Constellations

Eternity Playhouse, August 12

Sam O'Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Written by British playwright Nick Payne when he was just 29, Constellations was rapturously received in the UK in 2012. In January, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in a Broadway production.

Grab the chance to see it here because it really is an ingeniously constructed, beautifully written two-hander – and this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production, directed by Anthony Skuse, more than does it justice.

Marianne (Emma Palmer) is a vivacious, voluble physicist interested in the “multiverse” theory. Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) is a laid-back beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue. She goes over to chat but he snubs her, saying he’s married. End of story. Or is it? The scene is then replayed again and again, each time with a slightly different outcome.

This pattern repeats throughout the play at different points in their relationship. But no matter how different possible outcomes we experience, they all end in imminent, untimely death.

Early on, Marianne says to Roland: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made, and never made, exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

Although Payne uses the idea of parallel universes for the play’s structure, he doesn’t actually explore the philosophical and scientific ideas around this in any depth. Instead, the play riffs on the idea of “what if?” and the way our lives could go in so many different directions depending on the little choices we make, the people we meet, when we meet them, and so on. Think Sliding Doors meets Groundhog Day (happening here and now in our world – or so it seemed to me).

Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s wonderfully spare set, which opens up the theatre to its bare, beautiful walls, Skuse directs with great precision but lightness of touch giving the piece room to breathe while putting the focus firmly on the human dimension.

Both actors are superb, bringing untold nuance to numerous variations of similar lines (which must make it devilish hard to learn), while creating totally consistent, convincing characters. The way the play loops back on itself also means they frequently have to turn on a dime emotionally, ending one phase in deepest melancholy before returning to perky cheeriness seconds later.

Palmer has the added challenge of portraying Marianne’s developing aphasia (which affects language), which she does in heartbreaking fashion. What’s more, they both nail the English accents – and from two different regions, no less. (Praise to the vocal and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley).

Sara Swersky’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s subtle sound also play their part in a beautifully modulated production.

The play runs a tight 80 minutes, which is the perfect length. Any longer and it could start to wear thin. Constellations may wear its scientific conceit very lightly but Skuse’s exquisite, moving production enthralls. Recommended.

Constellations runs at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until September 7. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 17

Nora

Belvoir St Theatre, August 13

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo:  Brett Boardman

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo: Brett Boardman

When Nora slammed the door behind her at the end of Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House, her decision to leave her husband and children was so controversial that it sent shock waves around Europe.

The actor playing her in the German premiere refused to perform the ending and Ibsen was forced to rewrite it, with Nora deciding to stay because of her responsibility to her children. Eventually, of course, the original – and far more powerful – ending was restored.

We don’t know what happens to Ibsen’s Nora but we know how hard it will be for her in a patriarchal society without money, work experience or a family to turn to. Ibsen has already shown us this through the story of her widowed friend Kristine. Nora will have the added shame of leaving her family to contend with.

In Nora, co-adaptors Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks (who also directs the Belvoir production) ask what that decision would mean for a woman in Sydney in 2014, and follow her out of the door.

Since Nora’s decision doesn’t have the same shock value in this day and age, Brookman and Sarks have put a strong focus on her willingness to leave her children – something many would still struggle to understand today.

Act I is a very loose contemporary retelling of Ibsen’s play with Nora, her husband Torvald (here a corporate financier about to be promoted) and their two children, but none of the other characters.

The play opens with Nora (Blazey Best) lying next to her young son as he goes to sleep, while her daughter lies above them in the bunk bed. It is clear they have a close relationship and all the scenes between her and the children are touching, emphasising how desperately they will miss her.

Set designer Marg Horwell has put a skeletal white metal frame of the whole house on stage so that we are able to see into all the rooms at once. Nora seems to be suffering from severe depression, periodically extricating herself from her husband (Damien Ryan) and children (Toby Challenor and Indianna Gregg on opening night) as they tear around the house to gaze blankly out of the window or cry bitterly. In one scene, she dances frenetically, her despair further highlighted by her children joining in joyfully.

Where the tension in Ibsen’s play builds inexorably as Nora waits for Torvald to discover that she borrowed money from Krogstad by forging her father’s signature, the first act of Nora is a slow burn.

In Ibsen’s play, Torvald’s appalled and appalling reaction to Krogstad’s revelation sends Nora out of the door but there is no such dramatic flash point here. Torvald discovers she has opened a secret bank account and has been “squirreling” money away but though he is upset that she wasn’t honest with him, he seems to accept what she has done.

Instead, Nora appears worn down by Torvald’s well-meaning but patronising control of all she does. Her decision to leave has clearly been brewing for some time.

Act II takes place later on the night of her leaving. Nora has gone to the home of Helen (Linda Cropper), a woman she worked with some years ago but hardly knows to ask if she can stay for a few days while she finds her feet. Helen is bemused as to why Nora has chosen to go to her, while her own personal situation means she finds it incredibly hard to comprehend how Nora could leave her children.

Horwell has created a similar-style set for Helen’s smaller home. There are sightline issues, which I noticed more in Act II, with the steel frame bisecting the face of the actors quite regularly.

If Act I was a slow (but interesting) burn, then Act II falls rather flat. Essentially Nora articulates why she left. She “feels dead”, “my children cannot be a reason for being”, “I can’t live not knowing who I am” – all of which we have already inferred.

The two women sit in silence while they wait for a kettle to burn. We watch them slowly make a sofa bed. Playing this out silently in real time does ratchet up the awkwardness of the situation but it doesn’t make for great drama. What’s more, it’s pretty clear that Nora has no intention of returning home – at this point anyway – so there is little to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Sarks draws fine performances from her cast. Best gives a powerful portrayal of a listless, unhappy woman struggling with depression – though for some reason I didn’t feel a great deal for her emotionally, which I suspect is more to do with the play than Best, who is terrific. Ryan gives a wonderful character study of a man who loves and cares for his wife but is oblivious to the way he patronises and controls her. His priggish nature is more subtle than in Ibsen’s play but still in evidence.

His children seem to love him. The way his little boy runs into his arms is lovely and he is gentle with his daughter but the fact that he pushes them to practice golf putting when they don’t want to because it could be useful to them speaks reams.

Cropper is also excellent as Helen and the children are very convincing.

Nora follows Sport for Jove’s recent, beautifully wrought, period production of A Doll’s House, which really packed a punch dramatically in a way that Nora doesn’t manage to do. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting venture and the first act works well. However, having followed Nora through the door I’d have liked to have seen how she fared weeks, months or maybe years down the track. As it is, Act II just seems to articulate, in rather deadly fashion, what we pretty much already know and leaves it at that.

Nora plays at Belvoir until September 14. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

Lady Sings it Better

Hayes Theatre, August 3

Lady Sings It Better – Anna Martin, Libby Wood, Maeve Marsden and Chandra Franken. Photo: Viv McGregor

Lady Sings It Better – Anna Martin, Libby Wood, Maeve Marsden and Chandra Franken. Photo: Viv McGregor

When it comes to the feminist agenda underpinning their work, comedy/cabaret group Lady Sings it Better takes a softly-softly approach, couching it within a hugely enjoyable, fun show – but, boy, oh boy! They still make their point, loud and clear.

The group, which has been performing for around five years in various incarnations, now has a four-lady line-up: founder Maeve Marsden, Chandra Franken, Libby Wood and Anna Martin. Their shtick is to sing songs written and performed by men. Giving the songs fresh musical interpretations but without changing the lyrics, they make us hear the words afresh.

Sometimes it’s quite shocking to realise what it is that we’ve been humming happily along to without really taking in the lyrics. In fact, some of them are so appallingly, hilariously sexist that at one point Martin feels the need to reiterate the fact that they are singing the lyrics exactly as written.

Their latest show begins with a mash-up of Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle” and The Wiggles (the ladies are all dressed Wiggle-fashion in coloured tee shirts with logos and black bottoms). Other numbers include Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines”, Usher’s “Dive”, Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”, Bruno Mars’s “Gorilla”, Tom Jones’s “Delilah” and Sting’s “Every Breath You Take”.

Backed at the Hayes by a terrific three-piece band, they all sing well (each has a solo) and make sweet harmonies together, delivering the songs with the odd wink and knowing look but essentially “straight” – which makes it all the more hilarious and, at times, downright unsettling.

At the encore they break from their trademark and sing Britney Spears’s “Womanizer” – though the song certainly fits their theme. Lady Sings it Better is an act of provocation in its own way, but above all it’s hugely entertaining and the enthusiastic audience lapped it up.

Two shows at the Hayes Theatre sold out fast. The Ladies give a five-year anniversary performance at The Factory, Marrickville on October 4

The Tap Pack

Hayes Theatre Co, August 2

Jesse Rasmussen, Ben Brown, Christopher Horsey, Jordan Pollard and Thomas J Egan. Photo: Shan Turner-Carroll

Jesse Rasmussen, Ben Brown, Christopher Horsey, Jordan Pollard and Thomas J Egan. Photo: Shan Turner-Carroll

If you want to see some exhilarating tap dancing then look no further than The Tap Pack.

Jesse Rasmussen, Jordan Pollard and Thomas J Egan created the show as a vehicle for the tap-dancing prowess of themselves and their fellow performers Ben Brown and Christopher Horsey – and on this front it certainly delivers.

But even though the production has been in development for a while now, and had performances last year, the story they have written as a framework for the dancing still needs work.

Directed and co-created by Nigel Turner-Carroll, The Tap Pack opens with cocky Aussie busker Blue (Rasmussen) doing his thing to raise the funds to get to New York and meet his idols Fiveplay, a Rat Pack-style act he dreams of performing with. Rasmussen quickly has the audience clapping along.

In New York, Blue encounters Fiveplay, now reduced to Fourplay (yeah, we get it). Led by the hard-drinking Marty (Horsey), the sole surviving original member, the act is well past its use-by date. Blue could help them reboot their show, the other boys are excited, but Marty is resistant and, well……. you know how it turns out.

The plot is slight, the characters are fairly under-developed and the story is corny and predictable, with some silly sight gags involving a chain saw and some goggles as well as some slightly blue humour. There’s the germ of a great show here. The boys have plenty of charm and they can certainly dance, they just need a sharper, wittier script.

However, with a six-piece band led by musical director Michael Dench on keyboards, the music is hot and Brown delivers some strong vocals. But it’s the tight, terrific dancing that really kicks The Tap Pack over the line.

The show ends on a high as the boys bust out their best moves to finish with a spectacular, extended tap routine that sends the audience home happy. Fantapstic!

The Tap Pack plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until August 17. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on August 10

Tartuffe

Drama Theatre, July 30

Kate Mulvany, Genevieve Hakewill, Charlie Garber, Sean O'Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan and Robert Jago. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kate Mulvany, Geraldine Hakewill, Charlie Garber, Sean O’Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan and Robert Jago. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Right from the get-go, Justine Fleming’s contemporary adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe has the audience chortling in this new Bell Shakespeare production.

As with his adaptation for Bell’s 2012 production of Molière’s The School for Wives, Fleming combines colourful, irreverent colloquialism with rhyming couplets. Phrases such as “bunch of losers”, “shut your gob” and “a piddle short of a piss” had the delighted audience in stitches.

At the same time, it’s an extremely clever adaptation that faithfully captures the spirit of Molière’s satire about religious hypocrisy and gullibility and tells the story with great élan and clarity. Locating it in the present day, the themes certainly feel as relevant as ever.

Rich, successful and married to a gorgeous, younger second wife Elmire (Helen Dallimore), Orgon (Sean O’Shea) is looking for spiritual meaning in his life. Sensing that he’s ripe for the picking, the devious, duplicitous Tartuffe (Leon Ford) schemes to take him to the cleaners. Tartuffe also has his eye on Elmire, while Orgon wants him to marry his daughter Mariane (Geraldine Hakewill). No matter that she is already promised to Valère (Tom Hobbs).

Orgon and his mother (Jennifer Hagan) may be taken in, but the rest of the family see straight through Tartuffe’s fraud and plot to trick him into revealing his true nature.

Peter Evans directs a rollicking, extremely funny production on a set by Anna Cordingley with oversized furniture that not only matches the excess of all that unfolds but also suggests the childishness of their behaviour. Besides a massive sofa, there’s an off-kilter grandfather clock and a giant closet with an ever-changing interior. In the second act a sign descends inviting you, in Facebook fashion, to “accept” or “ignore” a request to  befriend Jesus.

Cordingley’s colourful costumes are also amusing, wittily combining styles and eras, while Kelly Ryall’s jaunty, synthesised versions of baroque music work a treat.

In the original 1664 comedy, tragedy is averted at the last minute with an intervention from the King. Here, Fleming puts his own twist on the ending with Poetic Justice saving the day, while tipping a nod to Molière being the French Shakespeare.

The cast all bring an enormous vigour to the roles. Kate Mulvany is a knockout as the outspoken, sassy, exasperated maid Dorine. Tottering around on vertiginous heels, her effortless command of the language and comedy is deliciously spot-on.

Ford is smoothly, smarmily sanctimonious as Tartuffe one minute, then breaks out with hilarious abandon when he thinks no one is watching. His pelvic thrusting move across the stage to Elmire is hilarious while his amorous advance on her, using her fishnets and high heels, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in ages.

Leon Ford and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Lisa  Tomasetti

Leon Ford and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

O’Shea is also very funny as the well-meaning but bullish, deluded Orgon. I’m not sure that in this day and age Mariane needed to be quite such a ditzy bimbo but Hakewill plays it to the hilt. The lovers’ tiff between her and Valère is a hoot, while Hobbs has fun and games breaking the fourth wall.

In fact, there are terrific performances all round from Charlie Garber as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis, Robert Jago as Orgon’s level-headed, clear-sighted brother-in-law Cléante, Hagan as the haughty, disapproving Madame Pernelle, Russell Smith as Monsieur Loyal and Scott Witt as the bumbling servant (among other roles).

All in all, the production is a delight, full of inspired comic touches from the funny little bounce as various characters flop onto the sofa to Dorine stashing a half-smoked cigarette in her bra. Too much fun. Highly recommended.

Tartuffe is at the Drama Theatre until August 23. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 3

Mr Kolpert

ATYP Studio 1, August 1

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Garth Holcombe, Claire Lovering, Paige Gardiner and Tim Reuben. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Would you like blood with your pizza? Mind games with your tiramisu?

German playwright David Gieselmann gives us both in his absurdist black comedy Mr Kolpert (translated by David Tushingham), which is at once provocative, stomach-churning and ridiculously funny.

Hip young couple Ralf (Tim Reuben) and Sarah (Claire Lovering) have invited Sarah’s work colleague Edith (Paige Gardiner) and her husband Bastian (Garth Holcombe) around for dinner to alleviate their boredom.

Hospitality isn’t high on their agenda. Sarah hasn’t even bothered catering, offering wine or fruit juice poppers and a choice of take-away. Instead, they intend to play cat and mouse with their guests.

At the start of the evening, they announce that they have murdered Sarah and Edith’s dull co-worker Mr Kolpert (Tom Christophersen) and stashed his body in the huge trunk in the room. Just joking! Or are they?

The build-up of tension as to whether they have or haven’t bumped off Mr Kolpert drives the play, which echoes with references to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Hitchcock’s Rope, Eugene Ionesco, Quentin Tarantino, Joe Orton and Monty Python, among others.

The play, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2000, has fun and games with the idea of the extreme lengths some people will go to in order to feel something, anything, in a world of existential, urban ennui; a world where an overload of graphic news reports of horrific world events, and even more graphic depictions of violence in films and video games, numbs the mind and deadens emotions. It also plugs into the anxiety of the contemporary world.

Directing the play for indie Sydney company pantsguys Productions, James Dalton draws wonderfully calibrated performances from his cast in a well-paced production that finds just the right balance between absurdist drama and dark comedy of manners.

Gardiner is exceptional as the nice, placatory Edith who discovers something altogether different beating beneath her cheery, polite demeanour. Her oscillation between hysterical laughter and terrified screams when Ralf taunts her with the ropes he supposedly tied Mr Kolpert up with is side-splittingly funny.

Holcombe is wonderfully manic as the boorish, unpredictable Bastion, an aggressive architect with anger management issues. Reuben and Lovering do a great job of keeping us guessing what Ralf (who is appropriately enough a chaos researcher) and Sarah have or haven’t done, while Edan Lacey is very funny as the hapless pizza delivery boy.

The production strikes me as funnier than I remember Benedict Andrews’ 2002 production for Sydney Theatre Company, though memory sometimes plays tricks.

The drab, beige apartment by set and costume designer Antoinette Barboutis suggests the boredom Ralf and Sarah are railing against, as well as the idea that evil can lurk in the most mundane places. Every now and then, lurid green lighting (Benjamin Brockman) as well as UV lighting, lends the space a strange, sinister feel.

Pantsguys is emerging as a reliably exciting indie company. Their previous productions include Punk Rock in 2012, which won three Sydney Theatre Awards, and On the Shore of the Wide World earlier this year, which was Griffin Independent’s top-selling production to date (both directed by Anthony Skuse). Mr Kolpert is an equally impressive production.

Running around 80 minutes without interval, the ending of the play is somewhat abrupt, a pizza-ordering scene is overdone, and Gieselmann employs some sleight-of-hand (with the knocking). It is also fairly lightweight, its theme obvious enough. But it’s a darkly entertaining, provocative piece that had the audience laughing, shrieking and squealing.

Mr Kolpert runs at the ATYP Studio I, Pier 4/5, Hickson Road until August 16. Bookings: www.atyp.com.au or 02 9270 2400

Macbeth

Sydney Theatre, July 25

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

The casting of Hugo Weaving as Macbeth and the decision of director Kip Williams to turn the Sydney Theatre back-to-front make this Sydney Theatre Company production one of the hottest tickets of the year.

Weaving does not disappoint, giving a passionate, compelling performance, but the production itself waxes and wanes somewhat.

Entering the theatre, the audience is led to a seating bank on the stage for 360 people who sit facing the eerily empty 900-seat auditorium. On stage in front of you stands a long trestle table with a few props (a plastic tub of water, a ruff, a wig, a crown and on the back of one chair a red velvet gown with ermine collar).

It looks like a rehearsal room and when the actors appear casually dressed in contemporary street wear and begin performing seated at the table under a general lighting state, that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s a slow start.

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s not until after the death of Duncan (John Gaden) when fog fills the stage and sound and lighting start to transform the space that excitement levels begin to rise.

It’s a valid enough conceit to have the full theatricality only kick in once Macbeth has sealed his fate and begun his descent into a nightmarish world full of bloody horror. It’s just that the early stage business feels a bit silly. The witches (Kate Box, Ivan Donato and Robert Menzies) dunk their heads in the tub of water, blow bubbles and then recite their lines while dripping. As an image for the boiling cauldron it comes up short.

Having Melita Jurisic in a plastic rain mac, chugging on a cup of blood and then dribbling it down her front as the wounded Captain reporting from the battle also comes across as gimmicky.

But as Duncan lies dead, the production starts to hit its stride. The actors bang their hands on the table, Max Lyandvert’s visceral sound design picks up on the drumming and amplifies it tenfold, the stage fills with fog, the lighting changes and we’re off.

The stunningly staged banquet scene with candles, flowers and place settings comes as a relief. Having the murdered Banquo (Paula Arundell) sit at the table has been done before, of course, but it works exceptionally well.

There are some other wonderful effects – the sudden fall of a black curtain not far from us, isolating Macbeth from the world beyond, for example, and later Macbeth strobe-lit in battle. There is also an extended fall of shimmering “rain”, which inevitably recalls the golden shower in Benedict Andrews’s production of The War of the Roses in the same venue. But, no matter, it’s incredibly beautiful and very effective.

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Under Nick Schlieper’s lighting, the auditorium does become a haunting, ghostly backdrop. Williams doesn’t stage many scenes there but those that he does work well. Banquo is chased through the auditorium and murdered in the stalls. When Macduff (Kate Box) goes to England to beg Malcolm (Eden Falk) to return to Scotland, their encounter takes place at the front of the circle while Macbeth stands silhouetted on stage.

Many liked Williams’ restraint in not using the auditorium too much; I liked what he did with it but felt he could have used it a little bit more.

The costumes by the show’s designer Alice Babidge come across as rather ad hoc without a unifying style. The street wear is uninspiring, despite odd touches like the ruff and kingly robe, and Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth dress is downright drab and unflattering. It’s a shame the costuming doesn’t develop more as the rest of the production builds theatrically. That said, when Babidge does go for a flourish with the final image of Malcolm being dressed in doublet and hose for his coronation, it sits oddly.

The play is performed by an ensemble of eight, all of whom double except for Weaving. The acting is a little uneven with a range of vocal styles.

Weaving gives a magnetic performance that focuses on Macbeth’s interior torture. He spits and snarls as he gives physical and emotional expression to the conflict that rages within him between vaulting ambition, doubt, fear, ruthlessness and fleeting regret. His anguish is utterly palpable.

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

As Lady Macbeth, Jurisic is so febrile and intense from the start that she almost leaves herself nowhere to go. Like Weaving, her vocals are rich and mellifluous but in starting at such a pitch, some of her dialogue is lost by the time she plays the mad scene.

Gaden handles the language with effortless eloquence, as ever, and is very touching as Macduff’s young son in a moving scene with Arundell as Lady Macduff. Box is also impressive, bringing a quiet dignity to the role of Macduff.

In the end, however, the production – which runs a tight two hours without interval – is set around the mesmerising performance of Weaving. The back-to-front staging doesn’t make any strong comment on the play but proves to be an atmospheric backdrop and Weaving’s performance is thrilling.

Macbeth plays at Sydney Theatre until September 27. Most performances are sold out. A few tickets were released yesterday so check with the box office on 02 9250 1777. Otherwise a limited number of Suncorp $20 tickets go on sale at 9am each Tuesday for the following week either in person at the Wharf Theatre box office or on 02 9250 1929

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 27