Thursday, 12 July 2018

Switzerland, Pidgeonhole Theatre, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

It's a rarer thing than it probably should be for local theatre companies to take part in the Canberra Theatre's subscription season - the last time we saw one was about five years ago with Everyman's "Home at the End". But hopefully with this being a rocking great sell-out hit, the gap may be reduced a little, and maybe, just maybe, the biggest professional venue in town may be persuaded to invest a little more in our own local product.

Anyway, apart from that, how is the show? It's a tight two hander, an Australian-written, European-set, American-characters-led thriller about Patricia Highsmith, best-selling thriller writer best known for "Strangers on a Train" and the Ripley series of books - confronted by a representative of her publishers requesting one more book from her, a young-but-enthusiastic man called Edward Ridgeway. Highsmith's bitterness, rage and defensiveness is high, but the temptation to prove herself one more time proves stronger than she's expecting, and the cat-and-mouse game proves that Ridgeway may not be quite as mousy as he seems...

Joanna Murray-Smith's script is one of her best (for me, she does better when tempted into the more heavily plotted genres of thriller (this) and farce (Female of the Species), rather than the looser moral-conundrum plays like "Honour", "Fury" and "The Gift" she's made her name with). Yep, there are a couple of speeches that wander closer to the-author's-essay-pieces rather than functional character dialogue, but it's a tight evening that succeeds in unpeeling two characters in ways that are constantly thrilling. Jordan Best's production seduces us in - Karen Vickery's venomous Highsmith is an unholy terror who we're glad is firmly on the other side of the footlights to us, and Lachlan Ruffy's Ridgeway proves a worthy adversary - Ruffy still looks ridiculously boyish, damn his hide (I'm sure there's a portrait in his cupboard somewhere), but shows that the long gap we've had between seeing him on Canberra stages hasn't been wasted. Vickery too shows her skill in making Highsmith just the right mix of brutal and engaging - she's a fascinating monster to watch. Michael Sparks' visually dense set contains all the right nooks, crannies and lethal instruments, and Cynthia Jolley Rogers lighting brings the right amount of mood and focus to the shifting onstage power-struggle.

I'd usually say "rush out and buy a ticket" but you can't. Rush out and buy tickets to anything these people are involved in next time, get in early. It's rare that work this good has sold this well (damn you Canberra audiences) but I'm glad that this time, quality has been rewarded and can't wait to see what comes next for everyone involved.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

John Cameron Mitchell: The Origin of Love, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

This is more a concert/cabaret than theatre, but I'm including it anyway because it was awesome. Singing a range of songs from his musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (eight, skipping "Angry Inch", "Hedwig's Lament", "Exquisite Corpse" and the "Wicked Little Town" reprise), plus a cut song and a few other related extras, with a full backing rock band and backing singer (Amber Martin, who performs a few solos), Mitchell surrounds this with stories of how the show got created and some of the after-effects of the show. If Mitchell is now over 50 (compared to the 30 something who first performed Hedwig) his energy has barely dipped - the harder-rocking songs get full-pitch performances while the ballads still cut just as deep into the heart. And while inevitably there's some blurring of the lines between Hedwig and John CAmeron Mitchell, we get a chance to see a stunning performer giving his all in a culturally iconic show. If this is how Mitchell chooses to perform the songs from now on, I can't say I'd complain very much.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Bliss, Belvoir

This is a show that just plain doesn't work. And the "not working" starts early, with the opening monologue. Adapting Peter Carey's novel is not necessarily a bad idea (it's worked perfectly fine as a film and as an opera) but it has a couple of iconic images that really should be attempted if you're going to adapt this properly. And the opening monologue captures one of these - the "vision splendid", of a woman traversing a flooded town carrying a giant crucifix. Except it's entirely narrated, by Toby Truslove and his particularly fidgety hands. And the monologue just lies there, dead on the stage, buried in Marg Horwell's tasteful pine set.

There are occasional moments when the story gets a little life in it - particularly Anna Samson's Honey Barbara (a character who should be a massive cliche - the earth-mother prostitute who liberates the bewhildered leading man) who gives the show a human energy that otherwise is missing in action most of the time - she feels real and lived in. The mental-hospital sequence at the beginning of Act Two also has a bit of life in it, particularly with Marco Chiappi as a guy who decides that he's going to go with the madness rather than fight against it in the most gleeful of ways.

But otherwise a skilled cast lies pretty much wasted under a boringly directed and adapted version of a classic novel. Novels absolutely can make great stage pieces - most recently, "Jasper Jones" and "The Secret River" brought their particular source material to life. But this is deadly theatre - giving no life to the ideas in the text, all very tasteful and careful but with no idea what the animating centre of the production is beyond "people liked this when it was a book". Whatever adapters Tom Wright (script) and Matthew Lutton (directing) thought they were doing, this is an almost complete failure - and, more embarrassingly, a failure shared between two different theatre companies. I feel great pity for everybody associated with it.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Radio at Repertory Lane, Canberra Rep

Rep has struggled with different approaches to variety since Music Hall put up its clogs about a decade ago - "Jazz Garters" started strongly but became repetitive and a tad self induglent later on, and the Jerry Herman tribute "Showtune" felt underbaked. For the last three years Rep's been leaning more on strong entertainments ("Casanova", "Witness for the Prosecution" and "The 39 Steps" to warm the dead of winter, but now variety returns with a radiophonic twist - a series of sketches and longer pieces paying tribute to the golden age of radio.

This works better in the sketches (pretty much all of which are by John Cleese, with some combination of collaborators), than it does with the longer pieces, but by and large it works as a quick-and-frivolous night out. The longer pieces seem a tad haphazardly chosen - "Flash Gordon" is better known as a film and comic-strip serial than a radio serial because it's strongly visual, and the scripted two parts lean very heavily on narration to provide the action that can't be conveyed on audio. The "Hercule Poirot" episode seems like a loosely targeted tie-in rather than really having classic Agatha Christie elements (Poirot swanning around New York seems wrong, his natural home is some English manor or other), and "Blue Hills" got a lot of attention in its time but very little of it translates 50 years later. A deeper dive to find more robust scripts for 2018 audiences would have helped - maybe, if you're going to raid the Cleese archive, go looking for the longer 15 minute sketches that made up the second half of most "I'm Sorry I'll Read that Again" episodes?

A talented cast give this a lot of verve anyway - with 9 people playing fifty-something roles over 11 sketches, plus filling in on foley for the sound effects, everybody gets a chance to show off their versatility. A few actors spend a little too much time with their heads in the scripts, rather than playing out to the audience - those who play out tend to do better. Fiona Leech's costumes also give this a lot of style as everybody is dressed to the nines giving the evening the feeling of a special occasion.

All in all I enjoyed the night out but can't help wishing they'd picked better for the longer material.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Sugar House, Belvoir

This is one where I think the production and performances holds together a script that isn't quite as cohesive as it might be. A play about inner-city Sydney and how one family moves through from struggling working class through political activism to the modern real-estate boom, this wins mostly when it concentrates on character - particularly Kris McQuade as grandma June, the matriach that holds the family together and pushes them in their roughest moments. McQuade's always been a great prescence, usually at the periphery (whether it be her Dolly Pickles in Cloudstreet or Jovanka in Neighbourhood Watch) but here at the centre, she's compelling, tough and tender in all the right ways. Sheridan Harbridge as our narrator/protagonist, her granddaughter Narelle ties things together in multiple timeframes, from eager child to prickly teenager to slightly lost adult. Sascha Horler as her mother has a solid performance but her character slightly feels like she's coming in from a separate play - the awkward relationships both upwards to McQuade and downwards to Harbridge only seem to matter when she's actually onstage - Horler gives the role slightly more solidity than the script can really handle. Josh McConville as the reckless uncle has a warm gentleness that endears through some foolish choices, and Nikki Sheils contrasts nicely between his loosely affectionate lover Jenny and the uptight estate agent Prin. Lex Marinos suffers slightly from being placed in multiple roles as he really doesn't find solid points of differentiation outside of costume between the characters and therefore everything seems declaimed at the same level.

Director Sarah Goodes gives it a tight smoothness of action, blending multiple locations in Michael Harkin's sparse and adaptable set that combines a very real sense of space (all dirty windows, pillars and industrial flooring) with room to manouvre. Despite being a long time in the baking (the acknowledgements note Neil Armfield commissioned this, and he hasnt' been artistic director of Belvoir for around 8 years) there still is a slight element where the script hasn't quite found its final focus - but the production's emphasis on the bonds of family and the tensions of class do a lot of work to make this still a compelling night in the theatre.

Gypsy, Luckiest Productions and One Eyed Man Productions, Hayes Theatre

"Gypsy" is considered up in the top tier of Broadway Musicals - it's barnbuster of a lead role, its climactic emotional deconstruction, it's tour through the dying ages of vaudeville all the way into the bottom of the heap in burlesque (and of the surprising rise of the title character as she becomes a unique burlesque phenomenon). It's also notoriously outsized, covering something like 15 years of narrative, with many of the roles doubled between child-and-adult versions of the same character. It's got a big monster of a score by Jules Styne, lyrics by the emerging Stephen Sondheim and a sharp-tongued book by Arthur Laurents.

For all that, I never quite find myself loving productions of "Gypsy", and this, alas, isn't an exception. It may be that I find the first act, in particular, too indulgent in demonstrating the kinda-awful kiddie show act that Mama Rose (Best) imposes on her daughters June (Jessica Vickers and later Sophie Wright) and Louise (Laura Bunting) - it's the kinda thing where seeing it repeatedly feels excessive. There are a lot of compensations - the wayward romance between Rose and her kid's manager Herbie (Anthony Harkin), the romantic moments between Louise and Tulsa (Mark Hill), but the first act feels like it's taking a long time to get us to where we need to be in the second act (there's also the long-winded "HAve an Egroll Mr Goldstone" which feels very much like an imposed showstopper rather than something that should emerge from the characters). The second act, by contrast, is all gravy and wonderful payoffs as Rose, Herbie and Louise find their fates as their failures hit them harder and harder.

Blazey Best as Rose is pushing the desperation from her first entrance and ... it does feel too much, sometimes. I saw her on a weekend matinee and it may be that the week's performance had done a number on her voice but, certainly early in the show she was reaching for vocals she didn't quite have. I can see the outlines of what the performance can be ... but it just wasn't at that place where it all comes naturally out of her. Bunting and Harkin do better fitting into their roles (though the show is scoped so that Best is in the middle for nearly the entire evening). The ensemble have great moments but there's also a couple of cases where it's clear directorial-bright-ideas have settled in ways that don't always fire quite as well as they might. The orchestrations do so well for a five-member member combo under the musical direction of Joe Accaria that it's a pity that the two places it fails come as early as they do, with the underpowered overture and the bossa-nova-ish "Small World".

This is, ultimately, a disappointment. It may be that "Gypsy" really does need all the size and dimensions and bigness of theatre to really work - certainly, on this production, the case for a smaller-scale production has not been made.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Good Cook, Friendly, Clean; Griffin, Stables

After she loses her spot in a share house, 50ish Sandra is sent into a spiral looking for somewhere else to live. As her explorations continue, her situation becomes more and more desperate. How do you survive sudden homelessness at an age when life should be settled?

This kinda didn't work for me. The structure (with each scene featuring Tara Morice's Sandra and different characters in each scene played by Faysall Bazzi and Kelly Paterniti) means there's only one character we really get any insight into, and she's constantly repeating roughly the same situation, seeking their approval to share their house. While Bazzi and Paterniti do good work differentiating the various characters, they're pretty shallow figures, and Morice doesn't necessarily have a lot more to work with - up until near the end you don't get much more of Sandra than a loose outline - the various encounters don't so much illuminate who she is as paint her as an everywoman eager to adapt to whatever other people want her to be. We never really get much sense of what she's been doing with her last 50 years on the planet - what's caused her to be so rootless that she can be chucked aside so easily? The final scenes should hurt much more than they do - there's not much interest in seeing a cyper tortured.

Marion Potts' production is mostly efficient without being spectacular.

This ends up landing more as a good theme for a play that never got depth added beyond the log-line.