Category Archives: reviews

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

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

He’s Nearly Neil Diamond, well, almost

Music tribute acts get a bad rap. Like a bearded lady at the circus they can pull a crowd, but more often than not it’s of the point and snigger variety. Actors, on the other hand, can win Oscars for portraying other people – the more uncanny the performance, the greater the chance they’ll walk away with the gold statuette. They aren’t subject to ridicule for the perception they are riding on someone else’s coat tails. So, why the double standard? Around the world there are something like 85,000 Elvis impersonators working today – surely that number couldn’t be sustained on pointing and sniggering alone?Tonight, as we rocked up to Norths, the league’s club that seemingly time (and the NRL) forgot, I had probably come to snigger. It’s true. But Bobby Bruce, alias Nearly Neiland his “Aussie Band”, had other ideas. A good impersonator has an aura about them. There’s a definite art to it. They can’t just whack on a toupee, strap on a guitar, slip into some flares and pretend to be Neil Diamond, that won’t wash. In a sense, they have to beNeil Diamond in order for us to “believe”, or at least, they have to nearly be him.We are seated on plastic chairs beneath the stage at table one (pole position, nostril hair territory), on what must have once been a pumping dance floor. A vibe of hushed excitement ripples through the crowd as they gather their jugs of VB and bottles of chardy from the bar. It’s nearly time! Judging by the faces here they’ve been waiting quite a while – some of them a good forty-odd years – for an opportunity like this one. And then quite suddenly he is here. A vision in a sparkling red sequined shirt and black tuxedo trousers (complete with cummerbund) bursts onto the stage. It’s Nearly Neil – I mean Bobby Bruce – and his hair seems possessed of its own permanent wind machine. We are held captive – and not in a tied-to-our-chairs-can’t-get-away sense; nor in a pointing, sniggering kind of way. Here is a star, a true showman.Born in British Columbia, Canada, 43-year-old Bobby Bruce first discovered the delights of Neil Diamond as a boy listening to his parent’s 8-track while on summer holiday road trips. The choice to become Neil wasn’t at that point an imperative, however in 1994 magic happened. Bobby was spotted on the tribute circuit in Las Vegas doing some Neil Diamond covers by an eagle-eyed Elvis impersonator who immediately saw his potential. Thus, a legend was born, or rather Bobby joined the other impersonator legends in the world-famous Legends In Concertline-up. The point being, Bobby has been playing Neil for almost 20 years now, that’s an awfully long time to polish up an act and it shows.It’s only song number two, everybody’s favourite, Sweet Caroline, and already the audience is pushing their chairs aside to reclaim the dance floor. Those who aren’t on their feet are giving it all they’ve got with a good bit of chair dancing and hand waving. Next up is Forever In Blue Jeans. “This is Canada’s favourite,” he tells us inexplicably. Is that because they wear a lot of denim? Never mind, with all those syncopated head movements and hip swivelling there’s plenty to distract us from pondering much for long. Of course, there’s that voice. That throaty, husky, whispering purr; it’s uncanny. He has the swagger, the laidback charisma, the sheer essence of Diamond – and his sideburns, too. What’s not to love?

Together with his merry band of consummate musicians, Bobby rocks the Norths Showroom with the kind of panache it hasn’t seen in probably a good couple of decades as he whips through a smorgasbord of Neil Diamond’s greatest. Notable highlights include Cherry CherrySong Sung Blue – where a couple of star-struck audience members get a chance to croon along with him – I’m a Believer, that became a smash hit for The Monkees, and a funky new arrangement of Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon.

His female backup singer steals the limelight for a fraction of a second with her Barbra Streisand-esque rendition of the duet You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, but then Bobby takes it back just in time for a big finale of I Am…I Said and another encore of Sweet Caroline – of course.

After the show Bobby and wife/manager Leanne are sitting at a table and he’s signing his own CDs. I nearly buy one, but then I don’t, because I don’t want to risk spoiling the memories I’ll have looking back on this night. And it’s that sense of nostalgia, that once in a lifetime flashback to another place and another time that gives a great live tribute act like Nearly Neil its power. Bring on the Oscars for impersonators I say, and give one to Neil, I mean Bobby, because he deserves one.

Nearly Neil is currently touring Australia. Visit for details.

Nearly Neil and his Aussie Band

Venue: North Sydney Leagues Club | Sydney, NSW
Date: Friday, June 29, 2012
Tour Dates: visit


This review first appeared on Australian Stage July 2012

Belvoir St: Old Man

“Old man look at my life, I’m a lot like you were,” sang Neil Young in what has to be one of the greatest male power ballads of all time. In most cases, old Neil is probably right. Current psychological theory certainly supports his claims. Men model their behaviour on the fathers who raise them. But what happens in the absence of a man on which to model? How do these boys learn to become who they are and in turn raise male offspring of their own?It’s this puzzle of what nurture provides – or rather, the lack of it – that most interests Matthew Whittet in his latest offering, Old Man, now playing at Downstairs Belvoir. It’s a fair topic to probe given how widespread “fatherlessness” is becoming in contemporary society and the scary statistics that accompany it; it’s claimed that youth suicide, drug abuse and homelessness are all proportionally much higher in boys raised without fathers.

Whittet’s examination eschews the A Current Affair-style horror stats to take a more intimate and tender approach, peaking into the home life of one average thirty-something man grappling with the consequences of his own abandonment at the age of three. Daniel (Leon Ford) awakes one morning to find his wife Sam (Alison Bell) and their two children have mysteriously disappeared. There’s no note, no explanation, they just aren’t there anymore. Confused and bereft, he contacts his mother Carol (Gillian Jones) to help make sense of it all. But instead of gaining answers their talk simply raises more questions; and doubts. Has he been a good husband and father? And how could he really expect to be one when he never had a father of his own?

Old Man is a play of two styles. “Part One”, as director Anthea Williams refers to it, is a kind of rambling first-person narrative where the characters speak directly to the audience. Their emotions pour out unfiltered as genuine reactions rather than considered responses. The effect is that the action flows over us and through us, we become a part of it. We are inside the characters heads thinking their thoughts and feeling them. This could be ponderous stuff, but Williams has a lightness of touch; when pressure is applied it’s meaningful because she hasn’t been beating us about the head with it relentlessly.

Of course plaudits must go to the cast. Leon Ford, like Whittet, a father himself, has put that emotional homework to good use here crafting a performance that is sensitive, astute and restrained – when it needs to be. Most men don’t let it all hang out, even when no one’s watching, and there’s an acknowledgement of that in the pitch of Ford’sperformance. Even in the height of despair he holds it together. Because that’s what a man has to do, right? It’s this question of how to “be”, how to behave and react, that lies at the heart of this work and is its most fascinating aspect, from a performance point of view.

When we flip over to “Part Two” sans interval via blackout, we are given a diametrically opposed style of emotional walls, as the fourth wall abruptly arrives to push the characters back inside themselves. What is said and left unsaid now becomes the riveting focus of a plot that turns everything we took for granted on its head.

While Ford carries the bulk of Old Man on his shoulders – in this, his impressive Belvoir debut – barely leaving the stage for the tightly wound 75 minutes duration, Alison Bell’s subtle influence as Sam resonates throughout and is profoundly felt. Madeleine Benson sparkles as headstrong teen Charlotte, a young actor with a bright future indeed; and Peter Carroll lends weight as absent father Albert by hiding all the answers Daniel seeks behind a gentle, cheery countenance.

Whittet won the 2010 Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award with his proposal for this play. It’s a work well suited to the close embrace of the Downstairs space, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were to creep Upstairs at Belvoir sooner rather than later.

Belvoir presents
Old Man
by Matthew Whittet

Director Anthea Williams

Venue: Downstairs Theatre | Belvoir St Theatre, 25 Belvoir St Surry Hills
Dates: 7 June – 15 July, 2012

This review first appeared on Australian Stage June 2012

Alan Ball: Vampires, Death & The Mundane

“Vampires are sex”, explains scriptwriter Alan Ball when asked to explain the appeal of his bloodsucker-centric, smash-hit HBO TV series, True Blood. For once self-confessed “super fan” Wil Anderson, who’s been asking the questions tonight, is stumped. But judging by the deafening applause coming from the crowd at the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall – a motley crew of aspiring writers, hardcore Fang bangers (aka True Blooddiehards) and curious onlookers – there’s no need to elaborate. The attraction for audiences worldwide to Ball’s supernatural series set in the fictional town of Bon Temps, in America’s Deep South is obvious; it’s that whole sex and death thing, plain and simple. Or as Ball likes to put it, “it’s lady porn”.For the uninitiated, Alan Ball is only the god of screenwriting for both TV and film on the face of the planet right now. From his unconventional, Emmy Award-winning family drama set in a funeral home, Six Feet Under, to that plastic bag that made us gasp at the enormity of just being alive in the Oscar-winning American Beauty, when Alan Ball writes, people can’t help but pay attention. Tonight is all about trying to find out exactly how he does it.

Hard work seems to be the short answer. An off-Broadway play he wrote back in the early ’90s, Five Women Wearing The Same Dress became his entrée into TV writing for Grace Under Fire. Next came three years of what Ball describes as a living hell writing “moments of shit” for actress Cybill Sepherd’s eponymous sitcom. What could have easily become a plodding career as a hack (including a stint on a show writing dialogue for a talking dog) was miraculously turned around when Ball stayed up late at night after coming home from frustrating days on Cybill and hammered out a very angry draft of the script that would change everything, American Beauty. Flash forward to Ball at the Oscars for said script plying himself with a hipflask of scotch just to keep it together. Thankfully he did, and went on to create the moving, funny and disfunctionally charming Six Feet Under, and now the raunchy, darkly witty and riveting vamp-fest True Blood.

