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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.

Doubt: A Parable

By John Patrick Shanley.  The Theatre on Chester, Epping, NSW. November 1 – 22, 2019

Reviewed : November 1, 2019

Photyo : supplied

John Patrick Shanley’s 2004 play is set in 1964 in America, but it could have been set here or in the UK, or anywhere in Europe, because the ‘doubts’ it exposes about child abuse had been whispered about and covered up by families and churches and other institutions long before 1964.

Director Carla Moore suggests that the year is symbolic because it marks the introduction of the American Civil Rights Act and Vatican II’s more relaxed image of the Catholic Church – both symbolic of the fact that the 1960s was a time of political and social change.

Doubt is set St. Nicholas Church School in The Bronx. Sister Aloysius is hard, ultra-conservative head nun, a rigid disciplinarian,who doesn’t even approve of the Christmas pageant. Young Sister James is trusting and gentle, but begins to doubt herself when Aloysiusquestions her caring classroom manner. Father Flynn, the young priest, is trying to bring more liberal ideas to the parish.

When Aloysius learns from James that Flynn has had a one-to-one meeting with Donald Muller, the first African-American student to be enrolled in the school, her doubts about him are raised. When she confronts Flynn in the presence of Sister James, he denies anything wrong about his actions. Yet doubts are sown in all three, because, in words from Flynn’s sermon: “Doubt can be a bond as powerful and sustaining as certainty”.

Carla Moore’s direction reflects the spikes and stings in the script. The pervasive power of suggestion, accusation and denial is suggested in tight dialogue, uneasy pauses, anxious expressions and stilted gestures. Tension builds, yet does so insidiously, as happens in an institution that always deals with conflict behind closed doors.

Melanie Robinson wears the formidable power of Sister Aloysius with authoritative ease: pursed lips, forbidding frowns, and gestures as controlled as the regime she imposes on her staff. Robinson finds the subtle dimensions Shanley has given this this character, all of them coalescing in her final line: “I have doubts, Sister”.

Photo : supplied

Ben Brighton is youthfully confident as Father Flynn. From the pulpit, his Flynn preaches with lively fervour and assertive eye contact. That assertiveness that changes to defensive defiance as he faces Aloysius’s barbed insinuations, and boyish self-doubt in a moving scene with Sister James.

Sudanese HSC student Susan Sogora transforms to a forty-year old mother in the role of Mrs Muller, whom Aloysius confronts about her son’s relationship with Flynn. Sogora shows her understanding of Muller’s rising indignation in a performance beyond her years and experience.

Moore’s set focuses her production in front of two stained glass windows that back-light the stage. Sister Aloysius’s desk forms a barricade that intimidates James but encourages Flynn. The ‘cloisters’ of the schoolgrounds are cloaked in ivy, and a rose garden tended by Aloysius suggests a softer side to her disposition, where doubts about her actions may haunt her.

Doubt has lost none of the award-winning potency that took it from the stage to the screen – and to this thought-provoking production.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Fully Committed

By Becky Mode. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Director: Kate Champion. 11 October – 16 November 2019

Seen : 31 October 2019

Photo : Prudence Upton.

Baby Doll

By Tennessee Williams, adapted for the stage by Pierre Laville and Emily Mann. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Oct 18 – Nov 16, 2019

Seen : 27 October 2019

Photo : Prudence Upton

White Pearl

By Anchuli Felicia King. Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta and Sydney Theatre Company.  Lennox Theatre, Riverside, Parramatta.  Oct 24 – Nov 9, 2019

Reviewed : October 26, 2019

Photo : Philip Erbacher

The cast of White Pearl seizes the stage in a rush of words, energy andattitude in a ‘go girls’ performance that they sustain for 90 fast-paced minutes. There is no room for laxity in Anchuli Felicia King’s fiercely modern play. Her dialogue, that director Priscilla Jackman describes as “razor sharp idiomatic specificity” and the slick “spellbinding tempo and rhythms” (Jackman again)  keep the six actors at peak pace, their characters bouncing off and at each other in a dark comedy that subversively challenges what Jackman terms “the irrefutable complexities of PC culture”.

Jeremy Allen’s set is just as sharp and cutting edge as King’s writing. Long horizontal lines are emphasised in an extended boardroom table. Tall windows mirror the audience then become transparent. Chairs are replaced by lime-coloured stools on pale blue carpet. Damien Cooper’s lighting is bright and stark. This is no place to relax, no place to show weakness. The only escape is the toilet, skilfully hidden behind a flat that elevates in specific scenes.

Stretching above the stage a screen of changing advertisements is replaced in quick scene breaks by figures indicating the escalating number of hits on a leaked racist ad that has gone viral. Another projection shows an ever-increasing number of tweets.

The ad itself, about the supposed ill-effects of a skin whitening cream, is the trigger for the dilemma that faces the six characters. It provokes the power plays between them as they connect and disconnect, accuse and denounce. In so doing, it raises issues about different cultural perspectives, what people see as funny, what lies consumers believe, the fallout that comes of global exposure.

Photo : Philip Erbacher

It is hard to differentiate between the performers in this tightly directed, blatantly contentious, crisply funny production. Each exposes their character with equal energy and boldness.

Perhaps Vaishnavi Suryaprakash deserves special mention for the robust physical manifestation of her rising anger and frustration, and Merlynn Tong for her laid-back nonchalance and comedic timing.

But Deborah An, Mayu Iwasaki, Catherine Van Davies and Shirong Wu’s performances were equally forceful and compelling. Matthew Pearce, as the sole male character, found the delicate balance between misogyny, machismo and humour with which King infused his character.

Though the language may shock, this play reflects contemporary issues in contemporary language with a cast that show the diversity of talent that abounds in multicultural Australia – talent that is not often enough evident in the plays that are chosen for production. See it with an open mind, but see it! It hopefully heralds a new, “New Age” theatre.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine