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, na├»ve 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