The key to his works’ appeal, he says, is his ability to combine death and humour. It’s a coping mechanism he learnt when he came face to face with the grim reaper, when his sister died, as he puts it, “literally all over me” in a car accident. The experience changed everything, setting him on the path to taking from life and working “organically”, letting his characters guide the way.

While the night is mostly a series of questions from Anderson and film clips bringing everyone up to speed on Ball’s career, the best bits (like Ball’s work itself) are in the details. We discover how he gets his dialogue to work so well: he writes it aloud, while listening to music that gets him in the zone. He reveals the joy of writing characters that explore murky emotional territory – they are neither victims nor villains, but instead an imperfect mingling of both. He shares his innovative approach to structuring satisfying TV: the more characters and the more diverse they are the merrier. That way everyone can find someone to relate to.

Ultimately though, what’s really satisfying about being here for Vampires, Death & The Mundane is hearing Ball so enthused about TV as a medium. For unlike a two-hour film that by necessity must stick to a finite amount of character developments and a limited number of plot points, TV offers a “broad canvas” on which to play. The result is characters that can, and often do, believably pull off 180-degree turns over the course of a season, surprising us with the unthinkable. And Ball is positive about the future of TV, pointing to the kind of challenging stuff being produced now. He mentions Breaking Bad and Dexter and even South Park as proof that we are in a “Golden Age”. It’s stimulating stuff, and with any luck his message will inspire the next generation of TV writers to think well beyond the confines that were once prescribed to the box.


Venue: Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Date/Time: 7pm, Thursday 8 September, 2011
Bookings: 02 9250 7777

This review first appeared on Australian Stage September 2011


New Theatre: A Quiet Night In Rangoon

The year is 2007. A young Australian travel writer arrives in Rangoon, Burma, ostensibly to write a piece of “fluff”: ancient temples, local customs, tourist drawcards – that sort of thing. But when student demonstrations against the ruling military regime begin to gain momentum and the revered Buddhist monks join the fray she quickly finds herself embroiled in a much bigger story, one with global significance.Written by Aussie playwright Katie Pollock, A Quiet Night In Rangoon dramatises the real-life events that took place in Burma and came to be known as the Saffron Revolution. It’s the kind of subject matter that is notoriously difficult to bring to the stage. Not least because you’re dealing with an emotionally raw historical event that still exists in living memory; but there’s another crucial reason, one that Pollock freely admits: this isn’t our story. It’s the story of the Burmese people, a people still so oppressed that they can’t freely tell it themselves. Therefore there’s a delicacy required. A careful, gentle hand is needed and a measured approach. The play gets this right in some respects, but unfortunately falls well short in others.

The strengths of this production lie in its well-drawn and developed characters: Piper (Kathryn Schuback), the writer whose quest for the truth has a deeper personal dimension; Kitty (Aileen Huynh) a local girl who is keen to help but has complicated loyalties; Mickey (John Buencamio) a novice monk who wrestles with the demands of staying true to his religious path while attempting to settle an old score; The Major (Felino Dolloso) the military man who must convince himself that the ends justifies the bloody means; and Pluto (Barton Williams) a wounded student who has suffered unspeakable atrocities at the hands of soldiers like The Major.

Each of these characters has a rock-solid inner truth and an interesting internal conflict to deal with (compulsory components for good drama) and is brought to the stage by actors who have carefully done their homework and weighed up the nuances required. Felino Dolloso’s Major, in particular, is a finely tuned and powerful performance that has the ability to move us and draw us into the emotional complexities of being trapped on the darker side of the struggle for freedom. Indeed as the oppressor it becomes pointedly clear that he too is equally oppressed.Dolloso’s monologues are the high point in this production and indicate an actor of great depth who’s full of exciting promise.

Where A Quiet Night In Rangoon falters and ultimately fails, however, is in the theatrical device it employs to lighten the mood. This comes in the guise of a character that plays The Internet (Sonya Kerr). So jarring is the comedic approach taken here that we are jolted back out of any meaningful point of connection (that had been gaining momentum) into a place that’s facile and trivial. Laughter in a play of this sort just seems grossly misplaced and inappropriate to the extreme, at least that was my response to it. It made it difficult to move through and then reconnect with the more weightier and meatier elements that I was keen to be absorbed by, which was a real shame.

While I’m always keen to encourage audiences to get out and see new Australian work, particularly with such a rich and interesting multicultural cast as this one, with the case of A Quiet Night In Rangoon I’m left slightly reluctant to do so. I do believe, however, that there is a good play in here trying to get out, and with some sensitive structural adjustments it just could be a great one, but it’s not there yet.

subtlenuance in association with The Spare Room presents
A Quiet Night in Rangoon
by Katie Pollock

Venue: New Theatre, 542 King Street, Newtown
Dates: 18 August – 10 September 2011
Times: Tuesday – Saturday @ 8pm, Sunday @ 5pm
Tickets: Full $30 | Concessions $25 | Preview Wednesday 17 August $20 | Cheap Tuesdays $10 (min)
Bookings: 1300 306 776 |

This review first appeared on Australian Stage August 2011


Wil Anderson Man vs Wil

If you only knew Wil Anderson from such TV shows asThe Glass House and The Gruen Transfer, you could be forgiven for consigning him to a box marked “Smug Gen-X Wanker”. Clever? Sure. And quick with a comeback? Always. But vulnerable, humble and profound? You must be talking about some other Wil Anderson. Perhaps the one that strolled out onto the stage at the Comedy Store on Friday night to bring us his much lauded, Helpmann-winning show, Man vs Wil. For while this Wil Anderson may bear a striking physical resemblance to the one you’ve watched at home, there’s this uncanny Invasion-Of-The-Body-Snatchers type of sensation that his essence has been sucked out and replaced with… well someone else entirely. A vegetarian cat lover who thinks he could be “just a little bit gay” and is terrified of horses, to be precise.Well, whoever this guy is, he’s damn funny. Over a decade on the comedy circuit has moulded Wil Anderson into a consummate performer. He truly understands the craft of setting up and building a joke just right, so that the payoff will leave us with a real belly-buster. What’s most endearing about this Wil is he’s not afraid to look like a wimp or a loser – if there’s a laugh involved for the audience then he’s more than happy for it to be at his expense. It makes a refreshing change from the ever increasing pool of comedians out there who prefer to take driving pot shots at the rest of humanity. Instead Wil is happy to dive in and take the bullet on our behalf. Bless!Man vs Wil is a personal show on many levels. We hear of Wil facing his fears in order to woo the woman he loves; confessing the ethical reasons why he can’t get off on porn; and even why Righty is so much better than Lefty when it comes to making sweet love to, er, well, himself. So, it’s “intimate” to say the least.

There’s something more meaningful here too, in between the jokes about Americans and how to get the most out of long-haul flights. Wil wants us to GROW. You can feel it. It’s in the way that he pushes this mostly mainstream audience into uncomfortable territory and pleads with them to dip their toe into the in-between places, the murky shades of grey.

When it’s curtain time, I find I’m left with a warm and fuzzy projection. It’s Wil, and he’s home alone in his little flat snuggled up with his three purring moggies, reading the Kinsey Report to them; and possibly musing on the peculiarities of gender constructs in the Western world. Now there’s nothing possibly smug or wankerish about that.

Token Events presents
Wil Anderson

Venue: The Comedy Store
Dates: August 4 – 28, 2011
Time: 7pm
Tickets: $30 Thurs & Sun; $35 Fri & Sat
Bookings: 02 9357 1419 |


This review first appeared on Australian Stage August 2011

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

Belvoir St: The Kiss

What a novel idea (pardon the pun), take four short stories of the same title, The Kiss, by four different writers and deliver them to the downstairs Belvoir stage unabridged and “untampered” with. Think of it as a kind of literature-meets-performance experiment. Of course, much like most great scientific breakthroughs, with this kind of thing there’s always the equal chance of discovering something that will change the world as there is of creating a monster. And, so it is here.

Nineteenth-century French writer Guy de Maupassant’s take on sexual politics opens the evening in somewhat pedestrian style. Here a woman’s power is measured in the volume of her caresses and the weight of her ultimate weapon, the kiss. It’s a straightforward adaptation job – not rocket science – as the story is a first-person monologue. Rita Kalnejais delivers it word for word with a twist of sexual tension (an interesting choice considering the final reveal of the narrator’s identity) as she wriggles and twists in her chair – we’re not really sure why, but at times it’s distracting. And this brings us to our first inkling that adapting a short story directly for the stage – with no chopping or changing or “mucking about” as it were – has one big problem, it’s going to require a high degree of concentration from the audience. Sure, you could argue that you have to expect to be more actively engaged when you go to the theatre than say, blobbing in front of the TV – and that would be true, but usually the theatre draws on a variety of senses to engage you, and actors become the characters through the use of a nifty little thing called “dialogue”. Unfortunately here what we are offered is an evening that relegates them to narrators of their own fate, trapped forever in the third person and we listen, listen and listen as they describe things they could actually be doing or showing, in other words, acting.

That said; Aussie writer Peter Goldworthy’s heartbreaking tale of lost mateship, the second piece of the night, manages to transcend this to become the most successful adaptation of the evening. It’s got some great writing, but largely the triumph is down to the actors, Steve Rodgers and Yalin Ozucelik. They are able to move, to “swim” through the air suspended above the stage, creating an enchanting visual element that strengthens the prose rather than distracting from it. It’s a nice choice from director Susanna Dowling to give the actors something to “do”. The result is a blending of the images that form in the mind as we listen with the action taking place on stage. It’s a kind of active imagining that makes the whole night worthwhile – and Steve Rodgers is, it has to be said, magnificently riveting.

There’s a lovely comedic quality created in Kate Chopin’s story of love versus money, thanks mainly to an inventive juxtaposition of facial gestures with the lines of the text. It’s short and sweet, but again we’re aware of the dislocating affect of actors speaking in the third person, being separated from their natural environment: dialogue, embodied and freely expressed.

