Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs

Hayes Theatre Co, September 21

Joanna Weinberg. Photo: supplied

Joanna Weinberg. Photo: supplied

Joanna Weinberg’s new cabaret show Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs takes a quirky idea about addiction and really runs with it.

She has created a character from a fictional Eastern European country, with a thick accent to match, who has had a yen for blood ever since her detested nanny met an unfortunate, squishy end.

She doesn’t drink it like your common-or-garden vampire, but she can sniff out someone’s blood group at hundred paces, likes to bathe in it and finds sex boring without it. She works as a nurse for obvious reasons. A black comedy with a blood-red heart, the show explores her life with this unusual addiction and her battle to overcome it.

Weinberg performs original songs alongside numbers like Tom Lehrer’s The Masochism Tango and Queen’s Killer Queen. She has a lovely voice and plays the accordion for most of the numbers, with an occasional sortie to keyboard and drums, while Mark Ginsburg plays soprano sax, guitar and, at one point, a knife and knife sharpener.

Though the melodies and lyrics of the first few numbers are catchy and clever, musically it becomes a bit samey and not many of the songs are terribly memorable. Weinberg could have made more of The Masochism Tango, for example, which she performs seated and in a similar manner to the other songs.

Weinberg is a talented comic performer, and the character she creates is vividly realised and engaging. However, the story didn’t hold my interest for that length of time (it runs an hour and a quarter).

Directed by Lisa Freshwater, the show unfolds at a similar pitch and in a similar vein throughout, then rather peters out at the end. It’s a fun idea but a bit more dramatic light and shade and some bigger laughs wouldn’t go astray.

Baroness Bianka’s Bloodsongs plays at the Hayes Theatre Co on Sunday September 28. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Other Desert Cities

Ensemble Theatre, September 13

Deborah Kennedy, Ken Shorter and Lisa Gormley.   Photo: Clare Hawley

Deborah Kennedy, Ken Shorter and Lisa Gormley. Photo: Clare Hawley

A Wyeth family reunion may not be quite as ferociously venomous as the Westons’ gathering in Tracy Letts’ blisteringly funny August: Osage County, but it ain’t far behind.

Other Desert Cities by American playwright Jon Robin Baitz – which was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play – pitches five members of the Wyeth family into a reunion from hell.

It’s Christmas Eve, 2004 in the Palm Springs home of proud Republican couple Lyman Wyeth (Ken Shorter) and his wife Polly (Deborah Kennedy). Lyman is a former Hollywood actor, known for his dramatic death scenes, who became a US ambassador. Polly used to be a Hollywood scriptwriter with her alcoholic sister Silda Grauman (Diana McLean), who is now living with them and trying Polly’s patience.

The Wyeth’s two left-leaning children Brook (Lisa Gormley) and Trip (Stephen Multari) arrive for the holidays. Trip is a reality television producer and fairly easy come, easy go. But the passionate Brook, who has struggled back from severe depression, comes bearing an explosive gift: the manuscript of a memoir in which she addresses the story of her brother Henry, a political activist who killed himself after being involved with a failed bombing.

The incident has already driven Lyman and Polly into their desert exile and Brook’s book is the last thing they want published.

Baitz’s vividly drawn characters are all fiercely articulate, and political and personal arguments fly but the play is so well written we never feel we are watching a staged debate.

Directing the play for the Ensemble Theatre, Mark Kilmurry helms a fine production that keeps you enthralled, wondering what on earth will come tumbling out of the closet, as the ground keeps shifting.

Kilmurry is well served by his cast. Kennedy is in her element as the redoubtable Polly who stands her ground no matter what, delivering the razor-sharp, witheringly witty lines with killer timing. Gormley captures Brook’s fragility and desperate need to hold onto her newly found sense of balance through the publication of her book, while McLean gradually reveals more layers to the wisecracking Silda. Shorter and Multari complete the taut ensemble with persuasive performances.

Ailsa Paterson’s set seems just a little too tastelessly ugly for such high-fliers though it works well on a practical level.

Other Desert Cities is a fairly conventional play, using a well-worn conceit, but it’s extremely well written and so well performed that it makes for a sizzling piece of theatre.

Other Desert Cities runs at the Ensemble Theatre until October 18. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644

LOVEBiTES

Hayes Theatre Co, September 14

Adele Parkinson, Shaun Rennie, Tyran Parke and Kirby Burgess. Photo: Pia Moore

Adele Parkinson, Shaun Rennie, Tyran Parke and Kirby Burgess. Photo: Pia Moore

Peter Rutherford and James Millar’s scintillating song cycle LOVEBiTES premiered in Sydney in 2008, earning a Sydney Theatre Award nomination, and returned the following year as part of the BITE (Best of Independent Theatre) season.

It’s great to see it back in a new production, directed by Troy Alexander for Wooden Horse Productions at Sydney’s dynamic little Hayes Theatre Co.

A collection of songs about lurve, the show shines a light on seven very different relationships. In Act I we see each couple meet and fall for each other. In Act II we discover how things turned out.

Amongst them are a florist and her admirer Poppy, two men who meet at a book group, a mile-high liaison between a Hollywood star and an airhostess, and a wedding that leads to a three-way marriage. There’s also the hilarious story of a malfunctioning loo that nearly scuppers a perfect match, which pays tribute to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (“attend the tale of Annie Pluck”).

In just two songs per couple – sung by one of the pair in the first act, and then by the other person in the second – Millar deftly conveys story and character. His lyrics are beautifully observed, finding humour, joy, passion and heartbreak in all manner of ordinary situations.

Rutherford’s catchy music ranges from musical theatre pastiche to perky pop to tender ballads. In its previous incarnation, the show was performed with solo piano. Here a four-piece band led by Steven Kreamer (hidden backstage) move confidently between the different styles.

The sound mix was a little uneven at the performance I saw, with the music dominating the vocals at times, particularly in the up-tempo numbers, but it settled as the show progressed.

Performed by just four people, LOVEBiTES certainly showcases the vocal and dramatic versatility of its cast and is well served here by a terrific line-up: Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adèle Parkinson and Shaun Rennie.

They are all impressive but the two ladies are knockouts. Burgess has been in musicals including An Officer and a Gentleman, Hairspray and Grease in which she played the role of Rizzo in Perth recently. Parkinson was in Squabbalogic’s production of Carrie and understudied the role of Elle Woods in Legally Blonde. Both show their star quality here and if they aren’t playing lead roles in major musicals soon I’ll eat my review.

Lauren Peters has created a slick, effective set design featuring two small revolves on a shiny black stage, which keep the scene changes moving quickly, while Becky-Dee Trevenen does a great job with the costuming. Ellen Simpson’s energetic choreography also works well in the tiny space.

Memory can be deceptive but having seen both the previous productions, I’m not sure this one tears at the heartstrings quite as much, though Parkinson’s exquisite rendition of Give it to the Breeze had me weeping.

Overall though, this is a fine production of a beautiful little show and well worth a look.

LOVEBiTES is at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 5. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

From Kath to Margaret Thatcher, Jane Turner loves wigging it

Jane Turner as Margaret Thatcher. Photo: supplied

Jane Turner as Margaret Thatcher. Photo: supplied

Jane Turner loves nothing better than a wig to help her get into character. The frizzy perm was the crowning jewel in her creation of foxy moron Kath Day-Knight in Kath & Kim.

So playing Margaret Thatcher with her famous, immaculate helmet of hair has obvious appeal.

As revealed in the Sunday Telegraph, Turner is one of the actors in the Sydney season of Rupert, David Williamson’s cabaret-infused stage biography of media titan Rupert Murdoch.

The cast is led by James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett in Babe) as Murdoch and Guy Edmonds as his younger self, with Turner playing Thatcher and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch among other roles.

Rupert premiered at the Melbourne Theatre Company last year. It has since toured to Washington and will go to London’s West End next year. But first it has a four-week season in Sydney.

Though reviews have been mixed, with some critics considering it as little more than an animated Wikipedia entry, audiences have embraced it (as is usually the way with Williamson).

Turner saw the play in Melbourne and found it “thoroughly entertaining”. Asked to take over the roles of Thatcher and Dame Elisabeth, she says she didn’t hesitate.

“I love doing a lot of different roles in a show. I think it’s always great fun, particularly doing it in a fabulous, funny wig.”

Asked if she’ll have several wigs in Rupert, she laughs. “I hope so. I cannot perform without a wig. That’s in my rider!

“There is an amazing difference between a wig that is funny and a wig that isn’t funny. To the naked eye it might look exactly the same wig but when you put them on you just know if they are funny or not,” says Turner.

“I had some wigs (for Kath) along the way that weren’t funny. The original, scrawny, nylon wig that we used for the first series was pure comic gold. By the end (of the series) I was wearing that wig back to front because it was so stretched in the front of it. It was very funny. It’s still in my cupboard like an old, dead rat. I love it.”

Turner has plenty of experience playing real people from her sketch show days in Fast Forward and Full Frontal when she parodied the likes of Lady Di, Ita Buttrose, Sharon Stone and even Woody Allen.

When it comes to Thatcher, she says: “it’s all in the wig again because her hair was pretty distinctive, and also the voice. And she had a bit of a waddly walk, similar to mine. But hopefully I’ll get a chance to bring something more than just a sketch quality.”

Turner was last seen on the Sydney stage in 1999 in Ben Elton’s Popcorn. But she says she loves returning to the theatre when she can. In 2010, she performed in Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man in London.

Next year, she stars in Jumpy, an English comedy by April De Angelis, for the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies, in which she plays a woman facing the mother of all mid-life crises and battling with her teenage daughter.

“That will be so much fun. It’s a very meaty role for me,” says Turner.

As for a return of Kath & Kim: “never say never,” says Turner.

