Saturday, 24 December 2016

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2016 - Musicals & Cabaret

It was an oddly muted year for musicals in 2016. The top end was spectacular as always with WAAPA’s exceptional The Drowsy Chaperone only pipped for top honours by the unstoppable La Soiree road train.

The Academy features in this category as it does every year joined by local independent powerhouse Holland St Productions. Rachael Beck returns after last year’s Next to Normal and Fringe proved to be a reliable source of musical theatre flavoured entertainment.

1. La Soiree – La Soiree Australia

“In a show of jaw dropping brilliance there was one unmistakeable conclusion – not only is this troupe comprised of superb entertainers but they also count among their number world class athletes.”

2. The Drowsy Chaperone - WAAPA

“The show ticks all the boxes – gorgeous production values, a witty script, fabulous performances across the board, a fun score, and above all it is consistently laugh out loud funny. At a brisk 100 minutes with no interval it is utterly infectious and a complete triumph.”

3. Bring It On - WAAPA

“This was a pulsating show that matched the energy of its performers, was a visual feast, and sounded great. In many ways all these elements elevated what is really a paper thin plot and made it compelling.”

4. Rent - WAAPA

“Standout performances by Kelsi Boyden, David Cuny, Tom New, Finn Alexander and Mackenzie Dunn with the band in cracking form under MD Timothy How, especially guitarist Jack Maher and excellent use of my favourite venue in Perth, The Roundhouse Theatre by director Adam Mitchell.”

5. This Girl – Rachael Beck

“Bringing star power and more than a touch of class Downstairs At The Maj, Beck sings beautifully, looks stunning, and exhibits a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humour and playfulness.”

6. Gutenberg the Musical! – Holland St Productions

“… this is a must-see for everybody who has a dream, loves the written word, and enjoys a smart parody of the musical theatre form. Plus hats. If you love hats you'll LOVE this!”

7. Dr. Felicity Rickshaw’s Celebrity Sex Party – Holland St Productions

“One signature aspect of any Holland St Productions show is how film literate the driving creative forces, Tyler Jacob Jones and Robert Woods are. It’s tantalising then that a musical comedy is packed with allusions to well-known recent and not-so-recent movies with ‘cameo appearances’ by many a celebrity, most notably Keanu Reeves (Jones), Madonna (Taylor) and a pitch perfect Meryl Streep (Hutchinson).”

8: Impromptunes: The Completely Improvised Musical - Impromptunes

“One of the beauties of Impromptunes is that no two shows will ever be alike. It’s the genius of the premise that sees a completely self-contained one hour musical performed every night. Not even the cast know what’s going to happen or even what the topic is going to be.”

9: Best Bits - WAAPA

“Two immediate thoughts after having a wonderful time this afternoon with this iteration - The Drowsy Chaperone has to be remounted by WAAPA IMMEDIATELY! and the 2016 MT class give the best critique of The Beautiful Game, bar none. Impressive perception amongst the hilarity.”

10. Sincerely Yours, A New Musical – Stray Cats Theatre Company & Mad Cats Theatre Company

“… this was a mature and accomplished piece of musical theatre with an excellent score and well delivered songs that had some great moments of genuinely affecting dramatic acting.”

Male Performer of the Year - Ashley Roussety

Immediately set the tone as Man in Chair during the opening sequence of The Drowsy Chaperone and gave an immensely warm and entertaining portrayal that powered the show. Amusingly reprised the role narrating Best Bits.

Female Performer of the Year - Lisa Adam

A standout in the wildly uneven Clinton the Musical with a funky and energetic portrayal of the former First Lady. Displayed excellent comedic chops though the last laugh may end up being on us all given recent events.

Special Mentions:

Andre Drysdale (Sincerely Yours, A New Musical and The Beautiful Game)

Stefanie Caccamo (The Drowsy Chaperone and Bring It On)

Stephanie Wall (The Drowsy Chaperone)

Hannah Burridge (Bring It On)

Rachael Beck (This Girl)

Scott Hansen (Footloose)

Kelsi Boyden (Rent)

Thank you and good night!

Richard Hyde

Top Ten Theatre Productions in 2016 - Plays

What a stellar year it has been for plays. There were a few shows desperately unlucky not to make the top ten including a couple from WAAPA’s 2nd year acting class which had an excellent 2016.

Another feature is the prominence of one person shows; a couple from Fringe, another at the tail end of The Blue Room’s 2016 season. Black Swan also had a good showing in Kate Cherry’s final year at the helm as did independent company The Last Great Hunt.

There was magic, myth, the deconstruction of male stereotypes, and a brutally authentic exploration of rape culture.

1. A View From The Bridge - WAAPA

“Rotondella as Eddie gives one of the finest performances I have seen at WAAPA in the last few years. There are so many layers revealed from the forthright, cocksure man’s man who is confident in his position and status to the slow unravelling of that certainty as Eddie’s pre-eminence is questioned by all around him.”

2. Project Xan – Jedda Productions

“Powerful, confronting, and deeply moving I was shattered. I apologise to all involved for not staying for the Q&A but it's one of the rare times I had to immediately find space to breathe and think.”

3. 17 Border Crossings
– Lucidity Suitcase Intercontinental

“… a superb exhibition of storytelling and stagecraft.”

4. Angels in America, Part 1: Millennium Approaches – Black Swan State Theatre Company

“Black Swan’s production is a finely acted and stylish piece of theatre that befits the rightly lauded writing. The first half of this preview flew by in a dazzling 90 minutes. The second half gets a little funky as the hallucinations and visitations become bolder until it all ends in a crescendo that has you wishing Part Two was but a dinner break away.”

5. The Caucasian Chalk Circle – Black Swan State Theatre Company with The National Theatre of China

“This sumptuously visual and aurally rich production is the first international collaboration for Black Swan in conjunction with The National Theatre of China. Written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, directed by Dr Wang Xiaoying, and featuring an Australian ensemble it is a fascinating mixture of storytelling styles and culture.”

6. The Great Ridolphi – The Last Great Hunt

“Beautifully crafted script, cleverly staged, and supremely acted by Steve Turner. This is the local answer to Thaddeus Phillips' 17 Border Crossings. Both are examples of stellar theatrical storytelling and indeed could be companion pieces.”

7. Bambert's Book of Lost Stories – Barking Gecko Theatre Company

“With great skill, imagination, and the power of words you really can create magic under the moonlight.”

8. The Matchmaker - WAAPA

“Every year there is always at least one show that turns out to be an unexpected gem. Make no mistake, The Matchmaker by the 2nd year acting students is one of them. Very funny with so many excellent performances this farce truly sparkled.”

9. Grounded – Red Ryder Productions

Another tour de force one person show this time with Alison van Reeken exploring the murky ethics and personal cost of drone based warfare.

10. Fag/Stag – The Last Great Hunt

“This is well written and performed with the most impressive aspect being the expert execution of changes in mood as the story deepened and headed in unexpected directions.”

Male Performer of the Year - Giuseppe Rotondella

Outstanding in A View From The Bridge with a layered performance that was riveting as he runs the gamut from machismo to gut-wrenching anguish. The slow disintegration of Eddie before our eyes is superbly handled.

Female Performer of the Year - Jo Morris

Gave an excellent performance as Valium addicted, hallucinating housewife Harper in Angels in America. The second half featured the bravura Antarctica sequence which was a sheer joy of performance and technical execution.

Special Mentions:

Steve Turner (The Great Ridolphi & The Caucasian Chalk Circle)

Thaddeus Phillips (17 Border Crossings)

Rhianna McCourt (Three Sisters)

Alex Malone (The Caucasian Chalk Circle)

Will McNeill (A Tale of Two Cities)

Alison van Reeken (Grounded)

Brittany Santariga (A View From The Bridge)

Well, that's me done. Have a great Christmas everyone and while I may not be reviewing anymore I'm sure I'll see you around the traps with Fringe fast approaching.

Richard Hyde

Sunday, 18 December 2016

Highlights of 2016

As the end of the year rapidly approaches and this blog eventually wraps up with the publishing of my Top Ten Lists on Boxing Day, I thought I’d reflect on some highlights from 2016.

Who would have thunk it, me, on the main stage at the Heath Ledger Theatre, not once but twice! First, it was to present certificates at the 41st Annual Robert Finley Awards in January. Then at the 42nd Robert Finley Awards last night to announce the recipient of the Yvonne Hough-Neilson Award (that went to playwright Noel O’Neill) and nine certificates. It was an honour to be an ITA adjudicator for the last two years and both Awards nights were a real pleasure to attend and be a part of.

February saw the first of three trips over east for theatrical purposes. It was a delight to watch Broadway star Sutton Foster headline the Defying Gravity concert in Sydney and speculate on the pronunciation of Aaron Tveit’s surname. Aussie David Harris and Joanna Ampil also made impressions as the work of Stephen Schwartz was given a triumphant work out.

Now, I am a HUGE Prince fan but I had never seen him perform live. Therefore the Prince concert in February was an absolute highlight. Thankfully I had a ticket bought for me while I was on a plane (thank you, Sarah!) and we had excellent seats. Prince was the consummate performer and had the Perth Arena crowd in the palm of his hand. A little less than two months later he was dead in one of the tragedies of the year.

I was flattered to be asked to be the adjudicator for Blak Yak’s 24 Hour Script Project in April. Held at Rigby’s in the city on a stormy old night it turned out to be an entertaining evening with many excellent performances and well written plays given the time constraint.

One of the more ambitious undertakings of the year came from the theatre hothouse that is Murdoch University. Murdoch Theatre Company, From The Hip Productions, and Second Chance Theatre combined with Nexus Theatre to produce The Gothics Trilogy in July. Three plays based on the classic horror characters Dracula, The Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster, performed sequentially in only a three week window. Driven by John King, Tim Brain, and Scott McArdle it was a bold endeavour rarely seen in independent theatre.

I went on my third annual Melbourne musical theatre junket in July. One of the unexpected outcomes was the discovery of Amy Lehpamer who was wonderful as Maria in The Sound of Music. But the real highlight was seeing recent WAAPA graduates in that show (Du Toit Bredenkamp, Sophie Cheeseman, and William Groucutt, all 2014 graduates) and especially the five 2015 graduates – Matilda Moran, Matthew Hyde, Rosabelle Elliott, Alex Thompson, and Joel Granger - in the fabulous Titanic the Musical at Chapel Off Chapel. It is such a thrill to see graduates doing so well in the early stages of their professional careers. It was also lovely to talk to Matilda, Matthew, Rosabelle, Alex, and Joel afterwards to be reminded not only are they all supremely talented but genuinely nice people as well.

Likewise during Sydney trip number two in August to see 2015 graduate Heather Manley (and 2014 grad Max Bimbi) in Aladdin at the Capitol Theatre. Heather was understudy as Princess Jasmine but I saw her playing one of the Attendants in the huge Capitol Theatre. It was great to catch up briefly and meet her proud parents after the show at the Stage Door who had travelled all the way from Guam. I understand Heather would later go on to play Jasmine several times in this spectacular production.  

Then there was the venture into community theatre Sydney style on the same trip. I caught the train out to Bankstown to see two friends who were starring in Chess the Musical. I had no idea what to expect both in terms of venue (a converted swimming centre I believe) and the quality of execution. I found it to be pretty much the same as any upper echelon community theatre production in WA and wouldn’t have been out of its depth at the Finley Awards. The night was enhanced by the revelation that the son of one of the managers at the company I work for has a fabulous singing voice.

2016 was another great year but after seeing 153 productions I must confess to a certain degree of exhaustion. This is after ‘resigning’ from reviewing in July to concentrate on a screenwriting project. I’m glad I 'slowed down'!

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Thank yous and Fare Thee Well

Back in 2014 I decided to go to the theatre. Not that I hadn't before but this time I really decided to go to the theatre. Over a 100 shows. I can't even remember what the catalyst was. Other than I also decided I was going to write about the shows I saw. It was kind of crazy. But there I was, pretty much incognito, paying my own way, hitting the stalls and writing reviews.

At the end of the year I remember thinking, that was fun but probably insane. Better tone it down next year.

Then the Independent Theatre Association (ITA) came a calling and asked me to become an adjudicator for the Robert Finley Awards. Toning it down became over 130 shows last year! Now that WAS insane.

Note to self: Really do need to rein it in, Richard!

2016 and it's not quite September and I've already seen over 120 shows.

Perhaps I need to recheck the definition of 'rein in' and 'tone down' as the whole ease back on the theatre plan didn't seem to be working.

The reality clearly was that I had contracted the theatre bug. The only problem with this diagnosis is that my screenwriting, already under assault from having to return to full-time office work in 2012, had withered on the creative vine. [Insert grovelling and abject apology to key collaborators].

That had started to trouble me as a whole lot of people only knew me as *gasp* a reviewer or even worse, yikes, a critic. I would plaintively reply, but I'm a writer. Except, if you're not regularly writing you're just one of those people (you know the type).

Now though I have a new screenwriting project - a feature film script that I can't really talk about yet but one that has already begun to kick start my creative impulses. So Monday night's show was my swansong as a theatre reviewer.

Which means it's time for some thank yous. Apologies in advance to anybody I forget due to addle-mindedness.

To those people who looked after me in terms of complimentary tickets - Irene Jarzabek from Black Swan; Leigh Brennan from Curtin University; Elisabeth Gjosund from Hunter Communications who unfortunately only discovered me late in the game and I wish I could have seen more shows for; Renato Fabretti from WAYTCo; and independent theatre practitioners who consistently sought me out such as Craig Griffen (Fresh Bred Productions), Karen Francis (Stray Cats Theatre), Scott McArdle (Second Chance Theatre) and Tiffany Barton (Creative Collaborations). Murdoch University with its myriad theatre companies and UWA with UDS were also semi-regular sources for my services.

I'd also like to thank perhaps on the surface a strange category but one that I derived great pleasure from, namely the parents and family members of performers and theatre practitioners. Many times people would know who I was from my reviews and would come up and say hello. It was a delight to see how proud they were of their son and/or daughter and those were always fun conversations. Especially with interstate based parents who would fly in for production weeks notably at WAAPA.

To all the talented writers, performers, directors, stage crew, front of house people and beyond - thank you. The talent base in WA is enormous and it is a considerable pleasure to see genuinely good work being consistently produced in often trying circumstances.

Lastly, thank you to all the readers of the blog. I'd like to think I wrote entertaining and informative reviews that added some insight to the myriad productions on offer at all levels - student, independent, professional, and before I became an adjudicator, community theatre. The feedback I was proudest of was that people would consistently say that my reviews were honest. I called 'em as a saw 'em and perhaps that was a strength coming from a film background, people knew I had no allegiances or vested interests in the theatre world. I simply decided to write about it.

This will be the 242nd post on the blog and there have been a tick over 93,000 page views. Seems like a fair set of metrics to end on.

Only to say this, you'll still me at shows. I love theatre too much to abandon it. I just won't do so with such exuberant frequency or have the time to write reviews. If you buy me a cider after a show though...

You will also hear from me again on this blog for my traditional end of year lists to be published on Boxing Day.

But for now, thank you and fare thee well!

Richard Hyde

Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Clinton The Musical - Black Swan State Theatre Company in association with Perth Theatre Trust (29 August 2016)

At the heart of Clinton the Musical is a pretty good idea. The charismatic yet deeply flawed William Jefferson Clinton is such a polarising figure in American politics that he literally inhabits two separate personalities – the consummate politician WJ Clinton (Simon Burke) and the self-destructive philanderer Billy Clinton (Matt Dyktynski). This conceit, while not excusing the more reckless aspects of his Presidency, does in fact make Clinton a surprisingly sympathetic figure. It was the other guy who did all those things!

The second surprise is that the musical seems incorrectly titled because for much of its running time it is undoubtedly Rodham-Clinton the Musical with Lisa Adam giving a terrific performance as Hillary. Adam made for a most funky First Lady who wasn’t afraid to assert herself with the boys and displayed excellent comedic chops. The sight of Hillary busting a groove in a stylish pant suit was inherently funny and the humour was self-deprecating here with all of the Democratic Presidential Nominee’s current woes revisited including a prescient call to Donald Trump. The overall result, however, is wildly uneven with some very strange choices in the construction of the Book and a largely unmemorable set of songs.

I fully expected that the Clintons would be raked over the coals and there is no doubt there are a lot of cheap and easy laughs at their expense. However, they come off lightly compared to the villains of piece. Apparently Kenneth Starr, according to the Hodge brothers, was the key architect of the plot to destroy the Clintons right from the get go like some modern day Littlefinger. I can accept that as creative shorthand to coalesce the forces of opposition into one identifiable antagonist. What I didn’t understand was Starr's portrayal as a cackling, hyper-sexualised comic book villain that would have fit right into something like Despicable Me, inexplicably. Paradoxically, Brendan Hanson, always a solid and dependable leading man, grabbed the role by the scruff of the neck and gave such a scene chewing, lascivious performance that you couldn’t take your eyes off him. Even when averting your eyes might have been wise in the gloriously camp Starr is Born.

The figure who came off worst though was Newt Gingrich who was depicted as an infantile dolt. Luke Hewitt did as much as he could with the Republican Speaker including a funny moment with a can of peaches (impeachment, geddit?) but otherwise this was another cartoon character. At one point I literally said to myself, “Oh, it’s Homer Simpson… without the goofy charm.” The most negative result of this simplicity is when Newt’s stunning hypocrisy is revealed. Yes, he was having an affair with an aide during the impeachment hearings yet I didn’t like the implied commentary about young women who ‘throw themselves’ at such men when those men are shown to be utter buffoons.

That the forces of opposition were so cartoonish was a considerable weakness. I know I have been spoiled by Aaron Sorkin’s and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s master works on American politics but there was no subtlety and rarely any cleverness here. The humour would frequently cross the line from raunchiness to simply being crass - the notorious cigar gets a good work out in some tasteless sight gags. 

Monica Lewinsky is blessedly played with some restraint by Megan Kozak and her first meeting with Clinton is quite well handled. The awestruck, naïve youngster is bedazzled by Billy. Kozak then gets the signature song you’ll probably be humming along to for days which would be fine except for the fact that the chorus is “I’m fucking the fucking President, oh yeah, oh yeah!”  (I apologise to any workmates today who may have inadvertently overhead such recounting). She belts it out in style and displays her own quirky comedic style that was showcased earlier in the year in a couple of Fringe World cabaret shows.

As for the Clintons, Burke comes into his own more in the second act and has one of the few musical highlights with A Place Called Hope where the over the top artifice is momentarily stripped away and we get the briefest glimpse of a real human being. He also has some droll fun with It Depends as Clinton indulges in verbal gymnastics in an attempt not to perjure himself. That this is immediately sabotaged by the juvenile Sexual Relations is emblematic of the production as a whole.

Leather clad Dyktynski was a strangely passive Billy and one of the flaws in the Book was the amount of times his alter ego or Hillary would exclaim, “I want you gone!” It was too much repetition for no result. Indeed, the split personality could have been utilised far more effectively if the relaxed and confident Dyktynski was given more leeway and agency. The other notable over usage was of the word ‘legacy’ which was hammered home innumerable times with ever diluted impact.

The final member of the cast, Clare Moore, most amusingly was a spunky Eleanor Roosevelt whose pronouncements were misinterpreted by Hillary. Moore also is the Judas of the piece with an over-eager Linda Tripp keen to make her mark as she betrays Monica’s confidences.    

While I have many misgivings about the content, the set was quite spectacular – a giant rotating rotunda with the band perched on the top level while underneath, on one side, was a representation of the columns of the Capital Building where Congress sits; the other the Oval Office (though that, Sir, is no Resolute Desk!). The show is directed with flair by Adam Mitchell who did briefly address the audience at the beginning of the second preview as some technical difficulties had occurred two nights before. No such problems seemed to bedevil this ‘second dress rehearsal’ and he used Hanson, Kozak, Moore, and Hewitt in a variety of supporting roles, notably as members of the press.  

What ultimately to make of Clinton the Musical then? I found it spasmodically funny but often I was laughing at it rather than going along with the gag. There are a couple of sequences where it threatened to elevate itself into something greater – Starr is Born/Lie To You in the first act and A Place Called Hope/Enough in the second. Lisa Adam was excellent and it was fun to see Hanson cut loose, albeit in a problematic role. I was also delighted to see Kozak do well in her first outing for Black Swan in what again could have been a tricky characterisation. It had its moments but in the end the second act dragged and the whole endeavour was a little too hit and miss for mine.  

Book by Paul and Michael Hodge; Music and Lyrics Paul Hodge. Directed by Adam Mitchell, Musical Director David Young and starring Lisa Adam, Simon Burke, Matt Dyktynski, Brendan Hanson, Luke Hewitt, Megan Kozak, and Clare Moore, Clinton the Musical is on at the Heath Ledger Theatre until 11 September.

Images by Daniel James Grant

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Chess the Musical - Bankstown Theatre Company (13 August 2016)

I recently made a whirlwind trip to Sydney to catch a couple of shows where people I knew were performing. The first was Aladdin (a spectacular production that will be extensively reviewed) that featured two recent WAAPA graduates in the ensemble; and a community theatre production of Chess the Musical out at Bankstown. While I initially had no intention of reviewing either, the latter, to my knowledge, has not had any published reviews to date. That would be an unfortunate outcome. So while, in the name of full disclosure, I am friends with two of the leads I would like to redress that situation…

To be honest I didn’t know what to expect as I caught the train to Bankstown. I have adjudicated nearly 100 community theatre shows in WA over the last couple of years but had no idea what the standard might be like in Sydney. What I discovered is that going to a show in Sydney’s western suburbs is pretty much the same as any community theatre group in Perth. There were friendly front of house staff that immediately made you feel welcome; a raffle for a good cause (Beyond Blue); a cuppa and bickies at interval; a really interesting black box performance space with raked seating; and a talented and dedicated cast and crew who made the show come to life. Based on conversations in the lobby there was also a core of regular audience members and, I gather, quite a history to the theatre company. I felt right at home.

To the show itself and as the director Dennis Clements acknowledges in his programme notes, the Book is one of the most revisited in the musical theatre canon. Within the context of a Cold War, East meets West battle for supremacy as epitomised by the Chess World Championship is a far more personal battleground – two men competing for the affections of the same woman within the glare of the media spotlight and political machinations.

Those men are the Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Daniel Kenyon) who unseats the American Freddie Trumper (Charles McComb) as World Champion before entering into an affair with Freddie’s second, the Hungarian Florence Vassy (Sherry-Anne Hayes). As Anatoly subsequently defends his crown (having sought asylum in the UK) against a Russian rival with Freddie looking on now as a media commentator, things spiral out of control as his wife Svetlana (Whitney Erickson) becomes involved in political manoeuvring designed to force him to throw the match. At the centre of it all is Florence who is also callously manipulated by the hope that her father, thought dead in the 1956 political uprisings, might still be alive.  

The first thing that strikes me is that the vocal ability of the principal cast is excellent. Kenyon displayed a superb voice, deep and expressive with power to burn that he used to stunning effect. His Anatoly was dark and brooding with a sense that the character’s pent up emotions could explode at any moment. That restless energy literally found voice and his singing was a highlight of the show.

He was well matched by McComb who played Freddie with rock star panache and sang accordingly. All leather clad attitude and sense of entitlement, the contrast worked well for the inter-personal drama and the larger themes each character embodied. It also was a smart set-up to drive towards another highlight – Pity the Child – where we gain insight as to why this character is such a jerk with an emotive performance by McComb that started slowly and built towards a moving crescendo.

Hayes plays the tricky role of Florence Vassy very well with a range of complex emotions on display. The character’s professional role is to keep these men in check during various stages of her involvement with them while ultimately getting tangled up in quite messy relationships. There is strength and even stoicism here but also vulnerability as Vassy’s father’s fate is a key concern. Hayes sings well and also allows the emotion of Florence’s predicament to resonate mainly through song. The duet with Erickson – I Know Him So Well – is a highlight. Erickson herself comes to prominence after the interval and even without checking the programme there was no doubt she had an opera trained voice. It is another impressive vocal performance with great power and clarity.

Of the secondary cast Ed Mafi made a real mark as a devious Alexander Molokov; Gareth Davis was an intense and almost Matrix-style Arbiter; while Tim Hawkins provided a good-natured and persuasive turn as Walter De Courcey. The 13 strong ensemble added vocal punch when required; comic relief, notably and hilariously in Embassy Lament; and texture (as various players such as journalists) to the broader East versus West conflict.   

The centrepiece of the set was a raised stage where the chess matches took place with steps leading down to ground level of the black box space. Flats were staggered behind it that facilitated entrances and exits and to each side was an iconic depiction of the countries involved – Abraham Lincoln for the Americans, Vladimir Lenin for the Russians. Black and white checkered patterns were used as well in the set design.

The cast utilised the full scope of the space effectively and worked well together though there were times the vertical aspect of their movement up and down the stairs was a little repetitive. Surprisingly, perhaps the most well-known song from the acclaimed score – One Night in Bangkok – didn’t really work for me. It fell flat but then I suspect that stylistically it is somewhat glib and not as emotionally laden as a lot of the other numbers and therefore suffers by comparison.

This was a show I really enjoyed and was well worth the trek westwards (after the much longer trek eastwards!) to go and see. It would seem community theatre is in good hands in Western Sydney.  

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The Caucasian Chalk Circle - Black Swan State Theatre Company with The National Theatre of China (1 August 2016)

During a time of rebellion a servant girl rescues the baby of the deposed Governor and flees into the mountains leaving behind her beloved, a soldier off to fight in the ensuing war. She eventually reaches her brother’s farm and safety where she raises the baby as her own, now trapped in a marriage of (in)convenience. Two years later and they are discovered with the Governor’s wife demanding that the baby be returned. A trial is convened presided over by Azdak, a man elevated to the lofty position of judge in the most unusual of circumstances. He devises an unexpected method by which to decide custody of the child.    

This sumptuously visual and aurally rich production is the first international collaboration for Black Swan in conjunction with The National Theatre of China. Written by German playwright Bertolt Brecht, directed by Dr Wang Xiaoying, and featuring an Australian ensemble it is a fascinating mixture of storytelling styles and culture. Exquisite costumes (Zhao Yan) and masks (Prof Zhang Huaxiang) are matched as a highlight by the superb accompaniment of local indigenous musicians on guitar/vocals and percussion (Dr Clint Bracknell and Arunachala). Australian accents abound including the broadest of Strine as the servant girl, Grusha (Alex Malone), encounters a variety of colourful characters along her journey.

There is a meeting of three distinctive styles – a form of Chinese theatre known as Beijing Opera; the traditional oral storytelling of indigenous Australians as embodied by Lynette Narkle, the ‘Old Woman’ who sets the scene; and the play within a play construct by Brecht as part of his ‘epic theatre’ movement.

Added to this is the inclusion of songs that inform the narrative and move it forward in impressive style. The lyrics are projected as surtitles in both English and, as I was informed by the couple sitting next to me, modern Chinese characters. The backdrops were deceptively effective – three layers of jagged curtains that when lit represented the mountains and other locations with a real sense of depth. My well informed fellow audience members also remarked how reminiscent this was of Chinese oil paintings.

As you enter the theatre, the company are warming up in their blacks which included Black Swan t-shirts! Two racks of costumes are onstage as well as a rack of masks. Lighting rigs are visible on the fringes of the performance space, indeed you could clearly see into the wings from my vantage point. A microphone is positioned stage right; the two musicians stage left. All the mechanics and devices of a theatrical production are boldly laid out in plain sight. Then something interesting happened – the normal pre-show babble died down with no discernible signal or change in status from the actors as if suddenly there was a shared expectation from the audience. The actors continued to warm up vocally and physically in a hushed arena. Then we are thrust into the tumult as the story begins...

This melange of highly distinctive styles instead of competing with each other somehow melded into, oftentimes, quite an exhilarating production. Set design (Richard Roberts) was simple and effective with two arches – one a larger traditional Chinese arch; the other a smaller bamboo construction used to signify doorways – wheeled into place by stagehands who would occasionally stay onstage briefly as observers during a scene. There was judicious use of a wooden revolve in the centre of the stage. Chairs were used to represent everything from a rickety bridge over a mountain pass to the sparse furnishings of various abodes.

To the performances and Alex Malone in her Black Swan debut was outstanding as Grusha. There was a jauntiness in her interactions with the soldier (James Sweeny) Grusha falls for; hesitation and uncertainty as the Governer’s wife (Caitlin Beresford-Ord) becomes more concerned with her wardrobe than her baby as the Ironshirts threaten; a softness with the baby Michael; and real tenacity as the character survives relentless pursuit and then asserts her claim to be the rightful mother. Malone also has a pleasant singing voice that was used to good effect sporadically throughout. Most importantly though, given the comical and over-exaggerated characters Grusha meets, it’s a totally grounded performance undertaken with great confidence.

Others to stand out – Steve Turner in a variety of roles, each given distinctive flourishes that made his presence memorable; Adam Booth especially as a lascivious Ironshirt who caused the skin crawl with some wildly inappropriate innuendo, gleefully delivered; and James Sweeny was a forthright soldier that matched Malone in crafting a realistic portrayal that worked well in moments of tenderness and in disappointment when his Simon discovers Grusha is married. Beresford-Ord made for a regal and disdainful Governor’s wife while Luke Hewitt was given characters most often flirting with caricature, deploying almost Barry Humphries style vocal emphasis at times.

Then there’s Geoff Kelso whose Azdak takes over as the focal point in the second half. He stumbled over his lines a few times during the second preview which will no doubt iron itself out but his judge is an archetypal Aussie larrikin that would be right at home in something like The Castle.  

The icing on this theatrical layer cake is the musical accompaniment. Bracknell has an earthy voice that was a perfect fit for the songs creating an enormous amount of atmosphere. His guitar playing was excellent and the percussion by Arunachala was equally evocative or menacing as required. There is a superbly crafted turning point that is enhanced by song and performance when Grusha makes the fateful decision to take the baby. It’s a wonderful synthesis of all the theatrical elements in this show’s formidable arsenal.

There were a couple of things that jarred – the number of cases Azdak hears after his appointment was perhaps one too many in establishing his unique bona fides; and some of the more exaggerated Australian accents were too incongruous even in the context of the artifices established.

The overall impression though is one of appreciation and admiration for this unique staging of Brecht’s masterpiece.

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is on at the State Theatre Centre until 14 August.

*Photos by Philip Gostelow except the masks photo courtesy of James Sweeny

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Frankenstein - Second Chance Theatre (22 July 2016)

The Gothics Trilogy comes to an epic conclusion with Second Chance Theatre’s Frankenstein, faithfully adapted from the classic Mary Shelley novel. The trio of plays has been a huge undertaking for the three theatre companies operating under the banner of Murdoch University’s Nexus Theatre. Yet Frankenstein ratchets up the scale and ambition to audacious heights. A cast of over 20, use of a full size puppet horse, sumptuous costuming, and the evocative lighting of the multi-level set are hallmarks of this two hour fifteen minute production.

At the centre of it all is Scott McArdle who not only adapted the novel, directed the production and plotted the lighting design but was pressed into service in the lead role. This was after the original actor pulled out in unfortunate circumstances only a month before opening night. To say this was a Herculean effort on McArdle’s part would be a massive understatement. Bruised, battered, and exhausted after the show, he was looking forward to well-deserved sleep before doing it all again for closing night. You can’t help but admire the tenacity, multi-disciplined talent, and sheer moxie to even attempt a show like this.

I’ll start with some thoughts on his adaptation with the confession that I have not read the novel…

The story is told in flashback, the framing device being an encounter between Victor Frankenstein (McArdle) and Captain Walton (Rhianna Hall) on a ship stuck in polar ice. The change of gender for Walton works well as Hall plays the hard-nosed sceptic with sharp tongued flair.

The tale that is revealed by Victor is an expert psychological profile of a man driven to achieve greatness but is derailed by hubris and unchecked ambition. The Creature of his making is a torment that brings death and destruction to those closest to him. We understand the genesis of Victor’s obsession – the death of his mother trampled by a horse is the significant catalyst that prompts him to delve ever further into arcane studies. Indeed, the turning points are all beautifully crafted – the failed first attempt to resurrect a life; the ultimate success that turns into ash when both he and the Creature realise what he has done; the Creature’s journey to eventual murder; and Victor’s thirst for vengeance.

That’s another key element. This is no mindless monster on the rampage. Frankenstein’s Creature (Laughton Mckenzie) is literate and capable of learning and emotion but bedevilled by the reaction to his hideous appearance. He also wants a companion like himself; a request Victor ultimately spurns which leads to his world crashing around him as the Creature kills his friend Henry (Launcelot Ronzan) and most maliciously, his new bride Elizabeth (Shannon Rogers). This is after accidentally killing Victor’s younger brother William (Toni Vernon) then later a blind man and his daughter (Alex McVey and Abbey McCaughan). All the while the bloodied ghost of Victor’s mother (Izzy McDonald) spurs Victor on to more heinous deeds. The creator and his monster are a well-matched pair of dysfunctional and traumatised souls.

Mckenzie is a menacing physical presence both in stature and the makeup that indicates the stitches holding together the Creature’s reanimated form. He picks the slight McArdle up like a rag doll which, in its way, is more shocking than all the blood and gore on display. He had a tendency though to shout too often which was an issue for several of the performers in the more heightened of scenes. His primeval screams however, especially after his ‘birth’, were harrowing.

Other performers of note – Shannon Rogers is a luminous Elizabeth, beautifully costumed, and portraying an elegant and confident young woman with style; Ellin Sears is always a dependable presence in every production I see her in at Murdoch and her family maid Josephine is given quite a complex and tragic arc; Hall as mentioned imbues the Captain with swagger aplenty; and Ronzan is likeable as the faithful friend with a surprising twist.

German born Jenia Gladziejewski is the strict Professor who sets Victor on his path to greater learning and it was interesting to hear the actress after the show indicate she had to exaggerate her natural accent to make it more ‘Germanic’. Rhys Hyatt and Stephen Platt have scene stealing secondary roles as the fussy butler De Lacey and grotty Landlord respectively.  

There were some elements that didn’t quite work. The score by Drew Krapljanov did add tension in its more discordant moments but too often scenes were undercut by the contrasting atmospheric mood music sitting under the action. It felt like the emotion was being reinforced at the expense of the inherent potential for conflict. That leached away tension and for an already long play tended to give the impression of a statelier pace. While the lighting design has been a highlight of all three plays there were times when actors were cast in shadow, on the periphery stage left, in key scenes especially in the latter stages. The first half ends somewhat abruptly and the change of POV to the Creature at the beginning of the second half slowed the momentum built up to that point.

The overall impression one is left with, however, is one Victor Frankenstein himself might appreciate – the drive and ambition to create a theatrical behemoth that must surely be the biggest undertaking to date at the Nexus Theatre and one that will go down as a landmark moment and suitable punctuation point to conclude the Gothic Trilogy.

The final show is on at 7.30pm 23 July at the Nexus Theatre on the Murdoch University campus. Given the full house last night I would book now!  

Friday, 22 July 2016

The Ruby Red Fatales - Paper Haus (20 July 2016)

Garters, guns, Nazis, and jazz - what more could you want in this musical comedy romp where ‘Allo ‘Allo meets Cabaret? The former is supplied in a script by Heather Jerrems (who also directs) where, amongst other things, a woman poses as a man who poses as a woman to infiltrate a crack unit of Nazi assassins who are ordered to take down an American trained unit of burlesque dancers-cum-assassins. At the end of the second act when the silliness is at its height there are more guns onstage than at a Republican National Convention. The latter comes courtesy of some slinky outfits for our heroines and a cracking jazz quintet made up of WAAPA students. The venue itself, the intimate Ellington Jazz Club, provides the atmosphere.

Two key ingredients make this work – the show knows exactly what it is and plays up to the absurdity; and there is an impressive level of musicianship and vocal chops you wouldn’t necessarily expect for such a deliriously over-the-top confection.

To wit, the band of Harry Josland (trumpet), Joshua Cusak (double bass), Matthew Salt (saxophone), Oscar van Gass (drums), and Thomas Freeman (guitar) sounded right at home in Perth’s premier jazz venue. They also added a few sight gags of their own behind the performers in the tight stage space. You have the impression that they would have happily kept playing through the night. The audience would have happily kept listening. The smooth musical arrangements by Alex Turner added a touch of class.

The vocal talent headlined by sweet-voiced Cindy Randall and a brassy Sinead O’Hara was excellent. It also matched their characters to a tee. Randall was the fresh-faced innocent who becomes the main player in the battle between swastikas and stockings, guns drawn. Her Gina firstly becomes the improbably named burlesque tyro Miss Titties before assuming the male identity of Heimlich. Much humour is made of her/his appearance as confusion reigns and romance blooms. O’Hara is the leader of the Fatales as Miss Ruby and she embraces a take no prisoners approach to the role in a feisty performance. Emelia Peet is the third member of the troupe as Miss Scarlet, the faithful sidekick to Ruby. Peet has a couple of funny solo moments sending up advertisements of the period.

Their foes are the band of Germans headed up by Manfred (Brett Peart) and his mismatched assassins, Jurgen (Adam Droppert) and Klaus (Ryan Hunt). Jurgen falls for Gina/Miss Titties while Klaus falls for Manfred’s manly facial hair. Yes, there is bromance to go along with the romance. The outrageously kitsch I Don’t Just Need A Beard, I Need Two is a highlight. That it comes in the middle of the best sequence of the show is testament to a fine start to the second act. The duet between Randall and Droppert - When At War, Fall In Love – was not only the best song but performed with such joy and chemistry. Randall’s smile was incandescent. O’Hara replies after the follicle folly of Manfred and Klaus with a snarling Ultimateum; the sequence capped off by a beautifully sung and plaintive What’s It Going To Feel Like? by Randall. From there it’s all standoffs and conflicted loyalties as the climax gets a little messy but by then I was happy to forgive such excesses.

I can see why this reportedly did so well at Fringe World earlier in the year. It’s the perfect sort of fare for a couple of hours at a good venue having a drink and, in my case, one of their pizzas, while watching a talented cast and band frolic and play on stage. It’s funny, more than a little sexy, and showcases some serious talent. 

Written and directed by Heather Jerrems with Music and arrangements by Alex Turner, The Ruby Red Fatales has two more performances at The Ellington Jazz Club on Tuesday and Wednesday, 26 & 27 July

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Mummy Rises - From The Hip Productions (14 July 2016)

The second of the Gothics Trilogy at Murdoch’s Nexus Theatre, The Mummy Rises sees a marked tonal shift from its predecessor. Also notable is that it uses an original script by Director Tim Brain rather than based on pre-existing literary material. This is more in line with the Brendan Fraser led movies where action is combined with broad comedy. There is an underlying tone of feminist empowerment though as the women are the main players here from Christie Strauss’ heroine, Clare Waldren; to Anna Weir’s Harriet Preston who finds release from her husband’s overbearing ways in surprising fashion; to Bella Doyle’s enigmatic Abrar Ali who controls the wrath of the titular Mummy, Artek Bey (Andrew Dawson).

Then there’s the comedy duo of Kate Willoughby and Abbey McCaughan who act like a CSI Egyptology dream team in the bowels of the London Museum with the former uncovering the secret to defeating the ancient foe. Indeed, Willoughby threatens to steal the show as she stumbles and bumbles her way to incantation laden epiphany.

The men don’t fare quite as well being the main contributors to the body count as hubris and intolerance is punished.  Of course, any good Mummy story must have a curse and it’s in disturbing the final resting place of Artek Bey that trouble brews. The expedition, led by Clare’s father, John Waldren (Brain), financed by Lord Preston (Dean Lovatt), and including Alfie (Andrew David) and Charlie (Tay Broadley), is subsequently doomed as death stalks them in a neck snapping shuffle. Disaster strikes early with Alfie blinded and poor Charlie treated like a red-shirted member of a Star Trek away team (to completely mix my genre metaphors). The sarcophagus and accompanying artefacts are moved to London where, one by one, the remaining members of the team meet their fate.

The set and lighting design is again excellent as are the costuming and props. This is yet another handsome production to look at with the core Dracula set cleverly reconfigured to present the Egyptian tomb and later the London Museum. The opening is effectively done as we hear the chinks of tools cracking open the roof of the tomb and light pouring into the dusty and cobweb ridden main stage area. Lights flicker in the presence of the resurrected Mummy while the visual and aural elements from thunder and dust storms add ominous context. The staging of the deaths is given a wince inducing boost with a most graphic sound effect that drew squeals from some of the audience.

The first half, however, felt trapped in limbo between servicing both the horror and comedy elements equally. The second act fares better when especially Willoughby is given free rein and the kookiness of the situation and its quirky resolution are embraced. I was unsure, on the whole, of character’s frames of reference in the early going. Who believes in the curse and who doesn’t was a little blurred except in the instance of Lord Waldren and Lovatt plays the man with rock sure conviction until literally the death knell. The existence of the curse itself was undercut as Harriet Preston’s plight finds an unexpected ally. Part of that subsequent transaction suggests the curse is a fabrication that needs to be maintained; a false beat for mine. The positive message of her challenging Lord Preston’s domestic supremacy is also diluted by the manner in which she does so and her eventual fate.

Strauss’s Clare, however, gives plenty of cheek as the archaeologist daughter is more than a match in wits for the men and wields a mean sword. I was a little confused by her proper English accent in comparison to Tim Brain’s Scottish lilt as Clare’s father but archaeologists are a well-travelled bunch I guess. Lovatt is imperious and brings gravitas to the Lord who sees profit before discovery and science before superstition. He also isn’t afraid to play the villain in the domestic abuse subplot though his stage slap needs work. Dawson is impressively swathed as the Mummy and brings physicality to the role with his imposing height compared to the rest of the cast.

In all it’s a fun romp which, with some tightening of character motivations and outlook, and a firmer decision on what type of production it wants to be (it leans heavily towards parody at certain points and is at its best as a comedy), could find life outside the strictures of the Trilogy. 

Hobo - Jeffrey the Cat Productions (12 July 2016)

Near where I work there was an unused building on a street corner. It has now been demolished to make way for a new development which is prevalent in the area. Before then, on what the Americans might call a stoop, homeless men would sleep. There were regular faces and most of them were indigenous though by no means exclusively. There was also an external power point to which an old style transistor radio was plugged. Next door in the disused car park was a shopping trolley with a mishmash of clothes and other frugal belongings.

This all hits me in the face as I walk into the Blue Room studio.

The set is composed of green garbage bags piled up to the ceiling in the representation of an alleyway at the back of what we soon learn is a gay nightclub. Detritus is everywhere on the floor with a hovel of a sleeping area. On one of the milk crates in the centre of the space, an indigenous man – Tank (Maitland Schnaars) – listens to a transistor radio and drinks heavily. His world is soon to be rocked by intruders in the form of Fred (James Hagan), and later, Terry (James Taylor, also the playwright) who bursts into the alley from the nightclub’s back door.

The characters interact and entwine in surprising ways as the topics of homelessness, alcoholism, mental illness, male and indigenous pride, questions of identity, and father-son relationships are explored in warts and all fashion. The language is blunt, crude but not without humour. The characters are flawed but not without brusque charm. The scenario is all too real...

People going to and from work including myself would pass by those men on that stoop every day. They never asked for money. They were never any trouble. Nobody stopped to enquire about their wellbeing. Nobody stopped to help. Including me. It was if there were two polar opposite worlds, side by side, each aware of but ignoring the other.

As the play progresses I wonder how someone could end up in that situation. I wonder how they would cope – how I would cope. The play offers insights into the first of those two questions. The power of the production is in making you consider the third. It’s not subtle by any means but then life on the street is brutal and uncompromising.

Schnaars imbues his character with sly humour tinged with regret at past misdeeds. There is an inherent decency that shines through. Hagan plays the down on his luck ex-shock jock with straight forward contempt at all around him. His instantly recognisable voice is an asset and lends weight to the character’s bile. Taylor is Fred’s son Terry who initially comes off as a bit of a goofball but ultimately seeks his father’s acceptance. That’s a bridge too far for Fred who cannot contend with Terry’s sexuality.

For most of its length Hobo plays as a slice of life look at these three people until the best sequence of the production when our understanding is turned on its head. Lit only by cigarette lighters as each character speaks in turn it sends us down a rabbit hole that makes us reconsider everything we have seen to that point. Director Ian Wilkes otherwise makes good use of multiple entry points as characters come and go, the only constant being Tank.

Live musical accompaniment is provided by Taylor on electric guitar. While this added mood and a guitar does feature as a prop of some emotional significance to Tank, it felt incongruous seeing Taylor in dual roles in such an intimate space.  

This is the second incarnation of Hobo at The Blue Room Theatre and after tonight’s final performance heads over east. Written by James Taylor, directed by Ian Wilkes, and starring Maitland Schnaars, James Hagan, and Taylor, it shines an uncompromising light on issues that tragically remain far too common.

Friday, 8 July 2016

Dracula - Murdoch Theatre Company (7 July 2016)

In the pantheon of fictional creations there are few as exotic and fearsome as the grandest of the Undead, the most famous Vampire of them of all, Dracula. It is a name that immediately conjures images of blood drenched horror and the seductive allure of immortality hideously perverted. Like the timeless character itself that can turn into mist or bat or wolf, the vampire legend evolves and mutates over the generations and across formats. It is a myth I have always loved and certainly a favourite of Hollywood’s even from its earliest days.

With the saturation of such supernatural creatures in today’s multi-media formats, however, something of the essence of the story and its origins has been lost. This is where director John King and the Murdoch Theatre Company come in with a traditional interpretation from a script nearly a hundred years old. It will be immediately familiar to anyone who has read Bram Stoker’s masterful novel. To a newer audience it sets out the foundation for all the elements on which the myth rests. If you’re expecting Twilight or Blade or Underworld or True Blood or any of their ilk you might be disappointed as this faithful adaptation eschews all the subversions and perversions that have bombarded our screens, small and large. But each one of those owes a huge debt to where it all began...

... in a sanatorium where Lucy Seward (Toni Vernon) is beset by an ailment her father Doctor Seward (Stephen Platt) and fiancé Jonathan Harker (Philip Hutton) are baffled by. A patient, Renfield (Rhys Hyatt) is also under assault for his very soul as his Master, the mysterious Dracula (Joel Sammels), compels obedience from afar. In desperation Seward summons Abraham Van Helsing (Jason Dohle) to save his daughter. The Professor diagnoses a condition beyond imagining and the hunt is soon on to destroy the very things that leave the rapacious Dracula free to feed on Lucy. But the Vampire, assisted by his beguiling brides and human pawns, is a formidable foe not easily bested.

Like any good gothic horror tale mood and atmosphere is vitally important and this is where the productions excels. The multi-level set is exquisitely dressed and lit to represent the offices of the sanatorium and later, with impressive efficiency, the underground lair where Dracula’s resting place is hidden. There is a real sense of old world charm and naivety where the still fledgling disciplines of science and medicine are no match for such an ancient foe. The dialogue, at times heavily expositional and a little twee to modern ears, works because it is placed precisely in that environment. These people are discovering a terrible reality for the first time.

Great attention has been spent on the details to make this world credible from costuming to props and makeup. There was only a minor moment where my suspension of disbelief was broken but a mirror on set was always going to be problematic with a creature such as Dracula that is meant to cast no reflection. Otherwise this exudes atmosphere and the lighting design by Scott McArdle is an example of how a film literate generation can add so much to the stage. Some of Dracula’s entrances, backlit and silhouetted in smoke, are perfectly composed ‘shots’. They are both menacing and sumptuous to look at which is no small feat. The same with the writhing brides who loom above the main set in all their sensuous and intimidating glory. Composer Drew Krapljanov adds the finishing touch with a score that buttresses the intrigue of the slow burn first act before turning the screws on the urgency of the final confrontation.

To the performances and Sammels makes for a charismatic and scornful Dracula and I especially liked the physicality of his movement when hemmed in by Wolfsbane as if he were a feral animal. Hutton is a most upright and proper Harker in his formal dinner attire with hands often interlaced behind the small of his back. It’s a tightly controlled characterisation that was fascinating to watch. Platt was too earnest for mine as Seward and just needs to relax into the role. There were times he was prone to over emphasis in the delivery of dialogue but in fairness some of his lines are of the “good god, man!” variety which are difficult to convey convincingly.

Vernon’s petite stature helps immeasurably in presenting a woman who is fragile and emotionally vulnerable after the nightly draining of blood. The transformation from anaemic victim to threshold vampire is an entertaining one as her Lucy, now in red, is confident and forceful in ways poor Harker cannot contend with.

Rhianna Hall and Alex McVey play a housemaid and attendant respectively and share a funny set piece scene in the first half that breaks the tension and allows the audience to laugh. McVey, in particular, adds belly laughs throughout as his Butterworth struggles to deal with the seemingly superhuman Renfield. It’s a critical counterpoint to the serious business of stakes through hearts and lives in the balance. Jess Serio, Christie Strauss and Jenia Gladziejewski are the irresistible vampire brides who look awesome and add that touch of sensuality to proceedings.

Then there’s Jason Dohle as Van Helsing, the famous professor armed with the knowledge and courage to confront the vampire. Dohle is charming, inquisitive, insistent and determined while showing a softer side when dealing with Lucy. Armed with Wolfsbane (instead of garlic in an interesting touch) and an eastern European accent he drives the action and is a most robust protagonist. Hyatt has perhaps the trickiest part of all as the crazed Renfield swings in and out of lucidity depending on the hold of his Master. It’s a busy performance that flirts with caricature but ultimately won me over, notably in the moment Hyatt allows us to see Renfield’s sudden realisation of his fate.

The first half takes a while to swing into gear and that scene between Hall and McVey really kick started the production for me. The second half picks up the pace and King builds the tension as we wonder how our heroes will triumph. It’s a testament to all involved that while most of the action takes place off stage this dialogue heavy script is still so compelling. It’s a great start to The Gothics Trilogy and there is a smart and funny coda at the end that leaves the audience eager for the next instalment.

Dracula, written by Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston and directed by John King, is on 7.30pm tonight and Saturday 9 July at the Nexus Theatre on the Murdoch University campus.

*photos by EClaire Photography

Sunday, 3 July 2016

A Perfect Specimen - Black Swan State Theatre Company (30 June 2016)

There is much to like about this play that emerged from the development crucible of the Black Swan Emerging Writers Group. It is an exquisitely handsome production to look at from the detailed costumes to Joe Lui’s evocative lighting design to the velvet draped surrounds of the set. It is an interesting premise with rich dialogue that befits the theatricality of the subject matter and good performances, none finer than Greg McNeill’s Cornell Wurlitzer. Ultimately, however, the play didn’t work for me due to some scripting issues and, notably, a decision on how to present one of the central characters, the so-called Ape Woman, Julia Pastrana, played by Adriane Daff.

Indeed, the story is about how Pastrana’s husband Theodore Lent (Luke Hewitt) exploits her notorious appearance for financial gain, both as an ‘exhibit’ in a travelling freak show and for examination by curious physicians. When Pastrana becomes pregnant their relationship takes on all the aspects of a searing tragedy and there is no denying the power of some of these moments, notably the birth and its aftermath.

The essential concern is this. Pastrana is referred to and describes herself as a monster, hideous and grotesque, covered in fur. When first we see the character she is clad from top to bottom and sporting a veil. Once revealed, however, there is seemingly no attempt to disguise the elfin Daff’s delicate beauty. This is no monster; this is not someone to recoil from. The issue is further exacerbated by the fact that we never see how an audience reacts to her Pastrana; how humiliating those examinations might be. We are only told how difficult the character’s life is yet never witness it.

While I understand it might be problematic to present the character as a full on ‘freak’, this was far too safe an option. If you’re going to tell me over and over and over how hideous this person is then I’d rather you swing for the fences and possibly miss than seemingly avoid the situation. It is a critical suspension of disbelief issue. Daff is otherwise fine in the role though saddled somewhat with an exaggerated accent that made her sound like a naïve child at times.

There were also a few curious scripting issues. The play opens with a wonderfully theatrical Hewitt as carnival barker entreating us to be amazed and horrified at such a creature. It hooked me straight away and had me eagerly awaiting what comes next as any salesman might wish. Only to be disappointed when the next scene not only doesn’t reveal the ‘monster’ but takes us to a drawing room where Igor Sas (Doctor Gregory Alyokhin) gives a long monologue about Russian ghosts. 

Sorry, what? I thought we were talking about physical appearance and how we marvel at and fear those that are different. How inner beauty triumphs over outer monstrosity. A Russian ghost story felt thematically like a totally different play and it’s a lot of stage time to chew up so early. The essence of that scene, when we finally get to the point, is Alyokhin requesting to examine Pastrana and Lent coldly demanding a princely sum to do so. The delay in getting there stalled the momentum so precisely won at the opening.

Contrast this with the wonderfully written and beautifully performed monologue by McNeill as Wurlitzer recounts the tale of discovering co-joined twins. It cuts straight to the heart of not only the fascination with physical otherness but the beguiling economic implications for those who are poor beyond measure and the opportunists that prey on them. I was squirming in my seat at the gut-wrenching tale in all its manifest horror.

Likewise, the play ends with Hewitt reprising the opening introduction but now through the prism of all the tragedy and heartless gain as a result. It is a perfect conclusion as he recedes into the shadows, the character more monstrous than any he could ever hope to exhibit. Yet the play continues with a long scene that felt like the sort of epilogue you really would be better off Googling at home. Sure, there is some pleasure in watching two stalwarts of the local theatre scene in McNeill and Sas mixing it up but it was a redundant expository scene that leached away the impact of Hewitt’s exit.

The other player here is Rebecca Davis as the long and lithesome acrobat Marian Trumbull, a character who is not only cheating on her husband with Lent, but is concocting more extreme acts to remain relevant. Why would the punters pay to watch feats of skill when there is an ape-woman to behold? Bold and exuding more than a faint sense of desperation it’s a well-judged performance.

A couple of other excellent scenes feature Hewitt, first with Daff as the two are at loggerheads about what to do with the baby, his solution so implacably practical and horrific; the second as McNeill’s Wurlitzer takes Lent to task for going too far. For a man who has seen it all even Wurlitzer is disgusted by the depths Lent will go to and Hewitt doesn’t blink when pushing that envelope.

Black Swan sometimes falls too in love with the technical wizardry on offer and director Stuart Halusz’s decision to use a rotating stage – a central circle and an outer rim that both moved independent of each other – took me out of the ‘old world’ so meticulously crafted with music, costuming, lighting, sound design, props such as a working gramophone, and makeup. The slickness of revolving pieces of set into place worked against the sense of mystery and weight of history that hangs over the story. Actors could also be seen behind the string curtain moving props and pieces of set onto that revolving stage while scenes were in progress.

It is, however, undoubtedly an audacious tale by playwright Nathaniel Moncrieff and shows yet again the strength of the local writing talent in this state. What a wonderful opportunity to have it performed at the Studio Underground with such a strong cast. With some judicious rearrangement and editing of the script and bolder choices in terms of execution this could be a memorable work. At the moment though it doesn’t quite convince but is worth the price of admission to gawk at a theatrical curiosity newly given birth.

Written by Nathaniel Moncrieff, Directed by Stuart Halusz and starring Adriane Daff, Rebecca Davis, Luke Hewitt, Greg McNeill, and Igor Sas, A Perfect Specimen is on at the State Theatre Centre until 17 July.

*images courtesy of Daniel James Grant

Coincidences at the End of Time - The Perth Theatre Trust & Second Chance Theatre (29 June 2016)

I was talking to writer/director Scott McArdle after this latest iteration of his play set in a café as the world comes to an end. I remarked that with screenplays you never really finish writing them; somebody, if you’re fortunate enough, shoots the script and that’s the endpoint. With plays though you have the opportunity to occasionally remount a production and with that comes the ability to rework the script.

I saw a version of Coincidences at the End of Time a couple of years ago in the cosy confines of the Moore & Moore Café in Fremantle. Since then it has been performed at The Blue Room and now transfers to the bigger studio space at the Subiaco Arts Centre. Not only does that present the work to a larger audience it provides McArdle the resources to expand his vision in terms of the text, set and lighting design. Finally it takes what was originally a student production and puts the script in the hands of two well known, professional actors – Arielle Gray coming off Black Swan’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Nick Maclaine recently seen in Barking Gecko’s Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories. 

The story remains essentially the same – a pair of ex-lovers bump into each other at their favourite haunt and relive the highs and lows of their relationship. The context, however, is that the apocalypse is well past nigh, it’s literally banging down the doors of café as fire breathing lizards melt human flesh outside and continents sink into oblivion. We never know what the cause of this end-of-the-world scenario is but that’s secondary to the cataclysmic emotional events it sponsors. With no tomorrow why not relive your shared yesterdays?

In that regard the play is less a dystopian nightmare and more a time travel saga of recalled memories and moments. The arc of the relationship follows familiar territory – the ‘cute meet’, first date, moving in together, shared moments of domestic life, the embarrassments, the arguments and secrets that come to the fore, the perceived and actual betrayals, and finally the separation.  

These vignettes are weaved into the present day situation of imminent death thereby lending poignancy tinged with regret. The reworked script is tighter in this regard, ratcheting up the emotional stakes while downplaying the humour though there are still wry observations and McArdle’s trademark witty ripostes.

Maclaine is always the most affable of leading men and that everyman quality works well here. His greeting card writer is a sympathetic figure and even in scenes of heightened emotion exudes an easy charm and sense of decency. Gray adds a layer of emotional combustibility and it’s an impressive turn especially when the relationship crumbles before our eyes. There is an emotional honesty to her performance that is compelling.

The set has come a long way from the sparse configuration in Fremantle. There is a vertical bed used to good effect and all the paraphernalia of a café including a jumble of chairs hanging from the ceiling to symbolise a world turned upside down. The only problem with the studio space is that the seating isn’t particularly well raked for optimal viewing so I lost a lot when the actors were down low.

Light bulbs are suspended from the ceiling between the chairs and their use clearly delineates what is the present and what is, essentially, a flashback. There is a certain rhythm that allows for the actors to make minor costume adjustments and find their marks. Music also assists with this and I believe it is the same score as used before. All this is effective stagecraft but given the amount of transitions it occasionally lends a sameness and predictability in the repetition.   

The Subiaco Theatre Festival is proving to be a boon in allowing works such as Coincidences at the End of Time to be restaged and find a different audience. It encourages talented theatre practitioners such as McArdle to refine and hone their craft and that bodes well for future endeavours.