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Tim Draxl takes a ride on the Chet Baker Freeway

With matinee-idol good looks, supreme skill on the trumpet and the kind of silky sadness in his voice that even angels couldn’t help but weep, Chet Baker was bound to cause a stir when he turned up in LA in the 1950s. An Oklahoma farm boy fresh from a couple of stints in the army and some notable gigs in San Francisco, Chet slipped smoothly into the LA scene and soon became a linchpin in the Cool school of jazz. But like so many talented performers before him, and since, he battled a demon that was never far from his door, an addiction to heroin.

Chet Baker’s story is packed with the kind of stuff that makes Hollywood producers salivate; and indeed a biopic has been on the cards several times with various actors tipped to play him – most notably Leonardo DiCaprio – but so far it’s all come to zip. Thankfully, actor-singer Tim Draxl and journalist Bryce Hallett got together to do something about it, creating the stage musical, Freeway: The Chet Baker Journey. The show debuted in 2010 at the El Rocco Room in Kings Cross and popped up again a year later at a couple of cabaret festivals around the country, but mostly, it became the stuff of legend.

It’s not hard to see why the reviews were so rapturous. This is a beautifully conceived, immaculately executed production. Tim Draxl is sighably sublime as Chet. Yes, he has the movie-star looks but it’s his velvet vocals that are really what sends the tiny hairs on the back of my neck into overdrive as he croons “My Funny Valentine”. It’s as if Draxl is channelling Chet’s melancholy spirit and merging it with his own, rather than attempting to replicate or mimic his sound. There’s even a point, during “Travelin’ Light”, when the emotion of the song actually brings Draxl to tears. It’s a moment that’s pure and sincere rather than staged and contrived.

Segues between the songs into the narrative of Chet’s life are handled with absolute ease. In these moments Draxl speaks to us directly, as if he is Chet, with a wiry spryness that is spellbinding. While these sections convey much about Chet’s early life, his decline in later years and troubles with the law are brushed over. But that’s just fine. It indicates a gentle respect, on behalf of Draxl and Hallett, for Chet the artist rather than the addict. It’s his remarkable music that they wish to showcase rather than ridicule him for his failures.

Of course a show like this couldn’t be a success without a cohort of groovy cats on the instruments and Freeway has them in spades. The seriously tight quartet features a veteran of the scene, Ray Alldridge, who is both the show’s musical director and pianist; drummer Dave Goodman; Dave Ellis on bass; and Warwick Alder, who embodies the other musical aspect of Chet with aplomb, on trumpet. In between smiles and winks, which read like wonderful cheeky in-jokes we’d love to be privy to, the four treat us to a set that’s jam-packed with awesome aural pleasures.

The only question I’m left pondering at the end of this dream of a show is why only three nights? Why tempt Sydney with a mere morsel to nibble on when really we could have chewed on a bone as juicy as this – and sucked the marrow out of it – for weeks or months even? But perhaps that’s the way to keep the legend alive… Keep us “travellin’ light”, until next time.

This review first appeared in Australian Stage  July 2012.

Freeway – The Chet Baker Journey
by Bryce Hallett and Tim Draxl

Musical direction by Ray Alldridge

Killing Time with actor David Wenham

Richard Cawthorne (left) and David Wenham (right) on the set of TV series Killing Time. Picture: Craig Borrow.

DAVID WENHAM – his name alone is enough to conjure up some of the most memorable performances.

He sent chills down our spines as the cold-blooded psychopath Brett Sprague in The Boys, and made millions of women go weak at the knees as the irresistibly hunky Diver Dan in SeaChange. This versatile actor has also left his mark on Hollywood, after playing Faramir in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Dilios, the storyteller, in 300.

The Aussie actor is set to have you glued to your screen yet again in TV1’s stunning new drama series, Killing Time. Wenham portrays Andrew Fraser, the real-life former criminal defence lawyer who made his name representing Melbourne crime figures including Lewis Moran and Dennis Allen.

