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By Lucy Kirkwood.  Sydney Theatre Company.  Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House.  April 8 – 18, 2019.

Reviewed : 12 April 2019

Photo : Daniel Boud

Lucy Kirkwood uses Mosquitoes to bridge the gap between science and the general public by creating a piece of theatre that compares the patterns of colliding particles with the chaos of family relationships. Both are hard to predict; both are hard to understand; both are hard to explain.

The result is a long dialogue and fact heavy play that melds the two on a stage (designed by Elizabeth Gadsby) that creates the illusion of the massive void and gravitational pull of a black hole – and accentuates the insignificant smallness of humanity. The actors are dwarfed in a light-framed void that is intensified by sparse props and tightly centred direction.

Director Jessica Arthur describes Kirkwood as “smashing the conventions of playwriting” by being able to write about “people and relationships in real and relatable detail all whilst interweaving the biggest ideas of the universe”. In her production, the characters are sometimes so real that the scenes they enact are confronting, piercingly emphasised by stridently magnified vocals that reverberate hollowly in the vacuum behind them.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Mandy McElhinney play sisters Alice and Jenny. Alice is a physicist working in Geneva on the Large Hadron Collider. She is intelligent, committed, logical. Jenny operates on a more instinctive, emotional level, often making decisions based on ‘googled’ misinformation.

Their mother, Karen, was also a scientist, but was never acknowledged as she should have been. She has always lauded Alice’s intelligence – and ridiculed what she saw as Jenny’s stupidity. Not a good mix for a family reunion where Alice is concerned about the forthcoming Hadron experiment, Jenny is mourning the loss of her baby daughter, Karen is fearing the creeping effects of dementia, and Alice’s teenage son disappears with something that could shatter everything.

This play isn’t easy to watch. The scientific references are challenging, despite the fact that Kirkwood’s message entails the need to demystify scientific ideas. The relationships are also challenging, especially Karen and Alice’s continual denigration and abuse of Jenny.

Nevertheless, scenes are neatly directed, drawing characters together, before tearing them apart – the humour that is injected serving to break the tension a little.

Photo : Daniel Boud

McKenzie and McElhinney are consummate performers who make their contrasting characters believably strong and convincingly unlikeable. Annie Byron is similarly strong as the unkind but vulnerable Karen. The trio portray a story of familial unpleasantness that is demanding and challenging – for the actors and the audience.

Charles Wu wrestles adolescent anger and frustration as Alice’s son Luke, dragged away to Geneva and then ignored by his mother. Nikita Waldron plays his friend Natalie. Their online conversation shows Kirkwood’s ability to move dialogue across generations – and the timing of their delivery aptly mimics the phrasing of electronic chatting.

Louis Seguier as Henri tries to pour oil on sullied family waters, and Angela Nica Sullen doubles as Gavriella and a very bored but imposing policewoman. Jason Chong, as Boson, has the unenviable task of delivering a scientific lecture that progresses to a fast, disjointed diatribe that symbolises the need for scientists to communicate more ideas more clearly

When asked her thoughts on the statement “The information age is the age of anxiety”, Kirkwood says: “The entire play is an expression of this statement … we have access to such a vast wealth of information without having the analytic skills to understand it …” .

In a similar way, her play exists on both an intellectual and emotional level that will appeal to some – and worry others.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Dark Voyager

By John Misto. Castle Hill Players. Pavilion Theatre, Doran Drive Castle Hill. April 5 – 27, 2019

Reviewed : 5 April 2019

Photo : Chris Lundie

As the premiere community theatre production of John Misto’s play, this is another coup for a theatre company that is prepared to give its directors and actors ‘some meat’ – and challenge its audience with something a little bit different.

Dark Voyager is set Hollywood in 1962, in the home of infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper. It’s the opening night of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and, for reasons that are a lot more underhand than mere gossip, Hopper has invited its warring stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, for drinks. When a slightly substance-affected Marilyn Monroe arrives, ‘pigeon among the cats’ might best describe the possibilities that ensue.

Misto is more than just a playwright. His research is always incredibly sound and solid. And for this play he immersed himself in the fact and fiction that was the stuff of post-war movie stars – and the politicians who lusted after them. Contemporary American political rakes had worthy predecessors – Richard Nixon, the Kennedys, J Edgar Hoover – all of whom are palpably exposed by Misto in a plot that blends history and gossip with creative artistic licence.

