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Friday, 28 September 2012


Hello Sydney. I’ve been getting my fill of the Fringe Festival in the last couple of weeks and thought I’d give you an overview of what’s out there to enjoy.
First cab off the rank was the duo, 52 Snifters, in a Rue de la Rocket production called ‘This Is My Box’, playing at the Hive Bar at Erskineville. The performers, Karena Thomas and Karli Evans use a box or vocal looper to create, enhance or provoke characters in their 52 minute show. Under the premise of 'lonely people', they do create some magic moments on stage. My pick would be the Crisco ladies, with its crisp spit-fire dialogue delivery with clever script work and interplay. A special mention also to the singles nights scenes that gave the girls a chance to mingle with the audience.
Under the watchful eye of director Erin Taylor, there’s some good material here and with some editing and tightening, especially as some characters are those we’ve seen played many times before and so it’s hard to bring a fresh take on it, this show has the potential to develop into a knockout. Great energy and ideas throughout.
Next up was Damian Callinan, probably the most seasoned performer I saw in my taste of the Fringe. Callinan’s show ‘The Merger’, from its run at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, was playing at the Reginald, Seymour Centre.  Callinan had a clear and engaging throughline with a plethora of characters, all performed by him, centring around the disastrous season of a local country town (Bodgie Creek) football team and their efforts to avoid merging with a local rival team.
What Callinan does very well is create a series of characters with dimensions and vulnerabilities, humour and affability and then give each moments of endearing pathos. He tackles all archetypes and ages and lets you inside the gruff or gentle exterior to see layers of personality with belief and playful energy. He engages directly with the audience whilst occasionally allowing the meta-humour of his own predicament as performer in relying on the audience to respond to his questions or characters or even himself to shine through.
Director Matt Parkinson has given Callinan’s show a sharp focus. I love the radio interludes and each of the characters are well-drawn. The brief scenes with the puppets would be the only thing that give the show a bumpy ride in what is otherwise a smooth, polished performance. I hope Sydney gets behind some of the Melbourne performers who aren’t well-known here but have a lot of depth in skill and storytelling to share with an audience.
Also playing at the Reginald was Tommy Bradson in ‘Sweet 16 or the Birthday Party Massacre’. Overcoming microphone issues early, Bradson’s show, accompanied by a 3 piece band, celebrates the coming of age birthday of Lula, her mother June, stepdad Gary and Lula’s boyfriend Johnny. Bradson plays all of these characters, of course, and the stage is decked out for the big event.
This was a show that heavily relied upon its audience to get behind the concept by pulling ‘volunteers’ from the audience to attend the party as relatives and friends of Lula. I cannot express to you the pleasure of seeing reviewer Jason Blake being endowed as Gary’s brother Richard in the early moments of the show and to Blake’s credit, he got into the ‘spirit’ of the show and was generous in his support of the action on stage, as all audience members were.
To me this show had a lot to offer in audience rapport, musical cabaret stylings with the assistance of musical director John Thorn, and some witty dialogue. Bradson’s choices of characters and ability to play each of them with humour and conviction was also skilful. However, the dialogue was fired out like a stray bullet so more control of pace and rhythm was needed so Bradson didn’t lose the gold in the rushed delivery.  Gusto- yes: control- a work in progress. I will say this, he wasn’t afraid to show a tan line or two and he does have an impressive peachy, firm ass(et). Can I say that? Gorgeous. Jealous.
Next up was Steen Raskopoulos’ show ‘Bruce SpringSTEEN’ at the Factory Theatre in Marrickville. Raskopoulos is one to watch. His exuberant material and presence is not yet tamed or polished but he is infinitely watchable and with a few more years of solo scripted performing, he’s got the potential to go far. The audience love him and I will admit, this was one of the shows (in contrast to an STC experience) where I was probably in the 10% of oldest audience members there and I don’t know that the vignette comedy material was aimed for my demographic but there were great moments of laugh-out-loud scenes and some characters were terrific.
What Raskopoulos does best is find clever ways to re-incorporate characters into his material. I loved the moments we went back to a particular character to see how they had progressed in their journey, like young Jimmy, or when what seemed like a throwaway rant on contemporary dance found its expression at the end of the show. This is smart comedy and Raskopoulos is not afraid to subvert our expectations and the audience respond to that best of all.
It’s still a bit unbridled in material- if Raskopoulos can find more of the above in the rest of his material, he’s going to sell out every show, like he did during this festival. His use of the audience, like in the golf scene, break-ups, dates, gallery tour and even dog show made the audience love him even more. They go with the knowledge that the finger may be pointed at them to join him in the spotlight. Don’t know that I would have jumped through the hoop for him or what he’s paying in liability insurance but I do know that the audience would have done anything he asked of them…and they did. He is a skilled improviser and uses his material to bend with the responses of the crowd. Mark my words, he’s going to be a hit.
Finally, I headed off to the Forum in Leichhardt to see the new musical ‘Frank Christie, Frank Clarke’. Whilst still some way away from being ‘stage ready’ it did have some nice moments and a very committed cast in trying to give it the best it can be in its current stage of development. It centres around the story of the Australian bushranger Frank Christie (and all his various aliases).
The issues in this play were in the material itself, written by Alan McFadden (music) and Peter Fleming (book and lyrics). Christie is too nice and it makes him very thin as a Robin Hood style thief in our Australian context. He needs some guts, a propensity for some villainy and a bit more swagger. Some of the songs might need an overhaul. I don’t know that songs like ‘See ya’ or Christie’s ultimate goal of attaining ‘A Fireplace in My Life’ will make the final cut- or classic lyrics with phrases such as ‘a map of Tassie’, ‘lamb fricassee’ or ‘petting the cat’ might not have a long shelf life. And the character of granny needs either proper development or needs to go- flesh or destroy would be my advice. At the moment it’s more aimless meanderings. Finally, in my own critical meanderings, the last 20 minutes needs editing or a complete re-write so the play doesn’t end with a whimper.
But it does have things that are working for it- the potential for its 19th Century Music Hall staging would really enhance this work. As I mentioned before, the cast gave it passion and energy and actor Brent Dolahenty as Christie/Clarke was impressive as were Trent Kidd and Timothy Monley in their soft-shoe shuffling and Irish-jigging duos. There are some catchy tunes, played with skill, and although too thin for theatre yet, it might have something there worth building on. There were some genuinely funny moments.
And thus ends my Fringe experiences for 2012. Thanks to all who offered tickets and sorry I couldn’t get to more shows but right now, I’m off to swim with the crocodiles up north. Thankfully, the theatre scene has prepared me for this very adventure.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

STC’S ‘AUSTRALIA DAY’ directed by Richard Cottrell and dissected by me

‘Australia Day’ is Jonathan Biggins’ first play. Biggins is most well-known for his roles in the STC wharf revues, where humour and satire with a love of the absurd in deconstructing the big events of the year in Australian society, politics and media permeate his work. It’s no surprise that his first play pulls from this content and understanding and aims it directly for the STC mainstream with a dash of flair. Biggins’ humour resonates throughout this work and the blue rinse audience wriggle in enjoyment as they vocally ‘um’ and ‘ah’ in agreement with many of opinions expressed. It makes Biggins’ work all that more entertaining to watch by also observing its audience.
You see, there’s a game I like to play at an STC show, especially in the 6:30pm early show. It’s called ‘Am I the Youngest Person Here?’ It’s a treat to be firmly (and I use that word figuratively) middle-aged and to be in the 10% bracket of the youngest audience members at any of their shows. Last night was no exception, although I did notice about 8 teenagers en masse in the audience (quick, call the police), and that may have thrown the stats completely out. The beauty of our more ‘mature’ subscribers is their fierce loyalty to a theatre company. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been distinctly dissatisfied with the STC (Stale Theatre Company) offerings for the last few years- they’ve been subscribing sometimes for over 40 years and they’re not going to stop now. It’s more than a trip to the theatre- it’s a routine and an excuse to meet up with friends on a regular basis and support a cultural pursuit. Young people are far more fickle. They actually want to be entertained.
This is an extremely long prelude to say that Biggins’ play may be the most fun they’ve had in the theatre for some time. These are characters we know, espousing the different, real and often flawed opinions we hear in the everyday. It certainly brought back fond memories of my grandmother’s love affair with talk-back radio and all things conservative that fed on the fear of change or progress. Biggins has crafted his play to reflect exactly that with a little contemporary division thrown in the mix. And what better environment to create that crucible of tension than to set his play in a small country town celebrating Australia Day. Pour in a few local political aspirations, token social figures from the Country Women’s Association, the local primary school, a second generation Australian, a Greens candidate, a staunch conservative, all embroiled in a bit of blackmail, a few off snags, a blocked dunny and a blacked-up white school kids’ version of an Indigenous story and you see disaster coming from a mile off.
Biggins has created all the archetypes you would expect and yes, we like and loathe their opinions and actions throughout the play but most of all we recognise them and they are not that far removed from who we are. Scary. It’s a user-friendly Australian farce.
Enter director Richard Cottrell, slightly redeeming himself after last year’s ‘Loot’ in faithfully producing Biggins’ play for the Opera House stage. He has found the fun and farce in the play and captured the voices of the characters with some pretty good comic timing. This is certainly helped in Richard Robert’s set design- freakishly real in conveying school facilities and local outdoor events. Lots of good entrances and exits to play with and helping the play find its end with a splash.
Kudos also for the casting. Geoff Morrell as mayor, Brian, treads the middle ground in an effort to avoid conflict and secure pre-selection for the local seat and we know from his ‘Grass Roots’ years that he can play this with aplomb. He does not disappoint. David James’ Robert is probably the most likeable on stage. His inoffensive ‘averageness’ has a certain appeal and he captures this with lovely honesty. Valerie Bader as CWA’s Marie is lovable in the traditional homely quality she brings to the role, although I’m surprised they didn’t make more of an effort to cover that tattoo in her costume in the second half- certainly out of place for Marie. Maybe they hoped most of the audience’s cataracts or glaucoma would blind them to this small detail. Don’t kid yourself. Your audience is sharper than you realise- they’re just very forgiving.
Peter Kowitz’s Wally, the most offensive and traditional of the characters, was probably an audience favourite- he certainly seemed to get most of the applause. Alison White’s Helen and Kaeng Chan’s Chester held their own and provided the other characters with springboards in which to kick out the gags.
Also a big wrap goes to Niklas Pajanti’s and David Franzke’s light and sound show in the second half. The incoming storm funnelled the tension of disaster we know is about to hit.
This is a fun Aussie farce and captured nicely (noicely?) to keep its audience happy. I hope Biggins keeps writing. I wonder what else he has in the tank?

Monday, 24 September 2012


‘The Sea Project’ written by Elise Hearst, directed by Paige Rattray and produced by 'Arthur' productions is a fairly strong offering currently showing at the Stables as part of the Griffin Independent season.
It centres around the story of Eva, who washes up on the shore, haunted by a past she can’t remember. Starting over with local softly spoken, simple and safe Bob, she starts to rebuild a new life until the mysterious Maciek appears and starts to force Eva’s memories into her present and disrupt her new stability.
This is the first production directed by Paige Rattray I’ve seen and I have to say, I’m impressed. Whilst the play gives her some pretty good material to work with, Rattray has ironed over some of its kinks with her exceptional cast and David Fleischer’s beautiful design. Hearst’s play has a terrific first 20 minutes and a strong finish. We’re intrigued by the mystery of Eva (Meredith Penman) and the blokey heroic likeability of Bob (Iain Sinclair). Once Maciek (Justin Cotta) enters, the threads of the play start to slightly unravel without tying them up completely. The play has great ideas but they just haven’t fully solidified yet.
If there are weaknesses in the play, it is when there are more than two characters on stage at once. Hearst hasn’t quite mastered the tension of the trio like she has in some of the powerful moments of the duologues.
But all of this is forgiven as the cast deliver a quality performance. The contrast of energies, mannerisms, accent, rhythms- all tightly honed with good direction. I fell a little in love with Sinclair’s Bob. He encapsulated the steady masculinity of the Aussie working-class man. It’s the stuff of Jimmy Barnes songs: raw, honest, heroic, inarticulate bloke- as opposed to Maciek’s high energy, creative, passionate and verbose dreamer. Young Samuel (Travis Cardona) lies between the two- waiting for his dream and direction to wash up on the shore. He is undeveloped but there is a sweet innocence about Samuel in Cardona’s portrayal that makes him likeable. Amongst all of them and tying them together is Penman’s Eva, who bends to each, shaping her empty past in adapting to each of their present needs and desires. Penman knocks this one of the park. She is a terrific actress.
Add to that a great design by Fleischer- surrounding the stage with reflective tiles, mirroring our ‘twin’ selves, our identity, the water and the depth of what lies buried under the layers of our everyday. Fleischer has created a simple yet very effective tool for this intimate rough theatre space to enhance the ideas of the play.
The live music was also a great touch. Tom Hogan’s accompaniment and interaction with the characters really added to the mood of the piece- sometimes playful, sometimes sombre and soulful. His soundtrack of music beautifully underscored the shifts in narrative and mood with skill and appropriateness.
The choices made by Rattray and the team gave this play the best outing it could hope for. I’m giving it a SOYP thumbs up.

Friday, 14 September 2012


‘Water’ is a refreshing piece of theatre.
See what I did there?
I must admit that this week the idea of going to the theatre after work was about as enticing as watching Parliament Time or Channel Nine's coverage of the recent Olympics. I’d bought my ticket to ‘Water’ so long ago as part of my extras package in my STC subscription that I had forgotten what it was about and whether it was worth the trek into Hickson Road to see it. But loathe to throw in a ticket just in case I missed something wonderful, off I dutifully went to see Filter & David Farr’s production of ‘Water’ at the Sydney Theatre.
And I’m so very glad I did.
I fell in love with cinematic style theatre when I saw Robert Lepage’s ‘Lipsynch’ a few years back as part of the Sydney Festival- an extraordinary nine hour epic that weaved narrative through three different languages, surtitles, opera, documentary, traditional storytelling, realism, absurdism, technology and design. It was beautiful and I was hooked. Then I saw Complicite’s ‘Disappearing Number’. Bang. There it was again. Now I can add ‘Water’ to the list.
‘Water’ is a clever weave of stories spanning 26 years. It tells the story of five different characters whose narratives all connect through the theme of water- two estranged half-brothers, their ecologically informed scientist father, a British government negotiator at the G8 summit and her deep cave diving ex-boyfriend. We criss-cross through these stories, in time, place and images and are left to ask ourselves are our ambitions inextricably linked to our relationships with others? What propels us to act or not and what are the repercussions personally and globally?
Filter Theatre Company, with director David Farr, have crafted their performance and company’s ethos to ‘expose the workings of a production, so that the process in inextricably linked to the performance, the writing, the music and the sound. Actor, musician, video artist and stage manager are often visible to the audience…revelling in the immediacy of each moment and stimulating the audience’s imagination’. It’s visual and sonic storytelling. Whatever device of the stage that can be used to tell the story, it is utilised- space, technology, illusion, sound, light, design. Add to this, three very talented actors who can transform into a variety of roles and shifts in time instantly, so that audience are with them every step of the way, and you have a very clever show indeed. It is a ‘multi-stranded’ story that will please most who see it.
I was one of those people. From the return of the overhead projector at the start (didn’t that take me back to a time pre smart-boards and laptops) and maybe, the fact that the water molecule was called Jane and was labelled a social creature, I was sold. We are asked very early on to ‘join the dots’ and then the show proceeded to create a series of stories and images where we as audience did exactly that. I loved the gentle shifts in time, where backstory becomes present, and a simple gesture or item of costume or accent can transform one character to another instantly.
Even though all the action and technical aspects unfold in front of the audience, we are not suspended from engaging in each moment, in every choice. For instance, we accept that the man she is speaking to on the phone is a voice over from another actor right in front of you or the squash game is a projected series of live shadow images and sound is created live by the engineer (I know there is a specific name for that job but it eludes me right now). We see rolling sets, skype conversations, lights and sounds that represent elevators, rooms, lecture halls, press conferences and then there is the beautiful imagery of Joe, our deep-sea cave diver heading deep into the water in front of us on stage as we see him head towards his destiny. Characters react to sound, sound compliments action, visuals inform and enhance, characters can be in exactly the same space but we are aware they are separate and running in parallel lines and space and in the end we have a feast of choices that layer the metaphor and personal narratives with the social and political ramifications of the choices we make in this life.
It’s obvious I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Water’. Actors Oliver Dimsdale, Ferdy Roberts, Poppy Miller and sound engineer Tim Phillips, under the direction of David Farr, have taken what is a moving collection of stories with effective techniques in conveying each narrative or symbol and taken me on a journey that engaged me the whole performance.
And whilst I revel in the joy this show brought me, I wonder why almost every clever,  enjoyable show STC has programmed in the last couple of years is an imported one. I'll leave you to ponder that too.
'Water' may not have Lepage’s or Complicite’s polished sense of sophistication but it had me, hook, line and sinker.
See what I did there?

Thursday, 13 September 2012


If you are one of those people who doesn’t get to the theatre very often and you don’t really enjoy experimental works (or you are dragging along a reluctant partner to the theatre who feels this way), this show is not for you. ‘Conversation Piece’ will reinforce all the reasons you don’t want to go to the theatre.
Yet I do understand that some of you will love this show. You see, it’s polarising. It’s either a show you’ll enjoy because of the movement and twists on inane conversation and the skill of some of the performers, especially Alison Bell. You’ll appreciate the concept and the half scripted/rehearsed elements combined with moments of improvisation. Or you’ll think that listening to over 10 minutes of idle chatter at the start is like sitting on public transport, cramped in the middle of the seat, being forced to listen to a group of commuters talk about what they watched on TV last night and that party they went to on the weekend until you want to turn around and scream at them to get a life.
If a show’s premise is to bore me for the first 10 or 15 minutes in order to try to be clever with it later, it’s flawed. Good theatre doesn’t need to bore its audience to prove a point.
This show, devised by Lucy Guerin in conjunction with her cast, has three of her company (Alisdair Macindoe, Rennie McDougall and Harriet Ritchie) literally come out on stage, stand around and have a conversation on what seems to be anything of roughly 10 minutes, which is also recorded. Enter the actors (Alison Bell, Megan Holloway and Matthew Whittet), who presumably have heard none of this and are given the recordings and re-deliver the entire conversation endowing the dialogue with attitude or character traits whilst standing on stage. Then throw in some movement, more reinterpretations of the conversation, some interplay between cast, a few bullying sessions, karaoke, interpretative dance, rhythmic ensemble work using the iPhones and then call it a day.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom because once things started moving in this 80 minute show, there were lovely images and some interesting mimicry of the original dialogue. If this was an experimental show in one of the smaller fringe venues, maybe I would give it more kudos than I do now. Is that fair? I don’t know but I do know that there was not enough here for me to get excited by it.
The parts of the show that at least gave it some engagement from my point of view tended to revolve around the choreographed ‘dance’ sequences or when cast started interacting, combining movement and using the dialogue in a way that suggested relationships or conflicts of status or power. For instance, Macindoe’s violence in his treatment of Whittet as he carried or moved him around the stage suddenly implied an emotional connection to action and words, even if the correlation between them was tenuous. I also particularly enjoyed the scenes between Bell and Ritchie, especially as Bell judged Ritchie on her own words in the conversation in some fairly realistic scenes of playground bullying. That was actually the scene of the night, with audience laughing on and showing how complicit we are in actions of this kind, laughing at the victim with no thought to the impact this event might have on her. Everything else was a bit blah. In the end the show worked for maybe half the time.
But mostly, it is Alison Bell who makes this show worth watching. Bell has enormous stage presence. You can’t help but focus on her and even in the whole cast movement sequences, she is the one you are drawn to watch, in spite of having three trained dancers on stage. Bell's energy and focus create an intensity in confidence and commitment as a performer and she is by far the highlight of the show.
This show was not for me but it might be for you. If you enjoy alternative and experimental pieces that have chunks of things that don’t work with chunks of things that do and you appreciate its concept over whether it came to full fruition, then head along. Otherwise I’d suggest you save the cash and go and see something on at the Fringe Festival or check out what’s on at The Factory and pay much less for probably the same amount of entertainment or more.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


It’s been years since I’ve seen anything at the New Theatre and shame on me (I need a clone to go to everything that’s on and wouldn’t a clone of me make the Arts scene happy?)
I will admit, in the first 15 minutes of this show, I was desperately trying to figure out an escape route that would get me as far away as possible from what was happening on stage. What on earth was going on? What is this random cacophony of noise? Is there a narrative? Have I just been thrown into Hell to watch incoherent theatre for eternity?
And then, I gave into it and got it and dare I say, kind of enjoyed it. It’s not easy to translate a book into a piece of engaging theatre and this book especially would have had its challenges. Tanya Ronder has taken DBC Pierre’s book ‘Vernon God Little’ and tried to capture the style of the book in a theatrical context and so initially, especially if you’re not familiar with the book, this show feels like it is bad drama school at its height. But it grows on you and in the end its ideas and energy convert you into a believer.
The play essentially explores the character of Vernon Little, small American town teenage boy, whose best friend has just gone on a shooting rampage in his high school before turning the gun on himself and now, in a search for answers, Vernon is called in for questioning. With the predators of sensationalism circling like vultures, Vernon soon finds he is considered an accessory and his journey of accusations and twisted truths and blackmail has just begun. It is a play that explores the manipulation of media and truth, the seduction of fame/infamy, and the public’s love of sensationalist journalism. It doesn’t really paint anyone in a positive light and seems to suggest that we will all abandon our own sense of ethics (if we ever possessed them in the first place) in order to get what (we think we) want.
Once you let the style flow over you and give in to the satire and absurdity of form, I think you will quite enjoy this. There’s certainly some inconsistencies in accent and the cheese of the show will make you feel like you’re drowning in a lactose intolerance haze but overall, the director, Louise Fischer, has produced a very tight ensemble show that is to be commended. I think she has brought out the best in this collective and it is clear the cast are having great fun in the madness of the script. Then, when a moment of still focus or concentrated ensemble work or choreography is needed, that cast jump in action. Fischer has done a fine job.
I was also impressed with the quality of most of the actors in the show. This cast is absolutely committed and the quality of skill was high. This play asks a lot of them but they gave it their all and Fischer has clearly given them a safe environment in which to take these risks.  It reminds me how much talent is on the Sydney scene as mainstream tends to stick to the chosen few and there feels like there’s very little diversity. But recently, with more exposure to the independent scene, it’s obvious there is a big pool of talent out there and I hope mainstream theatre takes a chance and steps outside its comfort zone to cast from a wider pool.
One of the most impressive things about ‘Vernon God Little’ is the set, designed by Tom Bannerman. It’s got so many wonderful playing spaces inside it and gives a cheeky, farcical edge to the play. The revolving doors, the sheriff’s stars crafted decoratively as well as a mobile for play and status, the colour and use of levels was a terrific vehicle for the director’s vision. The set told quite a bit of the play’s story and style and endowed the play’s sense of fun, twists and turns, quite literally. It's a great versatile and sophisticated set.
This is not the sort of play you see every day and I can say, it will test your ability at the start but persevere through the initial incoherent energy and it should all fall into place and you’ll hopefully enjoy what it has to offer. And watch some of the cast- I think they’ve got a bright future ahead.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

STC’s ‘THE SPLINTER’ directed by Sarah Goodes and dissected by me

‘The Splinter’ is a commissioned work, written by Hilary Bell and one of the few local original works staged at STC this year. Directed by Sarah Goodes and acted by two skilled actors (a duo of Thomson’s- Erik and Helen) ‘The Splinter’ is a cross between a fractured fairy tale, gothic horror, heightened realism and visual fantasy.
‘The Splinter’ takes the idea of the lost child but unlike other dramas of this nature, like Matt Cameron’s ‘Ruby Moon’, or Bryony Lavery’s ‘Frozen’, the child (Laura) returns, nine months later, mute, fractured, mysterious. The play then delves into the dark psychological consequences of the gap in time, the hopes combined with guilt and fear and the effect of the ‘ghost’ child on her parents’ marriage and their relationship with her. All of this is conveyed through the surrealist theatricality of the stage- technical and design shadows of disturbing doubt and a sparse script that leans towards the troubled recesses of the mind more than large relational exchanges. And that it is going to be a huge challenge for any collective- to capture what is between and inside the lines to fully convey the complexities of the volatility of clawing at the hope of happiness and normality, to find moments of truth inside fantasy, belief and theatricality side by side whilst moving from a physical into a mental absence of reality.
Conceptually, this play is interesting. But the production, I think, is not completely realised. I’ve dubbed it interesting boring. I really like the staging. I’m really appreciative of the skill of the actors, the writing, the puppeteers, the design, the light and soundscapes, even the direction. It’s just that there’s very little tension on stage and the chemistry between Helen Thomson and Erik Thomson is not there. And that makes me feel like they’re not completely inside the beats and words of the script. Yet, I am big fans of both of them as performers. I wonder though whether the combination just didn’t come to fruition on stage. As a result, there’s a lack of belief in their relationship and their feelings towards Laura and so the stakes are missing. Do I care what happens to the child in the end? Not so much. Am I meant to? I think I am somewhat. I’m expected to sit outside realism and in this heightened world but I still have to be invested in the parents’ emotive responses to what they perceive as the dangers of psychological splintering in order to engage in the ramifications and consequences of drowning in the darkness of fear and terror, especially as it moves more into fantasy, it needs to take me inside at the start before separating me from this world by the end.
So before people start telling me I don’t understand theatre and that this play is not ‘realism’ and therefore affords a different approach, thank you. I do understand. I’m not after catharsis, a purging of emotion. I know the play works on expressing an idea using the elements of the stage. But part of that is a reference to every parent’s nightmare- the loss of a child, the loss of naivety in regards to the safety of our own neighbourhood and the fear that things will never be the same. Inside that lies moments of truth, in marriage, relief, affection, doubt. Time has been erased, life stood still for a fraction of time but how does it now continue? These parents are still grieving, even though their child is back. There is still loss, anger, denial, bargaining. And conveying that with some homage to belief is what drives a sense of dramatic tension then heightened by the visual mise-en-scene. If the relationship between them doesn’t quite ring true, the journey is all about the theatricality and not the players in it. These are not archetypes- they are people on the edge of a breakdown. In fact, they dance around it only briefly before diving head first into it. And that requires moments of intense connection with the emotion and with each other.
OK- so, aside from a lack of chemistry and tension (and thus why parts of it felt to me it was boring), here are some the elements of the staging that tempered that and made for an interesting viewing of techniques:
Most obviously, the puppetry. Julia Ohannessian and Kate Worsley, under the direction of Alice Osbourne create some powerful images of the porcelain child, an image of the fragility of the girl now in the home as opposed to the lively adventurous girl who once lived there. The scenes of the tea party, the hair brushing- all add to this eerie affect.
Renee Mulder’s sparse set to compliment the text and its style is effective in adding to the atmosphere of this gothic inspired narrative. I love the curtains, blowing in the wind- as if a cyclone could tear down this home at anytime. This is further enhanced in Damien Cooper’s lighting, keeping the stage in a constant feeling of dusk- symbolic of the family’s state on the edge of paralysing darkness. Then throw in the composition of Emily Maguire and Steve Francis’ sound design and you have a technical proficient ability to create a world reminiscent of the original inspiration for the script, Henry James’ ‘Turn of the Screw’.
There are so many visually stunning aspects to 'The Splinter' that for that alone, you will engage in the technical creation of Bell’s script. Just be aware, if you are wondering why it didn’t resonate more with you when there were so many interesting things about it, I’m guessing it’s the patchy chemistry and tension.
But go and see it and decide for yourself. It may just have been the show I saw. You be the judge.

Friday, 7 September 2012


Ah…Toby Schmitz. I mean if you were going to stalk someone’s professional career, it’s most likely going to be Toby Schmitz. Just ask the teenage girls and their teacher in the front row on opening night of his new play, he’s hot (property) right now. I even hear they’ve got a Toby Schmitz picture of the week that goes up on the noticeboard outside the Drama rooms so I can only imagine their excitement that the writer was sitting there, in the audience, two rows behind them. OMG, I can hardly breathe. They’ve been Schmitzed.
It was a pleasure to be at the launch of his new play ‘I want to sleep with Tom Stoppard’, directed by Leland Kean, artistic director and CEO of Tamarama Rock Surfers, a company that has been producing top quality independent theatre and new Australian works for years and now has two venues in which to showcase that work, the Old Fitz and here at the Bondi Pavilion. Tamarama Rock Surfers is Schmitz’ company of choice to produce his plays and I’m not surprised- they serve the voice of the writer whilst respecting all those involved in bringing those words to life.
Let me paint the scene of the opening night. Actors, strewn throughout the audience, hugging each other like old friends, catching up on news. Scruffy, confident men and casually glamorous women, all out supporting theatre and its players and then hitting the bar like an aphrodisiac. How many practitioners of their craft would so readily spend a night off to go to watch someone else practice theirs? It’s one of the wonderful things about actors that they are there, armed and ready to cheer (admittedly, sometimes only superficially) colleagues and competition and it’s also one of the reasons you have to excuse them from mostly not being able to openly criticise each other about their work. The dangers of alienating the community you reside in…ooh…actors know conflict and tension and they’re not afraid to use it.
Schmitz’ certainly knows his audience and his community and this play pulls upon the experience of working in it professionally for the last 15 years. ‘I want to sleep with Tom Stoppard’ tells the story of Sarah, a middle-aged actress, and the debris left after she joins her younger actor boyfriend at dinner with his parents. In this unravelling, we are left to ponder the role that theatre plays in society as well as what is theatre and under all of that, what happens if you give up on your dreams and who are you doing that for? There are great moments where the play pokes fun at itself as it criticises kitchen sink dramas but makes no disguise of the fact that it is exactly that. No metaphors here. There are questions in regards to marriage, sex, fidelity, generational differences and the power of imagination with a vege garden… Complex stuff indeed.
The knowing guffaws from his audience were, I imagine, a relief to the writer and director. The tongue-in-cheek commentary of Schmitz’ voice echoes through every character at some stage in the play. It had a touch of Berkoff, a smattering of Williamson, a nerdish reference to a history text book and a dash of Shakespeare, all stirred in the clear and resonating ideas of Schmitz.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this play. The standout star of the play, Caroline Brazier as Sarah, was probably the most impressive part of the production. Her formidable presence, towering confidence and ability to seduce, hunt and destroy all the other characters on stage in the simple glare of an expression or an emasculating and direct line of dialogue was captured in Brazier’s performance. The stage was left with a wake of crying, destroyed men, father and son both rejected in their sexual desires and Sarah’s closing lines, brilliantly and deliciously delivered. This is beautifully contrasted in the maternal role of Jackie, played by Wendy Strehlow. Protector vs Predator. Strehlow’s grip on that zucchini in the end after denying her husband’s advances was a lovely highlight. And the lines in regards to the screaming dildo-wearing Three Sisters…didn’t I see that play? Didn’t we all. Tom Stokes as Luke and Andrew McFarlane as Tom were also great casting choices but this play feels like it is unashamedly all about Sarah and Brazier made sure that we never forgot it, in all the right ways.
Kudos to lighting designer, Luiz Pampolha. His triptych of lighting stakes captured the big tableaux of the play with beautiful comic timing. Jeremy Silver’s sound design accompanied by the original soundtrack of the Ironwood Chamber Orchestra created mood and status in this location and the set design of Natalie and Vanessa Hughes, especially with their ability to project the shadows of conflict at the end, create the rooms of domesticity and privacy, especially in the hobby room of model ships, enhanced Schmitz’ ideas with appropriate realist sophistication.
The more I reflect on this show, the more I like it. It’s very, very good. There are some small flaws in writing that suggest it’s got another re-write in there that will happen in time. The references to the gay son still feel a bit random, dad’s ‘ocker vulgarities’ at the start don’t quite ring true with his verbose deconstruction of the role of theatre in contemporary society and the parents still feel like they are characters painted as a young man would perceive them, especially in their fight at the end.
Kean’s direction strongly respects words and performers. He’s brought the best out of this fine piece of work. Maybe I would make Tom a little less jittery at the start to contrast his discomfort in the second half but these are minor details in what is essentially a great night of entertainment.
Once again, independent theatre is leading the way and this is another play well worth seeing if you can get a ticket. If not, may I suggest a noticeboard with a weekly picture of Toby Schmitz. And a zucchini.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

STC’S ‘FACE TO FACE’ directed by Simon Stone and dissected by me.

Everyone is always keen to know when it comes to Simon Stone…did she hate it, like it or love it? I’m in the middle on this one. In fact, I really liked it and generally give it the thumbs up but I do have some problems with it (of course).
I’d like to firstly give a note to STC: enough with the European-inspired plays looking at middle-aged women, lonely and repressed, spiralling on the path to a nervous breakdown.  I mean really, enough. I’m starting to think that if I’m fairly well-balanced, I’m missing out on something.
‘Face to Face’, adapted from Ingmar Bergman by Stone and Andrew Upton, is the story of Jenny (Kerry Fox), a psychiatrist whose life soon manifests into her own breakdown as she is forced to deal with her issues- mainly towards her absent husband, her maligned dead father and the trauma of a recent attack.
Some of the content of ‘Face to Face’ is incredibly sexist and it prompts me to quickly go through a dumbed down version or backlog of some of Stone’s work that I’ve seen.
Baal: Man who seduces and then kills women when he wants out of the relationship.
Thyestes: Men who kill and abuse women to seek revenge and assert power.
The Promise: Woman who has to make a choice between two men and picks to stay with the man she doesn’t love out of duty.
Strange Interlude: Woman who chooses to marry a man she doesn’t love to get over the death of a man she did love and then falls in love with another man that she can’t have until he wants her and thus she no longer wants him, eventually loving no-one but her child.
The Wild Duck: Man leaves wife because she ‘trapped’ him into marriage as she was carrying another man’s baby he believed was his. Child (girl) then commits suicide because her 'father' has rejected her.
Oh look…I could twist it anyway I like to prove a point I suppose. Certainly not all works are violent towards women but the essence of it is there. Women, especially strong, intelligent women, are abandoned by men and only succeed in relationships when they fulfil the duty of carer and not lover, as voiced in the play by Wendy Hughes’ character, Aunt, when she talks about finally being happy in her relationship now her husband has lost his mind and needs full-time care.
And if you don't live that role? Cue mental institution.
I will say, I’m sure not all of Stone’s work falls into this theme but I was interested to see how much of his work does seem to fit. Obviously he didn’t write (or re-write) them all but it seems to me he is attracted to this kind of material. Or have I only just naively been enlightened to the fact that strong, independent  women on stage must go mad or die because women are their best selves when they suppress their own identity to fulfil a subservient role in the duty or dedication and care of others?  Or, worse still, did I miss the memo in contemporary society that this is not just art and literature but it is, in fact, modern life? Oh dear. No wonder people hate me. I absolutely don’t belong. Warning: assertive woman on the loose. Call the psych ward. Note to self, throw out your copy of ‘Why Men Love Bitches’. It’s a lie.
I suppose this idea was crystallised for me in the rape scene when Jenny, in rushing to the aid of her patient Maria (Anna Martin), Jenny is attacked in the street and is the victim of an attempted rape. The rape is abandoned as she is “dry and useless”. It is one of those moments of incredible humiliation that Stone crafts so well, his power play of the theatre. So when Jenny later remarks to Tomas (Mitchell Butel) that she wanted the attacker to rape her, she longed for him, well…that just sat in my gut and it was very hard to reconcile. Maybe because I’m a woman I view these things from a very different perspective, even on stage, and it doubles the humiliation for the character- the powerless of the rape and then being abandoned by him. What message are we delivering or am I just being overly sensitive to it?
Maybe it was the undertones of the material that characters like Tomas confess, even in their attempted seduction of Jenny, that his only real love was a man (the implication being that women are the second prize).
Oh- enough with the content and let me talk about why I pushed that slightly aside and actually enjoyed the show. This show is an ensemble triumph and Kerry Fox is outstanding as Jenny. When she confesses her memories of her father, through her wails and tears, I was genuinely moved. Fox brings an integrity to this role and plays it with such truth in this fragmented stylistic play.
The cast, in a variety of roles, swim in and out of the dreamlike vignettes, and capture these moments with sophisticated intentions and context. Butel ( a firm favourite since 'Strange Interlude') has such a beautiful manipulation of skill and focus and his conviction in every word and action is evident; John Gaden, Hughes, Dylan Young- all the cast are a strength in Stone’s direction.
So let me compliment Stone on his control of style in ‘Face to Face’. I enjoyed the dream weave of scenes, changes in locations, leaps in narrative that then become heightened in the second half when the design becomes static but time and characters move with fluidity in and out of the space. It’s clever staging and so kudos to set and lighting designer Nick Schlieper for the incredible lowering of the hospital set (yes, in a glass box…well….it’s part of the territory so why fight it). Its ability to weave scenes through the entrances and exits and convey all the shifts and dream sequences with such clarity gave Stone a terrific template in which to bring his vision to life.
I enjoyed this show and would recommend it. But be warned all my middle-aged female friends, you will writhe in slight discomfort in some of the content and I’m not sure it was all consciously written that way. However, the stylistic choices and Stone’s direction work well, the design and use of the stage I thought were completely appropriate and used thoughtfully (unless you hate the movement of actors and set pieces during scenes) and the acting first class.
And if you take the Benedict Andrews’ bingo card, it even works here for his protégé Stone.
Two directors. One card.
A win.