Belvoir St: Private Lives


Love… it ain’t all electric butterflies, gooey glances and ecstatic round-the-clock humping. More often than not, a head-over-heels romance comes with a side order of jealousy and insecurity – if not downright paranoia. Psychologists have compared the brains of those in the throes of passion to people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. That’s right, being in love makes you bonkers! No wonder it makes such great fodder for drama; love is about as dramatic as two people can get.

Crazy love is the undeniably scrumptious premise of Noel Coward‘s 1930s classic Private Lives. A former husband and wife, Elyot (Toby Schmitz) and Amanda (Zahra Newman), bump into each other at a seaside hotel while honeymooning with their new partners. It doesn’t take long before that old spark has turned into a forest fire and the two are inexplicably running off to Paris in the middle of the night. Their poor, bereft and much saner spouses Sibyl (Eloise Mignon) and Victor (Toby Truslove) are left to ponder how it all could have gone so terribly wrong so horribly fast.

This is a trailblazing Belvoir directorial debut for the company’s young-gun artistic director Ralph Myers. Out go the smoking jackets, the gramophones and, yes, even the accents. In go fluffy white bathrobes and a vinyl collection ironic enough to make any Surry Hills hipster snigger – think air drumming and lip-synching to Phil Collins In The Air Tonight and a dash of Sinatra’s The Girl From Ipanema. Myers abandons all the old clichés, plonks the actors on a stark white motel of a set in the here and now and lets them wallow blissfully in the sheer lunacy of it all.

He’s made interesting casting choices, too. Newman and Schmitz are an unlikely duo in the chemistry stakes, but this unusual pairing serves to underscore just how crazy this little thing called love can be, and how random. While on the surface they claim to be mismatched, we soon discover they are kindred spirits; feisty, brutal and cunning creatures who relish a verbal stoush and an all-out row even more. The result is delightful belly-buster stuff.

Coward wrote the role of Elyot for himself, so he, of course, gets all the best lines, and Schmitz doesn’t waste a single one. A quick-witted writer himself, Schmitz truly gets comic timing (he proved that rather spectacularly recently with his own play I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard) and here he has it down to the nanosecond. This is a real gift of a role for him, one he was born to play. He’s flawless and breathtaking to watch and very, very funny.

Toby Truslove lends wonderful support as the calm, collected and sweetly dull Victor. However, Eloise Mignon’s Sibyl feels a touch forced in her pouty posturing as the ingénue. It would be nice to see her let the lines do the work a little more. And Newman, at times, fails to reach far enough for the dizzying possibilities offered up by the bolshy Amanda.

“It’s a frowsy business, marriage,” Elyot tells Amanda as the two contemplate giving the whole shebang another whirl, for old time’s sake; but there’s nothing even slightly frowsy about this fiercely funny redux of a rip-snortingly brilliant British classic.

Belvoir Street Theatre presents
Private LivesBy Noël Coward

Dates: 22 Sept – 11 Nov 2012
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir Street

This review first appeared on Australian Stage

Cirque du Soleil: OVO

It’s wet, it’s windy – and the red carpet walk may be more like wading through a soggy puddle – but it’s going to take a lot more than some apparent opposition from Mother Nature to dampen the spirits of the Sydneysiders who have rolled up in droves tonight for the opening of Cirque du Soleil‘s latest sparkling spectacular, Ovo.Read more of my review of Ovo on Australian StageIt’s wet, it’s windy – and the red carpet walk may be more like wading through a soggy puddle – but it’s going to take a lot more than some apparent opposition from Mother Nature to dampen the spirits of the Sydneysiders who have rolled up in droves tonight for the opening of Cirque du Soleil‘s latest sparkling spectacular, Ovo.

Perhaps it’s the awe of huddling together en masse under a big top that feels like a giant’s cubbyhouse, waiting to enter another world that creates the expectant hush. We’ve been promised a David Attenborough-esque peek into the life of insects and the excitement in the air is as palpable as the heavy tang of popcorn.

