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Midnight Murder at Hamlington Hall

By Mark Kilmurry and Jamie Oxenbould. Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Mark Kilmurry. 1 December, 2023 – 14 January, 2024

Reviewed : December 7, 2023*

Photo : Prudence Upton

A play within a play! A play about things that can go wrong in the theatre? Surely not! Yet Mark Kilmurry and Jamie Oxenbould’s new take on these old themes is fresh fast and very funny. It’s a great way to end a year in which there hasn’t been too much to laugh about.

Oxenbould explains their idea: “There’s something very pure about amateur theatre. People going to the immense effort to put on a show, purely for the love of the theatre … So seeing that passion get derailed is never not funny. Seeing that derailment soldier on, in the face of overwhelming odds, and finally succeeding, was the starting point for writing this play”.

The fact that they built the play around a production of “a cliché-ridden murder mystery” shows how well they know amateur theatre! Murder mysteries are the ‘bread and butter” of community theatre companies. Audiences love them, so they make a little profit! They have big casts so can accommodate more enthusiastic ‘thespians’. They are usually set in rooms with lots of doors and windows and need moody lighting and sound effects.  Add a nasty, contagious virus and you have a host of possible “things that can go wrong”.

Kilmurry and Oxenbould have combined all of these in a play that’s got something for everyone.  They are both clever writers. They know their actors and their audience. And Midnight Murder at Hamlington Hall appeals to both. It’s a physical farce so it’s full of the challenges on which actors and directors thrive.  There are zany gags that audiences love. And it’s full of situations, on and off stage, that will make theatre people, especially community theatre people, nod, and laugh … and cringe!

Like a novice stage manager who’s doing community service; her twelve-year-old niece who’s been co-opted to operate lights; a sticking door; over-confident actors; and cast member after cast member calling in sick. But it’s opening night – and the local council is considering cancelling their tenure of the building – so  the show must go on!  With only two actors, the director, and the stage manager playing all the roles!

Plays like this only work with a tight, committed team of actors and designers and direction that firmly controls the comedy and the pace. Kilmurry’s production works perfectly!

The set, designed by Simon Greer, could stage any Agatha Christie mystery. It hides all the crannies the writers have built into the play and allows for multiple entrances and some surprises.

Greer’s costumes too, add to the comedy and the context of the production. Daryl Wallis provides the atmospheric sound – and Verity Hampson has fun with the lighting, especially when the twelve year old is ‘operating’!

Photo : Prudence Upton

Jamie Oxenbould, Sam O’Sullivan, Ariadne Sgouros and Eloise Snape take on the task of bringing the amateur actors – and the many characters in Hamlington Hall – to life. All four are experienced in the genre; all have an overabundance of energy; all know how to find what Freud called “the meaningful in the meaningless”.

O’Sullivan plays Shane, the (mostly) altruistic director. Sullivan makes Shane understanding, compassionate but nervy and prone to panic which he supresses with superb effort (mostly). He excels in showing Shane’s emotional turmoil and edgy despair as he tries desperately to control the catastrophe that’s developing around him.

Photo : Prudence Upton

The elderly, arrogant actor, Barney, is played by Oxenbould, who brings superb comic timing and amazing energy to the role. A master of quizzical pauses, raised eyebrows, droll expressions and quick changes, Oxenbould makes Barney haughty, condescending, just a bit pathetic … and hilariously funny.

Eloise Snape plays Phillipa (Pip), the leading lady in the production but one who is also very needy!  Snape finds that frailty in a performance that takes her from bright confidence to hesitant uncertainty. She uses comic timing to accentuate the “actor” Pip sees herself to be – and shows her own comedic prowess in the three completely different characters Pip plays in Hamlington Hall.

Karen, the reluctant Stage Manager, is played by Ariadne Sgouros. Sgouros makes Karen, strong, questioning, a little brash. She struts across the stage, stands astride, shakes her head at the behaviour of the ‘actors – but hangs in there to help, even taking on roles in the play! Karen is a great character and Sgouros relishes every funny line and action.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Tallulah Pickard plays the Voice of Karen’s niece, calling down from the bio box to explain what’s going wrong!

 Midnight Murder at Hamlington Hall  is a credit to both Kilmurry and Oxenbould – and to the creative cast and crew who make it work so effectively. If the laughter in the audience on opening night is anything to go by, it will be another star in the Ensemble’s theatrical story. And it plays right through the holiday season so would be a great gift to those who love theatre and love to laugh!

*Opening Night

Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?

Written and performed by Debra Oswald; Director Lee Lewis; Ensemble Theatre; 18 Sept – 14 Oct

Reviewed : 22 September, 2023*

Photo : Prudence Upton

Debra Oswald chose as the title for her own story the words of a child who saw her crying in the aisle of a supermarket. What brought her to tears, she explains in her performance, was the song playing over the loudspeaker system as she did her shopping! Why it brought her to tears was the memory of it being used in the original production of her play Gary’s House – and her love for the flawed character of Gary who dies halfway through the play.

I understand Oswald’s feelings for that Gary – as did, I am sure, anyone else who directed the play – or taught or studied it for HSC Drama in NSW in the 1990s. Gary was battler, a struggler who eventually gave up, but who inspired others. As did so many of Oswald’s characters, especially ‘Therese’ in Mr Bailey’s Minder, another struggler, but one who didn’t give up!

