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The Little Mermaid

Watching the kids is as enjoyable as watching it yourself.

It must be rewarding for an artist to hear a loud yell of “wow” from a four year old audience member at an early high note … followed by lots of adult laughter and applause.  Going to The Hills Musical Theatre Company is like that, I always look forward to their shows because of the family friendly atmosphere.  The tables become picnic spreads, the brothers and sisters in the audience sing along because they know it now, Mum and Dad and Poppy and Nonna can have a wine and … it’s always a great show.  The Little Mermaid, though, has something extra special.  A kiddie mosh pit!

And LauraJoy Bunting, with all the charisma and style of a leading lady, knows just how to work that mini crowd.  Bunting is perfect in the role of Ariel - she is a wonderful wearer of the famous clamshells.  Bunting has created such an endearing character. She speaks with a soft youthful wilfulness and confusion which is very sympathetic and she sings with a honey lightness of tone inside her stellar soprano.  Bunting also has excellent stagecraft as she looks inclusively at the little ones at her feet and yet still throws to the crowd and commands the attention of the whole audience in the solos.  Her performance is a magical affair … so enjoyable, especially when she is surrounded by so many other wonderful characters.

The love interest, Prince Eric, is a sweet portrayal by James Warren-Smith who brings a lovely expression of rebellion against the constraints of his responsibilities and some very fine lower notes in his solos. There is also a handsome portrayal of the growth arc for the boy who must become more than fancy free.  There’s some odd characters in Prince Eric’s life! Will Turner makes an imposing pilot for Eric’s seagoing adventures; Jonathan Barons’ plays Grimsby with a paternal, tough love, comedy while Jeremy Barons as Chef Louis is having way too much malevolent fun and probably making vegans of the kids who are squealing with delight.

Bridging the ocean and shore is Brendan Goodwin as Scuttle and he knows how to make a flying entrance.  It’s a very warm character from him as the worried seagull and his energetic beginning to Act 2 is bouncy opening.   Undersea there’s some fishy business going on.  Those older sisters are not very nice to our heroine and the storytelling of their work gives the show a real depth in those scenes.  We can see the individual responses even in their chorus voice work and all their singing benefits from a delightful blend and some superb solo parts. (Bella Andrews, Phoebe Atkins, Marni Collier, Emma Davies, Courtney Hayhow, Cathlyn-Rose McKellar

As King Triton, Dom Augimeri is regal as he empathetically touches the audience as a lost single parent, worried for his youngest.  But he can be menacing when needed.  That is very nice audio choice for him in that pivotal scene, by the way; great design assisted by the fact that all the audio is well operated and mixed.  There is lots of excellence from the large cast and crew in this show - like Rodrigo Medina Noel’s cheeky charm and genuine conflict as an OTT Sebastian … his sideways exits never failing to get a laugh and nice work from Melia Bloch who is an always attentive and watchful Leeward.

As the villain of the piece, Marika Zorlu has very enjoyable grasp of the vocal demands of the role with the squeaks and belts all done with an evil laugh and conspiratorial vocal depth… before some well-judged high notes which give her character a very nice nastiness.  Her hench-eels, Caitlyn Morales and Jasmin Sarkis, are really a nasty lot, too, and very clever on those wheel heels.  As Flounder, Elizabeth Sarkis does a cracker job with that rolling movement too.  And she has such a wistful character, good flipper movement and an engaging stage presence in the role.

Her vibrant costume and punky hair look great too.  All the costumes are delightful to look at and there was a visible gasp from the audience at the glam of Triton’s court.  My favourite was the seagull spats! The wigs, especially Ariel’s, really stand up to the rigors of the show and the uniformity of hair dressing is the kind of cohesion which adds subtle quality.  In fact, all the costumes (Co-ordinator: Samantha Mancuso) and choreography (Gai Reckless) work very well together.  The choreo is not just on display during the big numbers; the fish hand movements keep the undersea magic alive.

While up above water, Grimsby’s seasickness is made so much more comic by the heave-ho dancing behind it.  And the 20 tapping seagulls was a real highlight … it’s such a thrilling thing to see and hear that kind of dancing!  The set also has star quality as the constant changes, expertly delivered, keep coming and the design ensures that the smaller members of the audience know where the action is happening. Not only are backdrops expertly painted (Maureen Cartledge) but they shine a light on the expert backstage expertise of HMTC.  That first change drew a loud appreciative “ah” from the audience as the lush court appears in the great wide blue.

Musical Director Matthew Herne has done some very apposite arrangement for his orchestra in the changes, too, and he guides the mood either continuing or morphing through a change into the next scene.  Herne also conducts his players very well for volume - Triton’s solo is beautifully enhanced by the orchestra sitting just under Augimeri’s voice.  So often their work slides gracefully into a supportive role, yet there are moments when the tempo kicks up a notch, like for the chase scene, and these are surprising fun.  ‘Under the Sea’ was bright and fast and loved by the crowd.   

It’s a difficult space to light but the colour use is not too bright or garish and the use of white for some of the solos was very effective design.  And veteran director Director Jan Mahoney keeps her cast away from the downstage.  With the raised set upstage a great help to sightlines, Mahoney also utilizes centrestage to good effect, especially in emotional solos.  Mahoney controls the emotional rise and fall with considerable skill. The meet cute is impossibly romantic and has mums and dads comforting little girls who are worried for Prince Eric and the scary elements are quickly moved on from.

Hills Musical Theatre Company’s The Little Mermaid is not just for the kids, though.  There’s jokes for the grownups about Pisces and sashimi and ... lawyers! But find a kid to take with you because watching them is half the fun.  And look out for the Chip joke, it had me in stitches...just lovin’ those gulls!

RbJ rating: 4 orange seagull legs

The Little Mermaid from Hills Musical Theatre Company is a shiny as Ariel’s scales and is playing until June 1. 

Photography by Keith Mahoney

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Blood On the Cat’s Neck

Montague Basement at The Bordello, KXT

Photo Credit: Zaina Ahmed

Committed performances, a clever use of space and a terrific audio design give Montague Basement’s Blood on the Cat’s Neck an intrigue and luxurious immersion that works well to mitigate the time out-of-joint theme of the production.  Mightily original when the work was first produced, there is a considerable diminution in its impact today. It is an honoured and much copied argument for the fallibility of humanity; thirty years ago the film Being There won a slew of awards for almost the same thematic rendering.  Yet re-entering a seldom-done classic, especially as stylishly as it is done here, has its charms. 

And this offering is stylish and elegant with a focused cast who are waiting when the audience arrives in clumps.  Almost the best part of the show is tumbling into the space in one of the first lift loads to explore who is frozen and where.  Then guessing what character they inhabit. What becomes clear quickly as one waits for the rest of the audience to be conveyed here, is the brevity of human curiosity… those around you waive off into a discussion of domestic, more pressing and entertaining matters, ignoring the still figures and other patrons around. And that is rather the point.

Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s absurdist play asks us to reflect on the trivial yet subsuming nature of our lives by breaking his work into three pieces.  We meet the characters first in monologue and they are a pretty loathsome lot.  We also meet Phoebe Zeitgeist, an alien just landed and who hears but doesn’t understand the language (the play is sometimes subtitled Marilyn Monroe vs. The Vampires.) and who is taking time to absorb.

Next she will move around, peeking in and invisibly interacting, soaking up dialogue and narrative. In the final sequence, Phoebe will regurgitate their nonsense as they resolutely refuse to accept any reality or resonance, mistaking her for insightful or drunk. Her vampiric appropriation, bringing the play to its conclusion.

The cast have pin point timing in this wide space around which the audience is free, encouraged, to roam. There is seating if you get tired, though. A series of lampshades light the way to attention as characters are bathed or shadowed and voices echo from various places in the red curtained bar. The placement and operation of the lighting is terrific, as is the use of audio. Some repetitions are amplified by microphone and some are swallowed, audible only for only those who have ventured near. The wide variety of recognizable music under the series of vignettes hints at the characters, provides context and pokes the absurdity.

It is an absurdist work still, but Director Saro Lusty-Cavallari has avoided non sequiturs.  Instead he has compelled a narrative in the first two sections, thereby giving a greater conversation to the skewering of the characters in part three. He also avoids shock value, excessive volume and excess movement and dialogue. The cast travel with purpose to their next sequence and wait upon their moment in time.

Blood on the Cat’s Neck has a laudable digital program in which the director writes of the many modern recurrences of evils that Fassbinder had foregrounded by work such as this.  His logic is sound and the production’s intelligent design and motivated ensemble give an absurdist and emotional rendering to the contemporaneity.  In our shallowness we should be grateful that this play is no longer breaking new ground on these issues.

RbJ Rating: 3 ½ dark deeds in dark corners

Blood on the Cat’s Neck from Montague Basement is playing at The Bordello, Kings Cross Theatre until June 1. 

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Prima Facie

Buy tickets before reading this. It will sell out for sure.

Some proselytizing is called for here.  On the face of it, hearing one actor, 100 minutes, minimal lighting and audio, virtually no set and … new Australian work, might make you equivocate. Stand by because here comes a “knee shaking, head spinning” advocacy for Prima Facie at Griffin Theatre. But before you read, log on and get tickets immediately.

A bare space, save for a chair, until Tessa confidently strides into view. With an equine analogy she explains how it is with her when she is in court. Led by her instincts, personal history and impulse to overachieve, Tess is a barrister to be reckoned with. With the bit loosened she will share each tiny second of success with the audience.  How she reads the witness, soothes them before pouncing and does a sexual assault victim a sisterly solid by going easy on her … if she gets the testimony she needs.  Laughing and using her razor wit, Tessa will charm with her easy laugh and her killer honing of a lawyers’ craft that she fervently believes in.  Adversarialism works!

World view and self-esteem are a construct though, and her absolute belief in the legal system and her mildly conceited knowledge of her own ability will be assaulted. At first, without any detailed bloodshed then, with a gouging savagery that each right minded watcher cannot fail to be appalled by.

Prima Facie is written by Suzie Miller and it is triumph of elegant simplicity.  Colloquial and chatty, the language is focused and personal, exhibiting the inner monologue vocabulary of Tessa’s socio economic roots - not the ‘I put it to you’ gloss of her professional training.  The audience are her confidantes and director Lee Lewis captures the conspiratorial and confessional stream of consciousness with motivation and compulsion in every moment. 

What gets Sheridan Harbridge through this performance? Hearts are surely not designed for such shattering.  Harbridge’s Tessa begins with a pride of accomplishment which jangles the nerves and provokes dissention in the minds of her listeners.  Then with a wicked wryness she touches the elbow and walks us slowly, with her creation, to vulnerability. This is a play of two distinct halves.  A ‘tonal shift’ is the expression the playwright uses for Act Two and Harbridge, here, endows Tessa with a diminishing as her ordeal continues and the diminution of her belief in the law fills the small space. It is a small theatre so get tickets now, for this transformative, agile performance will be spoken of for years to come. 

The raised stage of this production (Designer Renee Mulder) is also home to some stellar lighting and audio.  Trent Suidgeest’s rig is simplicity itself; it never glares but lucidly widens to expose and narrows to concentrate.  The hinting at ice blue of the assault relation is just perfection in colour response to the emotion and environment.  Similarly, Paul Charlier’s audio discreetly heartbeats and distorts with the mood.

I fully expected to be wreckage by the end of this show as I experienced its building to an apogee of blistering indictment but instead, I came away energised by the power of theatre to respond to systemic injustice.  And deeply zealous on Prima Facie’s behalf in calling for a gentle #metoo show of hands at the end of every performance.    

 RbJ Rating: 5 rallying cries

Prima Facie continues at Griffin Theatre until June 22

Image Credit: Brett Boardman

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Made to Measure

A play with lived experience in its heart.

Production images: Lisa Tomasetti

The indisputable talent of Megan Wilding continues to grace Sydney theatre with Made to Measure, the latest play from prolific playwright, Alana Valentine, directed by Tim Jones.  Wilding is on stage as we arrive in the space where the stage is dominated by elegance and style, yet she is absorbed on her phone on the steps of the bridal salon. When she eventually notices the audience, the openness and generosity of her first monologue is remarkable and endears and educates in equal measure.

 Made to Measure is a production drawn from lived experience and what it has to say is important. Perhaps though, in its current form not enough of us will experience this production.  Valentine’s research rigor has somewhat fallen into the script and the didacticism has got slightly away from the drama.

Only a bit, though, because there are two central performances of excellence to bind the audience to the production.  Wilding is Ashleigh, a woman of “very generous shape” to quote Monica.  Monica is a high end couturier and Ashleigh is seeking the wedding dress of her dreams.  What follows is an invitation into the realities and fantasies of fat women and the way the world is for them, and can I say here, me.  Monica has a seemingly sympathetic yet vaguely ambivalent attitude toward her larger clientele and Ashleigh becomes confused and defiant as she tries to understand what the artisan expects of her.

As Monica, Tracy Mann is Wilding’s equal in grace and power and the ups and downs of their relationship are beautifully portrayed in beautiful surroundings.  Their attitudes to each other change constantly as each woman, and we, get to know the other.  Mann commands the stage as she tells stories of clients past and reveals a little of her own circumstances and her ability to negotiate the constant movement of a dress-designer, measuring, pinning, choosing, gives the production an impressive verisimilitude.  Mann also has a very attractive conversational quality without any reduction of vocal carry and there is sarcastic edge which is razor sharp.

 Wilding has an equally impressive skilled expression of the monologues of the text and a way of showing that Ashleigh is watching herself from outside; a self-monitoring for any perceived slight or insult.  Though somewhat distracted by Monica’s entertaining burble she can react badly, aggressively, when roused.  That first monologue, loving and sharing with audience, is turned completely when she is challenged.  There’s the instant aggro and defensive posture of a fighting spirit.  Wilding gives Ashleigh a decisive strength of character despite intimidations. These come in the form of her inner critic, who bounces in to be live on stage with her… very live.  Sam O’Sullivan plays these incarnations with an energetic swarm and charm.

From Melanie Liertz comes a stunning set design and whether you actually see her costume work, the dress, will keep you guessing through the show.  David Bergman has designed some very subtle and evocative music and his lightness of touch is sweetly foregrounded behind the “pretty” speech.  The lighting (Verity Hampson) also stays in the background with a gentle use of pastels on the white folded fabric and some narrowing in for extra effect in the monologues.