In the Chekhov piece the same frustration builds, but by now the story’s sheer length (unabridged, remember?) combined with the fact that it’s the end of the night amplifies the demands on the audience’s attention further still, and despite earnest efforts to maintain focus you can sense the crowd shuffling in their seats, the experiment has worn them out and they’ve come to the end of their tether. It’s a shame really. It’s an interesting idea with a nice bunch of actors all working their guts out to deliver, but rather than breaking the mould to bring us something splendid, instead The Kiss only serves to highlight how wonderful plays already are and that the form itself has a great deal to do with that.

Lost also is the theme that ties the whole night together. As fellow theatre critic Augusta Supple (who just happened to be sitting beside me) whispered in my ear as the lights came up, “Less talk, more kiss.” Indeed, no-one could have summed it up better.

Belvoir presents
The Kiss
by Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Peter Goldsworthy & Guy de Maupassant

Director Susanna Dowling

Venue: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre
Dates: 12 May – 5 June, 2011
Times: Tue @ 7pm, Wed – Sat @ 8.15pm
Matinees: Sat @ 2.15pm, Sun @ 5.15pm
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 |

This review first appeared on Australian Stage May 2011

Sydney Festival: The Giacomo Variations

Photo Brigitte Lacombe

We wanted Hollywood icon John Malkovich and we got him, but sadly The Giacomo Variations, the 2011 Sydney Festival’s big-ticket item, that’s arrived here after premiering in Vienna, is an odd, farcical, repetitive and ultimately tedious production – which is an awful shame. This is Malkovich, after all; one of the world’s most celebrated character actors. A man whose own parody of himself in Charlie Kaufman’s 1999 film Being John Malkovich is a work of utter genius. How could this not be great, right? Well, unfortunately, it just isn’t.

A strange hybrid of genres, where opera and theatre take turns in telling the story of the legendary 18th century Lothario, Giacomo Casanova, the production largely fails because it’s trying to be all things to all people. While Malkovich fans are sure to get a kick out of seeing the magnetic man in the flesh, they are also bound to be equally frustrated by the truncated nature of the performance. The dramatic scenes are interspersed with opera from three of Mozart’s best: Don Giovanni, Cosi fan tutte and The Marriage of Figaro, so just as Malkovich is hitting his stride as the silver-tongued charmer (depicted here in the twilight of his days, looking back on his greatest conquests aided by his colourful memoirs) the performance is brought to a crashing halt by a musical interlude.

Meanwhile, the folks who have come for the opera part of the proceedings – which is delivered with great gusto by singers Andrei Bondarenko and Martene Grimson, who stand in for Casanova and his various lovers respectively – may well find it difficult to take the whole thing seriously. Perhaps that’s because, most of the time, the duo find themselves singing in various stages of undress and on more than one occasion engaging in simulated sexual acts, all while the Sydney Symphony Orchestra plays on – in other words, it’s kind of awkward.

The set, too, a collection of three large corset-shaped tents complete with petticoats on wheels is equally cumbersome. There’s an amateurish twee-ness about it, bordering on – dare I say it? – a musical production directed by the likes of TV’s Mr G (Chris Lilley). When we do finally get to bask in a bit of quality Malkovich time, the poor man finds that he is largely preoccupied with wheeling the ridiculous things about or hoisting up the side of their “skirts” and fastening them back to reveal rooms that sometimes seem to serve very little purpose.

Actress Ingeborga Dapkünaité lends good support to Malkovich as a female admirer who has come to enquire about publishing his memoirs, however the required sexual frisson is noticeably absent. And while most audience members would probably find Malkovich mesmerising, even if he was just reading the phonebook, there’s not much of a sense of him ‘working’ to maintain our attention here; rather, he seems to be drifting on through with very few shifts of tone or energy level. Sure, he’s got some pithy one-liners and they are great, but as a whole, this is more like a snapshot than a complete performance.

“I was never capable of repeating the same thing twice,” Casanova tells us. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for director Michael Sturminger’s The Giacomo Variations. Instead, the tales of Casanova’s raunchy and outrageous conquests are flogged to death by a format that endless recycles itself: we are told something then we are shown it, over and over again. The result, I’m afraid, is more monotonous and soporific than either arousing or entertaining.

Sydney Festival 2011
The Giacomo Variations

Director Michael Sturminger

Venue: Concert Hall | Sydney Opera House, East Circular Quay
Dates: January 19-22 at 8pm
Duration: 2hrs 30 mins, including interval
Tickets: $125 – $60
Bookings: Sydney Opera House 02 9250 7777

This review first appeared on Australian Stage January 2011

Sydney Festival: Live

Jarvis Cocker pictured

Jasmin Tarasin’s Live
, a video installation that’s currently on in the Lower section of the Town Hall as part of the Sydney Festival, is billed as “intimate”, and that’s a spot on way to describe it. As you make your way into the darkened underground room past long black curtains collecting your personalised headset along the way, you get the sense that you’ve been invited to a VIP event; a one-night-only kind of affair. What awaits inside the inner sanctum is something special; but ironically, despite the show’s name, it’s not actually “live” at all, rather, viewers are greeted by four large screens – each roughly five metres across – which feature the recorded performances of twenty talented musicians from both Australia and abroad.

Like glorified buskers in a mega-mall, local indie-darling Sarah Blasko, Canadian cool-kid Peaches and Britpop legend Jarvis Cocker from Pulp fight it out against the rest in a simultaneous visual battle for your attentions. There’s a certain music-festival kind of pleasure in being able to wander between them at will, starting and stopping to listen as you see fit by tuning in or out of their songs on the different channels of your headset.

Roisin Murphy (from famed electro-pop duo Moloko) won’t break your gaze, while Yim Yames (frontman of My Morning Jacket) keeps his eyes closed and Dan Kelly hides behind sunglasses. These different approaches to connecting with the viewer serve to highlight the interesting dichotomy of performance itself: It’s an act that’s both an internal private moment for the musician and at the same time something to be shared with the audience. This tension between the two creates some of the most interesting moments in Live, as you get a measure of which performers choose to stay grounded completely in their own world and which ones seek to cross over into ours.

While they are still “performing” for a camera, the black-and-white imagery, plain white background, lack of editing and the single, static shot break down the usual music clip razzle-dazzle we’re used to having these kinds of performances mediated by. This approach creates the feeling of something more authentic; as if they are carriers of a song, stripped of all their artifice they become merely a vessel for the music itself. It’s a stirring experience, an antidote for the MTV generation.

Although visually the installation has a raw vibe, the sound doesn’t get quite the same treatment. The arrangements are stripped back, sure, but you’d hardly call most of them a cappella. With the exception of Julian Hamilton’s from The Preset’s rendition of My People, there are backing tracks on most, and there’s still a sense of something that’s been polished or “produced”. So your experience is still being guided and manipulated to a degree, but that’s something that’s obviously impossible to entirely avoid in any recorded (and indeed even truly “live”) performance.

The private viewing booths off to the side of the main “stages”, which have room for only a handful of people, work somewhat less well. Possibly this is because the screens here crop and trap the musicians into tighter portrait-shaped frames from which they seem desperate to escape. There’s less room here to experience what Tarasin refers to as “duende”: a Spanish word for the kind of soul or emotion a performance can hold. Really though, this inadequacy, instead of detracting, serves to highlight just how good those four main screens are and the performances on them. Everyone up there is in fine form: Jarvis Cocker, Juliette Lewis, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, Feist, Clare Bowditch, Lisa Kekaula; Kram from Spiderbait with his awesome look-no-sticks-ma drum solo and Indigenous artist Jimmy Little’s heartfelt personal tale with its country vibe.

Sydney Festival goers would do well to get along to Live and lap up the chance to see some inspiring and all-round fun performances in a unique up-close-and-personal setting that just might move you.

Sydney Festival 2011
Live: An intimate video study of the art of performing

Curator Jasmin Tarasin

Venue: Lower Town Hall | Sydney Town Hall, Sydney
Dates: January 14 – 23, 2011 (closed Jan 17)
Timed entry: 11am-7.15pm (closes 8pm) on Jan 14-16, 18, 23
11am-9.15pm (closes 10pm) on Jan 19-22
Tickets: $15/$12
Bookings: Sydney Festival 1300 668 812 | Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

This review first appeared in Australian Stage January 2011

Looking Through A Glass Onion

Both were born in England in the ’40s, developing lithe, tall and somewhat awkward frames. Both sport noses that hang decidedly downwards, and both were given the Christian name John. But is that where the similarities end? John Waters has been bringing the life and music of John Lennon to the stage in his show Looking Through A Glass Onion for just shy of two decades now, and it seems the longer the show continues the more a kind of melding of the two is taking place.

No doubt other reviewers have spoken of Water’s performance of Lennon, which comprises a spoken monologue interspersed with his songs, as a “channelling” of sorts, but perhaps it would be more appropriate to speak of him as a kind of funnel. For in this arresting, live performance – which he first staged back in a Sydney pub in 1992 with the help of talented musical director Stewart D’ArriettaWaters takes all the stuff that made up Lennon: the music, the cocky dry wit, the loves, the madness of Beatlemania and the nowhere-ness he felt at key turning points and distils it into the essence of John – the good, the bad and the misunderstood.

Waters speaks of Lennon as “an older brother” and it’s not hard to see that there is a soul connection here, a resonance in this piece that is infused with that sense of “family”, for both – to greater and lesser degrees – have dealt with the mad beast that is fame. Both are men who have felt deeply and have strived through their careers to articulate emotions, and in so doing have helped others understand themselves a little better. It’s easy to imagine (pardon the pun) the two of them sitting down and sharing a few jars, laughing at the bitter sweetness of life. Perhaps that’s why John Waters being John Lennon works so well – you believe that Lennon would not only approve of his incarnation, but would probably laugh and cry his way through the show, if he were still fortunate enough to be around to enjoy it.