Ironically, when FOXTEL magazine caught up with Wenham, he had very little time to kill. “Every day is crazy,” he said during the quick chat he managed to squeeze into his hectic filming schedule. “[Working] 12 to 14-hour days isn’t unusual. What is slightly unusual is the fact that on this project I’ve been doing that five days a week for something like 13 weeks. “I don’t think I’ve done a project like this before, where I’m literally in every scene bar about three. It’s a marathon,” Wenham said.

The 10-part drama series has also proved to be an experience where Wenham must run the emotional gauntlet as he takes viewers through the life and times of Andrew Fraser. A man who became rich by helping some of Australia’s shadiest criminals avoid jail time in the high-flying ’80s, Fraser crashed and burned – and wound up in prison himself.

“He’s a man who is extremely intelligent, extremely talented – a formidable lawyer at the top of his field – yet he has a fatal flaw which becomes an addiction to drugs, which causes his downfall,” he said. “I found that interesting, the fact that we follow the journey of a man at the height of his powers, and see how that is taken away from him.”

Prior to succumbing to a $1000-a-day cocaine habit, and ending up in maximum security after being found guilty of drug trafficking, Fraser had a client list that read like a who’s who of Australian crime. He represented everyone from the Pettingill family, who were implicated in the cold-blooded murder of two Victorian police officers; to footballer-turned-drug trafficker Jimmy Krakouer; and even troubled businessman Alan Bond.
“You can’t invent these characters,” Wenham said. “The things they do are seemingly so far fetched and incredible.”

Throughout the series, which is told mostly in flashback as Fraser sits in his prison cell, we meet many of his clients in a production that’s recruited some of our best actors. “We’ve got some wonderful people in there,” he enthused. “We’ve got legends of the Australian screen. People like Colin Friels [who plays Lewis Moran], who’s just wonderful to work with; Diana Glenn, who plays my wife; and then you’ve got Richard Cawthorne, who plays Dennis Allen – an amazing character and Richard has just run with that.”

Wenham’s attraction to the project stemmed from the completely new perspective offered by telling these true-crime stories: not from the cops’ side or the criminals’ side, but from the point of view of a successful defence lawyer. “It’s a totally fresh look on stories and narratives we may be familiar with,” he said. “Fraser sort of straddles both worlds.”

Playing Andrew Fraser also provided a much-needed opportunity for Wenham to take a stroll back to the dark side. “People who aren’t perfect interest me,” he said. “I hadn’t delved into that sort of territory for [a while], and it must have been time to scratch that itch again because when I read the script it was a compelling read. I thought it had the essence of really good drama.”

But perhaps most irresistible, was the chance to drown Diver Dan once and for all. “I think characters like this go some way to debunk that,” Wenham said. “Andrew Fraser is sort of an energetic and charismatic character at times, but he also does some hideous things that I think may appal some people.” “But I like that, because he is a very divisive character,” he said.

This article first appeared in FOXTEL magazine, November 2011.

Belvoir St: Peter Pan

Peter Pan, JM Barrie’s story of the boy who never grows up may be a classic but it’s also a parable for modern times. If you live in inner-city Sydney chances are you’ve met one – a “manchild”, that is. Mid-thirties, skinny-legged jeans brandishing a beard, never goes anywhere without his skateboard. Surry Hills is a mecca for these Lost Boys. They mill about sipping soy lattes and eating sourdough, praying they’ll never have to get a mortgage or a real job. It’s a pretty shrewd move then on Ralph Myers part to put Peter Pan on the Belvoir main stage smack bang in the middle of manchild central. And in this production he gives them exactly what they are craving: a fantasy world full of fairy dust and make-believe, where their inner child can run rampant, stuffing its face with sweets without fear of counting calories.

Myers’ production is basically a panto for grown ups. Sure, children are most welcome, and with its fast-paced 1hr 30min running time sans interval they are sure to enjoy the show, but this is much more a rollicking ride for the young at heart. Adapted by Tommy Murphy from four source texts (Barrie, ever the perfectionist, tinkered with his tale for thirty years, resulting in myriad versions) this is a cleverly condensed play that may skip lightly over the Indians and turn the mermaids into a bit of a sideshow but it captures the essence of all that is great about the original flight of fancy.

Meyne Wyatt is charismatic and magnetic as Peter, with his exuberant youthful energy and naïve narcissism. When he says, “come fly Wendy” we wish he’d take us, too. Geraldine Hakewill is perfectly prim and proper as Wendy, the little girl Peter takes to Neverland to play mother to the parentless Lost Boys. John Leary is hilarious whether he’s crawling around on the floor as Nana the dog or indulging in a bit of swashbuckling tomfoolery as Nibs or Smee, as is Gareth Davies who gets very much into the childish spirit of things as Slightly. Harriet Dyer draws big laughs as Twin One and Two, while Jimi Bani is sweet and endearing as young John and very entertaining as the Captain-Hook-hungry Crocodile.

Of course, the real fun is reserved for Charlie Garber who plays Hook, the plotting pirate whose every fibre is focussed on finding Peter Pan and making him walk the plank. more info Garber grabs this role hook, line and sinker (pardon the pun) and runs far and away with it. In his stage directions for performing a “fairy play”, such as this one, JM Barrie states that: “The difference between a fairy play and a realistic one is that in the former all the characters are really children with a child’s outlook on life. This applies to the so-called adults in the story as well as the young people”. Garber, perhaps better than most, understands this distinction implicitly. Hook, therefore, is a child’s version of evil, larger than life, simplistic and one-sided, as is his real-world foil Mr Darling – which is just as it should be.

However, the ultimate joy of this production is in Robert Cousins’ ingeniously imaginative set design, which playfully recreates the make-believe world of children with the kind of deft versatility of a Wes Anderson or Michel Gondry film. A child’s bedroom is the backdrop that becomes Neverland with no-frills transformations. Blankets turn a wardrobe into rocks where mermaids squawk like seals, and then become the rising waters which threaten to drown Wendy and Peter. A bunk bed miraculously becomes a pirate ship at full mast. Even a single bed proves to be a cunning predator.

On the whole, Myers’ Peter Pan proves to be a fun-filled nostalgia fest that will transport adult audiences back to those early wonder years where anything and everything was possible. And, as an extra bonus, after the manchildren in the audience ride their skateboards home they might like to practice their new flying technique – now that they know how it’s done.

Belvoir presents
Peter Pan
by J.M. Barrie | adapted by Tommy Murphy

Director Ralph Myers

Venue: UPSTAIRS Belvoir St Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Previews: 5 – 6 January 2013
Dates: 9 January – 10 February 2013
Tickets: $65 – $45 | Family (2 adults and 2 children) $130 (additional children $25)
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 |

This review first appeared on Australian Stage

Sydney Theatre Company: Sex With Strangers

Twitter. Facebook. Blogs. Wi-Fi. Trolling. It wasn’t long ago that these weren’t even words, let alone predominant forces governing our lives. In the blink of an eye we’ve gone from the kind of creatures who value privacy and intimacy to ones that are willing to “share” practically every detail of our day with anyone who has access to a computer. It’s the biggest social shift since the invention of the telephone or the automobile. We are evolving, but into what?

Sex With Strangers by Brooklyn-based playwright Laura Eason explores the ramifications that our online lives have for our real-world relationships. Olivia (Jacqueline Mckenzie) is a talented thirty-something writer who has stalled after her critically acclaimed but commercially unsuccessful first novel. She’s holed up during a blizzard at a rural Michigan Bamp;B trying to finish novel number two when in blows Ethan (Ryan Corr), a handsome mid-twenties blogger whose salacious “fratire” memoir of one-night stands with hundreds of women he picked up in bars has propelled him onto the New York Times bestseller list. In true rom-com style his gen-Y arrogance rubs up against her gen-X insecurity and bingo, here come the fireworks.

If it sounds a tad formulaic, that’s the problem, because it kind of is. While Mckenzie and Corr are delightful and give wonderful, naturalistic performances that are warm and endearing, there simply aren’t enough places for them to go emotionally with this. It’s a bit like the feeling you get when you’re watching a chick flick of the predictable Must Love Dogs variety. Sure, it’s enjoyable for a bit of Sunday afternoon viewing when you’re flopping about on the couch, but it’s not terribly deep or satisfying. It’s not going to challenge any of your preconceived ideas, instead it will reassuringly confirm them so you can feel better about what you already believed. This is not a production that’s boring, exactly, as the action is sustained; interest very rarely wanes, but it’s not theatre in the capital “T” sense. It’s not going to move you.

Director Jocelyn Moorhouse, a veteran of the Australian film industry, has been behind some of the best cinema ever made in this country. Proof (1991) starring Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving was a psychological masterpiece. Here, she handles her theatre debut with the utmost assurance, creating a visually fully-realised world that is immersing, thanks to the accomplished abilities of Mckenzie and the bright young talent of NIDA graduate Corr (of TV Packed To The Rafters fame).

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Tracy Grant Lord’s set is charming. It brings the Michigan woodland indoors one minute then reveals a stylish library that looks straight out of design mag Wallpaper the next. The transitions are beautifully handled with projections by Matthew Marshall displaying quotes on love and writing by literary luminaries that run across the stage. And the hip musical interludes from sound designer Steve Francis keep the energy appropriately up.

Sex With Strangers is a sweet, funny and playful production, enjoyable but not terribly profound. In a sense, Laura Eason has achieved what she set out to, which was to create a play that “can speak to this moment, the one we are all living in right now”. A place where attention spans are short and 140 characters says it all.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
Sex With Strangers
by Laura Eason

Venue: Warf Theatres, Walsh Bay
Dates: 28 September – 24 November

This review first appeared on Australian Stage

Sydney Theatre Company: The Secret River

The Secret River is, in a very real sense, Australia’s creation story. Set on what was the New South Wales colony’s new frontier, the Hawkesbury River in the early 1800s, it details the struggles and ultimately brutal resolve of the renegade convict settlers who claimed the land as their own by force from the indigenous people inhabiting it. The Secret River illustrates the choices made by our forebears, for better or for worse, which led to the expanding of the colony and an irreparable dispossession for the indigenous people of this country. It is a tragic and important history lesson, one that must be told sensitively and expressively if we are ever to reach anything close to an understanding of what went wrong in the beginning and why.

Kate Grenville’s novel, the source material for this play, is full of beautifully crafted and powerful prose. Transforming a piece that is already perfectly executed into a new form is a monumentally difficult task. It could be said that the greater the original text the more obstacles the adaptation will face in equalling or, in rare instances, surpassing it. This is because a great work inherently resists modification. Choosing what should stay and what should go becomes that much harder when everything has already found its snug resting place.

And so it is with The Secret River. Playwright Andrew Bovell has been reluctant to let go of Grenville’s signature voice and in his efforts to preserve it he has hamstrung this production somewhat with an onstage narrator. The result is a talented cast that are rendered impotent as they stand and wait their turn to fit in around the narrative, while the action is beholden to a staccato rhythm rather than a flow. This is a tale where point of view is everything and yet here we have an aboriginal narrator (Ursula Yovich) reciting text that is mostly sympathetic to the troubles of the settlers. While this may be an interesting attempt at unifying the characters instead it backfires, jarring with the plot irreconcilably.

There are a great many challenges from a directorial standpoint, too. With action that focuses mostly on exteriors Neil Armfield opts for minimalist staging and a bush that is largely imagined. Stephen Curtis’ towering ghost gums and a fully functional campfire help to lend the required ambience, as does Mark Howett’s subtle and quite lovely lighting, while Iain Grandage’s live musical accompaniments create a sense of intimacy. However, decisions such as making actors behave like barking dogs and disembodied branches bashed about the actors to indicate they are moving through dense bushland push otherwise serious scenes into the realm of farce.

There are, thankfully, many strong performances here. The entire indigenous cast are phenomenally good. Roy Gordon is magnetic as Yalamundi; Trevor Jamieson shines as Ngalamalum; Jeremy Simms is a standout as the dangerously unhinged settler Smasher Sullivan; Colin Moody is wonderfully moving as click here
Thomas Blackwood, the only settler who has found a way to happily coexist with the locals; Miranda Tapsell is charming as Gillyagan; and Judith McGrath lends nice comic relief as the long-suffering Mrs Herring.

Best of all the child actors imbue The Secret River with an effervescence and a lightness that keep it buoyant at crucial junctures, especially when the darkness threatens to drag it irretrievably away. But ultimately, this production cannot turn the tide, and it ends up slipping away without being as powerful or as meaningful as it most certainly deserved to be.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
The Secret River
by Kate Grenville | adapted for the stage by Andrew Bovell 

Directed by Neil Armfield

Venue: Sydney Theatre | Pier 4, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay NSW
Dates: 8 Jan – 9 Feb, 2013
Tickets: $105 – $50

This review first appeared on Australian Stage

I Know There's A Lot Of Noise Outside But You Have To Close Your Eyes

Female friendships are the ultimate paradox. On the one hand they can be intimate, nurturing and honest, on the other they might be superficial, false and downright cruel. Often, they are both – at the same time. In a sense, female friendships provide a conduit through which women play out their innermost hopes, dreams, insecurities and disappointments in a far more volatile way than they would with, say, their partners.

In a true female friendship a woman is free to unleash it all: the good, the bad and, more often than not, the ever so ugly. And that’s what Katie (Anna McCarthy) and Imogen (Zoey Dawson) do in the sometimes funny, often dark and undeniably-squirm-in-your-seat intense, I Know There’s A Lot Of Noise Outside But You Have To Close Your Eyes. 

The set up is all too familiar in the Facebook Age. Two old high school chums who life has drawn apart decide to collide for one night of rum and cokes and cosmos to see what has changed and what, if anything, hasn’t.

Together with director Allison Wiltshire, McCarthy and Dawson are part of Melbourne-based pussy posse, I’m Trying To Kiss You, who put on self-penned performance works that touch on everything from tuna pasta to patriarchy. Gutsy stuff. And so it is with the intriguingly long (in the name sense) but short in duration (60 minutes)I.K.T.A.L.O.N.O.B.U.H.T.C.Y.E. 

The “noise” of the title refers to the preening and posturing or “constructed identity” that lies on the surface of female relations; the look-how-fabulous-and-successful-and-totally-happy-I-am wall of defence that masks the I’m-lonely-and-single-and-haven’t-had-sex-in-months reality that you’ll find if only you “close your eyes”. Through the course of the evening Katie and Imogen oscillate between these outer and inner worlds of representation, discovering along the way that neither are quite what they seem at a cursory glance.

Both are dynamite performances. Dawson and McCarthy are witty at times and ragingly bitter and daring at others. It’s a play of extremes, an emotional roller coaster that demands a lot from its audience in terms of its complexity and intensity. If you’ve come for Sex And The City you’ve taken a wrong turn (unless it’s the episode where Miranda fantasises about choking Carrie with one of her Manolo Blahniks). But if you like your theatre to slap you up the side of the head and say “wake up and smell the nail varnish, bitch” then it’s vodka shots all round.

I’m Trying To Kiss You presents
I Know There’s A Lot Of Noise Outside But You Have To Close Your Eyes

Director Allison Wiltshire

Venue: Parade Studio, NIDA, 215 Anzac Pde,Kensington
Dates: Mar 6 – 23, 2013
Tickets: $18 – 28

This review first appeared on Australian Stage