Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

Double Beat

Form Dance Projects. Director: Sara Black. Riverside Theatres.    May 5-7, 2022

Reviewed : 5 May, 2022*

Photo : Heidrun Löhr

Hearing the heartbeat of her son for the first time led choreographer Sara Black to what became Double Beat, a movement piece based around the different rhythms of beating hearts as they react to the pressures affecting the people whose bodies they charge.

Composer Alyx Dennison recorded the varying heart beats from nine people, combined them with the sounds of birds and wild life, and compiled them into a sound track that reflects the multitude of emotions and reactions that affect the human psyche and are mirrored physically in the changing rhythms of the heart.

To this incredible composition, Black worked with performers Isabel Estrella, Samantha Hines and Sophia Ndaba to create a performance that explores the “the aural and physical responses … to the tempo of our changing natural world”. Working together through the  Covid-19 lockdowns, they created a descriptive physical narration of the different ways the body reacts to both external and internal stimuli.

Photo : Heidrun Löhr

Using a multitude of movements, from erratic convulsive paroxysms to almost deathly stillness, they explore the range of human emotions and reactions. The calm of contentment, the fitfulness of fear, the immobility of acceptance – all are reflected in a complexity of choreography that excites and confuses, stimulates and, sometimes, perplexes.

Together the performers tell this physical story on a space side-lit by Veronica Bennet to create merging shadows that bring the dancers together, then set them apart as they react to sound – and to each other. At times they are alone, writhing in fear, at others they are together, wrapping around each other, then, suddenly, pushing away, retreating to a safer space, yet looking back … and reaching out – to each other, and their audience.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening Night

Things I Know To Be True

By Andrew Bovell. Theatre on Chester, Epping, NSW. Directed by Carla Moore. 22 April – 14 May, 2022.

Reviewed : 23 April, 2022

Photo : supplied

Things I Know to be True is a play about a family. An ordinary Australian family. It’s set in a suburb of Adelaide – but it could be in any suburb in any Australian city. Playwright Andrew Bovell understands ‘family’ – as did the actors with whom he worked as the idea for this play grew and flourished. They understood  about parents. How they work hard to support their kids, how they want them to succeed. They also knew about kids. How they try to be what their parents want; how they need to be true to themselves as well. They knew about secrets. The hurt that they can cause … but the need, sometimes to brave that hurt.

Bovell has captured all this in this beautiful play. Director Carla Moore describes it as “compassionate, tender … funny at times but also deeply moving”. She has chosen, in her production, to let it speak for itself. The play is realist. But Moore decided against a realist set. Rather she uses an empty stage framed by a lofty surrealist tree, its bare branches reaching into a clear sky, its myriad roots burrowing down, then encompassing the stage like the threads that connect a family and tie them tightly. Surreal too are the roses that symbolise the seasons in the year in which the play is set.

The Price family, however, is very real. Bob and Fran Price have worked hard all their lives, Bob in the automotive industry, Fran as a nurse. Bob took retrenchment when the manufacturing industry began to fold. Fran is still working at the local hospital. Their three eldest children have left home but they keep them close. Pippa is married with two kids. Bob picks them up after school. Mark lives alone after a long relationship ended unexpectedly. Ben works in a bank. Their youngest child, Rosie is on a ‘gap year’ in Europe.

It is her unexpected return that upsets the equilibrium in what appears to be happy, ordinary family.

Photo : supplied

Bob Price is played by Ian Boland, who finds the steadfastness of a man who has worked hard, paid his way, is loyal and supportive – but who is finding early retirement a little depressing. “Sometimes I find myself in the shed wondering what to do next,” he says. Boland’s Bob is down to earth, straight, trusting – and is ‘floored’ when that trust is betrayed.

Fran Price is more complex, and Julie Moore realises the multifaceted dimensions of the wife/mother/carer that Bovell created in Fran. Moore is a perceptive performer who portrays the drive that keeps pushing Fran through years of hard work … and disappointments. She is the backbone of the family and will support Bob and her kids in any way – but that burden that has worn her down and left her a little prickly. It would be easy to make this character too hard, but Moore shows the fraility under the surface.

Freya Moore takes on a major role as Rosie. It is Rosie who introduces the family in a long monologue – and Moore carries this task ably, finding the delicate humour in the lines as well as the emotional turmoil she describes to the audience. Because she is the catalyst to much of the action, Rosie spends a great deal of the play on stage, watching and listening, and Moore does both well. Her love for her family is clear in her reactions, her expressions – and the growth that she makes over the play’s year.

