New Theatre: Piranha Heights

We open on a rundown council flat in London. Alan(Heath Wilder) is fussing about the place when his brother Terry (Jason Langley) stumbles through the door seemingly unannounced and smashed off his head. Inexplicably he’s brought a young girl with him, Lily(Emma Griffin) who’s hidden beneath a traditional Muslim hijab. Terry’s brought flowers, or at least a bunch of stems, in honour of Mother’s Day. Except dear old mum is dead.It’s a simple enough set up, we could be watching The Billor Eastenders; it feels safe, almost staid. But it’s all a cunning ruse created by clever UK playwright Philip Ridley (The Pitchfork Disney) so that when Lily’s psycho boyfriend Medic (Matthew Hyde) and Alan’s wayward son Garth (Brynn Loosemore) turn up he can hijack our expectations and assumptions and take us on a wild ride to destination Unknown.

Piranha Heights is full of revelations, surprises and, when Medic and Garth crash in, the kind of frenetic, crazy adrenaline-charged energy that makes for dynamite theatre. What starts as an emotional family drama: two brothers arguing over the title deed to their dead mum’s apartment quickly careens into something akin to a Tarantino movie on acid as Medic and Garth start to bond over a shared penchant for a bit of the ultra violence. It’s an incisive exploration of what happens when two unstable personalities, each just holding it together on their own combine; what happens when Nitro meets Glycerine or when one piranha meets his flesh-eating soulmate.

Matthew Hyde is mesmerising as Medic, a dangerous, pumped up speed-fuelled dreamer who longs for his and Lily’s baby son Bubba (a plastic doll) to build a time machine so they can go back and find out what really happened to Elvis. Brynn Loosemore is equally engaging and more than just a little bit twisted as the tormented teen Garth. He’s the kind of kid who makes Damien from The Omen look really well adjusted.

Jason Langley is sympathetic and assured as the do-gooder brother who unwittingly brings Medic and Garthtogether, while Heath Wilder lends strong, solid support as Alan, helping to firmly balance the juxtaposition of the real and surreal in this exciting and energetic production from talented director Fiona Hallenan-Barker.

In a local theatre scene that’s been a bit hit and miss of late, this darkly funny, outrageously perverse and yet strangely endearing comedy is a definite must-see on the independent hit list for those who like to take their theatre laced with a dash of “KA BOOM”.

Shedding Skin and The Spare Room presents
by Philip Ridley

Director Fiona Hallenan-Barker

Venue: New Theatre | 542 King St, Newtown
Dates: 16 June – 2 July 2011
Times: Tues – Sat @ 8pm, Sunday @ 5pm
Tickets: Full $30, Concession $25
Bookings: 1300 306 776 |

This review first appeared on Australian Stage June 2011


Belvoir St: The Seagull

Maeve Dermody in The Segull. Photo Heidrun Lohr  

The man responsible for creating the Method, Stanislavsky, once said that when encountering Chekhov’s plays for the first time you might think, “This is good, but… it’s nothing special, nothing to stun you with admiration”. He was of course talking about the surface of them. Because on the surface they are very ordinary; not much plot, nothing really “happens”, just a lot of people killing time and gasbagging away. But beneath this flimsy façade there’s subtext bubbling away – buckets of it. Or as Stanislavsky puts it, it’s in the recalling that the full impact hits you. “You recollect some phrases and scenes, you feel you want to think about them more, think about them longer… then you realise the depths hidden under the surface.”
In essence, director Benedict Andrews’ new Belvoir production of The Seagull is a case in point. RippingChekhov’s 19th century play out of Russia and transplanting it into contemporary Australia, to a fibro shack ‘somewhere on the coast’, draws attention to how little it actually is about time and place, and how much it is about basic humanity and “real life” (whatever that is) and the way we live it. We humans, it seems, have changed very little. We bicker, we fight, we love, we betray one another, and the world just keeps on turning.

And yet there’s more to it than that – of course. The Seagull is also a play about plays and it’s this self-reflexive nature that has Andrews enthralled. He couldn’t have made a better choice than to put Judy Davis smack bang in the middle of it as the fading actress Irena Nikolayevna, whose ego is hungry to hold on to the glory days, that is if he wanted to stir up questions about the “old guard” and when they are going to get off the stage and give the kids the floor. With so much of the theatre in this country still being made for Boomer audiences and by people well past their prime, it’s easy to see his frustration. Of course at Belvoir the guard is changing, too, and The Seagullembodies that in the form of Konstantin (Dylan Young), Irena’s passionate young aspiring playwright son who is bursting at the seams to get out there and try to produce something much better, more challenging and interesting than anything she’s ever done (new artistic director Ralph Myers, anyone?).

All Belvoir parallels aside, The Seagull is a much broader meditation on art and life. It’s all there in the big bold neon stage lights “Real Life” (designed by Ralph Myers). It seeks to ask, can we represent life truthfully in art, and indeed, what is truth anyway, when what is real for one is a lie to another?

At the heart of The Seagull is also this understanding that we are all constantly moving into our new forms – like it or not! The only other alternative is to be trapped in the birthing process and the result of that can mean only one thing, death.

Of course it’s a great cast: Judy Davis, David Wenham, Bille Brown, John Gaden, Anita Hegh, Emily Barclay, but as it’s such a big ensemble play they don’t get to flex their individual muscle as much as the audience may like. They get moments.

When Barclay mooches onto the stage draped in chiffon as Masha and squats to pull a bucket bong, you just know that this is not going to be your usual Upstairs fare. She’s the depressive of the play and yet her performance is a firecracker. Anyone who saw her in the film Suburban Mayhem will remember she does bogan to a tee, but here she’s that and oh so much more as she slurps cornflakes out of a bowl drowned in vodka heartbroken overKonstantin, who ignores her. When she’s on stage she’s riveting.

More disappointing are the roles for Wenham (whose Trigorin is so self-obsessed that there’s very little to observe on the surface of things) and for Davis, in particular, with this clever casting ploy somewhat back-firing. Largely it’s because Davis is so perfect for the role of Irena that she has the appearance of simply drifting through the action. She just “is” the version of herself that we all want her to be: predictably spoilt, self indulgent, trying to fan the flames of a youth that’s gone out with a hiss. Although, there is a moment that’s a revelation, dragging us back into “the real”. When Davis pulls the skin back on her face to indicate the price of fame and the role we, the audience, have played in it – the ridicule, the insecurity and the surgery that results from being held too long under the microscope – we are in awe!

Billie Brown is warm and captivating as the lothario doctor DornJohn Gaden is witty and wry as Irena’s brotherSorinMaeve Dermody is fragile and doomed as the aspiring young actress who sucks up men’s hearts like a vacuum cleaner; and Dylan Young is all intense angst and impotent rage as the neglected Konstantin, whose mother is so consumed with loving herself that she just has time to barely notice him.

With the pared back set, all the bells and whistles are in the casting – and in those moments. Andrews’ “montage” moment as the ash falls from the sky and the actors stay stuck as time passes is one that works brilliantly. It’s in times like these that we recognise that there’s something of each one of these characters in all of us. They become vessels for our own memories of life’s mistakes, heartbreaks and betrayals. We are each and every one of them. We are The Seagull

Belvoir presents
The Seagull
by Anton Chekhov
in a version by Benedict Andrews

Directed by Benedict Andrews

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 4 June – 17 July, 2011
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday to Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full $59. Seniors (excluding Fri/Sat evenings) and Groups 10+ $49. Concession $39
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 |


This review first appeared on Australian Stage June 2011