Photo : Prudence Upton

Oswald’s love of theatre began early – but she never wanted to be on stage. She wanted to create the characters, write the words they said to each other. From Gary and Mr Bailey to the cops on Police Rescue, from two Bananas in Pyjamas to the medicos and their families in Offspring, Debra Oswald has created characters with whom audiences identified, believed in and loved.

Hearing her talking about creating and watching them come to life on stage and screen is a privilege and joy. Her description of working in “the writer’s room” is exhilarating, full of the satisfaction of collaboration, sharing ideas and jokes and decisions – as opposed to the isolation of writing alone.

Hearing her talk about the realities of being a writer is not quite so joyous. Without really complaining she tells of the hurt of rejection, and the even greater hurt of scripts or novels being ignored. Of being requested to write a series that never gets up. Of how easy it is to give up – and almost give in.

Oswald share more than her professional life. She shares memories of her parents. Of growing up Sydney’s northwest. Of watching medical programs on TV that led her to imagining all sorts of illnesses. Of romance and love, motherhood, grandchildren. Her strange in-laws and their obsession with teddy bears. And her handsome dog Clancy.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Is There something Wrong with that Lady? is more a memoir than a performance. A memoir written by a writer of dialogue who knows the importance of sequence and rhythm and pause. When to use rhetorical questions, humour, and asides. With director Lee Lewis, Oswald puts her own words into action, relaxing into the role of storyteller so that her ability to communicate personally and honestly shines through.

In her program notes director Lewis explains how unusual it is for a writer “to step out of the shadows and remind us that it all starts with a person sitting in front of a blank screen or sheet of paper.” To do so on stage is even more unusual. “It is generous,” Lewis says, “and brave, touching and slightly scary.” But Oswald overcomes any scariness with the power of her own words and her warm, outgoing personality.

*Opening Night

Aida

By Giuseppe Verdi and Antonion Ghislanzoni. Opera Australia. Director David Livermore. Conductor Stuart Stratford. Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House. 19 June – 21 July, 2023

Reviewed : 19 June, 2023*

Photo : Keith Saunders

Giuseppe Verdi rose from humble beginnings to become one of the world’s greatest composers. His “big, beautiful melodies and expressive dramatic orchestral music” are performed continuously in opera houses around the world. He composed 26 operas and his famous Requiem – all of which led to him being so loved and respected that 200,000 ‘fans’ lined the streets at his funeral in 1901.

Verdi wrote about strong characters who displayed real emotions. They were not necessarily important people in the society, but he raised them to importance in the stories he created with his librettists.

In this opera, the heroine, Aida, is a captive Ethiopian princess who is enslaved to Amneris, an Egyptian princess. Aida’s lover, Radamès, has been chosen to lead the Egyptian army against Ethiopia. Amneris also has her eye on him!

When Radamès returns, victorious, the Egyptian King offers Amneris to Radamès in marriage, leaving Amneris exultant and Aida miserable, a misery exacerbated by the fact that her father, Amonasro, is among the prisoners of war Radamès has captured.

Amonasro convinces Aida to get information about a further invasion from Radamès. When Radamès realises he has betrayed his country, he hands over his sword, is tried for treason and sentenced to be buried alive. Aida joins him in his tomb and, as they fade away, Amneris prays for Radamès.

It’s a sad story, embellished by beautiful music, especially the famous “Triumphal March” where the orchestra and the people of Egypt, and a massive fanfare of brass instruments, salute the victory and the Glory of the god Isis.

In this production, trumpets sound from the boxes in the auditorium as well as from the stage, making the victory even more triumphant.

Photo : Keith Saunders

Along with the wonder of the music and those who perform it, technology has inspired contemporary opera productions to become more and more spectacular. This production by director David Livermore is no exception. Livermore is renowned for his “high-tech sets that create impressive three-dimensional backdrops”, along with LED lighting effects and video projections. In Aida, he uses all of these impressively.

Metres high illuminated flats encase the stage or move across it. Projected images frame every scene – billowing red clouds, leaping yellow flames, metres high soldiers, tall, posed naked women, a giant black cat – rise above the action, a powerful example of modern theatricality juxtaposed with nineteenth century music and the Kingdom of Egypt in 2200 BC.

It is an impressive display – breath-taking at times – but it can become distracting!

The spectacle and movement – of the flats themselves and the images – though they fuse and blend with the tempo and emotion of the music and the voices, seem often to pull focus from the action … and Gianluca Falaschi’s incredible costumes.

Gold and turquoise, geometrical shapes, sparkling bejewelled gowns, gold and black battle dress, gold headdresses and helmets, a silver suit of armour. Gold and more gold!  Shiny fabrics and lace strikingly fashioned into flowing skirts, cloaks and long embroidered coats.

Photo : Keith Saunders

Skimpy white fabrics worn by dancers who contort themselves before the gods. What creativity and imagination went into Falaschi’s designs! What fun those who made them must have had! What a thrill for those who wear them!

Leah Crocetto and Elena Gabouri grace some wonderful gowns as Aida and Amneris. Najmiddin Mavlyanov is resplendent in a gold embroidered coat as Radamès. Roberto Scandiuzzi shines in gold and silver vestments and a tall headdress as the priest Ramfis. David Parkin, as the King, is encased in silver and gold metallic armour, his face hidden behind a silver helmet as he stands regally on an intricate gold dais.

