Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Jeeves & Wooster in Perfect Nonsense

By P.G. Wodehouse,  adapted by David and Robert Goodale. Richmond Players.  Richmond School of Arts. August 10 – 24, 2019.

Reviewed : 10 August, 2019

Photos : Samantha O’Hare and Simon Dane

Sir Pelham Grenville (P.G.) Wodehouse (1881-1975) created the character of dithering English gentlemen Bertie Wooster and his impeccable valet, Jeeves in 1915. They made their hilarious way from 1915 to 1974 in a series of books, then through two TV series – one with Ian Carmichael and Dennis Price in the 1970s, the other with Stephen Fry and Hugh Lawrie in the 1990s. This charming adaptation by the Goodale Brothers is based on the novel The Code of the Woosters, first published in 1938.

In the adaptation, Wooster, in his usual role as narrator, stages a re-enactment of a “perfectly frightful” weekend in the country, requiring Jeeves and his Aunt Dahlia’s butler, Seppings, to play the roles of all the other characters in the story and establish the various settings, from Bertie’s bedroom to an auction house to a car trip to the country, a country residence – and in one scene, Bertie’s bath! Consequently, they are kept very busy while Bertie, who once described himself as having “half the amount of brain as a normal bloke might possess” hems and haws his way through telling the story.

Photos : Samantha O’Hare and Simon Dane

With lots of entrances, exits, wigs, hats, an umbrella, a policemen’s helmet, a silver collectable and a hidden notebook, comedy ensues. As in all comedies, pace is important. So too is sustaining the satiric stereotype of each of the characters.  Director Kyle Lowe, a long-time fan of Wodehouse’s “witty prose, crazy plots and delightful characters”, pays tribute to the way her “committed and talented cast have worked so hard” to bring the production to life.

Joel Baltaks is amiably affable as Wooster, chatting congenially with the audience as he introduces the characters and the scene changes. He establishes the vacuous naivety and biddability that is so typical of Wooster’s personality, whilst still sustaining the timing needed for the various changes in place and pace – much of which is dependent on the ever-reliable Jeeves, played with sardonic disdain, and artfully expressive looks, by Robert Hall.

“Directed” by Wooster as narrator, Hall moves various pieces of the set on and off – and takes on the roles of a blustering magistrate, a bespectacled blatherer and a simpering socialite. He moves easily in and out of these roles, always returning to the virtuous valet whose ingenious solutions to Bertie’s problems are intrinsic to Wodehouse’s plots.

Photos : Samantha O’Hare and Simon Dane

Ethan Patrick, who plays Seppings, also takes on a collection of roles, playing Aunt Dalia herself (with a cunningly used fur-trimmed fan), a cynical shop attendant, a clumsy constable, and an anti-hero whose growth in height results in some increasingly funny exits. Patrick uses silent, expressive asides to the audience as cleverly as he changes his voice, gesture and stance to establish the different characters.

Under Lowe’s guidance, these three talented performers, supported by a busy backstage crew, bring P.G. Wodehouse’s much-loved characters from 1920s London to the stage of the heritage-listed and carefully maintained Richmond School of Arts. What could be a more appropriate setting for Bertie Wooster and his ever-vigilant valet to materialise!

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

 

The Table

By Tanya Ronder; White Box Theatre; The Reginald, Seymour Centre; 25 July – 17 August 2019; Directed by Kim Hardwick.

Reviewed : July 30, 2019

Photo : Danielle Lyonne

Table is a family saga that stretches over 115 years as it moves succeeding generations of the Best family from Litchfield in 1898, to a mission in Tanganyika and a commune in Herefordshire, before leaving them in South London in 2013. Written by British actor, adapter and translator, Tanya Ronder, the play was first performed at the National Theatre in 2013, directed by Ronder’s husband, Rufus Norris. Its twenty-three characters take the family on a journey of learning what belonging and identity can mean.

The thing that centres the story is a table, made in 1898 by Staffordshire craftsman David Best to celebrate his marriage, a table that is passed from one generation to the next, its stains and scratches recording the event and situations that have shaped the family’s history – and linking the multiple strands of the plot.  “Go on then table, speak”, one of the characters urges. “You tell us, you were there, you’ve always been there.”

Photo : Danielle Lyonne

Ronder’s characters are deftly created, their stories skillfully inter-twined. There is no fat in their dialogue, nor in the scenes in which they relate. Kim Hardwick’s direction is just as deft. There is nothing about this production that isn’t scrupulously planned and meticulously rehearsed. From the purpose-made table (built by Feather Edge), that is the centerpiece of each scene, to the spotlight that shines unerringly above it, to the carefully schooled accents and precisely timed choreography, this is a production that pays homage to a play that was cleverly conceived and extensively workshopped.

