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.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Sami in Paradise, Belvoir

Back to Belvoir and to a stripped-down production based on Nikolai Erdman's "The Suicide". Relocated from early-Stalin-era Russia to an unlocated refugee camp, this retains the story of people in desperate need who take the apparent suicide attempt of a friend as a chance to carry all kinds of messages into the outside world. It's played with verve and energy but ... possibly as a product of the way the script was devised (the various cast members collaborated and semi-improvised their roles into the final form), it does tend to lack cohesion - feeling more like a series of sketches than one central production. Yalin Ozucelik has a strong sense of humourous self-pitying misery as the titular Sami, and while the story centres around him, his wife (Victoria Haralabidou) and his mother-in-law (Paula Arundell), it continues on quite nicely. But as events expand, the sense of control starts to slip.

The relocation does appear, alas, largely skin-deep. While the cast is individually excellently talented and the music of Mahan Ghobadi and Hamend Sadeghi gives a nice energetic background, this ends up being light-hearted shenanigans rather than something that really penetrates. Satire needs to be worked like surgery, and instead it seems this is kinda a bit of random slice-and-dicing.


Sunday, 8 April 2018

Dr Frankenstein, Canberra Rep

The obsessed doctor and the irate creature sprung from that obsession are a pair that have been adapted frequently across the last two centuries - there's something elementally fascinating about a scientist confronted by the bestial figure born by their own desires. Selma Dimitrijevic's version of Mary Shelly's classic novel draws the focus fairly strongly onto the scientist member of the pair, presenting her obsessions as they start as healthy curiosity and become something far more dangerous.

The only major change to the story as told originally is that the doctor is written female, and no longer has a fiance to be collateral damage in the battle between creator and creation. There's no overriding feminist agenda except for the perfectly fine one of "let's have good parts available for women" (the same agenda that got Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet over a century ago). And Jenna Roberts dominates the first half of the play very effecively - whether it be through arguing her responsibilities to her family against her desire to make a space for herself, or demonstrating her scientific experiments with blithe indifference to the fate of those experimented on (her treatment of a lab rabbit is quite startling), or her first experience coming face to face with the man she has reanimated.

There is a flaw that appears in both novel and play that, once the creature comes into existence, the scientist starts to go into retreat, reacting to the creature's provocations rather than beating their own path. And while Jenna Roberts presents very strongly the guilt she feels as unintended consequences start to pile up around her (yes, this is another Jordan Best Rep show with a body count - so far she's not had a show there with everybody as alive as they started), never the less we become more and more intrigued by the creature. And Michael Sparks paints him as a fascinating figure (with the assistance of some truly creepy post-mortem-makeup from Sian Phillips) - emerging first as a strange new-born babe ,both innocent and brutish, before growing increasingly embittered by his encounters with the world. His act two monologues are utterly compelling to watch - giving us a creature who stares us down with disgust at what he has to share a world with.

The remaining cast, inevitably, are largely supporting and there to feed the story of Victoria and her creature - but each have their moments, whether it be the gentle charm of Cole Hilder's Henry, the familial judgement of Georgina Horsburgh's Elizabeth, the terrifying fate of Emily Pogson's Justine or the cold and harsh judgement of Saban Lloyd Bennet's Father.

Matthew Webster's original music lends a funereal mood to the proceedings, setting Percy Shelly's poem "To Night" to suitably specteral tones, with a clever mix of live and pre-recorded singing. Chris Zuber's set design combines with Chris Ellyard's lighting to provide something suitably suggestive and with plenty of eerie spaces to allow fear and doubts to gather. Anna Senior's costumes tell the stories of their characters well - with Victoria's simple unadorned outfits contrasting well with the more ornate ones for Elizabeth and Henry's colourful cravats, supporting who the characters are.

This is not the full-throated gothic grand guignol some may expect - instead it's something more creepy and disconcerting, something that builds and creeps in its effect. If nothing else, it's worth seeing to catch two of Canberra's best actors, Roberts and Sparks, together in scenes of pure brutal power as creator and creation go face to face.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Kill Climate Deniers, Griffin Theatre

Gosh, it's been a while since I've written over here. YEs, there have been shows in Canberra, and no, I haven't seen them, and I have no particular excuse other than ... I just didn't get to them.

So here's the first show of the year I actually saw. Not in Canberra, but at least by a Canberra writer, set largely in Canberra and originally workshopped and tried out in various productions in Canberra before hitting the big smoke. This is a very meta-heavy show, with four women playing most of the characters and Eden Falk playing the author, commenting both on his play and the reaction the title has gotten from right-wingers (this may be the first play to be significantly improved by dramaturgy from Andrew Bolt).

The play-within-the-play is an OTT satire of politics, revolutionary and otherwise, in their reaction to climate change, through the form of a Die-Hard-esque action movie. It's incredibly cartoonish satire done to hilarious perfection by Rebecca Massey as our heroine, besieged Environment minister Gwen Malkin, Sheridan Harbridge as her PR offsider Georgina Bekken, Lucia Mastantone as the terrorist Catch and Emily Clarke as both a sniffy journalist and a mining executive. It plays broad but hits every target, particularly as the action gets more and more ridiculous leading to a climax of complete absurdity that simultaneously gives us an effective action finale.

The wraparound is where the thinking really happens, and where the real dialogue with the audience begins. This is a play that examines itself and the easy attitudes expressed within as much as it examines the outside world. What does climate change really mean, and are we really ready for it?

Lee Lewis delivers a production that pushes the tiny space at the stables to its limit. There's a whole heap of projections working in conjunction with the action, sometimes footnoting it, and ... every once in a while, possibly upstaging it, briefly. It's hyperactive theatre at its best - you hang on and enjoy the ride and you think about the thoughtful bits on your way home, grinning, stunned and overwhelmed. It left me gasping in a good way. Yes, even the bit about how all bloggers are crap, which I can't find in the script now but which I laughed my head off while in the theatre.