Whilst the play, first produced by the Ensemble Theatre in 2014, is a black comedy, where one-liners and bitchy barbs come thick and fast, it sits very securely in 2019 amid the many revelations of #Me Too. Misto pays homage to the feisty women who fought hard to make their way to the top – and stay there – in the precarious world that was … and still is … celebrity stardom. As well as the intelligence, quick wittedness and pure guts they needed to survive, he reveals their vulnerability and their bravado. Some of the sacrifices they made along the way will surprise – among them the stories behind “Bette Davis’ eyes” and Joan Crawford’s broad shoulders.

Recreating these famous screen stars on stage demands research and hard work – a challenge that fastidious director Annette van Roden and her cast have met head on. Weeks of concentrated night time rehearsals, and research into the characters, their accents and their idiosyncrasies, have resulted in a production of which van Roden and the company can be proud. The set, designed ‘remotely’ from Hobart by Peter Rhodes, and atmospherically lit by Mehran Mortezaei, locates the play, with its cunningly chosen costumes, faithfully in the colours and contours of its time.

Annette Emerton takes on the role of the formidable Hedda Hopper, relishing the manipulative deviousness of the character and her calculating cunning. Emerton opens the play and neatly sets its tenor, referencing “Jedgar’ Hoover as she gives her young ‘butler’ Skip instructions for the night.

The first guest to arrive is Bette Davis, played with spirited conviction by Faith Jessel, who makes excellent use of the space and the lighting as she fires insult after insult with comedic flair. The constant malice and spite of this role – and the fact that it is used to move the plot – must be exhausting, but Jessel sustains the pace and energy, and the timing of her constant cracks.

Leigh Scanlon as Joan Crawford is tall and elegant, emulating the chic sophistication of Crawford and the confidence she draws from the adulation of her fans. She faces Davis’ insults with taut restraint and calculated scorn. As they argue over who should get top billing for Baby Jane, she skilfully goads Davis into agreeing to a wager that will eventually reveal her frailty – as well as introducing Marilyn Monroe into the play.

Monroe, played by Jacqui Wilson, arrives in a breathy haze – literally and metaphorically – clutching the arm of awe-struck Skip. Lured by the message from Crawford, but confused in a pill-induced fug, she is dishevelled, perplexed. Dressed in a long, cream satin robe, Wilson finds the artless grace Misto has given the character and the naivety that has led to her fall from fame, and the future that awaits her.

Photo : Chris Lundie

The character of Skip is not just a foil to the vanities of the women he serves. Misto has cleverly woven him into their back stories – as is revealed, bit by enticing bit, in the second act. Adam Garden shines in the ‘persona’ that Skip has created in his ploy to reveal his true self. He is cheekily subservient to Hopper, mischievously disrespectful to Davis, warily watchful of Crawford, shamelessly bewitched by Monroe – then hopelessly diminished as he makes a thwarted bid to be accepted.

This production is tightly directed and tightly performed, making the most of the play’s humour and its revelations. Misto has probably packed too much into the second act, but this energetic and committed cast meets that challenge with fortitude.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Every Brilliant Thing

By Duncan Macmillan with Jonny Donahoe. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. April 3 – 6, 2019 

Reviewed : April 3, 2019

Photo : Daniel Boud

The ‘brilliant thing’ about Every Brilliant Thing is that is could be anybody’s story, as Steve Rodgers has proved in taking over the role from Kate Mulvany in this Belvoir production at Parramatta Riverside Theatre. Rodgers is a consummate actor of stage and screen, and a playwright of note – as those who have seen his plays Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam and King of Pigs will attest – and he has stepped into this unusual role with typical dedication … and the deep sense of responsibility that it demands.

On stage Rodgers has an appeal that is disarmingly natural, an asset in this production where he works surrounded by a floodlit audience that is integral to the sensitive themes of a play that has been produced at several Edinburgh Festivals, toured worldwide and been filmed for television. Why? Because it’s a play about self-harm and suicide, told in a way that is tenderly real and comically touching.

Playwright Duncan Macmillan described what he wanted to say in the play thus: “You’re not alone, you’re not weird, you will get through it, and you’ve just got to hold on. That’s a very uncool, unfashionable thing for someone to say, but I really mean it. I didn’t see anyone discussing suicidal depression in a useful or interesting or accurate way”. Working in conjunction with comedian Jonny Donahoe, he came up with a format that does just that. It is personal, almost immersive and certainly inclusive. A perfect platform for an actor of Rodgers style and experience.

Dressed as Everyman, he greets the audience as they enter, handing some pieces of coloured card on which are written a number and a word or phrase. “When you hear this number, call out what is written in a loud voice,” he instructs amiably.

