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.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, Belvoir

Belvoir's latest is a tad unusual - a new American comedy adapted from one of pop-culture's most prevalent narratives - The Simpsons. While, yes, the show's a good 15 years past its prime, I'm one of a vast number of my age group who, back in the day, watched the first eight or so series in regular repeats and could and did recite gags from the series (indeed, my brother and I still will recite the Frogurt conversation from Treehouse of Horror III).

So this is a post-apocalyptic story about how narratives survive, mutate and survive - while also being, almost, a retrospective history of how theatre evolves. In the first act, we meet a set of people gathered around a fire, trying to remember the episode "Cape Feare" (notably, a Sideshow Bob episode, and one based on a film that is itself a remake). We're not told the full details of the disaster that's led them to this point, but references make clear that it's scary, dramatic and very real for these people, and that whatever escapism sharing the narrative can give them is desperately needed. In the second, five years later, these people have formed a small touring theatre company, now re-enacting the episodes with rudimentary props and costumes, trying to evoke for their audiences the world before the disaster. Of course, the world outside is still impinging, and some of the squabbles of the troupe will feel awfully familiar to anybody who's ever been part of an amateur theatre group (in particular the petty rivalries with other groups and the concerns about naturalism versus styalisation), and it's clear this is still not entirely a safe world, but the performers try their best. In the third, seventy-five years later, things have morphed and advanced to the point where the story has become something between a passion play and an opera, semi-ritualistic with a heroic narrative and hyperstyalised performances.

It's one of the most astounding things I've seen at Belvoir in quite some time - by no means is this a conventional narrative (none of the characters from acts one and two appear in act three, unless you count the "characters" being re-interpreted), I'd normally go through the cast and point out highlights, but this is such a ridiculously tight ensemble it feels impossible to pick people out - Esther Hannaford's heroic Bart in act three has true nobility to her, and Jude Henshall's director Colleen has all the exasperated energy of the character in act two, while Brent Hill's Matt holds as the centre of Act one as the primary character driving the memories, but really, everybody is exceptional.

Imra Savage pulls together a tight production that allows even the most ridiculous moment to have generous humanity to it. Jonathan Oxlade's design is exceptional, and in particular Act Three is the most glamorously excessive I've ever seen the Belvoir stage, while still having strong authenticity to it.

For something that could have been a trivial wacky diversion, this is a show with an awful lot of depths. Well worth catching up on.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A View From the Bridge, Canberra Rep

Arthur Miller's "View from the Bridge" is the only contemporary working-class drama of his major plays ("All My Sons" and "Death of A Salesman" are both closer to middle-class, "Crucible" isn't contemporary), and acts partially as a rebut to Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg's "On the Waterfront" - set in the same location, it argues that sometimes the legal system needs to be defied when it comes to things like immigration law in the face of genuine human need. It also presents a gripping home drama as the relationships within a Brooklyn home are stretched as two visitors expose fautlines.

In Chris Baldock's production, this is a story both about a family and a community and how the two interract. In the first act, the continuous prescence of a greek chorus of neighbourhood people seems almost intrusive on the domestic scenes inside the hosehold of Eddie Carbone. But it pays off greatly in the second act as Eddie's private transgressions face public consequences, as his community turns against him and as he seeks desperately to find his way back to reclaim his place in it. There's a cumulative power that pays off wonderfully by the end of this tense, tight piece.

Central, of course, to the tragedy is the Eddie Carbone. Knox Peden's making not only his Rep but also his Australian debut with this production, and it's a knockout performance, pugnacious, combative but with a longing soul at the middle of it that can't help but draw compassion even as it becomes increasingly obvious how wrong he's going. Karen Vickery is a 3 year Canberra veteran now (with, of course, a whole lot more behind her), and brings every inch of that skill to Beatrice, Eddie's wife and confidante, supportive but completely willing to call her husband on his bullshit when she knows he's wrong, powerless to stop him failing. Karina Hudson also makes her Canberra debut as the bubbly young Catherine, who is required to do a lot of growing up in a brief period of time as she finds love, meets betrayal and finds her confidence to stand up to Eddie. As the charming-but-possibly-mercenary Rudolpho, Alexander Clubb keeps you guessing as to his true motives - there's a surface charm and a sweet voice, but also that little bit of withholding that keeps things uncertain. Chris Zuber has a strong solid integrity that grows into brutal menace when he is betrayed.. David Bennett narrates in the one role I'm not entirely sure is utterly necessary - I've not seen a production where Alfieri's monologues feel integral to the play rather than imposed to underline themes that don't need underlining, and this isn't the one that changes my mind, but he's solid enough. Cameron Thomas and Benjamin Russell double both as Eddie's casual buddies and two menacing Immigration Officers, and present strong distinguishable characters in brief stagetime.

Baldock's set, realised by a team of 17 dedicated buillders, is impressive both in how it fills the stage (across the wide Rep stage but also through strong verticals) and how it allows tight focus on the small family drama while letting the bigger community elements come through. Helen Drum's costumes give a gritty period authenticity, Chris Ellyard's lighting design impresses both in giving focus to the different areas and to building the hellish intensity as the play winds to its inevitable conclusion. Jon Pearson's sound design gives a strong sense of place and mood.

This is intense, raw drama presented in top-notch condition. This is theatre that will draw you in and get the heart pumping. Go see it.