Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Double Trouble

Mozart and Bach at Play. Endangered Productions. Barnet Long Room, Customs House. 18 – 20 June, 2021

Reviewed : 20 June, 2021

Photo : Marion Wheeler

As its title suggests, this production is about fun as well as music. Producers Christine Logan and Peter Alexander have translated and adapted two short comic operas by Mozart and Bach to present a program that reveres the music of the two maestros as well as highlighting their delightful takes on  romance and relationships.

Bastien and Bastienna is Mozart’s short parody of the opera Le devin du village by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. When Bastienne thinks that Bastien has left her for another woman she seeks advice from Colas, a soothsayer, who suggests that playing hard-to-get will win him back. Logan and Alexander have cleverly reset the scene in the 1950s and made Colas a Freudian psychiatrist, adding a satirical touch that is wryly effective.

Bach’s Coffee Cantata, written in the 1730s, is about a father’s concern for his daughter’s interest in the new social scene, especially the coffee houses. In this 2021 interpretation of the mini comic opera, it is “espresso martinis” that are the father’s concern. The translators add another nice little satirical ‘twist’ by matchmaking the daughter and the bartender, thus allaying the father’s anxiety!

The Barnet Long Room at Customs House and cabaret style seating provided just the right ambience for a production such as this – intimate, good acoustics, warm and friendly. Designer Sandy Gray used minimal props and colourful overhead projections to create her sets, including a ‘Freudian’ couch for Bastien and Bastienna and a bar complete with a TV tuned to a sport channel for Coffee Cantata!  The carefully chosen costumes added colour and verisimilitude to each setting, especially the steam punk outfit designed by Miriam Lohmann for Lisa, the daughter, in Coffee Cantata.

But what of the performers! Apart from Karen Lambert, who graces the stage very seductively at the beginning of Bastien and Bastienna as Bastien’s temptress, the three characters in each piece are performed by Lesley Braithwaite, Damien Hall and Ed Shuttle. They are accompanied by Stevie Walter (keyboard), Rebecca Irwin and Jennifer Taylor (violins), Greg Ford (viola), Pierre Emery (cello) and Isabeau Hanson (flute) conducted by musical director Peter Alexander.

Photo : Marion Wheeler

Braithwaite, Hall and Shuttle bring a wealth of experience to their performances. In pieces such as these, the ability to act as well as sing is essential – as is being able to inject comedy in just the right way at just the right moment. It requires dedicated rehearsal based on insightful direction – and Christine Logan’s direction is deft and wise. She allows her cast to inject melodramatic comedy – a fluttering eyelash, a suggestive wink, raised eyebrows, a little celebratory dance move – as well as ensuring they sustain the depth and variety of the music and the veracity of the characters. It’s a lot to put together and Logan and her cast have done so very effectively.

There are some very funny moments – Shuttle’s nonchalant depiction of Colas, Braithwaite and Hall’s little ‘jive’ at the end Bastien and Bastienna; Shuttle’s studying of the Form Guide as Lisa has yet another cocktail; Braithwaite showing the ‘tiddly’ effect of those cocktails as she takes a selfie; Hall shaking cocktails in time to the music. And it will be hard to forget  Braithwaite relishing her delivery of a very  contemporary teenage “whatever” in response to her father’s threats.

The small orchestra had some lovely moments as well. Mozart’s little overture to Bastien and Bastienna introduced the production beautifully, and the piano, cello and flute had special moments in Coffee Cantata.

Endangered Productions aims to give “professionals, enthusiastic amateurs and keen community members” opportunities to keep being involved in the “inclusive, creative world of theatre” and to use the skills of those with long experience to mentor and educate others. The integrity, attention to detail and enthusiasm which they have approached in this production certainly suggests they can achieve that goal.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

 

 

The Obbligato Sonatas

The Bach Akademie Australia playing Johann Sebastian Bach. June 18,  2021 at St James Church Sydney.

Reviewed : 18 June, 2021

Image courtesy of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall”

How fitting to bring together work composed by Johann Sebastian Bach in the 1720s and Francis Greenway’s stately St James Church King Street, consecrated one hundred years later. In that revered building – the oldest existing in inner Sydney – Bach’s much-loved Obbligato Sonatas thrilled a large and appreciative audience.

The Bach Akademie Australia led by internationally acclaimed Australian violinist Madeleine Easton, with Neal Peres Da Costa at the Harpsicord and Anton Baba playing the Viola da gamba and Cello, graced the Sydney landmark with a stunning performance of five of these famous sonatas.

Images courtesy of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall”

In her program notes, Easton describes them as “a true master-class in tri-part contrapuntal writing”. Each sonata, she explains, “displays a different personality, colour and mood with its own unique harmonic characteristics” that take the listener  “through every conceivable mood and emotion from extreme joy to contemplative emotion”.

Easton’s description only hints at the range of emotions evoked in this beautifully executed performance of Bach’s remarkable compositions. All three musicians are masters of their instruments. In their hands the varying rhythms and textures specific to each instrument came together in performance that only musicians so completely in harmony with each other can achieve.

With the gold mosaic tiles of the semi-dome shining above them, they captured the real lyricism of Bach’s motivic work in a performance that brought warmth and hope from Bach’s eighteenth-century world to a cold, virus-threatened winter night in 2021.

Each instrument shines in these sonatas, the mellow cello and historic viola da gamba, the distinctive baroque registers of the harpsicord, and the elegant, clear voice of Easton’s 1682 Giovanni Grancino violin combine to emphasise the enduring passion of these compositions.

Together they evoke the patient calm of the sonata in B minor, the happiness and bright repetitive motifs of the sonata in A major; the “noisy sharp joy” difficulty of the sonata in E major; the range of emotions in the fifth sonata in F minor – the mournful melancholy of the Largo to the lighter, more hopeful motifs of the Vivace.

Images courtesy of Melbourne Digital Concert Hall”

The concert concludes with the “rustic, idyllic” sixth sonata in G major. Here Bach inserted a solo Allegro for the harpsicord. This short, sweet solo piece gives Peres Da Costa the opportunity to highlight the versatility of the harpsicord – before the light, airy, celebratory moments of the final Adagio and Allegro.

The flourish of those finishing notes reflects the concentrated musicianship of these three fine performers – and their deep, intuitive empathy with the texture and emotion of music composed by Bach nearly three hundred years ago.

This performance was recorded – and may be available for streaming.

Also published by Stage Whispers magazine

Grand Horizons

By Bess Wohl. Sydney Theatre Company. Director: Jessica Arthur. Roslyn Packer Theatre,  June 11 – July 3, 2021.

Reviewed : 11 June, 2021

Photo : Prudence Upton.

Winter may be the time to ‘hunker down’ but it’s also the time we need a bit of cheer, and Sydney Theatre Company brings that cheer in this production. Though set in contemporary America, the play has universal appeal, requiring very little modification to change it to an Australian setting. After all, Grand Horizons could be any retirement village in any relatively wealthy first world city – and Nancy and Bill French could be any retired couple. Perhaps.

All seems calm in the French home. Probably too calm, the first scene suggests – and director Jessica Arthur’s cunning blocking of that first scene is one of the things I shan’t give away. That there is more than one surprise is indicative of playwright Bess Wohl’s distinctive ability to twist her plot and manipulate her characters, and Arthur’s distinctive ability to manage the comedy – and the underlying angst – that results from those twists and manipulations. This production has laugh-out-loud moments, in some of which the cast, very professionally, wait out the laughter. In one of those moments the laughter could ruin the punch line of a very suggestive joke … if the joke were not being told by such an accomplished actor.

Photo : Prudence Upton.

In fact, two accomplished actors lead the cast in this very tight, pace and pause dependent production. Linda Cropper and John Bell play the ‘oldies’ of the French family. Both Nancy and Bill appear to be happy, quiet, competent, restrained, until Nancy announces that she wants a divorce. And despite belittling her determination, Bill doesn’t argue against the idea.

The effect on their two sons, however, is very different.

Suddenly their down-sized Grand Horizons apartment is inundated by Ben (Johnny Nasser), and his younger brother Bryan (Guy Simon). The idea of a divorce, in their loudly voiced opinions, is ridiculous, unthinkable. Ben’s pregnant wife, Jess (Zindzi Okenyo), is a little more open-minded, but her attempts to use her counselling skills do little to diffuse the tumult.

Nancy stays quietly determined and Bill starts to pack.

Their sons become more louder, more insistent – and as they rant at their parents much more of each character is revealed. Ben, a lawyer has a tricky court case. Brian, a drama teacher, explains in explicitly paused detail how he intends to involve two hundred students in a production of The Crucible.

Bill is doing a course on stand-up comedy and has become over friendly with a fellow student called Carla (Vanessa Downing). Nancy, though slightly bewildered by the acrimony that has resulted from her decision, goes off collecting clothes for charity. Jess tells Ben she is sick of him calling her ‘Babe’. Brian brings home someone he has picked up at a local bar. It’s not every family – but it could be many.

This is all revealed in skilfully written dialogue that gives Arthur and her cast wonderful opportunities for comic timing – and extended pauses. Cropper and Bell use both masterfully, creating some very funny moments, as well as some that are a little more touching. They find the gentle pathos and fear of the future that Wohl has incorporated into the characters, as well as the comedy.

Photo : Prudence Upton.

Nasser, Okenyo and Simon find similar comic moments as their characters break the seeming ‘peace’ of retirement that Nancy is determined to escape. They sustain the pace of their first scene, and pepper it with the malice of old resentments.

Vanessa Downing as Bill’s friend Carla is a little silly, a little vague, and totally loveable. Wohl allows her such a short time on the stage, but Downing uses every moment effectively. As does, James Majoos in another short but memorable scene that Majoos handles with instinctive timing and beguiling cheekiness.

There is much fun on the surface of this production – but Arthur has ensured that Wohl’s underlying messages about age and marriage and family pressures tinge the laughter with a touch of melancholy.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Come From Away

Book, music & lyrics by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Director: Christopher Ashley. Musical Director: Luke Hunter. Musical Staging: Kelly Devine. Junkyard Productions & Rodney Rigby Production. Capitol Theatre, Sydney. Opening Night – June 10, 2021

Reviewed : June 10, 2021

Photo : Jeff Busby

How hard it is to write about this wonderful production after so much has been said and written already – and everything you’ve heard or read is right! It is warm and poignant. It is fast and funny. It is both celebratory and commemorative. It is, indeed, what good verbatim theatre should be – real stories sensitively translated into a theatrical form that reminds us of the truths that need to be documented about humanity … at its worst, and its very best.

The production celebrates the wonderfully warm-hearted reaction of the people of Gander, Newfoundland, who took in so many unexpected and confused travellers re-routed to Gander because of the horrific attacks on New York and Washington on 11th September 2001. It is, therefore, also an effectively haunting reminder of that event and its lasting consequences. And it does so in the way humankind has used so effectively for thousands of years: storytelling.

Photo : Jeff Busby

Irene Sankoff and David Hein have used the 1600 stories they gathered from the people involved to weave an intricate re-telling of the way the residents of a little town reacted to the arrival of 7000 people from different parts of the world. People who were frightened, perplexed, traumatised. People who needed food, shelter, warm clothes … and toothbrushes.

It recounts the initial disbelief at the magnitude of the task that confronted them – and the incredible ways they surmounted every seeming impossibility.

Come From Away is a story about the wonderful humanity of man – but it doesn’t shirk its fallibility. It is remarkably honest in its re-telling of the stories and the people who told them. It is even more remarkable that Sankoff and Hein were able to use music and dance to enhance the re-telling with tempos that evoked the disparate emotions that interleave every carefully recaptured experience. That they chose the instruments that pay homage to the early settlers who made Newfoundland their home – the  mandolin, whistles, Irish flute, uilleann pipes, fiddle, bodhran drum – meant they were able to incorporate a wide range of rhythms and emotions, from the foot-tapping introduction to the folk from Gander in “Welcome to the Rock”, to the tender distress of “I am Here”, where a displaced mother cries out to her fire fighter son, lost somewhere in the dust and debris of New York.

There are so many other ways this skilled pair of writers have encapsulated the chaos of those few days. The use of only twelve performers to depict both townspeople and travellers was a significant decision. The different characters each one plays are remarkably clear. The carefully choreographed and rehearsed changeover of characters also gives the impression of the pace and turmoil of the situation.

The minimalist set – a revolve, chairs and some tables – means that the cast can be sitting in a plane at one moment, arguing around a table in the mayor’s office at the next, or dancing on an almost empty stage at another. Not one story is hampered by anything that obstructs the characters or each nuance of the continuing story, even though that nuance may, at first, be a little hard to pick up due to the unusual Newfoundland accent – and the accents of some of the travellers.

Photo : Jeff Busby

That attention to detail is an important part of this production – and any piece of verbatim theatre. It is a record of an important event. In this case, an event that, because of an attack that happened somewhere else, two groups of very different people were thrown together and something wonderful occurred. It was up to Sankoff and Hein to make this into a theatrical experience without losing the cathartic effect of the story. Staying true to accents and the cultures of the people involved was one way. Incorporating their music, religions and backgrounds was another. Finding a director who could ensure those truths is yet one more – and essential. Christopher Ashley is such a director.

Ashley ensured that every one of the twelve talented performers – and each of the seven standby cast – in this production is true to every character they portray. Whether playing a baffled passenger or harried townsperson, there is truth and strength in every portrayal – and they radiate a great sense of unity and harmony. To pull this show off the cast must be  incredibly talented, organised, energetic and dedicated – and the director must be able to envision the compelling complexities that Sankoff and Hein have instilled into their writing. Ashley and this wonderful cast do just that.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

 

Significant Other

By Joshua Harmon. New Theatre,  Newtown. Director: Hayden Tonazzi. June 1- 26, 2021

Reviewed : 2 June, 2021

Photo : Bob Seary

What a coup for the New to have snapped up the Australian premiere of Significant Other – a beautifully written play that takes a different, deeper look at the complex relationship between gay men and the women who love them … and what happens when those friendships change. When any friendship changes for that matter … and someone feels left out.

Playwright Joshua Harmon explained, “I think the best way to express a universal experience is to root it in a very specific situation. Jordan is a very specific character and part of that is being gay, but what’s universal is that he feels lonely and wants to be in love.”

You’ll have a husband, children … I won’t even come close. And I shouldn’t. I wouldn’t want to. It’s just …your wedding is my funeral.”

That’s the universal message of this happy/sad expertly crafted play that brings realism onto a starker, more immediate, exposed stage, where characters are clear, open, and instantly authentic. It’s a stage where director Hayden Tonazzi and set designer Hamish Elliott feel very comfortable. A contemporary stage that talks straight; where the characters identify themselves clearly. A stage they have embraced in a production that is, in so many ways, really stunning.

Elliott’s set fixes the play in its time. Coloured, translucent panels framed in black with multiple entries that at times are edged with lights. It’s modern, bright, and practical. It’s set on levels that allow for creative blocking and Morgan Moroney’s innovative lighting effects. Costume designer Kate Beere extends the use of colour in contrasting tones, fabrics and textures. Design wise, this production is clever, upbeat, and totally professional. As is the direction and the acting.

Tonazzi matches Harmon’s writing with sharp, intelligent direction. The characters don’t need lengthy exposition. They hit the stage, instantly identifiable, if a little drunk, at a bachelorette party. Four of them draped over a step, in the middle of boozy, happy reminiscences. Thy speak over each over, lean into each other, every action totally natural and totally believable. And that authenticity is sustained solidly through the ninety minutes of the production.

Tonazzi has assembled a strong cast with whom he has worked carefully to establish their characters and the changing timbre of their relationships – so much so that the rhythm of their dialogue adjusts imperceptively in line with subtle changes in emotion and tension. Joshua Harmon provided the characters and their words. Tonazzi and his five actors give them dimension and truth.

Tom Rogers is Jordan. He inhabits Jordan, feels his highs, covers his lows, but allows the audience to understand every nuance of his complex emotions. There is sustained energy in his performance, a sort of physical restraint that hovers just below the person his friends love and depend on yet is so strong that the audience ‘gets’ him, understands his growing anxieties, feels his fear of being left alone. The Jordan Rogers portrays is loveable, vulnerable, real – especially in the scenes with Helene, his grandmother, played with gentle charm by Helen Tonkin.

These few scenes are very personal, and Tonazzi has set them in a small corner of the set. An easy chair slides into the space. A panel slides open to reveal a shelf and a lamp shedding mellow light on a photograph. Helene enters with Jordan who settles her in the chair, and they talk about the memories the photo stirs, about how Helene is feeling about getting old – about being alone. In those brief moments Rogers and Tonkin establish a plausible closeness that blends perceptive writing, sensitive direction and delicate characterisation. Harmon wrote of these characters:

“This single gay man and this widowed older woman; both go to sleep alone and wake up alone … They almost don’t have the words to connect what they’re sharing.”

Jordan’s three friends are very different personalities, and Harmon’s dialogue guides both director and actors to create characters who are vibrant, energetic and understanding. Jordan has been part of their lives forever – they accept him, rely on him, but can’t see his special fears.

Photo : Bob Seary

Kiki, played by Isabella Williams is self-absorbed, a bit kooky, a little over-the-top about everything and Williams finds just the right amount of zaniness to make her cute and a little annoying. She is the first to marry – and the bridesmaids’ dresses Beere finds for her wedding are exactly what Kiki would have chosen!

Vanessa, played by Dominque Purdue, is the next to marry. Purdue finds the more restrained, analytical qualities of Vanessa and this is reflected in her relationship with Jordan. She shares her doubts and reservations. He respects, understands and is always encouraging – even though he identifies with them.

Between Jordan and Laura, played by Laura McInnes, there is a stronger, different bond. McInnes establishes that bond from the very first scene, showing Laura’s special understanding of Jordan in gentle touches, supportive hugs, watchful awareness. They are as close as friends can be, so much so that Laura’s wedding affects Jordan more deeply than he – or she – expects. Tonazzi’s perceptive direction of their final scene together makes it especially moving.

Photo : Bob Seary

Despite the deep messages in this play, it is quite funny. Rogers underplays those quirky moments expressively– as does Matthew McDonald, who plays the five other male roles, including all three husbands, the other gay guy in the office, and the ‘hunk’ Jordan stalks at the swimming pool. McDonald obviously relishes the challenge of making each character different, appealing, just a little funny and a light contrast to the seriousness that develops as Jordan’s anxiety increases.

Playwrights must find it hard to let a play like this go. When asked about this Joshua Harmon said in an interview:

“Once a play is out in the world, I have to rely on the stage directions in the script and trust that they’ll be handled faithfully.”

No one could have handled this play more faithfully than Tonazzi and his cast and crew. It is a tribute to Harmon – and to a director who looks beyond the words to find the essence of their meaning. The last few moments of the production, where the light lingers on Jordan’s troubled face after he has sung for the bridal waltz at yet another of his friends’ wedding,  typifies how Tonazzi, with his creative crew and dedicated cast, have faithfully found that ‘essence’.

Congratulations to the New for finding this gem and Tonazzi for distilling that essence.

Life is simple. You need to find someone to go through it with.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Zombie Thoughts

By Jennifer Kokai and Oliver Kokai-Means. Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta. Riverside Theatres Parramatta. Director: Warwick Doddrell. May 29 – June 5, 2021

Reviewed : May 29, 2021

Photo : Noni Carroll

Surveys tell us that more and more kids suffer from anxiety – and that the pandemic and its associated problems haven’t helped. When co-writer Oliver Kokai-Means was 9 he suffered so badly from anxiety that he couldn’t go to school. No one, including his teachers, understood how sad and alone he felt. He, and his playwright mother, Jennifer Kokai, decided to write a play to try and help people understand what it feels like to be so anxious when you are young – and to suggest some ways to cope with that feeling.

From this came Zombie Thoughts – an inter-active choose-your-own adventure based on popular video games and featuring anxiety-ridden Sam and his caring friend Pig. They are led through the game by the audience, who decide which actors will play each character, the hats they will wear, and which of Sam’s demons they will face.

First performed in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 2018 when Oliver was 11, the play has had amazing success across America, with productions in Chicago, Washington DC, Maryland, Florida and Honolulu. A touring production in 2018 played at 50 elementary schools. In 2020, when the pandemic closed theatres, the Montana Rep Company liaised to produce a digital version with which kids can interact, just as they do in the stage version.

The play obviously strikes the right chord for kids, adults … and educators.

Firstly, it isn’t patronising.

Photo : Noni Carroll

Secondly, it doesn’t ‘water down’ just how debilitating anxiety can be. In fact, it goes pretty deeply into the frightening things kids imagine, often far more real than ‘tigers under the bed’.

Thirdly, it’s a game! The audience is ‘the player’ with the power. They decide which actors will play Sam and Pig, and which hats they will wear (all of pig’s hats have little pink ears!). It is they who guide Sam and Pig through the game and the scary levels based on Sam’s fears – like ghost houses, dark caves, deep abysses, vampire bats, zombies … or something happening his parents.

In this version of the play, the Machine is a real Narrator rather than just a voice behind a screen. This means the game seems more personal, and that the audience can feel even more involved, especially when someone like Monica Sayers is playing the part. Sayers is vibrant, commanding, expressive – and funny. She whips around the glitzy Minecraft stage, working the audience, demanding they make quick decisions that take them up the levels of Sam’s anxiety. She makes the ghostly noises in the haunted house, manipulates vampire bats on bendy poles, becomes the Shark or the Wolf (whichever the audience has chosen) in a scary mask, and the disembodied voice of ‘Mum’ who won’t come when Sam calls. Sayers pushes the pressure and urgency of the game, making it … real?

Photo : Noni Carroll

Sam or Pig are played by Jose Talite or Emma O’Sullivan, who has come late to this production following Annie Stafford’s reluctant need to give up the role. At the beginning of the game the audience decides which will be intelligent, anxious Sam, or goofy, calm, pun-loving Pig. Like the kids they portray, they must be fit and flexible. They are, after all, the avatars in a fast video game. They jump up and down the levels of the sparkly Minecraft set, as they are attacked by bats, a wolf (or a shark). They cringe away from zombie arms that reach out to grab them or the huge skull that dictates from the screen behind them. They are funny at times, breaking the tension that builds from Sam’s anxiety, but sustain the fear that bubbles constantly. Both find their ‘inner kid’ in very lively, physical performances.

The play is about Sam’s anxiety and it never detracts from the seriousness of the condition nor the difficulty of overcoming it. It makes some suggestions, including breathing slowly, “in through the nose, out through the mouth” … and Sam’s own insightful words: “I am the boss of my brain. It is not the boss of me”.

We all have fears. We all deal with them differently. Zombie Thoughts lets children know that they are not alone – that others understand, that there is a way out of the “abyss”.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Little Prince

Adapted from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s book. Choreography and Direction: Anne Tournié. Adaptation and Co-direction: Chris Mouron. Original Music: Terry Truck. Presented by the Sydney Opera House in association with Broadway Entertainment Group. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. May 26 – June 6, 2021

Reviewed : 27 May, 2021

Photo : Prudence Upton

The Little Prince, first published in 1943, tells the tale of an aviator who descends from the sky into the middle of a desert, where he meets a little prince who introduces him to a strange collection of characters and emotions. Writer and pioneer aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupery based the story on the days he spent in the Libyan desert after his monoplane failed in 1935!

This extraordinary adaptation, on tour from Paris, has been co-directed by French choreographer Anne Tournié and singer Chris Mouron. With composer Terry Truck and videos designer Marie Jumelin, they re-imagine the Little Prince’s planet in a more contemporary, colourful multi-discipline production that combines dance, aerial acrobatics, music and video-mapping technology.

Tournié and Mouron tumble Saint-Exupery’s Aviator into a bigger world where video images move across the sky and envelop the ground; where stars and planets twinkle and twirl; where little volcanoes puff clouds of white smoke; and computers and calculators flash in a sea of lights and figures.

In this world figures drop gracefully from the sky or twist on lamp posts, or like the Little Prince himself, tread precariously on a spinning sphere – and dancers leap, cartwheel and jump from each other’s shoulders in quirky picture book costumes, designed by Peggy Housset, that that swirl and sparkle and shine.

Photo : Prudence Upton

“We made it a little more modern,” says Mouron, but in doing so, the original premise of the story and its gentle, philosophic wisdom have been preserved. To do this a narrator has been introduced, played by Mouron herself. Using Saint-Exupery’s beautiful, simple language, she gently introduces each fragment of the story, which is then retold in graceful dance, fluid gesture, lithe movement, and gentle humour.

“Draw me a sheep” she says in the words of the Little Prince – and a small flock of sheep appear moving warily towards the Prince and the aviator. On the blue sky above them a drawing of a sheep appears and one of the sheep moves closer. “Not that one,” Mouron narrates for him, and draws his attention to a crate in which he sees another sheep. “That is just the kind I wanted,” Mouron says, and the sheep appears from the crate and dances with the Little Prince.

Thus voice, dance, acrobatics and technology are blended in a way that enhances the simplicity of Saint-Exupery’s original words – and the quintessential characters with which he peopled his story.

The King, for example, balances on the shoulders of his courtiers, whilst a fleur-de-lys of stars floats above his kingdom. “Do the stars obey you?” Mouron narrates. “They obey immediately. …”. And the “stars” line up obediently across the back of the scene.

The conceited man dances in a narcissistic kaleidoscope of colourful “selfies”. The lamplighter sways on his lamp post. The snake winds down from the sky and a moonlike planet. Flowers burst into bloom in the form of elegant dancers swirling in red and gold. “All I own is an ordinary rose,” Mouron intones.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The choreography is such that even leaps and acrobatics seem gentle. The characters the dancers portray are endearing – just as they are in the original text. Even the drunk man and the businessman are portrayed with humour. The sheep and the fox are especially loveable – and memorable …

 

This vibrant retelling of The Little Prince will stay in the memory of those who see it.

Adults will remember the vivid video mapping and the stunning dancing. Little people will remember the Prince himself with his yellow pants and white hair, looking up to the sky as he hangs, suspended above the stage. They’ll remember the king’s ridiculous puffy hat and red nose. They’ll remember the funny antics of the sheep, the soft gentleness of the fox as he begs – “If you tame me, we’ll need each other .”

That this French production is here in Sydney at all is a little miracle considering the state of our planet at the moment.  Perhaps Antoine de Saint-Exupery was a little prescient when he wrote in 1943: “On the Little Prince’s planet, there had always been very simple flowers, but this one had grown from a seed brought from who knows where”.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

The 7 Stages of Grieving

By Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman. Sydney Theatre Company. Director Shari Sebbens. Wharf 1 Theatre. May 21 – June 19, 2021

Reviewed : 25 May, 202

Photo : Joseph Mayers

You can’t go back”, the Woman says in the final moments of 7 Stages of Grieving.

Yet Sydney Theatre Company has gone back mount a fourth production. What is it about this play that makes a company “go back” to it again, and again? STC Artistic Director Kip Williams explains some of the reasons:

It is a formally revolutionary landmark of Aboriginal theatre.”

“It has left an indelible mark on the arts landscape.”

“It is chillingly effective and powerfully radical.”

“It … continues to resonate with such urgency.

“One performer taking the time and space to tell the story of First Nation Resistance.”

That one performer is a woman, a “sole, Blak performer: going deep into grief every night and handing it over to a majority non-Blakfulla audience” writes director Shari Sebbens. She acknowledges the enormous emotional weight this puts on the performer. The stories she tells are distressing. The way she tells them varies. She must move from pathos to humour. From storyteller to stand-up comic. From raconteur to reading a police report. She must be strong, fierce, passionate, touching, real. She must, in fact, be … “deadly”!

Photo : Joseph Mayers

Sebbens found all those qualities in Elaine Crombie: actor, dancer, singer with experience across stage, screen and television. Someone who could adapt, improvise, and engage.

Crombie plays ‘The Woman’ with courage, compassion,  deep empathy, and her own deadly sense of humour! She identifies strongly with each ‘stage’ of grief, each compelling message. She finds every nuance of sadness and celebration in the story of “Nana’s” funeral: the solidarity of the family, the reactions of the white neighbours, the distress of putting her grandmother’s photo away. She swings into a practised and fast paced stand-up routine to perform the very satirical “Have You Ever Been Black?” She describes the silent march in Brisbane against police brutality with controlled restraint.

Every message in this play is important – and very sensitive.  Striking the balance between performing and identifying with the stories isn’t easy. Fortunately, Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman managed to find that balance in their writing. Every ‘stage of grief’ they describe is a strong statement – but they don’t preach! They share. They inform. They explain. They ask for change. Yet in the 26 years since 7 Stages of Grieving was first performed, so little has changed.

That’s why this play is still being performed. Why its messages are still so relevant. What foresight Enoch and Mailman had to write it in a form that could be adapted and revisualized …  as Shari Sebbens and designer Elizabeth Gadsby have done in this production.

Gadsby has symbolised indigenous history with a series of middens covered with shells. One becomes a grave that Crombie establishes with a cross of brilliantly coloured flowers that tinkles as she puts it in place. The brightness of the flowers reflects the bright colours in which Crombie dressed, the glitter on her shirt another symbol which Sebbens describes as “a sparkling reflection of Blak joy amongst the grief”.

Photo : Joseph Mayers

A huge screen is used as a creative – and compelling – backdrop. On are projected the many words associated with grief that introduce the play … and later the dates of 475 black deaths in custody… and even later a list of “7 Actions of Healing” that bring the play right into the present. During “Nana’s Story” the Words of “Delta Dawn’ are projected so the audience can sing along!

As Crombie grabs a microphone from stage left to begin  “Have You Ever Been Black?” a red curtain drops suddenly to transform the scene, then disappears just as suddenly as that ‘stage’ in the story finishes.

Sebbens and Gadsby have used innovative ideas to highlight the sensitive messages that Crombie performs so perceptively. 7 Stages of Grieving will continue to be performed whilst ever the changes it asks for still need to be made. As Shari Sebbens sees it …

To me this play feels eternal

which makes me happy.

But also, this play feels eternal,

and that makes me furious.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Orson’s Shadow

By Austin Pendleton. Glenbrook Community Theatre (NSW). Director: Josh Stojanovic. 14-22 May, 2021

Reviewed : 21 May, 2015

Photo : supplied

Austin Pendleton is an American actor, director and playwright who has a vast experience in both stage and film across a variety of genres – with a variety of actors, some of them very famous. That sort of experience informs this play, first performed in Chicago in 2000, where he brings together two great stars of stage and screen – Orson Welles and Sir Laurence Olivier – and their egos and vulnerabilities.

The play begins in Dublin in 1960 where Welles’ production of Chimes at Midnight is failing dismally. Enter ambitious theatre critic Kenneth Tynan, who convinces Welles to leave Dublin to direct Olivier and Joan Plowright in Ionesco’s absurdist play, Rhinoceros. Wait a moment … that’s a pretty unlikely plot.

Olivier in a modern play, especially one where all the characters turn into rhinoceroses?

Welles coming out of ‘self-exile’ after the perceived failure of Citizen Kane to direct Olivier?

Both great men well past their artistic prime?

Plowright just emerging – and Vivien Leigh slipping fast from favour?

And a theatre critic having the cheek to suggest it?

Only someone with Pendleton’s theatre experience could pull off. It’s an insider’s interpretation of how the two great stars may have interacted – and how Olivier may have dealt with the dilemma of losing Leigh while gaining the younger and ambitious Plowright. It works – but what a challenge it presents to both directors and actors! Recreating real actors whose skill was recorded so vividly in many movies and whose lives were documented so intensely in many articles and biographies … It’s no mean feat!

Photo : supplied

But first-time director Josh Stojanovic courageously takes on the challenge of producing the Australian premiere of Orson’s Shadow. He does so with a resolute vision, a very committed and able cast and a busy crew. Stojanovic has worked closely with the script and his cast. Together they have found a way to identify the characters strongly without attempting to mimic or impersonate.

Christopher Bancroft is strikingly imposing as Orson Welles. Bancroft has a commanding stage presence which he uses to depict both the latent power of the noted actor and his diminishing self-belief. He uses gesture, pause and comedic timing effectively, creating a character that is confident one moment, insecure the next.

The aging Olivier is played by John Bailey, who cleverly portrays both the conceit of fame, and the anxiety of age, that Pendleton has written into the role. Bailey uses his lines to infuse his Olivier with arrogance, vanity and staged humility when relating with Welles – but apprehension and concern when dealing with Leigh and Plowright. This requires some difficult balance, but Bailey manages it well.

Matthew Doherty takes on the role of Kenneth Tynan, confident critic and, hopefully, National Theatre literary manager, if he can persuade Olivier of his worth. Pendleton has written in Tynan’s ambition, his growing problem with emphysema and his unfortunate stutter, and Doherty deals well with all of this as well as having to revert to narrator. He is confident and persuasive with Welles, less assured when dealing with Olivier, winningly open when speaking directly with the audience.

Marianne Gibney-Quinteros is a restrained and poised Plowright, confident in her conquest of Olivier and her own acting future. There is a lot of watching and listening in this role and Gibney-Quinteros does both realistically.

Photo : supplied

Cassandra Strasiotto has the delicious job of portraying the fading Vivien Leigh. At first she is the elegant Leigh in her home at Notley Abbey, surrounded by rich colours and talking reservedly on the telephone. Later, in person at the theatre, she allows that poise to dissolve into self- pity and emotional distress.

Providing a comic contrast to these highly strung characters is Shaun Doyle – stage-hand, prompt, general all round factotum – played by Angela Pezzano, who finds lots of fun and comedic moments in this role. She eyes the food she serves hungrily, then furtively steals a mouthful as she clears it way. She follows Leigh with childish awe after realising it was her she saw in Gone With the Wind.

Smooth and carefully choreographed set changes take the play from Dublin to London and to a room in Notley Abbey. Equally smooth lighting effects enhance the production.

Stojanovic pays effusive credit to the large creative team, and to the cast who achieved this insight into both “a play rich in theatre history” and “the remarkable lives and personal tragedies” portrayed in this very interesting production.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Hyperdream

Devised by Mikala Westall and Adriane Daff. Red Line Productions. Old Fitz Theatre. May 15 – June 6, 2021

Reviewed : 16 May, 2021

Photo : David Charles Collins

The title is suggestive. The publicist’s words even more so …“A devised, lo-fi science fiction, dark comedy about how our sense of worth, wellbeing, and meaning-making in a technological world cater to anxiety, doubt, and existential dread.

Nearly every noun they’ve used has multiple connotations, undertones, nuances! Multiple inferences in a single sentence. Multiple triggers for a world beset by conspiracy theorists and influencers and truth seekers. Multiple triggers that might inspire people with original ideas and the imagination, talent, and skill to realise them.

Hyperdream trips every trigger. Using a combination of video technology, fast-paced, tightly choreographed acting and a weird, almost futuristic script – four performers rush the audience recklessly through a series of  bizarre scenes that could be real, could be surreal, could mean a lot, could mean nothing.

Photo : David Charles Collins

This is what theatre of the 21st century can be. Innovative; using technology more creatively; mixing different bits of the new with different bits of the old. It might be a little confusing; it might even upset conventional expectations! But isn’t that what theatre has always done when the old ways become a bit stale and predictable? And new ways allow theatre makers to say what they want to say more effectively?

The creatives behind, in and around Hyperdream are doing just that. Adriane Daff, Angela Mahlatjie, Josh Price, Matt Abell-King, Mikala Westall and Nat Jobe, with sound designer Julian Starr, have devised a theatre experience that is strange, funny, provocative and dark.

It uses lights, strobe, cameras, a screen, torches and strange combinations of sound. It uses aluminium foil, green walls, grey track suits, towelling slippers and a wedding veil. It uses short, sharp bursts of dialogue in short, sharp scenes, interspersed with quick, carefully choreographed changes that have been meticulously rehearsed. And, it stretches the imagination about a really unnerving theme:

If you could re-do a moment in your life, a moment whose memory haunts you … would you do it?”

For most of us, probably not. But if you could, you might go on “a journey through obsessions, coping mechanisms and our understanding of reality”. Hyperdream covers all those possibilities … and more.

Hyperdream is a stimulating and inventive piece of theatre and it’s fun as well. It would be an excellent experience for HSC Drama students studying Multi-Discipline  theatre. I do hope that message gets to Drama teachers!

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.