With countless impressive productions that have toured the world in the 30-odd years since Cirque du Soleil was founded, this Montreal-based troupe of acrobats, contortionists, clowns, jugglers and gymnasts have an extraordinary amount of hype to live up to, so it’s probably not surprising that Ovo begins more with a scuttle than a bang.  

A collective of crickets picks its way past the crowd with admirable adroitness, considering the large pair of hind hoppers they are sporting. They are joined by a host of colourful creepy crawlies, one of which, a mozzie-like Foreigner (Barthelemy Glumineau), is lugging a large egg (or “ovo” in Portuguese) on his back towards the stage. There is a brief altercation and the egg is snatched, before the insects are compelled by a psychedelic-looking beetle called Flipo (Simon Bradbury) to begin what looks a bit like an ’80s Jazzercise session. At first we are more perplexed than amazed by this panto-style acid flashback of jiggling, gyrating forms in technicoloured lycra – what’s with all this… dancing?   

But thankfully after awkward beginnings a small army of red ants arrive to get the oohing and ahhing underway. Together these six flame-coloured Chinese jugglers display superhuman dexterity as they lie on their backs flipping giant slices of kiwifruit in a fantastic display of fancy footwork.  

Next we are treated to an avant-garde interlude as an aerial artist wiggles up and down a rope inside a silk cocoon. It’s arty but not exactly awe-inspiring. But this is the way the show is set to play out. There are moments of stunning spectacle followed by pretty bits of padding. Perhaps it’s expecting too much for the ants to keep at it for the entire duration?  

That said, there are still plenty of show-stopping peaks in this production that’s assembled 54 brilliantly talented performers from 16 countries. A Ukrainian butterfly duo (Svitlana Kashevarova and Dmytro Orel) performs a breathtaking aerial ballet suspended from a swinging rope; a squadron of scarabs fly through the air with the greatest of ease on a trapeze; contortionist spiders twist into impossible shapes; a family of iridescent orange fleas support each other’s weight to reach impossible heights; the chorus of crickets returns to get the place pumping with a trampoline-enhanced series of somersaults that are outstanding in their athleticism; a firefly (Tony Frebourg) who’s a dynamo with a set of diabolos creates a juggling display that inspires rapturous applause; and a slackwire spiderman (Julaiti Ailati) proves that arachnids can indeed unicycle, all without leaving the comfort of their web.   

In between, there is whimsical clowning from the three main characters as ringmaster Flipo distracts the hapless Foreigner from retrieving his egg by helping him woo the cute and curvaceous Ladybug (Michelle Matlock). There are breathtakingly beautiful flowers that open and astound with their size and lifelike fragility. And there are undeniably imaginative costumes (Liz Vandal) and makeup (Julie Begin) that propel the feats of physical prowess into an otherworldly realm. So it’s not too hard to forgive the underwhelming dance routines that fill the gaps between the moments of magic.

, while not perhaps as perfect as it could hope to be, is still a tantalising trip for young and old alike, offering a serving of rarefied circus snippets that linger long after the insects have flown from the stage.

Cirque du Soleil presents

Dates: Sydney, Setpember 13 to November 25, 2012
Venue:  Under the Big Top on The Showring at the Entertainment Quarter, 122 Lang Road, Moore Park

This review first appeared on Australian Stage

Tamarama Rock Surfers: I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard

How’s this for a play pitch: the scene opens on a dinner party at the home of a couple of wealthy theatre subscribers. Their son, an actor whose career choice they view as dubious, unintentionally invites his older actress girlfriend, a flirty drama queen, and as the booze flows freely the spirited table talk naturally turns to the theatre – it’s relevance, or lack thereof. Sounds like a cure for insomnia, doesn’t it? And in the wrong hands, it could very well be the worst kind of entertainment: snobby, self-reverential, a real snore. It could have been an absolute disaster, a play about theatre… what was playwright Toby Schmitz thinking?

