Thursday, 7 September 2017

The History Boys, Everyman, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

Alan Bennett is often treated as an English national treasure, something safe and comfortable and fluffy. But that doesn't quite square with the reality of what he writes - there's a lurking interrogating mind that doesn't just reinforce simple opinions, that challenges and provokes. "The History Boys" is one of the major plays of the 2000s, but it's a treacherous one, starting as a play about education before spinning off into wider questions about politics, culture, sexuality, feminism and the class divide... while still being very much focused on what goes on in preparing 8 young men for their future beyond high school.

Everyman's production captures the play exactly in all its dense complexity, in a production that flows magnificently - fleet of foot when it needs to be (if directors around town see this for nothing else (and they have multiple reasons to see this), they should see this simply to understand this is how you do scene transitions, without dead air), but taking the time to delve deeply and embrace the silences between words - particularly during the highly-charged lesson about Thomas Hardy at the end of act one. It is expertly cast, a tight ensemble that also gives individuals time to bask in the limelight on their own. In the round, where nobody is more than two rows back, it's an intimate and engrossing experience.

At the centre is Chris Baldock as Hector. He's in many ways a Falstaffian figure (not just through the stomach padding and beard, also through the humour and cajoling and in the sense that, fun to be around though he is, he may not be the most practical or safe pair of hands to be around), and Baldock captures him exactly in the sense that he, too, may be a little bit of a boy that never quite grew up. Hayden Splitt as Irwin is the outsider-who-comes-in-and-provokes. His is in some ways the more difficult job - he's the voice of practicality, of accommodating the realities of presentation and spin (it's no surprise that in flashforwards, he's a politician), but there's just enough of a sense that his brash confidence is a somewhat brittle facade and could be broken through at any moment. Alice Ferguson as Mrs Lintott combines the characteristics of confidante and confronter - she doesn't let anyone get away with anything, yet somehow remains compassionate to most. Geoffrey Borny as the headmaster is an oily figure, almost entirely concerned with his own professional agenda, but ... again, he isn't entirely wrong when he confronts Hector with the ways Hector hasn't .

As for the boys, they retain every element of an unruly class of late-teenage hormones, rebellion and eagerness, as a strong ensemble, whether debating seriously the issues presented to them or goofing about, or somewhere between the two. As individuals, Patrick Galen-Mules as the experimentally-religious Scripps, Pat Mandziy as the hyperconfident and mildly manipulative Dakin and Henry Strand as the yearning, slightly isolated Posner get the lions share of the plot, with the remainder having to grab moments. Lucas Frank gets the lions share of the best moments, as Rudge, the figure who doesn't quite fit in with the comfortable middle-classness of the rest of the group, but Cole Hilder, Jack Tinga, Andrew McMillan and Andrew Brigetti all make characters who are more than just "and the rest of the boys".

This is essential, whether to see a great play in a tight, intimate production or to see what the next generation of CAnberra's leading men will look like (bloody brilliant, is what it looks like). So yes, you should grab a ticket while you can.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hir, Belvoir

The recent death of Sam Shepherd reminded us that he was an incomparable poet of a certain type of American experience - chronicling and mourning the death of the American Midwest Working Class in plays like "Buried Child", "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Lie of the Mind", and illustrating masculinity in crisis as it finds itself increasingly marginalised and forgotten. "Hir" brings that to mind but also asks the question, what were the values behind that culture, and how much should they really be mourned? It tells the story of downtrodden American family who have never quite gotten out of their low-cost "starter home" - Brother Isaac has been away in the middle east collecting body parts, and now returns to what should be normality. But Father Arnold has had a stroke, and mother Paige has taken advantage of her new found freedom to explore a whole new identity and to abandon anything that kept her trapped in the old one (including housework). While sister Maxine has discovered her trans identity and is living as Max, on gender-shifting hormones. It's a play that's compassionate, smart and yet, in the final calculation, merciless as it brings contemporary gender theory right back into the midwest loungeroom where a lot of journeys start.

Taylor Mac is a trans writer/performer who did in fact grow up in a poor town, and this play simultaneously is about triumphing over your origin and what's left behind when you do. It's clear that characters like Paige and Max come from the bones, but Isaac and Arnold are recognisable figures too - the conventional values that are simultaneously crushing and yet so prevalent. Anthea Williams' production captures everything, from Paige's chaotic joy to Max's teen growing pains, a mix of embracing the new and being embarrassed by Mom's over-enthusiasm. Helen Thomson's a virtuoso as Paige, gleeful and funny and strongly resistant to any backsliding out of her new-found freedom. Similarly, Kurt Pimblett as Max is a great Belvoir debut, with a truly sympathetic naivete that's balanced by an awareness that this teenagehood will be transcended shortly. Michael Whalley as the straight-man (in every sense) has a role that largely consists of bewilderment and belligerence, but he manages to keep us believing that Paige and Max would continue to engage with him rather than ignore him. Greg Stone as the impaired Arnold is a performance that asks no sympathy and therefore, when the inner ugliness emerges, ensures he lands effecively. Special mention to the stage crew under Isabella Kerdijk, which has a whole lot of work to do during intermission and does it efficiently.

Michael Handkin's set and costume designs capture with not-quite-realism, making it just that right side of larger than life.

In short, this is modern,relevant, heartbreaking and wildly funny. One of the highlights of the year.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Neighborhood Watch, Canberra Rep

"Neighborhood Watch" is a fine addition to the list of plays about an older mentor and a younger student, most recently seen in shows like "Old Wicked Songs" and "Tuesdays with Morrie". The main difference is that for most shows, mentor and student tend to both be male - here, both are female. As always, there's a gentle humour, life lessons are there to be learned, and there is a poignant ending as the torch is passed on.

I did see the original production back in 2011 at Belvoir Street, starring the actress it was written for, Robyn Nevin. So I was a little worried that comparisons would set in unfairly. And yet, this doesn't entirely lose in the comparison. Nevin was a powerhouse, no question, but she tended to overpower the rest of the play - and with a slightly more balanced cast, other elements have a chance to come through. In particular, Alex McPherson's Catherine gets a chance to stand somewhat more as an equal to Liz DeToth's Ana - Catherine's not just a young empty vessel waiting to be filled, she's a feisty young woman who's perfectly capable of standing up to Ana when she oversteps the mark. The strength of the play is the relationship between the two of them, and the two actresses chart a real journey from wariness to warmth, through estrangements and exasperations to an ultimate peace. While there is a certain sentimentality to this arc, Katz's script and the performances largely avoid the maudlin, giving Ana's brittleness full reign and letting her be as frustrating as she is enlightening.

The supporting cast is, in this case, particularly supporting. Craig Battams has possibly the biggest single role beyond the main pairing, but is pretty much there for Catherine to have someone to talk to, and he presents a good listening ear, a mixture of sympathetic and slightly-judgmental. As for the rest, Judi Crane commits a little bit of scene-stealing as Jovanka, basically a show-long running gag but an amusing and slightly heart-rending one at the end, Tim Sekuless is in fine voice as a Hungarian folk singer, Nikki-Lyn Hunter gives a brief glimpse of another set of struggles elsewhere in the cul-de-sac, Loren Kalis has enthusiastic persistence as a neighborhood watch co-ordinator, Peter Holland pops up in various roles either sympathetic or sinister and Damon Baudin has a pleasant nerdyness as the local pharmacist and quiet sincerity as another presence from Catherine's life.

Director Kate Blackhurst uses the wide open space of Rep's stage with care - letting the characters establish themselves in isolation before they start to mix and blend across the stage. Andrew Kay's set design is deliberately somewhat minimalist, capturing just enough of a suburban cul-de-sac to give us a sense of suburbia, and letting the journeys beyond take flight mostly in the mind. Joel Endmondson's lighting design and Jesse Armistead's sound design help give a little extra sense of place.

This is a quiet pleasure - it's not necessarily a barn-burster drama poking you in the chest for your attention, but it sneaks up on you until you are drawn into affection for a pair who discover a few things about one another along the course of an evening.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

1984, AMBASSADOR THEATRE GROUP, GWB ENTERTAINMENT & STCSA PRESENT THE HEADLONG, NOTTINGHAM PLAYHOUSE & ALMEIDA THEATRE PRODUCTION IN ASSOCIATION WITH QPAC, SYDNEY THEATRE COMPANY, CANBERRA THEATRE CENTRE & PERTH THEATRE TRUST, Canberra Theatre

Yeah, that's a lot of producers. It takes a bunch to get a play doing multi-city touring nowadays. Anyway, yes, this is the much-hyped Orwell adaptation, Unfortunately, this doesn't quite cut it for me. Robert Icke and Duncan McMillan's adaptation succeeds more on the visual scale than it does on the verbal or ideas scale. Winston Smith seems less like an everyman rebel than a gullible fool who takes the first opportunity for revolution that is offered to him, and the relationship between him and Julia seems more like something that exists is in the book than something that any kind of sane woman would ever be involved in. It's obvious from the first second that whatever revolution Julia wants to have, Winston doesn't understand it and is utterly bamboozled by the simplest of tricks. While there's still a certain power to the torture that follows, it's pretty diminished by being practiced on a virtual non-character.

Ironically for a play about the human impulse struggling with crushing systems, this doesn't show a lot of humanity. I can't say for certain it's a case of this production having been toured too long, or whether it's because it's a replication of a production that worked overseas, or whether it's simply something where what's here doesn't resonate with me. But while there are impressive visuals and moments, it isn't something that hangs together or sticks with me beyond the occasional image, and while the grand set transformation is technically impressive, it's not enough to make me think this is anything that engaged me very much.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Rover, Belvoir

Aphra Behn's Restoration comedy is of more than just historical interest. Yes, she's the first noted female playwright, but as importantly, she's up there with her contempories like Wycherly and Congreve, with a very individual voice. "The Rover" tells the common tale of two young women, both controlled by their brother, one promised to a man she doesn't love, one about to be confined to a convenant, and both escaping during carnival time in Naples to discover a wilder world of debauchery and romance. It's unusual, though, in playing very heavily into the women's perspective - not only do the two sisters drive much of the plot, the romantic rival for the escapee-nun, the prostitute Angelica Bianca, has plenty of time to get her own personal perspective out there.

Eamon Flack's production plays the romance largely straight and the comedy somewhat looser, but hilariously so (I have no idea why he decided to put the pengin bit in there,, apart from because it would be funny, but it absolutely is funny). He's also quite willing to let the males look either clueless or actively hostile in various cases. The titular rover, Toby Schmitz, gets a truly scene-stealing entrance and is clearly wild and irresponsible, but it's also quite clear how that irresponsibility can do real damage, both to the heart and sometimes also physical. It's not all fun and games, there are genuine physical threats out there. Taylor Ferguson as the not-gonna-be-a-nun Hellena has innocence and yearning on her side but is also smart enough to know how to hold her man's wandering eye. Nikki Shiels is pure lustrous Italianate energy as the gorgeous Angelica Bianca, sophisticated courtesan who is undone by her passion for the Rover. Leon Ford and Elizabeth Nabben hold up the straight-romance subplot, Ford, delightfully, just a little dim, and Nabben thoroughly frustrated as the debauch gets out of control. Andre DeVanny has the awkward bit that he's meant to be comically tedious at the beginning (and, as often happens, he slips slightly into tedious), but as the action gets going he becomes a worthily foolish participant. Megan Wilding as Angelica's maid and another lady of the night sells either relentless practicality or saucy trickstering, as required .Nathan Lovejoy is wonderfully ludicrous as the goofy Don Antonio and provides staunch backup as Frederick. Gareth Davies has the tricky challenge of moving from idiot to dangerous monster in the second half and he manages to make the giggles dry in our mouths as we realise how completely unpleasant he is becoming. Kiruna Stammel has the least to do as one of the maids but by the second half she's amusing simply by walking through a scene so that helps.

Mel Page's set and costumes contribute to the lushly fantasticly frivolous nature of the show. Scott Witt ensures the fights are both realistically threatening and, presumably, actually reasonably safe.

This is largely a winter-warmer of a comedy, but with a couple of deeper thoughts about man-woman relations that gives it a little substance. Worth coming out for.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Kinky Boots, Michael Cassell Group, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

There's been a bit of a run of reasonably glitzy musicals based on British comedies from the late 90s/early 2000s about Northern English Industrial Crises - whether it be "The Full Monty", "Billy Elliot" or now "Kinky Boots". This is probably the glitziest of the lot, based loosely on a true story of a shoe manufacturer who turned to boots for drag queens as a specialised market. In real life, the market was eventually taken over by cheaper imports and the company has since folded, however for the purposes of musical theatre, it's largely a story of inspiration and triumph and a whole lotta glitz.

This is not a perfectly put together show - one lead, the factory owner Charlie, is rather colourless with most of his songs rather generic ballads, while the other, drag queen Lola, gets all the good up-tempo songs and the better of the ballads but gets no real defined sexuality; female characters are mostly functional only (Sophie Wright's Lauren scores the best with the hilarious "History of Wrong Guys", but is otherwise ignored, while Tegan Wouters' Nicola is just a walking plot-device), and the second-act complication in particular feels fairly contrived. And the ending rolls into curtain call almost before the plot has actually stopped. 

However, Jerry Mitchell's direction and choreography smooth over the clunky bits as much as possible (when the plot takes us to a somewhat unlikely boxing match, he damn well brings us a boxing arena with the assistance of a couple of ribbons and a drag-queen's leg) and gives us a production that never looks less than spectacular and moves like greased lightning. There's a solid band under the direction of Luke Hunter, good performances throughout (including an ensemble that has a nice mix of bodies ad personalities - not just a bunch of gym-polished dancers), and a few good gags and songs as well. So if it's not perfect, it's not awful either, and its heart is in several very right places.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The 39 Steps, Canberra Rep

Let's have a quick word on the Canberra Theatre career of Jarrad West. It's almost 11 years since he showed up, stealing scenes brutally in "The School for Scandal", and nine since he made his major theatre-directing Canberra debut with "Angels in America" (and if you're going to show ambition, nothing beats rolling out "Angels in America" as your first major show). And while on the one hand he's become a regular director on the scene since then, the ambition, the drive and the ability to show the audience a damn good time has never wavered. Whether it's acting (with iconic leads like Bobby in "Company", Peter Allen in "Boy from Oz" and "Ned Weeks" in "Normal Heart") to directing (the incredibly flowingly theatrical "Home at the End", the spectacular "Cassanova", the brutally direct "Laramie Project"), he's thoroughly worn his way into Canberra audience's heart by presenting an individual, ever-creative vision that has its own very personal approach that ensure s he's consistently one of Canberra's most engaging presences.

And that continues with "The 39 Steps". Patrick Barlow's adaptation of the Hitchcock film of the Buchan novel is a demanding beast - requiring four energetic actors and an equally energetic production that keeps track of the multiple locations and characters in a non-stop frenzied comedy-thriller with a strong emphasis on the comedy. There isn't even the usual safety net of some underlying social theme to make people think this is in any way important - just the pile up of events as our dashing hero races out of one certain-death scenario and straight into another. This is pure silly theatrical fairy floss that only survives if it can keep things moving fast enough that you're too busy enjoying yourself to worry about anything else.

And that's what this does. Patrick Galen-Mules IS the dashing hero-type, an effortlessly charming Canadian Gent with a pleasantly befuddled nature. Steph Roberts triples as three very different romantic interests, each with a different accent, each in their own gorgeous Fiona Leach costumes and each with their own seperate theme tunes - whether she's the ubermysterious Annabella, the temptingly naive Margaret or the thoroughly sensible Pamela, we're absolutely with her every step of the way. Helen McFarlane and Nelson Blattman play everybody else, often warping from personality to personality mid-scene in an astonishing high-wire quick-change series of performances that never once slips - we slide with delight as we wonder what on earth they're going to show up as next.

Michael Sparks set deliberately tightens the playing areas to allow exits-and-entrances to spill out almost immediately and to allow the cast to race in and out of different-coloured doors with alacrity, lending the right level of cartoonishness to the occasion. Stephen Still's lighting is pin-point accurate, enhancing and sometimes helping to create the set, whether it be train, automobile, plane or seemingly-endless-hallway. Sound by Tim Sekuless adds its own ridiculousness from sentimental ballads to screwy cat noises.

This is pure, frantic fun done to perfection. Thoroughly enjoyable ridiculousness.