In between the bizarre, the grand, the magical and the mediocre...click here to see the highlights of Sydney theatre in 2016!
By Alan Ayckbourn
Directed by Mark Kilmurry
78 McDougall Street, Kirribilli
Season: 18 November – 14 January
The genre of farce had its heyday in the 1960s and farcical plays continue to frequent Sydney stages to this day. Of the most recent, Alan Ayckbourn's Relatively Speaking directed by Mark Kilmurry is taking the Ensemble Theatre stage. While its purpose doesn't extend much further than entertainment, I question whether the genre has become so well-worn and its tropes so familiar that it struggles to fulfil even that. Maybe farce just isn't for me. Regardless, Kilmurry's production gives forth some lovely performances and production design, and by the sound of the audience around me, certainly hits a sweet spot for some.
We wake up in the morning with Ginny and Greg in the same bedroom, ultra affectionate and ultra 60s. Ginny is hiding an affair with an older man, Philip, that lays the foundation for the farcical eventualities. They end up at the house of Philip and his wife Sheila - and through a string of mistaken identities and far-fetched cover-ups, we have the premise for Relatively Speaking.
Performances are strong by all four actors and Kilmurry’s direction brings warmth and playfulness to the work. Emma Palmer’s portrayal of Ginny is vivacious and Jonny Hawkins plays off her well as the slightly dippy, yet affable, Greg. David Whitney is humorous as the cantankerous Philip and Tracy Mann’s Sheila is impressive. I felt that some of the interactions between characters already felt resolved at the beginning of the scene, which isn’t as engaging as witnessing characters come to personal realisations in the moment. I struggled to buy the relationship with a sizeable age gap between Philip and Ginny, which didn’t enhance the believability of the premise. In saying this, farce requires you to stretch your imagination and maybe it just adds to the comedy of it all. Hugh O’Connor’s production design is marvellous, capturing the charm of the era with delightful simplicity. Utterly English, the audience is transported to the play’s setting, undoubtedly augmented by his design work.
Sometimes a bit of light-hearted fun is what you want from theatre, not to mention a sweet homage to a bygone era. This play personally wouldn’t be my top pick for a night of entertainment, however I can see how it appeals strongly to some, and by no means should you be restrained from enjoying it. Alan Ayckbourn writes a particular breed of plays that predictably deliver for certain types of audience, and all power to them for having a laugh and enjoying the show.
Book by Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo
Music by Damon Intrabartolo
Directed and choreographed by Hannah Barn
Musical direction by Matt Reid
The Depot Theatre
142 Addison Road, Marrickville
Season: 30 November – 17 December
Being a teenager is hard. Trying to understand your sexuality as a teenager is really hard, exacerbated by intense social stigma, threats of harassment and violence and religious pressure. And it's not often that this is depicted honestly in theatre and screen, and that someone gets it right. Bare the musical has acquired a cult following and is infrequently staged, but it's a work that should be seen. Hannah Barn's production of the show unites fantastic performances with an artistic integrity that resounds truthfully. It's something powerful.
The musical is set at a Catholic boarding school and sees the emergence of the romantic relationship between Peter and Jason. This occurs in a heteronormative community where people are demonised for being LGBTQ. While the circumstances may be heightened in this Catholic context, I'd imagine the emotion, social stigma and immense pressure would be transferable to innumerable contexts that LGBTQ people experience in our world every day. The really wonderful thing about this show is that it doesn't surrender to oversimplification for the sake of fitting characters into boxes to make for easy audience understanding. Sexuality often doesn't fit into a cookie cutter mould, and this show captures well the confusion and ambiguity that for some people permeates their understanding of their sexual identity.
Barn's production is excellently cast and delivers well in all acting, singing, dance and production design departments. Barn has clearly brought together a number of strengths to create a very strong show. The performances of both Alex Jeans as Jason and Aaron Robuck as Peter rang true to my ears and achieved an emotional depth that resounded within the audience. No doubt, this story is a tragedy. Natalie Abbott plays Nadia with a fierce voice and poignant emotional range. Her use of humour as a defence mechanism to guard her insecurities and self-doubt is devastating. I felt so deeply for her, and her performance was a highlight of the show for me.
Bare reveals the pain and quiet terror that is wreaked on people grappling with their sexuality. Though I felt the ending of the show was a little abrupt, it ultimately tells a highly compelling story with brilliant musical skill. In a society where queer young people commit suicide with little public outrage in response, Bare is powerful and should be seen. In a society where some LGBTQ people feel they have to conceal their sexuality to avoid harassment, discrimination and violence – it’s not something that can be ignored. It needs to be a part of public conversation to foster understanding of people around us, and a better understanding of ourselves. This production achieves this with esteem.
By Nicholas Brown and Sam McCool
Directed by Shane Anthony
Bali Padda and Griffin Independent
10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross
Season: 30 November – 17 December
When you strip back all socially-imposed value, the colour of your skin shouldn't mean much more than a bit of difference in pigment. And yet it is a physical feature that is obscenely politicised. It has been used throughout history as a means of categorising and demonising people groups, subjecting people to systematic discrimination and bias. Most people recognise that it's abhorrent, and yet these same attitudes endure in Australia through our immigration law, international relations and casual racism day to day. In light of this, hearing that Indian-Australian actor and theatre maker Nicholas Brown is tackling some of these issues through comedy in the new production at Griffin Theatre, I was very keen to hear what he had to say. Whilst highly entertaining and a bit quirky, the play suffered from weaknesses in storyline that did heed a message in relation to race and colour, however had the potential to be communicated with much more strength and precision.
We meet John Green, hailing from Greystanes, an aspiring actor. He looks a little different to his mum and sister, his mum assuring him it is because of his Portuguese-English-Italian heritage. We never meet his dad. His girlfriend Janelle is a Castle Hill local, rapt to be taking over her father's booming barbecue shop and willing John to marry her and take over running the shop by her side. They are an unlikely couple, and whilst thoroughly amusing, here the seed of unbelievability is sown. Continually the plot is marred by relationships and premises that I just couldn't quite suspend my disbelief enough in order to swallow. In saying this, Bishanyia Vincent gives a wonderful performance with a flair for comedic timing that sees laughter ripple through the audience. Too bad the writing couldn't tie the character into the story more cohesively. More realistic is the relationship between Sandy, an Indigenous activist and business woman, and John. It is in their exchanges that the most poignant comments about race emerge, even if they remain relatively simplistic. Katie Beckett approaches the role with grace, honesty and good humour, making her feel like the most authentic depiction of life on stage. Shane Anthony's direction of Beckett finely balances the more outlandish comedy that also features, proving to be an enjoyable combination for audiences.
We are treated to polychromatic performances by the entire cast. Vivienne Garrett is John's Olivia Newton-John obsessed Mother, Sam McCool plays both a ludicrous Bollywood director and Sandy's Maori father and Julie Goss gives an energised performance as John's sister and shows wonderful flexibility. Nicholas Brown carries the play through as the protagonist doing a good job considering the inconsistencies in the script.
Lighten Up is a new Australian work by Brown and McCool. It is still new, and needs further development. Shane Anthony brings together a diverse cast that revels in the tongue in cheek humour and lighthearted word play. The audience is delighted by the delicious characterisations and commitment to the cause. The show would be stronger if the audience wasn't expected to make quite so many leaps and jumps with the plot's cohesion and believability. But it's a new independent work. It entertains and it has a message to share. With more development, it could become a show that is not only hilarious, but also makes pointed and nuanced comments on Australian attitudes towards race - with a mind to shaping views and creating a society that truly celebrates its multiculturalism.
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari
Season: 29 November – 10 December
Macbeth! The Scottish Play! Shakespeare’s great work riddled with power struggles and gore and madness. Montague Productions takes on the show, directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari, embracing the dreamlike elements of the show in a blurry whirlwind between illusion and reality. The play goes forth without an interval, with plenty of variety to keep you engaged throughout - however further clarity in sections of the play would enhance the communicability of Lusty-Cavallari's directorial vision.
Shakespeare's plays require both an emotional power and a technical dexterity in order to speak to contemporary audiences. While the stage presence of the actors tended to be quite strong, I felt that some of the spoken dialogue lacked precision and clarity. If the actors don't fully discover the distinct nuances within every line, you start to wonder why you're sitting there listening to a heck of a lot of text.
The production is strong in its use of spectacle to create a haunting dream-scape. One of my favourite images involved an actor emerging from a dripping vat of oil, tormenting Macbeth in his guilt-ridden state. The play best succeeds when engaging directly with humanity – be it through properly connecting to another person on stage, or creating discomfort or humour with the audience. Breaking of the fourth wall is employed excellently in this regard. Dealing with the logistics of character deaths on stage can often be difficult, and in a play like Macbeth, this challenge is inevitable. While the effect of some of the stage fighting was hindered by omitted noises at points of 'physical contact' and over-acted dying, some of the stage violence is incredibly chilling and quite a feat.
We are presented with a unique take on the witches’ roles, played as a single role by Lulu Howes, she is immensely childlike and yet somewhat menacing. Howes exposes an array of demeanours and qualities to the witches that proves intriguing to watch. Set and costume design by Lusty-Cavallari is monochromatic and the PACT theatre space feels completely transformed. Sheets of white ripple from floor to ceiling, giving the sense of a fluorescent spotlight being positioned on Macbeth in this story.
Shakespeare has laden Macbeth with an abundance of fascinating themes and ideas to be explored. Montague Productions jumps at the challenge of embracing the world innate to the text and shedding a unique perspective on the story. There is clearly inspiration and creativity bubbling in the work, but this could be honed for clearer expression of idea. Double, double toil and trouble, artistic fires are burning and you can see it bubble on the stage.
By Matthew Whittet
Directed by Rosemary Myers
Windmill Theatre Company
Belvoir St Theatre
18 & 25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills
Season: 2 – 24 December
Girl Asleep is a kaleidoscopic explosion of colour, garish 70s style and tunes. Detailing the cringe-worthy awkwardness that is turning 15, we meet Greta in this life stage, as well as her family, friends, and plastic horses that crowd her bedroom shelves. Rosemary Myers' production is chock full of effervescent energy that exudes from start to finish. With a deliciously fond humour for the 70s era and an abundance of quirky characters, it's a show that will captivate and entertain whilst catalysing reminiscence for the formative teenage years we all have to endure.
Myers’ directorial vision takes on a bold stylistic visage that is both highly distinctive and thrilling to observe. We are presented with an alchemy of aesthetic design, technical precision and inspired performances that reminds you of the absolute wonder that theatre can be. Jonathon Oxlade's set design gives you a strong indication of the tone of the play from when you first enter the performance space. Plush grape-coloured carpet, overly ornate wallpaper patterns and some glorious self portraits give way to the self-reflexive, exaggerated style. Everyone knows it's a bit ridiculous, so everyone can enjoy the ride together. Later we see a retractable bed and bedroom - Greta's safe haven - used cleverly to contrast between public and private space. Oxlade’s costume design is bright and all-embracing of the innate comedy, thrusting the actors into strong character choices, prompted by their attire. Lighting design by Richard Vabre is used highly effectively at points for a disorienting and dreamlike effect as you fall into the unreality on stage. Luke Smiles’ original soundtrack is an oomph of energy throughout, having you jiving in your seats. This, paired with the fabulous physical work choreographed by Gabrielle Nankivell throughout is quite exhilarating. Humour is infused wherever possible - this is a show made for audiences to love watching.
Girl Asleep is driven by an excellently cohesive cast across the board, with most of the actors taking on countless roles. Amber McMahon brings acute detail to her characterisations, down to the flicker of an eye or the twitch of a hand. This serves to augment the comedic quality of her work and is a testament to her brilliant flexibility. Matthew Whittet proves to be multi-talented, not only being the playwright, but also stupendously daggy as Greta's Dad. Whittet shows off utterly hilarious dance moves whenever there's an opportunity and lights up the stage. Ellen Steele is wide-eyed and naive as Greta, showing a clear character progression as she stands up to those holding her back and gains a firmer sense of self in the face of trial. At points I wanted to see a little more conviction in the dire angst of her situation. I think everyone, no matter their age or life stage, believes their personal difficulties are completely valid, and while we all know that Steele isn't really 15, we need the suspension of disbelief to extend a little further. Dylan Young is deeply endearing as Elliott and Sheridan Harbridge shows great spunk as Greta’s older and wiser sister.
It is abundantly clear that everyone involved with this show has had a blast in its development and in its performance. It's contagious. It embodies a stage of life that is somewhat a rite of passage into adulthood - atrociously awkward, misfitting, and angsty, and yet proves to be something of a foundation for a more mature, grounded and confident young adult. You have to wonder whether a generation of Instagram-saturated and image-conscious young teens' experience will really be akin to Girl Asleep. And yet, there's something enduring about first kisses, bullies with insecurities and growing into one's own self that will never really die.
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