Soldiers and the court are similarly garbed, their costumes opulent and glittering – as are their voices as they wish Radamès and the army well – or welcome them victoriously home.

Crocetto and Gabouri, whether singing together in harmony, or alone, are spellbinding in their range and the powerful strength of their voices. Mavlyanov finds the loyal ambition and patriotism of Radamès in his solos – and both love and confusion in duets with Crocetto and Gabouri.

Photo : Keith Saunders

Parkin and Warwick Fyfe, who plays Amonasro, are great favourites with Sydney opera goers – and when they sing it is easy to see why.

Stuart Stratford conducts the hidden but superbly heard ninety musicians of the Opera Australia Orchestra – and the Off Stage Banda trumpets, trombones and tuba that herald the “Triumphal March”. Verdi’s music is magnificently glorious in their hands.

This production of Aida stuns with its theatrical innovation, its spectacular costumes – and with the power and operatic experience of its stellar cast. It is a production opera audiences will long remember.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine

*Opening Night

Hound of The Baskervilles

By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Adapted by Steven Canny and John Nicholson. Genesian Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Richard Cotter. 27 May – 17 June, 2023

Reviewed : June 2, 2023

Photo : LSH Media

Following the style of the oft’ staged The Complete Works of Shakespeare Abridg’d and the popular adaptation of The 39 Steps, Steve Canny and John Nicholson condense Conan Doyle’s story to a comedy played by 3 actors. Richard Cotter cleverly leads the audience into the spirit of his production with his guileful choice of ‘mood’ music and wry program notes!

With the tone thus set, the curtains open to a sparsely set stage – some stairs, a free-standing door, an armchair! Here we meet Kate Easlea who, as the elementary Dr Watson, will guide the audience through the story and introduce Alyona Popova and Oliver Harcourt-Ham who play all the other characters that people Conan Doyle’s very convoluted plot.

Photo : LSH Media

As the perspicacious Sherlock Holmes, Popova – pipe in hand, cloak flowing and manner supercilious – sends Watson to Baskerville Hall to report on the strange death of Sir Charles Baskerville. This gives Popova the opportunity to play a bevy of other characters including the Barrymores (both husband and wife), the retainers at Baskerville Hall, the Stapletons (brother and sister) and an odd man hiding in the marsh, who is really Holmes in disguise.

 Harcourt-Ham plays the Baskervilles – both Charles and Henry – making some very quick, complicated, and sometimes revealing costume changes, one of which occurs in a sauna where Harcourt-Ham and Easlea repeat a carefully timed gag that is best seen rather than described! Suffice to say the audience finds it hilarious! In another Popova and Harcourt-Ham perform a tango that is hardly Conan Doyle but certainly lifts the tenor of the tale.

Cotter has ensured the production uses the staging ‘tools’ that make this form of theatre effective. The props – including the door, the aforesaid sauna, a bed head, a fireplace and the grim mire that surrounds Baskerville Hall – are all on wheels. Manipulating them on and off the stage on and off the stage becomes part of the comedy.

Photo : LSH Media

As do some of the costume changes. Harcourt-Ham handles his with coy, expressive appeals to the sympathy of the audience! Popova manages hers with the same sort of aplomb with which she changes her characters. Her comic timing is excellent – and Cotter ensures he makes the most of her talent to push the pace and cheekiness of this irreverent adaptation.

Photo : LSH Media

Animals feature by sound rather than sight in this production. The howl of the hound, of course, pervades the action! Other animals whose voices haunt the mirey moor are deftly dealt with by Easlea’s Watson, a revolver and careful timing by Amy Roberts operating sound effects – and lighting. Roberts also gives ‘voice’ to the live lamb and cow which Harcourt-Ham, as a rustic peasant, shoulders villainously in a hessian bag.

Cotter’s approach to the production extends the commedia conventions suggested by Canny and Nicholson’s script – masks, walks, stances, voices, accents, comic routines, a love story, even a dance! He directs his cast to achieve all of that at a pace that sustains the comedy as well as the progressing the plot. A double whammy which they attack diligently.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

 

A Broadcast Coup

By Melanie Tait. Sydney Festival 2023, at The Ensemble Theatre, Sydney. Directed by Janine Watson. 26 January – 4 March 2023

Reviewed : February 2, 2023*

Photo : Prudence Upton

Melanie Tait is a playwright who respects the intelligence and empathy of her audience. She ensures that her themes are relevant, thought provoking … as well as being entertaining. She knows her subjects, writes convincingly about them. She also respects her characters and the actors who will portray them. The characters have depth and layers of dimension that give their actors – and directors – much with which to work.

So cleverly written was her play The Appleton Ladies Potato Race that it has toured nationally, become the new ‘go to’ for many community theatre companies, and will soon be released as a film. A Broadcast Coup is equally clever, albeit just a little more confronting … for some.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Tait turns to her experience in the broadcast media for this play – and to the many stories about life in the ‘on air’, dog eat dog – Jock eat Jock? – competitive realm of radio. She sets the play in the studio of a national radio station. Makes it the morning show. You know the drill: a popular ‘host’; interviews on topical events; newsworthy guest spots; all put together by a quick-thinking, intelligent, well-organised production team.