Photo : supplied

Georgia Britt is Pippa, the eldest child, a teacher, a working mum, who’s a little jaded with life – just like Fran, with whom she has a love-hate relationship. Britt finds both the strength and bitterness written into Pippa’s character, and how they have affected her relationships with the other members of the family, and the decisions she feels compelled to make.

Jordan Andrews plays Ben. Brash, ambitious, Fran’s favourite, Ben is an enigma in the family – and Andrews shows his pushy self-confidence, his brassy arrogance – and the brittleness that runs beneath.

Giani Leon is Mark, who sees himself as the black sheep of the family – something no one else realises. This is a difficult role and Leon finds the intensity – and  anguish – of the character in a performance that is touching and moving.

Things I know to be True is about the things family members don’t necessarily know to be true … about each other, about how they will react when they find out, and about what will bring them together. It is, as I said,  beautiful play. Carla Moore and her cast have uncovered all of its nuances and the delicate complexities of its characters.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Leap

Neil Gooding Productions. (Packemin). Choreographer: Amy Campbell. Riverside Parramatta – 22-24, April 2022 – then touring NSW and Queenslan.

Reviewed : 22 April, 2022*

Photo : Grant Leslie Photography

It is Amy Campbell’s aim to make “art that entertains, enthrals and is accessible”. Leap is all of that and more. With Neil Gooding’s support, Campbell has ‘leapt’ into her imagination to create an exciting new production that surely achieves her aspiration.

Photo : Grant Leslie Photography

If “art” is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination in a visual form” (Oxford dictionary), then Campbell has expressed it strikingly. She has fused traditional and contemporary choreography with skilfully ‘re-imagined’ classical music, played live on a stage hung with multiple tendrils of silvery foliage under luminescent lighting that is colourfully atmospheric.

And if that sounds over effusive, I make no apologies, because Leap “enthrals” via the complexity of the choreography and the textural tempos of the music. Just as the Toccato that opens and closes the production shows the skill and dexterity of the composer, so Campbell has devised a suite that explores and exposes her own skill, and the talents and expertise of the performers.

Photo : Grant Leslie Photography

All ten dancers – Ashley Goh, Callum Mooney, Cassandra Merwood, Felicia Stavropoulos, Maikolo Fekitoa, Natalie Foti, Neven Connolly, Shontaya Smedley, Jervis Livelo and Ryan Ophel – are soloists in their own right, and they are given many opportunities to show that. But they also work together brilliantly in pairs or small groups, or as an ensemble, to tell the stories that Campbell and musical associate Victoria Falconer have synthesised into the intricate, composite piece of theatre that is Leap.

Photo : Grant Leslie Photography

Classical and contemporary dance can work together in so many ways, despite what ‘purists’ might say – see Hamilton, see the Australian Ballet’s next production Kunstkamer.  Both are dependent on symmetry and precision. Both reach specifically to the audience in their own way. Put them together to much loved music – Beethoven, Bach, Vivaldi, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov – that has been tweaked, re-envisaged then played by four modern virtuosos, and you have an exciting theatrical fusion of movement and sound that transcends traditional expectations, and is totally “accessible”.

Photo : Grant Leslie Photography

Add a dramatic set and a spectacular light show designed by Richard Neville of Mandylights, and the production becomes even more exhilarating. Imagine successive curtains of hanging cord threaded with pieces of silvery foil, shimmering and reflecting. Imagine them refracting the beams from multiple strips of coloured light angled above and behind. It’s hard to describe the real effect but it is breath-taking – and adds contour and counter-point to the movement.

This awe-inspiring production moves out of Parramatta after 4 days into a three month tour, taking the cast and musicians north along the NSW coast from Wyong to Grafton, then on to Queensland, culminating in a performance in Mackay on 2nd July.

