Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

What the Butler Saw

by Joe Orton. New Theatre, Sydney. Oct 2 – Nov 3, 2018.

Photo : Bob Seary

Director Danielle Mass has brought Orton’s provocative attack on hypocrisy somersaulting into 2018 with her cunning cross casting and precision-based direction. She has swept together the farce and the facetious in a production that heightens Orton’s comic genius – and the contemporary relevance of the inequalities that he satirised so subversively … and so well.

The play opens with Dr. Prentice, a psychiatrist, trying to seduce a prospective secretary, Geraldine Barclay, in a job interview. When his wife enters, he attempts to cover up his activity by hiding the girl behind a curtain. But his wife, who is being blackmailed by Nicholas Beckett, promises Nicholas the post as secretary. Add to this confusion, a self-serving government inspector, Dr Rance, a police sergeant, lots of costume exchanges, drugs, alcohol, lust, nudity and a panto-like ending – and you have what New Theatre adroitly advertises as: “this darkest of farces, stuffed full of twists and turns, mishaps and changes of fortune, coincidences and lunatic logic in which six characters gradually lose the plot, their wits and/or their clothes”.

Photo : Bob Seary

The chaos thus described is accentuated by the sleek realism of production designer Tobias Manderson-Galvin’s set. Cool green and stark white; clean lines and sharp edges; and an obligatory sky-light invoke the institutional reality of the clinic. Careful construction ensures no slamming door causes a wall to shudder. The set is stable and secure – despite the fact that what happens on it is anything but.

Maas and her cast have honed this production to emphasise the qualities that make farce … well … farcical. It is fast-moving and fast-talking. The actors pose and posture with hilarious precision, and – because of the casting – in doing so add layers of innuendo and dimension to the characters and the plot.

Ariadne Sgouros is Dr Prentice. With tight-lipped, ‘upper class’ drawl and quizzical expression, Sgouros makes this role as falsely straight as Orton might have wished – and a perfect contrast to the posturing elegance and contained physicality of Jake Fryer-Hornsby as Mrs Prentice. Together they pace and pose, emphasisng the satire, and pulling off some cleverly timed gags involving bottle-opening, flowers and a brief case.

Amrik Tumber plays the interfering Dr Rance with bold aplomb.. . .

Review continued at Stage Whispers magazine.

Eight Cellists in a Special Gig

Independent Theatre, North Sydney;  Sunday 31st September 2018

Eight members of the Metropolitan Orchestra (TMO) sneaked away from the mainstream yesterday to ‘wow’ an already expectant audience in a very special ‘gig’. From Bach to Led Zeppelin, Ravel to Metallica, they showed the mellow versatility of this lowest-pitched, second-largest stringed instrument.

Introduced, tongue in cheek, by leader John Benz as “the most important part of the orchestra”, Ezmi Pepper, Caroline Hobbs, Paul Taylor, Steve Meyer, Zenith Chae, Nick McManus and Julienne Guerbois took the stage for an uninterrupted program beginning with two of American 20th century composer Brian Kelly’s Spanish compositions. The first ,a short atmospheric piece, provided a fitting introduction to the second which conjured the busy bustle of a village market. Motifs intertwined, slow over fast, as the musical interpretation of the scene unfolded.

From Kelly, they moved to JS Bach and Rousseau, their baroque compositions showcasing the depth and flexibility of this instrument, the moods it can inspire, and the energy and emotional concentration it demands of those who play it, whether it be the quiet, pensive final notes of Rousseau or something more upbeat … like Led Zeppelin’s 1975 classic rock hit, Kashmir, where the faster pace, taut pauses and climactic crescendo highlighted the amazing adaptability of the instrument and the musicians.

From ‘heavy’ Rock they moved on to Ravel’ gentle Pavane for a Dead Princess. Here the melancholy of the cello was most evident, the softer, more intense notes merging tenderly with the whisper of the plucked strings.

Shostakovich’s waltz, Suite for Variety Orchestra raised the tempo again – and beautifully demonstrated the various voices of the cellos, the lovely interaction between the performers, and their obvious joy in this stirring mid-twentieth century tribute to waltz-time.

Less cheerful was Wagner’s Pilgrim’s Chorus from the opera, Tannhauser, but this too showcased the emotional control required to create the poignant images and tension in this song where penitent pilgrims praise the peace of God’s mercy.

A little different were the musical messages in Metallica’s 1991 hit, Nothing Else Matters, which once again emphasised the energy of the musicians – and their control, especially in the last lingering notes.

Percussive tapping set the pace for the final item in the program, a tango by Argentinian composer by Astor Izola, the cello a perfect instrument to invoke the sultry atmosphere and precision movement of the dance.

Called back to the stage twice, the group performed a bopping little piece composed by the group’s own Caroline Hobbs – and a rocking reprise of Kasmir that left the audience asking for even more.

The next concert by the Metropolitan Orchestra will include Elgar’s Cello Concerto, featuring a solo by Ezmi Pepper. Sarah-Grace Williams will conduct the concert on Saturday 27th October in the Eugene Goosens Hall at the ABC Centre, Ultimo. Check TMO’s website for information and availability of tickets.

The Ghost Train

By Arnold Ridley. Genesian Theatre, Kent Street, Sydney. September 22 – October 28, 2018.

Photo : Ash Bell

You may remember Arnold Ridley as Private Godfrey, the gentle, old medic in the British comedy series Dad’s Army, but as well as an actor, he was also a prolific playwright. Of his 19 plays, the best known is The Ghost Train, written in 1923 after Ridley was stranded overnight during a rail journey through Gloucestershire. The play has a long history. Its initial production ran to sell out houses at St Martin’s Theatre from 1925 to 1927. It has been adapted for many film versions, the first a silent film in 1927. An audio version of the play was recorded as late as 2010.

Why? Because it’s a great example of a comedy suspense thriller! And director Stephen Lloyd-Coombs, with his Genesian cast and crew, have really done it justice. His production highlights the melodramatic aspects of the writing by focusing on the ‘stock’ nature of the characters and the use of timing, pace, pause, freezes, vocals, tableaux and innuendo. For anyone studying melodrama – or anyone who values precision acting – it’s a must see.

Stephen Lloyd-Coombs has given this ninety five year old classic the energy and panache it deserves. It’s fun, entertaining and beautifully performed.

The play is set in the waiting room of an isolated railway station, where a diverse group of travellers are stranded for the night. Though the station master tries to persuade them to leave, there is nowhere for them to go, so they decide to stay, despite his warning that the ghost of a train wrecked in the area sometimes haunts the line – killing anyone who sees it. Naturally, this leads to a variety of dramatic incidents – and revelations – as well as the climaxes and anti-climaxes one expects of a comic thriller.

Designer Ash Bell has given attention to detail in both her costumes and set. The costumes feature the colours and elegance of the 1920s – and the characters wear them with style. The dusty railway station waiting room in which they are trapped typifies the period, with slatted wooden seats, frosted windows, all very brown and dingy. Michael Schell accentuates this with eerie lighting effects and the spooky rumbling approach of the ghostly train.

Mark Langham plays the station master … and a more sinister character. His station master is suitably frustrated and anxious to lock up and get home, his local burr a contrast to the upper-class accents of the stranded travellers. As the stranger who arrives later in the play – accompanied by his equally sinister off-sider, Dr Sterling, played by Elizabeth McGregor – he is menacing and threatening.

Zoe Crawford and John Willis-Richards are Elsie and Richard Winthrop, whose marriage is falling apart. She is a 1920s feminist, determined and . . . .

Review continued in Stage Whispers magazine

Communicating Doors

By Alan Ayckbourn. Castle Hill Players. Pavilion Theatre, Castle Hill Showground. September 21 – October 13, 2018.

Staging a play that involves a hotel room in a 40-year time warp is obviously no problem for director, set and sound designer Bernard Teuben. With special lighting effects by Sean Churchward, he has transported Ayckbourn’s 1994 play into the 2038 suite of the Regal Hotel, London, complete with a frosted glass bathroom and a communicating door that, like a neon-lit Tardis, carries its passengers back to 2018 and 1998.

Filmy curtains surround the balcony windows, keeping out the dark of the London night as his well-rehearsed characters take this ‘comic-thriller’ through its paces. Elizabeth Chambers sparkles as the leather-clad dominatrix, Poopay, called to ‘minister’ to aging business man Reece (Stephen Snars). Reece, however, is not interested in her ‘services’. He merely wants her signature as witness to a confession to the murder of his wives by his partner, Julian (Steve Rowe), who hired Poopay!

Photo : Chris Lundie

In a tussle with Poopay, Reece collapses, Julian returns, they carry Reece into the bedroom, and Poopay realises that Julian is the murderer Reece has described. A chase ensues and Poopay runs through a communicating door to be carried back to 2018, where she meets Ruella (Margaret Moir), Reece’s second wife, the night before she is due to be thrown off the balcony by Julian. And that’s just the beginning!

Things get even more complicated when Ruella is time-warped to 1998 and tries to convince Reece’s first wife, Jessica (Jodie Klopf), on their wedding night, of her forth-coming murder. Hotel security man Harold Palmer (Larry Murphy) provides the typical Ayckbourn comic relief as the action gets faster and innuendos abound.

This is one of Ayckbourn’s more complex plays – and one where, as Teuben explains in his program notes, “the women are not the dim-witted, panic-stricken lasses often portrayed, but strong-willed characters taking chances and changing destinies.” A timely revival then!

Chambers is stunning in leather and boots, taking her character from posing prostitute to frightened victim, to concerned rewriter-of-history, in a confident, believable performance. Her pace and energy are integral to much of the action.

Snars ages carefully into the part of seventy-odd Reece, a bit stumbly, a bit shaky, but doggedly determined that the murderer be exposed. Where the character is 40 years younger – cavorting with Klopf  . . . .

Review continued in Stage Whispers magazine

The Wharf Review 2018 – Déjà Revue

Written and created by Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe. Sydney Theatre Company. Riverside Theatres Parramatta, September 13 – 15, 2018, and touring.

Photo : © Brett Boardman.

The 2018 Wharf Revue is hitting the road from Parramatta – and why not? It’s the cultural hub of the West; a host of faithful followers have almost booked out the first three-nights of the tour; and Riverside audiences are more than receptive to political satire – they have a Powerhouse of puns to prove it! What better place to perfect its topical pace before the Revue makes its way to the Wharf in November via Penrith, Nunawading, Belrose, Wollongong, Canberra and Wagga Wagga!

This year’s cast no longer includes the multi-talented Phil Scott, who has been the musical muse of the team since its beginning on a makeshift set at Wharf 2 over 15 years ago. His flying fingers on the keyboard, pithy parodies and impish impressions of the longest serving prime minister since Menzies were highlights of revues past – and it doesn’t seem quite the same without him. You are missed, Mr Scott!

Jonathan Biggins and Drew Forsythe, however, remain as the indomitable backbone of the show, their political perception and unbounded energy underwriting a revue that continues to be satirically hard-hitting. They are joined this year by Rachel Beck, Douglas Hansell and musical director Andrew Worboys, in a performance that lampoons state, federal and international politics in the cleverest ways possible.

Imagine Malcolm Turnbull as a page-boy Cinderella on a pantomime set of pale pink striped canopies. Imagine Forsythe as the ugly step mother Abbott, complete with red and yellow frilly lifesaver bonnet. This ‘fairy tale’ rise to power in a panto-style sees Hansell as the dark Prince Dutton, and Rachel Beck as the immediate past PM as she tells of her fate: “Fair weather friends, That’s how it ends … Fallen from grace, Slapped in the face, Poor little me”.

This sets the pace for a scaffold of skits and sketches, not all of them political. The five performers, dressed in plastic body suits and caps, form a plastic percussion. . . . .

Review continued in Stage Whispers magazine.

Plenty serious TALK TALK

Dance Bites 2018. Form Dance Projects and Riverside Theatres. Aug 30 – Sep 1, 2018

 

Photo : Heidrun Lohr

No-one could better describe the premise behind Vicki Van Hout’s clever, creative – and philosophical – piece of theatre than the performer herself:

Even if I am on stage by myself, as an artist, I am never truly alone, as I am bound to bring my family, my community, my peers and mentors to work with me. In this piece, I decided to place the usual behind-the-scenes action of the indigenous arts making process front and centre …

While Australians from all cultural backgrounds create within the framework of cultural arts and community development … there is a particular obligation placed on indigenous performers.

Van Hout has chosen a blend of theatrical forms to highlight her words, and in all of them – dance, drama and film – she manages to incorporate the gentle, but very effective, satirical humour and comic timing that we have come to expect from our indigenous writers and performers. From Jack Davis to Nakkiah Lui, Bob Maza to Leah Purcell, the ability to infuse their special stories with humour as well as truth has earned them a special kind of respect.

Whether in a clever video clip mocking attitudes to the acknowledgement to country, or “auctioning” traditional indigenous and European dance steps; explaining to an invisible elder the ability to tell her stories truthfully without traditional ‘props’ or encapsulating all of them in interpretative movement, Van Hout proves herself a consummate performer. She has a lithe, buoyant energy that injects itself into her performance, an innate ability to use pause, gesture, a tilt of the head, a wry expression to reach beyond the moment and make her truth even clearer.

Van Hout is a skilled dancer, story teller, actor and analyst – with the ability “speak across cultures” in a way that is edifying as well as entertaining.

Review published in Stage Whispers magazine

 

The Streeton Trio : Jazz Inspirations

Independent Theatre, North Sydney; Sunday 24th August 2018

Photo : Geoff Sirmai

Melbourne cellist Blair Harris joined violinist Emma Jardine and pianist Benjamin Kopp in a wonderful afternoon concert that traced the influences of contemporary music on classical composers – from Haydn in 1795, to Ravel in 1914, to more recent composers such as Paul Schoenfeld (1985), Fazil Say (2012) to young Australian composer Harry Sdraulig (2017).

The harmonious refrains of the motifs in each composition were reflected in the elegant synchronisation of the performers – and their accord as a trio. Moments of eye contact, easily missed by some perhaps, told of their shared passion for the music and the diligent rehearsal that is needed to achieve perfection.

Joseph Haydn’s Trio in G, Gypsy, picked up the gypsy folk music of his time in three movements that conjured the mysticism and romance of those that live a less settled life. It begins in mellow tones, then forces the instruments almost to a race, where they outpace each other “more for fun than for competition”. It certainly puts the musicians through their paces, requiring fast fingers and split-second timing to match the energy of the piece.

Ravel’s Piano Trio, written as The Great War loomed, begins quietly with the rhythmical motifs picked up and echoed, until the rolling patterns of the Pantoum, that reflect pattern of a Malaysian poem where the last two lines of each stanza roll into the next. The fourth movement starts low, with the motif moving higher and higher in scale until it leads into the final movement, that begins with trickling water droplets and ends with the crescendo of a storm.

Photo : Geoff Sirmai

Every part of this composition demanded faultless timing and a unity of purpose and passion that shone in both the music and the faces of each of the trio.

The second part of the program took the trio to Europe in 2012 and Fazil Say’s musical interpretation of Felix Baumgartner’s jump from a helium balloon 39kms above the earth. The music contemplating the earth from his capsule, then drifting and spinning through the stratosphere and into a dance of joy as he lands safely. All the risks and the exhilaration are iterated in music that trips through the fingers of the three performers as they recapture Say’s interpretation of the feat.

In Harry Sdraulig’s Joybox, composed for Musica Viva, elements of jazz are cycled through a central concept. In Paul Schoenfeld’s Café Music, which is in Kopp’s words, “a wild, free ride” where Schoenfeld “pays homage to all things American”. Suggestions of jazz, soul, and musical theatre come together in a classical pastiche that is obviously as much fun to play as it is for the audience to listen to – and to watch.

The Independent Theatre brings the audience into the close proximity for which chamber music is written … and these three musicians are as thrilling to watch as the music that is their vocation.

Madame Butterfly

By Puccini, in an adaptation by Peter Hutchinson. Opera Australia. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. August 18, 2018 and touring.

Once again, Opera Australia, supported by some generous donors, is ‘on the road’. Performed in English, in an adaptation by Peter Hutchinson that re-sets the opera into the mid-1950s, and directed by John Bell, a cast of wonderful singers accompanied by a chamber orchestra are taking Puccini’s Madame Butterfly to twenty-nine venues in NSW, Victoria, Tasmania and the ACT. This performance, to a packed house at Parramatta, saw them two thirds of the way through a tour that began early in July and will culminate at the Princess Theatre in Launceston on the 18th September.

Butterfly tells the tragic love story of a faithful Japanese wife, Cio-Cio-San, waiting patiently with her little son for the return of her American husband, Captain Pinkerton, only to find that he has taken advantage of an old Japanese divorce custom, and married again.

In each community, a chorus of local children, join the OA cast. Trained by local choir leaders, who have attended intensive workshops, the children have the envied opportunity to be part of the production – and in this opera, to take part in the famous “humming chorus”.

This faithful adaptation of the opera is taking its beautiful music and sad story far afield.

This, and the actual tour itself, require an enormous amount of planning and organisation, not least of which is the transportation of the set – cunningly designed for (fairly) easy transportation by Jennie Tate – musical instruments, costumes, wigs, lighting … and the cast and crew.

Tate’s set uses the simple, clean lines that are integral to Japanese design. A stage of wooden platforms, augmented by sliding screens takes the scene to a more contemporary Nagasaki than that of 1904 when Puccini’s work was first performed, though the ceremonies and rituals that are an essential part of his libretto are faithfully retained. The traditional costumes evoke the flowing lines and subtle colours of Japan and contrast with the deeper colours and fabrics of the more modern costumes.

Into this setting comes Puccini’s music. The influence of Japanese music is evident in the use of the pentatonic scale with which Puccini suggests changes in mood and atmosphere. The travelling orchestra – two violins, a viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and keyboard – subtly evokes the emotions that he worked into the score.

There is romance and joy in the opening act, with Butterfly’s aria, her maid Suzuki’s prayers and in Butterfly’s duet with Pinkerton; and in the optimism of the famous. . . .

Review continued in Stage Whispers magazine

Next to Normal

Music by Tom Kitt, Book & lyrics by Brian Yorkey. Directed by Kathryn Thomas, Musical Director Steve Dula. Lane Cove Theatre Company (St Aidans Anglican Church Longueville). 10 – 25 August, 2018.

Photo : Dawn Pugh

Though classified as a ‘rock musical’ Next to Normal is far from the ‘lightness’ that classification usually describes. Rather, it’s the harrowing story of a mother struggling with the crippling weight of bipolar disorder and the effect that it has on her, and her family. This is a musical for Now, even though it was written over ten years ago.

Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2010 (one of only eight musicals ever to receive the award), it also touches on drug abuse, suicide, the long-lasting devastation of grief and the vagaries of psychology and psychiatry, making it perceptive musical comment on contemporary society.

Director Kathryn Thomas says she is drawn to theatre that explores “what it is to be human and what it is to learn and grow”. Next to Normal certainly does that. It blends music and drama in a story that is heart breaking and very real.

In a compact, shared little theatre space, on a sparse yet suggestive set, Thomas has created the allusion of an ordinary suburban house – yet one that is slightly askew – just like the family that exists precariously therein.

With a talented and committed cast, Thomas, and musical director Steve Dula, have wrought a delicately sensitive production that blends the poignancy of Brian Yorkey’s words with the passion and complexity of Tom Kitt’s music. Thomas is a creative director who searches for the inner spark that ignites the characters. Whether in intimate dialogue or impassioned song, she has sought that spark in her cast as well.

Miriam Rihani plays the disturbed, disordered Diana, existing between the real and the longed-for. In action and in song, Rihani finds the anxious highs and desperate lows of this distraught character. She shrinks into herself, fearful, disoriented, wretchedly engaging.

Trent Gardiner is her loyal but worried husband, Dan. Gardiner shows the complexity of his apprehension in expressive voice and studied action. He stands steadfast and supportive, yet his face shows the anguish and disquiet he feels inside.

Their daughter, Natalie, is played with mature assurance by Chelsea Taylor. Taylor finds the complexities of a teenager torn between love and distrust at home, and in her relationship with her devoted boyfriend, Henry, played with warm, affectionate stoicism by Luka Bozic.

Doctor Madden, Diana’s psychiatrist, is played by Brent Dolahenty, who depicts the smug self-righteousness of this highly qualified but distant and insensitive character.

Christopher O’Shea, as Gabe, haunts the production as effectively as he does Diana’s mind. He moves lightly, his eyes fixed, vacant, compelling, his power over the family scarily gripping. This is a difficult role to sustain and O’Shea does it well.

A musical drama such as this requires an enormous amount of rehearsal to portray and control the varied levels of emotion and vocal intensity that this cast has achieved. That intensity would be even more effective if the amplification of the voices was not so high. In a space where the audience is so close, the voices so strong, the themes so confronting, less in that case, would achieve much more.

 

The Turk in Italy

By Gioachino Rossini. Librettist: Felice Romani. Opera Australia. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. August 10 – September 1, 2018.

Photo : Keith Saunders

Though opera buffo doesn’t traditionally have the same classical ‘standing’ as the dramatic operas, the music is just as beautiful – and there is much more opportunity for directors to have fun with the action and the costumes. Simon Phillips certainly did this in his 2014 production of The Turk in Italy, and revival director Andy Moore has treated it just as playfully in this reprise. In Opera Australia’s own words: “This production is a frivolous take on a comedy that is not often performed”.

Frivolous or not, the music is Rossini as a 21-year-old creative wizard, mixing his musical talent, with, like Noel Coward, “a talent to amuse”. The orchestra, led by Andrea Molino, with Assistant conductor Siro Battaglin at the Fortepiano, plays with as much joie de vivre as the performers on stage. Together they make this almost silly, yet musically stretching opera, a frivolous musical romp that lifts the spirits and makes life seem a lot brighter.

. . . it is the acting that takes this production beyond comic to comedy . . . . . elements of commedia del’arte are carefully inter-woven with the music . . .

The opera is set in a seaside town near Naples and Phillips has moved the time forward to the 1950s and a bar in a classy seaside resort. Costume designer Gabriela Tylesova has picked up the 50s style, “exaggerating the clashing colours of the time” in multi-coloured swimsuits, tight waists, gathered skirts and strappy sandals. The men are equally flashy, in shiny fabrics, three-piece suits, pegged pants and pointed shoes. The fancy dress ball in the second Act is a plethora of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe lookalikes rocking and rolling to a classical beat – but introduced cheekily by the very faint notes of “Love me Tender”.

Rossini and librettist Felice Romani had fun with the interlocking love stories of the plot, which they explained cunningly through the poet Prosdocimo (Samuel Dundas), who is finding trouble imagining the scenario for a farce he is writing. The flirtatious heroine, Florilla (Stacey Alleaume), precariously balances her lover Narciso (Virgilio Marino), the visiting Turk, Selim (Paolo Bordogna) and her jealous husband, Geronio, (Warwick Fyfe). The arrival of Selim’s former lover, Zaida (Anna Dowsley), with a band of gypsies, causes more complications.

Prosdocimo’s attempt to unravel the tangle by suggesting disguises causes even more confusion, but, like all good comedies, the couples are re-united, poor Narciso is left on his own – and Prosdocimo succeeds in finding a plot. Phillips uses a great deal of poetic licence in his Surtitles, with words and phrases such as “boofhead, “nong” and “desperate and dateless” peppering his translation.

The plot gave Rossini the opportunity to write less for solo voices and more for ensemble. There are duets, trios, quartets and a thrilling comic quintet in the ballroom scene. Stacey Alleaume obviously relishes the coloratura of Rossini’s crescendos, thrilling the audience as the whispered beginnings of her solos reach higher and higher. Warwick Fyfe (and the orchestra) delight in . . . .

Review continued in Stage Whispers magazine