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Sydney Symphony Orchestra 2024 Opening Gala – Mahler

Simone Young Conducts Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. 28 February – 2 March, 2024

Reviewed : 28 February, 2024*

Photo : supplied

A warm, balmy late summer night in Sydney. The forecourt of the Opera House is busy – some just enjoying the sights and the buzz; others hurrying on their way to one of the events on offer at The House: opera, (La Traviata) theatre (RBG), cabaret (Gatsby) … Or the Sydney Symphony Orchestra’s gala opening of their 2024 season: Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with Australia’s own Simone Young conducting!

That was certainly enough to enthuse the thousands of ticket holders that will fill the Concert Hall for each performance, but they will be treated with “appetisers” as well.

Photo : website

Firstly, Young conducts a rhythmic acknowledgement of country composed by First Nations percussionist Adam Manning, musician, artist, educator and Conservatorium Coordinator at the University of Newcastle. This moving composition conjures the rhythmic relationship between the people and the land and echoes the “heartbeat of Ngaya Barray, Mother Earth.”

Accompanying the beat of traditional instruments, orchestra members play single notes on their instruments, until, in the final moments, the entire orchestra use clapsticks to create “synchronised harmony.”

Following this, French violinist Renaud Capuçon joins Young and the orchestra to present the Australian premiere of Le Sommeil a pris ton empreinte (Sleep retains your print), the latest work of French composer Camille Pépin.

Photo : supplied

The concerto was aired in Paris in April 2023, with Young conducting Capuçon and the Orchestre National de France. Pépin, who travelled to Sydney for this premiere, describes the piece as “a love story actually” inspired by the French poet Paul Éluard, reflecting the joys and sadnesses of his life in five movements. “It explores shifting emotions through passages of quiet reflection and emphatic bravura.”

Then came Mahler’s Fifth Symphony, written in the summers of 1901 and 1902 during his summer holidays from the Vienna Court Opera, where he was the director. During this time he met and married Alma Schindler and the symphony supposedly reflects Mahler’s personal life at that time.

Photo : supplied

The most played of his symphonies, it opens with a trumpet fanfare that introduces a funeral march and establishes the rhythm of that section of the work. Within this section are two trios which are more intense and lead into the second movement that is almost frenzied. Here the musicians – and the conductor – are forced to work to that increased pace and the more joyful tones.

It is in the third movement that Mahler becomes more dramatic and the orchestra more theatrical. This movement is often played alone and is perhaps the most recognised of Mahler’s works. Certainly this performance by the SSO shows the brilliance of his ability to draw the orchestra together in one resonating performance. Beginning with just the strings and the harp, it builds to a crescendo of glittering sound that is spellbinding in its intensity and energy. An energy that Simone Young matches with dynamic physicality and control.

This is a powerful opening to the 2024 season – but just a harbinger of things to come. The varied program will include Schuman’s Second Symphony, Arnold Schoenberg’s huge, romantic retelling of the Danish legend, Gurrelieder. Bach’s Goldberg Variations and in November Die Walküre, from Wagner’s epic four-opera Ring Cycle.

‘Twould be wise to book early! Packages are available.

https://www.sydneysymphony.com/

*Opening performance

 

The Spooky Men’s Chorale

Independent Theatre, North Sydney, Feb 17, 2024. Avoca Beach Theatre, Feb 18, 202

Reviewed : 17 February, 2024

Photo : Samantha Lazzaro

The Spooky Men pretend to be “spooky” but they’re not! They’re funny, weird, somewhat dark … but thought-provoking, original and very talented. Led by Spookmeister Stephen Taberner, they have been an Australian musical phenomenon for twenty-three years. After catching their collective breaths after sell-out national and international tours in 2023, they are back on the stage in their home state with their incredible harmonies, “spooky-fied” takes on well-known songs – and their own astonishing insights into interesting trivia and the state of the world.

Taberner’s dry wit and circumlocutive introspections set the scene for a program that is unlike that of any other a cappella group. Like Taberner himself, each spooky is an individual, playing his own whacky part in an absurdist style recital that belies the control and complexity behind it.

Photo : Samantha Lazzaro

Dead pan while Taberner introduces a new song, or reacting quizzically to a bizarre idea he elucidates, they are constantly in the moment, ready as he turns to lead them in the next song – whether it’s a tender love song or one of their trademark funny salutes to something more mundane! It’s all part of the “routine” that makes the Spookies different! Makes you eager to know what’s coming next!

It might be a Spooky special like “We are not a Men’s group” or an ironic take on “Team Building”, the proliferation of handy men for hire … ‘We’ll give it a go!” Or it might also be a seriously beautiful ‘Spooky-fied’ version of “Jolene”.

Only the Spooky Men could consider a satiric tribute to an unseen body part – “The Eyebrow”! – or write a crazy song about being members of too many clubs. Or make a “call out” to audience behaviour as they do in “The Man in the 17th Row”.

Spooky humour is always interspersed with something much gentler and serious, like their almost eerie rendition of Tom Waits’ “Picture in a Frame” and a haunting Georgian folk song.

Taberner and his men are not afraid to make a political comment – and in this program they reference their reaction to the lost referendum in a rousing rendition of Yothu Yindi’s “Treaty” with the audience joining lustily in the refrain.

Photo : Samantha Lazzaro

In similar vein, the turbulence in Europe is evoked in a beautiful interpretation of a Ukrainian patriotic folksong.

The Spooky Men always leave the audience surprised – and wanting more. And what could be more surprising than a brilliant ‘Spooky-fication’ of Bohemian Rhapsody, and a glaringly bright but not quite so well-fitting tribute to Freddy Mercury’s white singlets!

The Spooky Men’s Chorale is everything you’d hope an Aussie male a cappella group would be! Irreverent, audacious, satirical, funny – and at the same time whimsical, tender, sincere and harmonious.

If perchance they are appearing somewhere near you, don’t miss them. They are really something special.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Bernadette Robinson – Divas

Director Simon Phillips. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 15-17 Feb, 2024

Reviewed : 15 February, 2024*

Photo : supplied

Only a performer as skilled and versatile as Bernadette Robinson could possibly hope to inhabit the diverse lives of ten of the most famous musical divas of our time. From Maria Callas to Amy Winehouse; Judy Garland to Miley Cyrus; Dame Shirley Bassey to Amy Winehouse; along with Piaf, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and Karen Carpenter, Robinson takes her enthralled audience seamlessly from opera to pop, contemporary pop star to war time chanteuse.

She needs only a few silent seconds after freezing in characteristic pose on the final clear note of one carefully balanced and controlled evocation, to prepare herself for another. Even before the applause dies, the transformation is made. The spot picks up a different stance, a suggested toss of the head. They are re-enforced by a few notes from the guitar, or the piano, a gentle beat from the drum – and suddenly Kate Bush has been replaced by Dame Shirley and the flicks to falsetto of “Wuthering Heights” become the steamy introduction to a Bond movie or the ringing self-assurance of “This My Life”.

Photo : supplied

There is a richness in her voice that allows her to find the husky sexiness of Édith Piaf, (complete with beautifully rolled ‘Rs’) as she evokes the dark streets of war-torn Paris or the cabarets of the 1960s. And clear, classical control as she faultlessly takes on the operatic arias made famous by Callas.

Yet she just as effortlessly vamps a little as Dolly Parton proving that the blonde “weren’t nobody’s fool”! As soon as the intro to “Jolene” begins, there is a little bump of the hip, a lift of the chin, and Parton is there on the stage.

Similarly Robinson moves effortlessly into more contemporary ‘divas’, beginning with the gentle, sad Karen Carpenter, the “drummer who became a singer” and whose long fight with anorexia Robinson makes sweetly poignant in “Rainy Days and Mondays”.

She finds the contemporary eclectic range of Amy Winehouse’s contralto, her plaintiveness in “Back to Black” and her misguided strength in “Rehab”. When she evokes Miley Cyrus, she finds the power of that comes with confidence and maturity in the words of “Wrecking Ball” and her 2023 hit “I Can Buy Myself Flowers”.

