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Jack and the Beanstalk

Bonnie Lythgoe Productions. State Theatre, Sydney. July 12 – 21, 201.

Reviewed : 12 July, 2019

Photo : Robert Catto

Bonnie Lythgoe Productions warms up the winter school holidays with yet another fairy tale pantomime, this year with the added ‘oomph’ of 3D projections of a virtual giant and the creepy creatures of his lair. This all-singing, all-dancing – and all-groaning jokes – production sticks to the plot a little more than did Sleeping Beauty last year.

ABC Kids’ Jimmy Giggle (Jimmy Rees) is a welcome addition as a ‘crowd-pleaser’. Playing Simon Trott, Rees uses his KA (Kid Appeal) to rouse the audience with song, dance, some limber ‘flossing’ and some embarrassing audience participation.

Surrounded by a star curtain, framed by a twisting beanstalk and played in front of a series of flies, the production rocks along at times, and drags a bit at others – see “all groaning jokes” above, and the love songs that, whilst showcasing the talents of the cast, tend to lose the kids a little. Nevertheless, they are an integral part of the ‘panto scenario’ and Jack and the Beanstalk has them all!

There’s the sneering villain, Flesh Creep, played with smug simpering by Luke Joslyn as he steals both the heroine and Jack’s cow, Daisy Buttercup. Dressed in slinky tails, Joslyn slithers, smirks and successfully stirs the audience to raucous boo-ing with his menacing threats.

And, of course, there’s the indispensable Dame, in this case Jack’s mother, Dame Dotty Trot, played by British TV and panto aficionado Malcom Lord. Lord wears his many flamboyant frocks and aprons with the colourful aplomb and proficiency of his 27 years of panto experience.

Peter Rowsthorn, in shimmering gold tails and boots, brings his comic timing to the role of King Crumble, who beset by the taxing demands of the giant – and urged on by his red-velvet-clad Lord Chancellor (Richard Reid) – promises the hand of his daughter, Princess Jill, played by Anastasia Feneri, to any man who can rid the kingdom of the avaricious ogre.

Photo : Robert Catto

That ‘man’ is young Jack – played by Lachlan Dearing – who, with the help of Fairy Crystal’s (Lucy Durack) magic wand and enchanting voice and the support of his friends, climbs the beanstalk, braves the 3D monsters, rescues the princess and slays the virtual giant! Dearing has a bright stage presence and plays the reluctant hero with lithe ease.

The set, effects and vibrant costumes give this production the picture-book colour and charm of ‘once upon a time’ and, with the ‘believe in yourself’ theme, make it a happy, live theatre alternative to the animated toys and violent superheroes of current holiday cinema offerings.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

ZIRK! Circus

The Showring,  Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park, Sydney,  and touring.  Opening Night: July 6, 2019.

Reviewed : 6 July 2019

Photo : supplied

ZIRK! brings all the technological excitement of contemporary circus acts mixed with the age-old skills of juggling, balancing, high flying, and, of course, clowning. All of this occurs under the (very) Big Top, which seats 1650, has a circumference of 40 metres, is held up by king poles 18.5 metres high and is powered by 5 kilometres of cable. Valued at 1.2 million Australian dollars this enormous structure takes three full days to erect.

‘Moving on’ has been the way of circus for nearly 250 years – firstly to purpose-built amphitheatres in Europe and Russia, later in caravans and then trucks to different venues across states and countries. Now freight planes and huge pantechnicons take international circus troupes like ZIRK! all over the world. After its Sydney season ZIRK! will ‘move on’ to Brisbane, Melbourne and Canberra – and it will take15 semi-trailers to do so!

Despite all this, ZIRK! retains all that one expects of the circus, including ringmaster Stanislaw Kryazkov, who, flanked by his talented henchmen – Vasili Trifonov and Master Clown Dmitry Shindrov – warms up the crowd by pitting both sides of the audience against each other in a clapping competition dictated by repeating rhythms blown on a whistle! A simple ploy used remarkably effectively!