With the help of a backing band of deft musos including the spectacular D’Arrietta on the piano and keyboards, co-musical director Paul Berton on guitar, Greg Henson on drums and Tony Mitchell on bass, Waters takes us inside the mind of a man we all thought we knew intimately, but probably only skimmed the surface of. There are rousing renditions of Come Together, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away and heartbreakingly moving versions of Jealous Guy, Julia and Beautiful Boy – and of course Imagine – in an evening that’s a rich, rewarding journey of laughter and goosebumps mingled with tears.

The dramatic lighting (Peter Neufeld), which at one point sees Waters become a disembodied head, is stylish, if at times a little dazzling; and the sound (Adam Burbury) hits us with a gutsy velocity that transports us utterly and completely.

Taking off on a national tour around the country that takes in everywhere from Brisbane to Perth, Canberra and Albury, and a whole lot of places in between, this is one show that fans of the late, great John Lennon must see – and if you’ve already seen it? Well… it’s most definitely time to see it again!

John Waters
Looking Through A Glass Onion

Venue: Sydney Opera Playhouse
Dates: from Tuesday 30 November, 2010
Duration: 135 minutes (includes 20min interval)
Tickets: Saturday Evening: All tickets $99 | All other performances: $99 / $89 Concession $75
Bookings: (02) 9250 7777 |

This review first appeared in Australian Stage December 2010

Sydney Theatre Company: True West

What does it take to unhinge us? Everyone has a breaking point; and there’s nothing like your nearest and dearest to know exactly how to take you there. Relationships that push buttons lie at the heart of Sam Shepard’s darkly witty True West, the play which sees Philip Seymour Hoffman returning to the STC’s directors’ chair.

It’s a story of brothers, one, Austin (Brendan Cowell), who seemingly has it all, and the other, Lee (Wayne Blair) who’s running on empty. Austin is a Hollywood screenwriter – the success story of the family, while Lee is a small-time crook who has spent months living a hand-to-mouth existence in the Mojave Desert. The two face an uneasy reunion when Lee drops around unannounced to their mother’s home in Southern California and finds Austin’s looking after the place for her. Austin’s hoping to get some quiet time to finish his latest script, which he’s sure is going to be a real money spinner, but Lee has other plans, crashing in and disrupting Austin’s precarious equilibrium.

The next hour and 40 minutes of intense stage time sees the two go head-to-head in an all-out mental and physical battle of wills – the way only brothers can. Blair is a wild, untamed brutal force to be reckoned with as Lee. He walks the delicate line between belligerent, manipulative abuser and happy-go-lucky opportunist in a way that elicits shocked gasps from the audience one minute and raucous laughs the next.

Cowell is unerringly “on” in all the right ways. From his timid facial ticks and agitated reserve through to his spectacular degradation as an alcohol sozzled, loud-mouthed loser who finds pleasure in the simple things in life – like toast!

Together, Blair and Cowell amplify each other’s performances to great effect in a perfect piece of casting that’s as good as it gets. Alan Dukes and Heather Mitchell lend suitable support in minor roles as film producer Saul and the boys’ mother respectively. And the whole proceedings whip along at the same exhilarating, breakneck speed as the two gooseneck cattle trailers chasing each other across the desert in the outline of the screenplay that Lee dictates to Austin, and which becomes the source of increasingly bad blood between the two.

Not an opportunity is missed in this super-smart production that takes advantage of set changes as emotional gearshifts. There in the fluorescent green in-between space we watch transfixed as Blair and Cowell prepare for the next onslaught egged on by loud jarring riffs from the rock soundtrack by Max Lyandvert. The set itself (Richard Roberts) a small kitchen/alcove space provides the perfect pressure cooker environment as Austin’s domesticated comfort zone gets blown to smithereens by a barrage of attacks from the unstable, erratic tornado that is Lee.

The wild west, the west of folklore and dreams, and the “true” west of ’80s America mingle and merge impeccably in this outstanding production that goes above and beyond all the hype to achieve something that’s truly extraordinary.

Sydney Theatre Company present
True West
by Sam Shepard

Director Philip Seymour Hoffman

Venue: Wharf 1 | Pier 4/5, Hickson Road, Walsh Bay
Dates: 2 November – 18 December, 2010

This review first appeared on Australian Stage November 2010

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, if I’m very, very lucky, a production or a performer comes along that stops me in my tracks – one that’s so undeniably good that I’m literally lost for words. Thankfully, such experiences are tantalisingly rare – or I’d never get any work done – but when they happen, I find myself in awe of the power of theatre and it’s ability to transport us beyond the bounds of language alone. Trevor Jamieson is such a performer and Namatjira is that kind of production.It’s true that you can’t have a great performance without good material, and Jamieson has been given a gift in this regard, based as this production is on the true story of our most famous Indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira. It’s a life that’s laced with a series of intriguing historical firsts. For Albert was not only the first Aboriginal to learn to paint in the European style but, as a result of the international fame his exquisite watercolour landscapes received, he also became the first to be offered citizenship (something that in context actually comes off as rather farcical when you consider that the main motivator at the time was to tax him on the fortune he was making).

But more than the extraordinary life of one man, Namatjira is a story about friendship, as it chronicles his connection with mentor Rex Battarbee (the whitefella who taught him how to wield a brush); and it’s a tale of love: both between Albert and his soul mate Rubina and between Albert and his extended community that, for better or for worse, he finds he must financially support.

While it’s a great yarn in and of itself, it’s how it plays out that leaves me dizzy, grasping for words. Scott Rankinand Wayne Blair unite to co-direct a piece that pays tribute to a diverse array of musical genres. From moving missionary songs sung in snippets of the Western Arrente language to a full-blown camp cabaret version of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” the terrain is expansive, entertaining and highly original.

Jamieson frequently juggles multiple characters in conversation with each other, the result being something that feels akin to a channelled performance. One minute he’s Albert, the next he’s Battarbee and yet the back-and-forth illusion is jaw dropping. And the way he moves is something else entirely – his agility in conveying a sense of place with his body is simply unparalled. His cohort, Derek Lynch, is a firm crowd favourite too. A talented young performer, Lynch frequently generates rapturous rounds of applause thanks to his many hilarious costume changes which serve to lighten the mood at appropriate junctures.

The innovative stage design (Genevieve Dugard) which features a carved movable platform resembling a rocky outcrop, much like the ones Albert painted, is inspired; however it’s the actual descendants of Namatjira, who surround the stage working on a marvellous chalk mural of ghost gums and rolling hills together, that’s the ultimate touch of magic. Oh, and did I mention that the acclaimed portraiture artist Evert Ploeg (who’s won the People’s Choice Award at two Archibalds) paints Jamieson as Albert throughout the show?

This super smart, highly evolved and ambitious piece of theatre is a real testament to the production company that made it, Big hART. A not-for-profit organisation that works intensively with disadvantaged communities creating social and political change through art and performance, Big hART were behind the award-winning Ngapartji Ngapartji (which was co-created and performed by Jamieson). With this production they’ve built on the connections they made in Alice Springs, spending two years developing this piece directly with Albert Namatjira’s family and community. The actors even travelled to Hermannsburg where the family taught them how to paint.

The meticulous care and love that’s been put into this production is written all over it, and the result is a triumph of art-meets-storytelling-meets-song-meets-music that’s a one of a kind.

Belvoir & Big hART present
by Scott Rankin

Directed by Scott Rankin & Wayne Blair

Venue: Upstairs Theatre | 25 Belvoir St Surry Hills
Dates: 25 September – 7 November, 2010
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full Price $57, Concession $35

This review first appeared on Australian Stage October 2010

Belvoir St & Big hART: Namatjira

It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes, if I’m very, very lucky, a production or a performer comes along that stops me in my tracks – one that’s so undeniably good that I’m literally lost for words. Thankfully, such experiences are tantalisingly rare – or I’d never get any work done – but when they happen, I find myself in awe of the power of theatre and it’s ability to transport us beyond the bounds of language alone. Trevor Jamieson is such a performer and Namatjira is that kind of production.It’s true that you can’t have a great performance without good material, and Jamieson has been given a gift in this regard, based as this production is on the true story of our most famous Indigenous artist, Albert Namatjira. It’s a life that’s laced with a series of intriguing historical firsts. For Albert was not only the first Aboriginal to learn to paint in the European style but, as a result of the international fame his exquisite watercolour landscapes received, he also became the first to be offered citizenship (something that in context actually comes off as rather farcical when you consider that the main motivator at the time was to tax him on the fortune he was making).

But more than the extraordinary life of one man, Namatjira is a story about friendship, as it chronicles his connection with mentor Rex Battarbee (the whitefella who taught him how to wield a brush); and it’s a tale of love: both between Albert and his soul mate Rubina and between Albert and his extended community that, for better or for worse, he finds he must financially support.

While it’s a great yarn in and of itself, it’s how it plays out that leaves me dizzy, grasping for words. Scott Rankinand Wayne Blair unite to co-direct a piece that pays tribute to a diverse array of musical genres. From moving missionary songs sung in snippets of the Western Arrente language to a full-blown camp cabaret version of Barry White’s “Can’t Get Enough Of Your Love, Babe” the terrain is expansive, entertaining and highly original.

Jamieson frequently juggles multiple characters in conversation with each other, the result being something that feels akin to a channelled performance. One minute he’s Albert, the next he’s Battarbee and yet the back-and-forth illusion is jaw dropping. And the way he moves is something else entirely – his agility in conveying a sense of place with his body is simply unparalled. His cohort, Derek Lynch, is a firm crowd favourite too. A talented young performer, Lynch frequently generates rapturous rounds of applause thanks to his many hilarious costume changes which serve to lighten the mood at appropriate junctures.

The innovative stage design (Genevieve Dugard) which features a carved movable platform resembling a rocky outcrop, much like the ones Albert painted, is inspired; however it’s the actual descendants of Namatjira, who surround the stage working on a marvellous chalk mural of ghost gums and rolling hills together, that’s the ultimate touch of magic. Oh, and did I mention that the acclaimed portraiture artist Evert Ploeg (who’s won the People’s Choice Award at two Archibalds) paints Jamieson as Albert throughout the show?

This super smart, highly evolved and ambitious piece of theatre is a real testament to the production company that made it, Big hART. A not-for-profit organisation that works intensively with disadvantaged communities creating social and political change through art and performance, Big hART were behind the award-winning Ngapartji Ngapartji (which was co-created and performed by Jamieson). With this production they’ve built on the connections they made in Alice Springs, spending two years developing this piece directly with Albert Namatjira’s family and community. The actors even travelled to Hermannsburg where the family taught them how to paint.

The meticulous care and love that’s been put into this production is written all over it, and the result is a triumph of art-meets-storytelling-meets-song-meets-music that’s a one of a kind.

Belvoir & Big hART present
by Scott Rankin

Directed by Scott Rankin & Wayne Blair

Venue: Upstairs Theatre | 25 Belvoir St Surry Hills
Dates: 25 September – 7 November, 2010
Times: Tuesday 6.30pm, Wednesday – Friday 8pm, Saturday 2pm & 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets: Full Price $57, Concession $35

This review first appeared on Australian Stage October 2010

Jim Jefferies: No Angel

Like most Australians, up until recently, I’d never heard of controversial comedian Jim Jefferies, the former Sydney local turned international megastar who last year pulled off the astounding feat of scoring his own HBO special in America. But with reviews for his stand up ranging from “better than Jesus” (The Scotsman) to “sick and repellent” (Christian Voice UK) my curiosity was, understandably, piqued. Would this be the comedy equivalent of the Second Coming? Were we about to be blessed by the presence of one of the funniest men on the face of the planet? These were lofty hopes, I admit, but surely we had the right to expect something special, if not something miraculous? Instead, what we got was something quite different. I’d been warned to leave my political correctness at the door, which was totally fine by me, and as a person with a keenly developed black sense of humour I was sure that however offensive Jefferies intended to be it was nothing I couldn’t handle… I was wrong.The scruffy looking satirist strolled onto the Comedy Store stage and took a slug of his schooner of Jack and Coke. What followed was an hour of comedy that was so far beyond the realms of “offensive” that to call it that seems too tame, too benign – a bit like referring to cancer as an affliction rather than a disease. For over the course of the show Jefferies takes aim at – and irreparably insults – almost every member of society. The first group to cop it are women, who he claims wouldn’t know the price of the night’s ticket because they’d never be willing to fork out the cash for it… Hello? Had we just jumped in a time machine and gone back to the 1950s? I looked around to see the other women in the crowd gritting their teeth in violent grimaces as they shifted uncomfortably in their seats. We were only thirty seconds in and already he’d put half the audience offside. Was this a brave move or sheer lunacy? It seemed too early to tell, so I decided to hang on in there.

Next, he put lesbians through the wringer for the usual clichéd character flaws you’ve heard time and time again. According to Jefferies gay men are much more fun; although you’d wonder how he’d know as he doesn’t strike you as the type to be lending support at a gay pride rally. There was safer territory when he mixed toilet humour with blind guide dogs. True, it was tasteless, but still chuckle worthy stuff. But the centrepiece of the night was a true story, about helping a mate with muscular dystrophy get his rocks off with a hooker. For the first time there were genuine laughs to be had. Largely that was because the disabled man’s brother was actually in the audience and Jefferies kept checking in with him to make sure that the story was above board. Because of this it was actually touching in parts and very funny, although like a horny schoolboy Jefferies couldn’t resist a good gross out moment, which was a pity.

But as the hour wore on it seemed like the Jack and Coke started to do more of the talking as he stumbled around the stage and turned nasty on an Irish heckler down the front. The poor bloke got more than he’d bargained for when Jefferies started insulting his dead mother in ways much too foul to mention. Then, quite abruptly, the night was over, as Jefferies slurred, “My bladder’s full. I need to take a piss”, and we all gratefully ran for the door a bit shaken more than stirred. As we walked down the stairs and out onto the street I overheard a girl ahead of us say, “I feel like I need to be disinfected”, and I knew exactly what she meant; because trying to laugh at the jokes of Jim Jefferies is a bit like being handed a colourful cocktail of super-strength rocket fuel. At first you think “woo hoo, I’ll give this a burl”, but as soon as it’s down the hatch you quickly discover it’s actually a glass full of battery acid and razorblades.

Jim Jefferies
No Angel

Venue: Comedy Store Sydney | The Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park (Formerly Fox Studios)
Dates: Wed 30 June – Sat 3 July & Tue 6 July – Sat 10 July, 2010
Times: 8:30pm (Bar opens 7pm); two hours featuring supports
Tickets: Tues $10.00, Wed $15.00, Thurs $20.00, Fri $25.00, Saturday $30.00
Bookings: Comedy Store Sydney Box Office 02 9357 1419 |

Persons under 18 years must be accompanied by a parent or guardian.


This review first appeared on Australian Stage July 2010

Belvoir St: The Power of Yes

How does that old saying go? “What would you do if everyone said yes?” While that might be a great hypothetical question to pose to a friend who can’t decide what the hell to do with their life, it seems that someone should have warned the world’s bankers that such an ‘airy fairy’ positive construct should in no way be applied to them. Perhaps, instead, someone could have suggested that a more appropriate motto for the people who held the planet’s purse strings to live by would be: “no means no.” Maybe then we could have avoided the calamity of August 2007 when the world’s financial institutions went into meltdown due to the subprime collapse that burst the liquidity “bubble”.Of course, I’m not claiming to be an expert in such matters, in fact, until recently if you’d asked this reviewer to tell you anything even vaguely financial the silence would have been deafening. However, that was all before I saw David Hare’snew play The Power of Yes, and now I can’t shut up about it. For not only does this intelligent finely crafted piece of theatre make the global financial crisis intelligible, it also makes finance – dare I say it – fun! And that is obviously no easy feat. Part of the genius of Hare’s text is his choice to locate himself within it as a character who’s a writer that’s seeking to research the financial crisis in order to write a play about it. In this he offers the audience a conduit through which all the information can pass in a manner that is entertaining and accessible. Throughout the course of this fast-paced and ferociously witty piece the playwright is circled by a competing series of financial heavy weights, characters that attempt to tell him the “story” of what went wrong. Thanks to the use of clever metaphors to explain concepts such as securitised credit: “you stub your toe and your elbow hurts” and the whole system of banks around the world holding each others bonds like cards in a game of Cluedo, the whole affair unfolds like a lively comedy heist filled with colourful characters who are all chasing that elusive big bag of cash.

Featuring a flawless cast including Rhys Muldoon, Marshall Napier, Christopher Stollery, Graham Rouse andLuke Mullins among others, who all talk the talk and walk the walk like bona fide bankers across a stage that’s strewn with multi-coloured balloons that have all been burst like the proverbial bubble, this is an exceptional production that’s also a hoot. The groovy jazz soundtrack (Steve Francis) and inspired stage design (Dale Ferguson) which includes a stage within a stage that’s viewed through a window which also acts as a whiteboard, combine to give this production a slick and polished feel that keep the audience’s imagination constantly engaged for the duration of this one-act marvel. The use too of inflated balloons in the play as props provides an inspired and playful way to illustrate the buoyant and upbeat attitudes of the times that led to the reckless actions of so many of the players involved in the markets’ undoing.

Forget all the dry, dull and confusing ideas you may have about finance, catch The Power Of Yes and you are guaranteed to come away buzzing with a new understanding that in the very least is sure to provide fertile fodder for your next meeting with your local bank manager.

Company B Belvoir presents
The Power of Yes
by David Hare

Directed by Sam Strong

Venue: Belvoir St Theatre, Upstairs Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 17 Apr – 30 May, 2010
Times: Tue 6.30pm; Wed-Fri 8pm; Sat 2pm & 8pm; Sun 5pm.
Tickets: $35.00 – $57.00
Bookings: 02 9699 3444 | 


This review first appeared on Australian Stage April 2010

Belvoir St: The End

Robert Menzies Photography Heidrun Löhr

The American filmmaker Woody Allen once lamented: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.” He wasn’t having a beer with Samuel Beckett at the time, but if he had been the Irish playwright would have no doubt grinned and agreed with him. Because that’s the absurdity of the human condition that Beckett so brilliantly illuminates. We are born, we live, we breathe, we bitch and moan about it, and then we die.

In The End – Beckett’s 22-page novella that is here adapted in its entirety for the stage – his lone male narrator is as downtrodden as they come. We may not know much about him, but we can be sure of one thing, and that is that life has already given up on him. The local charity organization certainly has, they won’t even let him shelter in the cloister for much longer than the rain lasts. And then he’s forced to rent the only lodgings he can find, a squalid basement devoid of natural light, where his only pleasure is looking up the skirts of the women passing by. Later, he finds momentary salvation with a Hermit in a cave by the coast where fish and shelter are plentiful. However, this fleeting promise of paradise is not to be – he can’t stand the sea! Of course, things get worse, as you’d know doubt expect, after all it is Beckett. The narrative follows the sad, and often perversely funny ramblings of this poor soul as he marches ever onward from the embrace of despair into the arms of death.