Photo : supplied

The divas wouldn’t be complete without Streisand and Garland – and Robinson inhabits both: the quizzical realisation of the first, who found she could still be an actress when she sang; and the husky ‘s’ of Garland’s voice as her story took the audience “over the rainbow”.

Robinson augments her evocations with titbits of the divas’ lives: the bits that everyone knows about – and her understanding of how they were manifested in their songs. It’s a clever way making her interpretations much more personal than just an ‘impersonation’ – but one that only someone as multi-talented and versatile as Robinson could so well.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening performance

Theodora In Concert

By George Frideric Handel and Thomas Morrell. Opera Australia and Pinchgut Opera. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 8-9 February, 2024

Reviewed : 8 February, 2024*

Photo : Keith Saunders

Handel’s dramatic oratorio Theodora was first performed in Covent Garden in 1750. It is in English, set to the libretto by Thomas Morell. It is said that Handel considered it his best work, though history would seem to favour Messiah. It is Handel’s only tragic oratorio and the only one written in English.

Set in Rome, in the 4th century AD, it tells the story of the Christian martyr Theodora who refuses to pay homage to the Roman god, Venus, and is executed with her Roman lover Didymus, who has secretly converted to Christianity.

Photo : Keith Saunders

This is the first time Opera Australia and Pinchgut Opera have ‘joined forces’ and the first time Pinchgut has performed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre. Being ‘in concert’ means there is a chance to see Orchestra of the Antipodes and their incredible period instruments ‘up close’ on stage – and be awed by Pinchgut’s talented director Erin Helyard, along with the twenty professional singers of the Cantillation and five acclaimed soloists.

In deep tones, bass David Greco, as the governor of Antioch Valens, issues his dark proclamation that anyone who does not sacrifice to his Roman god Venus will be executed.

Roman soldier Septimius, performed by tenor Michael Petruccelli, has the dreaded task of carrying out his orders. Didymus – countertenor Christopher Lowery – pleads to no avail for his Christian friends to be exempted from the decree.

Photo : Keith Saunders

Soprano Samantha Clarke as Theodora is at prayer with her friend Irene (mezzo soprano Helen Sherman) when they hear the proclamation. Together they refuse to obey the order, sealing Theodora’s eventual fate.

Behind them the members of the Cantillation watch and listen carefully, rising to echo aspects of the story.

Controlling all is the elegant Erin Helyard, guiding fluidly and expressively – and also playing the Chamber Organ. It is always a joy to watch Helyard in action.

Hopefully this will be just the first of OA and Pinchgut in collaboration.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening production

Tiny Beautiful Things

Adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos, from the book by Cheryl Strayed. Co-conceived by Marshall Heyman and Nia Vardalos. A Queensland Theatre Production, in association with Trish Wadley Productions. Director: Lee Lewis. Belvoir Street Theatre. 1 Feb – 2 Mar, 2024

Reviewed : February 4, 2024

Photo : Brett Boardman

Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny Beautiful Things was published in 2012. It is a collection of letters she received and answered, anonymously, and unpaid, in an advice column called “Dear Sugar” on an online literary website. Topics ranged from mundane questions to lifetime sorrows.  When it was suggested to Canadian writer and actor Nia Vardalos that it might be adapted for the stage, Vardalos was astonished by the “raw and extraordinary candour” of both the writers of the letters and Strayed herself.

She managed to capture that ‘rawness’ and courage in her adaptation – and herself played the role of Sugar in its première in New York’s Public Theater in 2016 and again in 2017. It has since become one of the most produced plays in the world … yet, as transfer director Lee Lewis says, it is a play “like no other”.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Because this play has no linear plot, nor characters that relate based on a ‘motivation’ or ‘objective’. There are no scene changes as such, no real conflict. There are no multi-media effects. Yet this play is a truly moving piece of theatre – one that reaches into very dark places where it shines the light of hope.

There are four actors. Sugar is the constant. The other actors become the many people of different ages and backgrounds who wrote to Sugar over the two years Strayed worked on the column. They don’t ever meet each other. Yet they connect in the most personal ways. The only play I have seen that compares in any way is Duncan Macmillan’s Every Brilliant Thing, because that too was different and took the audience into difficult places.

The set is Sugar’s home, where she answers the letters on her laptop. Designer Simone Romaniuk uses the framework of the open plan living room and stairs of a two-storey house. Just the framework. The walls are not clad. Nothing is hidden in this space. It is as open as the letters Sugar receives and the replies she writes.  Littering the set is the accumulation of a family. Toys, dirty clothes, shoes on the floors. Appliances and crockery on the kitchen benches. Cat bowls on the kitchen floor. The freezer door left open. Games on the dining table – and Sugar’s laptop.

Photo : Brett Boardman

In this space Mandy McElhinney becomes Sugar. Stephen Geronimos, Nic Prior and Angela Nica Sullen are the letter writers, who move in and around the space, always on the stage, sometimes standing beside Sugar, or sitting on the kitchen as she tidies up, or drying the dishes she has left to drain.

They are still, silent, focused as Sugar answers a letter – then in a few short sentences quickly become one of the many people who sought advice. A wary teenager, a rape victim, a very angry man, a young Lothario, a grief-stricken father … never making eye contact, but always aware, as the letter writers themselves must have been as they searched Sugar’s replies for the one letter addressed to them.

McElhinney is constantly on the stage and constantly on the move – just as the multi-tasking mother, homemaker, writer, columnist she depicts. Moving to the laptop, but seldom sitting down, she ‘reads’ the writers in the words and style and tone they use. And as she answers, she goes about household tasks, picking up a pair of shoes here, or sniffing at a discarded shirt and stuffing it into a washing basket.

Photo : Brett Boardman

She stops at times, perhaps thinking of the right approach; or reacts quickly as if a specific word or phrase sparks a memory, then goes on picking up toys from the floor as she begins her answer; or stops mid-sentence to find the next word as she irons a martial arts uniform; or ponders over her last response as she makes the next day’s sandwiches and packs them into lunch boxes.

Obviously, every movement, every action, every change in her voice, every thoughtful expression, every painful memory, is strictly choreographed, yet McElhinney makes it seem perfectly natural – even remembering something she’s forgotten as she begins to climb the stairs to bed. Sugar is a beautiful role and McElhinney embodies every nuance of it.

Strayed’s answers to the letters are based on her own experiences – some are as moving and painful as the letters that prompted them. In them she references her mother’s death, her father’s rejection, her beastly grandfather, a red velvet dress trimmed with white lace … and shares the lessons she learnt from them …

“I’ve always written the column as if I were a naked woman standing in a field showing you everything but her face.”

Photo : Brett Boardman

Mandy McElhinney makes every one of those references as deeply real as Strayed must have felt them.

Four actors. Never relating. Only once or twice almost touching. Yet there is electricity between them, a current that travels through the audience eliciting a sniff here, a tear wiped away there, an almost inaudible gasp – and many silent nods.

Cheryl Strayed’s advice continues to reach across the world in this very special Australian production of Nia Vardalos’ delightfully different play.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

 

Meg Robinson

With The Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Sydney Town Hall. 3rd Feb, 2024

Reviewed : February 3, 2024

Photo : Zac Bayly

Singer, songwriter, musician, actor, director, producer … Meg Washington is all of these. A multi-talented performer who reaches across the arts, Washington has APRA, ARIA, Jazz Bell and Country Music awards to her credit. She is the voice of Calypso, the schoolteacher in Bluey and has recently written all the songs for a soon to be released feature film called The Deb, produced and directed by Rebel Wilson. With her partner Nick Waterman, she has co-written and co-produced a film adaptation of Paul Kelly’s song “How to Make Gravy” which is in production.

Now she is on a three capital cities tour singing with the symphony orchestras of Hobart, Sydney and Melbourne. What a thrill for her many fans to hear her sing her own songs accompanied by some of the best classical musicians in the country

“I love that if a song is written well enough, it can be robust enough to handle that much interrogation and still sound good and feel good,” she writes. And they can! Every one of the songs in this concert handles that “interrogation” perfectly.

With Vanessa Scammell conducting the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Washington’s music thrilled as powerfully as the singer herself. As she introduced the song “Honeysuckle Island”, Washington said she envisaged herself as the island with the music of the orchestra rolling like a tsunami rolling from behind her. And that is a perfect description of the effect of her music played by the orchestra.

