Matilda The Musical

Lyric Theatre, August 20

Matilda's "revolting children". Photo: James Morgan

Matilda’s “revolting children”. Photo: James Morgan

Her philistine parents consider her “a jumped-up little germ” and “a good case for population control”. To her monstrous headmistress Miss Trunchbull she’s “a maggot” like all children.

But a brave, book-loving, five-year old genius called Matilda Wormwood has been winning the hearts and minds of musical theatre audiences in London, New York and beyond, not to mention rave reviews and umpteen awards.

Based on Roald Dahl’s book, the hotly anticipated Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda The Musical, which premiered in 2010, has finally arrived in Sydney, triumphantly weaving such a powerful spell it has us rejoicing with its “revolting children”.

Written by Dennis Kelly (book) and Tim Minchin (music and lyrics), Matilda is one of the most thrilling new musicals of recent years: a show that isn’t afraid to be dark, sophisticated or smart, while at the same time pulsing with a gloriously funny streak of child-like, anarchic naughtiness.

There is a perfect synthesis between Kelly’s book and Minchin’s lyrics, both brilliant, which share a similar cheeky irreverence and wickedly clever wit but which also touch the heart without becoming sentimental.

The opening number, Miracle, instantly illustrates how wonderfully well Kelly and Minchin have been able to work together, setting the show up perfectly. Not only do we have Dahl’s tart observation about how most parents think their own children are little angels but a flashback to Matilda’s birth and a quick summation of her less than rosy situation. Interwoven through one song, it’s a very clever opening.

Celebrating the joy and solace of books as well as the power of words and the imagination, Kelly has added a new narrative strand to the show in which Matilda tells a story about an escapologist and an acrobat.

This beautifully staged tale (which uses dolls and shadow puppetry as well as actors) proves magically prophetic, filling out Miss Honey’s story and revealing Matilda’s yearning for loving parents without spelling it out.

Minchin’s charmingly offbeat, catchy songs are refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores we hear in contemporary musical theatre. Highlights include the bittersweet “When I Grow” in which the children sail out over the audience on swings, the uplifting, bolshie “Revolting Children” and the moving ballad “My House”, exquisitely sung by Elise McCann.

"When I Grow Up". Photo: James Morgan

“When I Grow Up”. Photo: James Morgan

Matthew Warchus’s superlative production (staged here by associate director Nik Ashton) is a total delight. Rob Howell’s ingenious design integrates alphabet tiles and building blocks throughout the set. He has a wonderful way with colour, contrasting the garishly bright home and costumes of the Wormwoods with the forbidding grey of the school, while the drag costume he gives Miss Trunchbull with hunched shoulders and pendulous bosom is both terrifying and a hoot.

Peter Darling’s energetic choreography, which draws on kickboxing and karate, has the spot-on feel of kids stomping in the playground. His routine for School Song – in which two school boys (played here by adults) leap around in fleet-footed fashion up and down the school gate as alphabet blocks are pushed into place through the metal grille – is breathtaking. The kids powering downstage during “Revolting Children” is exhilarating.

The show makes huge demands on its child actors, particularly the young girl playing Matilda. Bella Thomas (aged 11) who starred on opening night (in a role she shares with Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin) is extraordinary, giving Matilda a touchingly solemn yet feisty, determined demeanour. Her singing voice, meanwhile, is strong, true and clear.

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing "Quiet". Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda singing “Quiet”. Photo: James Morgan

But all the children are great, as are the adult cast. James Millar is sensational as the dreaded Miss Trunchbull, deploying an alarming bosom and killer comic timing to perfection. He marries an almost psychopathic stillness with sudden, throwaway jauntiness in a way that is both hilarious and frightening.

Elisa McCann is radiant as Matilda’s kind, put-upon teacher Miss Honey, Daniel Frederiksen and Marika Aubrey are very funny as Matilda’s appalling parents and Cle Morgan exudes oodles of exuberant warmth as the librarian Mrs Phelps.

Appealing to both adults and children, Matilda is a gem of a show with a wonderful heart and message about standing up to bullies and fighting for what is right. It’s also a love letter to joy of words. Pure magic.

Matilda The Musical is now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 23

Blonde Poison

Old Fitz Theatre, July 30

Belinda Giblin as Stella Goldschlag. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin as Stella Goldschlag. Photo: Marnya Rothe


Gail Louw’s one-woman play Blonde Poison tells the confronting, true story of Stella Goldschlag, taking its title from the nickname the Nazis gave her.

Also known as “the blonde ghost”, Berlin-born Goldschlag was 18 when World War II began. Very beautiful with blonde hair and blue eyes, she looked Aryan but was actually Jewish. Living illegally in war-torn Berlin, she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. In order to save herself and her parents from Auschwitz, she agreed to become a “greifer” or “catcher”, informing on Jews in hiding. Because of her, up to 3000 Jews are said to have been sent to concentration camps.

The play requires an extraordinary performance to keep you riveted for its entire 90 minutes – and it gets it from Belinda Giblin in a production currently playing at Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre, produced by Adam Liberman in association with Red Line Productions.

Louw is a British playwright, whose grandparents died during the Holocaust. She based her play largely on a book by David Wyden, a journalist who had been smitten with Goldschlag at school and interviewed her when she was in her 70s. Wyden’s family was able to escape Berlin in 1937 and go to the US, but Goldschlag’s family didn’t have the means or the connections.

In the play, Goldschlag – now living as a recluse – is waiting nervously for Wyden to arrive and begins going over in her mind all the questions he is bound to ask about her life.

Louw has Goldschlag tell her story in fairly straightforward fashion but she doesn’t dodge the moral complexities, with our sympathy shifting back and forth. Jennifer Hagan directs the play with understated sensitivity, eschewing bells and whistles and Giblin gives one of the performances of her career with an emotionally layered portrayal that is full of nuance and complexity.

Brought up to think of herself as “a princess” by her father and beloved Mutti, Giblin portrays a vain woman with a strong sense of entitlement and a keen awareness of her sexual power. At the same time, she is a victim of her time and place, who makes difficult choices in order to survive.

At times, we understand and empathise with Goldschlag; at other times we are taken aback by her ruthlessness and her candid admission that she loved the power and privilege her acts of betrayal conferred on her. One particular incident, where she nearly seals the fate of a Jewish boy in the Hitler Youth, and describes the thrill she experiences is particularly unsettling. Giblin plays it all beautifully without ever judging the character. She also conveys Goldschlag’s heartbreak when her daughter is taken away from her as a baby and later rejects her.

Belinda Giblin. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Derrick Cox has designed a small, shabby apartment that makes for a convincingly naturalistic setting in which a basket of rag dolls sits oddly for such a stylish, tough woman: a sad, almost pathetic, substitute for or reminder of the daughter she lost.

The play itself is a bit long-winded and repetitive and could easily be trimmed. However, Hagan’s production (with sound by Jeremy Silver and lighting by Matthew Tunchon) is powerfully evoked. But it’s Giblin’s portrayal of a flawed human being that makes the play soar, keeping us gripped, fascinated, appalled and moved as we contemplate what we would have done in her place.

Blonde Poison runs at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo until August 15. Bookings: http://www.oldfitztheatre.com

Heathers the Musical

Hayes Theatre Co, July 20

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Lucy Maunder (centre) flanked by Libby Asciak and Erin Clare. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Based on the cult 1988 film starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, Heathers the Musical, which premiered off-Broadway last year, is a black comedy with a catchy, upbeat pop-rock score: think Grease meets Mean Girls with a decidedly dark twist.

Westerburg High is ruled by a triumverate of beautiful but cruel girls all called Heather. Cross them and you’ll find yourself in the social equivalent of Siberia, or worse. But when the Heathers enlist former misfit Veronica Sawyer for her forgery skills, they take on more than they’d bargained for with Veronica’s avenging boyfriend Jason ‘J.D.’ Dean prepared to go to deadly extremes.