The extraordinary Robert Menzies, an actor of the highest calibre, brings this incredibly challenging material to the stage in a 65-minute monologue that’s as intense and tightly wound as a mousetrap. Without the usual distractions provided by an elaborate set and high-tech sound wizardry the opening-night audience were captivated, unable to look away as they sat rigid in their seats, hanging on his every breath and anxious twitch. The only respite was the brief breaks between paragraphs, when Menzies paused momentarily and stepped away from his mark on the floor. Kudos should go to Teegan Lee for her delicate and subtle lighting changes that help to refocus the action during these crucial shifts.

Director Eamon Flack has ably coaxed an immensely vulnerable performance from Menzies. However, with the despair so absolute from the get-go there were times when it seemed, to this reviewer at least, that there was nowhere further down to go. Perhaps too this minimalist production missed out on the opportunity to visually show the degradation of this character through breaking down the costuming. For at the close of the play Menzies’ neat white shirt and trousers have barely a crinkle. Of course the purists out there would surely say that’s piffle – it’s an inward journey we are watching and anything that obvious may have come across as distracting window dressing. And who knows? Maybe they are right, but still, it would have been fun to see excrement and muck flying into the front rows.

Fellow writer Harold Pinter once said of Samuel Beckett “the more he grinds my nose in the shit the more I am grateful to him”, and that, pretty much, sums up what an audience should ultimately expect to gain from seeing this production of The End.

Company B Belvoir presents
The End
by Samuel Beckett

Directed by Eamon Flack

Venue: Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre | 25 Belvoir St, Surry Hills
Dates: 15 April – 9 May, 2010
Times: Tues @ 7.00pm, Wed – Sat @ 8.15pm, Sun @ 5.15pm.
Tickets: Full $42. Seniors (Excluding Fri/Sat Evenings), Concession $32
Bookings: 9699 3444 |

This review first appeared on Australian Stage April 2010

Sidetrack Theatre: Stories from the 428

Photography Leah McGirr

How many times have you wondered about the people you sit next to on the bus? Who are they? Where are they going and why? While for the most part catching public transport is an uncomfortable experience that sees us squeezed into a tin can and forced to rub armpits with strangers, it also offers surprising encounters which stimulate our imagination. It was with precisely this in mind that Stories From The 428 – a group of new short plays based on eight playwrights’ experiences of travelling the 428 bus route from Circular Quay to Canterbury – was conceived. Thanks to the passionate efforts of creative director Augusta Supple, who has marshalled the whole thing together, what we get is a lively snapshot of the inner worlds of commuters.Week one of this two-week program offers a myriad of movable delights that are brought to the stage by directors including Zoe Carides, Glenn Hazeldine, Ian Zammit andSupple herself. While the evening gets off to a slightly slow start the audience is well and truly on board by the time we reach the third stop, a little vignette titled You Are Here#1 from playwright Alison Rooke. Thanks to the affable charms of actor Felix Gentle, who plays a young uni student, Ben, who’s studying to become a mortician, we get a funny, touching and at times tender tale about the unrequited yearnings he has for a fellow traveller, Lily (Bridgette Sneddon). While the two never speak, Ben’s rich internal dialogue is playfully externalised as a one-way conversation that works effectively to both engage and entertain in equal measure. Towards the end of the night we revisit these characters from the reverse perspective in You Are Here#2, but the at times sombre sequel is less successful than it’s predecessor.Playlist, a monologue written by Sime Knezevic and featuring some hilarious dancing by Stephen Peacocke as a music-loving ipod addict reveals the soundtrack to a life; while Fizzy Brown Water (written by Phil Spencer), Sleight of Hand (Brooke Robinson) and An Advertiser’s Dream (also by Robinson) give us glimpses of the slightly deranged folk that we frequently move seats to avoid while commuting.

The masterpiece of the night is Vanessa Bates’ Confetti#1 which weaves together elements of observation and nostalgia into a potent mix that truly transports us. Featuring the fine acting talents of Anna Lise Phillips and comedy stylings of Robert Jago, this gem of a play is worth the price of admission alone.

While some of the other pieces on the night have small failings, all in all it’s an intriguing collection of work that should be welcomed and applauded for its originality and scope. So climb aboard the 428 if you’re after a riveting ride with plenty of interesting pit stops along the way!

Stories from the 428
4 Directors, 2 Weeks, 8 Writers

Venue: Sidetrack Theatre | 142 Addison Road, Marrickville, NSW
Dates: Week One: 8pm Wednesday – Saturday, 24, 25, 26, 27 March & 5pm Sunday 28 March
Week Two: 8pm Wednesday – Saturday, 31 March, 1, 2, 3 April & 5pm Sunday 4 April
Tickets: $25 full, $20 concession


This review first appeared on Australian Stage March 2010


New Theatre: Brand Spanking New Week Two


Brand Spanking New festival director and self-proclaimed “talent truffle pig” Augusta Supple has done it again with another gobsmackingly good line-up for week two of this must-see short theatre festival. While week one presented various delights of a consistently good standard, this time around it’s a selection that aims to push our buttons and stretch the boundaries of the format. It both succeeds and fails in parts, but that’s the point really isn’t it of theatre? There’s not much point pushing the boat out if you’re not prepared to get wet.Within the eight plays on the night there’s a huge range of meaty characters and scenarios on offer; from xenophobic checkout chicks to silly self-help gurus, lofty proposals and adult fairytales, even Frankenstein-like monsters and souls adrift both literally and metaphorically. Each play is as different as you could hope to have, and it goes to show that there really is an abundance of ripe and unique playwriting talent alive and kicking in the Sydney scene.

Right from the opening tableau, which features the entire cast onstage preoccupied in a rhythmic reading and scrunching of paper to the dreamy yet playful score of composer Catherine Robinson, we know that this a theatre experience that is bigger than the sum of its parts. There’s a unity to it that’s reinforced byPaul Matthews inspired set design, a compartmentalised structure of fantasy-like filing cabinets stuffed with reams of paper, which brings to mind both the intangible and unconscious landscape of thoughts and ideas as well as the very concrete nature of the writing process itself.

Through the course of the evening we get to embrace the myriad of guises a small play can take. There’s the monologues, Self Service and White Wedding which engage us directly with their passionate protagonists, the three-handers The Bermuda Love Triangle and Lone Bird, which demand we take sides; and of course the tense intimacy of the two-handers, if i could be anything i would be something differentPolly Pocket is Not a Princess andKing of the Mountain. Rather than being a limitation we discover that the short play can be quite a liberating fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of thing where anything and everything can plausibly happen. Of course, that’s an illusion though really, because it takes a great degree of skill to make this kind of elasticity seem effortless, and the majority of the playwrights here have it in spades.

Notable mentions for the night must go to Mary Rachel Brown for her beautifully observed understanding of the entrenched racism in the Australian psyche in Self Service, delivered with charming wit and brave realism byChristine Greenough; to Maxine Mellor for her naughty, inventive and playfully fun Polly Pocket is Not a Princessin which Mairead Berne shines as a evil bitch Barbie who deserves a good roasting. And, to the absolute showstopper of the night, Lone Bird by Verity Laughton, who is clearly quite the master of the craft, blowing us away with her deft and fluid ability to create a psychologically thrilling encounter all with the minimal number of brushstrokes. It’s greatly enhanced too by wonderful performances from Tim Allen as the sinister ferryman Stan andFiona Press as Susan, one of his hapless passengers.

All in all, Brand Spanking New week two is a resounding success both for the industry and audiences alike, and judging by its sell-out opening night you really should be getting on the phone to the New Theatre right now if you want to catch it before the week is out!

New Theatre presents
Brand Spanking New

Week One 30 September – 3 October 2009
Week Two 7 – 10 October 2009

Venue: New Theatre | 542 King Street Newtown NSW
Times: Wednesday – Saturday @ 8pm
Tickets: $22
Bookings: 1300 306 776 |


This review first appeared on Australian Stage October 2009


New Theatre: Brand Spanking New Week One

For those who like their theatre fresh, tasty and bite-sized there’s plenty to love about this year’s season of Brand Spanking New. Now in its second year, this two-week festival of short theatre which aims to showcase the best new works by emerging and established Aussie playwrights has hit its stride. Festival directorAugusta Supple has out done herself, assembling a rich and varied smorgasbord of dramatic delights for week one that are sure to have you giggling and gripped in equal amounts.There’s Homemade, a witty and at times poignant monologue on family, loss and sausage rolls from accomplished writer Vanessa Bates. It’s delivered with a nice sense of timing and sensitivity byJane Phegan, who holds the audience utterly captive for the duration of the piece.

Next there’s Matt Lauer a super-sharp rip-snorter by Rick Viedewhich focuses on a teenage boy’s obsession with the real-life host of NBC America’s Today Show. It’s a deviously dark piece of cultural comedy that takes aim at society’s sycophantic relationship with celebrity. Actor Julian Lovick is intense, strong and utterly hilarious as the boy, who lives his life according to the values he’s gleaned from his TV idol.

Fit For A King is a kind of oddball comedy from Scottish playwrightPhil Spencer, about three wacky inmates who pass the time by playing a gastronomic game of food guessing. It’s punchy in a Tarantino meets Peter Greenaway in a street fight kind of a way – i.e. the thugs are very clever and chatty, but you’re not sure whether you’re dreaming or awake.

Tamara Asmar’s Queen of The Night is a brilliantly written two-hander about an encounter between an aging prostitute and a stitched-up female ‘John’. What starts out as a ballsy sex comedy with Queenie (Abi Rayment) detailing her “bedroom degustation” menu soon moves into an exploration of relationships which is deep and undeniably real. Rayment is wickedly funny as Queenie, a character who is crying out for a longer format to roam around in.

Last Ride by Ross Mueller is the story of two old codgers who find their night veering wildly off the rails when the try to score drugs for a bird they’ve met in a bar. It’s an interesting premise which seems ripe for some laughs, but when the girl they’ve met seems completely unfazed by the violence that threatens we’re questioning where we are and how the hell we got here.

The most thought-provoking play for the night is Jonathan Ari Lander’s Measure which takes on the story of a suspected Cambodian Khmer Rouge soldier who is forced to face his past. It’s brimming with depth and realism, thanks to an emotionally charged and vulnerable performance by Felino Dolloso as the accused murderer Lohr.

Jonathan Gavin’s The Return rounds out the evening with a rollicking romance which takes it’s inspiration from the journals of Matthew Flinders, who, the play suggests may have been a much better navigator than he was a husband. This laugh-out-loud jaunt sees Flinders (Matt Charleston) returning home to face the music after leaving wife Ann (Natalie Saleeba) home in England for almost ten years while he’s been off gallivanting across the oceans with his cat Trim. Saleeba and Charleston have a ball with this very funny material and bounce off each other with superb comic timing. It’s a wonderful ending to the night that leaves the audience spilling over into the foyer grinning from ear to ear.

Brand Spanking New is simply a great, fun night of theatre that is sure to leave you feeling optimistic and pleasantly surprised about the range of talented playwrights that are out there right now. And on that note, after all the fuss in the press this week that’s seen Neil Armfield dodging bullets over Belvoir’s 2010 “boys club” line-up, it seems worth pointing out that perhaps the answer to the question: Where are all the talented female writers and directors in the Sydney scene, has already been answered – a fair few of them are hiding out at the New!

New Theatre presents
Brand Spanking New

Week One 30 September – 3 October 2009
Week Two 7 – 10 October 2009

Venue: New Theatre | 542 King Street Newtown NSW
Times: Wednesday – Saturday @ 8pm
Tickets: $22
Bookings: 1300 306 776 |


This review first appeared on Australian Stage October 2009

Sydney Theatre Company: A Streetcar Named Desire

Joel Edgerton (Stanley) and Cate Blanchett (Blanche) Photography Lisa Tomasetti

It’s Saturday night and all the stars are out and suitably shining. It could easily be the red carpet at the latest Hollywood premiere – because that’s the buzz – but it’s actually something much better. It’s blockbuster theatre! Forget about CGI, there’s been no countless millions squandered on mythical creatures to get bums on seats here. Instead, the Sydney Theatre Company has the essence of magic itself, a world-class performer, in the shape of their captivating co-artistic director Cate Blanchett, an outstanding local cast, and a dazzling international director, the enigmatic Liv Ullmann.Now, you might say there’s been a hefty dose of hype injected into the proceedings. There are t-shirts, posters, and even a tiny commemorative “Desire” tram (which lends the play its title) on sale. But none of these trashy trinkets, nor the headlines about Blanchett’s unfortunate injury during the preview caused by a flying radio can detract from the power of this dream production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

For those unfamiliar with Tennessee Williams play or Elia Kazan’s iconic 1951 film featuring Marlon Brando, the action centres on a troubled thirty-something Mississippi schoolteacher, Blanche DuBois, who comes to New Orleans to visit her younger sister Stella and meet her new husband Stanley. To Blanche’s horror she finds Stellaliving in a dilapidated tenement building with a man she perceives as a rough, brutish “polak” (of Polish descent) well beneath Stella’s station in both manners and prospects. What ensues is a battle of wills between Blanche andStanley as each attempts to stubbornly assert their authority over the other, while Blanche spectacularly unravels in the process. It’s a play that’s brimming with both insightful wit and desperate sadness as Williams expertly straddles the polarities of human experience with the kind of emotional intelligence that’s timeless.

Cate Blanchett glides and flutters as BlancheTennessee Williams’ “moth”, and we are drawn to her as if to a flame. When she first appears on stage dressed in the divine white floaty two piece by designer Tess Scofield we instantly perceive both her power and her vulnerability. It’s this paradox of lightness and strength that Blanchettwields so well, and it’s what allows her to make Blanche’s neurotic and gut-wrenching emotional transition as smooth as silk. But she’s also incredibly funny, executing Williams’ clever lines with the skill of a comedian. As far as parts go, this is one of the great roles of the twentieth century, and Blanchett turns in nothing less than a five-star performance, the intensity and focus of which is flawless.

Of course there is another commanding role on offer here in the guise of Stanley, and with Brando’s breakout role seemingly unsurpassable it was with much expectation that I waited to see Joel Edgerton’s take on it. In between rehearsals Edgerton has clearly put in some serious gym time to bulk up for the part, and embodies the requisite beefy and “ape-like” physicality, but the real craft is in the way he moves as Stanley. He’s much more than a clumsy primate, instead he’s a muscular panther who’s ready to pounce. He also seems, dare I say it, more psychologically engaged than Brando, and imbues Stanley with the shrewd skills of a cunning manipulator who knows exactly how and when to apply the pressure.

Together, Edgerton and Blanchett are enthralling. And while Stella (Robin McLeavy) often seems to blend into the background, in a sense that’s her role. She’s not there to steal the spotlight, she’s merely a tool for both of them to bat back and forth in a relentless game of cat and mouse.

The supporting cast are equally skilled. Most notably Tim Richards as the lonesome bachelor Mitch, who finds himself irresistibly falling for the calculated charms of Blanche; and Mandy McElhinney is charming too as the loud-mouthed upstairs neighbour Eunice.

Director Ullmann has channelled the spirit of Williams’ vision with a remarkable sensitivity to the huge range of emotions at play. There are moments of sublime humour, but she also understands the very real and heart-wrenching pain too. And there’s a mix of styles brewed into a delicious concoction of theatricality and refreshing naturalism that gets the balance just right.

Ralph Myers pink, mould-stained set is nicely complimented by Nick Schlieper’s beautifully nuanced lighting, while Alan John’s piano playing give the proceedings the required rag-tag New Orleans feel.

I must say I really did try not to gush, but with a production this good that’s almost impossible as A Streetcar Named Desire is without a doubt the best production that I’ve seen all year, and theatregoers should beg borrow or steal their way into it. Just see it, any way you can!

Sydney Theatre Company presents
A Streetcar Named Desire
by Tennessee Williams

Director Liv Ullmann

Venue: Sydney Theatre
Previews: 1-4 September 8pm
Season: 5 September – 17 October
Duration: 3 hours 15 mins including interval
Bookings: STC Box Office 02 9250 1777 |


This review first appeared on Australian Stage September 2009

Griffin Theatre: Dealing With Clair

I hate spoilers – those terrible, selfish people who can’t keep their mouths shut about the big reveal and go blithely and blitheringly ahead to tell you exactly what happens and ruin the surprise – the bastards! So in a bid to avoid being a hypocrite of the worst kind, this reviewer is going to tread very carefully when it comes to talking about Martin Crimp’s Dealing With Clair. My first suggestion is don’t read ANYTHING! Not even the director’s notes (until after the show) if you really want this production to shine. You can of course read this review – that goes without saying, right?Dealing With Clair, which is gracing the stage for the first time ever in Australia at Sydney’s The Stables, is a rather crafty little piece of theatre. It’s an early work (1988) by British playwright Martin Crimp, the man who has been lauded as the heir apparent to such masters as Pinter and Mamet and whose most recent play The City is also currently on at The STC. The action centres on a pretty twenty-something real estate agent, Clair (Laura Brent), who finds herself becoming the meat in the sandwich when her vendors, Liz (Sarah Becker) and Mike (Ed Wightman) an upwardly mobile couple trying to sell their house for an exorbitant sum engage her services to secure a sale from a mysterious prospective buyer, James (Boris Brkic). This dark satire takes aim at the inherent greed of capitalism to reveal the ugly reality of a world where anything, and indeed anyone, can be bought – at a price.”There’s a certain kind of man who would exploit this kind of situation, isn’t there Clair?” the accommodating agent is told on more than one occasion. Exactly how far these characters will exploit her and the situation becomes dangerously apparent as the stakes – both financially and morally continue to rise.

Brent is both fragile and charming as Clair, the agent whose ambition is a by product of her circumstances. She is not, so it would seem, greedy by nature. The same cannot be said for Liz and Mike, who, when they are not conspiring together about how best to extract even more cash from the buyer, keep their baby’s nanny, a young Italian girl named Anna (Kelly Paterniti), a virtual hostage in their fourth windowless bedroom. Becker is suitably austere as the calculating ice queen wife Liz, while Wightman embodies the pathos of the emasculated husbandMike perfectly. There are laughs to be had here, but for some audiences members these characters may be a little too close to the bone! The real cracking guffaws come courtesy of Paterniti, the saucy barely clad nanny whose scenes with Josh McConville (who plays both a tradesman and her part-time Italian lover) are among the most hilarious. Meanwhile Boris Brkic manages to be both warm and sinister as James the mysterious moneyed buyer.

Director Cristabel Sved has orchestrated a tight and polished production technically, where set, sound design and lighting all come together in the service of the actors to heighten their performances. The roped-off stage by William Bobbie Stewart is particularly affecting when combined with Verity Hampson’s lighting which at times makes the action seem reminiscent of a great black-and-white noir flick.

In lieu of saying too much and giving away the ending – I promised no spoilers – let’s just say that Dealing With Clair will leave audiences either marvelling at Crimp’s audacity to deliver a conclusion which is both bold and simplistic or perhaps fuming that they’ve been had by an elaborate parlour trick.

Griffin Theatre presents
Dealing With Clair
by Martin Crimp

Director Cristabel Sved

Venue: SBW Stables Theatre | 10 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross
Previews: 22 & 23 July
Dates: 24 July – 15 August
Times: Mon 7pm, Tues – Sat 7pm, Sat Mat 2pm (last Saturday only).
Tickets: Full: $30.00 Senior: $26.00 Concession, Preview, Matinee: $23.00 Group (8+): $26.00 Under 30: $26.00 (Mon – Thurs only) (Booking fees may apply)
Bookings: 02 8002 4772


This review first appeared on Australian Stage

José González

Photo – Fredrik Egerstrand

The first surprise about José González is the crowd he attracts. For an artist who dwells on the “folky” side of things I expect earnestly serious hippie types – but there’s barely a smattering. Instead, for the most part, it’s the distinctly mainstream and straight-laced corporate types who have flocked to the Angel Place Recital Hall to catch the Swedish-born classical guitarist with Argentinian roots.As we shuffle into the hall we’re greeted by the warm, rich golden syrupy sounds of the support act, Aussie duoLuluc; who spend a good deal of their set compulsively tuning up their guitars, awestruck by the size of the gathering. But they’re sweet, sincere and pretty damn good once they settle in. With harmonies reminiscent ofThe Carpenters they take us back to a bygone, innocent era of wondering and wandering. By far, the best of their tracks is the catchy ditty ‘Little Suitcase’ which has scored a decent amount of airplay on Triple J and deservedly so. The pair, who are touring with González for the rest of his Australian tour, are well worth a listen.

The excitement is palpable as it gets closer to José time. The auditorium feels like a pressure cooker full of teens high on Red Bull at a rock gig who can’t wait to “cut sick”. It’s an odd vibe for a guy whose acoustic indie melodies seem so far from anything that could generate that kind of giddy electricity. But when the lanky Swede arrives on the moody smoke-filled stage the audience goes off – and he doesn’t disappoint. There’s an instant intensity and focus as González works his way through a mix of tracks from his first album Veneer and his latest offering In Our Nature. He’s joined for most of the set by his two compadres (who also featured on his latest album), Erik Bodin on percussion and Yukimi Nagamo, who takes care of backing vocals and the occasional cow bell.

There’s rousing renditions of ‘Love Stain’, ‘How Low’ and ‘Down The Line’ as swirling organic projections sail out across an audience who whoop and cheer at the slightest provocation. We’re all having a fine upbeat time, in spite of the brooding introspective nature of the tracks. Which is what lies at the heart of González’ appeal – his ability to explore the angst of stormy internal states without succumbing to them.

And while his accompanying musos lend strong support, González is at his best when they leave the stage and he flies solo. It’s the stripped back authenticity of his sound that we’re seeking and González delivers, with his masterful command of the acoustic guitar and his soulful and heartfelt vocals that can’t fail to move you.

As the show builds to its climax there’s a sense that we’ve been on a journey with him through some dark and intriguing places that speak volumes about the human condition. But it’s not a show that’s without humour. WhenGonzález takes a break to tune up, he makes a cheeky quip about how he was planning to get a midget to tune his guitar for him on stage. He pauses for a beat to let the politically incorrect nature of the gag sink in before adding in a somewhat Borat-like fashion, “But that’s not cool.” And belly laughs echo around the room.

Interestingly, he saves the covers which have gained him much international attention for the encore. It’s hard to tell whether this deliberate ploy to isolate them from his original work is to make people aware that they aren’t really his – or whether it’s a straightforward acknowledgment of exactly how popular these reinventions are. Either way, the crowd go nuts for his fresh reworkings of Massive Attack’s ‘Teardrop’, The Knife’s ‘Heartbeats’ and Kylie Minogue’s‘Hand On Your Heart’.

When he does eventually wind up and leave the stage, after a truly awesome set that flies, his presence still hangs heavy in the air. There’s a sense of elation tinged with sadness, and it’s clear that we’ve seen an amazing performer who’s left an indelible mark on us all.

José González 
with Luluc

Venue: City Recital Hall Angel Place | 2 Angel Place, Sydney
Date/Time: Friday 6 February 2009 at 9:00pm


This review first appeared on Australian Stage February 2009

Bell Shakespeare: Hamlet

I don’t care what anyone says, good Shakespeare should come alive on the stage, it should buzz, it should whirr, it should sing. It most certainly shouldn’t be a historical document that we wheel out, shake the cobwebs off and mount productions of purely to make ourselves feel like we are perpetuating a culture of ‘real theatre’. “So, what,” (I wondered aloud to myself in typical Shakespearean fashion) “was this much-hyped production ofHamlet featuring Brendan Cowell as the big man to be, or not to be then, eh?”Well, it is with complete and unreserved enthusiasm that I say it’s pretty damn fine indeed. Hamlet most certainly is alive and kicking in Cowell’s incarnation as a prince who truly “rocks” (in the rockstar sense) as a very modern royal. In fact, he’s the kind of prince who wouldn’t be out of place on a boozy bender with the Windsor lads William and Harry – perhaps with Paris Hilton along for the ride! But this is praise, (just in case you mistook it for something else) for this is entirely what director Marion Potts wants us to see in the character. Hamlet is lost. Sure, he’s got cash, prestige and plenty of privileges, but there’s a sense here that he’s overindulged and until the moment where the apparition of his dead father appears and asks him to avenge his murder he’s a man (barely) without a mission. Thus, the ghost sets him on a course that will end in disaster, but will surely teach him a lot about life and himself along the way.By stripping away the emphasis on politics in this version Potts has allowed us to focus much more readily onHamlet’s inner journey, and this goes a long way towards helping us understand him. Cowell works tirelessly in this department to make Shakespeare’s prose hum. Every word is clear and full of true meaning and coupled with his moments of child-like whimsy this performance is a delight to behold.

Also truly sublime is the choice of Sarah Blasko as composer. Her musical accompaniments add a layer of melancholy rapture to the performance which goes to the heart of Hamlet’s grief, anger and loss. Ingeniously,Blasko is incorporated into the production itself as one of the players, which creates a seamless quality to her musical interludes.

Meanwhile, Colin Moody’s Claudius is a revelation. His soliloquies go a long way towards creating an empathetic window into the soul of a character that has so often come across as one dimensional in previous productions.

Barry Otto is simply scrumptious as Polonius, whose playful verbosity succeeds in boring the characters on stage, while he charms the audience off it, which is precisely the way that Shakespeare intended it.

Gertrude (Heather Mitchell) plays a trophy-wife style of queen who seems to be making the most of a bad situation. While Rosencrantz (Tim Richards) and Guildenstern (Matthew Whittet) provide beautifully timed comic relief that really does make the audience laugh out loud at their antics.

If I had to pick the weakest link, I’d say that it’s Ophelia (Laura Brent). Unfortunately, her interactions with and aboutHamlet don’t really make us believe that she is in love with him, which leaves a rather gaping hole in the love-story side of things. And while her mad turn in act IV is suitably kooky it’s too late for us to make the leap.

The set design (Fiona Crombie) is highly functional, yet stirring and poetic. And Nick Schlieper’s lighting design – particularly when Russell Kiefel’s spooky, night-of-the-living-dead ghost glides onto the stage – is highly effective.

If we could give stars for theatre (and this is such a star-studded production that I don’t see why we can’t) I’d be giving it four and a half – and Brendan Cowell really does deserve every single one of them.

Bell Shakespeare presents
By William Shakespeare

Venue: Drama Theatre | Sydney Opera House
Dates: 6 June – 12 July 2008
Bookings: Sydney Opera House Box Office 02 9250 7777


This review first appeared on Australian Stage

Matthew Bourne’s Edward Scissorhands

Last year, director and choreographer extraordinaire Matthew Bourne brought us a revolutionary revamp of the timeless ballet Swan Lake. The piece, which featured male swans bounding around the stage in a bold display of athletic machismo, breathed new life into the classic and was lauded by critics as a must-see, once-in-a-lifetime event. Now, Bourneis back with a new take on Tim Burton’s twisted cult cinematic fairytale Edward Scissorhands.It’s a lovingly crafted adaptation on the poignant themes of difference, loneliness and isolation which are embodied with such tender and touching nuance by Edward (Dominic North, on the night I attended), the boy who is ‘born’ with scissors for hands. Like Pinocchio or Frankenstein before him Edward is the creation of an eccentric father figure who yearns for a ‘real’ boy. In Bourne’s version Edward stumbles into 1950s suburbia and is found and adopted by the Boggs family, who seek to offer him a fresh start, complete with a new preppy-style wardrobe to go with the stitched up values that he must learn to observe. But Edward thrives nonetheless and brings his own brand of magic to the place in the form of fantastical topiary creations and cutting-edge hairstyles all rendered magnificently through the use of his unique snippy appendages.Bourne’s talent for harnessing the subtlety in minuscule gestures provides this piece with a powerful visual narrative. Bereft of dialogue we must rely on movement, costuming (Lez Brotherston) and facial expressions alone to learn the attitudes of the characters and follow the story, and this is achieved to great effect here. From the greasers, to the 1950s housewives and cheerleaders each dancer captures the stereotypes with a vivid fluidity which is energising to watch.The set design (Lez Brotherston) is sumptuous and Burtonesque. There’s an effective use of screens that add a dreamlike dimension to the space, and the large whimsical topiary creations inspire pure and unadulterated childlike wonder.

Fans of the original flick’s memorable score by Danny Elfman will be enchanted by Terry Davies new arrangements on the familiar themes. And Paul Groothuis’ sound design – when coupled with the poetic flourishes of Edward’s scissor-like hands – create surprising moments of emotional connection for an audience who seemed to hang on the edge of their seats like kids entranced at a school holiday pantomime.

This is a slick, well-executed production, but the first act is by far the strongest. This is largely because the story elements are well thought through here. As we enter the second act it seems that large dancing set pieces take predominance over the narrative, and the romance between Edward (Dominic North) and Kim (Noi Tolmer) seems to come more as an after thought, rather than the unifying principle around which the action takes place. But still, there is plenty for Tim Burton diehards to enjoy, and lovers of contemporary dance will delight in the scope of genres that are incorporated into this fun flight of fancy.

This article first appeared in Australian Stage