What a great opportunity for audiences starved of live entertainment for two Covid-long years to see a production that literally sparkles in so many ways.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening Night

Tour details

      • Parramatta (NSW) – 22-24 April
      • Wyong (NSW) – 27-29 April
      • Newcastle (NSW) – 7-8 June
      • Port McQuarie (NSW) – 10 June
      • Grafton (NSW) – 14 June
      • Gold Coast (Qld)- 17-18 June
      • Sunshine Coast (Qld)- 22 June
      • Toowoomba (Qld) – 24 June
      • Maryborough (Qld) – 26 June
      • Bundaberg (Qld) – 28 June
      • Rockhampton (Qld)  – 30 June
      • Mackay (Qld) – 2 July

 

 

Circa

Circa. Theatre Royal, Sydney. 20-24 April, 2022

Reviewed : 20 April, 2022*

Photo : Andy Phillipson

Circa continues to extend circus beyond the ‘big top’. The thrills are still there – the amazing feats, the incredible strength and control – but Circa extends them and turns them into theatre. With this production it goes a little step further because Peepshow, as its name suggests, is just a little bit naughty and even quite cheeky! It’s cabaret on the move … and up in the air!

As well as the advertised “teetering towers of balanced bodies, extreme bending, beguiling burlesque, and devilishly precarious aerials”, Peepshow entertains on multiple planes! Under the direction of Yaron Lifschitz, it combines dance and circus in beguiling theatricality that thrills – and titillates.

Photo : Andy Phillipson

Lifschitz, billed as a “circus visionary”, has created a program that ventures into the bizarre extremes of burlesque. He has combined group acrobatics, hand flying, rope, balancing and tumbling, with clowning and contemporary dance, and creatively choreographed them to an eclectic range of music that varies the mood and determines the split edge continuity that is intrinsic to the production.

Discipline and concentration are vital to all performance work, especially circus. When that is combined with developing an intimately suggestive relationship with the audience, the demands on the performers are even more challenging. Each of the eight performers in this very complex piece of theatre meets that challenge with … flying colours! Every sequence, every routine is perfectly timed, each smoothly executed. Every contact with the audience is subtly defined, cunningly intimated – or cheekily flaunted!

Photo : website

For those who just expect the spectacle of the ‘high wire’, Peepshow goes far beyond expectations. Whilst it amazes as only the tightly controlled mastery of circus acrobatics can, it adds the cleverness of suggestive play that becomes risqué – even, perhaps to some, a little shocking! It mixes circus, dance and acting in a production that is breath-taking, diverting and even a little erotic.

Peepshow shines in every way. It sparkles in colourful sequins and shimmers before a silvery backdrop lit by multiple shadowy light effects. But most of all it radiates in the stunning feats of the incredibly fit, highly trained, and theatrically talented performers … and their imaginative director.

First published in Stagewhispers magazine.

*Opening Night

Cinderella

Victorian State Ballet. The Concourse, Chatswood. 9 -10 April, 2022

Reviewed : 10 April, 2022

Elise May Watson-Lord, Principal Artist, with Tynan Wood, Senior Artist, Victorian State Ballet.
Photographer: Danielle Brown.

Each year the Victorian State Ballet brings a production to Sydney for three performances. This year it was Cinderella, performed by a corps of 25 dancers – supported by 40 young dancers, chosen from over 70 aspiring local ballet students.

As part of their Youth Ballet program, the Victorian Ballet invites young NSW dancers to audition to participate in the production. Dancers from studios all over Sydney and beyond take part in auditions. This year 28 were chosen to play Cinderella’s fairy friends, and 12 were singled out to play the young Cinderella, the young stepsisters and the young prince at one or other of the three performances. What a great experience for young dancers! Apart from the thrill of performance, they learn new choreography, wear spectacular costumes, watch professional dancers in rehearsals and learn the special discipline of being part of a major ballet production.

Congratulations to Vic Ballet for the idea – and the extra organisation such an initiative takes. It is much appreciated by the ballet students – and by their parents whose pride is evident in every performance.

Choreographed by Michelle Cassar de Sierra to the original music composed  Sergei Prokofiev, and directed by Martin Sierra, the ballet follows the fairy tale Cinderella’s nasty treatment at the hands of her stepmother and stepsisters. After their refusal to let her attend the ball, her fairy godmother intervenes, providing her with a ball dress, silver slippers and access to the ball where she meets the prince. Unfortunately, she has to leave at twelve and loses one of her slippers which the prince finds and uses in his search for the young woman with whom he has fallen in love.

It’s a well-known old story and the music allows for some beautiful dance sequences – as well as some funny behaviour by the petulant step sisters. In the Sunday afternoon performance, Cinderella was performed by the very elegant Elise May Watson-Lord, with her Prince played by Tynan Wood. Both danced with great poise and dignity, perfectly executing leaps, lifts and pirouettes .

Her stepmother was Sera Schuller who danced – and acted – with similar assurance and character. Elise Jacques and Lucinda Worthington-Shore were cheekily bewitching as the stepsisters. Both are accomplished dancers who can also act, difficult when the acting involves having to pretend to dance ‘badly’ as well.

As always, the costumes were stunning, especially the elegant ball gowns, where the drape of circular skirts contrasted with the tulle of the fairies. Another contrast was the choreography of the “clock” sequence where, under red lights, the movements became mechanical and brisk.

These productions are wonderful opportunities for ballet lovers, young and old, to see productions a little closer to home at a reasonable cost.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Breaking The Castle

By Peter Cook. Director: Caroline Stacey. Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. 7-9 April, 202

Reviewed : 8 April, 2022*

Photo : supplied

Breaking the Castle premiered in Canberra in 2020 and had a short season in Melbourne in 2021. This season in Parramatta is short too. A pity, because it means far too few have seen this extraordinary piece of theatre that looks closely into addiction – how it gains power, how it holds power and how hard it is to break that power.

Written and performed by Peter Cook, it follows an actor’s gradual submission to the temptation of turning to alcohol and drugs via the debilitating effects of depression and anxiety caused by failed auditions, incompetent directors, unemployment, family problems …

Photo : supplied

It describes the highs and the lows and the need for bigger highs. It explores the loneliness, the need to belong, even though that means being dragged further into despair. It wades into even murkier depths: the temptation to give in to self-harm, even to end life completely …

It follows, too, the long road to recovery – the pain of therapy, the drying out, the temptation to give in, the exultation of success, the awareness of how easy it is to regress.

As an actor, Cook knows how to reach the audience without preaching. His message is clear – and he explains in concisely. This is what can happen. This is how it does. This is what it feels like. This is why it’s so bloody hard to give up.

Photo : supplied

Cook is an athletic performer. He moves quickly from one scene to another, using the levels of the large, raked rostrum and small piles of related paraphernalia that are judiciously spaced around it to take the audience with him from King’s Cross, to waiting for an audition, to a therapy clinic in Thailand. He is never too long in one scene, never takes too long to explain but does so unambiguously.

Sound and lighting punctuate the production. Lights spotlight him in some scenes, wash over him as he lies prostrate on the stage in others. Music breaks a moment, introduces another. Actor and technicians work in perfect time, despite the many scenes and varied effects. This work has been carefully rehearsed to ensure perfect continuity.

Breaking the Castle has a strong, potent message. It’s well written, creatively directed and powerfully performed. Hopefully ACT’s The Street Theatre and Peter Cook will take it to more and bigger audiences.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening night of current production

Orange Thrower

By Kirsty Marillier. Director: Zindzi Okenyo. National Theatre of Parramatta. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 30 March – 2 April, 2022.

Reviewed : 30 March, 2022 (Opening Night)

Photo : Brett Boardman

Kirsty Marillier is a new, young writer who has honed her style carefully. “It’s not often you come across a new writer that already possesses such a unique and well-formed writing style,” writes director  Zindzi Okenyo.

In Orange Thrower Marillier has crafted a play that speaks buoyantly about diversity, difference, assimilation, the yearning for acceptance and the exhilarating power of determination. It is acutely honest, wittily satirical, and delightfully funny. Her writing is succinct. She draws her characters deftly. They are cleverly authentic – in the way they relate, the words they speak, and the way they speak them. Okenyo and her cast make them live in a production that is bright, fast-paced and expressive.

Marillier has set Orange Thrower in a fictional suburb in Perth called … Paradise. The play centres around Zadie, a young, coloured South African girl, her sister Vimsy and Leroy, Zadie’s boyfriend. Zadie is acutely aware of fitting in to the neighbourhood – and not doing anything to attract the attention of their disapproving neighbours, Sharon and Paul. When their cousin Stekkie appears mysteriously from Johannesburg, life becomes a bit more complicated – and noisier.

Photo : Brett Boardman

Zadie carries a lot on her young shoulders. As a nurse, she works hard, long shifts. As a sister, she is caring and concerned, and feels the reputation of her family resting heavily on her young shoulders. Gabriela Van Wyk incorporates all of this in a performance that is engaging and believable. She sustains an energy that defines the resilience and inner strength of the character she plays. The Zadie she creates is youthfully bright but sensibly mature, carrying her multiple responsibilities with an enthusiasm and positivity that is buoyed by innate optimism – and the affection and constancy of Leroy, played by Callan Colley.

Colley is breath of fresh air! He is an astute performer who finds every delightful quirk that Marillier has written into this role. His Leroy is proudly, boyishly masculine yet beguilingly insecure – and so anxious to please that he opens himself up to all sorts of misfortune. Colley uses the stage confidently and, as Leroy, establishes relationships that are believable and touching.

Mariama Whitton springs exuberantly into the role of Vimsy. Just out of school and working part time, Vimsy is itching for fun, and Whitton makes her a bit cheeky and defiant, energetic, game for anything, anxious to feel accepted. So, when Stekkie appears out of the blue – a ‘grown up’ who is brazen and sassy – Vimsy is ready to follow her lead.

Okenyo directs herself in the role of Stekkie. “I have never had such a visceral response to a character,” she says. “Living inside Stekkie’s brain was wild … I felt frightened and yet somehow without fear”. Rightly so, because Stekkie is volatile, spectral – an unpredictable Puckish  character who switches mood erratically. Okenyo finds all of this, dancing crazily one moment, searching introspectively the next … like “a child with no place to fit”.

Marillier sprinkles her insights into “womanness, blackness, colouredness, otherness and youngness” and in-betweenness with clever humour – and cunning satire.

Photo : Brett Boardman

The neighbours – Sharon, and, briefly, her husband Paul – are played by Colley and Okenyo. Sporting a blonde wig and, inevitably, a pink tracksuit, Colley becomes a caricature of every broad-vowelled, nosey neighbour waiting for the chance find something not right about the ‘different’ people over the road – and he does it exceptionally well. Sharon’s appearances  are relatively short but subtly, satirically, telling.

Designed by Jeremy Allen, the set is the living room of Zadie and Vimsy’s home. It is  minimalist, but colourfully effective. The wide sill of the central window allows Sharon to peer over inquisitively, Stekkie to enter stealthily, and doubles as the roof top where the sisters and Leroy sit to watch the night sky.

Verity Hampson and Benjamin Pierpont obviously relish the creative lighting and sound opportunities a play such as this suggests. Together they bring the sound of Africa, the light of Australia and the suggestion of the metaphysical to spark the senses of the audience.

Marillier hangs the themes of her play like “g-strings on a clothesline”, which Okenya spins skilfully to reveal a diverse coming-of-age story seen though a differently coloured lens. A story told succinctly yet evocatively, with subtlety and humour – and a lot of joy.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Blood On The Wattle

Written and directed by Geoffrey Sykes. Richard Wherrett Studio, March 25 and 26 and Chippen Street Theatre, Chippendale, March 31-April 9, 2022.

Reviewed : 26 March, 2022

Photo : suppled

Playwrights often have a lot to say. Sometimes they try to say it all at once. Sometimes that can be a little confusing, a little overwhelming, even a little disturbing. Such is the case with Blood on the Wattle. It touches on tawdry party politics, climate change, refugee detention, racism, discrimination, misogyny, stalking … even rape. Significant themes. And theatre is a good way to air them. But packaging them into one play means a fair bit of manipulation. And a fair bit for the audience to navigate.

Photo : supplied

In Blood on the Wattle, Geoffrey Sykes creates Karl Matters (Ken Welsh), a federal politician representing a country electorate for the fictitious, conservative  “Country First “ party. Karl has ‘fallen out of favour’ with his conservative party leadership because of his views on climate change. He may even lose preselection. His secretary and stalwart supporter, Louise (Kloud Milas), is determined to stand by him. A play in itself, perhaps?

But it becomes more complicated.

Karl meets Vania Azadi (Befrin Axtjärn Jackson), a newcomer to town, who has found employment at a local farm. When Karl offers her work in his office, Louise’s prejudices are revealed. As Karl becomes more obsessed with Vania, his persistent personal questions about her past lead to a theatrical treatise on government immigration policies and disturbing disclosures that might require prior warning for audiences. Vania’s story itself could be a second play.

Photo : supplied

Most of the action occurs in Karl’s office on one side of the stage, and Vania’s small flat on the other. Many of the scenes are short, and Sykes feels the need to identify the quick changes via slides on a screen, which prove a relatively unnecessary distraction (and an annoying light source) due to the clearly differentiated staging and his actors.

Welsh is realistically ‘political’ as friendly, sociable local member Karl.  His voice resonates in brusque political phone calls, but carefully changes tenor as his confidence and bravado slowly erode. Welsh shows that gradual erosion perceptively, especially in some of the longer scenes in the second act.

Axtjärn Jackson is a thinking performer who brings believable sensitivity to her interpretation of Vania’s story.  Though it is often very hard to hear her in the first act, she finds more vocal intensity in Vania’s angry reactions to refugee policies and her acute pain in the retelling of her treatment in detention. Some of these scenes demand intense control of emotion – and real guts to enact.

Milas is consistently supportive as Karl’s electoral and business office manager, despite some repetitive dialogue which is always hard to vary.

Photo : supplied

Sykes has the making of a good play here – or two good plays. There are some pertinent messages, and some moving, heart-breaking  moments. The fact that they are told in so many short scenes that move so quickly diminishes their intensity. Fortunately, it is the anguish of some of the later scenes that remain with the audience.

Plays that encompass so many themes and backstories can become confusing without serious workshopping – and it’s very hard for playwrights to workshop and critique their own work. Or to direct it effectively without engaging the assistance of a dramaturg. This is where dramaturgs come into their own. In a complex play such as this, a dramaturg’s experience, distance from ‘ownership’ and impartial advice would have been of great benefit.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

The Phantom Of The Opera

Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics: Charles Hart. Additional Lyrics: Richard Stilgoe. Book: Richard Stilgoe & Andrew Lloyd Webber. Based on the novel by Gaston Leroux. Opera Australia. Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Director Simon Phillips. March 25 – April 24, 2022.

Reviewed : 25 March, 2022 (Opening Night)

Photo : Prudence Upton

All afternoon weather warnings had interrupted every ‘Drive Time’ radio program. Heavy rain had pelted down in intermittent bursts. Storm clouds still hovered menacingly. Yet from 5.30 until 10.30pm not a drop of rain fell on Sydney Harbour for the opening night of this, the very first open-air performance of The Phantom of the Opera in 35 years.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Was it because composer Andrew Lloyd Webber himself was  to be in the audience? Or was it the Phantom himself who cast a spell on the weather? And did his power last only for those few hours? Because ten minutes after the finale, the rain came! In big, heavy drops! The cast, the crew, director Simon Phillips, designer Gabriela Tylesova, the technicians – and the crane operators – must have breathed a collective sigh of relief as “slowly, gently night unfurled its splendour” on this spectacular production.

Photo : Prudence Upton

“Spectacular” is often used to describe these productions and rightly so. The stage is lifted by two cranes onto pylons to make it appear to be ‘floating’. Gabriela Tylesova’s imaginative set involved 150 builders and painters in its construction. A gold balutsraded staircase sweeps up across the wide stage (2.5 metres larger than any indoor stage in Australia) to the towering pillar of the Paris Opera theatre and the Phantom’s special box. The legendary chandelier, that is a replica of the original chandelier at Paris Opera Garnier, is strung with 80 light bulbs and is, of course, a feature of the production. So too is the gondola – or gondolas – in which Christine is ferried into the Parisian sewers beneath the Opera House. The ingenuity of how this is achieved is typical Phillips and Tylesova working in clever collaboration.

Tylesova’s costumes, too, are spectacular. Fastidiously based on the fashions of the 1880s, yet in breath-takingly beautiful contemporary colours and fabrics, they glimmer under the myriad lighting effects designed by Nick Schlieper. For the Masquerade, she lets “the spectacle surround” the stage with a kaleidoscope of colourful, sparkling characters, none more fun than the Monsieur Firmin and Monsieur André as shiny, hairy bears.

Joshua Robson as the Phantom sparkles too, in long, velvety coats braided in gold and silver, with buttons that glitter and glossy masks, one in vivid red, and another, more sinister, that shimmers as if burnished in mercury. Robson wears this finery with a panache as potent as his powerful voice and the controlling fear it infuses under the hovering night sky. His Phantom embodies the inner turmoil and loneliness of the man – and his need for acceptance and the compassion he finally gets from Christine.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Georgina Hopson plays Christine with a naivety that allows her character to vacillate between the fear instilled by the Phantom and her love for Raoul. There is no such vacillation in the power of her voice or the emotions that fill her words. Her sweet innocence rings out as clearly as her fear – and eventually her understanding empathy of the Phantom’s plight.

Callum Francis is her loving protector, Raoul. Francis steps into this role with confident poise, giving his character the self-assuredness that counterpoints the heaviness of his rival in both action and voice, especially when all three sing together.