Written by Laurence O’Keefe (Legally Blonde) and Kevin Murphy, the musical sticks closely to the screenplay though it isn’t quite so dark. The show’s gear changes between satire, camp comedy, blithe sentimentality and dark themes (teenage suicide, school massacres, bullying, homophobia) crunch a bit at times ­– or would do if the production were not so good. But here, first-time director Trevor Ashley negotiates them with assurance, flair and a sure-fire sense of comedy.

Ashley’s high-energy production leaps off the stage at you. With the cast all turning in full-bore performances, it does a great job of walking the fine line between being knowing, tongue-in-cheek and just serious enough. The musical could do with a little tightening at times but Ashley never allows it to flag. It’s a very impressive directorial debut from a man who is also playing Thenardier in Les Misérables at the same time.

Jaz Flowers is sensational as Veronica, giving a winning, emotionally believable performance that brings surprising depth to the role. She also sings the hell out of her songs. Lucy Maunder is hilariously funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler, showing what fine comic chops she has. Her raised eyebrows are eloquent as anything, her death stare is scary, while her singing is gorgeous.

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Stephen Madsen and Jaz Flowers. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Among the rest of the terrific cast, Lauren McKenna shines in the double role of the bullied Martha “Dumptruck” Dunnstock and loopy New Age teacher Ms Fleming. Stephen Madsen brings a brooding charisma and cool detachment to the Baudelaire-quoting, psychopathic J.D. and has a lovely voice. Vincent Hooper and Jakob Ambrose are very funny as dim-witted jocks Ram and Kurt, while Erin Clare and Libby Asciak give broadly comic but well-defined performances as Heather Chandler’s side-kicks.

Emma Vine’s compact, clever set design, consisting primarily of school lockers, is well used by Ashley, who keeps the action pumping with sharply choreographed scene changes. Angela White has fun with the 1980s costuming and Cameron Mitchell’s superb, witty choreography is also bang on target.

The night I saw it the sound was somewhat out of whack with the band (led by musical director Bev Kennedy) so loud that the cast struggled to compete at times, though I gather that has now been sorted. Aside from that, it’s a first-rate production and extremely entertaining.

Heathers the Musical plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until August 9. It is sold out though I’m told they may try to add a couple of performances. Check the website http://www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 26

Of Mice and Men

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 16

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Iain Sinclair has directed a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Men and Men for Sport for Jove that feels heartbreakingly truthful.

Steinbeck himself adapted the play from his classic 1937 novella set during the Depression. Two itinerant ranch workers George Milton (Anthony Gooley) and Lennie Small (Andrew Henry) have been roaming California looking for work. To keep them going, George inspires Lennie with the dream that one day they will buy their own property (from some elderly folk he knows) where they will keep a few animals including Lennie’s longed-for fluffy rabbits.

The trouble is that Lennie is a bit soft in the head. A gentle-minded giant who doesn’t know his own strength, he keeps petting small animals to death. Arriving at a farm, George tells Lennie to say nothing, keep his head down and do what he says in the hope that they will be left alone and all will be well. And Lennie so wants to do the right thing but when situations conspire against him, he just can’t help himself.

Sinclair has directed a beautiful, understated production that unfolds at an unhurried pace, while still building the feeling of inexorable tragedy. It is a clear, empathic reading that strikes at the heart, while the play feels as timely as ever given the vast numbers of displaced, disenfranchised, struggling people the world over.

Michael Hankin’s set design – a wooden slatted wall, four long wooden poles and a dirt floor with wood chips, along with basic wooden beds, tables and crates – feels just right, while Sian James-Holland’s lighting creates changing moods and captures the passing of time.

Sinclair has cast it perfectly – right down to the poor old dog, which is taken out and shot because it is stinking up the place. It’s a tense moment as we wait, seemingly for ages, to hear the shot – foreshadowing things to come.

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Henry gives an unforgettable performance as Lennie. He is a tall man and naturally slim but he stacked on around 20 kilos for the role. It certainly gives him a sense of bulkiness, emphasised by the way he stands very squarely and solidly when still, feet planted apart, and lumbers around the stage in his dirty overalls.

He also captures Lennie’s naivety beautifully with a slightly bemused expression. When something delights him, he gives this childish little jump of joy accompanied by a beatific smile. At times, it’s almost unbearably touching, knowing what’s coming.

Gooley balances him perfectly as the loyal, steady George who battles constant frustration but stands by Lennie through thick and thin. The two of them really do convey the feeling of a long-standing relationship and of great love.

They are surrounded by an impressive ensemble: Christopher Stollery as Slim, a decent man with natural authority, Laurence Coy as Candy, an old-timer who has lost one hand and who allows himself to dream of a better future with George and Lennie, John McNeil as the bullish Carlson, Tom Stokes as the young, inexperienced Whit, Andre de Vanny as the boss’s aggressive son Curley, Anna Houston as Curley’s unhappy wife, Terry Serio as the Boss (who also plays some guitar blues), and Charles Allen as the segregated black worker Crooks.

Running around two hours and forty minutes including interval, the production keeps you gripped throughout. As it moves to its shattering conclusion you can feel people holding their breath. On the night I saw it there was a long silence at the end – a mark, I think, of how deeply affected people were.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Seymour Centre until August 1. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

Ghost Stories

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, July 10

Aleks Mikic as an unlicensed driver in Ghost Stories. Photo: Liam O'Keefe

Aleks Mikic as an unlicensed driver in Ghost Stories. Photo: Liam O’Keefe

“Are you brave enough to book?” asks the Sydney Opera House website, warning that Ghost Stories “contains moments of extreme shock and tension. We strongly advise those of a nervous disposition and pregnant women carefully consider their decision to attend.”

In an interview, one of the cast said that he was prepared for people to “freak out” or even leave theatre, adding: “There is nothing in the theatre they can compare this to and I think a lot of people will be uncontrollably scared.”

Well, I’m a complete wuss when it comes to horror films but I didn’t find the play particularly scary at all.

Written by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman, the West End hit is presented here by Prince Moo Productions and directed by Peter J. Snee with an Australian cast.

It begins with an illustrated lecture by Philip Goodman (Lynden Jones), a genial professor of parapsychology. As he describes three supernatural cases, which he tries to explain logically as emanations from a guilty mind, they are enacted on stage.

Using familiar tropes from the horror genre, there’s a nightwatchman (John Gregg) at a deserted warehouse, a young man (Aleks Mikic) driving home late at night on an isolated country road, and a man (Ben Wood) whose pregnant wife won’t go into the nursery. Most of it takes place in darkness illuminated with flashes from torches, car headlights and a nightlight.

The soundscape is certainly eerie. Whistling wind and dripping sounds give the feeling of a haunted house as you enter the theatre and as the night unfolds creaks, rumblings and sudden loud crashes and roars ramp up the tension. But that’s about it for the fear factor. The plot climaxes are a letdown and several special effects are comical, even naff.

Glimpsing an actor through the front scrim heading off stage carrying a supposedly terrifying creature punctures the illusion still further.

Still, there are plenty of laughs and a few surprises, and it’s well performed with a particularly enjoyable performance from Jones as the Professor. Just don’t expect to be terrified out of your wits.

Ghost Stories plays at the Drama Theatre until August 15. A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 12

Avenue Q

Enmore Theatre, July 2

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod. Photo: supplied

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod, with Julia Dray and Nicholas Richard operating Nicky. Photo: supplied

Avenue Q opened at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre with little fanfare in the mainstream media. Presented by first-time producer Luke Westley and his associate Natasha Sparrow for LCW, I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s terrific – every bit as accomplished and enjoyable as the acclaimed commercial production seen in Sydney in 2009.

With book and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, the musical premiered off-Broadway in March 2003, before moving to Broadway later that year where it won three Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Performed by actors with Muppet-like puppets, the show pays homage to the children’s television show Sesame Street, while cheekily sending up its politically correct, rosy optimism with perky songs like It Sucks To Be Me, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, Schadenfreude and The Internet Is For Porn.

With some colourful language, references to porn, and puppets getting drunk and having vigorous sex, it’s definitely not for children. But for all its naughtiness, it’s very sweet with a big heart. More than a decade since premiering, it still feels fresh and topical, with Gary Coleman the only really dated element beyond a reference to a mixed-tape.

The story centres on Princeton (Matthew Predny), an arts graduate who arrives in Avenue Q in a downbeat New York neighbourhood looking for his Purpose in life. There he meets among others kindergarten teacher Kate Monster (Madeleine Jones), porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (Nicholas Richard), closeted gay Republican investment banker Rod (Predny), and former child star Gary Coleman (Shauntelle Benjamin), who is now the superintendent of the housing block.

It’s far from Easy Street as characters wrestle with unemployment, homelessness, heartbreak and their sexuality.

With a score full of perky tunes, a clever book and savvy, witty lyrics, Avenue Q zips along in thoroughly entertaining fashion while its celebration of friendship and its simple message – that, sure, life sometimes sucks but that’s OK – sends you home uplifted.

Jo Turner directs a very nifty, polished production. Cat Raven’s set with its row of apartment housing, and small set pieces that are moved quickly into place for various interior scenes, works a treat.

The musical features three human characters and 12 puppet characters, operated by clearly visible actors. Turner has gathered an excellent cast, all sing of whom sing strongly and get the balance between comedy and emotion, as well as flesh and fur, just right as they manipulate and interact with the puppets. (Props to puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne).

Madeleine Jones, who recently played the Girl in the musical Once, is lovely as the good-hearted, wistful Kate Monster and plays the predatory Lucy T Slut with plenty of vampish va va voom. Recent NIDA graduate Matthew Predny also exudes plenty of presence as the naïve, immature Princeton and the camp, sexually repressed Rod.

Nicholas Richard unleashes a fruity baritone as Trekkie and Rod’s slovenly but understanding roommate Nicky. Rowena Vilar is extremely funny as Japanese therapist Christmas Eve (a human character) and Justin Smith gives a warmly engaging performance as her fiancé Brian, an unsuccessful stand-up comic.

There are also strong performances from Shauntelle Benjamin as Gary Coleman, Julia Dray and Owen Little as the Bad Idea Bears, and Kimberley Hodgson and Riley Sutton in smaller roles.

Musical director Shannon Brown heads the seven-strong band, keeping things bouncing along nicely. All in all, a great little production, that charms in equal parts, fun and heart.

Avenue Q plays at the Enmore Theatre until July 18. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849

Sydney Theatre Company brings Chekhov into The Present

A week into rehearsals, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Jacqueline McKenzie discuss The Present – Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Anna Bamford are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Anna Bamford and Chris Ryan are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Cate Blanchett is widely regarded as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. We’ve been incredibly lucky to see her give unforgettable performances in a number of Sydney Theatre Company productions over the last few years including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Maids, Gross und Klein and Uncle Vanya.

But with the family relocating to the US when her husband Andrew Upton’s contract as artistic director of STC concludes at the end of this year (after eight years, five of them shared with Blanchett), the chances are we could be about to see her on a Sydney stage for the last time in a while.

Blanchett co-stars with Richard Roxburgh in The Present, adapted by Upton from Anton Chekhov’s sprawling first play Platonov. Directed by John Crowley, the production plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from August 4. The season is all but sold out but a final limited release of tickets will go on sale on Thursday July 9.

Blanchett and Roxburgh wowed audiences and critics alike when they performed together in Upton’s 2010 adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Sydney, Washington and New York. As you’d expect, their reunion has made The Present one of the hottest tickets in the STC’s 2015 season.

The rest of the 13-strong ensemble is pretty extraordinary too, among them Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz, Anna Bamford, Chris Ryan and Susan Prior who recently won an AACTA Award for The Rover.

“It’s a great bunch,” says Blanchett.

“It is an incredible cast. Looking around the table and listening to the voices when we were doing our first read-through, it was just absolutely stunning,” says McKenzie.

“But if you had seen (Blanchett and Roxburgh in) Uncle Vanya and their amazing chemistry and work together, as an actor you want to be a part of that. So that’s really how you can collect such an amazing group of people because we all want to be in amongst it. It’s Andrew’s writing too. He’s an extraordinary adaptor,” adds McKenzie who performed in Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun for STC in 2014.

“So you’ve got Chekhov, you’ve got Upton, you’ve got the Rox and you’ve got the Blanchett – and then you’ll get anyone.”

Chekhov’s first play – commonly known as Platonov after its central character – was an unstructured epic, which would have run for more than five hours if staged in its original state. The manuscript was discovered and published 16 years after his death. There have been various adaptations over the years including Michael Frayn’s Wild Honey.

 “You couldn’t do it (as written). It was a mad thing. That’s why it ended up in a Chekhovian sock drawer and he never pulled it out again,” says Roxburgh.

“The play was a broken thing, a play without a name,” says Blanchett. “Andrew has taken the fragments as a starting point, really, the characters and the basic situations.

“We’ve got this box set of rather crusty old sepia Chekhovs done by the BBC in the 70s. It’s quite useful to see just the bare bones of the storytelling. It’s very, very English (depicting) Russians as eccentrics but I went back and looked at Platonov the other night and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly the women don’t make any sense. What Andrew has done is really teased out not only the relationships but the states of being that all the various women represent in the piece.”

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov, once considered a great intellectual but now a disillusioned, wittily acerbic provincial schoolteacher, though still something of a Lothario. Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna, the widow of a much older General who she married in her 20s, and McKenzie plays Sophia, a former flame of Platonov’s who is now married to Anna Petrovna’s stepson.

Set in a country summerhouse where a group of old friends gather for Anna Petrovna’s 40th birthday party, the play is awash with yearning, shattered dreams and vodka.

Blanchett says that they are still discussing whether Anna Petrovna is also a former flame of Platonov’s.

“There is a sense that they are soulmates. Anna Petrovna is not at the centre of it but she’s the catalyst for the collision of desire and longing that happens around her 40th birthday.”

Upton has a fascination with late 19th century and early 20th century Russian drama and has adapted several plays of the era: Gorky’s Philistines and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard for London’s National Theatre, along with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, Gorky’s Children of the Sun and a revised version of The White Guard for STC.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC's Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC’s Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

His acclaimed adaptations are sparklingly colloquial, muscular and very funny but underpinned with melancholy, and speak very clearly to us today.

Upton has updated Platonov to the mid-1990s, to Russia post-Perestroika, and has the characters in their 40s rather than their 20s as in the original.

“What I like about the updating – Andrew’s updated it to 1995 I think we’ve settled on – is that when Chekhov was writing there was the sense of Russia in transition but it was quite a dangerous time politically and morally. Setting it in the mid 1990s, Russia is once again in that similar state of transition. With the wisdom of hindsight you see that there was a real chance for change,” says Blanchett.

“What is beautiful about it is that it really mirrors the state the characters are in. There’s still that opportunity to change. When you’re in your 40s, as we know, life’s not over.”

“It becomes so much more make and break than in your 20s when you’ve got the whole world laid out in front of you,” says McKenzie.

“It has that depth of meaning when someone is approaching the middle of their life,” agrees Blanchett. “Had the characters been in their 20s, there’s a self-centredeness to it whereas there’s a desperate futility and sadness about it. Suddenly the play has a purpose and an energy and an ache inside it.”

“It has a much darker depth to it, doesn’t it? It’s really fabulous,” says Roxburgh.

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC's Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Upton’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, set in the 1950s and directed by Tamas Ascher, got the tightrope balance between laughter and tears just right. The highly physical production verged on slapstick at times with pratfalls, pillow fights and drunken dancing. Blanchett’s elegant Yelena cooled her sudden ardour by standing in front of an open fridge. Hugo Weaving’s Astrov did a boisterous, drunken jig then fell backwards through a window. But for all the laughter you never lost sight of their misery.

The Present has “a different spirit”, says Roxburgh. “I think the fact that it has a contemporary setting gives it a different quality. What is I would say is that what is incredibly manifest is this energy in the storytelling. There’s a fantastic energy to it that gets pushed and pushed.

“It’s people in extremis. Things unfold that push people to their various breaking points and that can be terrible and hilariously funny, so it does explore all those things. But it’s by no means slapstick. It feels very real. It is people in extremis. To my mind that’s the definition of great theatre.

“But it is hilariously funny. I was rolling about laughing when I read it, which is not what you expect when you read an adaptation of Chekhov. But it’s never silly. It really feels like Chekhov, but not as you’ve ever got him.”

“The dialogue is fantastic,” says McKenzie. “It’s very witty, very fast. It’s like throwing little darts across the room. I’m laughing on stage. I have to stop.”

“John Crowley has a terrific way of putting it, which is that it seems like all of the scenes are not the scenes you’re supposed to be seeing,” says Roxburgh. “They are the grabbed moments in between. There’s a dinner, there’s a lunch, but you don’t see those, you see everything around that, the accidental moments or the catastrophic conclusion of the lunch. It’s a kind of string of all these broken, wrong moments.”

“Those points of genuine contact are like a life raft,” says Blanchett. “They happen occasionally when people do connect in the play. I was reading one of Chekhov’s short stories the other night, I think it was The House with the Mezzanine. It’s a brilliant story and it was describing a painter who was having a conversation with someone he was lodging with and he said that this lodger had the student’s predilection for turning a conversation into an argument. And that’s why this feels like a young play. Conversations very quickly turn into argument, sometimes fierce and sometimes frivolous. But there’s that cut-and-thrust in the play. My character is constantly saying: ‘can everyone just stop being mean!’”

“The crafting of the writing is very finessed,” says Roxburgh. “There’s a lot of overlap in it, which I reckon had Chekhov lived into these times he would have used because his sense of rhythm was so beautiful. It obviously wasn’t a thing of the time but the overlapping dialogue just creates this constant feeling of the shadow play of life. It feels just like we are with one another.”

The three actors speak very highly of Crowley, who has directed in London and on Broadway. McKenzie says that during the first week he got them all to research different aspects of Russian culture and politics from Russian oligarchs to Perestroika.

“I got post-Soviet country houses, where this is set. But it was fantastic because we all came together and shared our findings. It was so great because normally you all do your research yourself. I’ve got a six-year old now and my situation isn’t as free to sit in a library for hours obsessing, which is what I used to do.”

Working with Crowley “is about discovery”, says McKenzie. “What happens with actors a lot of the time is that things happen osmotically. He allows that to happen at the different paces that people work at. It’s just very generous. I tell you, I trust him. I really do. I don’t feel any agenda other than to find the best play.”

“And he seems to have great taste as well,” says Roxburgh “I saw his production of The Pillowman in London. It was a beautiful, very classy piece of work.”

Blanchett and Upton met Crowley when they were living in London. “We’ve been talking about working together for a long time. We’ve been trying to lure him here but dates and situations didn’t work so it’s great that it has now,” says Blanchett.

Asked if it’s hard to return to a rehearsal room when you have a young baby, Blanchett responds with an emphatic “yes!”.

She and Upton adopted baby Edith from the US earlier this year and have said that they and their three sons are “besotted”.

“I feel a bit sleep deprived,” she admits. “But you have to work with whatever state you’re in and turn it into a positive. Sometimes it can be good to be a bit tired in a rehearsal room because your defences are down, your guard is down.”

“You seemed to be working very well this morning in your mad aria!” chuckles Roxburgh.

“But Chekhov is excruciating (to rehearse),” rejoins Blanchett. “The couple of times I’ve had the fortune to work on Chekhov it’s really difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind. That’s why it was so wonderful touring Vanya because by the time we got to New York and we’d done three seasons of it, it had gone to another level. When you work on great writing – and what Andrew has written is really great – it’s difficult to get there but the longer you live with it, the richer it becomes, the more it feeds you and the more the company can bring to it.”

“I’m not finding it excruciating,” says Roxburgh cheerily. “I’m having great fun.”

The Present plays at the Rosyln Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre), August 4 – September 19. A final limited release of tickets will go on sale to the public at 9am on Thursday July 9. Bookings can be made at www.sydneytheatre.com.au, by phoning 02 9250 1777 or in person at the Wharf box office.

 STC also has its Suncorp Twenties program, which makes a limited number of $20 tickets available to each production, even if a season is otherwise sold out. Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online, in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 5