Written in the wake of the international reaction to the Harvey Weinstein disclosures – and just into rehearsals as the 2020 lockdown hit – A Broadcast Coup explores in Tait’s own words “the grey areas of life after the 2017 #MeToo reckoning”. Questioned by a male friend about the relevance of the play after that “reckoning”, Tait writes “I would love A Broadcast Coup to be irrelevant …(but) … in December, yet another media star was sacked from his job in Sydney after harassing colleagues at a Christmas party” …

Photo : Prudence Upton

The relevance of the play remains – and this production by a very perspicacious director and an equally astute cast, finds the humour as well as well as the discomfort in the complex issues Tait raises

Firstly, Janine Watson leads her cast with insightful direction to realise the picture Tait paints of the broadcast studio. The pace and intensity of getting to air each day. The background work of the production team: topics, phone calls, time slots, background research, station IDs, ratings, meeting Board requirements, keeping to budget.

That frantic rush, every morning, each weekday is realised in tight, astute direction, made easier by Tait’s economic, realistic dialogue and the clever set designed by Veronique Benett and lit by Matt Cox. Two kidney shaped desks swivels constantly to suggest different locations – the studio, a bar, an apartment. A huge electronic weekly diary is the backdrop. Microphones descend to take the show to ‘air’ and two digital clocks pace each live interview. All occur in perfect synch with the pace Watson has set.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Sustaining that pace are five perceptive performers. There is long time host Mike played with calculating guile by Tony Cogin. It’s not easy playing a part it’s easy for the audience to dislike and judge, but Cogin does it well, breezing in from a week-long anger management course as if from a summer holiday, a bit brash, in charge, cocky – an arrogant sort of confidence that he falls back on whenever challenged.

Sharon Millerchip is his long-term, hard-working producer, Louise. Millerchip knows this character well – as do Tait and Watson. Loyal, stalwart, she is the backbone of the program, planning, the show, fielding complaints, keeping Mike’s diary in check, keeping Mike himself in check, even ensuring he has a clean shirt in case of an all-night ‘outing’.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Millerchip finds every subtlety written into this role. She is in every moment, reacting to every change in tone, every nuance in every word or action – at the same time becoming increasingly aware of the precipice on which the program hangs, including the vulnerability of the young production intern, Noa, played by Alex King.

King gives Noa the assurance of an intelligent, smart graduate. She knows her stuff, she’s  keen, she wants to learn, especially from Mike because she’s admired him for years. Because Noa is ambitious and King makes this very clear in strong dialogue, precise movements and clear, adroit reactions.

Ben Gerrard plays Troy, whose job is to ensure everyone, especially Mike, meets all the requirements of ‘management’. It’s not an easy job, especially as Mike belittles him constantly, but Troy is determined, and Tait has made that relentlessness Troy’s real strength. Gerrard plays to it cunningly, giving his Troy the dogged belief that right will eventually win, and using his excellent comedic timing to add levity to the role..

The “fly’ in the carefully mixed elements of the plot, played by Amber McMahon, is feminist activist Jez, whose podcasts on women’s issues have become increasingly popular and hard hitting.  All are based on very solid research, including a series of interviews she has collected from other women who, like Jez herself, once worked on the program.

Photo : Prudence Upton

McMahon plays a Jez who is self-assured, persuasive, who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She plans carefully, knows when to strike and how to do it most effectively. But until she goes to air with her latest podcast, she’d like Louise to come on board – for a particular reason ….

Put these five characters together in a rising media maelstrom deftly contrived by a clever writer, and you have a work where Janine Watson felt she “needed to pay great attention to time, pace, rhythm, both in the physical and verbal language elements”.

A play indeed where she felt her main task was “to create a sense of immediacy so you, in the audience, might feel like active participants in the seeking of an answer to the questions it asks. Where you feel included in the story and its unfolding.” “What’s the point of being a spectator”, she asks, “if we can’t see ourselves in their story?”

She leaves it up to you, you see, to bear your own witness – based of course on how you react to the events, how you identify with the characters – and how valid you feel Tait’s message to be. And that’s the kind of direction this play requires.

*Opening night

The Caretaker

By Harold Pinter; Director : Iain Sinclair. Ensemble Theatre;  14 Oct – 19 Nov.

Reviewed : 19 October*

Photo : Prudence Upton

Before I begin, I must say that I am a great fan of Harold Pinter. I love his work. I love his characters. So, I when I saw who was involved in this production, I went to see it with great hope. A strong director. Very experienced actors. An intimate theatre space. I wasn’t disappointed!

Harold Pinter made an indelible, mark on the lives of actors, directors, critics and audiences in theatres, cinemas and English and Drama classrooms. He delved inside the characters he created, giving them a depth that went beyond the printed word and hung in unfinished phrases, unanswered questions and strange, sometimes menacing, relationships.

Photo : Prudence Upton

His stage directions and meticulous descriptions placed his characters clearly in a specific time and place. He gave directors and actors much with which to work. Perhaps none of his many plays shows this quite so vividly as The Caretaker.

Director Iain Sinclair says in his program notes: “It’s the director’s job to help actors best implement a playwright’s dramatic code and Harold Pinter’s is the best. We have followed it to the letter”.

