Thursday, 23 June 2016

Witness for the Prosecution, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Thrillers and farces are in some ways the hardest plays for critics to review effectively. They don't work the way other plays do - the action is almost totally driven by plot and incident and very little of it by character and nuance, and the play is either effective or not based on the audience's reaction  - are they enthralled and thrilled, do they laugh. IF you're going to wax pretentious (and why not, this is a theatre blog with no word limits, pretentious comes with the territory), you could say both are ruthless interrogations on the topic of identity - the difference between the real you and the one you present to the public - and how desperation and desire can change who you appear to be in an instant.

Which is to say that Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution" is a very, very effective thriller - it does indeed enthrall and thrill, drawing the audience in slowly, casually, with what appears to be a simple courtroom drama of dueling barristers scoring points off each other in the defence of a hapless young man, only to pull surprise revelations out of the hat in the last act in ways that definitely left the audience gasping. There are trails of clues throughout, lightly dusted with several red herrings, and while the ending is surprising there's also a remorseful, horrible logic to how things work out (and aargh, it's kinda annoying that I can't talk about certain plot points in order to say how well they're done, but ... yes, the shocks are very well done).

A reasonably large cast leads us through the action. Our point-of-view character is Sir Wilfred Roberts QC, the barrister charged with defending the young man who may or my not have dunnit, and he delivers with aplomb - slightly pompous, happy to play to the jury's prejudices, yet we never have any doubt that he's doing what he believes is good. Cole Hilder plays his client as a slightly naive and feckless but basically charming young fellow who begins to realise quite how out of his depth he is. Emma Wood shines as his mysterious wife whose motives are continuously up for question - her darting eyes and controlled nature mean we don't miss a nuance. Elsewhere in the cast, there's good support througout - Alice Ferguson as the scottish housekeeper who's a little too eager to point the finger, Morgan Heathwilliams as Sir Wilfred's bubbly secretary, Ian Hart as his equally mordant clerk, Jerry Hearn as the formal but kind-hearted solicitor, Peter Holland as the prosecutor both teasing of his opponent and ruthless in the attack, Jonathan Pearson as a slightly-snooty clerk of court, the trio of David Bennett, Anthony Ives and Brendan Kelly as three very different expert witnesses, and Saban Lloyd Bennett coralling it all with cool formality as the judge.

Aarne Neeme's direction starts a little languid, but keeps the characters and plot engaging enough to keep you going through to the several-layer twist ending. Quentin Mitchell's set looks spectacular and fills the Rep stage admirably. Lighting by Cynthia Jolley-Rodgers subtly keeps the moodiness and deliniates between the warm chambers and starkly-formal courtroom.

This is undoubtedly as traditional as trad theatre gets. But if all trad theatre was like this, there'd be few complaints - it brings the audience in and holds them well with an engrossing tale of murder and its aftermath and keeps then tense till the finale. Go see and enjoy.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Literati, Griffin and Bell Shakespeare, Stables

Yes, Moliere is neither a new Australian Writer (Griffin's main raison d'etre) nor is he Shakespeare. Never the less, this is a new Australian translation (by Justin Fleming), somewhat Australianised, and it is from the classical canon otherwise, so it does get by.

It's also kinda delightful, if very slightly over-long. Moliere's work is a tad formulaic (it's familiar from Tartuffe and The Miser that I've seen) - there's a young couple in love, the people who block them are obsessed by something-or-other, a friend suggests moderation would be wiser, all ends reasonably happily. Fleming's translation uses various different rhyme schemes throughout, and Lee Lewis' production keeps it witty and bright for most of the length, with most of the cast doing multiple duties as various characters.

Kate Mulvaney is on the posters and dominates proceedings despite being, in effect, a reasonably minor character - she's the easily led snobbish sister of the girl who loves boy. But she effortlessly drips condescension while simultaneously showing a great physicality in her tight, awkward, insecure movements that shows just how shallow her sense of superiority really is. Miranda Tapsell doubles both as the bright lovely heroine (cheery yet not irksome) and as the peeved maid, working well as both. Jamie Oxenbould does stirling work both as the similarly cheery hero and as his beloved's father (including having a scene between his two personas on the fast-moving revolve at the centre of the stage, effortlessly shifting from one to the other and back again by putting on or removing a cap and shifting physicality and voice so virtuosically at the end of the scene he solicits a well-deserved round of applause). Caroline Brazier mostly ends up playing the straight woman either as the pretentious mother or the academic voice of moderation - there isn't quite the go-for-broke comedy in her performance that there is in the rest of the cast. Gareth Davies' Tristian Tosser is maybe a little too much the minor dopey weasel rather than the utterly deceptive slime that the role really calls for - you're not really begging for him to have his come-uppance as much as you might, and while he's still fairly amusing, his performance is a little too puppy-doggy and eager to be liked.

Still, this is a fairly fun and frivolous evening, with a couple of very strong and impressive performances in there. It could probably use 15 minutes worth of tightening during act one (there's a couple of debates back and forth that really don't advance the plot or particularly amuse so much as they underline the point of the show with a trowel - we've got the point, pretension is silly, move on), but in exchange for that, you do get a lot of good fun. So worth seeing.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Things I Know to be True, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Frantic Assembly, Canberra Theatre

Andrew Bovell is a rare Australian writer who can sell tickets based largely on his name alone, and can get regular overseas productions (both "Speaking in Tongues" and "When the Rain STopped Falling" had successful seasons in New York and London). His new play is in many ways a simple family drama (the entire cast consists of a mum, a dad and their four adult children), but a superlatively written and staged one.

The structure is in many ways pretty simple. Rosie returns from a European trip that goes wrong, to return to the certainties of her Adelaide-based families. Except of course very little of those certainties remain constant, and the family is shaken repeatedly as events sever the siblings from their parents. In some ways the writing is a little schematic (each of Rosie's siblings has a scene with the parents with Rosie looking on that reveals something about them), but Bovell's writing gets the characters out of being simple plot-devices and into fully rounded people with mixed and complex reactions to their situation - as it becomes clear to Rosie (and us) that home isn't immune to the world's shifting challenges.

The show is co-directed and co-produced, with Geordie Brookman from State Theatre Company of South Australia and Scott Graham from Frantic Assembly (A UK based company specialising in highly physical theatre). The collaboration leads to a production that is uniquely fascinating, as it lets Bovell's longer monologues develop into semi-dance pieces, with movement of cast, set and lighting (both set and lighting are designed GEoff Cobham, and set and lighitng are unusually tightly integrated in the story-telling) illuminating the stories told and tightly choreographed to fascinating effect.

All of the cast are particularly strong - Tilda Cobham-Harvey has a background that is largely dance and cinema-based, but you wouldn't know it from her assured, heartfelt performance as Rosie - she has the skills of a true theatre vet. Paul Blackwell IS a true theatre-vet and contributes the other beating heart of the show as the father who tries to keep his family vaguely together even as they all drift further and further apart.

This is astounding, engrossing, heart-engaging theatreStrongly recommended.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Little Shop of Horrors, Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's 30-odd year old musical is a perpetual popular favourite (it's also the third of four of their shows that are hitting Canberra-or-nearby stages - Ickle Pickle did "Beauty and the Beast" in Jan, "Little Mermaid" for Free Rain a bit over a month ago, and the pro-production of "Aladdin" kicks off in Sydney in August). And with the production team behind last year's hit revival of "Sweet Charity", this should be a slam dunk.

It isn't. But it's not because of lack of quality casting. Brent Hill in particular is heartwarmingly engaging as Seymour Krelborn - the decision to have him also voice the plant means that the duet between the two, "Feed me", becomes a virtuosic exercise that is deserving of maximum plaudits. Esther Hannaford has the role that is almost genetically imprinted on Ellen Greene, but she also brings a bit of Marilyn Monroe to the damaged, gorgeous and dumb-as-a-rock Audrey. Elsewhere in the cast, Tyler Coppin has a good line in exhausted-jewishness as Mr Mushnik and Scott Johnston has a nice rockabilly idiocy as Orin, The redesigned Audrey 2 puppet by Erth Visual and Physical Inc. is grandly impressive, although it doesn't always lipsync as well as it might.

But there are two production decisions that make this visit to the Canberra Theatre a mixed blessing. First, the mainstage of the Canberra THeatre is big. ANd this is a smallish show that probably would have been served better in the Playhouse. Second, the sound mix is atrocious. I mean really, really, appallingly bad. A professional touring show should not have regular dropouts in microphones, particularly when it's well into the third month of the tour. And the sound balance between band and actors is well out of whack to the point where the girl-group trio narrating, Algenique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chole Zuel, become frequently incomprehensible. "Little Shop of Horrors" is one of the centerpieces of Canberra Theatre Centre's subscription season, and it's ridiculous that the performers should be so badly served technically.

So these are good performers and smart design in a venue that is too big and that has not adequately re-teched for the current location in the tour. So this is probably the definition of mixed.