. Roles such as these are essential to sustaining the pace of the production, and Grimshaw and Gregory not only achieve this, but do it with comedic pizazz. Their expressive faces, absurd poses and split-second costume changes are highlights of the production.

Ethan Fitzpatrick, too, uses comic timing well as the ‘top’ slave, Hysterium. Fitzpatrick finds all the possible dimensions of this ‘straight’ character, matching Barry’s energy and commitment. They play off each other well, especially in the comic final scenes of the production.

Photo : Samantha O’Hare

Senex and Domina, their master and mistress, are played by Ben Wilson-Hill and Catherine Simpson, both performers delivering their suggestive lines with eccentric poses that show off their patrician costumes. Hero (James Warren-Smith) and his virginal lover, Philia (Jaqueline Attard) are righteously virtuous and innocent, singing their love songs with youthful joy despite the fact that Philia has been bought by Miles Gloriosis, the self-absorbed military captain, a role shared over the run by Nick Noel and Peter Gollop.

Sean Duff limps up and down the hills of Rome as Erronius, an aging father in search of his missing children, and Aurel Vasilescu plays Marcus Lycus, the dodgy procurer and seller of courtesans. The courtesans themselves – Madz O’Hare, Paige Peters, Ashleigh Grimshaw, Irene Toro and Anwen Gregory – pose, dance and sing in costumes that add extra zing to the production.

Dianne Wilson and musical director Greg Crease bring their usual momentum and polish to this production. With Dianne McKenzie’s colourful costumes on Andrew McMaster’s set, the cast make the most of this zany, Roman romp and its many songs, funny asides and crazy characters.

It’s playing in theatre-restaurant style on Saturday afternoons and Saturday nights through November.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.