Those words or phrases become the list of “Brilliant Things” that underpins the way his character tries to deal with the effect of depression that has beleaguered him since his mother’s first suicide attempt when he was a child of seven. They begin as simple things – ‘ice cream’, ‘wearing a cape’, ‘water fights’ – and become more complex as the story unfolds – ‘peeing in the sea and nobody knows’, ‘dancing in public’, ‘the smell of old books’.

Via the ‘list’, Rodgers moves from storyteller to become that boy following his silent father home from the hospital, the teenager upset and angry, the university student trying to find answers, the shy lover, the lonely divorcee.

At each ‘milestone’ someone from the audience calls out the words on their card, or, more poignantly, is gently invited to become part of the story – a vet, his father, an old couple who befriend him at the hospital, the school counsellor and her sock puppet, a university lecturer, his shy fellow student and eventually his wife. Extraordinarily, no one resists the invitation to be involved, despite the fact they there has been no ‘priming’, no explaining that this will occur. Why are they so amenable?

Perhaps it’s because they are caught in the light rather than behind the ‘dimmed’ fourth wall of a normal theatre. Perhaps it’s the writing. Perhaps it’s Kate Champion’s direction. Perhaps it’s Rodger’s gentle, evocative, believable characterisation. Most probably it’s a combination

of all of these – and the fact that the topic has touched everyone in some way; has become more ubiquitous; more inescapable. And, mercifully, more recognised, more discussed, more medically diagnosed, more caringly tended.

Steve Rodgers makes the story his own, as so many skilful and empathetic actors have done on so many stages to so many audiences around the world. Each has probably made it special in their own way, based on their own experiences and research. Rodgers continues that tradition. His interpretation is caring, gentle; his character loving, just a little awkward, like the topic itself. He reaches beyond that awkwardness and delivers the message with love.

Power & Paradise

Woollahra Philharmonic Orchestra. St Columba Uniting Church. Saturday 30 and Sunday 31 March, 2019.
Reviewed : March 30, 2019
Photo : provided

Woollahra Philharmonic Orchestra’s mission is to “bring musical enrichment to the community, providing a professional attitude towards innovative and enjoyable concerts”.

Quite ambitious? Maybe, but the orchestra, established in 1996 by local amateur musicians with the support of the local council, has grown in strength and stature until today it boasts fifty regular members “from all walks of life, of all ages, and includes amateurs, students and professional musicians”.

These fifty talented musicians perform four public performances a year in the beautiful St Columba church – where they also rehearse each program for at least 8 to 10 weeks. That’s not just dedication, it’s commitment, and passion for the music that they love. The acoustics of the church lends power to music, and thus the title of their first program – Power and Paradise­ – seems somehow appropriate.

In this, the first of four seasons in their 2019 program, the orchestra is led by Lee Bracegirdle.

Power was an apt description for the first item on the program: Mozart’s famous ‘last’ symphony, the Jupiter Symphony (Symphony No 41 (K. 551) written in 1788, three years before his death. For almost an hour, the various themes and motifs rose and echoed as Bracegirdle led, and the musicians followed, lyrically at times, in rousing fanfares at others. It is certainly and ‘opus’ and one the orchestra embraced with delight.

Delius’ Walk in the Garden followed. Gentler, this excerpt from his fourth opera, A village Romeo and Juliet, is more descriptive with its themes of “escape, alignment with nature and tragic love”.

Phillip Shovk, one of Australia’s leading concert pianists and chamber musicians, joined the orchestra for Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor. Together they explained musically why this is regarded as the composer’s most popular concerto. Shovk led brilliantly, but the orchestra was with him all the way, and the response of the audience was more than appreciative, drawing Shovk back for two encores.

This is a very elegant way for local music enthusiasts to spend a Sunday afternoon. The ticket price is reasonable, afternoon tea is available at a small cost – and the music is skilfully rehearsed and expertly performed.

The next concert will be on Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23 June. Titled Destinations and Adventures, it will be conducted by John Buckley.

Find out more at

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Once in Royal David’s City

By Michael Gow. New Theatre, Newtown, NSW. March 19 – April 13, 2019.

Photo : Bob Seary

Reviewed : March 28, 2019

Michael Gow tells his stories via believable characters and tight dialogue, especially when the messages are just a little bit angry, just a little bit critical, just a little bit emotional. Through his young protagonist, Will Drummond, Gow uses the theatre to raise issues that affect us all – inequality, exploitation, illness, loss. And in true political theatre style, he uses real situations and vulnerable characters who reach past the stage to tell us that “the war might be endless, and it’s probably already lost but that’s not a reason to give up”.