Luckily, the man who the media can’t run out of plaudits for delivers the goods with I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard. Better than that, Schmitz delivers them with a seamless wit and raging intellect, far beyond his 35 years. Yes, I know, it sounds like I’ve joined the slobbering throng – but really, he’s achieved an astounding feat that shouldn’t be underestimated, because by sidestepping an elaborate set up and settling for something insanely simple and obvious, with very little action and wall-to-wall chatter, Schmitz has been very, very brave. If his dialogue wasn’t as sparkling as a bottle of Dom Pérignon (and just as tasty and sophisticated) there would have been nowhere left to run and hide. In a sense, he is standing balls-out naked in this play and for that he truly deserves the rapturous three rounds of applause this play received when it premiered earlier this week at the Tamarama Rock Surfers’ Bondi Pavilion theatre.

So how does Schmitz do it? By writing about what he knows, the lunacy of what it’s like to be an actor and having to justify that career path to your nearest and dearest and society as a whole. It’s that intimate understanding that’s allowed him to create beautifully observed characters that are as real as they are stereotypical, and from that juxtaposition springs the play’s delightfully edgy humour.

From the outset, when Luke (Tom Stokes) makes the fatal mistake of inviting girlfriend Sarah (Caroline Brazier) around for dinner, there’s a delicious anticipation. We can’t wait for the fun to begin and begin it does, instantly. There’s no wasted set up or drag, we are smack bang into this ‘kitchen sink’ drama of First World problems.

And the elephant in the room, the absence of Tom’s gay brother, keeps us hooked with ‘will he/won’t he appear?’ tension that’s beyond thrilling.

Parents Jackie (Wendy Strehlow) and Tom (Andrew McFarlane) embody the worst and funniest upper-middle-class clichés: she does yogalates, he builds miniature battleships. They have a Whiteley in the hall (of course) and a yacht, and a water view. But it’s in their unrequited dreams (Tom settled for the mundane moneyed life of a dentist, Jackie could have been an actress) that we find a truth that’s sympathetic and powerful – they are also both rip-roaringly funny.

McFarlane is side-splitting as the posturing, know-it-all patriarch and Strehlow is endearing as the long-suffering, affluent housewife whose hobbies are her children – although one of these ‘hobbies’, her estranged gay son, seems to be troubling them more than they’ll both admit. This is an undeniably clever comedy of appearances, and while the debate on the surface revolves around the worth of acting, film and the theatre, and is stimulating and astute, the discussion is a conduit through which the inner depths of these characters emerge.

Bold, brash and magnificent in her captivating unravelling is Caroline Brazier as girlfriend Sarah. Schmitz‘ goal was to create a complex femme fatale and she is beautifully realised, thanks in no small part to a sensitive and intelligent treatment of the material by director Leland Kean. Brazier can do loopy leading lady on her ear, but it’s the subtle way that her performance simmers slowly until it soars clean over the edge that makes her so enthralling.

Tom Stokes’ Luke functions as the straight role, and that’s no mean feat with so much funny business going on around him. He keeps things rooted in the real so that the comedy doesn’t careen too far into farce.

Natalie Hughes and Vanessa Hughes have designed an elegant and versatile set that accommodates the intimate action well. Their Battle of Copenhagen in miniature is a tiny triumph that exceeds expectations. And Jeremy Silver’s sound design gives the play a super-hip vibe, ensuring that while it may make fun of stuffy subscribers, it’s not intending to appeal to them.

“I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard,” shrieks Sarah in a moment of hilariously insane lucidity that encapsulates why this play is so much more entertaining than the kind of theatre you would dutifully attend. And that appears to be Schmitz‘ ultimate point; theatre can be as relevant as it chooses to be – if the people who make it work hard enough to keep it that way, and these people most certainly have.

Tamarama Rock Surfers presents
I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard
Written by Toby Schmitz
Venue: The Bondi Pavilion Theatre
Dates: 29 August to 22 September 2012, Tues – Sat 8pm

This review first appeared on Australian Stage

Qantas Travel Insider: Top 5 Sydney Stage Shows

Spring has sprung and the Harbour City is bursting into bloom with a lively new crop of stage productions bouncing off the boards in September. Here are the five must-see shows opening around town.

1. Sex With Strangers

Walsh Bay is abuzz as Jacqueline McKenzie returns to The Sydney Theatre Company stage after last year’s saucy smash In The Next Room, Or The Vibrator Play. The equally titillatingly titled Sex With Strangers sees her joined by STC newbie Ryan Corr (of TV’s Packed To The Rafters) for a Gen X-meets-Y rom-com that surfs the tricky ins and outs of negotiating love online. Directed by film industry legend Jocelyn Moorhouse (Proof and How To Make An American Quilt) this super-sharp singleton satire is sure to be a real tweet.

2. OVO

Forget the animals, the circus these days is all about the acrobats, so young and old alike are guaranteed to be rolling up in droves as Montreal’s magnifique Cirque du Soleil tumbles into town with its latest big-top spectacular. OVO (Portuguese for “egg”) brings together 54 performers from 16 countries in a visually sumptuous feast that gives the microscopic world of insects its macro moment in the sun. Expect to see everything from butterflies to beetles as an entire ecosystem wriggles, slithers and flutters into life before your very eyes.

3. I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard

Sydney theatre scene darling – and anointed Patrick White playwright winner – Toby Schmitz is behind the Tamarama Rock Surfers’ latest outing, I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard. Director Leland Kean (a long-time creative cohort of Schmitz’) has mustered a sterling cast featuring Andrew McFarlane, Caroline Brazier, Tom Stokes and Wendy Strehlow for this playfully acerbic thespian aficionado’s delight. The action centres on a theatre-loving husband and wife who find the drama in their own lives increasing exponentially when their son’s firecracker actress girlfriend crashes their dinner party and ignites a debate about the role of theatre. What ensues is sure to be smoking hot.

4. Private Lives

Can’t get enough Schmitz? Well why feel deprived when you can head over to Belvoir to see the playwright/actor steal the stage in the Noël Coward-penned Private Lives. A scintillating romp of romance on the rocks, the play revolves around two honeymooning couples whose worlds collide when they run into their ex spouses at the same hotel. With Coward’s wealth of wit, artistic director Ralph Myers at the helm, and a dream supporting cast including Toby Truslove, Zahra Newman and Eloise Mignon you just know this will undoubtedly be the best in show of Belvoir’s 2012 season.

5. The Sea Project

A woman, Eva, washes ashore on a beach. The only thing she remembers is her name. Bob rescues her and soon finds he’s falling in love. But then the mysterious Maciek turns up seemingly ready to reveal all. Migrating north from Launceston’s Earl Arts Centre to the Stables in Darlinghurst, The Sea Project is a stirring mediation on memory and identity from playwright Elise Hearst and director Paige Rattray – the team behind Dirtyland, which took the New Theatre by storm last year. Backed by a live musical score and the considerable talents of Meredith Penman (Richard III, MTC) it’s a production that promises laughter and tears in equal measure.
Sex With Strangers
Sept 24 – Nov 24
Sydney Theatre Company
+61 2 9250 1777

Sept 13 – Nov 4
Showring at The Entertainment Quarter
0011 800 1 548 0000

I Want To Sleep With Tom Stoppard
Sept 4 – Sept 22
The Bondi Pavilion Theatre
1300 241 167

Private Lives
Sept 22 – Nov 11
Belvoir Street Theatre
+61 2 9699 3444

The Sea Project
Sept 8 – Sept 29
SBW Stables Theatre
+61 2 9361 3817

Helen Barry is a theatre critic for website Australian Stage

This review first appeared on Qantas Travel Insider