Friday, 28 June 2019

Prima Facie, ETC and the Canberra Theatre centre, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

This is a taught tense masterwork looking at the pressing issue of sexual assault and how it is prosecuted through the vantage point of one female defence barrister, Tess, who herself becomes the victim of sexual assault. It represents the coming together of three remarkable women - writer Suzie Miller, director Lee Lewis and actor Sheridan Harbridge.

There's a careful drawing-you-in during the first half, as Tess celebrates her legal victories, her place in chambers, rising out of her rough working class family and not only surviving but thriving at the bar. And then, as it's shattered in a moment, we get a Tess torn between past and present as she approaches her day in court, over two years later, rebuilding a different, less naive woman who seeks justice for the wrongs done her, even as she knows how the system is stacked against her.

I expect there will be many other productions of Miller's script - it's a skillfully written one woman show with a simple design of one platform, one chair. But I think this production, with this actress and this director, will be hard to beat - Lee Lewis has become my favourite Australian director with her ability to cut through directly to the heart and sole of a script, to know its rhythms and hit exaclty the points this needs. I suspect some elements of this in lesser hands could easily become diadactic or "worthy" theatre, but there's a sure sense of character and rhythm here that means this is the story of an individual, not an abstract case study. Sheridan Harbridge wasn't the actress originally cast for this role, but it belongs to her utterly - she takes control of every moment, every pause, every breath, as she tells her story with truth and honesty, charting the journey of Tess second by second with clarity and strength.

This is theatre that takes confronting themes straight on with skill and care, brutal and honest and true. It should not be missed.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The World Goes 'Round, Canberra Rep

Canberra Rep has an intermittent history of revue and variety, most epitomised by the 34-year run of Old Time Music Hall, but also the four Jazz Garters shows. "The World Goes Round" does the songwriter-revue, using Broadway stalwarts Kander and Ebb in tribute to the first 30-odd years of their career (it skips the four shows that came after the revue was first derived in 1991, and only draws one song from the then-in-development "Kiss of the Spiderwoman"). Kander and Ebb's style feels both classic and modern - there's no co-incidence that their two best known shows, "Cabaret" and "Chicago" are both set in the late-twenties-early-thirties and use music in the style of those eras together with lyrics that are a little more frank and direct than the lyrics of those eras.

Imposing a unifying device on the material, Jarrad West brings this all into a bar staffed by particularly-talented-people and strangely unattended by customers, and perhaps less-strangely, therefore shortly to be closing. While this isn't a whole lot of narrative, it does mean that Kander and Ebb's spirit of mixed joy-and-melancholy has a bed to lie in, and it means that the five performers have something to play beyond the needs of each individual song. Fortunately, as well, Kander and Ebb's songs tend to be of the kind that will often feel narratively complete all on their own, so we feel like we're going on individual journeys with each song. The bar setting also gives a whole bunch of spaces for the performers to play in (from the main counter, to a corner table, to the cloak room), in Chris Baldock's adaptable and stylish set.

All five performers have great standout individual moments - Louiza Blomfield particularly shining in a variety of torch songs, Samantha Marceddo delivering a beautifully soulful  "Coloured Lights", Joel Hutchings getting the lion share of the romantic ballads, Isaac Gordon giving great comic timing to songs like "Sara Lee", "Mr Cellophane" and "Marry Me"and Julia Walker jazzing it up remarkably in "Arthur in the Afternoon". They also come together in wonderful harmonies, whether it be the three women in "There goes the Ball Game" (which sounds like the Andrews Sisters at their very best), all five in the vocal-jazzed-up "Cabaret", or in the montage sequences in both acts where two-or-three songs are sung in counterpoint.

Alexander Unikowski works a tight and capable quartet of musicians to great effect, and Caitlin Shilg choreographs for dance moves that reflect the needs of each of the songs, from gorgeous beauty to wild jazz. Joel Edmondson's sound design is the best I've seen with amplified sound in the Theatre 3 space (it's a space that, if you're going to mic, needs to be mic'd very carefully), and Helen Noseworthy's lighting design uses the lighting rig to give each song a very different palate. Fiona Leach's costume designs, largely in basic blacks with each performer getting a different point of colour emphasis, unifies while giving everybody space for their personality.

This is a knockout of a production that deserves wild and generous appreciation - showcasing 5 great performers in ways that make me demand to see them more (I'd already known Blomfield and Hutchings were great performers, but the other three are equally at their level and I definitely want to see them in anything possible). Funny and romantic and sweet and sharp and clever and brilliant, it's a show that demands you enjoy.