Photo : Daniel Boud.

In every song, it rose behind her in a tidal wave of powerful notes reaching up to the high domes of the Town Hall and over the audience, resonating at times, delicately nuanced at others. In the first half of the performance Washington spoke only once, finishing a short observation with the words: “I see this as the gift it is.” She didn’t need to explain any further!

Washington sang songs form her much loved repertoire – “Catherine Wheel”, “Archilles Heart”, “How to tame Lions”. She shared the different joys of motherhood in the song “LobsterI, and introduced two new songs, “Dream On” and “Poetry Motion” which she performed as a duet with guitarist Ben Edgar.

The finale, a stunning orchestral arrangement of “Batflowers”, exemplified Washington’s idea of a song “changing over time just as you yourself change”.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

 

In The Heights

By Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes. PACA Productions. Directors: Rodrigo Medina Noel and William Pulley. The Concourse Chatswood. 2 – 11 Feb, 2024

Reviewed : 2 February, 2024*

Photo : Grant Leslie

If In the Heights is, as the directors describe, “a poignant portrayal of the immigrant experience, highlighting the struggles, aspirations and triumphs of the Latinx community” in New York’s Washington Heights, then this production is a jubilant celebration of the many migrants from South American countries – and other parts of the world – who have made their homes in Australia.

In their biographical notes in the program, most of the principal performers, and many of the twenty dancers and singers who support them, pay tribute to their Latin roots and the history, language, music and dance that is still an integral part of their lives. Other cast members – whose heritages include Egypt, Poland, the Philippines, New Zealand and Sri Lanka – share their stories as well.

Directors Rodrigo Medina Noel and William Pulley say they “envisaged a show that would capture audiences with its energy, authenticity and celebration of Latin culture.” I wonder if they realised just how ‘authentic’ and inclusive their production would be, or the joy and energy – and history – their cast would bring to it.

Photo : Grant Leslie

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ability to merge musical genres to create a cultural ‘picture’ of the times plays into the hearts of this cast – and the multicultural, multigenerational audience it will attract. The rhythms are heady and exciting, the story is gritty and real, the characters identifiable and appealing. There’s something for everyone – but especially for those who don’t often see their faces or hear their stories on stage or screen.

Though the setting is a steamy summer in New York, the story is universal – and the music has the appeal of being totally Latin … but just as totally ‘today’. The orchestra embraces the detail and variety of Miranda’s composition with delight – and musical “fireworks” it entails.

Photo : Grant Leslie

Along with the musicians, choreographers Janina Hamerlok and Alex Ocampo have embraced the different ‘beats’, their choreography acknowledging traditional Latin dance forms as well as the ‘street styles’ that evolved with the hip hop and rap music born in the Bronx in the 1970s.

Henry Lopez Lopez as Usnavi opens the production with the title song, beginning with a rap that sets the scene and introduces the characters that live around his ‘bodega’ and operate the other little stores in their corner of “The Heights”.

There’s his grandmother, Abuela (Irene Toro), who has brought him up since his parents’ tragic death and is also the much loved and loving ‘matriarch’ of this happy, busy community.

There is the Rosario family who run the local cab company.  Their daughter, Nina (Danika Rojas), has dropped out of college in California and doesn’t know how to tell her ambitious hard-working parents, Kevin (Ivan Amaro) and Camilla (Paulina Johnson) that she has lost her scholarship. Usnav’s friend Benny (Andrew Read), works for the Rosarios. He is in love with Nina – a fact not accepted by Kevin!

Next door to Usnav’s store is a beauty salon run by Daniela (Belen Johnson) and her funny friend Carla (Fernanda Murialo). Their employee Vanessa (Natalie Johnson) has dreams of becoming a fashion designer and is also a very talented dancer.

Usnav’s lazy cousin, Sonny (Lachlan Ceravolo), is a bit of a joker but has dreams of social justice. He knows that Usnav is in love with Vanessa and asks her out on Usnav’s behalf.

Other constants in the area are Graffiti Pete (Nik Zielinski) who is good friends with Sonny – and the local Piraguero (Carlos Galino) who sells drinks and ices from his trolley.

These are the people of The Heights. Their lives interconnect because of their heritage, their struggles and their hopes for the future. They share their problems – like Nina’s concern about facing her parents in songs like “Breathe” (Respira), and her father’s memories of his poor background and fear of feeling “Useless” in the face of making good and supporting his family.

Photo : Grant Leslie

Together they deal with the problems facing them, even a power outage that results in looting that damages their businesses – but not their energy or their faith.

While many of the songs in this musical reach across generations and cultures, none does so more heart-warmingly than “Patience and Faith” performed with warmth and heart by Irene Toro as Abuela, reminding the community – and the audience – of the importance of believing in themselves and the future.

Under the care and direction of their two directors, these performers – and the Ensemble who are like their extended family – bring the fears and hopes, tears and joys of this brave, optimistic community to life in a production that reaches joyfully and musically across cultures and generations.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening performance

Alone It Stands

By John Breen. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Janine Watson. 25 January – 2 March, 2024

Reviewed : 31 January, 2024*

Photo : Prudence Upton

On Tuesday 31st October 1978, my friend Seán “mitched” (wagged) school and hitchhiked to Limerick to watch his all-amateur team from Munster play against the mighty New Zealand All Blacks. On the pitch in Thomond Park with a seating capacity of only 12,000, he and his mate watched their team beat the All Blacks … 12-0! He’s been dining out on the story ever since, especially now that he lives in Australia!

In 1999, John Breen recorded the exhilaration – and surprise – of that win in his play Alone it Stands, the title a double reference: to the singularity of the event itself and to Shannon Rugby Football Club’s anthem/victory song, There is an Isle. He attributes the win to raising the spirits of an Ireland that at the time appeared “cursed” by war, politics and unemployment.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Directors – and actors – take on a production like this with courage. Firstly, six actors play 65 characters, moving from Irish to New Zealand accents as they replay parts of the game from both sides of the action, running, tackling, diving for the ball, jumping in lineouts, harassing in scrums. They also play spectators, fans, a BBC commentator, the local kids setting up their Halloween bonfire, a taxi driver, a barmaid, a priest and nurses delivering twins to Mary, whose husband Gerry has sneaked off to watch the match!

Director Janine Watson pays tribute to her fellow creatives, especially dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley, fight director Tim Dashwood and intimacy coordinator Chloë Dallimore for their expertise – and cultural consultant Tiana Tiakiwai for allowing the production “to explore the Haka Ka Mate and perform it with respect and honour to its origin and history”. The authenticity of this production is outstanding.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Watson has given a great deal of thought and time to her analysis of the production, admitting that “never before have I used huge scrapbooks and drawn out the staging for every moment like football game play, so that every actor has a solid topography”. So solid is that ‘topography’, that her cast work as a well-oiled machine – or rugby team! The moves, the tactics, the use of space and the changes of pace and character are a tribute to a director who knows her play intimately.

Photo : Prudence Upton

All six actors are fit! They have to be to sustain the pace and rigour of the production. All make their character changes distinct, even when they change from one team to another in the middle of a scene. All depict the drive and competitive spirit of the players they represent, their faces set, their eyes glaring, their muscles straining – then, in a moment become the kids at the bonfire, or Mary in labour, or Bridie Walsh, the barmaid!

They are in reality Tristan Black, Ray Chong Nee, Briallen Clarke, Skyler Ellis, Alex King and Anthony Taufa. Everyone of them deserves multiple accolades for the strength and authenticity of the many characters they portray and the energy and vitality of their performances.

Photo : Prudence Upton

In Janine Watson’s words they “bring truth and heart to even the smallest character … and embody and translate the essence of John Breen’s play – warmth, irreverence, joy, energy”.

It’s a happy, fast, funny production that celebrates an event that has become part of Irish folklore.

*Opening performance

Tiddas

By Anita Heiss. Sydney Festival 2024. Directors: Nadine McDonald-Dowd and Roxanne McDonald. Belvoir St Theatre. 12-28 Jan, 2024

Reviewed : 17 January, 2024*

Photo : Stephen Wilson Barker

The co-directors of this warm, honest play explain that “Tiddas is a shared Aboriginal word for sisters,” women who have grown together bound by friendship, love, and years of shared experiences. They explain the importance of women in Aboriginal culture as “the backbone and heart of our ways … no matter the changing world around us”.

The five ‘tiddas’ in Anita Heiss’ play – Izzy, Xanthe, Ellen, Nadine and Veronica – have been friends for years. All but Nadine are Aboriginal, but she is married to the brother of one of the ‘Tiddas’. They grew up together in Mudgee but eventually all have moved to Queensland, where they remain close, meeting each month, ostensibly for their book club, in reality just to keep in touch.

As ‘tiddas’ they are open, honest, direct. They know each other well enough to sense changes or disquiet; to question, share, listen and advise. That scenario gives Heiss the opportunity to raise many issues, some personal, some exposing, “truth telling” stories that are of wider importance and impact on cultural identity.

Photo : Stephen Wilson Barker

The play follows them over the months of their book club meetings, seeing them through good times and bad, laughter and tears and a major crisis that rocks the solid foundation on which their sisterhood is based. It’s a lot to cover in only 90 minutes, but in carefully developed short scenes that are pithy and concise, Heiss shows the importance of empathy and compassion, understanding and support, resilience and trust.

Co-directors Nadine McDonald-Dowd and Roxanne McDonald make the production move quickly, ensuring clear continuity and clarity as the characters move through complicated situations, exposing rawness, anxiety, bitterness, apprehension, happiness, and grief.

The actors are sure of their characters and their complexities, working as a close ensemble even as they make slight changes to the set, where designer Zoe Rouse has used two walls of high bookcases filled with books, nick-nacks and pot plants to create a spacious room opening onto a grassed terrace and a jacaranda tree that is symbolic to the ‘tiddas’.

Photo : Stephen Wilson Barker

It’s a bright, cheerful environment, especially as the colours of the set are reflected in the costumes, designed skilfully to mirror the personalities and occupations of the characters.

Louise Brehmer plays Nadine, the ‘white’ sister who is a respected writer. This is a tough role, as Brehmer takes Nadine from a position of strength through a range of emotional scenes, not the least of which is breach of trust that isolates her from the group.

Lara Croydon is Izzy, striving to be “Australia’s Oprah”, confident, strong, understanding but thrown into indecision when a difficult complication arises. Croydon carries both iterations of the character clearly, one with assurance and poise, the other with honest introspection and perception.

Xanthe, played by Jade Lomas-Ronan, is a peacemaker. Caring and concerned, she is loved by everyone, especially her Grandma and her husband. Lomas-Ronan finds the warmth and fun in Xanthe – as well as the hidden disappointment that she eventually shares with her friends.

Anna McMahon is Veronica, in the throes of a failing marriage and gradually losing what tenuous confidence she has. McMahon takes her through her bitter lows in hesitant explanations, then, with support form the ‘Tiddas’, confidently showing new strength and self-belief.

Ellen, played by Perry Mooney, is fiercely independent, the ‘clown’ of the group who keeps everyone entertained with her ‘bleak jokes’ (she is an undertaker!) and clever one-liners. Mooney carries this role skilfully, making Ellen cheeky and sassy, full of life, caring … but also brutally honest

Photo : Stephen Wilson Barker

Co-director Roxanne McDonald plays Xanthe’s grandmother and Izzy’s mother. As the token ‘elder’ in the production, she is a constant to all the friends, part of their meetings, supporting when asked with wise advice. McDonald is clever performer, she is in every moment, watching, listening, reacting quietly, or with a telling change of expression or perceptive aside.

Sean Dow plays the five men in their lives! With a change of walk, voice, personality and costume he becomes husband, brother, lover, equally believable in whatever role.

Tiddas is about a sisterhood, but it’s message reaches beyond the ‘tiddas’ to raise “serious questions” about “the truths, half-truths and outright lies we tell ourselves” (Eamon Flack Artistic Director, Belvoir Street Theatre).

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening production