Sunday, 23 February 2014
I spent the first two minutes of this show in the middle of a family domestic running at 180 miles an hour and wondering what on earth was the all the commotion about, like a confused bystander who does not have the benefit of the family backstory. Then, Donna Abela’s ‘Jump for Jordan’, like a well-oiled machine that’s just fired out of the starting line allowed us to catch up and took us on a terrific journey of past, present and future colliding and finding harmony, finally. It’s a play that takes a history of dispossession, conflict and occupation and creates an oasis of belonging and understanding in its narrative and characterisation that leaves us feeling that every person has a chance to move forward, embrace but not be paralysed by the past.
Iain Sinclair has taken Abela’s words and directed a piece that perfectly balances humour with tragedy. Whilst the character of Sophie (Alice Ansara) is at the heart of our story as she tries to reconcile her family immigrant experience and her own sexuality with her mother Mara’s (Doris Younane) insular, cultural and generational preconceptions about what makes her daughters successful or brings shame upon the family, heightened by the arrival of Mara’s sister Azza (Camilla Ah Kin) from Jordan, Sophie’s sister Loren’s (Sheridan Harbridge) wedding and the presence of her father Sahir’s (Sal Sharah) ghost, this play also weaves its pieces like the artefacts it uncovers throughout the play, allowing its audience to take the fragments of narrative and compare them to our own experiences of unravelling our heritage in order to better understand ourselves.
This is a very strong cast and there is a pulsing tension and electricity on stage accentuated by Pip Runciman’s set design of the sands of Jordan creeping through the inner western Sydney home- reminding us that the essence of our heritage is present in our home, even when we are thousands of miles away from it. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of ‘Jump for Jordan’ and it’s a reminder to us of the incredible writing and creative talent we have on our own doorstep that thankfully have been given a voice at the Stables Theatre. Ansara captures Sophie’s curiosity, Harbridge has some of the best comic delivery that sits between archetype and truth, Younane’s Mara is as overbearing as she is broken and Ah Kin is simply mesmerising as Azza, part matriarch, part terrorist.
I challenge anyone not to enjoy ‘Jump for Jordan’. Even though I arrived exhausted in the midst of the busiest week of my life, it allowed me to truly escape and engage and reinforced the power of theatre- this wonderful three-dimensional exploration of ideas and stories that come alive in that moment in a communion between actors and audience. ‘Jump for Jordan’ is why we go to the theatre and if the first three plays I’ve seen at or by Griffin this year are anything to go by, this is the company you should be subscribing to in 2014 if you haven’t already. Bravo.
Tuesday, 18 February 2014
The New Theatre’s first play for their 2014 season, Peter Nichol’s and Denis King’s ‘Privates on Parade’ is not only a great Mardi Gras choice that offers a piece of gay history in a romping musical satire of post WWII British army entertainers in the fragile environs of Singapore but it also conveys such a sense of joy in performance by a cast who are having a thoroughly good time that it has easily transferred that pleasure into the audience, who are having just as much fun.
Director Alice Livingstone has smartly utilised some of her cast as pre-show entertainment out in the foyer and the steps of the theatre as they regale us with their lady-boy antics and lovely vocals and choreography that they set the mood for the rest of the show. We’re won over before the actual show even starts.
It then takes a slight dip as some cast struggle a little with broad accent work and therefore the clarity of vocals is not always ensured but the dips return to highs when some of the outstanding members of the cast are given their moments to steal the spotlight or own the stage. James Lee as Acting Captain Terri Dennis is the perfect example of this. Not only is Lee an accomplished vocalist who oozes confidence and diva on stage but he relishes every moment in role and is not afraid to show vulnerability either. David Hooley’s Private Stephen Flowers is the most real of roles and Hooley finds the balance in belief, naivety and ambition and can still pump out a tune and a box step like a pro when needed. Diana Perini (Sylvia Morgan) holds her own in a cast of men and manages to work that stage with great finesse and Peter Eyers as Major Giles Flack was an engaging portrayal of every misguided yet harmless Major in British comedy all rolled into one. ‘Privates on Parade’ takes the stereotype, adds music, song, dance (and a shower scene…hello sailor…), comedy and costume and then gives it just a little more flesh to give meat to the scenario. It is ‘It Ain't Half Hot Mum’ taken up a notch.
‘Privates on Parade’ is not without flaws but it is a tightly choreographed and directed ensemble piece and its flaws actually give it flavour and charm and they are minor in a Major show (I amuse myself with my own witticisms sometimes). It has an ending that feels like there’s another episode to come but it does not detract from the pleasure of performance.
Allan Walpole’s set has allowed for plenty of movement in the cast but he has created a wonderful world of possibilities that echo the makeshift world of our characters and their situation and Famke Visser’s costumes touch on the military and naughty school boy so that should keep everyone happy. Kudos also to a great live band hidden away that add to the colour of this show. John Short has produced a great little musical team that’s as tight as Livingstone’s direction. Another shout out to choreographer Trent Kidd for his work in ‘Privates on Parade’ as it adds to the polish of the whole performance.
This could easily have been a tacky hambone thrust out for Mardi Gras but Livingstone and her team have earned their stripes on this show. There’s plenty to see (I have alluded to the shower scene and here it is again) and the joy of the show is contagious. You can’t help but reflect the smiles of the cast and it’s backed up with plenty of talent so if you needed an excuse to get to the theatre, this is as good as any.
Monday, 17 February 2014
'A Boy & A Bean', written and performed by Nick Atkins is one of the shows on offer for the Queer Act/Ions Festival to coincide with the Sydney Mardi Gras. I saw ‘A Boy & A Bean’ at the PACT Theatre on the weekend before it moves off to the Q Theatre this week and then on to Dublin in May. In a nutshell, it’s a nice show. It’s essentially a love story with a few expected complications, some of which are clear references to the discrimination against gay marriage and the rest of the play’s hurdles centre around our protagonist Jack's own perceived obstacles and his subsequent actions of relationship self-sabotage.
Atkins is an accomplished performer. He has an array of physical and vocal skills and happily uses the intimacy of the small stage to create an atmosphere of warmth and likability towards each character as they emerge from the collection of players he gives life to throughout the hour long show. He wraps all of this around the metaphor of Jack and the Beanstalk, although I will admit that the allusion was not so clear at the start until I realised that the Giant was our narrator and more of a drag mother than a tyrant in Atkins’ story. The Giant is meant to embody not so much an ogre but a new perspective on our own monsters but it doesn't always hit that beat and requires us as audience to try to make that connection ourselves.
Even though our protagonist Jack fills almost all of the performance time telling his version of the story and we feel he is the closest representation to Atkins himself, it is his partner David that is the most defined and vulnerable and we connect with him. David is the grounded, loyal and stable character of the play and we most want to identify with his role. Part of our attraction to David also lay in the fact that Jack and the Giant are a little too close in portrayal- slightly hysterical and effeminate and David therefore stands out as different to the other two drivers of the story. A clearer differentiation between all three might have added another dimension to the overall play as the waving of the napkin was an obvious signifier we were now witnessing the Giant on stage but personality wise, there wasn’t much else separating them.
However, ‘A Boy & A Bean’ is a generally well-crafted narrative and it paces nicely. It is enjoyable without bowling you over. It tries to sit on the fence in regard to gay marriage legislation and perhaps needs to form a more definite opinion on which side it falls. It’s trying to be human without being political but it can come off as being indecisive. It either matters to these characters or it doesn’t. ‘A Boy & A Bean’ hasn’t quite made up its mind. This is further echoed in the ending that feels slightly unresolved, which I think is its intention but once again feels confused in what it’s really trying to say.
But Atkins is infinitely watchable and talented and the show was a very pleasant way to spend an hour. The more he has a chance to find the core of his intent and expression in this show, scaling that beanstalk, so to speak, he will have something well worth the climb.
Friday, 14 February 2014
Upon hearing that I was going to see ‘The Long Way Home’, friends who had seen it at the opening of the show the night before said to me, ‘I’ll be interested in your thoughts’. Immediately I presumed I would be walking into a disaster zone, especially when I heard that most of the cast were ex or current army personnel. Daniel Keene’s massaged and reinvented style of verbatim play, as he describes it is “born out of the experiences of the soldiers who will perform the play. They will play themselves re-imagined”. Oh dear, I thought, can this work? Will the potholes of non-professional actors in this play-as-therapy in exploring the transition of life upon returning from military zones become a trench we are all destined to fall into?
In the first ten minutes I thought that potentially the answer to that question was ‘yes’, especially when one performer could only read his lines off the clipboard and declaim them out into the audience. Have we asked too much of them? I mean how intimidating is it performing on the Sydney Theatre stage in front of hundreds of mostly regular theatre-goers? Terrifying, I would think.
And then, as the vehicle warmed up, this well written and structured play of Keene’s, directed by Stephen Rayne, complete with humour, drama and tension in all its vignettes fell into place and this rough diamond was a breath of fresh air. It is authentic and faithful in its voices and stories and more than that- it’s part catharsis, part educational and enlightenment and always an engaging piece of theatre. Keene and Rayne have perfectly captured the action in bite size, non-linear chunks and understood the rhythm and pace in which to express each moment and experience on stage.
Contrast and collaboration lies at the crux of ‘The Long Way Home’. Not only is there the mix of professional actors with military performers but there is the world of the child’s perspective of war and its reality, of monologues juxtaposed with the chorus of ghosts, with the aural assault of heavy metal to the stony silence of isolation, of imagination and reality, of the numbness and nightmares and of humour with drama. Keene and Rayne with the ensemble worked together throughout the process: interviewing, workshopping, and improvising until it was 'owned' by all in it.
I want to commend each and every performer in this show for making me care about the plight of the returned soldier, especially the two men taking on roles of our protagonists, Tim Loch and Craig Hancock. I want to commend our professionals for creating roles that perfectly complemented these voices. Tahki Saul’s series of lectures on understanding army jargon and the chain of command were some of the most delightful moments on stage and I could hear those with any military experience almost jump out of their seats with glee at the expertly delivered satire.
Technically this play wheels in and out of the space like the narrative itself and the brief video excerpts filmed and designed by David Bergman added another layer of theatrical authenticity. Renee Mulder’s use of the screens and projections, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Steve Francis’ sound and compositions made sure this play had an injection of lightness that could quickly be buried in the shadows of secrecy and noise.
I found the power of this play snuck up on me so by the time I got to the last moments I was genuinely touched by the journey that had unfolded. The homecoming stories of a life we can only but imagine have become part of a contemporary public theatrical expression in ‘The Long Way Home’ and reminds us that theatre is more than a staging of ideas. It is the medium for a discovery of worlds unknown that we can now share that resonate our past, present and future experiences and understanding.
This is community theatre at its best and I am privileged to have seen it and I hope you can too.
Thursday, 13 February 2014
Let’s agree that the Genesian is an equal opportunity employer and that anyone who has a passion for performing or technical work or directing will probably get a go and maybe, just sometimes, they probably shouldn’t. Other times I have been pleasantly surprised by what’s come out of this tiny theatre and its dedicated band of members. Their commitment is faultless. Talent is not so guaranteed.
This was the case in their latest production of ‘Hotel Sorrento’. Hannie Rayson’s play is a difficult and ambitious ask because it is filmic and episodic in structure and on stage it can and it did feel clunky and piecemeal because director Shane Bates has pushed for set locations in every scene and turned up the obvious meter on full volume. As a result we see actors carrying out chairs for a two minute scene or having to move walls and counters to play their two minute scene and so it goes. Aaron Harvey’s set certainly allowed for some interesting lighting scapes for Timothy M Carter to play with and there were lots of open spaces for action to occur but it all felt a bit hard and it struggled to find momentum. Let’s not even talk about the one scene that had completely the wrong lighting state for a good two minutes whilst the cast performed in semi-darkness. It’s the hit and miss of amateur theatrics. Some days are diamonds, some days are stones. This show was a boulder.
This was a play in a hurry to move and the slow development of characters and relationships seemed to be missing, as was the ever elusive tension. The Genesian production of ‘Hotel Sorrento’ was trying just too damn hard and fell short.
There were some nice transient moments of talent on stage, even if the blocking was contrived. The actors were giving it their all and even though there was some confusion over the native English accent of one of the Australian characters, Marge, Lynn Turnbull-Rose put in the strongest performance of the cast and tried to find the truth for her character that made us at least believe her intentions.
There was a distinct lack of subtlety across the board in this production and it meant the stakes weren’t high enough for us as audience to really engage in the characters’ dilemmas. It made this relatively short play feel a whole lot longer and I don’t think its audience, as forgiving as they are, was as completely satisfied as it usually is in what is produced there.
I admire the intentions of the Genesians, I just don’t always admire the work. ‘Hotel Sorrento’ squarely fits that bill.
Saturday, 8 February 2014
If the Ensemble know how to do one thing really well it’s how to pick excellent pieces of international writing to flesh out their local works and season. David Auburn’s ‘Proof’ is such a play. It knows exactly how to surprise its audience and tilt the journey for its characters throughout the play. Sandra Bates as director hasn’t always managed to hit each moment but some very skilled efforts in acting, particularly from Matilda Ridgway, and a great design by Graham Maclean have given ‘Proof’ the substance it needs.
Let’s talk about where the gaping holes are and that lies squarely with the vocals. I know the minute we open the discussion on accents we’re in a catch 22. Some plays need accents (may I remind you of Ralph Myer’s direction of ‘Private Lives’ without them and how badly it suffered as a result) and some plays don’t (STC’s ‘Sex With Strangers’ case in point). Some directors want complete authenticity and some want to focus on their own agenda and not the natural author’s or characters' voices. But here’s the thing- an accent done badly is always going to be a detractor from the bigger issues of the play. Unless it’s essential to the play, if your cast aren’t capturing that accent, let it go. I wish Bates had let the accent take a holiday from ‘Proof’. The audience would have forgiven it much more than suffer through bad accent work 101.
On the vocals, Michael Ross’ delivery as Robert was staccato and contrived. I could time the pauses for dramatic effect and in the end they actually halted some of the tension and given he has some of the best reveals in the play, he missed out on some potentially powerful moments.
On to the good. Matilda Ridgway (Catherine) was by far the strongest on stage. Ridgway knows sarcasm and isn’t afraid to use it and she is ably supported by Adriano Cappelletta (Hal) and Catherine McGraffin (Claire). The three of them had lovely moments especially when they could all occupy the stage together. I enjoyed the developing relationship between enthusiastic Hal and cynical Cathy and the contrast of sensible Claire and dishevelled Cathy. I wish Ross had relaxed into the role as Robert more so that the playful scenes between him and Ridgway could have served the later juxtaposition when we are completely aware of their history and dynamic as when he did, as in the start of Act II, they add so much more to the play.
Maclean’s set was impressive. The household ‘back porch of a house in Chicago’ became another character in this play and it felt like each character had scribbled their fears, hopes, future and past upon it. I am constantly impressed by the quality of the work of the designer s at the Ensemble in transforming that tiny space into a plethora of places and levels, eras and architecture.
‘Proof’ is a good solid outing and because the play itself is so good it was a pleasure to see it come to life on stage again. Although a little bumpy in rhythm and vocals at times, there is plenty to commend it. It even made me a little excited by the topic of mathematics and that’s saying something.
In the last few weeks I’ve had the pleasure of attending a couple of the Sydney Short and Sweet Cabaret shows, the finale of Short and Sweet Dance and the one-man comedy show ‘The Full Load’ as part of the Midsumma Festival at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne. It’s certainly been a month of variety.
The Short and Sweet Cabaret was one of the best outings I’ve seen as part of the Short and Sweet Franchise. Partly its effectiveness is derived from the formula that almost every act adheres to- a ballad to start, a discussion of how hard love is and then pumping out a showstopper upbeat song to finish in celebration of ‘survival’. But the skill on stage was palpable and ranged from the seasoned performer to the burlesque. Director Kate Gaul offered it a quality eye that helped the cabaret component achieve a polish not always seen in these ten minute vignettes and musical director Daryl Wallis gave it consistency and a professional edge. It was a successful combination of music and theatre and the strongest of the forms in the Short and Sweet Festival.
The Short and Sweet Dance had plenty of good technique in evidence but it also reinforced that whilst many of them are skilled dancers, they are not always actors or choreographers and it means sometimes their intentions can be cloudy and they haven’t really found what they’re trying to say in the images and movement presented. The skill of a proficient choreographer shouldn’t be underestimated. The ‘So You Think You Can Dance’ secret is not just in amassing great dancers. What mostly sustains its success is found in providing the dancers a vehicle to showcase those skills through quality choreography. That is not to say that many dancers in Short and Sweet Dance didn’t display great technique but they couldn’t quite realise the triple threat of acting, dancing and choreography so it can feel disconnected from its audience, like Joseph Simons’ piece ‘Familiar Strangers’ where there was astounding technique but the acting was lacking. Some were more acting than dancing, which was superfluous, such as ‘Sink or Swim’, lovely to watch but the dancing was irrelevant and all our focus was on the one person, a very skilled performer, who didn’t dance at all. The evening ended with a genuine stage-filler in ‘Swingdancin’’ which at least brought an infectious smile to its audience. But I was glad I saw it and I’m all for a festival that allows trained technicians of their craft to present their ‘something to say’.
In a delightful trip to Melbourne I caught Nigel Sutton’s solo show, ‘The Full Load’, directed by Roslyn Oades, at the Butterfly Club. Sutton is a friend (full disclosure alert) but after seeing his show I felt it was well worth reviewing in case you get the chance to see it if it does the Festival circuit.
‘The Full Load’ introduces us to the character of Krispin K, orphaned laundrette aficionado and owner and we in the audience are being trialled or auditioned for the privilege of having Krispin launder your intimates. Amongst the hijinks of learning how to sort clothes, treat stains, fold sheets and intertwine socks, Sutton transforms into his clients and takes us on a journey of their dark and comic idiosyncrasies. It’s an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ tale with black comedy and audience interaction and it’s not afraid to include pathos in its punch.
‘The Full Load’ is a well-crafted show that hits all the beats and treats its audience with care and respect. Sutton subtly signposts and manipulates tension and we are partly appalled, mostly sympathetic and always engaged in the plight of Krispin K in this one hour show.
It’s a polished, energetic performance that can be enjoyed by all ages and if it comes to a venue near you, dress to impress and see it.