Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

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.

Wicked

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Book by Winnie Holzman. Rouse Hill Anglican College (NSW). May 22 – 25, 2019.

Reviewed : May 24, 2019

Photo : supplied

Rouse Hill Anglican College turned several shades of green last week for its musical. Green hoarding welcomed visitors to the auditorium. Students and staff in green sequined vests sold programs and treats. The orchestra’s green bow ties glittered as the audience found their seats. A giant dragon hovered above the green-draped stage.

For this was no ordinary school musical. This was one of the very first schools in Australia to be awarded the rights to produce Wicked. An honour, yes! Also, perhaps a little daunting – but with a very committed production team and a large, talented cast, the school did Schwartz and Holzman’s ‘untold story of the witches of Oz’ proud.

Fifty-six students, under the direction of Luke Ferrantino, danced and sang their way through the popular story, backed by a thirty-two strong orchestra led by musical director Heather Skinner. Getting students to performance standard, as well as completing all the usual school activities, is no mean feat at the best of times. To do so for the production of such a popular musical must have been even more stressful.

But that stress is always shared across the school, and this was no exception. Principal Peter Fowler oversaw the production as executive producer. Loretta Foster took on the busy task of production manager and Leisa Bromley was assistant director. With many other staff and students working in areas such as set management, stage management, technical coordination, make up, front-of-house management and publicity, this was definitely a ‘whole school’ event.

For the set, and incredible costumes, they approached the generous committee of Miranda Musical Society. One of the wonderful things about our vast Sydney community theatre network is the gift of sharing. Miranda’s set and costumes gave the production an extra professional spark – as did the green smoke, pyrotechnics, pneumatics and movable LED lights!

They all gave the production the spectacle and pizzazz that everyone expects of Wicked – but what of the witches and their friends and foes? No school could have expected more of their enthusiastic students. They worked as an animated, colourful, committed ensemble, whether singing, dancing, moving props, or crouching on all fours as the winged monkeys.

Tayla Pettit and Stephanie Molloy were bewitching as Elphaba and Glinda. Both girls have clear, strong voices and skilfully managed the difficult range and phrasing demanded in their solos and duets. They are also convincing young actors, Pettit finding both Elphaba’s pathos, and her underlying strength, and Molloy making the most of Glinda’s chirpy self-confidence and satirical humour.

Liam Dwyer played their ‘swain’ Fiyero, finding compassion and bravado as he gave up the one witch to suffer for another.

Photo : supplied

Caitlin Stephenson was an impressively fearsome Madame Morrible. Montanna Schlebusch was the clever but beleaguered Doctor Dillamond. Corey Harvey emerged from the giant mask at the gates of Oz as the Wizard. Erin Pratt languished beautifully in her wheel chair as Nessarose and Caleb Stace anguished dutifully for the love of Glinda.

Whether playing the blue-and-white-uniformed school friends, or the denizens of the Emerald City, the supporting cast were in each musical moment, following Glinda, rejecting Elphaba, and rejoicing together in the finale.

School productions never run for long enough to compensate for the hours of rehearsal and preparation. For three or four performances there are multiple hours of hard work after school hours for students, teachers and parents. But being part of a school production is the best fun. It will be something those involved will always remember – and Wicked is a production of which this school and its creative arts team can be especially proud.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Bare – a Pop Opera

Book by John Hartmere & Damon Intrabartolo, music by Damon Intrabartolo, lyrics by John Hartmere. Lane Cove Theatre Company. The Performance Space @ St Aidan’s, 1 Christina Street, Longueville. May 10 – 25, 2019

Reviewed : May 11, 2019

Photo : Lachlan Bradbury

Bare is not your usual musical. Sure, it’s about love and trust, but its also looks at them in a very different setting and through a much broader, more inclusive eye. Bare is the love story of two schoolboys in a catholic boarding school in America or anywhere. There are whimsical moments, very touching moments and some amusing moments – all told in thirty-six musical numbers that vary in pace and style. Singing a story isn’t ever easy. Singing it when it involves such poignantly contemporary themes is even more challenging. But this production does it with amazing compassion and tenderness.

Lane Cove Theatre Company has a reputation for punching above the expected. Bare is no exception. Director Kathryn Thomas, who directed Next to Normal last year, has brought another ‘different’ musical to the very small space that the company calls home. Thomas says: “I love the show because it captures vulnerability and struggle with all facets of adolescence, from sexuality to body image”. Co-director Isaac Downey adds that it “resonates acceptance, blind faith and love”.

Thomas always directs with a carefully considered vision and empathy, for the themes and the performers. With Downey in this production, she uses space economically and levels to emphasise connections and contrasts. They manage the large cast judiciously, blocking tender scenes perceptively and choreographing the dance numbers to reflect the youthful energy and zest of the characters the cast portray.

Musical director Steve Dula has a feel for the space, adjusting the volume to endow the voices – which, thankfully, are un-amplified, making the touching scenes more natural and evocative. Lighting plays its part, enhancing the more delicate moments, augmenting the pace and humour of the dance numbers.

This is another brave production of which the company, the directors and the dedicated cast and creatives should be justly proud.

The relatively young, but talented, performers who play the students, have responded to the themes and direction with enthusiasm and passion. All work as a tight ensemble whether at prayer in the opening scene (“Epiphany”) or at the birthday party that turns into a rave (“Wonderland”), or as observers in more poignant scenes where they support the protagonists played by Matt Shepherd, Mackinnley Bowden and Edan McGovern

These three performers carry some of those delicate scenes. Shepherd and Bowden, as roommates and secret lovers, Jason and Peter, find the vulnerability of their characters with a control that suggests much greater stage experience. They tell their story in songs where phrasing, timing and range are sometimes difficult, yet they manage this whilst at the same time conveying the depth of confusion and emotion that the teenagers they portray might feel. They have many beautiful duets, among them “Best Kept Secrets”and the title song, “Bare”.

Photo : Lachlan Bradbury

McGovern plays the difficult role of Ivy, who is also in love with Jason. McGovern uses a mature restraint that lends depth and conviction to the character. She uses her eyes expressively to heighten the emotive highs and lows of the journey the character makes. Whether singing and dancing, or slowly accepting rejection and shame, McGovern is persuasively in the moment. Her rendition of “Touch My Soul” lingers in the memory.

Lucy Koschel takes on the difficult role of Nadia, Jason’s overweight, perceptive sister – and Ivy’s roommate. Her performance of “Plain Jane Fat Ass” finds the agony of the sentiments it expresses, as well as the humour that is incorporated in the words.

Another difficult role is that of Matt, who is love with Ivy. Christopher O’Shea finds the debilitation of rejection in his portrayal of this dispirited young man.

The ‘adult’ roles in this coming-of-age musical are representative but beautifully incorporated into the story. Kristin Kok as Peter’s mother, Claire, has been aware his sexuality for years, but is shamefully in denial.  Anthony Mason is the rigidly doctrinarian priest who can’t allow his compassion to override his religious beliefs.

Carmel Rodrigues plays a much less constraining part as Sister Chantelle, the nun who is directing the school’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Rodrigues is a ball of energy who brings the vital contrast that balances the emotion of the play. She sings and dances, admonishes the audience – and make a hilarious appearance in a dream sequence.

There are some haunting lines in this musical: “Do you watch me when I cry”… “I’m left with my courage alone” … “pain adores me, God ignores me” …  “everything’s an act when you’re pleasing everyone” …

This is another brave production of which the company, the directors and the dedicated cast and creatives should be justly proud. It deserves to be seen and heard by a bigger audience.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

One Man, Two Guvnors

By Richard Bean.  Richmond Players.  School of Arts.  Saturday May 11, 2019 – 8pm, Friday May 17 – 8pm, Saturday May 18 – 2pm & 8pm.

Reviewed : May 6, 2019

Photos : Grant O’Hare and Simon Dane

Think Britain in the 1920s! Flappers and tappers! Gangsters and pranksters! Think colourful, busy beachside Brighton! That’s exactly where director Carol Dicker has taken this production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Richard Bean’s madcap adaptation of Carlo Goldoni’s eighteenth centurycommedia dell’arte play, Servant of Two Masters.

The plot is ageless: a twin sister disguised as her dead brother; three complicated love stories; a ruffian; a shark; three sassy women; and a rogue working for two bosses. The comedy is ageless: puns, slapstick, plays on words, falls and pratfalls. It worked for Shakespeare; it worked for Goldoni. It worked for Bean! Dicker and her busy cast have been very busy making it work for Richmond Players.

The play is funny. It lends itself to song and dance. As well, the period lends itself to colour and jazz. And Dicker has incorporated all of this into a production that is sure to tick lots of audience-appeal boxes.

John Courtney plays the incorrigible rascal, Francis Henshall, an out-of-work skiffle player who is hungry for a job – and food. It is he who is the ‘one man’ trying to work for ‘two guvnors’. Courtney rises to the many challenges of this role – the quick talking prattle, the sleight of hand, a fight, a couple of difficult falls, and some song and dance. The audience is Henshall’s confidante and Courtney breaks through the fourth wall with engaging charm.

Heloise Tollar and Robert Hall play his ‘two guvnors’. Tollar is Rachel Crabbe, disguised as het twin brother, Roscoe. In an ill-fitting suit, a wig and a cocky little hat, she ‘manfully’ strides the stage, placating her brother’s fiancée, getting promised money from her erstwhile father-in-law-to-be and giving orders to Henshall.

Hall is very funny as the other ‘guvnor’, the upper-class but chumpish Stanley Stubbers – Rachel’s lover and the man who killed her brother. Hall has a strong stage presence and his comic timing, use of pause and confident pace set the tenor in his scenes.

Courtney, Hall and Tollar have some tricky moments involving not just ‘two guvnors’, but two swinging doors, two letters, two meals and two fast-spoken explanations. Comedy like this can be two dimensional, but Dicker has managed to make sure that the characters are as important as the clowning.

Photos : Grant O’Hare and Simon Dane

Michael Niccol plays Charlie the Duck, a local crook whose pretty, but ditzy, daughter Pauline (Madz O’Hare)was engaged to Roscoe but is really in love with over-the-top wannabe actor, Alan (Thomas Gardiner). All three of these performers find the comic fun in their roles, Niccol by cunningly playing down the character, O’Hare and Gardiner by doing just the opposite.

Charlie’s feminist bookkeeper, Dolly, is played with cool flair by Samantha O’Hare. This is a gem of a role, and O’Hare relishes every feisty line and suggestive moue.

The supporting cast add much to the humour of the production, especially Nellie Grimshaw – billed as “Greek Chorus” – who makes some fast and admirable scene and character changes. Watch especially for the nun, the baton-twirling policeman and an auspicious journey through the fourth wall! Catherine Gregory is innkeeper Llola, Craig Wynn-Jones is Charlie’s lawyer. Simon Dane is a doddery, zanny-style waiter. Anne McMaster is his patient boss.

Dicker has chosen a multi-skilled cast, enabling her to bring some of them in front of the curtain as stylish entertainers between scenes. Singing and dancing in their elegant, glitzy 20s costumes gives the production extra sparkle and pizzazz.

As does bringing the whole cast on stage in an energetic tapdancing finale! Choreographed by Samantha O’Hare, this is a colourful climax to a bright production that will take the bite out of cool May nights – and debatable electioneering!

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Theatresports All Stars: Battle of the Champions

Enmore Theatre. May 6, 2019

Reviewed : May 5, 2019

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

Competition across the ages was buzz-word for this impro extravaganza. Theatresports veterans from the heady days of the 1980s teamed up with, or were pitted against, some of the bright young things that are making their mark on the twenty-first century impro circuit … and other stages. Together they battled for the ‘Championship’ title in a series of impro games that stretched the imagination – and the discerning eyes of the judges, led by another veteran David Poltorak. Poltorak was Cranston Cup Grand Finalist back at Belvoir Street in 1986 and teammate of Andrew Denton, Steve Johnston and David Witt in the legendary, and very witty team, called Writers Bloc,

The full house, like the event itself, drew together enthusiastic followers of all ages: old Theatresports tragics; young kids involved in the Theatresports in Schools program; inter-generational Comedy Festival committed. An audience like this defies age gaps, gender gaps and prissy conservatism. They are there to support the players, wonder at their ingenuity, and have fun. And that’s what they got!

Pringles opened and drinks in hand, they were ready for anything and this year’s host, Fat Pizza and The Habibs star Tahir Bilgic revved them up even further. Using his stand-up impro skills – and a few Bankstown High-based memories to remind the ‘sprogs’ that we were all young and cheeky once – Bilgic introduced the players, the judges, the format and producer and timekeeper, John Knowles, impro aficionado, storyteller of note and one of the hilarious God’s Cowboys.

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

With a call to arms from these Comic Commanders-in-Chief, the battle began. Veteran impro ‘knights’ like Lisa Ricketts, David Callan, Michael Gregory, Dan Cordeaux and Rob Johnston swung creative swordswith Jane Watt, Cale Bain, Jeromaia Detto and Rob Boddington. Witty warriors Jestika Chand, Elliot Ulm and Rachael Colquhoun-Fairweather from the 2018 Grand Final superstar team Mission Improbable 3 joined the fray, quick-thinking rapiers drawn.

Feinting and parrying, they dodged and evaded blocking, changed direction at a moment’s notice, and kept the clash of ideas alive until the final battle bell tolled.

But it was teenage rookies Louisa Cusumano and Finn Hoegh-Guldberg, fired up with their millennium-age missiles, who won the day. Side-stepping distraction and riding on the experienced backs of their legendary opponents, these neophytes of competitive improvisation stole the initiative – and the title!

Improvisation develops skills essential in all walks of life – teamwork, creative thinking, confidence, listening – and is the basis of good acting and script interpretation. Theatresports brings it front-of-stage in spontaneous action that’s fun for everyone. Australia’slongest-running comedy show, Theatresports has been entertaining audiences – and shining the light on brilliant new performers – for 33 years.

This year’s The Battle of the Champions celebrated and paid homage to those years by ‘reuniting the legends and introducing the brilliant new guard’. Check out further Theatresports/ Impro Australia classes and events at: http://improaustralia.com.au/shows/

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice. Blackout Theatre Company. The Pioneer Theatre, Castle Hill. 3rd-12th May, 2019

Reviewed : May 3, 2019

Photo : supplied

Tim Rice’s wry, contemporary lyrics take Joseph out of the dry verses of Genesis into a hip Canaan and rock’n’roll Egypt, where the biblical story of brotherly envy and Freudian-style dream analysis is a lot more ‘boppy’.

Co-directors by John Hanna and Katie Griffiths have taken the ‘bop’ to heart with a brisk, bright production that concentrates on the singing and dancing and accentuates the humour.

The cast is big and includes a chorus of sixteen very well-behaved children, who, led in by co-narrators Angela Therese and Annastasia Denton, sit along the front of the stage for the duration of the show. In their special moment, as the backing singers for Any Dream Will Do they gaze beatifically while Joseph, played by James Carter, sings– and their parents sit proudly in the audience.

Choreographer Tamara Scamporlino has picked up on the directorial vision, combining ‘Egyptian-style’ movements with modern hip hop and jazz in routines that are very effective. Though the choreography seems relatively simple, the progressions and pace must have required hours of rehearsal time, and Scamporlino and the cast should be really happy with the way their work lifts the production.

Musical Director David Catteral – with Daniel Woolnough and the orchestra – set the pace with Lloyd Webber’s catchy tunes, as Jacob and his Sons introduce the story … and the thirty-two-strong cast, colourfully and authentically dressed by costume designers Angela and Ann Hanna. This is one way the directors have achieved their goal of making the production less ‘pantomime-like’.

The other contributing effect is the set, which successfully makes the performance more visually realistic, taking the actors from Canaan to Egypt with symbolic set pieces, that have been carefully made to be safe and easily manipulated.

Cast members – principals and chorus – work as a cheerful, talented, committed ensemble who are obviously enjoying this first of Blackout Theatre’s 2019 musical season.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Animal Farm

By George Orwell, adapted by Geordie Brookman.  State Theatre Company South Australia. Riverside Theatres Parramatta.  May 1 – 3, 2019

Reviewed : May 1, 2019

Photo : James Hartley

British author George Orwell’s concern for the world began in the 1930s with the poor and unemployed in the Depression. Reporting on the Spanish Civil War led to his concern about communism, fascism and his fear of another war.

He wrote Animal Farmin 1944 as “a political fable” based on the Russian Revolution and Joseph Stalin’s eventual betrayal of the people. He followed this in 1949 with 1984, which warned of the potential dangers of totalitarianism.

Several adaptations of 1984 in the past few years have used Orwell’s work to make comparisons with contemporary political dishonesty and domination, so it is probably opportune that director Geordie Brookman decided to revive the dictatorial, power-hungry pigs of Animal Farm.

Brookman’s decision to use the genre of storytelling preserves the graphic simplicity of Orwell’s writing. “Never use a long word where a short one will do,” he advised – and his descriptions of each of the farm animals, the neglected conditions from which they rebelled, and the eventual greed and cunning of the tyrannous pigs are vivid and explicit.

In the hands of performer Dale March, those words and the social criticism behind them become scarily powerful.

Looking remarkably like photographs Orwell himself, March, dressed in back, and lit eerily from the side, introduces the condition of the farm and its poorly treated livestock. His carefully controlled voice defines the dark space that the property has become – and describes each of the animals in the words that Orwell chose so prudently.

As the animal rebellion proceeds, the set is revealed as a dark triangular shaped ramp and rise. At times, lines of light flash cross it. At times sound effects shock. Constantly March controls the audience, his eyes fixed, his voice changing as he becomes each of the animals.

Hands fisted, voice slowed, he becomes the hard-working Boxer. Voice higher, face contorted, he becomes the pigs’ nasty henchman, Squealer.

As the pigs realise their ability to exploit the less intelligent animals, March draws the audience in to the horror of their subversive take-over of the farm and the cruelty that follows.

Orwell’s message is clearly told in this production that Brookman has brought from Adelaide for a brief season in Sydney.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Pygmalion

By George Bernard Shaw. New Theatre, Newtown, NSW. April 23 – May 25, 2019

Reviewed : April 25, 2019

Photo : Bob Seary

Deborah Mullhall’s decision to use a Steampunk theme for this production works surprisingly well. The1980s fashion genre that mixed Edwardian costumes with the cogs and goggles that symbolised the industrial revolution, pushes Bernard Shaw’s characters into a more contemporary age – and highlights the fact that the themes he wrote about in 1912 haven’t changed greatly. The world is still classist and judgemental. There is still inequality. Chauvinism still abounds.

Tom Bannerman’s stark set establishes the ‘industrial’ aspect of the theme. A white ‘railway line’ bookshelf curves around the stage. A metal stairway angles to a higher level. The only furniture is a silver two-seater chaise and chair upholstered in cog-printed fabrics. This minimalism serves to accentuate the elaborate detail and slinky chains of the Steampunk costumes, designed by Mulhall herself and costume assistant Fiona McClintock.

All of which, though meticulous, are surpassed by the acting and direction! The action is tightly focused. The characters are finely developed. The dialogue is sharp and clear – itis “the language of Shakespeare and Milton” – but never laboured. This pushes the pace of the production in line with the more contemporary theme – and is sustained even in the long exchanges in the final scenes.

Steve Corner and Emma Wright as Professor Higgins and Eliza Doolittle parry delightfully, he haughtily espousing his triumphs, she deflecting his opiniated arrogance with righteous indignation. Both wear their characters and their costumes confidently and decisively, breathing freshness and vitality into roles created 106 years ago!

Mulhall recreates Colonel Pickering and Mrs Pearce as younger and more ‘with it’ characters – thus making the tone of the play lighter, in keeping with the more ‘edgy’ theme. This puts a different slant on Pickering’s ability to identify with both Higgins and Eliza, and Shan-ReeTan carries it off well. His Pickering is more dashing, just a trifle supercilious, and very engaging.

It also gives Natasha McDonald the opportunity to give a bit of accented spice and colour to the role of Mrs Pearce. McDonald does so with carefully gesticulated aplomb, niftily putting Higgins in his place and deftly taking Eliza under her more modern protective wing.

All four of these actors work together with a syncopated poise that synchronises with the theme. Mulhall must be delighted with the effect her direction has achieved.

Collen Cook is a gracefully dignified as Mrs Higgins, a contrast to her less decorous son. Tricia Youlden is elegantly tentative as Mrs Eynsford Hill. Tiffany Hoy is her society-conscious daughter, Clara, Robert Snars her more chivalrous son, Freddy. These four actors, too, despite less stage time, impress with their contribution to the effective ‘whole’ of the production.

Mark Norton plays Eliza’s “undeserving poor” dustman father, Alfred, and Lisa Kelly is Mrs Higgins’ maid. Emilia Kriketos, Sean Taylor and Vitas Varnas are very observant bystanders in Covent Garden.

Deborah Mulhall has given this production of a Shaw ‘classic’ a nudge into a more futuristic time slot – yet sustained the elegance of the language and the characters … and the messages they convey.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.