Made to Measure is a little modular in its interpretation of the themes, one would love to see the free flow of a beautifully draped gown but two talented female performers in a play which has things to say that you won’t hear elsewhere is definitely worth a look.

RbJ rating:  3 hand sewn beads on a revealing décolletage

Made to Measure continues at the Seymour Centre until June 1.

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American Psycho - the Musical

A “flirt with a hard body” .

Photo Credit: Clare Hawley

American Psycho – the Musical playing at Hayes Theatre has a reflective set.  Take your seat and just try not to look for your face in the crowd. Patrick Bateman, narcissist and swinging dick, might own that revolving city but we get to watch! There’s book and a film before this 2013 penning, you may or may not have encountered them.  This particular production, directed by Alexander Berlage, is a rumble pak of a show.  Pulsing with bass through the feet and thumping with talent on stage it is designed with a driving tempo and unqualified bull market of style.

Patrick works at a Wall Street Bank as the 1980s close out.  Fuck knows what he actually does except make money to burn on expensive décor, suits and entertainment.  He has a mercenary, merciless attitude to inferiors … and who isn’t? A murderous attitude to vulnerability is part of his charm. 

A charm that Benjamin Gerrard hurls at you with considerable homicidal intent.  He helms this production with a power which manhandles the audience into Patrick’s disordered mind. His physicality, the crotch display, the hands in pockets thrust of the NASDAQ god, has a well-placed effortless about it.  It’s incarnate and chillingly mesmeric and when he bares his aggression in a toothy grin the comic collides with the graphic. His tussles for attention satirically include his asides and direct to the audience and his little boy tantrums and peevishness when he doesn’t get his own way.

Staying out of his way, or obsequious in getting him what he wants, is a stellar ensemble who bring depth of characters to their, often, slick and quick arrival and departure.  Those who take him on do so with brash and flash which doesn’t overshadow his supremacy.  That is a neat trick of direction from Berlage.  Paul Owen (Blake Appelqvist), the snake above on the greed ladder, and Evelyn (Shannon Dooley), label driven girlfriend, may bash their tiny fists against his rock hard abs but nobody gets to him.  Not even long suffering secretary, Jean (Loren Hunter). 

It’s exceptional ensemble work here and the choreo from Yvette Lee is superbly interpreted.  It is hard to think of a better men’s sequence than ‘Cards’ then Lee backs it up with the women’s pose and walk of ‘You Are What You Wear’.  The dancing busts with 80s moves and has the waft of self-help aerobic tape inside their insertion into the songs and exciting orchestrations from Andrew Worboys; sound design by Nick Walker.  The aural background of the production abounds with skilled panache … the heartbeat peril of Jean in Patrick’s apartment - ratcheting!

The audio mix during the show I attended sometimes lost the lesser voices but there’s always context here.  And it is visually splendid and I don’t just mean the stunning grey haired woman in the second row on the left. The 3 spaced wedged set has a Trivial Pursuit feel and I know exactly how difficult it is to get speed of a revolve right.  This is perfection!  Berlage has form when it comes to revolves.  Which brings me to the extraordinarily good stage management. Silent whisking with absolute precision including terribly heavy velvet theatre seats. Gasps from the audience at the efficiency.

Berlage also designed the lighting which is as glam as one would expect and with very clever colour choices including a subversion of Christmas red. Much of the audience seems inclined to whoop and clap at the brilliance of this production, however, the scene before interval will shut you up. It’s rather what we might be here if we know the previous incarnations of American Psycho and worth the price of admission on its own.  If the second act becomes more interior and slows, it is lifted by ‘A Girl Before’ from Jean which has been directed with a condensing of emotion and the attraction of a soulful voice in a still space.  The homily of the finale doesn’t quite hit home but since most audience will have seen the film that is ok … it’s a “flirt with a hard body” this show.

American Psycho – the Musical, is a cut-throat snort of high adrenalin excess to be greedily devoured.   

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ slaughterhouse plastic strap curtains 

Book by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, music and lyrics by Duncan Sheik and based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis Presented by BB-Arts & Two Doors Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co, American Psycho – the Musical continues until June 9.

The Poor Kitchen

A warm place to be.

Photo Credit: Clare Hawley

With an Italian farmhouse beautifully evoked as you enter the small theatre, the warmth of wood, used and practical furniture and the domesticity of jar upon jar of food staples suggest a production with real heart.  And a story to tell.  The Poor Kitchen is having a return season.  Now nestled into the intimate space of Limelight Downstairs, the production, written by Daniela Giorgi and directed by Julie Baz, does have terrific storytelling at its heart.

Elle has inherited this property despite the fact that she lives in southwest Sydney and her father had not seen her benefactor, his sister, since they were in their twenties.  Currently living in the house is Giulia, who cared for the elderly aunt, and her husband, Carlo who tends the olive orchard.  He has an environmental agenda and is constantly criticised by the family solicitor, Vittorio, for bringing the farm into disrepute with his companion planting and no pesticide practices. Elle is on her way there with selling and quitting her insurance job on her mind.

Baz begins the show with a clever conceit by putting Elle (Amy Victoria Brooks) in the seats with the audience. Brooks gives Amy a nice mix of Aussie hands in the air it’ll be ok, and a woman with plans to have a better, fuller life.  Her use of politeness is quite funny.   We then meet Anna (Taylor Buoro) the farm’s neighbour.  She might have an agenda but is all open-hearted friendliness and Buoro has a way of listening to the others argue which exudes compassion.  Guilia (Wendi Lanham), Vittorio (David Jeffery) and Carlo (Myles Waddell) are the arguers in question.  Loudly and, unfortunately, way too boisterous for the space, Italian passion or not.

Lanham comes into her own in the later scenes when her stridency is mollified by an epiphany and the wolf scene is very well placed for emotional engagement by Lanham and Baz.  The latter endowing her cast with a trusting stillness.  There is, after all, a tenderness underlying that marriage despite all the strains on it.  Jeffery has his character speak with his hands which can make for some lovely comic moments but there’s a cacophony to his performance which distances the Vittorio from the audience such that the nuance of his behaviours is somewhat lost; the effect of the table thumping emotion points landing especially badly.

The character of Carlo may be a much easier task textually, but Waddell gives such a truly engaging performance.  His Carlo is rich with belief, has “crushed sunlight” in his soul and his espousing of conservationism is realistically passionate.  As is Carlo’s confusion about the gap between himself and his wife. All the relationships in the production are actually very well drawn, both by the script and the direction. 

Giorgi has written a play which has a very human core, she avoids clichés of greed or aggression and has several theatrical interventions which allow for complex storytelling.  I wouldn’t like to spoil the surprises of the show but one of my favourite techniques is the way that the bi-lingual three-way conversations are such enormous fun to watch.  It keeps the audience on their toes.  As does Baz’s movement around the set.  The entries are used well and the direct to the audience scenes are cheerfully intimate.  Baz also has a sharp eye for the pacing of the show with the reveal very well judged.

The production is enhanced by a practical and effective lighting design and a terrific audio plot; the eruption being extremely good and a lovely interrogation of text apparent in the interval audio.

The Poor Kitchen is a good watch. A good story told well.

RbJ Rating:  3 ½ family meals around a kitchen table

The Poor Kitchen continues at Limelight until May 26.


Cyprus Avenue

Horrible. Complex, gripping, brilliantly horrible!

Between her psychologist impassivity and his shut down monosyllabism, Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland begins in emotionless, white walled, institutional quiet. She is trained to calmly repeat for clarity and he just quietly repeats as his mania searches for belief and truth.  What will follow is a bizarrely logical progression of events, told through relation.  Events that have put him in this place.

From Empress Theatre, playing at the Old Fitz Theatre, this is a production to rip comedy from tragedy and gouge an audience’s understanding of irrationality with belief.  Then hit with a climax that defies sanity through the logic of escalation.  It’s stunning theatre - heartbreaking and headshaking.   

Eric is British, Protestant and a Belfast Loyalist and it appears that his daughter, Julie has just given birth to a daughter who is Gerry Adams, the Irish Republican.  Something has happened, somehow Eric has run out of options for dealing with the situation and ended up in this room.  His patriotism is boundless, unquestioned and extends to his socks … his dogmatism finds no place to soften as his world view is assaulted.  The audience can perceive what his doctor thinks has gone on before the events of the story. How the boy, young man and family man came to be inside the affect-flattened patient we see in front of us.    

Roy Barker gives a remarkable, tour de force performance here.  Never switching off Eric’s absolute belief, only squashing as deep as it allows him to, Barker gives Eric an early bewilderment.  As we hear his relating of events we are drawn into his mind, we laugh at him … Eric is a funny bloke when he wants to be. And if the premise wasn’t so flawed we might travel with him; it’s hypnotic and it shows in his relationship with Slim… he could just be a man pushed too far.  After he meets Slim, as his mind skitters beyond logic, Barker pulls his creation into a freneticism which is in complete contrast to the wreckage we met at the top of the play.  

As Bridget, his doctor, Branden Christine is perplexed but her training overtakes her curiosity and, almost, her outrage. Ostensibly the professional clinician, the woman surfaces despite herself.  Christine’s watching as replete as her spoken acting and the audience is aware of the duality of response to his intransigence.  His wife is Bernie and played by Jude Gibson. Bernie is confused and scared and Gibson brings a weight of historic hurts to the role as we see that she lacks the compassion of her daughter, Julie. 

Amanda McGregor gives the Julie a responsive empathy and an inherent bravery that is very welcome as he insists on his delusion.   Her sensitivity, however, is challenged at every bruising encounter with her father and McGregor brings considerable complexity to the torn young woman.  The final character is Slim.  Little or no complexity in him.  He is brash, violent and single minded but given dimension by Lloyd Allison-Young who gives the buffoon the twitchy, easily manipulated vulnerability of stupidity.    

Director Anna Houston has made the old Fitz stage even smaller as she traps these characters in Eric’s world and her use of physical distance has the emotional markers of the relationships silently uttered.  The setting is all white, an implication of padding on sofa and walls, but the floor no longer as it must have been intended … a difficult choice to have painted it white.  The lighting rig is simple and unfortunately a bit patchy in its use with an uneven wash and cues which interrupt the flow rather than focus attention.  The blue booster does give a somewhat industrial feel in places without, however, accentuating the blandness and depersonalisation implicit in the design.   

Houston’s direction interrogates the themes with an avoidance of metaphor… this is a specific set of circumstances evoked with a purity of place and politics.  In the same way, her skilled guidance of the cast enriches the relationships by avoiding endowment, giving Cyprus Avenue a precision of interaction and clarity to the personalities involved.

Cyprus Avenue balances comic and horrible to make an audience consider what we might do in the name of belief, it’s exciting theatre which reminds us of the power of words to build and destroy.

RbJ rating:  4 ½ roads lined with leafy delusion

Cyprus Avenue from Empress Theatre continues at Old Fitz Theatre until June 8.


Winyanboga Yurringa

Campfire tales emotionally bring women’s experience of culture, love and belonging to the Belvoir stage.

Photo credit: Brett Boardman

The choices that women make.  Winyanboga Yurringa, currently playing at Belvoir, is a delicate inquiry into this.  That the women are indigenous brings enthralling dimension to that exploration and these creatives and cast gift the viewer with a powerful and moving drama.  This is an enfolding work as history, spirit and love shine from the stage.  I reached for tissues and I wasn’t the only one.

Neecy, an Elder matriarch, is fluttering to get things ready as she digs in the sand on the banks of a river.  She will be joined by family with some fishing and campfire on their mind.  At the moment, though, she must feel burdened as Neecy is getting very little help from Chantelle, a surly teenage recalcitrant only interested in seeking signal on her phone.  She will be joined by Margie, who has a fun way of seeing the world and Wanda who bears a weight of world in a grumpy, unyielding way.  Carol is torn between worlds as her profession in an essentially white museum collides with her heart and culture.  This multigenerational family will become six when an outsider, Jadah, arrives. Never without her camera in hand, she is there to document an event which is intimately and emotionally shared with the audience.

Written by Andrea James, this play has its roots in her experience of watching the 1981 ground-breaking TV series Women of the Sun, Winyanboga Yurringa is the translation.  James has crafted a play in which modern women will confront modern problems… inappropriate men, sexuality, belonging, and the crutches we choose for ourselves … denial, alcohol, anger.  James brings their antecedent antiquity to the fore, whether they know it or not, as Neecy guides them toward a deeper cultural belonging.  James will unapologetically place barriers in their way, however.  Exclusionism and bigotry, historic hurts and the rush of judgement will all play a part and director Anthea Williams guides her cast brilliantly in a journey of joyous overcoming.

Even the dogged and driven Neecy will falter at times.  This character is brought vibrantly to life by Roxanne McDonald.  She has some serious moves and a physicality which embeds in the sand and dust that arises as she digs in it.  There’s a weariness, though, to McDonald’s interpretation and the realism of a hard lived life is implicit.  Also doing it hard is Angeline Penrith’s Wanda, who is a tough as nails creation; one you would not want to meet in a pub after a few bevvies. Penrith tempers her only slightly, despite revelations, and she is very hard to love in an intelligent fight for audience empathy.

Wanda flares often but is able to soften, especially around the inescapable, knowing laugher she shares with her sister, Margie.  Dalara Williams is wonderful as Margie.  She brings a stable and grounded character who brims with compassion and love, who wears her fear gently and her pride with considered grace.  Despite style and a distinct whiff of gentrification, Tasma Walton’s Carol lacks the comfort of grace.  Walton gives her strength of character, professional drive but the conflict inside Carol shudders with despair.

Rounding out the cast in exceptional performances are Tuuli Narkle as Jadah and Dubs Yunupingu as Chantelle.  Narkle’s performance is quiet and watchful and her stillness is telling in every instance.  Yunupingu by contrast is always moving, twitchy when engrossed with her phone and feet always longing for escape.  Their story is the beating heart of hope for a new generation.

Thematically, the production is anchored by the set, lighting and sound design which reflects both landscape and the commonality of the Australian experience.  The narrow iridescent horizon painted on the wall glows with morning blue as the dawn chorus wakes the women from their sleep on dots which have widened to circles - women’s symbolism, ringing with the ancient.  The almost complete darkness at times heralds ritual.

A ritual of power and gifted to the audience by a production which draws the watcher into a matrix of comparison.  Why do we choose … the clarity lasting well beyond the settling of sand dust and a ghostly fading of circled women.  Winyanboga Yurringa is an achievement of outreach, understanding and the commonality of women’s experience on a sacred bedrock of First Nations’ storytelling. 

RbJ rating:  4 mighty rivers to rest beside

Winyanboga Yurringa continues at Belvoir Street Theatre until May 26.


Bare - A Pop Opera

A musical force for good from Lane Cove Theatre Company

Production Images: Lachlan Bradbury

When you see Bare from Lane Cove Theatre Company, and I am going to suggest you do, look out for the lexicon of hand holding that directors Kathryn Thomas and Isaac Downey have created for the production.  There is a lot to watch in this vibrant and entertaining pop musical about invisibility and belonging - many little details of character and of thematic expression.  But that one is especially telling.  Bare has many emotional moments which are brought to the stage by both nuance and whole-hearted, full contact, exuberance.  It’s a well-rounded watch for any audience.

Music by Damon Intrabartolo and Lyrics by Jon Hartmere Jr, Bare has an LGBT story as the main narrative and it’s obviously important in that regard.  However, the show vibrates with contemporary resonance as all kinds of issues affecting young people just finishing school are foregrounded.  Body image, sexual double standards, drink, drugs, absent parents all get a nod.  And much more as we first meet Peter.

They are in their final year of Catholic co-ed boarding school and Peter has been in love with his best friend, Jason, for a very long time.  Their relationship is secret but Peter is finding an increasing need to come out.  There are lots of pressures on Jason who is a jock and adored by the girls.  His fame comes with privileges!  His sister, Nadia, is completely different and they seldom communicate in any meaningful way despite her obvious intelligence.  Nadia, you see, has a bit of a resentful obsession about Ivy, who is the genetically blessed girl about town.  This little cadre of malcontent is rounded out by Matt who wears his ever hopeful, unrequited heart on his sleeve for Ivy.

Peter is a character created with empathy and warmth by Mackinnley Bowden.  From his first step out from the masses, there is a charismatic genuineness to the performance and his command of the complexities of confusion and betrayal are very good storytelling. Bowden’s singing suits the role with a soft and whispery timbre and a sweet higher register.  His relationships are finely considered and clearly elucidated and the boy becoming man is lovely to watch.  Bowden has many wonderful moments during the show, none so poignant as the emotional phone call. 

This scene is shared with Kristin Kok as his mother, Claire. Kok rips into hearts as she draws into focus every parent’s aspiration for their child and her work to indicate the fear of failure is very moving. Some of the catalyst to Peter’s decision to make that call is Jason, played with a bedrocked loving persona by Matt Shepherd. He’s sexy and just a tetch sleazy with a distinct whiff of untrustworthiness. And seriously conflicted.  Shepherd brings both jock and joy in equal parts to a role which is, as written, difficult to sympathise with.

As is the role of his sister, Nadia, a character played to perfection by Lucy Koschel.  With sass and sensitivity Koschel captivates the audience.  Her reclamation of body image is absolutely wonderful and the acting and singing of this talented artist brings together the less evident themes of the work. Her ability to sell a song is at its potent best in ‘Quiet Night at Home’.  Additionally, she negotiates the redemption arc with finesse; as does Edan McGovern as Ivy.

 Ivy is a tricky character.  To play bad choices and still maintain a compassionate, misunderstood identity is a huge challenge and McGovern nails it. She can capture the attention of the room without being too broad in the role, the direction helps there, and one can see when Ivy is playing up to her reputation.  Yet the girl/child is evident in surprising ways … a downcast headshake or pull at a midriff top.  In a song like ‘All Grown Up’ McGovern’s Ivy is positively waifish. She brings a girl disappointed and her characterisation of the pleading is nicely judged, as is her silent work during the duet with Jason.

The stage is populated with a young cast who impress, not just with energy but in how they bring fun and emotional content to the ensemble scenes, each with a clear character and with lots of little stories to tell.  Carmel Rodrigues as Sister Chantelle has such fun with the front row and it seems effortless… some very amusing work from her. In a fantasy sequence she has the assistance of three personality + backup singers and their singing and dancing is thoroughly enjoyable to watch... love the posing!  In among the side stories, Adrian Sit does a drug rap that is weirdly enjoyable and Anthony Mason elicits audience understanding despite the Priest being such a dogmatist and hardliner.  Also doing a great job is Christopher O’Shea as Matt who, without judgement, endows Ivy with many of the attributes the audience needs to see.  He is lost and love-lorn and another of the overlooked invisible ones.

There are, however, some flaws in the work as written, with the invisibility case overstated and considerable thematic repetition but Lane Cove Theatre’s Bare rises as a production of relevance and a force for good. Even a gentle education in places.  And one of the biggest assets of this show is the chance to enjoy un-engineered voices in all their glory and inexactitude. It is very seldom in this production that the excellent music overwhelms as it has the potential to do.  The upstage voices can be a bit lost when they drop to conversational, but that is a small price to pay for having the pleasure of voices unmiked. The music is varied and swings easily from pop and Shakespeare to youth anthems and the orchestrations from Musical Director Steve Dula are very responsive to his cast.

Technically, the lighting works for the space and despite the operators being a bit noisy in the wrong places, the cues work reasonably well with the large cast picked out for focus in the crowd scenes. The occasional, rather than an overuse, of red, works extremely well for scenes such as the 30 second hit during the early bullying. The rig is easily seconded to isolate or wash and the throwforwards stay out of the audience’s eyes while lifting characters from the deep set.

It’s a simple setting, just risers, but the directors and choreographer (Emily Dreyer) have really utilised the openess. The groupings for the after-rave misery very effective in this regard and the staging of the phone call home visibly illustrating the gap between them.

I thoroughly enjoyed the choreo and the excellent dancing from the cast. That first stomping, bible thumping, movement is such an energetic beginning. Particularly after some impressive gentle descant work from the massed voices. Their work in the rave, where the movement is contrapuntal to the thump, created real atmosphere and vibrancy of the clappyhappy out of interval sets up Act Two for audience engagement.  The push and shove of young men is realistically portrayed, too.

The costuming doesn’t overwhelm and that is an exceptional choice when a contemporary musical could become a fashion show, rather it is done with a calibrated consideration of text and visual impact.  Look for the killer detail of Claire wearing black in a pivotal scene.

Thomas and Downey have created a show with dignity, bravery and commitment all over it and the cast have enthusiastically brought to light a story which calls out secrets in a lesson for us all about truth and fidelity. A big ‘well done’ to cast and crew and the LCTC Committee, this is now my favourite show since I have been attending their productions.

RbJ Rating:  4 school ties 

Bare – A Pop Opera from Lane Cove Theatre Company continues until May 25. 



A Boy Out of the Country

Boys will be … adversaries.

Production images: Noni Carroll

No-one can hurl an insult like a sibling and Felix Nobis’ play Boy Out of the Country pits the two brothers against each other almost immediately.  It feels irreparable, as if too much damage has been done. However this play will pick at the scabs of shared history and memories to show the possibility of undamaged love beneath.  Whether Hunter and Gordon care to see that will form the emotional tension in the play.  The narrative tension is all about real estate!  From Company of Rogues comes a production in which the boy has taken himself out of his birthplace countryside for seven years .

Hunter has been MIA for those years, on the rigs he says.  In his time away from Cradletown much has changed.  His mother, Margaret, has been moved to a self-care unit and the family home is being eyed by the developers of a housing estate which is set to devour the area around his childhood home.  The rest of the town seems to have sold and Gordon is keen, desperately so.  As is his wife, Rachel.  Separating the boys as he has done all their life, is local copper, Walker

The brothers are very different.  Hunter is small and aggro and Gordon is tall and sneering and the argument pretty quickly extends to shoving and pushing when Gordon gets on-message straight away.  As Hunter, Tom Harwood is restless and trapped by a past he walked away from.  Harwood brings a complex character and his command of the variations of speed in Hunter’s first speech serves to both drive the story and bring Hunter’s motivations to our attention.  His lack of economic ambition closes his mind to what Gordon sees as family advancement.  Gordon (Jason Glover) is wired for avarice and it’s evident very early.  However, Glover doesn’t one-note his creation.  We also see Gordon’s obvious affection for his wife and love of his daughters.  Equally the audience is aware of his poor behaviour towards his mother. 

Actually, both boys are guilty of that and Boy Out of the Country somewhat dares the watcher to picks sides. Rachel, played by Amelia Robertson-Cuninghame is part peacemaker in this situation.  She is buttoned down, arms folded and uptight … and explosive.  She takes charge when she arrives at the police station and holds on tight to her emotions until she is pushed too far when sarcasm becomes her weapon of choice.  Robertson-Cuninghame also indicates the nature of her self-entrapment in a universally understandable way.     

The police offer, Walker, is played by Stan Kouros with a well-placed and subtle agenda and an inkling of kept secrets.  His hail-fellow lackadaisical attitude covers an astute way of solving problems, he has after all, a shared history of knowing what these two are like, as boys and men both.  The cast is rounded out by Jeannie Gee in a finely judged performance as Margaret.  Her speech concerning her accident is especially moving as are those moments when she is confused or cross with Hunter.  And her changes of state during the play really bring home to the audience the difficulties of old age.

Boy Out of the Country has a plot with quite a few twists that one doesn’t see coming and events and their consequences are surprising. Director Erica Lovell navigates the flow and changes in the dialogue with a sensitive hand and uses the complementary duologues to add to the complexity of the narrative by drawing out the shared experiences and memories.  There are many lyrical moments as one would expect from a play described by the playwright as a form of vernacular verse and there are also sections of text which are very clever.  The exposition of the real estate situation to Hunter, and us, a case in point.

Boy Out of the Country extends its reach beyond a discussion about siblings and takes the audience into thinking about how cities nibble into the grass of our rural places.  There’s an inevitability in that growth - Hunter may not understand, but a city audience is guaranteed to be torn by the implications.   

RbJ rating: 3 ½ IGAs

Boy Out of the Country from Company of Rogues continues until May 25 at Bondi Theatre.

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Never Trust a Creative City

Too Rude clowns close out the Batch Festival

With some well-placed singing, superbly dodgy dancing, props and costumes of abject silliness, discreetly well created tech, a wry view of the world and an obvious camaraderie, Emma McManus and Maria White, performing as Too Rude, have hit on a winning formula for getting some salient points across.  In Never Trust a Creative City they are cheerfully expounding on the theme that culture has to prove its worth monetarily and it’s an hilarious homily.

Just terrific fun from a pair of clowns who know their stuff.  There’s enough of a storyline to hold it together and draw empathy in the final scene, but enough chaos to travel the show at speed.  The stillness and softness are very well built into the show too.  Say VIVID and no one needs to speak … now that is a noisy silence!   They begin with a jellyfish laden visual representation of creativity and then travel off into an Ikea attracted land of commercialism rising… with sea levels.  The relationship will strain and noiselessness will fill the space but all will be well.

There’s a slim aesthetic here which has the purest hits of excellence.  The secrets hidden around the stage are budget draining but extremely well done, the acapella songs give extra light to the enlightenment and they bring teetering into a new art form. You can’t keep your peepers off them. 

There’s some excellent tech here as well, the audio skilfully inserted into the performance and the visuals well created.  The formula relies heavily on the chemistry between the two artists.  There were several instances when I saw the show when they assisted each other for lost lines in a humorous pick-up.  It’s a fast paced show and ebbs and flows with interesting facts, especially for those of us in the arts, and sympathy for the personas they bring to the stage.  The craft of the creation is sneakily clever as the audience gets to experience a full range of well-chosen idiocy.   

Overall, the show is zany stream of consciousness with an intellectually rigorous naivety … you sorta have to be there for a complete explanation.  Watch out for any return season because Too Rude wins at the art game.

RbJ rating: 4 massed jellyblubbers

Never Trust a Creative City played as part of the Batch Festival at Griffin Theatre.


The Brothers are but Believers

This remarkable production only had a short run in Sydney but it’s worth seeking out.

If my youthful indiscretions hadn’t brought me to the attention of certain authorities, I must have popped up now.  After experiencing The Believers are but Brothers I have been googling with phrases like ‘roots of modern jihadism’, ‘defensive jihadism’, ‘trumpism’.  It’s that kind of show.  This is a production for seekers – of knowledge or clarity or increased awareness.  It’s created by a gifted seeker and formulated to embrace all in a spirit of enquiry. He wants to explore “the world of online extremism and anonymity” and understand why young men are drawn to it.

Javaad Alipoor is the performer and writer.  Brought up Muslim and with an impressive theatrical resume, he shares directing credit with Kirsty Housley for this show which is a theatrical distilling of his research and reaching out for answers and interactions.  Created as an interactive production (the audience receives messages and responds via What’sApp) there are three young men who form the centre of the narrative.  Two from England drawn into the Middle East conflict and a boy from Orange County attracted into right wing activism. 

These three are explored by the theatre maker as separate sections.  There are also rolling sequences, such as a root look at the conflict and its imperatives and the presenter’s interactions with the young men he is trying to speak with.  There is also a very cleverly articulated sequence of feminism; in case women think this production is one for the boys.  Really not!

The staging allows for a physical representation of the various sections, the English boys at a mic on downstage left and the US young man over on the right.  The other dedicated area of the stage involves a large see-though screen above a partner desk which dominates and we can see the technician working on the other side.  The screen of the presenter is facing us and he is playing Call of Duty when we arrive.

Essentially oblivious to the audience coming in, sound effects ally with his screen and appears to be live.  When he turns to the crowd after he signals for house lights down, he doesn’t speak then either but just gestures to his phone.  For a few minutes we are all heads down as the performance begins in text.  After that simple introduction there is a gradual overwhelming of input.  Not freakishly upsetting just disorienting and leaving you scrabbling for clues about what to focus on.  At any moment you may need to choose from: people posting on the app; Alipoor’s storytelling about the boys or the river of blood that flows mesmerically on the big screen.

Which is the point – that mind screw is the takeaway.  “This is going to get quite mad quite quickly” Alipoor says of one sequence, and it does.  Which rather explains why it is so easy to grab hold of an easy concept and fall, holding it as if real.  There are other sections where Alipoor speaks to the audience with his back turned and the image is skype-ily projected.  In fact, one of these makes the biggest gut punch of the show, when, at the end, he simply allows a recorded offering to take his place as he goes back to CoD slaughter on a different screen.  The metaphor is now complete … and scary.

The messaging during the show is technically so well achieved, as is the complexity of the visuals and some icy blue and eerie green lighting which gives a computer bunker feel to the space.  I spent a lot of time going over that chat after the show, horrified at the reality exposed there and wondering who I might have been in the room with.   Unlike Alipoor I have not “been on the internet my whole life” and having been a bit of a bad girl when young, one can only worry about how the cacophony of anonymity might have channelled poor behaviour into an inescapabilty of decisions.

The Believers are but Brothers provides few solutions but many answers.  It is neither angry nor strident; the performance is honest and genuine and the production has a pragmatic and truthful intent.  An eye-opening insight into a fearsome influencer of a world we know we don’t understand.

RbJ Rating:  4 ½ “riled up young men”

The Believers are but Brothers has now completed its short run at Riverside Theatres but it is worth taking a trip to Merrigong Theatre, Wollongong for.



If warmth has a human synonym it is Genevieve Lemon in this production.

Production photo credit: Phil Erbacher

It’s subversive in its way, this show… and not just for a smoking nun who is not averse to a few fibs or an ‘alf of Guinness.  However, the play is also highly predictable and it’s possible that is its greatest strength.  There’s a warmth of inclusion implicit in the expectedness of some events, a way for the audience to immerse in the production with the good will and good wishes we hold for these characters.  If the three people on the stage in Tom Wells’ Folk are brought to harmony by a love of sharing music, the viewer is also swept up in the cheery inclusiveness of tapping feet.

Sister Winnie seems to have a tough part of an East Yorkshire town as her patch but this Irish nun is up to the challenge.  With an empathetic nature and a forgiving heart, hers is a practical calling.  But she doesn’t mind a Friday night of rest to be spent singing with her friend, Stephen.  On the evening we meet them their music is disturbed by the intrusion of Kayleigh, a waif from the harsh streets.  Folk music might be the only common language here.

If warmth has a synonym, it’s Genevieve. From Genevieve Lemon’s entrance she reaches out with genuine compassion and love and a wry comedy expression of rebellion.   Her stagecraft is exceptional, a slight turn of the body, a listening tilt of the head or a revere of an eyeline and the audience is brought into the small home and nestled among the many cushions.  And her easy relationship with Gerard Carroll’s Stephen is a delight to watch.

Carroll brings a quiet presence and a disquieted concern to Stephen. In this modest and satisfied man there’s the honest settling of a repressed but comforted soul.  He has a speech toward the end which eloquently sums up the man we have seen, and encourages a sympathy for Stephen we might have withheld.  Carroll perfectly places the lyricism of Stephen’s music into that speech as it captivates the audience - and sails right over the head of the youngster, Kayleigh.

As the latter, Libby Asciak makes the age of the character work well, a later revelation bringing a gasp from the audience.  Her smooth delivery of such fractured dialogue makes the youthfulness work without being jarring and Asciak has a terrific command of the restlessness.  Her feet are always in motion, a lovely shorthand for the audience’s appreciation of her fight or flight circumstances.

The emotional elements of the production are delivered with comic intent by director Terence O’Connell who orchestrates the various focus points of the production with considerable delicacy.  For example, the stillness of Stephen’s speech is finely calibrated for absorption.   For the quietly religious, O’Connell has foregrounded the fun of the patron saint jokes here and the light moments and charming songs have the “flourishes and grace notes” which pull the audience into the room. Never ignored, though, are the humanist themes which give the proudction its depth.  

The setting blends a wooden stability and soft fabric friendliness, and the hint of sedition on the wall is great fun.  As are some superb lighting effects; operated with sensitivity. Look for the single narrow spots on objects; especially as you leave the theatre… I felt a catch in the throat. Or the way the lighting gently narrows in during the songs.  And the whisper of blue on the spoons… oh my!

Which brings one to a discussion of the music. Of all of the splendid aspects of Folk that embrace the audience into an old fashioned Irish Kitchen Party these are they.  Presented with skill but with a characterful naïve joyousness the songs insert gracefully into a production which is just the intimate theatre ticket for respite from a cold and windy night outside.

RbJ Rating: 3 ½  conversions of Genesius

Folk continues at the Ensemble Theatre until June 1.


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Never Let Me Go

It’s time… this play will become an important reflection of then.

For me, the timing is right. Now, with more love than pain we can remember the boys, the men, that we lost. We weren’t the only community that was more than decimated, many grieved. But we took the brunt. Never Let Me Go could be a horrible production, it could be terrible again to witness how AIDS affected this city.  But in this offering, part of the Batch Festival, the past is in respectful, gifted hands.

Writer/performer Adriano Cappelletta, Director Johann Walraven, a multi-talented cast of five and an inspired creative team, have taken truth and created art. By taking a timeline approach and creating characters to root for, Cappelletta has bedrocked a genuine and moving narrative. He has then glammed it up with carefully inserted music, great singing and a joyous wit that wallops us in a reminder of what all our souls have in common.

I loved the show and I fell deeply in love with it early on.  The singing and dancing, phalanxes and alleys on the small stage, are a “vast and bold” opening and the humour and humanity rise quickly.  The jokes are cracker … there’s a blowjob zinger that needs a patent! We all love a clever queen but Walraven avoids making these characters representational, instead, this talented ensemble have crafted a sweetly innocent love-ish story set against a background of fear and shame. 

In the background the emotional chords are struck, but ever so discretely.  I bought tissues specially but this is not that show, its power is strength.  Cappelletta has gentled into the story an acknowledgement of where Australian society came together.  Stepping into occasional first person narration he warmly explains how people reacted and one can’t but be but proud.  His text doesn’t ignore the dissension inside the community or the hatred outside it.  Neither does it gloss over the importance of lesbian women in the response and health workers and government … and the secret agenda of those nuns.  I loved some of those women and their I-just-won’t-tell-the-bishop approach.

The show has several layers, as any reflection upon a time period must have. Some of us were there, some endured a different of tragedy, some are too young to have borne witness. This is a production for all right minded people.  I may have got stuff that the couple next to me didn’t (like the health club before the extra Ks) and but they were just as swiftly on their feet as the whole house rose in a well-deserved standing ovation.

It’s a work in progress but do what you can to see it while it is playing at Batch.  There’s a terrific audio track with some very ethereal moments; there’s a couple of entirely earthy costumes and any show that has lighting which hits with purple with green or aqua with lilac has my attention.

Never Let Me Go will become a great work as it grows.  See it now so you can say you were there at the birth of a great Australian play.

RbJ Rating: 4 Patches and Shifts and Taxis and Kins … and Rubys

Never Let Me Go is playing as part of the Batch Festival until May 11.

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Small Mouth Sounds

The most expert bad mime ever!

Photo: Robert Catto

Populate the stage with actors of this calibre and an audience simply doesn’t know where to look. Give this troupe of motley silence as a tool and the watcher is bereft of aural clues about who is doing the most interesting thing: the most narrative; the most interpersonal; the most moving.  The funniest.  Small Mouth Sounds is a headscratcher of a play.  A what-did-I miss experience which travels you with laughs over its 90 minutes and completes your journey with the power of love as you wander away.

Set in a silent retreat, we meet six people.  Each entering the tacky meeting room, with its folding chairs and bland walls, with purpose and with deficit.  Only occasionally will they speak to each other but we will understand what is missing, what has brought them here and how they hope to be changed.   

The ensemble cast of Small Mouth Sounds is each thoroughly watchable and entirely captivating and that is where Director Jo Turner comes in. To look for it would spoil the fun, but the fine precision of attention-getting is brilliantly pulled off by this production. Turner, and the elegantly replete text from playwright Bess Wohl, has superb command of needle sharp intricacies in focus and fade which provide for a group and an individualised immersion in the silence.  Though, a revisiting might be required for full illumination!

The characters arrive without shortcuts.  Some clues are there and an audience may perceive arrogance in Rodney (Dorje Swallow) and diffidence in Jan (Justin Smith).  A disorientation is clear in Ned (Yalin Ozucelik) while recalcitrance arrives with Alicia (Amber McMahon).  Scepticism is folded up in Judy (Jane Phegan) and desperation is rising forcefully in her partner, Joan (Sharon Millerchip).  In the hands of this extraordinary ensemble each of the six will strike out on a different path, not really guided, more instinctive and reactionary but movement can be its own enlightenment. And on the road will be some of the most hilariously expert bad mime I have ever witnessed.  Often though, the physical comedy is deliciously allied with an unexpected fling into empathy, heartbreak and the poignancy of the unspoken.   

Each detail of the movement and atmosphere is available to the audience and the eye is just as easily drawn to Ying Yang toenails as to hysterically portrayed disobedience to rules.  The setting manages to give a pedestrian feel in a plain and impersonal institution and having the stage raised really brings the characters close, imperative when the means is the method. Even the secret garden is made for TV in its lush, boring manipulative calm.  The scene changes tell you about the characters if you look closely and the light changes are discreet; neatly foregrounding the textual action.  From birdsong to drumsong the audio sets scenes and helps site the play as we hear what the characters hear.

I was perched up the back for this show and watched the waves of head turning in front of me as the audience roamed the exquisite choices that Small Mouth Sounds offers.  Ultimately, though, the production is balanced to provide laughs in abundance and pathos aplenty. And the wafting linger of time well spent.

RbJ Rating:  4 navels

Small Mouth Sounds from Darlinghurst Theatre Company continues until May 26.


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat

BTC brings their usual flair to this multi-coloured musical.

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice) from Blackout Theatre Company has such a warm beginning and the goodwill of the cast shines through until an ending that says it all - about how community theatre enriches both watcher and participants. It begins with a children’s chorus which is just uplifting.  Well done to these 12 children who have disciplined singing, can even sing softly when required and are obviously interested and engaged in the show as they sit and watch. And their voices add so much emotional power to a production which takes the audience on the roller coaster of Joseph’s journey.

These young performers have some warm and loving stewardship in the two narrators, Angela Therese and Annastasia Denton.  A major innovation to share the role and these pair work brilliantly together, their dynamic energy giving an extra dimension to the production and they are welcoming and personal with the audience.  This is just one of the sweet touches that directors John Hanna and Katie Griffiths bring to this much loved show.

James Carter as Joseph does a mighty job here with a confident performance and quite a charismatic stage presence.  He also brings good relationships, a winning smile and an understanding of the mood changes for the character.  He uses his vocal range well too, especially in a song like Close Every Door where his rich lower notes gave variety to song which is static by necessity.

Griffiths and Hanna have seriously considered some of the less rousing songs and added variety in the form of dance and extra complexities into the music.  The orchestrations from Musical Director David Catterall never grandstand and provide a sensible bedrock to the singing, even the excellent drum work is held to a supportive level.  It’s subtle and skilled work from them all round and we do have the particular chance to enjoy Catterall’s orchestra during the scene changes when the arrangements allow for both reflective and upbeat atmospheres.   There are some songs when the tempo really bolts along and the fine conducting ties the singing ensemble’s work together.

This an exuberant ensemble who are directed into characterful creations and groupings by the directors. The brothers are funny and cohesive as a group and when the whole cast comes together for the big numbers, it’s whole-hearted fun.  They look so happy to share those many hours of rehearsal around day jobs or study or family commitments with the audience.  The above the head choreo as the cast came into the audience at the end of Act One was thoroughly enjoyed by the people near me, there didn’t seem to be a still hand in the crowd.  A contagious joy and pride in their performing.

The dancing in the show is choreographed with an eye to the performers’ skill levels and the large space that is provided by an open, well-constructed set. (Tamara Scamporlino) The lovely wheat dream ballet contrasts nicely with the jazz steps of the plotting brothers in the next scene. The can-can discretely inserted was great fun and the variety of styles in the show has thoughtfully structured movement - and steps which are strutted with style.

Also evident in the directorial concept are the little surprises which keep the audience on the journey.  Too many to count actually, but I was especially taken by a soprano in blue during Angel in Heaven who was fabulous.  As was the solo dancer in Those Canaan Days. Then there’s Matt Harter. This lively performer knows how to work a crowd and his performance as Pharaoh just strikes such an enjoyable note.  He has the hip action alright and is Elvisy and over the top to the perfect level.

On the downside, the performance I attended did have quite a few lighting and sound problems but one does have to view community theatre with a bit of sensible understanding.  There are times when it works very well, though.  I was very impressed with the way Joseph’s voice was foregrounded among a chorus 50 strong during Joseph’s Coat and the reverb on the children for Close Every Door really added to the emotion of the scene.  The lighting also had some good moments, such as the disco state before interval which added extra excitement.

Considering how limiting BTC’s budget must be, the costumes are terrific for this show. (Angela and Ann Hanna) From the women’s Middle Eastern inspired, yet blingy, market scene costumes to the imposition of gorgeous, shiny colours onto a white palette for the Egyptian sequences, the costumes are great fun and wonderful to look at.  There’s subtleness too, I loved the colour coding of the bothers and wives.

Overall the show is testament to hard work, a love of performing and sharing and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat is a warm and happy way to spend a night at the theatre and to leave with toes tapping and earworms wiggling.

RbJ Rating:  3 ½ refreshing date palms in the desert

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat from Blackout Theatre Company continues at the Pioneer Theatre until May 12.


Animal Farm

A tour de force production which frights with the contemporaneity of its warning.

Photo of solo performer Dale March by James Hartley.

It’s not that first huge jolt which tunes an audience into the production.  It’s the tiny shocks that come after.  The betrayals, the obfuscation, denials and backtracks are what bring a shake to the head and a tut to the lips.  This is Animal Farm - ringing as true and clarion as if new written. 

From the State Theatre of South Australia, the show has a short run at Riverside Theatres and it is a remarkably conceived work.  A single actor embodies the characters while also acting as narrator.  Adapted and directed by Geordie Brookman, from the George Orwell classic, the 70 minutes of its length leaves one astonished by the relevance of the work and with a foreboding discontent that being forewarned is not enough.

Dale March gives a tour de force performance here.  Hardly ever still or silent, his focussed inhabitation of the animals is quite mystical.  For audience perception there’s a shorthand in physical changes - a modification of stance and hands and voice as the cart-horse Boxer’s great physical presence seamlessly becomes the trotter pointing tyranny of top pig Napoleon or the neighing, twisted breathiness of Benjamin the donkey’s scepticism.  However, it’s not just the physical which makes great acting and the richness of March’s emotional and personality shifts make absolutely clear who is speaking.  Sometimes the inhabitations are tiny and telling… Clover struggles with her reading, faltering yet questioning in her way.

With the waste of naming phrases circumvented, the density of the text has more room for detail in the terrible story and events.  Brookman’s adaptation stirs outrage at the ruling animal’s treachery to the farm, of the toadies and of the placated masses and there are many moments when the audience gasps in unison.  Aphorisms mount as mass executions are described and death is all around.  Thoughtcrime and doublethink begins to make an appearance and it is only a few years until Oceania will be at war with Eastasia. Horror at Squealer’s slimy and annoying obsequiousness inspiring breath held horror around the watchers.  A collective ‘Huh’ when the elite move into the farmhouse.  And then come the laughs; the sheep are hilariously maligned.

Brookman also has a powerful understanding of the emotional topography of the story and his direction leads in waves to that climax which is so disorienting and affecting.  Sometimes March’s narrator is conversational and matter of fact but as the story speeds up so does his morphing between characters … until the big fight.  During this relation, March is hands in pockets and the presaging and impelling music takes control of emotions. 

From the boom rising of the 7 Rules to the single notes behind the burial, the music travels the story and reaches out to influence mood.  The low frequency of the egg rebellion just one of the moments when the music completes the creation.  The setting is as simple as the basic story but it, too, holds secrets and flares with allegorical import.  And pathos, as our empathy for the harnessed workhorse who stubbornly refuses to see is manifested in heavy rope. 

March has room to move up and down the black wedge of raised set to teeter toward us down on the forward section … several times on all fours.  Or he can cower against the back wall away from the violence.  Only occasionally alleviating the wash of white light with limited colour, the lighting design punctuates events with its use of narrow focus and discrete alleys of path; the throw coming both eerily from the side and spookily from below.   

The lighting and audio combine for some of the shudders experienced by the audience of Animal Farm but the quality of the production allows for a greater engagement than merely physical.  This play is an opportunity to immerse in a great fable which speaks to us still … with warnings implicit.

RbJ Rating: 4 workers flags half-masted

Tonight is your last chance to see Animal Farm playing at Riverside Theatres .  


Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders

At interval it could be any one of them.

Being around a family of Masonic men (I don’t think you are supposed to tell but …) I got the references straight away. The play begins with a gloved hand full of them.  Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders, written by Brian Clements, was first produced in 2015 but it has all the ghostly period features anyone could want in a Victoriana mashup of the fictional and the infamously real.  So much is known about both the Whitechapel murderer and Conan Doyle’s seminal detective and this play successfully merges information and theory and characters and events.  The inclusion of real protagonists like Sir William Gull in the story gives an extra frisson of authenticity.  

Narratively the show is a bolter and pacing of the production is deftly handled by director Jess Davis who gives the audience time to appreciate the hints being loosened and the build of solution perhaps.  Will Holmes successfully solve the crime and apprehend the greatest felon in world history? Because of our familiarity with the real-life murders, the names and events echo with half understandings and much of interval is spent with companions discussing the possibilities.  It could be any one of them at that stage.      

As Holmes, John Willis-Richards has an entertaining haut and imperiousness.  He tackles the role with vigour afoot and commands respect and attention.  But Willis-Richards also uses his vocal skills to considerable effect with a richness of bass and a softened, lighter tone for his weaker self.  He has a strong feel for the language and rhythms of the character, the hidden music of the suspense.  And the relationship between his Sherlock and Peter David Allison’s Watson has a truthful and supportive air of male friendship.

This Watson is benevolent and dash-it-all.  Wry in his responses to Holmes’ petulance and not averse to some bachelorly behaviour around the ladies.  He will confront Holmes and pull him back to reality when that is required.  Also doing a great job is Zoe Crawford as the clairvoyant Mrs Mead. Crawford strikes the deranged, unhinged note perfectly, mysteriously, before becoming somewhat wide-eyed as she tosses in her lot with Sherlock and loses her aloofness. 

Mrs Hudson, as played by Sandra Bass, is maternal, gossipy and no-nonsense with a school marm correctionist way around her man/boy lodgers.  The other men of the story are suitably shady.  David Stewart-Hunter as the aforementioned Gull and James Charles’ Sir Robert Anderson are steeped in the old boys’ network, masonic rituals and one-upmanship.  Mathew Carufel has belligerent menace as John Netley and Peter Bertoni is empathetic as the wounded visitor who deepens Holmes interest in the case.

The play’s settings are very well evoked and the staging seems easy to use.  The long experience of the Genesians is evident in the choice and shape of the set which allows for scenes both indoors and in the narrow lanes.  Adding so much to the atmosphere of a period piece, the costumes express class and power with an instant recognisability.  There are some very well chosen audio effects including the distant ballroom; with the bubbling music behind the clairvoyant sequences especially mood setting.  In concert with the pea-soupers and terrible events, there are lighting effects to enrich the mystery and impending peril.  Particularly impressive was the chosen tint of yellow in among the blue of the evening states; moonlight or gaslight it touched shoulder and hair with added dimension.

So, yep, my brother, nephew, father and grandfather et al might not agree but I reckon the Freemasons were mixed up in it.  From that very first scene it does make you wonder how it all happened and whether a detective of skill, daring and the right connections just might have made a difference.  Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders is a grand night at the theatre with an intriguing premise inside a well-crafted speculation.   

RbJ Rating: 4 squares and compasses

Sherlock Holmes and the Ripper Murders from Genesian Theatre continues until June 15.



New Theatre excels with this classic work.

Photos © Bob Seary

Pygmalion from New Theatre is in the language of “Shakespeare and Milton and the Bible” … and George Bernard Shaw.  It is a production which respects the audience’s inherent reverence of this classic text without being overawed and needing to resort to contemporisation.  As they say: all the right words in the right order! The story travels beautifully on replete performances, a cohesive vision and a genuine love of what words can achieve.  This production is complete pleasure to watch, hear and take Shavian social questions away with you.

Director Deborah Mulhall has chosen a Steampunk aesthetic for the show, hitting the industrialism head on.  I feel Shaw would have approved but that’s not the cleverest aspect of her vision.  Mulhall has created a mise en scène to plunge into at first - there’s eye-catching artisanal detail everywhere.  Then this director, also costume designer, stays the design train, leaving it puffing gently at the station.  Not over used, not taking attention away from the story or performances just quietly evoking and cohesively tying the show together thereby allowing the wit to be foregrounded through the thoroughly engaging performances of her cast.

Emma Wright as Eliza is a complex, aspirational character who uses all the tricks of a learned socialisation and artificial simplicity early on but who grows into the intelligence that underlies her former choices.  Aided by a simply stunning costume design, Wright steps up one rung at each appearance until she can stand toe to toe with Higgins.  In the first drawing room scenes they are often across from each other, each with hands on hips, but when the density of intellectual themes gears up in Act 2 they move in to match each other at close quarters.  She is just as brisk and he just as arrogantly relaxed but the change in circumstances is crackling.

Steve Corner gives Higgins a lounging, flopping haired, insouciance and his throw of the famous lines is fresh and funny.  “Deliciously low” and “guttersnipe” are still comic in his rendering and Corner’s breezy misogyny, racism and classism require little remarking upon as his delivery allows the audience to choose their own outrage journey.   His gentling is equally well handled by Corner, even if Higgins doesn’t stand for such poppycock.

As Pickering, Shan-Ree Tan strikes a lovely balance between hardline social bewilderment and emphatic male imperialism.  Never pompous, yet with a community naiveté that puts him squarely in the old fashioned, confirmed bachelor mode.  Prudish rather than priggish.  His well matched by another other divinely expressed character in Natasha McDonald’s Mrs Pearce; a maternally stern figure who imprints Eliza.  McDonald maintains a servant attitude but her fearlessness in taking on the beast, when required, informs Eliza’s growth of spirit and her vocal cadences turn up occasionally in Eliza’s speech!

As Alfred Doolittle, Mark Norton is not perhaps as big or devious or ultimately ensnared by convention as we would like from the character but Robert Snars’ Freddy is sweet and soppy yet still manful and charmingly ardent.  As Henry’s mother Colleen Cook has considerable Shavian text to impart and does so with style and an interrogated understanding of the historic and ongoing perspectives.

From Tom Bannerman comes an exciting open set with steel and silver metallic hues resolutely striving for permanence despite the gaps where darkness creeps through.  Those colours picked up in the limited furniture.  The tower of a gear arc overhead looks imposing and a ramp of bookcase ladder gives Mulhall extra dimension for the subtle use of status.  Mullhall’s costumes are breathtaking with metallic champagne colours and period russet and racing green and millinery that fits.  All accessorised with screams of mechanization and the whirring of wheeled teeth.

Technically this show has excellence all over it.  When entering a theatre and hearing a sound effect filling the space, one may hold some fears that it will be unnecessary and limit hearing of the voices.  The mechanical rings and dings give way to an extended rain for the first scene and what a marvellous operation?  The levels perfect to my ears at the performance I attended.  (Audio Design: Patrick Eades).  The lighting similarly begins with cause for concern.  It has the potential to be patchy until that first scene when the skulking in the shadows and evocative use of textual obfuscation fit right in with the environment created by the production.  Also of note, is blended brilliance of the downstage left wall.  So difficult to light that area successfully while still bridging a blend into the whole but superbly done such that a pivotal scene late in the play gives full light to the two actors’ faces. (Lighting Design: Mehran Mortezaei)

 Pygmalion is quite an achievement from New Theatre.  It is a production where the visuals don’t overwhelm the literary, where the story voyages successfully with the socio-political import and, most importantly for me, the wit and humour of the great man stays nestled in Victoriana for our delectation on all levels.

RbJ Rating: 4 ½ bunches o' violets trod in the mud

Pygmalion continues at New Theatre until May 25.

Absolutely, categorically, phonetically recommended.



Avenue Q

You won’t know where to look.

Production photos from Alan Roy

North Shore Theatre Company’s latest production is a searing and incendiary indictment of the political instability inside the economic-industrial complex across the contemporary landscape.  Nah!  Just kiddin! It’s Avenue Q and it’s very, very naughty. Very!

It begins with an exhortation to present yourself immediately to front-of-house staff if you have accidentally brought a child. This is an adults-only musical … with puppets.  And it is great fun.  Naughty, fluffy, weirdly heartwarming fun. 

When Pete Davison arrives on stage with his puppet, Princeton, in cap and gown and new English degree his first song brings a warmth and charm to the space that stays with you long after the end of the performance.  Princeton will find a cheap place to live on a friendly street called Avenue Q.  Here he will meet Kate Monster (who is a monster) and the two will grow to like each other … in that way… under the watchful eye of Christmas Eve, benevolent human matriarch, her fiancé Brian, also human. Puppet roomates Rod and Nicky and assorted other misfits including oddly, Gary Coleman if you remember him, populate the Avenue.

Director Peter Meredith stamps the production early as he carefully eases the audience out of the cognitive dissonance which puts words in static-faced puppet mouths when we can clearly see the actor … acting.  He does this by developing the relationships.  As each new character appears they slide right into the energy and story and the audience comes along without resistance as the groupings and movement around the stage absorbs each new furry face.  

And some of the acting is terrific here.  Davidson and Laura Dawson who plays Kate Monster are such an appealing couple to root for.  He brings a sweet disposition to his character and negotiates the disappointments and wrong turns with a genuineness of throughline.  His Purpose song sets a great deal of the tone for the production and it is very well performed, puppetry, singing and acting all merging in a very entertaining way.

Dawson brings a Kate who is feisty and unsure of herself by turns but never loses the inherent dignity in her creation - or her defiance.  Her range of facial expressions work terribly well to inform the puppet behaviour and her cheerfulness and smile, while maintaining a wistfulness and sadness, is just lovely. As is her singing voice. The ‘he likes me’ sequence is supremely good vocally with a clear soprano that elicits a huge applause from the audience.

The human characters of Brian (Kris Fenessy) and Gary (Stephanie Gray) sit easily aside the puppets and the two performers have some great one-liners thrown with a light and perky touch.  Issac Downey as Rod, has quite an emotional arc to travel and he successfully brings his character through some nasty behaviour to an uplifting self-awareness.  His ‘My Girlfriend Lives in Canada’ has a heartbreakingly fine line; trod between vulgar and comic.  Equally well done in this respect is Cam Ralph’s Nicky who despite his reduced circumstances retains a humanity and a worth in his heart.

Also puppeteering is Luka Bazic as the Trekkie Monster and Jake Severino in various roles and they are busy and skilled in all their appearances.  Call me perverse, but my favourites were the Bad Idea Bears played by Hayley Driscoll and Josie Lamb. These two were having a fine time and their contagious silliness was such a delight.  Delightful also was the choreography from Laura Beth Wood.  There’s a kickline folks!  Arms and legs and fur and flesh (and some cardboard boxes) all working together.

The ensemble works so well in this production as puppets are operated one and two handed, cooperative or solo, with inserts and with guide sticks.  The physical creations are terrific with great eyes, especially the dead ones, and cute costume elements. Loved the pearls and the dressing up for the wedding.  Outstanding though was the costume for Miriam Gonzaga’s sex on a stick Lucy.  Making that particular furry assed bitch sexy with a sashay and pout is quite masterful.  Enormous fun and leads me to a discussion of the puppet’s intimate moments.

The kissing was hard to watch but then they double downed and I admit to having been so embarrassed during the sex scene that I didn’t know where to look.  My companion gave me a very hard time at interval when I had this unusual craving for a cigarette.  Naked puppets oh dear!  Such is the skill of the operators that I couldn’t look at them either because their enthusiasm was hilariously wrought.

It’s a funny show on lots of levels, one of them being the Asian character of Christmas Eve, played with verve and comic skill by Suzanne Chin.  But here we get to the only major issue with the production, the audio.  It’s both the hardest thing to get right and the most vital and on the occasion I saw the show, both artist and operator needed to work better together.  Because there is so much to be said for a performer who tackles the tropes of orientalism head on to become a huge crowd favourite that the performance should be able to be fully appreciated.

Otherwise, the show has quite a bit of technical excellence.  The on-screen animations work well, the lighting is simple but well chosen for colour and focus.  The followspot operation, especially the iris changes to include up to three characters were very smooth. And there are some very interesting orchestrations from Musical Director Philip Eames which are entertaining in themselves.  The flute is used with particular skill when bringing the melancholy of There’s a Fine Fine Line before interval and is very evocatively arranged behind the Empire State scene. The bass impresses during the scene changes when the energy keeps pumping and there’s also some sexy cymbals and elegant drum rolls.  It’s a great job by all the musicians.

Avenue Q is a romp. A street to leave your worries about the political instability inside the economic-industrial complex behind and revel in the skilled singing and puppetry and a love story to invest in. NSTC have a hit show on their hands here, literally!

 RbJ Rating:  4 don’t know where to looks

Avenue Q from North Shore Theatre Company continues until May 4.


Youve Got Mail.png

You’ve Got Mail

Advanced silliness and a cheeky blast from the past at Batch.

The stranger who fell asleep on my shoulder may not agree, but I quite enjoyed You’ve Got Mail which is playing as part of the Batch Festival.  It fits neatly into Batch … it’s fresh… it’s inventive … it’s wild.  No, not really wild though.  More, um, mild.  This is a romance after all.  And Meg Ryan is at the heart of it.

Oh Noodles but Ella Prince is perfect as meguderscoreryan in a romp of production that makes episodic a virtue, hurls old popculture at you at an alarming rate and uses pained silence to quite an effect.  The show, co-created by Sarah Hadley and Ang Collins is a work in progress and will benefit from future fluffing around the motherboard but kept my attention in its current incarnation.      

I followed along as our two mismatched heroes fought and fell in love in a sustained meetcute where the comedy of waiting piles upon itself in a gosh darn rendering of more innocent times.  An era when the whine of a dial-up modem could make you ‘too horny to function’ in a blonde, gracefully wavy haired wig kinda way.

Prince is Mary Jane-ed priceless as she manages to be disarmingly engrossing, pathetically open mouth, perplexed and potty mouthed with absolute command of the material old and new.  That grin, giggle and grimace are killer! Christopher Ratcliffe is helmet headed and has some very funny reconstructed Hanksian macho moves.  His bit with the fire had me in stitches. I got the man-ref!  The show is full of groaners, both hourglass spin long and connection severed short.  Some miss but the ones that hit land with spunk. 

The live music from Benjamin Freeman has mood and melodrama with spontaneity and pluck and punctuation.  The live vocal stylings of Sophia Campion range from lovely singing preshow to bitchy controlling Hal-ish, lesbian subplotted, off the grid, chatroom parental controlled creepy.  There’s a paperclip knocking on the screen there somewhere! She’s often in the dark but listen out for her great work, if you don’t nod off.  10pm on a Friday is late if you have had a crafted ale in the foyer.  

So just say no (that’s for us who are over 35) to the traditional and say hello to retro for a show to take with a pinch of indulgence and goodwill. 

Summary in ASCII =   ٩(^‿^)۶

 RbJ Rating: 3 ½ natty ways to adios the props off set.

See an interview with Ang Collins here and find out more about You’ve Got Mail and Batch here



Go … argue.

Burning House is to be congratulated on the boldness of their vision in Ajax.  However, this is not an easy production - defiantly not a play for everyone.  Unequivocally not a play for me, though many in the audience were pulled forward in their seats.  War is the context and the assault on the audience is real in an unmitigated and unapologetic confrontation of violence and grief. Unrelenting, loud and visceral. 

It is a production created with care and deep consideration of the themes with acting of commitment and emotional intent.  The context has an acceptability of modernity. Co- adapted by Jonothan Graffam and Director Robert Johnson, after the Ancient Greek text by Sophocles, the story is transmuted to the Middle East as the protracted war continues and the howling of a fallen hero echoes the wail of women and children left behind. 

The play begins in a cacophony which does not modulate. It is voice and recorded audio that wears down an audience over a long period and reduces the effectiveness of the performances by its cruelty.  Intimate interactions are attempted but ineffectual and the anguish, overwrought - even with its historical precedence.  As is the blood.

 As Ajax, Seton Pollock is a volatile and damned character and his performance is present and available. His counterpart is Chad O’Brien as Odysseus. O’Brien is sturdy and some of his scenes in the aftermath ring with truth. Michelle Robertson brings a very strong empathy to her character of Ajax’s wife, Tekmessa and her powerlessness is affecting.  There is also a child actor, Leikny Middleton as Eurysaka, who is given very difficult work to do and her presence alone is powerful.  One fears for her but trusts Burning House implicitly.

Johnson has considerable investment in the production taking on many production roles and his understanding of the material is faultless. However, the balance between stillness and propulsion, between intimacy and universality, between implosion and detonation sat uneasily in my viewing. That first twenty minutes of loudness works against the voices and the extension of scene breaks and darkness does not merely unsettle, which may have been the purpose, but increasingly irritates.

There is still some lyricism and beauty available… the lovely blue and aqua of the lighting and some of the text.  The "sweet breezes of the air" speech is effective and the sequence which evokes a discordance of electronic muezzin is blindingly clever … to me.  My friend disliked that most of all. 

 Ajax will divide audiences.  Go … argue.   

RbJ Rating:  2 ½ bloody balls

Ajax from Burning House Theatre continues at Old 505 Theatre until May 4

Old 505.jpg

Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida

It slowly creates a portrait before you.

The inhabitation is seductive in Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida.  With the name in the title, we understand before the assumption of outward appearance, who we will meet.  And immediately the script leaves the audience in no doubt who we are.  It is dia de los Muertos and Kahlo is speaking about her life with the random dead - intimately, personally and with candour. 

By Humberto Robles, adapted from the Spanish by Gaël Le Cornec and Luis Benkard, the production layers meaning and theme in the small space.  The text gives the facts of a life: accident and consequence; unfaithful husband; men of acquaintance; creative drive; weakness of flesh and inevitably of spirit and these events flow easily for one unfamiliar or someone aware of the story beyond the pop culture. Underlying that, however, is a depth of response to the facts which absorbs and inspires one to know more.

Kate Bookallil commands the role with a brittle awareness of brevity and a fragile fatality.  Her work in the closeness of the audience is well executed and she maintains a clear character through the emotional turmoil, nothing slips into theatrics.    There are quite a few sequences where Bookallil is on the stairs, out of view of much of the audience and her voice work carries the story and mood successfully. She is expert also at allowing the front row to pick up on her clues for action, the audience on Opening Night adeptly picked up her superbly guided cues. There is also a friendliness and lightness of touch that warmly appeals.

Director Anna Jahjah expresses the inevitability of this work with curiosity and some well controlled dramatic tension.  There are some tricky moments that could fall flat, the manipulation of the skeleton as death being one, but these flow with energy and purpose.  The dance with Diego is particularly well handled by both director and actor and a highlight of the show. Quiet moments are explored with subtlety but the pace of the production doesn’t flag as creation serves to drive Frida’s travel and movement round the simple but detailed set.

The lighting makes use of red without overdoing it and the clash of bright colours evokes the paintings. The audio choice for pain is well chosen and would be abrasive enough for the context and impact without being so loud.  However, the projection is extremely effective for building the atmosphere and drawing the audience into the perspective of the show.  What works exceptionally well in this production is the costuming and strokes of makeup.  These construct even as the play deconstructs.

This production doesn't rely on verisimilitude, instead it slowly creates a portrait before you.  A living work which is painted by the threads of events which have been shared. Knowing little of the life, being aware vaguely of the events or steeped in the sadness and achievements of a unique artist one bears witness. 

RjB Rating: 4 crayon and brown paper artworks

Frida Kahlo: Viva La Vida from Théâtre Excentrique continues at Old 505 until May 4.


Alice in Slasherland 

This is the review published on Arts Hub.  Not exactly what I wrote but enough for you to get the idea. Bloody good show.  

Recommendation? As they say in the play “Get up on this!”  

Alice in Slasherland -Last One Standing Theatre Company & Red Line Productions at Old Fitz Theatre.

Photo by Clare Hawley


Les Misérables

This production will feed the spirit and send you humming out of the theatre.

Production images - Grant Leslie

The paradox is, despite the subject matter and story, the production of Les Misérables from Manly Musical Society is a real pick-me-up.  Detailed and brimming with hard work, this production of the sorrowful, classic musical has magnificent ensemble work, inspired performances and the very best of what community theatre can bring to a stage.  It was a delight to watch, tumbled me out humming and with spirits uplifted by what grassroots energy can achieve in the arts.  A wonderful night’s entertainment and I can’t congratulate the company enough. 

It starts, of course, with the direction.  Director Rod Herbert has led his cast with an eye to the small stories inside the epic.  The groupings and interactions are faceted to add depth of background without pulling focus from the narrative throughline.  His ensemble cast respond with fully created characters which gives the production an appeal beyond the well-known music.

Acting or singing, changing the set or creating the mood and atmosphere around the principals, this is a fantastic ensemble.  With a choreographer of finesse behind them, they are disciplined, talented and equal to the task of such an ambitious work.

 Many of the ensemble songs are cut by gender and the women are having a glorious time.  Their work as Fantine is being interrogated is such good storytelling and the whores at the wharf reclaim the women from tropes and powerlessness.  So good!  And the men’s sequences bring the drive and alpha to the student rebellion and to odious customers.  Put this talent together in the inn and you have hilarious goings on, then fill the stage with the misérables toward the end of the show and their acting provides the perfect emotional tone for the themes to climax.

The principal cast bring consistently good voice and performance to every role.  Marcus James Hurley as Valjean has an expressive range which guides his character through the complex dilemmas and choices.  His work in the early scenes has vigor and pain as the physical demands of the role cement our understanding of the character.  His transformation from thiefdom is particularly well expressed and informs the more spiritual songs toward the end of the show.  During the latter when he is seated and still, his vocal work is on show and his expert use of timbre and fade in ‘Bring Him Home’ is exquisite to listen to.

Herbert trusts his cast and it is evident in moments like this when they are blocked to be alone, often still, and the centre of a storm.  One particularly affecting example involves Sam Hamilton as Marius. Having broken our hearts with the genuineness of his performance in the love-struck scenes, his grief reaches across the footlights in ‘Empty Chaos at Empty Tables’.  Hamilton is terrific in this role both vocally and in his acting.   

As Javert, Joshua Rogers has gravitas and a black and white throughline which well explains his final decision. His stance and solidity, the speed and clarity of his singing all stamp an authority which makes his ending even more poignant.  Also emotionally charged, is Elizabeth Cornwell’s performance as Eponine.  With the pathos of resignation she inhabits the sadness and bravado with very moving consequences.  Her ‘Little Fall of Rain’ has the whisper of snowfall and mist. 

The performance of Keira Connelly as Fantine is an unmissable treat. It’s no mean feat to take such a famous song as ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ and make it your own.  With some excellent orchestration, a voice which soars with disappointment and a performance which vibrates with loss, it is a highlight in a show with many such.

Other highpoints to watch for are Garth Saville and Sally Redmond’s scenery chomping as the Thenardiers.  How Herbert managed to get these two down to the exact right level of scene-stealing is a mystery of the director’s craft.  Isabell Kohout is also sweet and with an inner strength as Cosette and Reece Lyndon has an exciting presence and potent vocal command as Enjolras.  A shout-out also to a really talented Harrison James as Gavroche, much of the mood of the battle relies the audience investment in this character and James is winning and alive and exciting in the role.  Also excellent are a sassy Emily May as Young Eponine and a resilient strength in Little Cosette from Amelie Rose.

The costuming is sourced, adjusted and created with real attention to movement and themes.  The clothes just fit and look easy to work in.  In just two examples of excellence: the wedding is sumptuous and the nun, exactly right.  The layering of costume is so evocative of period and the dull palette is alleviated with just enough blood red. 

This show has one of the best lighting plots I have seen in quite a while.  Putting aside some followspot flobs which will improve as the run continues, the cue plan is excellent.  Particularly as punctuation for the early episodic scenes and the use of colour motifs is rendered with discretion and flair.  When the colours informed the spot on each character during the opening of ‘One Day More’ I was in heaven.  The swear-by-the-stars reprise for Javert gave me chills and the textual understanding that places the finale of ‘I Dreamed a Dream’ into the starkness of silhouette is stunning work. 

It was in this scene that the orchestra was really foregrounded also.  The plucking feel to the score here was placed with considerable beauty.  There are some imperfections in the orchestra but Musical Director Anthony Cutrupi has orchestrated this unrelenting score with a focus on supporting the voices and obliging the emotional topography.  Little musical details abound … the spinet-like embrace of Cosette is lovely.

The audio ran into some opening night problems with slow opens and slow upfades but the generally smooth operation kept the orchestra from overwhelming the voices and gave the principals the required carry.  A mix which added some bass rather than elevating the sopranos at times like the barricade would have been appreciated but some of the design works extremely well.  The reverb for Valjean’s conversion was perfection.

There are no bad seats at Glen Street and that allows a fuller use of stage and especially of floor work and the physical stunts which are carried off so seamlessly.  The props work incredibly well from all those tankards to the stained and torn student map and the roughed bottles of the right shape.  The flys are used to grand effect and there’s a solidity to the trucks and stairs and especially the bridge. Javier’s end is a wonder of theatre magic.

Les Misérables from Manly Musical Society is a marvelous night at the theatre.  One can sit back and immerse in the live experience of a musical of grace and weight or pull forward into the story and performances.  Go out of your way to experience it.

RbJ Rating: 4 Tricolour Rosettes

 Les Misérables from Manly Musical Society is playing at Glen Street Theatre until  Saturday April, 27.  



From Fledging Theatre Company comes a production which brings a modern sensibility to the aftermath of a great work.

The production flames with it.  Appropriation that is.   The politics of state pushes full force, but in the personal of populace we merely see recalcitrance, fuming resentment and inaction.  Set after the Danish court has been littered with Shakespearean corpses, stabbed and poisoned, this play from Paul Gilchrist rages around the space with a roaring impotence of power in swaying the people. Designed with access to small intimacies, the production effectively brings a modern sensibility to the aftermath of a classic work.  It is a complete production with performance and text allied successfully with space and bare-boards design and well worth an audience’s immersion.

Prince Fortinbras has hit several walls in his assumption that he can add Denmark to his Norwegian homeland and his other conquered states.  Despite his name being on the dying Hamlet’s lips as successor, the Danish King is an elected position; the Danish Treasurer is stalwart; the Danish citizenry nationalist and Fortinbras is not known for his hearts and minds approach.  His personal affairs are testament to this and there is rebellion in the hearts of all around him.  

While Appropriation may have Fortinbras as the character whose will guides the narrative, each of the other characters is drawn with detail … despite their cower of story.  No performance here short-changes the faceted depth of creation - it is an ensemble of carry and concentrated cohesion who react and respond with individual nuance informed by group throughline. Director Chris Huntly-Turner has interrogated the themes of disempowerment, gynophobia, geopolitical machinations and historical inequity with a spare and focussed direction which avoids excess movement.  There is rampaging when rampaging is required, though. 

The large cast of 12 come together for movement sequences but the production most often, wisely, focuses in on the personalities involved.  The small cast scenes are excellent standalone pieces which inform the story and enrich the themes.  They are dense though, and wordy, and the production’s length could be a source of discussion despite each of these well-constructed passages being engrossing and challenging. But with Huntly-Turner’s investment in the audience as much as in the cast, most watchers stand to be pulled into the emotional topography.

Played by Nick O’Regan in a toxic and rampaging turn, Fortinbras is clearly created, such that the finale of the piece doesn’t jar and the intimate lovers’ scene is very effective.  Sometimes too loud by far, O’Regan exhibits every possibility of growing into the verbal control needed and his physical expression of the character is excellent.  Unapologetically volatile, oversexed and vile, O’Regan and Huntly-Turner have built this lead character on a bedrock of understandable relationships. When they are on the floor, joined by bedsheets, his boyish enthusiasm for his lover Astrid fits neatly into how we understand him. 

Astrid is played with great dignity and intelligence by Shannon Ryan who gives a surface gloss of passivity and imperturbability in her unforgiving circumstances while endowing Fortinbras with a charm he doesn’t have.  Her contrast in status is Fortinbras’ wife, Gabrielle (Sonya Kerr) and their relationship.  Referred to in the most venomous misogynous terms … ball breaker and poisonous bitch being a couple of the least offensive … Kerr gives us a present woman who has real power and a subtle understanding of how and when to use it.  The quiet word confronts his raucous bluster and her regal intimidation is poised and purposeful: a resonant modernity in this queen of spin.   Their one-on-one meeting is very well performed and the slight percussive heartbeat behind the words is one of the better audio choices.

It’s a new space and one brimming with possibility.  The stage is raised, and placed so sight lines are good and the bounce works very effectively for the more whispered of voice work.  The studio atmosphere is harnessed well for the live music and ambient audio and dirty deeds can still happen offstage in the dark.  However, in this day and age it is unacceptable to have lighting which glares into the audience’s eyes.  That requires immediate correction.  When it does work, the lighting does have evocative reach, especially when it reproduces the poster on the back wall in reddened shadows.  An Ikea sponsorship for cushions would be appreciated in a show which started late and had an extended interval.

The text has a special fillip for the committed theatregoer in the discussions around what theatre is and can be... the struts and frets of playing and storytelling.

RbJ Rating:    4 Fiord Suckers

Appropriation from Fledgling Theatre Company continues until April 25. 



A Little Piece of Ash

Destined to become a classic, this world premiere is part of the HiJacked Rabbit season at Kings Cross Theatre.

Production images from Clare Hawley.

It’s a new voice.  It’s our voice.

The stunningly written A Little Piece of Ash is playing for its first outing at Kings Cross Theatre and it will be a modern Summer of the Seventeenth Doll.  The voices are absolutely recognizable, eh?

Brought to life by a terrific cast, writer Megan Wilding has reproduced not just cadences of the Australian vernacular but the rote and familiar phrases that we say when lost for words; the shiver of charm when gifted a little word from an indigenous speaker and then she has layered meaning onto the rituals of our shared language.  

With the redoubtable Wilding also taking a role and directing, the show is cohesive and playful, funny and painful.  It elegantly brings grief onto the stage while exploring the individuation of the closest left behind.  The words are not comic words, but Wilding’s instinctive direction gives a phrase such as “lied there” or a word like “experiment” an hilarious intent as her cast deftly lifts them from the page.

Lily is mum to Jedda (those of us old enough to remember get that particular reference).  Jedda chain smokes and Lily disapproves. Jedda drinks crappy wine and Lily is a lifelong tea drinker. Mendy, Chuck, Ned and Eddie are part of their lives, too, and will make sequential appearances – each with their own brand of a nice calming cuppa.

Wilding is brilliant in this role.  A stationary figure for most of the show, her voice work is breathtakingly good.  Hardly ever rising above a midrange volume, every utterance is clear and warm and fills the traverse space whichever side you are on.   Her listening replete and never drawing, with Lilly’s wry sensibility interpreted with reliable candour.

As Jedda, Stephanie Somerville does such a good job of expressing the stagnation of such pain and her resistant growth from heartache is realistically portrayed to give this central character the gravitas of chilly numbness without audiences disengaging.  Luke Fewster as Chuck, however, is her explosive opposite. With a cowlick tousle and head tilt, he swatches a patina over their shared language.  These two speak in reprises of comforting phrases, tics and flippancy, and the recognisability of that allows words which simply are not funny to be hilarious in context and execution.

Different again is Alex Malone’s Ned who is all secret agenda and cringing helpfulness in the silliness of repeated and easy quotes and snorting self-deprecation.  Less loquacious is Moreblessing Maturure’s Mendy, who has our questions in her mouth.  She plays a twisting comedy of embarrassment in a wired, well elucidated way. The cast is rounded out by Toby Blome as Eddie in a performance full of pathos and dignity.  His “schmick” is so well done.

The production design clothes the cast in coherent colours and repercussing florals with a Wilson Green and yellow palette on a sunset orange cliffed wall and the campfire feel of painted milk crates and laden table.   The colours of the lighting are simple and restrained with open white or light amber warmth for the most part, a nice blue to highlight hair and shoulders and an occasional, glorious, ghostly steel.  The music brings the country western hits we love, and Dolly gets a gong pre-show too, adding to the campfire feel. Well placed sound effects such a birdsong and thunder enhance the production without intrusion.

A Little Piece of Ash is wonderful theatre and the people who had their tissues out for the final revealing sequence would tell you of its moving and emotional impact.  While I might have reservations about the number and length of some interlocutory sequences, the power of this production in its premiere form is not to be diminished.   For … here is a production which gives voice to our Australianness, the best of our respectfulness and mateship.  A Little Piece of Ash is a contemporary classic in the making. 

RbJ Rating:  4 ½ Jolene, Jolenes

 A Little Piece of Ash from JackRabbit Theatre continues at the Kings Cross Theatre until April 27.

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Possum Magic

Respectful in image as well as story to the beloved book, this is a story for the little one in us all.

This is the review I did for Arts Hub.


A Queer is Born: UTS Queer Review

Satire with a queer eye in a well conceived show with some hilarious sketches.

The Sydney satire scene is in good hands if the UTS Queer Revue’s A Queer is Born is anything to go by.  With a queer agenda ranging from hardly noticeable to flamingly relevant, and a queer eye for style and politics, this revue show was great fun for any audience.

Asked early on for a show of hands to join the Straight People’s Mardi Gras, there were some mums and dads to, sometimes reluctantly, make themselves visible.  It turned out to be a diverse audience and the skits and scenes and dances and songs were also miscellaneously inspired, universally expressed and encompassing.

The boot went in where required.  To Ellen and to that woman who does infomercials and to baby chinos.  The tropes were trashed … I loved the HSC Drama scene and the pearls and heels; and the flannels at dawn and the Bears in the ARQ.  Lockout laws, semaphoring festival cops, and an hilarious insurrection at the ‘assisted checkout’ tapped into in-common pet hates.    A sneaky socialist agenda shot through the ‘arts aren’t labour’ skit and that all singing, all dancing, anti-vac Busby Berkeley phalanx of mums killed! The Gap Year song was especially comic and clever but what the feck is Frosé?  

Love in common was all around with Harry Potter and a sexy song at a wedding and the interactive crab fiesta sketch. That one, in particular, foregrounded the thought and clarity of creation that was on display during the show … and the committed and focussed acting too.

There was some serious skill at work behind the hilarity: scene changes flowed very smoothly considering how many little scenes were in the show; the video was spectacularly effective; the minimalist props spot on for relevance and audience key-in… the signs around the necks of the dying children, pretty ironically full on.  Plus, the content was terrific.  The writing of the seconded songs was witty and having the lyrics on the screen gave the audience a chance to really appreciate the quality and if some skits didn’t hit the mark nothing was laboriously long. 

The choreo had pump and flair and was obviously well rehearsed and there was some hysterical physical comedy … don’t chest bump a girl!  Plus Olympic level ribbon work at one stage!  There was just a subtle polish to the show which didn’t diminish its undergrad roots or put on any pretensions.  This was a uni revue with an agenda … for inclusive entertainment.  With a sneaky political side!

RbJ Rating: 4 Sensible Shoes or Sparkly Heels

 A Queer is Born from C.R.A.P. the UTS Comedy, Revue and Performance Society played 3 nights to sold out houses.


Cinderella from Hornsby Musical Society:.

Grab a grand-kid or a grand-dad and treat the family to a romantic re-telling for all ages.

As the overture lets the strings loose in the large auditorium and the dimming lights pull our attention towards the stage, there’s a collective air of excitement.  This, after all, is a story we all know and as the before-curtain airs float there are other moments of recognition.  That song comes from this musical?  Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella is being presented by Hornsby Musical Society and it is a romantic and fun night at the theatre for all ages.

 A wistful beginning as we meet Cinderella.  Played by Erica Penollar, Cinders is a sweet- natured and aspirational young woman who is aware of her weaknesses and content nevertheless.  Penollar never gives in to petty emotions, instead she is bright and happy and coping with her lot.  Her first solo ‘In My Own Little Corner’ is just lovely with skilled expression of perfect high notes reaching out to the audience with yearning and hope. All her vocal work is confident and with a lilting musicality. There is some very fun silliness around her, but Penollar gives her character the elegance befitting a princess as she builds, with a smile in her voice, a willing investment from the audience.

The nonsense around Cinderella is provided by her two step-sisters, Grace and Joy.  The stepmother is played by Rebecca Demary with a mix of avarice and exasperation at her preferred offspring … and her girls are a handful!  The irony of the daughters’ names hits home early as Melissa McPhee and Ashley Roberts bring on highly comic characters who chew the scenery and rule the stage.  Their generally poor behaviour to our heroine is big and broad and they are obviously having a very infectious helluva of a time.  But with the sure hand of Director Eloise Plant, McPhee and Roberts never overwhelm the production and the pathos of their later song ‘Stepsisters Lament’ … every plain girl’s cry … is very moving.

Equally well placed is the comedy of David Emerson as Lionel, the royal steward.  With attitude to slow-burn and an unruffled insouciance, this is a lovely comic creation who has real heart and a practical goodness. And his voice is very well used - with the final note of ‘The Prince is Giving a Ball’ getting a well-deserved spontaneous applause from the appreciative audience.  Emerson can sneer and throw a snappy one-liner when needed but has a genuine love for his prince and very well constructed relationships with the King and Queen.

Love abounds in the work of Fiona Eskbank and Nib Brattoni as Prince Christopher’s parents who are compassionate characters with a thoroughly enjoyable on-the-same-page cohesion. A loving pair, their duet ‘Boys and Girls Like You and Me’ is touching and full of wisdom.  They are worried for their boy.  Prince Christopher is played with charm inside his frustration by Andrew Mulholland.  It’s an engaging portrayal of boy into man which never dips into sad-sack despite the burdens of his position. 

Penollar and Mulholland as a couple are delightful with a vocal blend that makes the times when their voices come together very pleasant to listen to.   All the singing is well handled and some scenes are especially enjoyable for the character who is behind the words.  This is especially true of Alyssa Porteous as the Fairy Godmother.  With a no-nonsense character, a look-at-me entrance, a Jewish Grand-mother vibe and a wide and welcoming physicality Porteous is the maker of magic.

The transformation of Cinderella is glamorous and impossibly romantic in this production.  With excellent choreography and Director Plant’s understanding of the audience’s need to be surprised, it is a marvelous moment in a show which has detailed and well thought through production values.  The settings work successfully with plenty of room for the dancing and having open-curtain scene changes not only moves the show along, but allows time to enjoy the fine work of the orchestra.

Cinderella is a musical on a grand scale and having a large orchestra which can fill the imposing auditorium with French Horn flourish and swelling strings adds immeasurably to this enjoyable show.  Jeremy Kindl has taken on the lush orchestrations with added flair.  The violins and flutes star as romance blossoms and the regal use of the brass section is particularly enjoyable.  The show has a very good audio mix which gives an encompassing discreteness to the musicians’ work.

The choreography (Lauren Oxenham) is leaping and graceful by turns.  In the market of Act 1 the cast use bounce and high energy to fill the space with boisterous joie de vivre and set the tone for the joy of performing that is so evident in this company’s work.  But later, at the Ball, they are stylish and beautiful to watch as they glide and whirl in a waltz.  The costumes evoke a period feel, aprons and satins and feathers in the hair, and there is a visually sumptuous use of the lighter spectrum of the colour palette in the ballroom scenes that really impresses.   As does the restrained colouring of the lighting.  Blues and purples with an occasional green and a saturated and dreamy pink.  Generally I am not a fan of flashing lights but designer Evan Jones has created a surprising and effective midnight toll which strikes the audience with a heart in the mouth excitement despite how well we know the story.

It is, of course, a story for all ages and Hornsby Musical Society have created a show which everyone can enjoy.  Grab a grandkid or a granddad and treat the whole family to a night of fairy tale dancing, singing and acting from a community theatre which will lift the spirits in these jaded times.

RbJ rating:  4 Glass Slippers

Cinderella from Hornsby Musical Society continues until  April 14.  

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

“Little Eggs rely less on a symbolic rendering than on a viscerality of intent which piques the curiosity and pulls one into the narrative” Here is the write-up I did for Arts Hub.

Promo photo by Jasmin Simmons

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Dark Voyager

An unkindness of aging for Bette and Joan in this stylish offering.

Bon mots and a brittle bonhomie float on the surface of Dark Voyager from the Castle Hill Players but the real journey goes on below.  There, in the depths of the human heart, is an undercurrent of booze.  It sweeps egos clinging to past successes and conquests into a fight for survival over a blistering, bloodless two hours of woman on woman violence.  It’s gripping work from this respected community theatre, with well controlled action and well researched creations in stellar surroundings compensating for some unfortunate textual deficiencies.

The stage is peopled with characters we think we know.  It’s Hedda Hopper’s home we find ourselves invited to, 1962.  Joan Crawford and Bette Davis have skipped the premiere of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, convinced that Hedda can salvage their reputations from the guaranteed savaging that the film is heading for.  Not getting along with each other has become an art for these two and precariously adding Marilyn Monroe to the mix will force the aging divas to consider a peace.

In the program, Director Annette van Roden cites a love of the lore of film and it shows in every aspect of this loving work.  The script is by esteemed local playwright John Misto and, while the conclusion of the play is overly convoluted and lengthy, for most of its time Dark Voyager drips with witty dialogue and insider gossip.  Van Roden has skillfully pitched the work at both the audience who know only of the legends and we others who really revel in the period and place.  I wasn’t the only one laughing with recognition at odd moments, shaking my head with gossip reminded and furling an arched brow with delicious secrets emerging. 

Van Roden has a terrific cast here who inhabit rather than mimic their iconic characters.  Hedda, played by Annette Emerton really is a poisonous old tart.  The vitriol rolls off her tongue as easily as the starry names and she holds herself in a lordly puppet- master fashion. 

Faith Jessel brings a Bette who struts and sashays and smirks with a lovely recognisability of character and her Channingesque implication of Davis’ abrasive vocal tone is placed with care.  When she leans back to laugh, Jane Hudson style, it is especially entertaining.  Leigh Scanlon as Joan Crawford, meanwhile, is regal, imperious and knowingly aware of every shape she makes.  With an ever-present exterior gaze, hers is the falsity and assumption of stardom in every visual.  Even when she sits and crosses her long legs to enjoy Davis’ destruction of a new target, she has a languid bemusement that is also reflected in a dismissive air when throwing those sweetly toxic lines.  The director also plays with their height difference in some very amusing ways.

Van Roden has very smooth control over the movements around the set and nothing feels forced plus there is considerable physical comedy.  Not just in the huge amount of liquid consumed … I hope there’s a porta-loo backstage … but some of the entrances and silliness are great fun.  The brunt of these are borne by Adam Garden as Skipper, Hedda’s butler.

 Garden has so much stage business during the show and it is handled with complete aplomb and a lemon twist of added superciliousness.  He skulks and snoops with snooty authority and his gooey, lovey moments are also well achieved.  The object of the latter is Marilyn. Played by Jacqui Wilson, this is a very well thought through performance.  She doesn’t have much to say but it is done with the hint of the whisper and giggle and an excellent use of timbre and speed; pauses well engaged and a physical wobble which teeters spectacularly.

The setting for the production is very neatly designed to sit inside a symbolic darkness and the costumes are evocative and lovely to look at.  The use of jewellery for character, especially on Hedda, is an art in itself here.   The lighting works well and some of the cues are very effective to isolate characters and focus attention.  The limited sound effects add value and it’s worth staying in at interval to sing along with the classic songs from the era.

Dark Voyager is a barbed and slanderous tale which surprises and entertains in equal measure.  With an attention to detail, great styling and unfussy direction which effortlessly glides well created characters through an ocean of self-interest, it’s a thoroughly nostalgic night at the theatre.

RbJ Rating: 4 J Edgar Hoovers

 Dark Voyager from Castle Hill Players continues until  April 27. (Photo: Chris Lundie)

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Barbara and the Camp Dogs

A richness of representation for those who know; authority in the material and mastery in the performances for those who need to know.

“Superlatives fail” was my headline the first time I saw this show and once again I am smited dumb by the power and integrity of this work,  but having seen it a few times I am also newly poleaxed by the detail and craft of ‘Barbara and the Camp Dogs’.  It is a production which speaks to many from a few, with a universality and humanity which never diminishes the specific pain and consequences.  A full pelt, full on ride which entertains and educates with complete dramatic and musical authority.

Barbara and her sister Renee are singers lost in Sydney.  Originally from the top end, these two will embark on a forced trip back to country where hearts will split open and the old wounds, when aired, may have a chance to heal.  Renee is practical, loving and sexy as.  She knows a gig is a gig and no matter how different to her own style, lounge singing puts bread and beer on the table.  Barbara is scrappy, contrary and lookin’ for a fight.  Any fight will do.

Uproariously volatile, Ursula Yovich explodes onto the wide stage after she and Elaine Crombie as Renee smooze a brilliant opening number.   Their sister-tensioned relationship is there in the penning and performance of every line of that first song, a statement of rock and roll intent.  What begins in this thumping track, however, will end in country infused blues as Yovich lays bare the bravado soul of her character with complexity, empathy and the richness of a singing voice which weeps in its lower register.

Crombie on the other hand, walks Renee taller through the show as Barbara implodes and becomes smaller.  Hers is a replete portrayal of a woman with a moral compass which has compassion, self-worth and family as its true north.  Crombie endows Renee with clear motivation and a slow to anger expression of frustration, with singing of emotional reach and pure musicality.  These two are a peerless team, searing through the production. 

And there’s a damned impressive three piece band (Sorcha Albuquerque, Jessica Dunn, Michelle Vincent) who are fun-loving and silly early on but who gracefully fade into the background later in the show. Marcus Corowa is also excellent in support as the roadie tech and later in a pivotal role.  Unfortunately, there were some issues in the vocal audio mix on Opening Night when, in the louder sections, the words were muddy and their impact lessened.  However, the audio was more settled as the play darkens and draws in. 

Written by Yovich and Alana Valentine and directed by Leticia Cáceres, the production has tight control over those transformative elements.  They are powerfully fashioned without any need for sentimentality in the music or dialogue, but relying on soul shredding performances.  Vibrant and fast paced, Barbara and Renee’s comic adventures when we first meet them inspire absolute goodwill toward the flawed and fierce Barbara as we travel her journey with her.  While I retain reservations about the ending, the dénouement is shattering and pointedly personal after its framing in a political context… historical hurt haunts down the generations.

‘Barbara and the Camp Dogs’ is an accomplishment of many hands and its cry of ages is theatre that reaches out to hold us close in the joy and sorrow.  A wind in the hair ride!

 RbJ Rating:   4 ½ Snaps and Snarls

Barbara and the Camp Dogs’ continues at Belvoir Street Theatre until April 28. (Photo: Brett Boardman)

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The Last Five Years

An intimate offering with good acting and singing and virtuoso piano accompaniment. The Last Five Years. This is the write-up I did for Arts Hub. Photo: Christian Charisiou Elise McCann by Phil Erbacher

RbJ Rating: 4 Copper Wedding Rings


Saturday Night Fever

The dancing is the star of this open staged, mirror ball blitzed and finely calibrated production. See the write-up I did for Art Hub here.

RbJ Rating: 5 Boogie Shoes

Photo by Heidi Victoria



Hot Room Theatre have remounted their fun and disconcertingly apposite 2017 production.

The independent theatre scene in Sydney is alive and kickin it when a little play like Monopoly can brighten up a Monday night with some fun, some home truths and a wicked take on the capitalist in us all. 

Four friends have gathered for a board game evening and the hostess, Angela, has invited Simon, with whom she works.  Fitting into a tight group of friends is hard and Simon makes absolutely no attempt to endear himself.  He is boorish, an insufferable prig and his views about how to make money are very unwelcome at the table.  Especially to Jen who has a streak of social consciousness and can barely stand him.  Even easy going Adam is ticked off and poor Emilio is past being affably amused.  And that’s when we meet them.

Over the next 75 minutes writer/ director Steven Hopley’s text raises the stakes as it explores the personal politics of real and fake money.  It has quite a few clever puns, the Water Works is a good one, and the cards drive the themes as money is taken away and given by invisible forces.

 It’s a pretty polished technical feat for those performers to get all the counting and moving seamlessly inserted into the play.  There’s a couple of cracker bits of trivia and some dodgy rules.  I thought you couldn’t collect rent while in jail … but I was wrong.  I looked it up!  It’s the sort of show that does that to you.  You keep guessing about purchasing houses and over extending and interest free loans. And, of course, who you want to win.  But it’s definitely beyond the pale to gang up and create a cabal.

It’s a very cohesive cast.  As the hostess Alison Lee Rubie is pretty no-nonsense and confident, with a motherly streak, but she will run the gamut from “poor hon” to “drop dead”.  Emilia Stubbs Grigoriou’s Jen is snarkey and reactionary and increasingly frustrated before she commits to a pretty hefty by-in.  Played by Danen Young, Emilio is settled with his lot, quite the optimist and Young brings a real warmth to his character.  As does Benjamin Kuryo as Adam who has the additional props challenge of being the banker, too.  He has some lovely pauses for funny reflection.  

These four work really well together and you can see why they are friends and at the table.  So, it’s very clever ensemble that expresses so clearly the outsidership of Jasper Garner Gore’s Simon.  Gore is abrasive without being repugnant … otherwise the major plot point wouldn’t work, and his entitlement is subtly articulated.  This is a cast who can also listen with intent and, as there is very little action, it would be a very static watch if they were not so lively in their engagement. 

Ultimately though, it is the themes that really got me in.  Is intelligent self-interest noble, acceptable, infectious?  Are we all susceptible to falling under the spell of a charismatic individualist who could talk us around our values?

It’s a dense little play with some good laughs, lots to think about and several take-home dilemmas.  I have seen it twice now, once before in 2017, and I say … go and see it.  Because it’s good but also because they are obviously on a shoestring and it deserves a bigger stage than perched precariously around a full grand piano.  Independent theatre needs your support.  

RbJ rating: 3 ½ Scottie Dog Game Pieces or Top Hats or Racing Cars etc!

Monopoly from Hot Room Theatre plays on Mondays until April 29 at El Rocco in Kings Cross.  The big theatres are mostly closed on Mondays anyways so book here.


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Noli me Tangere

This is a new musical with a wonderfully diverse and committed cast and a standing ovation from the supportive Opening Night audience. See the review I did for Arts Hub here.

Photo of Susana Downes as Maria Clara and Miguel Castro as Ibarra by Shakira Wilson.

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JackRabbit Theatre is deep into their Hijacked Rabbit Season at KXT.

Production image from Clare Hawley.

This is not the kind of humour everyone can get behind: there were some serious grumpy gusses in the audience across the stage from me.  Traverse stages tell all!  Admittedly, it’s a tetch too long but ‘Leopardskin’ has audaciously arch characters in some trope-alicious wacky spoofery, and … a weirdly coherent plot.  Some excellent physical realizations and a habit of taking alliteration’s good name in bespirchment rounds out the fun.

It begins in lethally luxurious leopardskin lessons in larceny as Luka leads Val into a life of crime.  She obviously adores him and he is a cad.  Constantly arrested by bumbling Officer Beaks, he attracts the attention of a Senator, a Sergeant and an Undercover Operative.  As rich people with dubious charities vie for a valuable clock which will be given away by multi-billionaire, Guiseppe Monteverdi, these three attempt to entrap the heretofore lucky Luka.

The writing from Michael McStay has wit and satire behind it, yet allows for an audience to follow a story and engage closely with these loveable rogues and clueless marks.  It overstays its welcome a bit after the first hour but this is the work’s first outing and its never boring.  Well, maybe to the two guys across from me.  With Director Samantha Young keeping her cast well short of grotesque and some counter-intuitive choreography so as to keep lovers apart and secrets shared across space, the busy bits land very pleasingly.

Guy O’Grady as Luka slyly steals outrageously from the ‘Bad Acting and How to Do It Handbook’ and Zoe Desmond’s poor Val presents the rational clearly, allowing the overwrought intelligence to shine with perk.  Ella Watson-Russell has the politician’s ingratiating quotient amped and a seriously killer stink-eye stare.  Emma Kew takes her police character past the point of return with some crazy physicality and a wholeheartedly wired demeanour. Nick Gell coped very well with a moustache mishap which would be enormous fun to keep in.  And Travis Jeffery is absolutely hilarious as the child-like, smitten Guiseppe.  See the show soon because that gorgeous man is going to be 10 pounds heavier after the run.

The costuming is leopard on leopard and the set is gold lame with room to move and slide under.  The lighting uses Martin Kinnane’s favourite blue and some restrained red and green and purple in concert with the orange; the sound effects and music hit the spot and Doink Doink their own jokes in places.

Those of us who did enjoy ‘Leopardskin’ seemed to laugh out loud at all different times and yet we all had perplexed goofy smiles in common at the end of this tearaway caper. And by the way, even if you don’t get it … at least clap. Just sayin’

RbJ Rating: 4 Sweat Unstuck Moustaches.

Leopardskin from JackRabbit Theatre plays at KXT until April 6.

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The Appleton Ladies Potato Race

Loved this show. Here’s a write-up I did on Arts Hub. Photo of Sharon Millerchip as Penny by Phil Erbacher

RbJ Rating: 5 donation cans at the hairdresser.

What our ratings mean: 5- Definitely don’t miss this. 4 - You’ll be sorry if you miss this. 3 - If you are not interested in the topic, give it a miss. 2 - You can miss this unless you’re keen. 1 - Definitely on the miss list.