What better place to stage a play such as this than the New? With its slogans, Art is a Weapon and Theatre with a Purpose, the New was the original home of the ‘radical’ theatre set of the 1930s and 40s. It introduced things such as ‘agitprop’, revue sketches, acting classes and play writing competitions. It promoted women playwrights such as Betty Roland, Mona Brand and Katherine Sussanah Pritchard.

Look up its history. It makes interesting reading.

Director Patrick Howard accepts Gow’s only suggestion as to the set – namely “The Play takes place in a theatre” – and peels the stage back to bare walls lined with props, which the twelve cast members, who are on stage for the whole play, move appropriately as the scenes demand. Lighting designer Viktor Kalka skilfully highlights each segment of the action, taking the players from airport, to beach, to theatre, to hospital, and accentuating the poignancy of each moment.

This is a very moving play and much of the continuity rests on the shoulders of Will, played here with uncanny realism by Francisco Lopez. With his first words, “Welcome. Thanks for coming. I’m in an airport.”, Lopez breaks through the fourth wall, takes the audience into his story and establishes a personality that he sustains for the whole play. Will is an intellectual, and a theatre director, but events in his life have left him perplexed and angry, and he wants to explain why. So, via his family, he takes you back in time to show you how he has come to this particular Christmas

Firstly, there is his mother, Jeannie, played with intense conviction by Alice Livingstone, who takes the audience back to the summer weekend where Will was lost at the beach – and explains how this has made her particularly protective of him.

Jeannie and Will then sit with Will’s father, Bill, as he faces speech therapy after a stroke. In this scene Livingstone finds another dimension of Jeannie as she rages against the employer that fired him, with just a month’s wages, and the devastating effect this has had upon him. “Everything’s taken off you in the end,” she says, but clings steadily to her belief in Will.

Martin Portus, who plays Bill, finds all the frustrating confusion of a stroke victim. He sits, wound up, upset, desperate to remember sounds and words, then becoming more and more agitated as the story of his redundancy is retold. Portus doubles later in the play as Wally, a charming but persistent religious hospital visitor.

Then we are back in the present, at the airport in Ballina, where he’s planned a wonderful Christmas for his mother. She arrives – but is not well – and things do not go as he planned.

Gow has used many political theatre techniques in this play – humour, song, direct appeal – to take the audience with Will as he faces the various stages of grieving and finds the strength to keep believing “that there might be a speck of justice in an insane world”, despite his life and what he learns from other members of the ensemble as they take on a variety of roles.

Photo : Bob Seary

Amy Victoria Brooks, Natalie Fenwick, Sandra Campbell, Bryden White-Tuohey, Angela Johnston, Nicholas Foustellis and Ben Brighton with Alana Birtles and Aimee Lodge become actors, a drama teacher, German tourists – all pertinent to Will’s story. All move into their different characters with the precision and energy of the tight ensemble that Howard has developed. Foustellis is particularly moving in the role of the young doctor who has to explain a hopeless diagnosis.

Gow – and Howard – manage to find some humour in the philosophies that underwrite this play. It softens the pathos a little, but takes nothing away from the social and political themes.

Will’s explanation to a drama class of the still relevant messages of Brecht’s Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, make Gow’s point about the need to keep fighting against contemporary oppression, but it is perhaps the links he makes between Marxism and Christianity in the words of The Internationale and the hymn Once in Royal David’s City – sung so beautifully by the whole cast – that make his point most cleverly:

… For justice thunders condemnation
A better world’s in birth!…

With the poor and meek and lowly …,

… He was little, weak, and helpless,
Tears and smiles like us He knew …

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Enright On the Night

By David Mitchell and Melvin Morrow.  Genesian Theatre Company,  Kent Street,  Sydney.  March 23 – April 13, 2019.

Photo : Grant Fraser

Reviewed : March 23, 2019

It’s fifteen years since Australian theatre lost one of its most popular and prolific theatrical creatives. Nick Enright was a real all-rounder – playwright, actor, director, screen writer, lyricist, translator, adaptor, dramaturg, teacher, mentor. Few could aspire to such a comprehensive CV; few could achieve so much and still stay a regular nice guy; few could reject the call of Broadway and Hollywood and come home to the country and people he loved and wrote about so prolifically.

This tribute, written by his composer collaborators, David Mitchell and Melvin Morrow, tells Enright’s story through his songs and poetry. In the empathetic hands of director Roger Gimblett, choreographer Debbie Smith, with musical director Dion Condack, and the creative lighting of Michael Schell, four multi-talented women take the audience from his early days in East Maitland to Sydney, London, New York and Los Angeles.