Pinter’s “dramatic code” includes the setting and designer Veronique Benett’s has deciphered it in fastidious detail. A small room in an empty dilapidated house is crowded with two beds and a collection of miscellaneous paraphernalia including overflowing boxes, drawers, old kitchen appliances, an ancient lawn mower and a rolled- up strip of carpet. A mouse trap sits innocuously on one corner of the stage.

Two suitcases and pieces of wood are stacked under one bed. An old bathroom basin lies on the other. A chair is overturned on the floor. The window is dingy. A china Buddha sits on top of a gas stove. A bucket hangs from the ceiling. The atmosphere is seedy, lonely, fusty, augmented by Matt Cox’s moody lighting and Daryl Wallis’ ominous, lonely sound design.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Into this crowded, disconcerting space, Sinclair brings a distinguished cast. Darren Gilshenan as the garrulous tramp, Davies, Anthony Gooley as the shy, vulnerable Aston, and Henry Nixon as his more confident, intimidating brother, Mick.

Sinclair says, “It has been a lifelong dream to work on this particular play with actors of the calibre of Darren, Anthony and Henry” and he certainly works with them punctiliously in this fine, carefully controlled, beautifully timed production.

Director and actors have honoured Pinter’s “dramatic code”, respecting every possible implication in the dialogue and every implicit suggestion in every pause. On the intimate Ensemble stage, the characters they have uncovered are real and close, hovering hauntingly at the edge of the fourth wall.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Darren Gilshenan’s Davies is restlessly twitchy, edgy, always watchful. His eyes move nervously, canvassing the space cautiously. Never really at ease and never really relaxed, he is constantly aware and cannily observant. This Davies has learnt from experience and puts it to good measure as he cunningly plays the brothers against each other. Gilshenan brings his wide experience, creative intelligence and immaculate timing into creating a canny, crafty Davies who wears his torn coat, holey socks and soiled underclothes with a sort of swaggering pride.

Anthony Gooley finds a hovering frailty in Aston. It’s there in sad his eyes as they stare beyond the room into things neither Davies nor his brother see. It’s there in a wistful turn of his head, or in the hesitant way he hands Davies a pair of shoes. It’s there in his halting, bleak description of undergoing electric shock therapy – and in the despair it has left behind. Gooley makes that quiet, despair a pervading influence on the Aston he portrays. Its appeal is unnerving.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Henry Nixon, as Mick, introduces Pinter’s ability to nonplus the audience in the first few moments of the play. He enters the desolate room, sits on the bed and stares long and menacingly at the audience. Then leaves. He does not reappear until late in the second scene, where he surprises and tries, successfully at first, to intimidate Davies. Nixon sustains the menace of this Mick with a stiff poise that infuses every gesture and intonation. He holds himself tightly, ready to spring – a total contrast to his quiet, submissive brother.

Veronique Benett follows Pinter’s detailed description of the way his characters are dressed, showing the contrast between these three men who are struggling to find a way to survive in seedy, 1960s London. Aston wears a shirt, tie, jumper and coat, hiding his nerves in shabby respectability. Mick wears turned up blue jeans, a leather jacket, white canvas shoes, brazenly trying to be modern, upbeat. Davies wears the clothes of a down-and-out, but does so with a sort of insolent swagger.

Photo : Prudence Upton

Inside these disguises, Gilshenan, Gooley and Nixon bring their characters to life. With Sinclair they develop the strange trio and their even stranger relationship. They find the drama, the absurdity  … and the tension that can be built into a comedic three-way game of ‘pig in the middle’ with a shabby leather bag.

Three men, three portraits, three intriguing characters inter-relating in a production that is totally perplexing, totally mesmerizing … totally Pinteresque.

*Opening performance

Albion

By Mike Bartlett. Secret House, New Ghosts Theatre Company and Seymour Centre. Seymour Centre, July 29 – Aug 13, 2022.

Reviewed : July 27, 2022*

Photo : Clare Hawley

Unlike many contemporary plays, (one act, no interval, 70 to 90 minutes in length) Albion is more a ‘modern classic’ – think plays Arcadia, August: Osage County, Hotel Sorrento, When the Rain Stops Falling. It is long (3 hours) and whilst not a ‘family saga’, it takes a family through memories, hopes, loss, failings and falling outs.

Mike Bartlett sets his play in modern Britain. Audrey (Joanna Briant) has sold her London home to buy ‘Albion’, an old seven-bedroom country home in Oxfordshire where she spent holidays in her youth. She aims to revitalise the estate and its gardens as a memorial to its original owner and ‘designer gardener’, and a place to scatter the ashes of her lost soldier son, James. In doing so, she uproots her tolerant husband Paul (Charles Mayer) and reluctant daughter, Zara, (Rhiann Marquez) from their happy life in London, and along with her son’s girlfriend Anna (Jane Angharad), instils them as part of her dream.

Photo : Clare Hawley

Bartlett uses the effect of Audrey’s single-minded determination to infer some of the political, social and economic instabilities of Brexit Britain and, ambitiously, the effects of changing attitudes to class, status, immigration, same sex relationships and the ethical possibilities of IVF. A difficult task indeed, but one Bartlett handles skilfully in words and relationships, extrapolations … and a little bit of caprice.

Lucy Clements acknowledges this with a directorial vision that allows the caprice to permeate the production. The garden, artfully created by designer Monique Langford, combines realism and imagery to suggest a lost past that may defy restoration. A tree trunk reaches high, its branches suspended above a rectangle of green lawn edged by narrow flower beds. Its Englishes-ness is as definitive as Audrey herself. Lighting designer Kate Baldwin enhances this with wispy, soft effects to which sound designer/composer Sam Cheng adds gentle birdsong – and some sounds that are a little less gentle, but startlingly effective.

Photo : Clare Hawley

In keeping with the changing colours of the garden, Langford and assistant costume designer Aloma Barnes accentuate the touches of eccentricity in the plot and the characters with costumes that mix contrasting colours, flashes of light and quirky accessories with more sombre, grounding shades. Paul’s grey beanie contrasts with Audrey’s ‘woman of the manor’ style – and her friend Katherine’s (Deborah Jones) quirky headdresses.

These production concepts provide a cunning vehicle for Bartlett’s characters to relate in an environment ruled by a dominant woman who allows her rigid resolve and conservative values to turn her daughter, her son’s partner, her oldest friend, her new neighbour and a small village against her.

Lucy Clements fosters the strain of those relationships in direction that uses carefully blocked distances and watchful stillness to heighten emotional response. Wherever the characters are, they are constantly aware of each other, aware of rising tension, attune to what might happen next – whether they are part of Audrey’s London ‘incomers’ – or the staff and neighbours who feel a long-time proprietorship of Albion and its gardens.

Photo : Clare Hawley

Briant’s Audrey is a powerful presence permeating the mood of the production with her uncompromising opinions, persuasive coercion tactics and careless classicism. It is not easy to empathise with this character, until Briant eventually shows a little of the loneliness that comes with inflexibility and intransigence – and how much she really appreciates the unwavering devotion of her husband … and, ultimately, her daughter.

Mayer’s Paul is a strong, quiet presence. He listens and watches patiently, stepping in only to avert an escalating argument. Marquez creates a Zara who fights her resentfulness with restless energy and eventual defiance as she leaves Albion to return to London with Katherine.

Deborah Jones makes Katherine a formidable figure. A recognised author, she is strong, approachable. Very aware of Audrey’s personality, she is prepared to accept her shortcomings – but only to a certain extent!

Photo : Clare Hawley

Anna, though not officially part of the family, is determined to fulfil the promise she shared with James before he left for his final tour. To do this, she accepts Audrey’s invitation to visit – and stays. Angharad finds Anna’s unyielding resolve as well as the raw, empty hunger of lost love.

Mark Langham and Claudette Clarke play the gardener Matthew and housekeeper Cheryl, who have been loyal retainers at Albion for twenty years. They are county folk, who know their place, but are used to being treated with respect – something that Audrey does not understand nor practise. Their hurt is manifested with quiet dignity until Cheryl dares to question Audrey.

James Smithers is appealing as Gabriel, the boy next door, who writes poetry and becomes increasingly confident as he develops friendships with Zara and Katherine.

Emma Wright is Krystyna, a Polish migrant whom Audrey ‘installs’ over Cheryl in the house. Eric Ebert is the next-door neighbour who is disappointed in Audrey’s decision not to open the gardens of Albion for a local festival. Ash Matthews appears as manifestations of James.

Albion the stately home establishes the time and place and background of Albion the play. Lucy Clements sees, however, that:

 “Despite Albion being so specific to its English setting, these politics and values have rung true for us here too. Above all, the play’s debate regarding romanticising the past feels even more loaded and relevant when staged in Australia”.

That may be so, but the Albion Clements has directed does stand fast in its English-ness. She and her cast and crew have created a little bit of England that rings clear and true. Perhaps that’s why she chose  ‘The World in Union’ as part of the music prior to the opening of the play! Though it’s oft’ regarded as the ‘Rugby Song’, it’s words suggest the tenor of Batrlett’s play:

We face high mountains
Must cross rough seas
We must take our place in history
And live with dignity

 

 

* Opening Night

Reunion Day

A play by Peter Yeldham. Play reading at the Australian Film, Television & Radio Theatre, Entertainment Quarter, Sydney. 26th June 2022.

Carol Wimmer reports on the history of this Australian play, banned in the 1960s, and its recent re-discovery.

26 June, 2022

The cast at the reading of Reunion Day

Twelve professional actors meet in a small theatre on a Sunday afternoon to take part in a play reading of an Australian play written 60 years ago. A play that has never been performed in Australia … yet was filmed and broadcast by the BBC back in 1962! With an Australian cast including Ron Haddrick and Ray Barrett! There’s got to be a story there!

There certainly is – and it involves censorship and political interference. In Australia! Fancy that!

Australian theatre and television in 1962 was fairly conservative. There had even been some adverse reactions to Ray Lawler’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year. Yet today both plays are regarded as harbingers of the ‘new wave’ in Australian drama. Not so the BBC’s production of Peter Yeldham’s Reunion Day. The Liberal Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, objected to some characters and language; the Chief Censor C.J. Campbell felt “the language may be all right for soldiers but it is all wrong for a suburban sitting room.” Frank Packer, who owned the television network TCN9, felt it would offend the RSL.

So the film languished and was eventually erased. All that remains today is the script, some photographs – and Peter Yeldham’s papers – which were publicised by Susan Lever in a paper which hailed Reunion Day  as “an important part of our cultural history”. Historian Stephen Vagg picked up on her article, read the play, and between them, 60 years later, on Sunday 26th June 2022, in a small studio in the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, the play was, fittingly, ‘revived’.

Reunion Day is set in Sydney. It’s Anzac Day and old mates from a battalion that served in New Guinea meet, as usual, to march – then to have a few drinks. The characters Yeldham created were typical of the many young men who served in the Australian forces in World War II. Men from different backgrounds, thrown together as fellow soldiers to face a cruel enemy, and witness unimaginable destruction. Some would never come home. Those who did would drift apart to different lives, different professions – until Anzac Day each year, when they would meet to revive old stories, remember old mates – and have a beer … or two.

These were Yeldham’s characters, typical of returned soldiers in towns and cities all over the country, and yet no one had heard their voices until director Denny Lawrence brought them to life with his very well-known and accomplished cast.

Sydney Morning Herald, May 28, 1962

Brandon Burke, John Derum, Huw Higginson, David Lynch, Christopher Stollery and John Stone play the soldiers who have been meeting together annually. Colin Moody plays their commanding officer, whom they haven’t seen for years. Paul Bertram is a tipsy interloper who brings a bit of light relief.

Deborah Galanos, Sarah-Jane Kelly, Tilly Oddy-Black, Laura Gabriel play the women in their lives. Though the women’s roles are small, they reveal Yeldham’s perceptive ability to suggest feminine strength, understanding and humour.

The scenes are clear, the dialogue economic. The plot concentrates on relationships which are deftly developed – and this reading, in the hands of such accomplished actors, extoled a play that, in the words of Denny Lawrence, “has unexpected resonance for today’s audience because of its depiction of veterans. The issues faced by returned servicemen from Iraq and Afghanistan are not too far removed from those of the characters in Reunion Day.”

In the audience, Peter  Yeldham’s daughter Lyn and son Perry saw their father’s play for the first time. They will be able to take a recording of it to Yeldham, who at 95, was too frail to make the reading. What a gift for him to see his words finally played on an Australian stage

Listener-In-TV-21-27-April-1962-UK

Ron Haddrick’s wife and family were also in the audience. The Haddricks left the UK in December 1961, just after the play was filmed ,so never actually got to see it on air. They too must have been thrilled to see this revival reading.

Author, Peter Yeldham. Photo : Peter Yeldham.

It was a privilege to be part of the small audience who witnessed this unusual performance – because performance it was! In the hands of those actors, every nuance in the dialogue was clear, every change in attitude, every alteration in tension. There is nothing in this play that offends – nothing that probably would have offended those of us who might have seen it in 1962 had it been aired – or produced. Perhaps this reading is just a beginning …

 

Written for, and published in Stage Whispers magazine, as a “History” item.

Theatresports All Stars

Enmore Theatre, NSW. Sunday 22nd May, 2022

Reviewed : 22 May, 2022

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

The Comedy Festival is over! But it closed with a bang! A mighty, improvised bang – fuelled and detonated by some of the best improvisors in the country! Inspired by two years of Covid closures and six weeks of political posturing, they hit the stage running, keen to consolidate their “All Star” status. Which they certainly did!

Directed by Michael Gregory, the production was announced by Rebecca DeUnamuno, and hosted by Adam Spencer and Jeromaia Detto. The ‘Stars’ were Amanda Buckley, David Callan, Ewan Campbell, Kate Coates, Daniel Cordeaux, Rebecca de Unamuno, Sarah Gaul, Scott Hall-Watson, John Knowles, Jeff Mesina, Lisa Ricketts, Kate Wilkins, Jioji Ravulo  and Linette Voller. With improvising musician ‘maestro’ Benny Davis.… and musical maestro Gep Blake showed just how impressive improvisation can be.

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

Young improvisors in the audience (and there were many, including some high school Theatresports teams) were treated to tried-and-true impro games played by the “pros”.

Death in a Minute (or in this case two minutes) was one, Expert Double Figures another. With the topic “Mending a Tractor”, this became hilarious. “The Queen’s Lost Corgi” played in the style of Shakespeare, complete with ‘bog clowns’, showed what quick thinking, imagination and ‘going with the flow’ really mean!

Emotional Replay, with a team of four “Putting out a Fire”, was also a hit, especially when the final replay was Lust. Other Stars got involved by waving lengths of yellow and red material to make the flames, and a piece of blue material to make a very suggestive hose!

Photo : Stephen Reinhardt

And those in the audience who’d never seen Theatresports before could not have imagined that an imaginary tennis ball could be the stimulus for breaking down the Berlin Wall! Or that eight players would be quick enough to ‘accept’ a verbal cue and become the wall!

Improvisation is the basis for most of the secondary school Drama courses in Australia. It’s a core topic for both the Stage 5 and 6 courses in NSW, and where better for students to learn to improvise than by watching these performers at work … or by getting involved with Improv Australia and some of its many courses.

For example:

• Jeromaia Detto is leading a four-session course on Clowning beginning on 26th May. Places are still available.

• The Impro Australia Schools Challenge is in progress at the moment, with the Final coming up on 12th June.

• Celebrity Theatresports will return to the Enmore Theatre in August, and

• Finalists will challenge for Cranston Cup in December.

Check out all of this and more on the website improaustralia.com or just type in Impro Australia on your server!

photo : website

The Theatresports family is large and loving. Its generations go back decades into last century. It’s a happy family and members hold each other dear. It was no surprise then, that the All Stars used the last minutes of the evening to ask the audience to join with Impro Australia in sending their thoughts and wishes to John Knowles as his lovely, talented wife Ronelle faces her final battle against an insidious disease.

Our thoughts and wishes to you too, John.

Also published in Stage Whispers magazine

Guards at The Taj

By Rajiv Joseph. Riverside’s National Theatre of Parramatta. Directed by Bali Padda. Riverside Theatre Parramatta. 24 Feb – 5 March, 2022.

Reviewed : 26 February, 2022

Photo : Noni Carroll

It is 1653 and the Taj Mahal is about to be revealed to the people. Years of speculation have almost immortalised the building, despite the fact that it has been hidden behind by a high wall. Humayun and Babur are two low level guards, stationed outside the wall to ensure secrecy until all is revealed at sunrise. They must not face the wall. They are not supposed to move or to speak. Their swords must be raised at all times. Disobedience will result in terrible punishment, including death by elephant.

Such are the ordeals faced by … the Guards at the Taj.

Guards at the Taj won the OBIE for Best New American play in 2016. Playwright Rajiv Joseph uses some of the myths that have embellished the construction of the ‘Taj’ to recall the vast differences in Indian society in the 1600s – the incredible wealth of the ruling class, the power they held over the people, and the cruelty practised by some of them.

One such was the Mughhal emperor, Shah Jahan, who commissioned the building of the Taj Mahal in 1632 as the tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. The impressive white building, with its high domes and pillars, was designed by Ustad Ahmad Lahauriit. It took 20 years to complete – and the labour of 20,000 workers. Joseph uses those workers – and the guards – to recall, graphically, the accepted inequality and brutal practices of the time.

Fortunately, he uses humour to counterpoise the horror – and director Bali Padda and his cast incorporate that humour very effectively, especially in the opening scene.

Photo : Noni Carroll

Imagine a towering, blue lit, cutwork wall reaching high and wide across the front of a stage. Imagine a guard, resplendent in shimmering white and midnight blue uniform, complete with blue and silver turban and juttis, standing, sword held in his right hand outside the wall. This is Humayun, played by New Zealand born actor Idam Sondi. He is still, silent, face immobile. All is quiet – then Babur (Akkshey Caplash) rushes in and stands beside him. He’s late! He raises his sword. Humayun turns to look at him. “Wrong hand!” he hisses out of the side of his mouth. And the tension is broken!

Babur continues to break the solemnity – and danger – of their task. He is curious about the dawn birdsong. He reminisces about a tree house they built when they were boys. He wonders about the stars and imagines an ‘airo-plat’ that could take them to the stars. Caplash makes this character lovably curious and ingenuous. He fidgets, smiles, looks wide-eyed as he wonders.

Humayun tries desperately hard to maintain his position and stature, but is constantly taken “off guard” by the inquisitive restlessness of his friend. Even his dire warnings of the punishments they could receive for various misdemeanours are ignored. Sond sustains the strength of his initial moments on the stage. He gives a little, but never too much. He is ever aware of being caught out and his fear of punishment remains a constant in his reactions and expression.

That fear is shown especially clearly when he explains a situation that is concerning him. He has heard that the architect has asked the Shah if the 20,000 workers who have toiled so faithfully could be taken on a tour of the completed building. The Shah has reacted violently to such a monstrous suggestion – and promised an awful punishment.

Unfortunately, Babur and Humayun are chosen to carry out that cruel, inhumane punishment.

The second scene finds them in the bloody aftermath. In a brick cell, awash with blood, they relive what they have done. Gone is most of the humour. Though there are some moments of repartee, this scene, and one that comes later in the play, are fairly gruesome. Be warned!

Photo : Noni Carroll

Caplash and Sondi make the transitions between ‘guard’ and ‘butcher’ well. One moment they are rigid and resplendent in silk uniforms, next moment washing a bloody floor with a sodden towel. They aren’t easy transitions – and the costume changes make the scene changes a little long despite effective music and the play of light on the screen.

Set designer James Browne knows the Lennox Theatre stage, and makes good use of its proximity to the audience in the “guards” scenes – and the possibilities of what can be hidden behind a carefully lit, cutwork screen. The brick walled ‘cell’ in the second scene, with its sunken bath filled with murky water, is a surprise!

Kate Baldwin’s creative lighting mixed elegance outside the wall with pervading dankness behind it – and Me-Lee Hay enhanced this with sound and music that skilfully matched the changing atmospheres.

Though the play is set long ago in India’s past, it rekindles the class structure that dogged the sub-continent for so long … and prevailed, still, under British rule. It recalls the cruelty practised by many in authority, not just in India, and not only in the distant past.

Bali Pada and his very talented cast and crew have made Rajiv Joseph messages clear – and done so in a production that is very carefully envisioned.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine