Friday, 16 January 2015

Radiance, Belvoir

Three sisters reunite for their mother's funeral. While they do, a couple of buried family secrets come out of hiding as the sisters laugh, drink and reminisce.

This is by no means a wildly original premise (among other things, it's the premise for "Memory Of Water", reviewed for this site back in 2012 - although, to be fair, Radiance predates "Memory of Water" by a year or so) but it's certainly a serviceable one for a few family secrets, a lot of good jokes and some of those long-awaited-things, good roles for actresses (in this case, "Radiance" was written on request for two of its three original lead actresses). 

In this current production, we get large chunks of the humour (particularly as handled by Miranda Tapsell, who gets the lionshare of the best jokes) and some great work with the family secrets as Shari Sebbens and Leah Purcell get to unburden themselves in act two. The decision to play it straight through without an interval does lead to a slightly odd set design (by Dale Ferguson) meaning act one is played fairly remotely from the audience - the actors only get to get up-close-and-personal with the audience in Act Two. A combination of writing and actress also means that Sebbens' opening monologue doesn't quite have the high-pitched anger that seems to be seething through the writing, though Sebbens clearly brings it home in her interactions with the other two actresses and particularly her monologue of resentment in Act Two. 

Purcell has dual duties as both actress and director - while her character isn't quite where her range normally is (I've mostly enjoyed Purcell more when she plays earthy practical characters), she does have a nicely toned hauter to her that is let go to remarkable effect as events roll on. Most importantly, all three actresses feel like they belong together, that they have shared history and are very lived-in people. 

If I have slight reservations, it's mostly to do with design (you lose a lot when you don't let your actors roam free on the belvoir stage) and with Nowra's script, which is more of the "good vehicle" rather than consistently great play - some of the revelations feel a bit forced and he does go to the melodrama side fairly often. But this is a solid enjoyable production and a good launch to the year.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Next to Normal, Doorstep Arts, Hayes Theatre

Kicking off the year with the 2010 Putlitzer prize winning musical is not a bad way to start. A dramatic, emotive tale about a family dealing with the mother's depressive mental illness, it's not the most obviously fun summer musical you'd think of but ... on the other hand, opera learned long ago, there's nothing so musical as a good long mad scene. A small cast-show (the cast is only six - mum, dad, son, daughter plus daughter's boyfriend and one actor playing both shrinks), it's almost through-sung and benefits from the intimate staging as the characters are pushed close together to deal with, or not deal with, their situation at close terms.

This staging has a few interesting tricks up it's sleeve. The key production concept to have the sets in black with various setpieces drawn in by the cast in chalk is broadly metaphorically suggestive of the way the characters create and recreate the world around them, and that metaphor works strongly (particularly in the second act, when mum loses memories due to treatment and dad decides to recreate her history to remove the traumatic event). However, there are a couple of cases where sightlines haven't been clearly considered so we can see that an actor is clearly drawing something, but we can't see what it is (mostly on the forestage), plus if the actors sit in the chalk then they tend to spend the rest of the show with obvious chalkdust on them, that becomes kinda distracting. This does slightly suggest that the production (a transfer from Geelong), hasn't fully been rethought for the new space.

Performances are mostly strong. Key to a lot of the material is Natalie O'Donnell playing the mum, Diana - she has the grand arias like "You Don't Know" and "I miss the mountains" - we're drawn inside a character who could easily be pretty disturbing and alienating - instead finding her sympathetic, even while she's suicidal and disturbed. Anthony Harkin as Dan, her husband, has a plaintive sense of isolation as he seeks a way through to his wife. I found Kiane O'Farrel's Natalie, the daughter, to be the weak link in the cast - she wasn't always confident with her notes, and she didn't find a way to show what's inside Natalie's beligerant exterior very often - it's a bit too surface-level rather than something fully engaged. Similar is true of Brent Trotter's Gabe, who's a lot of surface and only a little bit of what's underneath. Clay Robert's Henry is genially charming and creates a nicely rounded character in only a few small scenes. Alex Rathberger rounds out the cast as both Diana's Doctors, Dr Fine and Dr Madden - again, there is not much to the role but he gives it energy and engagement in equal measure.

Is this worth the trip up to Sydney? I don't know - I'd hope that it might get picked up in Canberra sometime and a local production would probably iron out some of the inconsistencies of this production. There is strength here, particularly in the performance of O'Donnell. But there's also un-evenness lower down the cast list that means this is good rather than, as it could be, great.