The various acts follow each other in choreographed order. Those involving large props or pieces of machinery that require massive ropes and cables to secure, are interspersed with comic routines, most involving the audience – and balls, and water! Balls are spun on fingers or passed Mexican wave style around the audience. Water is poured into hats or squirted from a distance. The pranks are typical commedia dell’arte routines, carefully timed and faultlessly executed – as are the major acts themselves.

The first of these is the Catwall Trampoline Troupe, billed as one of the ‘new wave circus acts’, but one also practised by the kids in our own Flying Fruit Fly Circus, so not so ‘new wave’ after all! Six trampoliners fling themselves from two trampolines up, over and through a spectacular glass wall. It’s a good curtain raiser and obviously a contemporary addition to circus repertoires.

The more ‘traditional’ acts are, of course, greatly streamlined and updated. For example, Emin Abdullaev could be regarded as a modern version of the ‘side show’ contortionists of the old circus world. As he unwraps himself from inside a small glass box and begins to twist and distort his body into joint-separating shapes, one wonders just how badly arthritis will haunt his old age!

Other more traditional but modernised acts are Mexican juggler Juan Pablo Martinez and quick-change artists Sixto and Lucia. The Rubtsovs are a group of acrobatic performers, who, in colourful jester-like costumes, bring acrobatics on to the ‘fast track’. Later, dressed in tartan kilts and employing multi-length ropes, they are the McRubtsov Scottish Skippers! The art of balancing is taken to new heights by Sascha Williams as he plays the guitar high atop a series of stacked cylinders and stools.

The Gerling Troupe use incredible split-second timing and judgement as they leap in and out of four giant chrome spinning wheels that weigh four tonnes. This is breath-taking stuff – and obviously as incredibly dangerous and as it looks.

Photo : supplied

Equally dangerous is the work of aerialists Katya Rubtsova and Anton Markov, who swing, spin and twist 14 metres above the ring without safety net or supporting wires. This is ‘trapeze’ of a different kind. It is one of the most dangerous ‘newer’ acts and certainly one of the most awe-inspiring … and most graceful.

The ‘finale’ of the program brings the Globe of Death and seven motorcyclists into centre ring for a dazzling display by the Douglas Gerling Daredevils. The roar of the bikes and the stunning pace at which they spin and twist around inside the steel globe brings ZIRK! to a power-pumping end.

Like Cirque du Soleil, ZIRK! augments the world of the circus with new and exciting acts that surprise and thrill – and children still scream and gasp, their mouths filled with popcorn, their faces sticky with fairy floss!  Like kids of old they are spell-bound … until interval, when, like the adults beside them, the inevitable electronic devices have to be turned on!

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Persuasion

By Jane Austen, adapted by Tim Luscombe.  Genesian Theatre Company, Sydney.  June 29 – August 17, 2019

Reviewed : 5 July 2019

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Persuading an audience to imagine a performance taking place in a series of different places across the English countryside in the eighteenth century is difficult enough if you have a revolving stage with multiple sets. To do so on a small stage with restricted wing space and a cast of twelve performers is even harder – unless you have someone who can manipulate the audience’s belief with creative sound and lighting. Someone like Mehran Mortezaei.

On a minimalist set, Mortezaei uses technology – and the power of suggestion – to take director Trudie Ritchie’s audience through a plethora of scenes in this game effort to bring Jane Austen’s moralistic story to the stage. Booming cannons and smoky haze through low light set the initial scene of a battle at sea. Birdsong evokes the summer countryside. The sound of clip-clopping horses carries the characters to the seaside, where only the sound of crashing waves changes the scene.

Actors re-set the few pieces of furniture during breaks of scenes, and skilfully designed lighting allows them to move from a family gathering on one part of the stage, to an intimate encounter on a walk in a garden on another.

