Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Stop Girl

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir present STOP GIRL, by Sally Sara in the Belvoir Street Theatre Upstairs. 20th March - 25th April, 2021.

STOP GIRL, is a new Australian play, by a Wakley-award winning journalist for the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC), Sally Sara. It is her first play and it tackles the story of Suzie who is a journalist working in the world conflict hot spots of Afghanistan, Iraq etc. Suzie could be a doppelgänger of the writer.

On a Set by Robert Cousins, that is virtually an open space with 'symbolic' objects that serve the utilitarian requirements of the action of the 90-minute play without interval, has on the back wall a large screen that facilitates video support for showing images of suffering and the atrocities of war, of the ordinary people of those war torn locations. The images display action that Suzie (Sheridan Harbridge) and a friend and fellow journalist Bec (Amber Mc Mahon), experience while preparing a story on Suzie's career for a Sydney magazine experience together - Suzie responds to the present dangers of war shown in images accompanied by a penetrating soundscape, with the coolness of the oblivion of the familiar whilst Bec, in her virgin state, responds with horror and true fear. 

Both women return to Australia to live their lives in the safety of that country. Images continue to appear on the screen accompanied by the sound intrusions, but now they are exclusively those of memory for Suzie (and a storytelling gesture for us, the audience). Bec is in contrast divorced from her solo experience of being in a war zone, comfortable with the environs of Sydney, home, and becomes puzzled by the disintegrating behaviour of Suzie.

Other contrasting reactions are given via Atal (Mansoor Noor), an aide of Suzie's in war, who now has, as a refugee, brought his family to Australia and reflects, gratefully, the 'oddness' and stress of accommodating to that, in contrast to Suzie's carefree responses to the same familiar Australian occurrences; and, more significantly, the personal dialogues between Suzie and her Mother, Marg (Toni Scanlon). This relationship becomes the pivotal to the play and gradually blends the traumas of war with the traumas of ordinary family life, with Suzie's accumulating paralyzing sense of guilt at her absence of presence in the family's crises, culminating at her sense of guilt over the death of her father and her inability, so far, in dealing with his wishes, his ashes. The play suggests that her father's ashes spread will unblock some of Suzie's mental health issues.

This play brings to the audience a confronting case of Post-Traumatic-Stress Disorder (PTSD), made all the more confronting because it is written by a well-acknowledged 'daughter' of our community who has served us as a television journalist in places of conflict around the world over a long career. Sally Sara, has become a member of all our 'families'. This play is stressful in its distant war revelations, but becomes a truly poignant piece of common grief when Suzie's story touches the personal element of what it is to be human, in the death of the father and the dealing with his wishes. It is something which we all must go through.

For me, this production was pleasing especially because most of the actors featured in the event of telling the story are actors who have worked regularly and consistently of quality in the outer fringe of the Sydney acting scene, and I was grateful to see Deborah Galanos (psychiartrist) on a main stage; Mansoor Noor in his usual intelligent, flawless and engaging reveal of the Afghan, Atal; and Toni Scanlon giving a great support in both comic and dramatic sensibility as the mother, Marg to the protagonist of the play. All three are deserving of this opportunity given by the Belvoir Company and Anne-Lousie Sarks, the Director. These actors are welcome on this main stage and have, honestly, earned their 'stripes' to be there. Amber McMahon is a regular on this stage and gives sterling support to the play's dramaturgical responsibilities demanded of her. 

Sheridan Harbridge after many years of hard quality work in the fringes of the Sydney Theatre has begun to emerge into focus on the main stages after many years. On the Belvoir stage, THE SUGAR HOUSE*** and the musical CALAMITY JANE***, demonstrating her talented range of versatility in Dramatic work and Comic, which was significantly brought into devastating focus in the recent Griffin production of Suzie Miller's one person play PRIME FACIE*** (which will be reprised at the Seymour Centre, later this year - not to be missed). As in PRIME FACIE, Ms Harbridge takes on a confrontational journey of character as Suzie in STOP GIRL, one that demands an incredible emotional commitment that in actor's parlance and knowledge is a 'risky' and 'scary' one. The performance that Ms Harbridge gave here (at my sitting) was powerful but lacked a consistent depth of 'risk', there were times when one felt that the actor was skimming over the top of the need of the characterisation and so, was 'in and out' of the depth of the demands of the writer. The performance work was impressive but sometimes, relatively, shallow, a 'cheat' of the depth of emotional need. The tragedy of thee play 'glowed' rather than 'glowered'. 

The audience I was with were generously affected and gave generous applause at the curtain call.

STOP GIRL is an arresting first play dealing with an issue that needs urgent social and political attention .

N.B. Check out Mum, Me and the I.E.D*** another devastating account of PTSD in our returning warriors of war.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

Is There Something Wrong With That Lady?

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre Company present, IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT LADY? Created and Performed by Debra Oswald, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst. 13th - 24th April.

IS THERE SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT LADY? is a single person, 90 minute  monologue. Debra Oswald an Australian writer of 'plays' for the Theatre, Television, Film and Radio. She is also a Novelist. Born in 1959.

In a funny and excruciatingly honest one-woman show, Debra tells stories about her neurotic childhood, clumsy romantic history, and the anxieties and joys of the writer's life - all in the hope that the audience can help her work out that ever-important question: what comes next? ... (from the publicity blurb).

This elder Australian writer appears on stage in a simple costume of warm Autumnal colours and takes quiet command of the space of the SBW Stables stage and looking at all of us in the full lighting of the auditorium engages us in a journey through the fantasies and realities of a career as an Australian artist.The lighting arranged by Ben Brockman is the other excellent performer - relatively subtle in influence.

Standing, sitting, wandering around the space, occasionally sipping from a glass of water Ms Oswald entrances you into hearing the incredible journey of her life, the private and the professional. From the hypochondriacal depths of fantasy fed by commercial television as a child - MARCUS WELBY MD - where every week, consequently, she was suffering from some different tragic incurable disease, to the naive pursuits of a romantic and sexual life at University, and her encouragement to consider the life of a writer as the path she should follow at the age of 17 by none other than one of her theatrical heroes : John Bell.

She reminds us of her successes: I claimed DAGS (1987), BANANAS IN PYJAMAS (1992), GARY'S HOUSE (1996) and OFFSPRING (2010 - 2013) as my conscious touch-points with her output. There is much more that has found a life. And during the night she physically produces a tonnage of script, laid out on the floor of the stage, commissioned but never produced - a weight of lifeless paper. She talks of work sent to producers, theatre and otherwise, of characters and stories conjured joyfully from her imagination provoked by her acute observation of the world about her that has never had a life beyond that conception - of work sent and never even acknowledged as received by the gate-keepers to production, a rudeness that is accepted as part of the business etiquette. Ms Oswald shows the tribulation and pain of her striving as an artist. It demonstrates for the audience the reality of the life of a writer, in which the pain of rejection is the most prominent sauce. It may, also, by plain thinking, and comparable referencing  present the general familiarity of any person who chooses the ARTS in any of its means of expression as a way of living. Rejection being the most common factor.

There is in the weaving employed by Ms Oswald, some moments of acute politics that protests, gently : e.g. one being of the obsession of our producers who are in pursuit of the emerging artist at the expense, the ignoring, of the experienced, the Elder of the Tribe, who knows that the wheel has been invented and knows how it is constructed and can be construed. Who actually can write plays and who have a track record of doing so. Elders who could, should, mentor the emerging youngster - you know like what used to happen in "the good old days".

This night at the Griffin, sensibly Directed by Lee Lewis, is so pleasant that I buried my negative prejudice about one person performance. This work, led by a raconteur of such self-deprecating style, is full of seductive humour and the means to have us identify to a point of absolute comfort. We, happily recognising the events where her life and ours have crossed paths (e.g. MARCUS WELBY M.D.), but, as well, her showing us without rancour or angry judgement some of the injustices/outrages of her profession.

Do go. It is a charming opportunity to gather with like-minded people and warm up to some of the reasons that make life worth living and provides some direction as to where to place our own battle fronts with the Artists of our time - with the famous and the occasion famous and those artists that have had no fame (or living) at all, but could make no other choice of career, could not do anything else. Those storytellers who quietly bleed for us - take an artist such as Van Gogh as an instance of suffering.

Ms Oswald has woven a little triumph.

Dead Skin

Photo by Jasmin Simmons

White Box in association with KXT bAKEHOUSE present DEAD SKIN by Laneikka Denne, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), in the Kings Cross Hotel. 2nd April - 17th April.

DEAD SKIN is a new play by a young playwright, 19 year old Laneikka Denne, and although the author declares, in her program notes, that the play is not auto-biographical, there is a vicissitude in the energy of the company, particularly, as the writer is also playing the leading character, Andie. It is that that makes this production a truly purgatorial experience as we witness so large a number of raw emotional crises.

Andie, driven by the usual hormonal shiftings that go on in a young schoolgirl, has a passionate crush on her best friend at school, Maggie (Ruby Maishman), who does not, it turns out, feel at all the same way - a huge kissing moment becomes quite complicated for all of us. Andie, further, belongs to a single parent family, brought up by her father, Henry (Abe Mitchell), and his partner, step-mother, Audrey (Camila Ponte Alvarez), and she finds that situation a volatile trigger, as Audrey determinedly wants to be the good step-mother. "She is not my mother" is an angry undertone of Andie's  behaviour. For, Andie aches, aches, for a knowledge of her real mother. And we enter the story on the night that exploded her life - declare the visuals on one of the walls of the set. It is the night, whilst working at her part-time job in a Redfern convenience store, that she sees a hooded figure, on the security screens and feels, viscerally feels, she is seeing her mother. Is it a haunting or a reality? Climatically, we find that her instincts were true, and the hooded biological mother, Andea (Sarah Jane Kelly), was, indeed in the store. Andrea has her story revealed, consequently.

Director Kim Hardwick has nurtured this play over two years with the writer, and has found a solution to cope with the many, many, short scenes with an extremely minimal set of props that facilitates the text's fluidity, to allow the complicated space and time jumps that the writer has jigsawed the text with as her dramatic means of construct. She has written a shuffle of episodes to keep the audience, I suppose, alert, rather than comfortable, by using the more familiar linear story structure. Set and Costume Design solutions are by Angus Kosti. The assistance given by a very busy lighting plot from Martin Kinnane, also attempts to create a design pattern so as to not derail the audience's patience with the short attention spans of the brief scene writing - keeping us engaged.

My purgatorical endurance really has to do with the obvious effort that Laneikka Denne imbues in the leading role that she has written for herself, as she exhibits all the observed 'ticks' of the teenage girl at a certain time in her metamorphoses - by realising the girl's agitated physical insecurities and high volumed vocal pitch as she actually remembers it - and by not employing any theatre crafting at all, so her efforts are literally physically painful to watch and prevents one from empathising at all with the character's triggered explosions, and from caring to work through the jigsaw of the narrative as it happens. The performance is a difficulty because the character is so central to almost every scene, there is no respite.

In contrast, the rest of the company of actors attempt to ground the play with nuance and steading control, working around the offers that Ms Denne hurls at them, to try to bring the audience into an empathetic fold to stay with the play's journey.

DEAD SKIN, asks us to observe the collision of many explosive triggering events of psychological importance for growth in a very compressed time reality of a young woman/girl moving into a place of maturity and hopefully, responsibility. 

It was an exhausting 80 minute sit. 

The writing is very promising and one hopes that Laneikka Denne keeps close to her trusted mentor, Kim Hardwick, when writing her next work, and, perhaps, elects to not play the core role in the first outing of her next work. Watching DEAD SKIN from outside may have helped the production more, than it did by sitting in the centre of the action. 

Obviously, a writer's first play outing of interest and promise. 

Tuesday, March 30, 2021


Disney Theatrical productions under the Direction of Thomas Schumacher present, FROZEN, The Broadway Musical, Music and Lyrics by Kristen Anderson-Lopezz and Robert Lopez; Book by Jennifer Lee, at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, Australia. 10 December, 2020 - Sunday 23rd May, 2021.

FROZEN, the Touring version of the Broadway Musical opened in Sydney at the Capitol Theatre just after the opening of PIPPIN at the Lyric Theatre. These two big musicals showing the way to the re-opening of the BIG theatres in the time of the Covid 19 Pandemic. Heroic and Hopeful.

The audience I sat with were an excited collection of fans of the Musical primed for the show, armed with their knowledge of the two FROZEN films, I supposed, for, whenever a song came or an interaction between characters, there was a sensation of emotional identification that had a sense of the rapture. Adoration and Devotion. I came to this latest development of the Franchise as a 'virgin' to the event. I knew nothing about FROZEN except, vaguely, the controversy of the possible 'gay' edge to one or two of the relationships in the show. Who knows? I just kept feeling the echoes of the sisterly rivalry between the 'girls' in the musical WICKED - and were they in taboo territory, too? 

The content of the story was inspired by THE SNOW QUEEN by Hans Christian Andersen. The story is of two rival but loving sisters: Anna (Courtney Monsma) and Elsa (Jemma Rix) - one 'naughty' and full of tricks, the other subdued and 'majestic', bearing a sense of duty towards their three men Hans (Thomas McGuane), Kristoff (Sean Sinclair) and determined suitor, Weselton (Aljin Abela). There are also two puppet creatures contributing some theatrical 'magic' and the low comedy in the show: Olaf - the Snowman (Matt Lee) and Sven, the reindeer (either, Jonathan MacMillan or Lochie McIntyre).

The opening song heralds the formula of the show : a song boosted with energetic choreography (Rob Ashford) danced with gusto by "boofy" boys in 'hearty' cold climate costume (cuddle up and keep warm, a possible subliminal message) and smiley, robust young women in flaring skirts and ribbons around the maypole (cuddle up and see what can happen?), signalling the production to a be a little bit of a throw-back in time in that the visual offers and  technology are kind of the old fashioned type (add the filmic 50's sensibilities and imagine, subversively), except for the lighting effects in the frozen ice imagery throughout the adventure  - Lighting by Natasha Katz, Video by Finn Ross, Special effects Design by Jeremy Chernick. Set and Costume Design is by Christopher Oram.

This is a Disney tour re-staging of the original Broadway show and it is mostly a 'cookie-cutter' version of that without much creative input from the performers in this production - which is a fair and a regular carp from the artists here in Australia. There have been some sensational creative production from the Australian teams when they have had some freedom to do their own original version using the talents they have in hand, instead of been tied almost as stringed puppets to replicate the Broadway Show. 

It is interesting that the Australian Director of this show Thomas Schumacher has cast young Aljin Abela in the role of the 'nerdy' suitor Weselton and permitted him to conceive his own characterisation from scratch. It comes from their trust that they explored in the creation of Iago in ALADDIN, as Director and Actor, it seems - for Mr Abela's performance was a manifestation remarkably different one from the original. It is a demonstration of  Mr Schumacher's quote in the Sydney program notes: "a Broadway opening isn't the end of anything. It's a beginning." More power to that sentiment for the future transfers from Broadway to the Australian stage.

I did enjoy the spunk of Courtney Monsma as Anna and also signal my continued support of Blake Appleqvist as a potential star in his work as Oaken in the opening 'sauna' song of Act Two - his effortless physical and vocal brio was utterly charming.

FROZEN, The Hit Broadway Musical, is a fun, exuberant night in the theatre. One for the adults and especially the children - or, for those children who are now fanatical, nostalgic fans.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

You're Not Special

Photo by Kate Williams

The Rogues Projects present, YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL, by Sam O'Sullivan, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT), with the bAKEHOUSE THEATRE. 5th March - 20th March.

YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL, is a new Australian work by Sam O'Sullivan, Directed by Samantha Young. This play follows up from Mr O'Sullivan's play THE BLOCK UNIVERSE. Both these plays have proved to be very interesting experiences and are exciting as Mr O'Sullivan's playwriting skills have grown promisingly from exposure to exposure.

YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL, introduces us to a couple Dan (Akira Ashraf) and Ellie (Kate Skinner), who have set up an apartment. Ellie has found a client who has her working digitally on-line, which gathers a demand with increasing pressure as the play moves through time. Dan, in the meantime, is spending his time on-line and becomes obsessed with a woman he has met called April-May (Ariadne Sgouros) - he stalks the April-May persona on-line, until he discovers her creator's real identity and goes so far as to coerce an actual live meet up with her. 

The play takes us into a weird world where Dan has neglected his 'face-to face' partnership with Ellie, who genuinely needs his advice and care, whilst falling possessed by a digital identity that is an invention - a fiction - he goes so far as to propose marriage to the business woman behind the 'game' figure April-May at the expense to his relationship with Ellie.  On meeting the inventor of April-May, Dan is confronted by the business woman, the owner of the April-May franchise, and is informed of all the 'contractual' legal issues surrounding the internet and the dangerous ludicrousness of his barrier intrusions - he is devastated.

Both Dan and Ellie are left bereft, her job lost, his fantasy exploded.  YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL is an urgently cautionary tale for the present times. The play, however - despite the different ending - reminded me of the story, of the character of Theodore Twomby (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer who falls in love with his Artificial Intelligence avatar, Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), in the Spike Jonze 2014 film: HER

The major problem with this production of this interesting play lies with Samantha Young's casting choices. Kate Skinner, one of the three 'pillars' of the work, gives an impassioned and empathetic life for Ellie as her world collapses about her under the pressure of the client she is working for. Ms Skinner serves Mr O'Sullivan's play well - emotionally and with intelligence to Ellie's arc of action and its consequences. 

The problem for this production is in Ms Young's casting of the two other 'pillars' in this three handed work. Ariadne Sgouros gives an explosive and convincing life to her responsibilities in the last scene of the play, unfortunately, she seems to have regarded her earlier opportunities as April-May cursorily - the second pillar of the work is therefor faulty - she is not a consistently visible presence or constructor of the narrative of Mr O'Sullivan's dramaturgy. It is an odd experience for the audience, for one has virtually switched off her offers only to be jolted to an attendance to the power of the character's closure through the actor's sudden commitment - it is too late. The acting demonstrates the skill of the actor in that last episode but she has undermined the play and its structure by the casualness of action in the earlier part of the play. Ms Sgouros' storytelling responsibilities to the writer are neglectful.

Akira Ashraf, a recent graduate from Acting School, at the performance I attended, had no physical life beyond a dexterity in the lower arm, wrist and hands - his body had no flexibility and no communicative instrumentality - he was, as my companion observed:  "as stiff as a board " - his tall narrow back, which was positioned often in our seating eye line told nothing of his contribution as a storyteller. As well, he delivered his text on one high vocal note that was varied only by volume - loud or soft. This third pillar of YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL was nearly non-existent. And if two of the three 'pillars' of the work are not succeeding in telling the story, the play is damaged. The strength of the writing was obscured and the experience diminished.

The production was supported by Anna Gardiner with her Set and Costume Design. Lighting Designed by Martin Kinnane and the Sound Design by Kaitlyn Crocker.

YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL is an interesting play by Sam O'Sullivan damaged in this production experience by the lack of skills of two of the performers, under the direction of Samantha Young. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Wild Things

Flight Path present, WILD THINGS, by Suzanne Hawley, at the Flight Path Theatre, Addison Rd Marrickville, 3rd March - 20th March.

WILD THINGS, is a new Australian play by veteran writer Suzanne Hawley.  It is a story of four female friends in their sixties. They are war babies that aren't boring old farts wearing twin-sets or pearls. Think Mick Jagger, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Janis intruding into a time of innocence of no sex education and where the rest of the world was filtered through the lens of Empire Day and the singing of the rousing "There'll always be an England". Where the life choices for the working class girls at school were deemed either Domestic or Commercial - for the University track was only for the boys - and the women's was to train to cook and clean for your man and have his babies.

Ms Hawley's Wild Things, Jackie (Di Smith), and her friends Frances (Katrina Foster), Elizabeth (Helen O'Connor) and Susan (Di Adams) we meet firstly as schoolgirls on an outdoor drawing class and revel in idealistic dreams for their future; with the blink of a costume change we are then whisked away to a weekend holiday at the near end of their arc of living where they remember their actual individual and collective paths. That cohesion of friendship and loyalty that embraces won and lost dreams is now challenged with the dilemma of the shift of one of them to the oncoming of the demands of dementia and the wish to a termination of life.

It is a real life situation that all of us are participating in, either in the first circle of pain, or in the many other circles of gradual diminishing intensity, where the distance of family origin gives space to experience it from a distance of emotional disruption. The good news is that this play embraces this 'conversation' with wit and, especially, grace. It is not an emotional endurance it is a charming, disarming circumstance. 

Grace is the key word of my response. I see so much 'damaged' work on the Sydney Theatre stages - work that is damaged because the writing is not good enough; or of promising plays 'damaged' by bad acting; or 'damaged' by awful casting; by aspirational (incompetent) direction; or, by all of the aforesaid - believe me it is possible to have all of these problems effecting the one work.

This play, WILD THINGS has been nurtured over many years, coddled and cuddled by Di Smith and the late Penny Cook, and others. It appears to be ready to be seen. The subject content is of such a pregnant nerve in our present social discourse and like the 2018 play MUM, ME, AND I.E.D. by Jame Balian and Roger Vickery, dealing with the effect of P.T.S.D. on our men and women in the Armed Services, also nurtured in this theatre space, deserve to be seen on one of our main stages (Sydney Theatre Company or Belvoir).

So, on entering the Flight Path space and have this play so gently and carefully devised and written by Suzanne Hawley, inhabited by confident, grace filled actors of true experience, which they utilise - own - with modest strength, that one can, as an audience member, actually relax, breathe and are able to comfortably 'read' the offers given by the sophisticated actors who have created individual characters in an ensemble that seems to love and respect the play - the story - and the mode of storytelling that they have evolved with their director, Kim Hardwick, in the simple and spacious Design of Tom Bannerman, in Costume that assist character in an almost invisible way by Robert Bayliss. The Lighting Design has all the usual sensitivities that Martin Kinnane blesses every of his productions with - a creative figure under utilised by the major companies. While Patrick Howard creates a Soundscape that calls back the music that makes these women's bodies respond to movement that their body memories have held over decades of living to be summoned for usage in the authentic demands of the story telling of the time and space of these wild things.

These women are aided by 'Legendary' Lewis Fitzgerald (playing smoothly and generously a number of thankless functions and one or two sketches of men in the life of these women) and a new comer, Philip D'Ambrosio. This cast except for Mr D'Ambrosio are actors of much experience. This company is made up of old-school artists.

Do go to see WILD THINGS. 

It is a beautiful play by Suzanne Hawley that deals with important contemporary issues with wisdom and true care delivered by a wonderful cast. There is much laughter. 

Finishes on Saturday. Go.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021


The Ensemble Theatre present OUTDATED, written and Directed by Mark Kilmurry, at the Ensemble Theatre at Milson's Point. March 19th - 17th April.

OUTDATED is a new Australian work written and directed by the Artistic Director of the Theatre, Mark Kilmurry. It is a simple set of sketches that begin with a middle aged couple meeting to date over the internet. 

We follow a 90-minute trajectory of the ups and downs of the relationship. It involves only two characters: Olivia, played competently and breezily by Rachel Gordon and Matt played by Yalin Ozucelik. Mr Ozucelik has a charming grasp of a pencil thin individual and is especially physically dexterous - his acrobatics are well worth enjoying.

Set and Costume Design is by Simon Greer. Lighting by Kelsey Lee. Sound Designer by David Grigg.

There is a sureness of laughter in OUTDATED but the play's structure and  content is hardly cutting edge and does feel - I will say it : outdated. Severely outdated. It feels like a pitch for a comfortable waste of time television series, circa 1960-something - it is "ho hum diddly dumb" in 2021 in the atmosphere of a year long pandemic and the sex and corruption scandals surrounding our present governments. 

OUTDATED feels like a hermitic bowl bringing us into another time to distract us. The concept and the writing needs more bite and reality.

Young Frankenstein

Hayes Theatre Company presents, The Mel Brooks Musical, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, Book by Mel Brooks and Thomas Mehan; Music and Lyrics by Mel Brooks, in the Hayes Theatre, Darlinghurst. 18th February - 20th March.

Alexander Berlage, the Director of The Mel Brooks Musical, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, has created a sterling record at the Hayes Theatre for revitalising, perhaps, even the resurrecting of Musicals that initially failed at the box office and critical response on Broadway. The musicals CRY-BABY (1990) and AMERICAN PSYCHO (2013) were given breaths of life by Mr Belage in Sydney. 

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, the musical appeared in 2007, based on Mr Brooks' film also titled YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN from 1974. The musical received mixed reviews on opening on Broadway. Based on my experience of this present production at the Hayes the material that the actors have to wrestle with is not as secure as that of the other two. Certainly, it felt as if Mr Berlage had over-pitched this production with an excessive emphasis on the vulgar comedy, stretching it into a high camp milieu that fell flatly most of the night - the scaffolding of the original material could not support the creative weight of the company's choices. There was little real laughter, There were no guffaws. There was eye-filling and ear-blasting  bewilderment. One was bemused by the war on the eyes and ear and overwhelmed with consistent errors of taste, of judgement.

After the amazing response to Mr Brooks' musical version of his film THE PRODUCERS (2001) he could have been tempted to have another go with his film YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and giving it a similar treatment. The comedy of the 1974 film in 2021 today is a hit and miss affair, I recently watched  a screening of the film on television. Writing this work for an audience in 2007 at the age of 81 the inspiration for its comedy palette seemed to have its origins not in his beloved Vaudeville tradition of sketch comedy but in a lower tradition based around the Minsky Brothers theatres of the bold near naked burlesque and comedy parodies where the 'blue' joke was the go, (Note the William Friedkin 1968 film: THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY'S) let alone the innuendo of his other primary influence from the Borscht Belt that was part of his youth.

The structure of the show comes not so much from the literary tradition of the Mary Shelley novel, FRANKENSTEIN; OR THE MODERN PROMETHEUS (1818) but the films of James Whale : FRANKENSTEIN (1931) and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1936). James Whale was a gay man and there is a belief that there is a gay sub-text to both these films, particularly the latter. Mr Brooks took 'gay' themed liberties in both his film and musical adaptation, which Mr Berlage, who has a tremendous gay-kitsch lean, evident  in his own past Directorial work, has taken extreme judgements of taste in presenting this work that really cannot bear them, which is unlike his other two musical productions, working from stronger Book and Lyrics. This production strains under its aspirational ambitions.

The Director's note in the program connecting the company's creative process to the anxiety of Covid 19 and the fear of the Frankenstein monster, seems to be a fairly ridiculous line of connection. None of this is evident on stage - neither is 'the dark social satire that examines the horrific and grotesque elements of life.' - 'horrific': Never; 'grotesque': perhaps in the elements of design, but not in the moral fibre of Mr Brooks' and Mr Meehan's writing, they had other ambitions, i think.

In a deep green Escher-step like Set design by Isabel Hudson, that cramps the staging space excessively, lit in garish lighting choices from Trent Suidgeest with the actors in Costumes from Mason Browne that can be excessive vulgarisations of character (contrasted by the naturalistic dressing of our hero 'Frankensteen'), the orchestra led by Andrew Worboys in control of the actors lands a continuous barrage of noise at the audience with hardly a rest or musical (tuneful) interlude. For the audience it can be a stressful endurance.

In the centre of this concoction is a reason to see this show, which is to witness a physical performance from Matthew Backer, as Doctor Frankenstein, that is simply brilliant in its complexity and accuracy. The body work is phenomenal - I wondered at how tired he must be after performing this gift for us? This is coupled with a singing voice of some beauty and skill accompanied by a very centred acting performance of near naturalism that holds this production from completely spinning out of control. Mr Backer is sensational.

In lesser responsibilities Shannon Dooley (Elizabeth) and Lucia Mastrantone (Frau Blucher) are also detailed with a cool and vivid accuracy that demands much effort to deliver and are much to admire. 

Surprisingly, Ben Gerrard in a sex transposition as Inga, is almost invisible in impact in this production, whilst Amy Hack and Olivia Charalambous are indefatigable supports in keeping this show chugging along in relatively thankless roles. 

The November, 2019 production by Siren Theatre Company, under the Direction of Kate Gaul, of H.M.S. PINAFORE, had a sure hand of a delicious and delicate campery that had wit, daring and taste that The Musical YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN does not have - cannot have because of the original Book (Mel Brooks and Thomas Meehan) and Lyric in its original material and is definitely not possible in the stretch that Mr Belage's production coats the source with. There is much aspirational ambition in the technical feats of the production - the technical teams deserve applause - but the parts do not make a whole worth enduring.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, its success is going to be, of course, a matter of taste. Mr Berlage has certainly taken Oscar Wilde's advice to his bosom : "That nothing succeeds like excess".

Monday, March 1, 2021

Playing Beatie Bow

Photo by Daniel Boud

Sydney Theatre Company presents, PLAYING BEATIE BOW, by Ruth Park, in a stage adaptation by Kate Mulvany, at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Hickson Rd., Walsh Bay. 28th February - 1 May.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a Young adult novel published by Ruth Park in 1980. Ruth Park died in 2010 at the age of 93. The book has had a staunch readership in its brief history and is a favourite for a few generations of young Australian readers. Both Kate Mulvany, the adapter of the novel for the theatre and the Director Kip Williams are two of those long affected readers, they declare in the program notes. I have never read the book even though I have had a long connection to most of Ruth Park's work and so am discovering this work here on the STC stage. Both the aforementioned artists were responsible for the stage adaption of THE HARP IN THE SOUTH (1948) and POOR MAN'S ORANGE (1949) at the Sydney Theatre Company a couple of years ago - the old gang reunite: "When you are on a good thing stick to it."

Ms Mulvany has opened, expanded the novel to some contemporary familiarities (an Indigenous story: Johnny Whites for example is introduced that is NOT in the novel) and has set the prologue of Abigail's rebellion against her warring parents to 2021, not 1980, which is really of not much harm and adds the opportunity of many a wry joke reference to our COVID and Woke culture before our heroine is tripped into The Rocks World of 1873 where most of this story unfurls. 

A mere 9 actors take on the many roles required to tell the story and they are all relatively outstanding, every actor has their moment to shine: Tony Cogin, Lena Cruz, Heather Mitchell, Sofia Nolan (Beatie Bow), Rory O'Keefe, Guy Simon, Catherine Van Davies (Abigail) and Ryan Yeates.

The story is told on a huge black stage with a few pieces of theatre furniture that are mostly symbolic of location employing some old fashioned theatrical gestures such as a window frame, ropes suspended with white sheets, a huge canvas covering the whole dynamics of the stage, to suggest laundry or the sails of ships - nothing too imaginatively arresting for theatre goers in 2021 which mean they have a minimum of surprise or magic - it is all a trifle theatrically pedestrian.  Kip Williams has eschewed his usual use of video and film to help tell his tale: examples being in his complicated ambition/aspiration urging (overweighted, I declare) in the recent THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GREY (though he must be saving on  the budget for the technical gear, let alone the cost of the electricity of each performance for the STC) or either of his versions of two of the great plays CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or THE RESISTIBLE RISE OF ARTURO UI (unnecessary, really).  

PLAYING BEATIE BOW follows the imaging of his work in the other Ruth Park theatre adaptations THE HARP IN THE SOUTH  and POOR MAN'S ORANGE - simple open black box with minimal elements of Design, the usual choice of David Fleischer, accompanied by the reliable input of Renee Mulder (Costume), Nick Schlieper (Lighting) and Clemence Williams (Composer - the Director's sister, I believe) and David Bergman (Sound Designer). The Sound design may be a little too ambitious and or loud to be an unnoticed influencer to the story shaping and telling - in the theatre it was distracting and over dominant.

All of the performances, however, are creditable, but I will note my favourite offers from old-comer Heather Mithchell and a newbie Ryan Yeates, as particularly pleasing.

The biggest obstacles to the popularity of this play may be its wordy length: On opening night running at 3 hours or more and stuffed with so many words, with so much exposition about fairy magic weaving through history and the spaewife myths from the Orkney isles with an aural overload of sometimes impenetrable dialect work from the actors that obfuscates some of what is going on.

PLAYING BEATIE BOW seems to me the ideal program for the Christmas holidays when the young audience is available to catch it in the theatre following on from the highly successful example/policy of the National Theatre of Great Britain. The month of March/April just as school has begun seems an odd Marketing choice - except for the Easter break holiday.

This production has had the honour of opening the renovation of the Wharf theatres and the STC precinct - and impressive in its corporate chic it is. Comfortable new seating facing a wide and deep black hole with no permanent wings or fly tower. One has no ability to ascertain the acoustics of the space as all these actors are microphoned or pre-recorded. 

Since the STC is the most important purveyor of Storytelling in our city it is curious that the play or adaptation the Company chooses for this occasion is a white colonial-centred story set in 1873 in the Rocks - the place of so much history in the interaction between the British and the Indigenous tribe(s) - it featured momentarily in THE SECRET RIVER. One wonders whether the honouring of our First Nation's History of Storytelling in this new theatre space should have been in finding a way to present the story of this island's history and peoples with their unique creation myths, or even more politically dangerously, an adaptation of the Bruce Pascoe DARK EMU book would have been a better and more appropriate choice? One ponders. 60,000 years of Storytelling - now that could have signified a real celebration of this new sacred space, don't you think?

PLAYING BEATIE BOW is a pleasant entertainment that needs editing down from its 3 hour length - it is a kind of tough ask for young adults without the whiz bang of contemporary theatre production tricks. Adults, not as engaged in the story as kids, might find it all a bit passé.

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Symphonie Fantastique

Little Eggs present SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, a self-devised work led by Matthew Lee and Oliver Schemacher, at the Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) at the Kings Cross Hotel. 17th  FEBRUARY - 27TH February.

Remembers Oliver Schermacher: Matthew Lee travelling in a car from Canberra with musician Oliver Shermacher,  when he hears for the first time Hector Berlioz's SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE, at 

full blast - bopping in my seat and enthusiastically head-banging to Berlioz' erratic and colorful music. Mat became intrigued when I described its deranged story and the eye-brow raising background of the piece as a love letter to a woman he had never met.

Though Berlioz did stalk and woo her for seven years, finally threatening to over dose on heroin, before she, actress Harriet Smithson, capitulated and married him. (Ultimately, of course, the marriage failed!)

The music piece, "SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE is a passion-filled quasi-autobiographical love note by the (then 26 year old) Berlioz to his unsuspecting muse, who had repeatedly rejected his advances. Likewise, his composition pens a protagonist driven to a hallucinogenic suicide by the indifference of his female beloved who haunts him. In 1830's Romantic France, it was revolutionary and even today is revered as a masterpiece of unrequited love."

So, during the 13 month Covid-19 time of contemplation Matthew Lee (Director) and Oliver Schermacher (Musical Director/Sound Designer) gathered artists Benjamin Brockman (Set and Lighting Designer), Grace Stamnas (Movement Coach), Aleisa Jelbart (Costume Designer) and a team of  seven performers : Lloyd Allison-Young, Cassie Hamilton, Clare Hennessy, Nicole Pingon, Annie Stafford, Chemon Theys and LJ Wilson to construct a contemporary performance piece that explores the creative angsts of the composer's struggle to produce his work. The language that this co-operative, Little Eggs, has chosen is mostly an a cappella sound/noise scape accompanied by a disciplined physical choreography where the collective toss centre stage and dress in a grey tailcoat and trousers, LJ Wilson, as our protagonist (perhaps the artist, Hector Berlioz), whilst they become a kind of supportive Greek-chorus in action.

The Set Design, by Benjamin Brockman, of a mirrored raised floor with a low hanging roof is dramatically lit by the same Mr Brockman to create illusory visual reflective effects that could be interpreted as part of the hallucinogenic experience of this artist - (perhaps, the representative of Berlioz). In the Costume Design by Aleisa Jelbart we are given skimpy underwear and draping blouses and other accessories all black with silver trimmings - a supposedly suggestive S&M (that is mostly quasi) I guess is the effect desired - that culminates in the principal performer being placed in a leather harness attached to a long, silver choking chain yanked by some of the cast in the climaxing moments of the 50 minute work.

Composer, Oliver Schermacher, has created a score that may use some of the famous musical thematics of the Berlioz Symphonie (I am not musically educated to guarantee that), but in his own composition/sound design seems to dwell in a European pastiche of seventies and eighties disco dance venue sounds - it begins in the pre-show sound scape and is, for us oldies, a relaxing entrance to the night. 

However, one gets what the piece is doing within five minutes of the performance beginning and the Design elements and Sound choices merely become cliches of repeated boredom, and while one can admire the vocal and physical disciplines achieved by Matthew Lee and Grace Stamnas with this company, one is quickly intellectually bored. This 50 minutes is a very long night in the theatre. 

One desired some original heft, some  provocation, since in their program note they suggest: 

But we dig deep. Within our psychedelic narrative, we explore the fragility of our artist's ego, how their rejection descends into an obsession and visions of violence, and ultimately, steers their own path to their own destruction. ... We are eager to explore the mind of a person who does not get what they want and what they feel they deserve.

They go on to say : 

In a contemporary world of artists in positions of power behaving badly, our queer team - aged around the same age as Berlioz at the time - aim to question if his masterpiece can be harnessed to probe whether he deserves celebration for a work that champions a persistent sex pest.

Wow, their objectives are many and complicated to discuss, and possibly could be exciting to engage with, so it is sad, then, that none of that is really explored with any clarification in its kinetic offerings on the KXT stage. They have not dug deeply enough,  and they haven't found the method or language to argue their case. 

Covid-19 should have provided a long time to wrestle with this work to find the  contemporary way to arrest an audience to its concerns, but LIttle Eggs misfires spectacularly in its many visual cliches in this present work called SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE. 

P.S. It is amusing that the company wanted to provoke us to consider whether we should celebrate this work of "a persistent sex pest" and yet still to be encouraged by Mr Schermacher in his Musical Director's notes to celebraate it: "(I) warmly encourage you at home to find a recording, have a few glasses of wine, lay back with some headphones and let this piece wash over you." Clearly, Mr Schermacher has made up his mind in this endeavour. Listen to the Berlioz - it's a masterpiece no matter the present political concerns, he thinks. I do agree with him, by the way, no matter the time spent with Little Eggs.

Saturday, February 6, 2021


MONTAGUE BASEMENT presents VIDEOTAPE, at the Kings Cross Theatre, in the Kings Cross Hotel. 29th January - 13th February.

MONTAGUE BASEMENT is a theatre company led by Saro Lusty-Cavallari and in the case of this new Australian play, he is the writer, director and is the Video and Sound Designer - quite a brief of responsibility.

A couple Daniel (Jake Fryer) and Juliette (Lucinda Howes)  are stuck in their apartment during a COVID19  lockdown. The apartment has a comfortable look, resonating wealth and security, a warm wooden designed platform with two couches and practical room lighting, Designed by Grace Deacon, and has a colour support in the Lighting from Sophie Pekbilimli.

The play is made up of many short scenes sketching the journey of the couple. The play is 80 minutes long. In the very first scene we meet the pair, each involved deeply with the tools of their personal communication. One in a book. One with a laptop computer. They don't talk. They both seem to be completely comfortable with their inaction with each other. The outer world holds gripping fascination for each - the book and the laptop is enough! 

With an irritating sizzle and a spat of noise we move to the next scene. The play introduces a VHS tape arriving from the unknown outer space and it seems, when the old machinery of the VHS is organised, to be a capture of the action of the couple - we recognise it when we view it with them. It is a disturbing mystery for where is the recording camera and who is recording and delivering the material - the angle of vision is not possible and yet there it is. The logic and feasibility of the possibility is thrown over by the effect of the material displayed - its rustling of the emotional connections 'feathers' of the relationship becomes the subjective wheels of the action of the piece.

Anxiety creeps into the cumulative scene 'weight' and when the Videotape on a short loop reveals the physical abuse of one of the partners with the other - we witnessed it live, it escalates to the beginning of a fever that reaches towards a peak when on a later videotape a strange woman begins appearing - who is she? what is she doing? Why? WHY? WHY! It appears not only as a recorded past but is becoming a live force on the screen to the direction of the relationship - it is live! How is that possible?!

Some of the audience in attempting to solve the intention of this play have made reference to the David Lynch film LOST HIGHWAY (1997) - it has a place in the Director's program notes, so take it on as a clue (or is it a deliberate diversionary tactic by the Director?); THE RING, a Japanese horror film by Hideo Nakata (1998), remade in America by Gore Verbinski, starring Naomi Watts (2002) also bubbles into the memory recall. But for me I kept 'hearing' the French film CACHÉ (HIDDEN) by Michael Haneke made in 1997.

CACHÉ has a bourgeois French family, comfortable and secure, that begins to receive Videotapes that progressively breaks this family into pieces. In the long (blabby!) program notes from Mr Lusty-Cavalllari he writes (online) that he feels we are ready to participate in story-telling that does not require an explanation of  what has happened. And so here we are with VIDEOTAPE that concludes playing but not explaining - it is a provocative offer, it can strike an audience that has been totally engaged, viscerally - deep in the stomach. (CACHÉ did that to me - although I stayed through the credits to the film and maybe got a clue that led to an explanation.)

VIDEOTAPE, does not hold one with the closing grip of anxiety significantly enough, so the provocation of no explanation fails - instead one feels cheated, cheaply cheated, cheated of our valuable time.

I find my inability to cooperate with the actor, Lucinda Howes, in her playing of Juliette. I believe that her acting chops are fairly in tact but her attention to her vocal work seems to be out of whack - her characterisation is pitched at a high piercing range and has over the long duologue of the play's requirement the ability to have an audience to become distracted, looking for a rest from the aural attack - an objective activity that begins to negate the subjective identity that the play requires from its audience.. Mr Fryer delivers a fine dramatic performance that has a vocal pitch (whether, conscious artistry or not) that demands attention and empathy.

So, VIDEOTAPE, at the KXT is an interesting and curious experience, although it appears in a very comfortable, familiar structure - and so, a  bit boring. However it is another offer from Saro Lusty-Cavallari that signifies here as some growing talent. Watch his progress.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Wicked Sisters (Theatre Review)

Photo by Brett Boardman

Griffin Theatre presents WICKED SISTERS, by Alma de Groen, at the Reginald Theatre, in the Seymour Centre, Chippendale, Sydney University. 6th November - 12 December. 

 The Griffin Theatre premiered WICKED SISTERS sometime in the early 2000's and this is a revival of the work for the same company. This play was written in 2002. Alma de Groen is one of those great writers of plays. 

Alma de Groen was born in New Zealand but pursued a life as a playwright in Australia. Her work, contextually, came forth in the so-called era of the Second Wave Feminism. This play, unusually, has a cast of four women, who being over the age of fifty are the surviving elders of a niche university clique who were, supposedly, friends and activists of different commitment motivations at a vital time in their life development. 

When the play begins, Meridee Hobbes (Vanessa Downing), has been a widow for 15 years to a 'brilliant' scientist of Darwinian origin/persuasion. He had been developing a computer algorithm as an Artificial Intelligence Researcher - Alec Hobbes - at a university who believed and still believes passionately in his work so that his computer program has been kept active all this time. Alec Hobbes is dead but his Artificial Intelligence propositions stiil pulse with life. Four women who were influenced by this man come together to celebrate his birthday and reacquaint themselves, and ostensibly, for two of them, to bring 'back to life' the grieving widow. 

One can presume that the choice of Hobbes as the surname of this relatively contemporary scientist/researcher, from Ms de Groen, is a meaningful clue as to what the core of the play might be about. Thomas Hobbes was an English philosopher who in his major book LEVIATHAN (1651), proffered a discussion and philosophy investigating the relationship between natural and legal rights - and to the possibility that on surrendering some of our freedoms we can submit to the authority of a ruler (or rulers) to create security for a civil community/society. 

It is indeed a provocative premise as we allow today, in 2020, our own elected government, under the panic of the COVID pandemic, to take some of our freedoms, having us believe it is for the greater good for now and the future. That Alec is also a Darwinist believing in the survival of the fittest, we watch his active algorithm on the screens surrounding the Set Design of Alec's study/studio (Tobhiyah Stone Feller) destroy many 'lives'/screen blips in his visually multiplying algorithmic community! 

 If only there was a more possible glimmer of the subject debate in the foreground of this production of WICKED SISTERS we might have had a more valuable time spent in the Reginald Theatre. Instead we have in the foreground of this time spent, a reunion of four female once best friends, who bitch about their consequent lives that has led them to make choices that resulted in a huge diminishment of their youthful ideals. Cheating, lying, deceiving, coveting, wallowing and devaluing the mores of the world they live in, their venal crimes, with and on each other, are painfully, and in this production, painstakingly, revealed. 

Bemused by the performances in this production I felt that I was watching a ninety minute special of the American television sitcom from the late nineteen eighties, early nineteen nineties of, THE GOLDEN GIRLS : a text of wise cracking put downs and systemic cruelty that passed as humour and that may have a social enlightenment. Instead of the cast of Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty espousing and solving the wit and social dilemmas re-created in comic formulas by Susan Harris, which, all inevitably in the Darwinian sense of the survival of the fittest, had the ambition of positive social change but instead devolved over an eight year, one hundred and eighty episodes 'run', to 'crash and burn' like the metaphoric inventions in Alec Hobbes' algorithm, In WICKED SISTERS we have a cliche grouping of archetypes rubbing injuriously up against each other at an uncatered party with not enough table or chairs for the guests to eat and drink off : the unrequited wife, Meridee, played by Vanessa Downing, ineptly hosting a reunion for some friends from University days; the sexually charged, ebullient golden-hearted real estate agent, Lydia, in the grips of Deborah Galanos; and the sexually frustrated but successful personal business manager, Judith, haunted by Hannah Waterman. But there is a surprise, there arrives a gate-crasher : the long ago betrayed science student, Hester, who shocked and destroyed because of stolen intellectual property, has travelled down a road of personal abuse, who now seeks a future by grafting a revenge that will benefit the down and out among her new 'community' - her like-sufferers - inhabited creatively with a dry-as-a-bone cynicism by Di Adams. 

 This play's performance is not all disaster; it just doesn't fulfil its ambitions. But that is not just because of the writing of the intellectual arguments of the concept with such cliche characters, from Ms de Groen, it is also because the Director, Nadia Tass, a film director, has not been able to assist her actors to develop a backstory to bring these women together as competitive but emotionally and intellectually bonded friends, companions. 

Most of these performances are acted AT each other rather than WITH each other. The beings we are observing in this production seem to be meeting each other for the first time - they talk to each other but do not seem to hear one another so that there can be a feasible or acceptable human progress going on. We can read the cause of these characters but not the affect on these characters. No-one seems to be in the same play. 

It is, mostly, a disappointing night in the theatre. I wrote early in this response to the Griffin production of this play that Alma de Groen is a great playwright. Personally, I believe her plays THE RIVERS OF CHINA (1987) and THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW (1999) are two outstanding concepts and resolutions of philosophical science fiction existing in the Australian cannon. Find them and read them. They are well worth the effort,