It is hard to single out any one performance. In a truly ensemble piece, where the cast of nine take on twenty-three characters, their varying accents and the style that depicts the time in which they lived – hesitant and formal in the late nineteenth century, more assured and outspoken as the years pass. Ronder has added English hymns and African songs to the play, eerily punctuating some scenes, raising the pace of others. Moments of suspense punctuate the tension that builds steadily – the shooting of a leopard in the bedroom of the mission; Sister Sarah Best offering herself to the hunter who rescued her from the leopard; the sad expulsion of Sarah and her illegitimate son from the mission.

With only the table – and six chairs that are moved only when essential to the action – designers Isabel Hudson (set and costume) Martin Kinnane (lighting) and Nate Edmonson (music and sound) have made the maximum of minimalism, providing a background on which the cast can take five generations of the Best family cunningly through over a hundred years of historical events and social change. They artfully take the characters from young husband to stroke stricken grandfather; game hunter to grandfather trying to re-connect with the granddaughter he’s never met; gentle English women to nuns working in far-away missions to idealists holding the ‘speaking stone’ in a 1970s group home. Every character is clear once the shift in time and place is defined – and that is achieved relatively seamlessly by an astute director and her skilful interpretation of a well-written play.

Biloxi Blues

By Neil Simon.  Castle Hill Players.  Pavilion Theatre, Castle Hill.  July 26 – Aug 17, 2019.

Reviewed : 22 July, 2019

Photo : Chris Lundie

When he died last year, Neil Simon left a legacy of 49 plays, many of which he adapted for the screen. Funny, heart-warming, just a little flawed, his characters and their stories were a perceptive insight into Twentieth Century America – and won him more Tony and Oscar nominations than any other writer. His plays have been called “painful comedies” because of Simon’s ability to find something funny in serious situations.

Biloxi Bluesis no exception. First performed in 1984, it is the second play in The Eugene Trilogy, three semi-autobiographical plays about growing up in a Jewish family in New York in the 1930s and 40s.

Biloxi Bluessees Simon’s young ‘alter ego’ – Eugene Morris Jerome– conscripted into the US Army and on his way south to Biloxi, Mississippi for basic training. There, along with five other rookies, he faces the discipline of hard-talking, hard-drinking platoon leader Sergeant Merwin J. Toomey.

The play is demanding in many ways. The set requires a railway carriage, the army barracks, a mess hall, latrines, a brothel, a U.S.O. dance hall and a park. Yet director-cum-Commanding Officer Meredith Jacobs, with her army architect, Trevor Chaise, and a trusty battalion of non-commissioned theatre tradies have recreated a 1943 American army barracks, complete with bunks, wash stands and running water!

Authenticity is crucial in a play such as this. Accents. Uniforms. Both have to be right. The multiple push ups demanded by the script means fitness is imperative. The individual complexities and eccentricities of the characters require careful analysis and direction. The dialogue must run as seamlessly as the scene changes.

Photo : Chris Lundie

Jacobs has been meticulous in ‘commanding’ all of this. She and her cast have taken the time and commitment to make Simon’s characters, and their relationships, believable – then added the energy, tempo and “Ho” that marches the play on to the parade ground in uniforms requisitioned by Annette Snars, PT store officer-in-charge.

Julian Floriano is engagingly naïve as Eugene M. Jerome – soldier and story teller – who artlessly takes the audience into his confidence between scenes, whether to describe his fellow soldiers, or share the thoughts and aspirations that he is recording in his memoirs. Floriano gives Eugene the innocent optimism and belief in others that is key to all of Neil Simon’s work.

Agustin Lamas plays the gentle and intelligent Arnold Epstein, caught in a struggle of minds with middle-aged, battle scarred Sergeant Toomey. Lamas finds the inner strength and self-belief that drives Epstein in a moving performance.

Jason Spindlow and Chris Butel face off against each other as Wykowski and Selridge, competitive, brash, boastful, each is a sharp contrast to the thoughtful Eugene and perceptive Epstein. Both actors sustain the lively macho energy and aggression that bubbles through their roles.

The indecisive, but approachable Don Carney is played with hesitant restraint by Daniel Vavasour, and Ben Freeman gives a very sensitive performance as quiet, reticent James Hennessey.

Chris Lundie whips this diverse squad into shape as gruff, confrontational – but flawed – Sergeant Toomey, who takes no nonsense, and gives no quarter, especially to Epstein, whom he harasses unmercifully.

In Act Two we meet Rowena (Michelle Murphy) and Daisy Hannigan (Kate Gandy), who bring a different dimension to Eugene’s life. Simon created his female characters with a respect and perception unusual for male playwrights of his time, and though these women appear briefly, Murphy and Gandy find the gentleness and sensitive strength that Simon infused into their characters.

The play is marshalled by the carefully drilled, camouflage-clad crew who move trucks, pull curtains, lower lights – and a moon – to the parade ground beat created by composer Joshua McNulty and recorded by Bernard Teuben. Lighting engineer James Winters highlights the changing moods.

Biloxi Bluesis fast, funny – and serious. It recreates the mixture of apprehension, excitement and rivalry of young recruits and conscripts going off to war – and the officers who had to train them. It does so with understanding, compassion … and laughter. Meredith Jacobs and her cast and crew have made it a poignant tribute to a playwright who is sadly missed.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Real Inspector Hound

By Tom Stoppard.  Theatre on Chester,  Epping NSW. J uly 19 – August 10, 2019

Reviewed : 19 July 2019

Photo : supplied

Written in the early 1960s, The Real Inspector Hound satirises the theatre critics of the time – of which he was one – and the melodramatics of Agatha Christie-style murder mysteries. Mercifully, the verbose critics of the post war newspapers that Stoppard lampooned are long gone, and though some critical jargon and cliché still survives, I’ll try hard to avoid it.

The play-within-a-play that is The Real Inspector Hound is typical Stoppard. The plays and the characters interact in a plot that blends parody, satire and absurdism with a little bit of realism and melodrama. Getting the complexities of the play right is a challenge for the director and the cast; understanding them is a challenge for the audience.

The play involves two theatre critics in discussion during the course of a one act play. Moon (Melanie Robinson) is a ‘second string’ critic who is concerned about her missing superior, Higgs. Birdfoot (Myles Burgun) is an over confident blusterer who fancies himself – and many of the female actors he reviews. Their discussion is interspersed with extracts from the convoluted critiques they are writing.

The play they are watching is a typical murder mystery. It is set, of course, in a lonely manor on the moors on a foggy night with a murderer on the loose. The lady of the manor, Cynthia Muldoon (Claudia Bedford) is still carrying a torch for her husband, Albert, who disappeared without trace ten years ago. That, however, doesn’t stop her flirting with her house guest Simon Gascoyne (Luke Shepherd). Gascoyne has also had a fling with another guest, Felicity Cunningham (Mary Coustas), who is, understandably, somewhat miffed with both of them. Another resident of the house is Albert’s suspicious-looking half-brother Magnus (Aiden McKenzie) who is confined to a wheelchair.

But that’s not all! There’s the Cockney housekeeper, Mrs Drudge (Christine Rule), who keeps the audience up to time with snippets of commentary – and her ‘handling’ of the intrusive Gascoyne!  There’s a dead body that is summarily ignored by everyone … except those members of the audience in the front few rows who see a foot or hand move every now and then. And then there’s the snow-shoe-encumbered Inspector Hound (Tracey Okeby Lucan) who bustles onto the scene when Gascoyne is unexpectedly shot.

Photo : supplied

When, after interval, Birdfoot answers a phone that rings on the set and morphs into Gascoyne, the plots thicken like the fog outside and … well, to say anymore would reveal too much of Stoppard’s quirky denouement.

Alan Cunningham and a veritable army of ‘construction workers’ have created a manor house fit for any drawing room drama, complete with French windows that allow in the fog that appears on Mrs Drudge’s command! Wal Moore and Tracey Okeby-Lucan have provided the lighting, radio announcements and sound effects that set the atmosphere – including the noise of Magnus navigating his wheelchair down the off-stage staircase.

Similarly, director Isaac Owen has had to navigate the tricky intricacies of this play. Finding the balance between realism and melodrama, and sustaining the pace required by satire, is not easy. Overplaying the melodrama for comic effect in some scenes has unfortunately affected the pace of this production – and the satirical subtlety of Stoppard’s clever writing.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

Jack and the Beanstalk

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

Reviewed : 12 July, 2019

Photo : Robert Catto

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo : Robert Catto

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

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

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

ZIRK! Circus

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

Reviewed : 6 July 2019

Photo : supplied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo : supplied

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

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

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

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Persuasion

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

Reviewed : 5 July 2019

Photo : Craig O’Regan

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

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

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

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

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

Photo : Craig O’Regan

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

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

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

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Anna Bolena

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

Reviewed : 2 July 2019

Photographer: Prudence Upton.

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

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

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

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

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

Photographer: Prudence Upton.

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

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

Also published in Stage Whispers Magazine

The Girl in the Machine

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

Reviewed : 25 June, 2019

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography.

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

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

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

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

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography.

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

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

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

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

First published in Stage Whispers Magazine

Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street

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

Reviewed : June 13, 2019

Photo : Ben Fon

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

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

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

Photo : Ben Fon

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

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

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

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

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

Photo :Ben Fon

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

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