Mortezaei’s clever technical enhancement, and the costumes designed by Susan Carveth, take the audience back to the society portrayed by Jane Austen in her novel and adapted for the stage by Tim Luscombe. The novel is long, the characters many, all of which are described with Austen’s cynically perceptive eye. In bringing them to the stage Luscombe reduces them almost to caricatures, but does sustain Austen’s social censure.

The story revolves around the Elliot family. Walter Elliot, his three daughters and their friends present a picture of a patriarchal society where money reigns and parents vie for men of monetary rank for their daughters – who are advised against marrying for love. The heroine, Anne Elliot, has spent eight years regretting being persuaded to take that advice rather than allowing her heart to be won by the dashing naval captain, Charles Wentworth.

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Rose Treloar’s subtle depiction of Anne gives a more contemporary insight into Austen’s character. Her wry smile and perceptive rejection of advice – and advances –  epitomise the ‘wiser women’ of the time. Angela Johnston and Natasha McDonald play her more selfish and indulged sisters, and Tom Massey her blustering father. The suffering but aloof Wentworth, is played by Kendall Drury.

Jodie Sibley plays Lady Russell, Anne’s mentor, whose original ‘sage’ advice almost lost Anne her man – and Charlotte Robertson plays Louisa Musgrove, the simpering young woman who almost wins him away from her.

Adapting a novel with so many characters – there are 16 in this production – and one that represents so many of the social customs of the time is always difficult. This is a brave attempt, and Ritchie and her cast – with the help of their creative designers – do their best to bring it to life.

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Anna Bolena

By Donizetti. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. July 2 – 26, 2019.

Reviewed : 2 July 2019

Photographer: Prudence Upton.

Gaetano Donizetti’s operatic interpretation of Henry VIII’s scheming ‘removal’ of his second wife, Anne Boleyn, in order to marry his third queen, Jane Seymour, presents the disreputable English king in a scandalous drama. In the recently renovated Joan Sutherland Theatre, past and present meet in an explosion of digitally enhanced sets, sumptuous costumes and formidable voices.

Tall screens vividly ornamented with different projected designs are smoothly lowered, turned and raised to set the opulent palace scenes. Silver scarabs crawl creepily over some; the letters ‘A’ and ‘H’ (Anne and Henry?) appear on others. As each scene comes to an end, the cast freezes in elaborate tableaux as the stage revolves or the screens slowly transform to the next setting.

Without Donizetti’s music preluding the next scene, these transformations, impressive and beautifully atmospheric as they are, can lose some their initial allure and even become a little predictable in a three-and-a-half-hour production. Nevertheless, the possibilities of virtual sets and digital effects are skilfully displayed in this production, that brings together a sixteenth century misogynist English monarch, a nineteenth century Italian composer and state-of-the-art contemporary staging.

Billed as “the world’s most acclaimed soprano”, the diminutive Ermonela Jaho brings poignantly rich emotion and vulnerability to the role of the rejected Queen Anne. Almost dwarfed by the high screens that surround her, she proves the celebration that follows her work in a performance that takes Donizetti’s arias to greater heights.

Teddy Tahu Rhodes is the powerfully determined and single-minded King Henry, Carmen Topciu his latest conquest, Jane Seymour. Leonardo Cortellazzi is Lord Percy, Anne’s first love called back from exile by the treacherous Henry, Richard Anderson her brother, Lord Rochfort. Anna Dowsley is Anne’s faithful page, tremulously loyal and constant.

Photographer: Prudence Upton.

With such an acclaimed cast, and an imposingly large chorus, director Davide Livermore presents Donizetti’s musical interpretation of a dutiful wife manipulated by a devious husband and his court, with impressive style and skill.

On Gio Forma’s innovative set with John Rayment’s modernistic lighting highlighting the luxurious fabrics in Mariana Fracasso’s elaborate costumes, this production is an exciting example of contemporary theatricality. Yet the theme and the music, played by the Opera Australian orchestra conducted with panache by Renato Palumbo, are centuries old. Bringing them into the future via burgeoning technology may be the way to attract new and younger audiences to this highly specialised and enduring art form.

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Murder on the Wireless

By Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Kilmurry. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Director: Mark Kilmurry. 7 June – 13 July 2019

Not reviewed

Viewed 30 June 2019

Photo : Prudence Upton

The Girl in the Machine

By Stef Smith National Theatre of Parramatta. Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. June 20 – 29, 2019

Reviewed : 25 June, 2019

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography.

Despite the fact that both playwright and director talk about the play as a love story, and whilst the actors try desperately to make their affection plausible, any empathy for them is mitigated by the concerns the play raises about the addictive power of technology and the possibility of its far-reaching effects.

Set as it is, by Ella Butler, tightly inside a glass box that is either brightly illuminated or ghostly dimmed, the story takes us into the lives of a couple who seem to represent two extremes of contemporary society: she a corporate lawyer climbing the slippery pole of the ‘always-on’ digital workplace; he a passionate palliative-care nurse sensitive to the pain of others.

When he brings home an ominously provided ‘black box’ that apparently promises relief from pain and pressure, she is quickly seduced by its sinister addictive power – as are many others around world.

This is “Fortnite” – without any other ammunition than hypnotic promises in soothing, repetitive voices that eventually – and horrifically – convince the addicted listeners that to achieve death is ‘Bliss’.

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography.

Scary stuff! But not beyond the realms of possibility when you consider the already formidable power of social media and cyber bullying and menacing trolls.

Inside their ‘glass’ apartment, the couple play out the battle between addiction and love. It’s not an easy 70 minutes for either of the actors. They are in the glare of lights, surrounded closely by four glass walls, enacting a chilling scenario that seems, unfortunately, frighteningly possible.

Both Chantelle Jamieson and Brandon McClelland emerge from the emotional ordeal of the play a little strained, a little exhausted. As does their audience!

The set, lighting (Benjamin Brockman) and sound (Benjamin Pierpoint) are as creepy and mesmerising as the possibilities of the plot – and give the production a necessary extra edge.

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Music, Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book by Hugh Wheeler. Life Like Company. Directed by Theresa Borg. Darling Harbour Theatre, ICC, Sydney, 13-16 June, 2019 and Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, 20 – 23, June.

Reviewed : June 13, 2019

Photo : Ben Fon

Forty years ago Sweeney Todd scored eight Tony awards in New York and the Olivier award for Best New Musical in London. It’s been revived twice on Broadway, four times in London, been produced in other places around the world including productions by The State Opera of South Australia, MTC and Opera Australia. Other productions abound. What is it that makes this macabre musical so popular?

Is it the grisly – or should that be gristly – story of a barber who slits the throats of his victims, minces them and serves them up in his landlady’s pie shop? Could be … after all the story’s been doing the rounds in Europe since the fourteenth century. More likely it’s the fact that Stephen Sondheim retold the gruesome tale with his inimitable rhythms and counter-rhythms – and lyrics that complement the counter-point of the score, some of them with cockney-style humour reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan.

In fact, Sweeney Todd is more opera than musical. The themes are certainly operatic – stolen love, revenge, murder – and only twenty percent of the words are spoken. Sondheim himself apparently called it a ‘black operetta’.

Photo : Ben Fon

This fortieth anniversary tribute, directed by Theresa Borg, accentuates the horror, the humour and the music. Though a ‘concert version’, the set, designed by Charlotte Lane, takes the action into the seedy atmosphere of 19th century London. The lower level of the set transforms from pie shop to street. The only props are a table and a flickering ‘furnace’. Stairs lead to Todd’s barber shop, where once again minimal props create the scene: a chair, a trunk and the door through which Todd’s victims disappear. The dark, earthy colours of the peeling walls emphasise the stark red of the deadly barber’s chair.

Musical director Vanessa Scammell conducts twenty-two accomplished musicians who are seated on a cunningly designed extension of the stage that winds through the orchestra to two exits. Thus, the actors and musicians are as closely connected as the lyrics and the music.

Costume designer, Kim Bishop, has used only black, white and multiple shades of grey to create the costumes. Under moody lighting (Tom Willis), the performers appear in a sombre haze of cloudy grey that heightens the ‘under-worldly’ theme of the set – their characters as clear and strong as their amplified voices.

Anthony Warlow is a formidable Sweeney Todd, his voice resonating with the anger and anguish of the barber’s pain – a hurt that Gina Riley offsets with Mrs Lovett’s spicy humour and sharp wit. Riley’s skilled comic timing sits well with the lyrics and the tempo of Lovett’s songs. These two accomplished actors add depth and dimension to the characters as they sing.

Debra Byrne hides in folds of fabric as the Beggar woman, crying for ‘alms’ one moment, vicariously offering herself the next. Byrne is obviously having fun with this role, finding the pathos and humour of Sondheim’s words and Borg’s direction.

Photo :Ben Fon

Tod Strike stepped in adeptly on opening night to replace Michael Falzon as Adolfo Pirelli, the barber who becomes Todd’s first victim. Daniel Sumegi brings his vast operatic experience to the role of Judge Turpin, with Anton Berezin as his partner-in-crime, Beadle Bamford. The ‘youngsters’ in the story – Jonathan Hickey as Tobias Ragg, Owen McCredie as Anthony Hope and Genevieve Kingsfored as Johanna – bring light and hope to the tale and the tone of the music. The chorus – some of whom also act as stage crew – move in song from passers-by, to pie shop customers, to ghostly apparitions.

The distance from the stage in this large venue may have disappointed some in the audience. For me it added to the gloom and grisliness of the story, and the acoustics highlighted the fact that this is indeed a ‘concert version’, where music and the voices are supposed to shine. Fortunately, Theresa Borg and her creative team also crafted the atmosphere and vibe that Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler incorporated into their ‘black operetta’.

Collaborators

By John Hodge. New Theatre, Newtown, NSW. June 4 – July 6, 2019

Reviewed : 5 June 2019

Photo : Bob Seary

Collaborators is a black comedy based on the writer’s imagining of Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s relationship with the tyrannical Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who covered his ‘reign’ of terror and mass executions with a charismatic appeal that somehow inspired trust. Playwright John Hodge, of Trainspotting fame, tells the story through a dream the ailing Bulgakov has after a production of his play about the death of Moliere. In the ‘dream’, Stalin wilily encourages him to write a play about his early life, then takes over the writing himself.

Through the play, Hodge comments on the ruthlessness of Stalin’s reign of terror and artful deception, which he describes thus: “One of Stalin’s most effective tactics was the use of uncertainty. False reassurance and broken promises were a matter of policy at the highest level.” The devastation he wrought on the land and its people is the core of the play.

Hodge tempers the bleak theme with dark humour, short scenes and a mixture of styles. Director Moira Blumenthal and her creative team accentuate the satirical humour that interlaces the plot. The set, designed by Colleen Cook, is contiguous, with multiple entrances that allow the scenes to run smoothly into each other and encourage the pace that is needed to keep the production buoyant. Martin Kinnane lights it with a film noir smokiness that heightens the fantasy of Hodge’s imagined scenes.

With a cast of fourteen playing over twenty roles, Blumenthal has directed a production that clearly delineates the characters, the fear and uncertainty under which they lived – and Stalin’s ability to captivate and cuckold … just as Richard Cotter does in his portrayal of the Russian leader.

Photo : Bob Seary

Cotter makes an energetic entrance and sustains it throughout the production. He lures Bulgakov into his magnetic web, mesmerising him with empty promises. Cotter’s fiendish smile, overt gestures, and crafty, quick responses expose the cunning and malice of the character – and explain people’s inability to resist his charm.

Andy Simpson plays Bulgakov as a naïve writer, caught up in his dreamy idealism – and thus an easy target for Stalin’s wiliness. He is foolishly trusting – exemplified when he allows Stalin to talk him into signing some execution orders.  He is also a loving husband to his wife Yelena, played with wry scepticism but unquestioning support by Audrey Blyde. And both are accepting hosts to a bereft group of displaced persons – played by Dave Kirkham, Annette van Roden and Michael Arvithis – with whom they are forced to share their home.

Just as these characters represent the beleaguered populace of Stalin’s Soviet Union, so David Woodland and John van Putten represent the dreaded secret police that carried out Stalin’s purges. One takes over the production of ‘the play’ Stalin is writing, the other hovers as a constant, evil presence, watching silently.

Blumenthal emphasises the humorous possibilities in the script and uses stylised action to underscore the filmic nature of the writing. That, and the pace she demands of her cast, keeps the tone as light as possible considering the underlying themes and the representational characters Hodge created, including the masked, black gowned actors in Bulgakov’s Moliere-style play, eerily performed in a smokey haze.

This play is a reminder of just what destruction a duplicitous leader can achieve. Blumenthal’s production makes it scarily, but lightly, real.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

The Spooky Men’s Chorale

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre. June 1, 2019

Reviewed : 1 June 2019

Photo : Provided

The Spooky Men’s Chorale returned to Sydney to a full house at the Everest Theatre at the Seymour Centre last night. After two more performances this month – Blackheath on 16th June, Melbourne Recital Centre on 20th June – they embark on another overseas tour to the UK and Germany. That might seem like some feat, but for The Spookies, it’s a matter of course.

Since they began in the Blue Mountains in 2001, they’ve toured Australia, performed at Festivals all over the UK and Europe, recorded six albums (the seventh is about to be released), appeared on radio and TV and are regulars at the National Folk Festival in Canberra.

Last night was their 700th gig!

One member of last night’s audience was at their very first gig in 2001. Others, though actually seeing them for the first time, had all their albums! There were people of all ages, from all over Sydney! There to see an acapella group of unpretentious men-in-black and different hats!

What is it about this group that inspires such an eclectic following?  Their incredible harmony? The unusual songs they sing? Their absolute control? In fact, it’s a combination of all of the above – and a lot more. They are a close-knit group of fine singers who do more than just sing! They entertain. They intersperse their more serious repertoire – Georgian songs, love songs like A Kick in the Heart and some beautiful covers – with their own brand of unconventional songs written, most often, by their Spookmeister, Stephen Taberner.

These guys are real performers, whose faces and carefully orchestrated reactions to Taberner’s wry forewords, make their productions more than just choral singing. Inside their delightful, and perfectly rehearsed harmony, there’s a bit of political sting, a bit of local commentary, some delightful ‘send ups’ and a lot of humour.

From their opening song, We Are the Spooky Men, you know they are more than “a men’s group”! Taberner’s introductions seal the expectation of humour, and songs such as the title song of their new album Welcome to the Second Half, clinch it firmly. Who but the Spooky Men would kick off after interval with a Welcome song?  Or tickle the audience with a gentle, but slickly performed, crack at Bohemian Rhapsody. Who but The Spooky Men can get a whole audience, old and young, on their feet in the aisles as a ‘dancing’ standing ovation?

Taberner has a special narrative skill. He is an eccentric sort of ‘everyman’, a little satirical, a little censuring, but totally appealing. He holds the audience just long enough with his “unexpected”, quirkily timed introductions, then with quick turn and a tap of his foot, launches the Spookies into song. This is ensemble work of a different kind – and it’s taken the group to The Edinburgh Fringe, St David’s Hall in Cardiff, the Toder Festival in Denmark and next month to the Rudolstadt Festival in Germany.

Their UK tour will include fifteen shows, beginning in Scotland on 28th June and finishing at King’s Palace in London and the Wickham Festival at the beginning of August. It’ll be a busy month but if any group can cope it will be he Spookies. Their laid back ‘group persona’ belies the organisation and rehearsal that underlies their big local following and their international success. Break a leg guys! Be safe – but enjoy every minute!

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.