The diva, Carlotta Giudicelli, is played by Naomi Johns who obviously delights in the various vocal and emotional demands of this role. She moves with ease from operatic soprano in a rehearsal of Hannibal, to temperamental prima donna, to an object of ridicule by the Phantom – and she does so with fine voice and equally fine comedic timing.

Paul Tabone is Ubaldo Piangi, her Hannibal. He too has a fine voice and excellent comic timing. Together they make the ‘operatic couple’ a continuing feature of the production – as do Michael Cormick and Martin Crewes as Messieurs Firmin and André. Both bring a wealth of stage experience and vocal prowess to the production.

Maree Johnson and Kelsi Boyden contrast as the ballet mistress, Madame Giry and her ballerina daughter Meg – the former strict but kind, the latter impulsive and sympathetic.

Together with an ensemble of 36 singers and dancers (choreographed by Simone Sault), they re-tell Lloyd-Webber, Richard Stilgoe and Charles Hart’s interpretation of  Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel in the music and words that have entertained the world.  They do so with the support of an orchestra of 27 musicians hidden beneath the stage in a specially built orchestra studio, from which conductor Guy Simpson connects with the singers via ‘in-ear monitors’ as well as television monitors. Sound designer Shelly Lee complements the music with creative effects made possible by the plein air setting.

It takes a crew of 45 to ‘manage’ a production as big, complicated, and weather dependent, as this. Imagine the safety precautions needed for the metres of electrical wiring. Imagine the intricate manoeuvring of the crane from which the chandelier is suspended. Even keeping the stage dry must be a mammoth task in the “unprecedented” weather Sydney has experienced of late.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The creative team have realised Simon Phillip’s concept of encouraging people “to imagine a point of reference beyond their own … and empathise with a life dramatically different – one that might change an otherwise promising, even brilliant human being into a damaged psychopath”. A life that Joshua Robson epitomes as his Phantom’s power, under Phillip’s direction, “is there inside our minds”.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

Lady Windermere’s Fan

By Oscar Wilde. Director Jess Davis. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. 19 March – 7 May, 2022.

Reviewed : 19 March, 2022 (Opening Night)

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Oscar Wilde’s witty criticisms of society still give us cause to reflect even while we smile, though the criticism he made of the society of the time in Lady Windermere’s Fan – namely the hurtful effect of gossip – is nothing compared to the scandalmongering perpetuated in social media today, and its wide audience far surpasses the elegant theatregoers of the Victorian era!

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Elegance is synonymous with Wilde’s plays. It was the nobility he sought to unnerve in his plays – and the nobility meant the fashionable and well-heeled, who had time for ‘at homes’ and carriage rides in the park – and balls. They are ‘costume’ plays and this production, directed by Jess Davis, with costumes designed by Peter Henson, takes the audience back to the graceful gowns, elaborate hats – and waist coats and tails – of the late 19th century. The silk, lace and frills favoured by the stylish ladies of Wilde’s play, contrast with the sombre black and grey of the gentlemen, as they meet in Lord Windermere’s house on Carlton Terrace 130 years after the play was first performed.

People deport themselves a little more casually today than in the 1890s, and it’s always hard, especially for younger actors, to emulate the carriage and bearing of that time. Not so with more experienced performers. Liz Grindly as the Duchess of Berwick and Michela Noonan as Mrs Erlynne carry it off beautifully. With backs straight, necks arched, nimble steps, precise gestures – and clipped,  clear enunciation –  they epitomise the posture and posturing of the time.

Photo : Craig O’Regan

Aimee Honour is a sweet, virtuous Lady Windermere, shocked by the apparent betrayal of her husband, played with sober earnestness by Kendall Drury. Sam Walter is the love-lorne Lord Darlington, and David Boyd is humorously ingratiating Lord Augustus Lorton.

On a set, designed by Tom Fahy and lit by Michael Schell, they and the other enthusiastic members of the Belgravia set, show how easily a scandal can arise – and how an old scandal can be concealed – by a society that thrived on idle chatter but also followed relatively strict code of conduct. Davis’s idea of using projected images of quotes from a manners ‘Manual’ during scene changes accentuated the ideals of the time, even though Wilde disparaged those ideals through the words of Mrs Erlynne … “Ideals are dangerous things. Realities are better. They wound, but they are better.”

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine.