Thursday, 29 May 2014

Frames - Class Act Theatre (28 May 2014)

Dysfunction. Denial. Disintegration.

Pardon the alliteration but those were the three words that came to mind after watching Frames at the Subiaco Arts Centre tonight.

How we can all be dysfunctional in our own ways, small or large. How a family unit can be dysfunctional as a result... or perhaps is the catalyst for our imperfections; comments made in jest or repeated observations no matter how seemingly innocuous affecting self-esteem and behaviour.

Then there is the denial of our true state of mind or physical appearance or both. How we lie to ourselves to justify our choices no matter how extreme. Not to mention the denial of the actions of others and their impact, especially those closest to us.

How these things can lead to the disintegration of a person, a family, and in a wider sense, a community.

Then there is the disintegration of a body as it falls below a certain weight and starts to shut down.

Yes, Frames has some very serious topics in mind but doesn't present them in a didactic way at all.

It follows Lizzie (Maja Liwszyc), the anorexic daughter of frazzled Barbara (Angelique Malcolm) whose svelte modelling days are long over and Ken (Maitland Schnaars) who enjoys a social drink with his (unseen) mates a little too much. Unlike her sister, Jackie (Keren Schlink) isn’t likely to leave an uneaten meal at dinner time. Then there’s Ben (Nick Pages-Oliver), Lizzie’s boyfriend who likes to get high and whose mother is having an affair with Ken.

The first act sets up all of these people’s manifest flaws and how they create friction within the family unit. It ends with Barbara’s horror at the belated discovery of how thin her daughter has become. The second act ramps up the drama as Lizzie is rushed to hospital only to run away when her pleas that she will eat everything “including the plate” if only she’s allowed to go home fall on deaf ears. The family disintegrates as she reveals her father’s infidelities and a surprise tragedy comes from left field to add to the gloom. But the play ends on somewhat positive note as we fast forward to a time when Barbara and her daughters are attempting to order a meal at a fancy café with the suggestion Lizzie is on her way to some sort of recovery.

Liwszyc is excellent as Lizzie  - playing her as an exuberant 10 year old; a sullen and secretive teenager; and even a little known saint who lived on naught but air. It is a very physical performance as Lizzie jogs, does sit-ups, and clambers all over the dining room table, ever conscious of her calorie intake and the need for exercise. The most telling scene is when she pleads with her mother to be released from hospital, unable to fool the doctor well versed in her type of deflections and schemes. It is intense and raw.

Malcolm gives Barbara a sense of whimsy for glories long past and moments of ‘mum humour’ that creates empathy for when she faces the twin blows of her husband’s betrayal and her daughter’s plight. The family interactions in all their arguments and 'parent versus teenager' stand-offs felt credible and real. Schlink adds pointed commentary in a charmingly naff manner, her character seemingly unaware of the drama swirling around her. Schnaars is given little more than 'the remote father' who embraces alcohol and another woman more than his family. He has a moment of true anger at Lizzie and later a stab at reconciling with her as they watch football together in a flash forward to when he has left Barbara for Ben’s mum. Pages-Oliver is all goofy charm as Ben and impressed in his brief turn as the doctor though his circling of the family (mirroring Lizzie’s kinetic energy) was a curious choice perhaps designed to distract from the exposition dump.

The space in the studio theatre was well used with the family table and chairs creatively doubling for different settings. There were a variety of frames scattered around the set that the actors would stand in or peer through when not being featured in a scene. This gave me a sense of the main players being watched – judged maybe – though image is clearly a main theme and how it can be perceived or distorted through the frameworks we apply.

This is confronting material, well handled in an intelligent manner with a compelling central performance. I may not be the target audience but I found Frames thought provoking and engaging theatre. Written by Louise Helfgott and Directed by Helen Doig, Frames is on at the Subiaco Arts Centre until Saturday 31 May before moving to the Mandurah Performing Arts Centre, 4-7 June.  

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Werewolf Priest! The Lamentable Ballad of Father Hank Grimby - The Blue Room Theatre (21 May 2014)

Tired of city living? Considering a move to the countryside? Here’s a real estate tip: don’t EVER relocate to a place described as a “sleepy” hamlet, village or town, clearly code for “place where people die horrible, inexplicable deaths”! This is certainly the case for the “sleepy hamlet” of Huntersville where the yokels are dropping like Sandra Bullock in a Chinese space capsule.   

Fortunately, local priest Hank Grimby is merely mauled… oh, hang on a second! He survives only to become, unbeknownst to himself and the town, a werewolf…

I must confess the werewolf myth fascinates me and is a story arc I use in my own writing to explore the theme of transformation in various ways. In a werewolf tale someone gets ‘bitten’, undergoes a transformation they cannot control, and invariably hurt the ones they love most with tragic consequences. Here, writer-director-producer Levon Polinelli has chosen that someone to be a man of God thereby adding a layer of irony – a symbol of goodness is doomed to commit evil acts most foul every full moon.

But our priest, Hank Grimby (Sven Ironside), is not without sin. He is secretly in love with the Mayor’s daughter (Siobhan Dow-Hall) who is unexpectedly betrothed to renowned explorer (at least in his own mind) George Waggner (Magnus Danger Magnus) who is shortly to arrive in Huntersville. As the death toll mounts, Waggner goes all Quint on the townspeople and promises to kill the beast much to Grimby’s discomfort once he discovers he is in fact said beast. As Grimby frantically searches for a cure to Lycanthropy – announced by the town Doctor (Stephen Lee) to be a potion made from a rare flower – Waggner appeals to the Mayor (AJ Lowe) to unleash his sense of vengeance. Unwitting patsy, Tomas (Daniel Buckle), aids Waggner in his quest for glory.

What to make of this strange beast? Part musical, part melodrama, part comedy, part horror, it is a quirky hybrid that somehow manages to work despite its disparate parts.

Melodrama infuses the forbidden love story between priest and the mayor’s daughter. Already an illicit liaison, the announcement that the Mayor has chosen a husband for his daughter – and asked Grimby to perform the marriage ceremony no less – adds to Grimby’s lament. There are strong moments between the two lovers with Dow-Hall an earnest and tender presence with a lovely singing voice.

The comedy comes courtesy of a larger-than-life Waggner played in scene chewing fashion by Magnus, colourful costume, knife fetish, and all. Lee’s Teutonic doctor also adds plenty of humour with his ‘autopsy’ of a victim a delight.

The original songs and music are strong but this felt more like a play with songs rather than a fully formed musical. There seemed to be the opportunity to have different types of songs assigned to more characters. Waggner’s tall tales about his travels to far flung places such as Patagonia felt ripe for such a treatment as did either the Doctor’s autopsy scene or when he is making his potions. Indeed, Lee ad libs an excerpt from The Skeleton Song at the beginning of the latter scene. Grimby’s songs are mainly of the unrequited love or unsurpassed guilt variety with a ghostly duet early in the second act a highlight. Waggner’s musical pitch to the townsfolk to kill the beast was also memorable.

The horror comes via the deaths of various townsfolk (including Rhianna Hall and Tiffany Swan) and the arrival on stage of the fearsome werewolf. A lot of time and effort is spent setting an ominous mood with the use of lighting, smoke, music cues, and sound effects. It all ends in a climatic final battle that is equal parts high energy and high camp.

This is another quirk of Werewolf Priest – the tone tends to swing wildly. Talking to members of the cast afterwards, they pointed to a particular scene where the audience laugh in the first act and, in their words, suddenly realise that this is funny. This initial uncertainty may be due to the different genres being deployed and the range of acting from over-the-top theatricality to earnest melodrama. Ironside works hard in the title role but others have far showier parts with him the anchor for their antics.

It’s an enjoyable production with plenty of twists and surprises but somehow it feels like it should be bigger, more over the top, with more songs and more, well, werewolf, damn it! It will be interesting to see if it develops into this over time as it has a clear filmic influence in both staging and content with the small Blue Room stage barely able to contain Polinelli’s wild ambition.

Written and directed by Levon Polinelli with Ash Gibson Greig as composer, Werewolf Priest! The Lamentable Ballad of Hank Grimby is on at the Blue Room until 7 June, featuring Sven Ironside, Siobhan Dow-Hall, Magnus Danger Magnus, Stephen Lee, Adrian Lowe, Daniel Buckle, Rhianna Hall, Tiffany Swan and Ayden Doherty.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Trial of C.Y. O'Connor - ARENAarts (18 May 2014)

Charles Yelverton O’Connor (1843-1902), a legendary figure in the history of Western Australia. The three things I knew about him – he was responsible for the building of the Kalgoorlie pipeline and of Fremantle Harbour… and that he committed suicide “… exhausted by over-work, libellous press criticism and lack of political support.”

This play proceeds on the basis of: what if he had been “put on trial to answer the accusations levelled at him during his lifetime and beyond.” An interesting notion though I was curious about how a hypothetical courtroom drama would be handled.

The script is by AG Evans who wrote the biography CY O’Connor, His Life and Legacy. More on this later.

Firstly though, the set is indeed configured as a courtroom with a prominent Judge’s chair, a dock for the accused, a witness stand, and a table for the prosecutor and defence attorney, at the head of which sits the Clerk of Courts directly below the Judge.

The first act sees the Prosecutor (Dale James) call her witnesses; the second, the case for the Defence (Trish Theisinger). The Judge (Norm Heath) gives instructions to the audience as if they were the jury and (amusing to me at least) everyone (else) would rise when called to do so by the clerk. Witnesses include an Historian (Francesca Meehan); a scurrilous journalist, Vosper (Mario Piccoli); businessman Alexander Forrest (Dale Lovett); his more famous brother Sir John Forrest (Justin McAllister); the widowed wife Mrs Irvine (Caroline McDonnell); former engineer now farmer, Hodgson (Piccoli); and lastly, O’Connor’s daughter Kathleen (Meehan). O’Connor himself is played by Tim Prosser.

Herein lies our problem. O’Connor sits in the dock mute for the majority of the play while the Prosecutor and Defence examine and cross-examine these witnesses. When finally he is called to the stand he meekly complies and is dispatched in short order. He is talked about rather being at the centre of the story. In effect, he doesn’t face his accusers at all – it is subcontracted out to a defence lawyer who is far too calm and matter of fact.

Where is the fire, the thunder, the anger, the drama, the rage?

Everything is so dry and polite, the courtroom device acting as a noose that constricts the drama. Even the sparring between the two lawyers is overly restrained. As a person said at intermission, I wanted to stand up and shout Objection on behalf of the defence lawyer.

James makes the most of what she’s given to work with and Theisinger adds brief moments of sly humour but a lot of this feels like the restating of historical facts and the regurgitation of rumour rather than true emotional human drama. The witnesses give their resumes and talk in odd ways dropping dates, names and technical data, presenting different angles of the controversy swirling around O’Connor. It is way too prosaic and worst of all Prosser can only react with facial expressions. I wanted him to rail at those who besmirched O’Connor’s name. I wanted to understand why O’Connor took his life. I wanted to know how this all affected him as a human being not as an engineer. I didn’t see the torment or doubt or anger. The question of his guilt or innocence was entirely secondary for me. Those arguments are repeated three times – in the trial, in the lawyers’ closing statements, and in the Judge’s summation. There were no escalating stakes or drama. There was no building to the climax that should have been O’Connor taking the stand. There was no ‘wow’ factor.

I apologise while I put my screenwriter’s hat on but if you’re going to re-imagine an alternate timeline then make O’Connor front and centre. Have him defend himself. Have him berate and question and cajole the witnesses. Have them respond in kind and have genuine conflict and interaction with O’Connor in the spotlight. Don’t sideline him for 90% of the play. Build towards a climax – Judas confronting Jesus in the penultimate scene of The Last Days of Judas Iscariot; Juror number 3 breaking down to reveal the source of his anger before changing his verdict in Twelve Angry Men; Colonel Nathan Jessup striding into the courtroom in A Few Good Men. Memorable courtroom dramas all. Sure, you don’t have to go all “You can’t handle the truth” but I wanted to understand more about the man, not the fine details of the historical record and the rainfall figures for Kalgoorlie between 1894-6.

Would this be true to the history? I don’t care. I’m looking for drama, human emotion and insight and it’s perhaps in trying to be too faithful to the past that the drama suffers here. The play was also largely flat and emotionless, the etiquette of the English style courtroom an inhibitor. McAllister adds authority as John Forrest but Meehan is overly theatrical, especially as Kathleen, though maybe the play needs more of this sort of texture and colour to bring it to life.

O’Connor is a fascinating figure and the conceit of the trial has merit but it needs to allow an actor like Prosser to flourish in the title role. It needs O’Connor to ‘hang himself’ (or not) based on his own actions and words, not the testimony of others while he impotently looks on. 

Directed by Peter Nettleton, The Trial of C.Y. O’Connor is on at the Latvian Centre in Belmont until 31 May.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Annie - Koorliny Arts Centre (17 May 2014)

Musical theatre is such an educational medium. For example, I was unaware that it was a redheaded orphan who was the inspiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s response to the Great Depression – the New Deal - in the 1930’s! Of course, Annie is one of those quintessential stories, like Forrest Gump, that celebrates that most idealistic of cultural phenomena, the American Dream.

Here, an eleven year old girl searching for her parents is saved from a bleak existence in an orphanage by a billionaire and gets to meet the President of the United States before eventually being adopted by said billionaire after learning her parents are dead. At Christmas time no less to add another layer to the fairy tale. I’m not sure such a story could be set anywhere else but America.

Putting aside the cultural peculiarities, Annie is full of great songs and optimism, best symbolised by the song ‘Tomorrow’, a rendition of which prompts Roosevelt’s unlikely epiphany.  

None of this works without a young performer who can pull off the eponymous role. In Christie McGarrity director Katherine Freind has certainly found her Annie. She gives an assured performance that belies her age with a strong voice that handles Annie’s showcase numbers, including the iconic Tomorrow, with aplomb.

Annie’s nemesis is Mrs. Hannigan (Val Henry) who runs the orphanage and has a strong dislike for the feisty girl. Henry treads the fine line between what passes for a villain in this tale and comic relief nicely. The orphanage is populated by a whole raft of girls and their interactions are a true delight.

Into this world steps Grace (Kimberley Harris) representing the billionaire Oliver Warbucks (Chris Gerrish) who is looking to host an orphan for two weeks leading up to Christmas. She insists on picking Annie much to Mrs. Hannigan’s annoyance and Warbucks’ surprise as he was expecting a boy. Harris has the standout singing voice and plays the dutiful assistant well. Gerrish is great as ‘Daddy’ Warbucks and has good chemistry with McGarrity. Warbucks sets out to find Annie’s parents and enlists Elliot Ness and the FBI along with a little help from the President (Andrew Hislop) who is charmed by Annie.  

When Warbucks offers $50,000 for Annie’s parents to come forward his staff is inundated with claimants including Hannigan’s con artist brother Rooster (Joshua Munroe) and his needy girlfriend Lily (Georgia McGivern) who want to be on “easy street”. Things look bleak but their plot is foiled and everyone celebrates Christmas with a song and a smile.

This is a big production with a large cast and a very impressive set. The opening scenes in the orphanage and on the streets of New York are set in the front half of the stage with stage curtains as a backdrop. When those curtains are opened they reveal a wonderfully appointed, multi-level set representing Warbucks’ mansion. The lighting is very good as are the costumes. In fact this is perhaps the most impressive looking production I have seen at Koorliny.

The penultimate show, today’s matinee, drew quite a crowd and it was fantastic to see so many children in the audience. It would be remiss of me not to mention crowd favourite Sandy, a character of the four legged variety played by ‘Dijaan Rhodes’ but the biggest applause of the afternoon was reserved for Christie McGarrity who is set for quite the future on this outing.

Directed by Katherine Freind, Musical Direction by Justin Freind and Choreography by Sue Cunnell with a cast of 57 (and 1 dog) listed in the programme, Annie was an enjoyable afternoon’s entertainment that was well received by the audience. 

Sunday, 11 May 2014

It's All Greek To Me - Old Mill Theatre (11 May 2014)

There I was hanging around in the bar at the Old Mill Theatre not long after today’s matinee had concluded. In strolls the writer, Mister Noel O’Neill. We clock each other, exchange “I haven’t seen you in a long time” pleasantries and (in surely a moment of weakness) I buy him a beer. Chink of glass before we go outside to sit in the glorious Mother’s Day sunshine to have a chat.

Part of the discussion is how prolific Noel is as a playwright but more to the point, how he has two emerging strands of play – the more serious fare (Under Any Old Gum Tree, Holly and Ivy) and the ‘kitchen table comedy’ of which It’s All Greek To Me is clearly a member and includes the two part trilogy (come on Noel, surely there’s a third in you!) Confetti from Graceland and Spaghetti and Graceland

These are quite literally set around the kitchen table (an excellent set today) and involve the squabbles and heightened comic-drama of a family in some form of domestic flux. 

Here it is the philandering Nicky Plankos (Kim Taylor) who cheats on his wife Athena (Vivienne Marshall) with the seemingly insatiable Circe (Nada Dilevska). His life is complicated by dim-witted son Dimitri (Cameron Leese), pregnant daughter Jenna (Valerie Dragojevic), and the antics of the suspicious Athena who has a propensity for flinging herself off the roof. Add a curse put on him by Circe and the arrival of his cousin Stavros ( Emilio Evangelopoulos) from Greece expecting to find a beautiful wife waiting for him and Nicky has his hands full. There’s nothing for it but to call in the shonky oracle Andronokos (Rex Gray) to help find the girl of Stavros’ dreams. Will it be Katarina (Jessica Stenglein) who arrives to tell Nicky she doesn’t want to be there?

Well, no, it won’t but everything is tied up neatly, the curse is lifted and everyone lives happily ever after whilst dancing off stage to the exit.

If you’re looking for a searing exploration of the human spirit then this ain’t it. If you’re after a couple of hours of fun entertainment then you’ve come to the right place. It’s no doubt that this is a crowd pleaser as the happy murmur of the audience attests to after the play finished. Noel was called away from our chat as a group of people wanted to tell him how much they enjoyed his writing. Ever the gentleman he was only too happy to oblige. Fair play, Sir.

The comedy has very much a 60's-70’s English vibe to it – a mix of Benny Hill, Morecambe & Wise with Kim Taylor compared to Michael Caine’s Alfie by more than one person and Stenglein inadvertently (as I later discovered) creating a female Frank Spencer of a character. There’s no doubt Taylor works hard in the lead role as he’s rarely off stage and uses constant asides to the audience and flourishes of physical comedy especially when he is mocking his son. Marshall is suitably shrill and melodramatic as the neglected wife and has some lovely sight gags with Leese as the son struggles to do basic tasks like wash his hands or feed himself. Evangelopoulos adds a shot in the arm with his stammering, lovelorn Stavros while Stenglein’s brief appearance is amusing.

While Noel was off talking with other audience members I went back inside to be greeted by the director who demanded, “Did I hear you laugh?” Given I am known for my distinctive laughter and propensity to use it I was somewhat taken aback. Gentle mocking on both sides ensued which is one of the things I love about community theatre - the relaxed nature and genuineness of the people involved.

The aforementioned person is Valerie Dragojevic who I know as a talented actor but is forging a career in directing with Holly & Ivy, Snow and Ash and now It’s All Greek To Me under her belt. I also had a chance to chat with cast members Vivienne Marshall and Jessica Stenglein, lovely people who, along with their fellow cast members, put on a fun show that runs until 17 May at the Old Mill Theatre in South Perth.   

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde - KADS (10 May 2014)

Thanks for nothing Robert Louis Stevenson! You know how many times I’ve had to put up with a variation of a Jekyll and Hyde joke ever since primary school? Well, do you? No, neither do I… but it’s a LOT. What always amuses me is that most people assume, because he has the stranger name, that Jekyll is the evil one. Us Hyde’s know better, much better. Cue evil laughter...

Seriously though, this is testament to the enduring popularity of the novella ‘Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ first published in 1886. Many adaptations have appeared since as we remain fascinated by the duality of a man who can embody both evil and goodness and what might happen if we acted on our basest instincts.

This brings us to the Kalamunda Dramatic Society’s latest production.

The respected Doctor Jekyll (Keith Scrivens) laments a life lacking in adventure while talking with colleague, Hastie Lanyon (Gareth Sambridge), and lawyer Gabriel Utterson (John Bevan). They would like to think of themselves as the Three Musketeers but grey hair and beige realities betray them. Jekyll has published a paper including details of a formula he believes can unlock the primal inner being of a person. This is met with universal derision. Utterson’s nephew, Richard Enfield (Adrian Roberts) arrives to introduce his fiancé from America, Helen O’Neill (Nicola Chapman) and Jekyll takes quite the shine to her especially as she has read everything he has written.

Later Jekyll uses the name Edward Hyde to check on a working girl in a house of ill repute who had turned her ankle. He ends up seeing the much sought after Cybel (Jodie Hansen) but cannot ‘seal the deal’ as he diagnoses her with bronchitis and urges her to rest instead. In response to this ‘failure’ he injects himself with his formula for the first time and the brute, Hyde, comes into being with tragic results, most notably for Enfield who frequents the brothel, betraying Helen’s trust; and Lanyon who becomes an unwary accomplice.

Then there is the Maid (Kate O’Sullivan) and the Butler (Stuart Porter) both of whom add a critical dimension of wicked mischievousness as they comment on proceedings and even cajole the other characters at times. Not only that but O’Sullivan and Porter play a variety of other roles as required with a diverse set of accents, from Jekyll’s personal servants, to employees of the house of ill repute to, amusingly, police officers on the trail of Hyde as the body count rises.

They also do all the scene changes involving two large, black boxes that are used to represent desks or a laboratory bench or a bed in the brothel; wooden chairs; and, of course, pointing out where the doors are, a running gag that just when you think is flagging has a nice, final payoff. This means the transitions are seamless because the two of them are giving us information while in the process and it’s all very droll and engaging. O’Sullivan and Porter are both standouts and threaten to steal the show.

Scrivens is very good as the increasingly frustrated Jekyll and the demonic Hyde with an impressive delineation between the two, helped by a wig that is possibly the scariest thing in the show. If that thing had moved of its own accord I was out of there! I joke, but there are a couple of throwaway lines about the physical transformation and I enjoyed the tongue-in-cheek tone throughout. Scrivens certainly appears to revel in the scene chewing intensity of Hyde. The rest of the cast give solid support and it’s a strong production with a sly awareness of the narrative devices it deploys.

The first act builds nicely to the inevitable, grisly conclusion of Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde which begins to occur unassisted by the formula. I must admit though, the second act suffers when a section is played out in 'flashback' as Utterson, Cybel and Helen try to unravel the mystery of what is happening. The problem being the audience is already well ahead of them so we’re waiting for the characters to catch up before the final confrontation (amusingly announced as ‘the final scene’ by the Maid and Butler) in Jekyll’s laboratory. This tends to rob the show of some momentum and also sees Jekyll/Hyde sidelined as we switch to a lot more exposition as the conclusion slowly dawns upon them that Jekyll is Hyde. The outcome of the final scene has been well set up but somehow felt a little anti-climactic. 

All in all though, I really enjoyed this production, especially its sly sense of humour. Directed by Timothy Edwards and Michael McAllan, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is on until the 31st of May at the Town Square Theatre in Kalamunda. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Festen - WAAPA (7 May 2014)


A powerful weapon in any play’s arsenal.

Two moments stand out from WAAPA’s production of Festen.

The second one first:

The play ends. The lights dim.


One beat, two beats, three…

The audience is stunned at what they’ve just witnessed.

Slowly the applause comes. Eventually everyone is clapping as the third year acting students take their bows.

The only thought in my mind is “wow”.

As I leave The Roundhouse Theatre and walk down the long corridor, speechless, two young women behind me are talking. One says, “I almost didn’t want to clap.” Not because the play is bad (there is absolutely no danger of that) but because we have seen a majestic, terrible horror played out before our very eyes.

And it is riveting.

We’ll come to the second moment of silence within the play later but safe to say this is not for the faint-hearted. It is shocking, confronting, in your face theatre that is made all the more powerful by the intimate nature of The Roundhouse Theatre. A front row seat has me immersed in the action, especially moments of violence that are ugly and brutal and take place right in front of me.

The story itself sees a family gathering to celebrate the patriarch’s 60th birthday.  A son delivers one of two speeches after he asks his father to choose between a green and yellow envelope. Green is picked, the truth speech. The son then proceeds to detail how he and his twin sister (who has taken her own life) were raped by their father as children. The ripple effects through the family, guests and staff are explored in all their tragedy and ghastly pain. There is disbelief; counter accusations as the father harangues his son in one memorable encounter; a mother imploring her child to apologise; a brother’s anger flowering into violence; sympathy from unlikely quarters; and a voice beyond the grave in the form of the suicide letter from the twin sister that leaves no doubt.

It’s after the reading of this letter (from another sister) that the second moment of silence arises. Everyone is speechless. The father tries to shrug it off by proposing a toast to his dead daughter but no-one will move, no one will say anything. Their stillness is stifling, the silence a punctuation point. It’s wonderful theatre.

The performances are superb and all the more laudable because a more reprehensible bunch of characters you will not find – misogynists, racists, rapists – who are either emotionally brittle or utterly callous. They may not be likeable but it is a fascinating exploration of entrenched values within a family and how they infect each generation.

The head of this family, Helge, is wonderfully played by Jonny Hawkins as a man who knows he commands every room and holds sway over every person. The slow crumbling of this self-assurance until he meekly leaves after coming to realise everybody hates him, most notably all his children, is compelling. The scene where he takes Christian to task about the stories he could retort with is gut wrenching. When the traumatised son begs to know why his father did those terrible things, the reply is delivered almost matter-of-factly: “It’s all you were good for.” This had me gasping at the sheer monstrosity of it all.

Christian, played by Henry Hammersla, is the son who starts things in motion with the speech. At first the character seems the only ‘respectable’ one and is played quite dispassionately as the bombshell is dropped. Hammersla ramps up the emotional intensity as the play progresses and is convincing as the aggrieved son who mourns his sister and his own fate. The outburst at his mother over her complicity is a highlight.

Joel Horwood is excellent playing Christian’s brother, Michael, a nasty piece of work who reeks of entitlement and treats his wife Mette (Felicity McKay), the staff and a guest, Poul (Alexander Frank) with utter contempt. Interestingly though, it is the cocksure Michael who ultimately takes the father to task with physical force and forbids him contact with his own daughter.   

Felicity McKay is Michael’s poor, set upon wife, Mette. You feel real sympathy for her character but McKay also is very good at portraying the wife who will protect her own child from the horrors of this family if she can. Even in scenes where she has little dialogue McKay is always attentive to where her daughter is, stroking her hair or hand and comforting her.

That daughter is the Little Girl (Emma Diaz) who represents innocence within this tainted world but also the spirit of the dead twin, Linda who Christian thinks he periodically sees. She flits around the theatre and brings welcome moments of joy and gentle humour.

Christian’s other sister, the eccentric of the family, Helene (Jane Watt), also chases ghosts throughout this mansion though agrees to stay in her sister’s old room. Watt gives an exuberant performance as the emotionally vital Helene and the sadness on her face is writ large when reading Linda’s letter that confirms Helge’s guilt. She is as disgusted as the audience is when the family sings a deeply racist “Sambo man” song in front of her new boyfriend, Gbatokai (Julio Cesar), who her very own brother, Michael, had earlier called a ‘monkey’. What makes this even more offensive is that three generations of family from the Grandfather (Aleks Mikic) on down take such glee in the singing. No wonder the emcee for the night, the persuasive Helmut (Adam Sollis) has such a hard time keeping things in check.  

Holly Dyroff is Helge’s wife, Else, and her highlight comes when she asks Christian to apologise in front of everyone. Little is she prepared for the anguished response that shows her complicity, a revelation that resonates strongly as real world stories unfortunately abound. It’s a telling moment when Else later refuses to leave with Helge at the end of the play, siding with her children.

The cast is rounded out by Harry Richardson, Alex Malone and Stephanie Tsindos who all play staff at the mansion and have knowledge of the events that swirl around Christian and his family.

I found Festen utterly enthralling even though it had me squirming in my seat more than once. But that response is a genuine reaction to how well the actors handle the deliberately provocative material. The set is quite fabulous with large double doors at the back of the stage that open onto a hallway at the rear of the set with economical use of props and lighting creating the dining room or various other rooms on the main checkered space. There is a great mural on either side of those doors depicting hounds fighting amongst themselves, an apt symbol. The director Andrea Moor makes full use of The Roundhouse Theatre as characters chase each other through the upper level and also mingle with the audience at one point because, after all, isn’t this meant to be a celebration?

This is stunning theatre well worth checking out if you can on its final night, Thursday 8th May.

Uncle Jack - The Blue Room Theatre (6 May 2014)

A young lad is sent by his father to a property in the bush to toughen him up one summer. Here he meets 'Uncle Jack' who is a World War 2 veteran still traumatised by the events of that terrible conflict.

When I was young, 8 or 9 I think it was, my paternal grandfather died. I don’t remember much about him other than he was a stern man and that I was most likely scared of him. What I do remember is that after he passed away the extended family descended on that house looking for booty, a sad indictment to be sure. Three discoveries that fascinated me, however, were: an anti-tank shell, the explosive hollowed out; his war medals; and a collection of newspapers from around the time of WWII stashed away in the long, dark (and I’m sure, haunted) porch that ran down one side of the house. I claimed the anti-tank shell as a prize though I didn’t really understand its significance at the time. We were a long way away from graphic depictions of war on both the large and small screens. But it was a tangible reminder of what my grandfather must have experienced.

I mention this as it was a strong recollection after watching Uncle Jack. Memories I hadn’t thought of in decades. That is the power of this play. Interestingly though, I was talking to a young man at the bar afterwards, himself a storyteller, who liked the play but felt it kept him at a distance as the situation depicted was not one of his experience. In this it may be a quirk of generational differences and I wonder what the girl’s high school group there on the night may have thought as well. For older generations it will no doubt have great resonance and meaning.

The play itself is more a character piece than a true narrative story. Uncle Jack (Quintin George) hits the booze as hard as he works the property and we see the source of his trauma in flashbacks to events in northern Africa, El Alamein and Tobruk prominent amongst them. He is a true Aussie cockie with a sly sense of humour who mentors young Douglas McNab (Ben Hall), the city slicker with the ‘sheila hands’. McNab has concerns of his own as his father (who Jack fought alongside) is disappointed in the boy. The expectations of the father weigh heavily.

As Jack teaches Doug the ways of the land and how to work it they slowly form a strong bond. Jack teases Doug about the ‘comely’ girlfriend who writes to him but it’s clear he misses his wife and own boys who remain in Busselton, another source of his alcohol fuelled pain.

George and Hall play off each other very well which is what makes this all work as basically it relies on the authenticity of their interactions in the absence of any traditional plot mechanics. George gives a very physical performance as the troubled mentor who knows his way about the bush but has constant demons lurking. He captures the larrikin spirit and ‘ocker’ in Jack but doesn’t shy away from showing his terror and vulnerability as well. Hall has the dual roles of the naïve kid who needs to grow up and the father (as soldier) in the flashback scenes. He also narrates the authentic wartime diary entries that allow insight into the northern Africa campaign. This gives Hall the opportunity to play stern and strong when needed; wide-eyed and, in many ways, sweet and exuberant, when dealing with Jack. The pairing works well.

The action takes place mostly on a dirt-filled, circular platform that revolves when the actors put their back into it, again emphasising the physical nature of the bush. The sound design is excellent in recreating the battles in the flashback scenes. There’s even a piano that adds texture to key emotional moments with Hall in particular showing off a fine singing voice, no surprise as both actors are graduates of WAAPA’s musical theatre program. 

Written by Ross Lonnie featuring extracts from Lieutenant Colonel William (Bill) Lonnie's real wartime journal. Directed by Soseh Yekanians, Uncle Jack is on at The Blue Room until 10 May.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

So Much To Tell You - Garrick Theatre (4 May 2014)

How does one communicate without a voice? How does someone remain who they once were without a face? What are the masks all of us wear? What impact do the failings of the parent wreak upon the child? Who among us are capable of compassion and forgiveness?

This play has a lot of things on its mind. While aimed predominantly at a teenage audience the themes resonant far beyond that demographic. It is also a showcase for a large cast of excellent young actresses (14-19) more than ably supported by older actors in critical adult roles. The scope of its ambition is impressive.

The main storyline revolves around Marina (Elizabeth Offer), the mysterious newcomer who will share a dormitory with seven other classmates. She does not talk after a horrific incident that has seen her face scarred in an acid attack and her father sent to prison. Marina’s arrival precipitates a mix of reactions from within the group. Foremost among them is Sophie (Darcie Azzam) who is sarcastic and cruel; Cathy (Abigail Morritt) who will lend support and a kind ear; and Kate (Katie Toner), the rebel of the group, who will accuse Marina of being the thief plaguing the dorm. The other girls are the ditsy Ann (Shannon Berry), Lisa (Emily Theseira) who aspires to be school captain; Tracey (Brittany Isaia) who reveals her own fears and angst despite having ‘perfect parents’; the bubbly Rikki (Nahdarin Yahya); and the kind hearted Emma (Bre Edelman).

Their teacher, Mrs Lindell (Mary Murphy) has asked them all to keep a journal which only Marina studiously does. It is here that we discover the otherwise mute Marina’s thoughts and concerns, mainly wanting to meet her father who she oddly does not condemn.

The play is elaborately constructed and quite busy. In many ways it has been written more as a screenplay than a play with ‘cutaways’ to brief scenes such as Marina’s father (Rhett Clarke) in his jail cell; her mother (Kate Offer) haranguing her in calls and letters; and a ‘flashback’ story strand at a ski resort before Marina’s incident. The latter is capably handled by Georgie Kinnane, Gen Verity, Clare Smale, and Nicola Kinnane as Marina’s friends but really only serves to give context to the predicament Marina finds herself in. It perhaps needed its own punctuation point to add true depth and insight. 

The major device, however, is Elizabeth Offer reading Marina’s journal entries to telling effect. Indeed, all throughout the play written communication is a key component – through journal entries, poems, and letters. It highlights the power of the written word for those who don’t have ‘a voice’. The class scenes are therefore important as lessons are imparted by the sympathetic Mrs Lindell and Mary Murphy has great rapport with the young cast in these moments.

There are the usual shenanigans in any dorm room as anything from petty issues such as borrowing a hair-dryer to under-age drinking test the group dynamics. The prefect Jodi (Kiah Van Vlijmen), and school staff Miss Curzon (Sereena Coleman) and Mrs Graham (Kelly Van Geest) try forlornly to keep a lid on the antics.

Revelations come to the fore as the girls talk amongst themselves, most notably when discussing their parents. Theseira has a key scene in the second act where she reveals that her character’s family situation isn’t as rosy as what the others thought. It’s a theme that runs throughout the play – how the young teenagers deal with and react to their parents’ foibles.

It’s here where the play shines with the talented cast able to play off each other in the longer scenes. The cutaways tend to slow things down and while the staging is ingenious with panels that open out from the side walls to create other locations, it becomes problematic with the number of changes required. An eclectic mix of music is used during these transitions, again in a movie like manner. The songs are chosen for the relevance of the lyrics but we go from a liberal use of The Beatles to all sorts of bands from different decades and musical styles. That, at times, felt a little too offbeat. The end of the first act was also an interesting choice with a highly stylised scene that was unlike anything else in the play. Lasers, dry ice, rock music and theatricality, while creating a compelling moment, seemed tonally out of kilter.

The climax for Marina is powerful and on point emotionally but I was caught a little off guard when the play ends suddenly. Overall though, this is a thought provoking and wonderful showcase for a crop of younger actors who were universally very good. The standouts for me were Katie Toner who is excellent as the loud, rebellious, narky Kate; Elizabeth Offer as Marina who has to be both a cowed mute and a sympathetic narrator of sorts through her journal entries; Darcie Azzam is suitably feisty as the ‘bitchy’ Sophie; Emily Theseira is convincing in a pivotal role; and Mary Murphy was very good as the sympathetic teacher. A special mention here to Rhett Clarke who conveyed a lot of emotion in a small amount of ‘screen time’.

Directed by Gail Lusted, So Much To Tell You runs until 17 May at the lovely Garrick Theatre in Guildford. 

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Twelve Angry Men - Melville Theatre Company (3 May 2014)

New York. 1957. August.

A jury room.

It’s hot. There’s no airconditioning.

Things are about to get a lot hotter as twelve strangers file in.

The fate of a 16 year old boy is on the line. Accused of stabbing his father to death. A guilty verdict means the death penalty.

It’s an open and shut case…

Except for one dissenter.

So begins the classic play Twelve Angry Men brought to life by the Melville Theatre Company.

It’s refreshing in an age of multiple CSI and other crime procedurals where murders ever more heinous are graphically detailed and dissected, to revisit a simple, well written character study such as this.

It’s classic drama. Take twelve people with different backgrounds and viewpoints, put them in a claustrophobic environment where they are forced to make a unanimous decision then watch the fireworks as prejudices and assumptions bubble to the surface. The stakes? Nothing less than a kid’s life.

Emotion versus logic. Facts versus assumptions. Arguments about what exactly is ‘reasonable doubt’. The play is carefully constructed to call the ‘obvious’ guilty verdict into question and ultimately to completely overturn this. All because one man wanted to know more, to talk a while because taking another person’s life no matter what their background, no matter what they might have done deserves thought and consideration.

That man is Juror 8 played by Gino Cataldo who slowly sways his fellow jurors calmly using reason in the face of emotion, bigotry, and apathy.

His main rival is Juror 3, played by Phil Barnett, who is hot-headed, temperamental and doesn’t want to waste any more time than he has to in this stifling room.

The play has a lovely symmetry in that it’s Juror 3 who ends up the sole dissenting voice before caving in whereas Juror 8 started isolated and belittled.

The set is simple – the juror’s table and chairs with a broken fan, a water cooler, and one window opened for blessed relief from the heat. Everyone is in suits, coats quickly shed as the temperature rises.

Allegiances and the voting tally changes as accusations fly and home truths are revealed. The request for various votes throughout the play details the shifting ground and gives the opportunity for dismay and disgust as people are called to account for changing their minds. In this there are, deliberately, more forceful characters than others. But even the meekest gets to have his say. 

The standouts in the cast, for me, were Barnett as Juror 3 who is all coiled anger and resentment as he thunders away at the others as his position is slowly eroded. He is appropriately loud and physical. The source of his character’s rage is nicely revealed at the end as all resistance leeches away in the play’s final moments.

Michael Dorman as Juror 7 is also very strong as Juror 3’s prime ally for much of the play until unexpectedly reversing his vote. Willy Smeets as Juror 11, the immigrant with a heightened sense of justice, adds moments of humour, something that is pretty light on the ground and therefore welcomed. Phil Lord has the big speech revealing his character’s bigotry late in proceedings that literally takes the air out of the room. It’s delivered with a gusto that makes it all the more horrifying. Juror 4, Alan Kennedy, adds a certain gravitas as he is convinced of the boy’s guilt but plays this with his own form of reasoning to counter Juror 8’s and not the bluster of Jurors 3, 7 and 10. His change of heart is telling and well conveyed. Cataldo is solid in the pivotal role of Juror 8 but perhaps too calm and measured. It’s a tricky role as his main antagonists have much showier parts.

Indeed this is a solid production all round, directed by Vanessa Jensen, starring Garry Davies, Cary Hudson, Warren McGrath, Phil Barnett, Alan Kennedy, Brendan Ellis, Will Gawned, Michael Dorman, Gino Cataldo, Tom Rees, Phil Lord, Willy Smeets and Jeff Hansen, and on at the Melville Theatre until 17 May.