Angela Ayers, Juliette Coates, Rosanna Hurley and Lana Domeney welcome the audience to a ‘night with Nick’, then chronicle the history of his remarkable achievements interspersed with song and dance routines that are deftly choreographed and skilfully performed. Accompanied by Condack, they take the audience on an Enright-inspired ‘road trip’ using a musical ‘play list’ of his best-known songs – the funny, the sad, the cheeky, the moving.

Photo : Grant Fraser

There is a great sense of homage in the narrative and the choice of songs … and a very real respect the direction and way they are delivered – even though some of the performers were but toddlers when ‘Nick’ died in 2005. Whether recounting highlights of his life, singing his songs, reciting his funny poems or recalling the poignant ‘Happy Valley’ monologue from On the Wallaby, the cast infuse into their performance a great sense of respect for this doyen of Australian theatre arts.

They remind us of the comedy of The Venetian Twins, the whimsy of Summer Rain, the international success of The Boy from Oz and Lorenzo’s Oil. They remember the moving television adaptation of Dymphna Cusack’s Come in Spinner and the clever, contemporary scripting of A Man with Four Children. And they do so in the Australian voices in which Enright wrote.

From the battlers of the depression (On the Wallaby) to a community dealing with the rape and murder of a teenager (The Property of the Clan/Blackrock) to his adaptation with Justin Monjo of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Nick Enright’s characters were real Australians. He knew how they spoke, how they thought, what was important to them. He knew what he wanted to say about them – and he said it through characters we recognised and with whom we identified.

Just as this production does!

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

The Choir of Man

The Studio, Sydney Opera House. Mar 20 – Apr 7, 2019
Photo : Jordan Munns

Reviewed : March 21, 2019

A blast! A rage! A ball! Whatever idiomatic superlative you use, it probably isn’t enough to describe the vibe and energy of the nine cheeky, gifted English ‘lads’ who are The Choir of Man. Arunaway hit at the Edinburgh Festival in 2017, and fresh from the 2019 Adelaide Fringe festival, the boys have hit NSW running – and dancing and singing – in a rousing production that makes the spirit soar.

The ever-transforming Studio has become the bar of their local pub, the Jungle. There is beer on tap, a piano and typically ‘pub worn’ furniture. The guys mix with the audience pre-show, sharing a beer, chatting, answering questions. They are easy-going, welcoming, funny, incredibly personable and, as they soon begin to prove, also incredibly multi-talented.

George, the Narrator (in between singing, dancing, and playing the piano and the trumpet), becomes an affable raconteur. In his slightly London-ised north-country accent, he introduces the guys and the “no frills or frippery” pub scene where they meet. Between numbers, in a rhymed and rhythmic script, he skilfully re-sets the changing moods of the production, taking the audience through ‘the easy casualties of time’ and the moving ‘stories of the here and now that fill my cup’. His own interpretation of “Dance With My Father Again” is one of the most beautiful moments of the production.

They are easy-going, welcoming, funny, incredibly personable and, as they soon begin to prove, also incredibly multi-talented.

Nine men with powerful voices, in flawless harmony, with perfectly timed choreography and playing a range of instruments – piano, violin, guitar, ukulele, trumpet, Irish bodhran drum, banjo, melodica, electric percussion – use some of the best-known and most-loved songs of our time to take the audience to “sacred spaces of all kinds”.

Love is described in the rich notes of “The Impossible Dream”, a beautifully harmonized version of Adele’s “Hello” and Queen’s “Somebody to Love” – and raunchy renditions of “Escape” (The Pina Colada Song) and “Fifty Ways to Lose Your Lover”.  Memories are revisited in Sia’s “Chandelier” and a poignantly mellow interpretation of “Waterloo Sunset”. And the audience stomps along with “500 Miles” – and stands up, unified, to the potent notes of “You’re the Voice”.

Photo : Jordan Munns

This is ‘song and dance’ with a real difference. Though the ‘lads’ give the impression they are ‘just mates’ that love doing what they do, every aspect of the production is tightly controlled and precisely managed, just as something this good has to be. And because of that, it’s the sort of production that leaves you wanting more, wanting to tell your friends, wanting to see it again, making you buy the CD so you can re-live the moments with a Parting Glass.

The men are going to be rocking the Opera House for three short weeks before they move on to Canberra and then America. Get to see them before the word gets around and while there are still tickets available!

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine