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Thursday, 27 March 2014


When the list of collaborators is that long you would hope that taking a gamble on seeing a Wharf 2 experimental piece of theatre is worth it the ten minutes it took you just to read the title. The odds of it being interesting, short, original and different are high and seeing the Border Project and Ontroerend Goed’s ‘Fight Night’ was like hitting the jackpot.

When host Angelo Tijssens says ‘that every show needs an audience and in this show we can’t do it without you’ he’s not joking. In ‘Fight Night’ the audience is the most important character in the play. Armed with remote control devices in which to cast their vote and relay information straight to the computers next to the makeshift stage, the audience are able to enter information and cast votes to determine not only the direction of the show but also vital demographics about themselves. Interestingly enough in our audience the 60+ middle-class married women were in the majority so if things don’t go your way in the show, you know exactly who to blame.

Enter the five candidates. Initially voting on physical impressions only, we cast our first vote and the first winner and loser emerge. They address us, there is some banter and then we’re told in the next round someone will get eliminated. Now it’s getting real. The stakes are raised. We vote again and so it goes. Don’t be fooled- even the most popular in one round can be eliminated next. Underdogs can rise, champions can fall and ultimately, you’re left with one candidate, whether you wanted them or not. The majority have spoken.

I’d love to know whether the voting is genuine, which would require seeing it more than once or comparing notes with friends. I’d happily see this show again but given the intention of this show, to allow the audience to manipulate the outcome, let’s presume it’s legitimate. ‘Fight Night’ is therefore a fascinating study in human psychology. Candidates exponentially lessened their chances of winning every time they spoke. In the end, giving a reason to vote for them was far less effective than giving reasons why we shouldn’t vote for someone else.

Aren’t humans curious? Even how we define ourselves in our answers during the show as a little bit racist, as spiritual more than religious or that we still find the ‘c’ word more offensive than any other word, candidates who mirrored the qualities of how we see ourselves did not necessarily make them appealing to us.  The most honest or trustworthy candidates were sometimes the first to go. Apparently we love a shot of blatant dishonesty and self-interest in our leaders. Well there’s the political system defined in one easy sentence. We want rhetoric and lies that might sound believable and a healthy dose of a smear campaign. Thank you very much Murdoch Press for preparing us so thoroughly for this show.

So did I get the candidate I wanted? No. She went first and in the end, spurned on by my love of anti-authoritarian figures, I joined the peaceful protest group and was duly evicted by the majority. It doesn’t get more Australian than that. As tempted as I was to drop the ‘c’ word to the audience as I departed, I thankfully restrained myself.

I loved every moment of this show. It combines theatre, psychology and statistics to appeal to the experiential inquisitive nerd in each of us. There aren’t many shows where you can interact as audience in this non-threatening but integral way. You shape this show and decide its outcome and in the process perhaps we learn more ourselves than we do about any character on stage. We are easily manipulated, our votes can be bought, we are judgemental, hypocritical and fickle. We state what’s important to us and then act in the opposite way.

‘Fight Night’ has a limited run but you must see it and be prepared to come out really questioning how well you know yourself and those around you.

And for the record- I never trusted that audience. 

Monday, 24 March 2014

SUDS 'QUACK' dissected by Hayley

'Quack' is one of my favourite pieces of Australian theatre so I was excited and a little apprehensive to see the SUDS production. For those of you unfamiliar with 'Quack', I'll break it down for you: ZOMBIES ATTACK: BLOOD SPLATTERS. Obviously there is more to it. It is a very well written play, if not verbose but ultimately I love it for one reason. Gore.

The audience are mustered in just outside the Studio B entrance. We are told if we are allergic to kerosene or opposed to being splattered with blood or pus, please don't sit in the front row. We all nod in unison and bee-line for the nosebleed section (or the fifth row in studio B). As I enter I am informed that a seat had been reserved for me, in the front row. Fantastic.

The set was very basic, a door and two tables, framed with worn-out theatre flats. Everything looks 10 years too old. Despite this, the stage feels warm and inviting, old-worldly. The score was appropriately haunting. It felt very familiar, like every 'point and click' game I had ever played.

The language was coarse and the piss, pus and blood flows fairly regularly. The cast certainly have a firm grasp on physical comedy. This is clear early on during Fanny (Melissa McShane) and Nancy's (Geneva Gilmour) slap-off. My biggest gripe with this production was the constant talking heads. The actors kept standing still to deliver their lines. I feel like they needed to use the stage more or just sit down.

Now on to the gore. I would have liked more, but I know how budgets can be restricting. However I found the scene where Dr Littlewood (Alexander Richmond) spews discharge all over the audience (including me in my front row seat) very satisfying. The rest of the audience seemed to think so too, cheering at every putrid retch. A young man seated behind me chortled “God have mercy on your show”. More like “God have mercy on my blouse”.

At the three quarter point, all of the cast are covered head to toe in fake blood and are well and truly embedded in their characters, the crux of the piece underlined with one line describing the zombies as being 
“...the catastrophe of our choices” reminding us of how visceral a good horror can be. 'Quack' gives us insight into human nature and what lies at its fetid, coagulated core, which feels particularly relevant after all that has happened with human rights in Australia of late.

For the most part, I enjoyed the performance. The production values were low but the performances were of a high calibre, especially Richmond and McShane. 

Any show where I need to take a shower afterwards hits the mark for me.

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Here’s the good news- Bruce Norris’ prize winning play is so successful that before it had even opened at the Ensemble Theatre, it had already sold out and they have had to schedule two more performances after their run at the Ensemble at the Concourse, Chatswood.

Here’s the extra good news- it’s also a rock solid performance of Norris’ play. Set in a fictitious suburb in Chicago in 1959, (Lorraine Hansberry fans will recognise Clybourne Park from ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ and Norris’ play is written in response to it), middle-aged couple Bev (Wendy Strehlow) and Russ (Richard Sydenham), grieving the loss of their son, have sold their house in this all white suburban microcosm unknowingly to a black family. Neighbour Karl Lindner (Nathan Lovejoy) enters the house and expresses every argument he can to convince the couple to withdraw the sale and protect the status quo of the neighbourhood. Temper this is Act Two, set in 2009, where white couple Lindsey (Briallen Clarke) and Steve (Lovejoy) have bought the same house, now a predominantly black neighbourhood, and must appease the neighbours and those who want to protect its black history with their plans to demolish the house and build their dream home.

‘Clybourne Park’ deals with more than just race and from more than one perspective. It is a play that also deals with property, grief, post-war traumatic stress and even explores marriage, religion, class and the outsider. Director Tanya Goldberg has utilised a strong cast of many new faces to the Ensemble and we can feel the shift in energy in the theatre- the Ensemble is trying and succeeding with ‘Clybourne Park’ to offer a theatricality strong experience and bring experienced actors new to the Ensemble into the mix and widen the base of audience who might normally subscribe as well.

Nathan Lovejoy is the standout of the cast. His Karl is detestably believable and Lovejoy knows how to manipulate each nuance into representing the kind of qualities possessed by people who might have voted for Pauline Hansen- a healthy dose of fear-mongering and the ability to exert his power over others. He honestly believes the fabric of society will be destroyed and in many ways, he is right. What we now understand is that society needed a good shake-up. Even likeable white couple Bev and Russ, played ably by Strehlow and Sydenham, in essence seem potentially progressive in thinking but we witness their white privilege and their treatment of servant Francine (Paula Arundell) and her husband Albert (Cleave Williams). We realise that being friendly to your maid is in no way offering equality. Francine is constantly treated with implied commands to stay back later, come in on weekends, get the trunk, etc and Cleave is put to work almost upon arrival. Any proffered ‘gifts’ always come with conditions and so Francine and Albert are wary of accepting anything as they silently stand in the background, observing the unravelling of white fear.

This is beautifully bookended in the second half as Arundell’s character Lena reminds us of the significance of Clybourne Park as an historical milestone in changing suburban class demographics as it struggles to now become a homogenised integrated up-and-coming area. The play explores shifting real estate as much as it does shifting perspectives and each half cleverly reminds us of now and then in power, voice and understanding. Norris draws so many parallels in each half that each character and actor is given great moments to contradict themselves and explore the two halves of their characters’ possibilities.

It’s a good cast. As mentioned, Lovejoy is superb and Cleave Williams was another good find for the Ensemble and I hope to see him in many more shows in Sydney. Sydenham, Strehlow, Arundell, Thomas Campbell (Jim/Tom/Kenneth) and Clarke (who has great comic timing as Betsy and a terrific range as Lindsey) have been well cast and although I think the opening night was slightly under-cooked performance wise- the play was yet to find its full rhythm, as the sell-out run continues, it will be a highlight in the Ensemble’s season.

Kudos to set and costume designer Tobhiyah Stone Feller, whose set for the house can be completely transformed for the second half so we can see how much this suburb has been left to its own devices, out of fear and neglect.

Goldberg has done a good job with ‘Clybourne Park’ and once again, it’s smart programming to choose lots of ‘ideas plays’ to complement the piece of experimentation the Ensemble will allow themselves in their program later in their season. I am thrilled for them that those choices are paying off with enviable audience numbers. Other companies might want to take note. 

Thursday, 20 March 2014

'TIDY TOWN OF THE YEAR' AND 'DIMBOOLA' dissected by Hayley

'Wait' I hear you cry. Hayley? I thought SOYP was written by Jane Simmons? Well yes, it is. But I can't be everywhere and this year there'll be chunks of time when I'm not even in the country so I figured it was time to train up a young apprentice (please say this as if you were the Emperor in Return of the Jedi). 

I'd like to welcome you to Gen Y reviewer, Hayley Dinnison. Her Twitter account describes as 'Writer. Editor. Ghostbuster', A triple threat. Her life is lived firmly within the Sydney arts and culture scene. A Film and TV Editor and Writer by trade; her heart lies with live performance. She is currently completing a Masters of Creative Writing and can be seen most nights in an audience somewhere in Sydney. 

Last week she caught 'Tidy Town of the Year' at the Old Fitz and 'Dimboola' at the King St Theatre in Newtown.

'Tidy Town of the Year', a prize the fictitious town Gandiddiyup is desperate to win. A prize that cleaner Pamela (Victoria Greiner) is heavily invested in, a prize that Rover (Andy Leonard) and Hope (Sarah Hodgetts) couldn't care less about. Three cleaners, each clinging to secrets that eventually worm their way out as they attempt to cover up what appears to be a murder, when they discover a torso in a motel room they are cleaning.

I am not sure if I would call this a “dark comedy”as that implies some sort of satire. This was much less dark and more toilet. From the moment that Pamela, notices a wet patch on the floor and dives to inspect it, smell it. Lick it.

High-brow no, Fun yes. The show was awash with playful banter and puns. I especially liked Pamela's rendition of Gandidiyup's Tidy Town song as well as Hope's striptease, they were very funny and well choreographed. The cast was evenly matched and their performances were sound. But nothing outstanding.

But the writing. Oh dear. Yes, there was some witty dialogue, however every piece of clever wordplay was almost always bookended with a poo or wank joke. The first half was unnecessarily wordy. It felt like every dirty joke I had ever been told was being yelled at me for sixty minutes. Directed by Deborah Jones, Sean O’Riordan and written by its three cast members, I think this might be a case of too many people trying to cram all their ideas into one play.

The set wasn't really conducive to the movements of the cast. They constantly tripped over the double bed. I understand it is a hotel room, but having a double bed on the stage seemed to really hinder the cast and restrict movement.

The second half improved slightly with the big reveal of Hope's character, which I won't give away, but it was a decent twist and the meat of the play. Finally substance. I was so pleased to truly feel something for one of the characters, only to have the whole thing end five minutes later.

There is no questioning that the writer/ performers have a sense of humour. But what could have really made this show into something stellar would have been a bit more vulnerability from the actors. Sure, we heard the backstories of all that ails the characters, but those moments were still shrouded in jokes. The saddest clowns are the best clowns and these clowns just weren't sad enough.

On to 'Dimboola'. From the moment I entered the lobby of the King Street Theatre I left the gritty, humid Newtown behind me and was dragged into the tacky cliched world that is a 1970's Australian, country wedding. The large ensemble cast of 'Dimboola' weaved their way up the stairs through the lobby shouting drunken obscenities to one another, their commitment to character never wavering. The audience crowded into the foyer as the cast continued to mingle. They chatted about the wedding proceedings that we were all meant to have attended, reminding us of what our role was as an audience member was to be, guests at a wedding reception. The sherry snifters were snapped up fast and the theatre is finally opened.

The stage is set as you would expect for a wedding reception, A long table across the back of the stage with a portrait of good ole' Queen Liz looming over the proceeding. The cast bustle in, arguing over who gets to sit where, not unlike the audience. The energy is electric from the high paced banter. The cast eventually settle in as do we the audience, for a night of booze, laughter and punch-ups.

'Dimboola', written by Jack Hibberd, is a tale of two families coming together to celebrate the union of Maureen (Reen) and Morris (Morrie) in the most cliched, VB soaked wedding this side of Kalgoorlie. The plot is loose and the language crass, which is what you would expect from a country Australian wedding. The start was a little shaky, the lines delivered a little too forcefully. But as the VB started to flow the characters took over the actors and the one-liners started to hit the mark. With such a large ensemble cast (at least 15 on stage at any given time) it was sometimes hard to know where my focus should be. When a character would claim a scene, they would take the floor, and stand front and centre.  I felt like they could have come up with something a little more creative to shift the focus from character to character.

If the first half was vulgar, the second half managed to pummel the audience even harder with crudeness as the cast descent into total inebriation reaches terminal velocity. The speeches flow as articulately as smothered farts, the bridegroom only managing to garble out “no worries” about a million times before he fell face first into the wedding cake. Finally the two families meander off the stage, Queen Liz's portrait tucked neatly under the arm of one of the guests and we are done. The reception a shambles and the performance a rip-roaring success.

Letitia Sutherland as Agatha (Aggie) was a particular highlight, her journey from staunch, spinster into half-cut horn-bag was as perfect as it was hysterical. Special mention must be made to Tim Matthews and Michael Yore as Bayonet and Mutton. They had me at “Drop dead you old Goanna”. The inclusion of the band “Lionel Driftwood and the Pile Drivers” gave an air of authenticity to the performance, really transporting the audience to Dimboola and the small town sounds that accompany it.

I need to also make mention of the fact that not only was this is Darcy Green's directorial debut, he also stepped up into the role of Horrie in the place of Benjamin Vickers. I would be really interested to see what Vickers brings to the show because Green nailed the character. Green, with clever casting has successfully revived 'Dimboola' for a contemporary audience. It is particularly relevant with all the commotion of gay marriage damaging the purity and sanctity of traditional weddings, this highlights the reality that no matter what you are, you throw some alcohol in the mix, even the most pious will fall from grace, and under a table.

I felt like I had just been on a joyride in the back of an old Kingswood to the wrong side of town and back again. Messy, loud and enthusiastic. I couldn't look away.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

STC’S ‘TRAVELLING NORTH’ dissected by me

The thing about going to a play late in its season is that it’s almost pointless to have an opinion about it. Everyone has already decided whether they hated it or not and word around the traps is that for the most part, people did not like this play. I therefore went to see ‘Travelling North’ with very low expectations. I thought it would be a barking dog, not as bad as ‘Every Breath’, more a Colin Moody smearing excrement on a glass box instead of an obese John Howard masturbating over the ceramic-tiled-pool experience.

So it is with pleasure that I can report that ‘Travelling North’ exceeded my expectations. That’s not to say that I thought it was great. It was okay. I was not bored. There were plenty of things to redeem it and without the beige brick wall acting of Bryan Brown’s emotional and vocal range, it might have actually been a good play.

I will say this about Brown- he can play grumpy bastard with belief. Trouble is, I think he’s playing himself and whilst his character Frank has curmudgeon aplenty, there should be more to Frank than this and the only time his emotional state changed was via a phone call done as a voice over because I don’t think director Andrew Upton could trust Brown to consistently pull vulnerability out of the bag and had to resort to a pre-recorded state.

As a result of Brown’s flatline school of acting (complete with vocals fired out with little thought of timing or modulation), the plot of ‘Travelling North’ shifts away from protagonist Frank because we really don’t care about his plight or awakening and focuses the action squarely on the women of this play, who are working damn hard to make the best of it and should be congratulated for making it work at all. Frank is relegated to a bit player in his own play.

‘Travelling North’ therefore becomes an interesting historical piece on the burgeoning feminism of the early 1970’s. This is actually Frances’ (Alison Whyte) story. Whilst Frances commits to a relationship with a man twenty years her senior, where he sets the rules and location of their affair, against the wishes of her adult daughters who want her to stay in Melbourne and be their built-in support and babysitting network, who warn her of what could happen, Frances still goes and all those fears come to fruition. What we see is a world where traditions are split open and redefined. Women as carers, as servile and second-class, seen in not only Frances but her daughters Helen (Harriet Dyer), Sophie (Sara West) and even Frank’s daughter Joan (Emily Russell) are laid bare. When Sophie has to claw her way into higher education with no support from her professor husband or that Helen can only receive love and attention by having babies, it is a sad indictment that women are considered convenient more than competent. Even Joan tells her father Frank that his marriage to her mother was not the ideal that Frank remembers but a constant humiliation for her mother as she was voiceless and denigrated at Frank’s hands. Whilst all the men live in blissful ignorance of their own importance, the women are struggling for independence, affirmation and a place in which their voice counts.

This play reminds us of a time when financial independence for women was rare and it forced women into roles as homemakers, mothers and wives- unpaid and unappreciated and reliant on the kindness and support of the men in their lives. The other men in the play, local doctor Saul (Russell Kiefel) and neighbour Freddy (Andrew Tighe) support this thesis. Even though they are much more likeable than Frank, they offer Frances the opportunity to service their needs when Frank’s demise is imminent, knowing that she will have nothing when he goes.  When Frances has no choice to return to Frank, not for love but because she has “nowhere else to go”, we are firmly in a political and cultural conservative era, pre-Whitlam, sorely in need of social change and allowing us to reflect on how far we have come.

I commend the supporting cast, especially the comic timing of Dyer, Kiefel and Tighe, when his shorts weren’t stealing the scene. Although often relegated to playing archetypes, which is inherently Williamson, without the strength of the ensemble Brown would have had the play buried long before it was due.

I enjoyed David Fleischer’s set. Non-conventional and anti-naturalist but the levels of the stage certainly communicated the areas of comfort for each of the characters and they seemed to own their own parts of the stage. Frances travelling to each corner much more than the other characters also indicates her versatility of roles and the demands of the others on her and the fact that she is merely a visitor in each area and owns nothing herself. The more each character moved out of their area, the more uncomfortable they were- as was evidenced by Frank, whose prime raised northern corner was where he was most at home. The women also occupied the lower parts of the stage, their hierarchy evident throughout the play. 

Another nod to the costumes and if you didn’t know this play was set in the early 1970’s, the shorts, wigs and dresses drove it home with humour and accuracy.

I didn’t mind Upton’s choice to have his characters eavesdrop on the conversations taking place on stage, especially when it was about them. He made more of this with the women of the play and it made me think that the women were more invested in discovering information pertinent to their future as opposed to the men who had no reason to engage in these discussions and were able to make those decisions for themselves. The women were the passengers of their own destiny.

Anyhow, the season has reached its end and with 2014 seeming like the Year of Williamson with many more of his plays around the corner waiting for production in Sydney, it will be interesting to see how they compare to ‘Travelling North’. It won’t be the triumph of the STC season but I didn’t think it was as loathsome as reported. 

Thursday, 13 March 2014


Dear Michael Gow, Belvoir, Flack, et al.

Thank you for this play and for capturing a practitioner like Brecht, whose own plays struggled to fully realise his theories for a contemporary audience, but were so perfectly expressed in Gow’s ‘Once in a Royal David’s City’. What a clever piece of theatre in running parallel narratives about the emotion-charged issue of losing a parent and then the ideas-charged concept of Brecht, critical distancing and how to teach it, shown in the structure and staging of this play using Epic techniques and a slice of Professor Julius Sumner-Miller.

All the ways in which we are asked to look at the familiar in new ways are found in Gow’s play: through devices such as the episodic nature of the play, the inner monologue, direct audience address, narration, scene titles, transforming instantly from one character to the next or offering different character perspectives on the same event , gestus, use of past tense, lighting the audience at moments, music and song-contrasting or juxtaposing elements such as the joy of Christmas Carols with the sadness of a hospital scene, humour, seeing the workings of the stage, endowed as a location more than transformed into one. And let’s not forget that every Drama Teacher shifted uncomfortably in their seat in the scene between Teacher (Tara Morice) and Will Drummond (Brendan Cowell) as she unpacked how she taught Brecht in her flawed understanding of his intentions and techniques because it hit a little close to the bone. How refreshing to see something that educates as it entertains, a modern day lesson in theory and practice with an engaging narrative to drive it home.

This play is theatrical in expression and asks the key question that fascinated Brecht- ‘Why is it so?’ Do we accept that man’s fate is pre-determined? Can we control the events of the universe? Are we able to change our destiny? It is the big philosophical question than man has debated for centuries and ‘Once in a Royal David’s City’ lets it sit again in the minds of the audience through the sophisticated medium of theatre. This play has got compulsory text written all over it and I welcome the day it finds its way onto the curriculum.

Director Eamon Flack has done great justice to Gow’s work in embodying the techniques of Brecht into the staging of this play. There is a real sense of collaboration inherent in this work- between writer, director, cast and crew. Brendan Cowell found the lovely blend of humour, frustration and grief in his portrayal of Drummond and Helen Morse as his mother Jeannie captured the strength and frailty of her character that we had no choice to realise the peril of her plight and ask the same questions Will asks in the play. The whole ensemble was a tight knit band of energy, humour and pathos and if there was a crack in the group, it was not evident in the performances. Nick Schlieper’s lighting and set design were also used to great effect, especially the red, glitzy curtain of the stage contrasted to the bare and bleak reality of impending death in the hospital scenes.

If you want to understand Brecht in a whole new way (Verfremdungseffekt anyone?) in a play that shows you how to engage the mind and heart, here it is. This is a play worthy of your time and money.