“We are having a nice lie down and trying to kill them off but they keep rearing their ugly heads. We do like them so who knows. I love doing Kath and I find her so easy to write for too. One day we might put her in a different format. She could have her own Tonight show or something.

“A long time ago we talked about a stage play. We love the cast and we love writing for them so we may do something, but who knows. At the moment we are happy to do other things.”

Rupert is at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, November 25 – December 21. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 14

 

 

Unholy Ghosts

SBW Stables Theatre, August 29

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Campion Decent’s touching autobiographical play Unholy Ghosts “tells the story of my family and our navigation of loss” as he writes in his program notes.

Effectively putting his own parents on stage, it’s no wonder he creates such vivid characters in this heartfelt yet funny three-hander in which a man known only as Son (James Lugton) tells us about the loss of his warring mother and father to cancer within seven months of each other.

Hovering beneath this is the shadow of his sister, who died 12 years ago, whose loss he still keenly feels.

Decent has the Son act as both narrator and player as he guides us from scene to scene and the emotional roller-coaster that he finds himself on.

The product of a dysfunctional family, the Son is a playwright in his 40s who lives with his male partner and their two children.

His mother (Anna Volska) is a former star of stage and radio who gave up her career for her children and has resented it ever since but whose life is still one big, grand performance. Drily witty, she smokes and drinks ferociously despite cancer riddling her body and applies lipstick liberally – even for her last rites, which is both funny and sad.

His father (Robert Alexander) is a cantankerous old grouch who has little sympathy with his son’s sexuality (describing homosexuals as “your lot”) or career choice.

There’s no love lost between the divorced pair and their Son finds himself caught in the middle as he visits them both during their illness, keen to ask questions about his parents’ damaging treatment of him as a child.

Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a parent or someone close will find aspects of the play to relate to. The mother’s description of her frail flesh literally coming apart at the seams hit home hard for me.

All three performers are excellent. Volska, who hasn’t been on stage for around a decade, brings precision timing and a compelling mix of diva-like manipulation and charm to the role of the mother. It’s wonderful to see her back in the theatre.

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Alexander is very touching as the father who wants to express regret in his dying days but must struggle to find a way, while Lugton gives a winning, truthful performance as a man torn between love and frustration, irritation and hurt, relief and fear of coming adrift.

Produced by White Box Theatre as part of Griffin Independent, Kim Hardwick directs the production with a light, understated touch and a lack of sentimentality, even as recrimination slides into redemption.

Coming toward the end, a fantasy scene set in heaven therefore feels out of place. The final scene in which the Son realises with euphoria that the family he now has is the one he has chosen – partner, children and friends – also sits slightly oddly after what has gone before but sends the audience out on a warm, fuzzy note.

On opening night I felt that the play didn’t build quite as strongly emotionally as it doubtless will (navigating the jumps between narration and scenes perhaps?) – but others apparently sobbed.

Unholy Ghosts is a lovely, heartfelt play. Decent’s script has a zing about it with big laughs as well as tears. One sentence rang out, and has echoed in my mind ever since: “We all know our parents teach us how to live, or not to live, but, of course, I realise now they also teach us how to die.”

Unholy Ghosts is at the SBW Stables Theatre until September 20. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

Guy Edmonds has wicked fun with The Witches

Guy Edmonds in The Witches. Photo: Brett Boardman

Guy Edmonds in The Witches. Photo: Brett Boardman

As a child, Guy Edmonds loved Roald Dahl’s books with their twisted stories full of irreverent, sometimes grotesque humour.

“They are a challenge to young people. It’s not sugar and lollipops – it’s sugar and lollipops and wolves,” he says with relish.

Edmonds is best known for his role in the ABC’s A Moody Christmas and for playing Timothy Conigrave in the original Australian stage production of Holding the Man, a role he later reprised in London.

Among his many other credits, he also portrayed the young Rupert Murdoch in David Williamson’s play Rupert for Melbourne Theatre Company last year, and when the production toured to Washington in the US. He will feature in Rupert again in the forthcoming Sydney season at the Theatre Royal (November 25 – December 14).

But first, he is giving full vent to his love of Dahl in a one-man stage version of The Witches, adapted from a play by David Wood.

A sell-out hit in Melbourne in June, with interest now from London and New York, The Witches arrives at the SBW Stables Theatre later this month just in time for the school holidays.

Dahl’s witches don’t wear black pointy hats and ride broomsticks. They disguise themselves as ordinary women but they are every bit as evil. Revolted by children, who smell like dog droppings to them, they plan to get turn all of England’s youngsters into mice. A young boy and his grandmother, who accidentally overhear their plot, set out to stop them.

The show is the brainchild of director/choreographer Lucas Jervies and began in 2012 as a project at NIDA where he did the directing course.

“Egil Kipste, the head of the directing course, gets me in from time to time to work with the directing students,” says Edmonds.

“He was doing an audition workshop with them so he said, ‘here’s a real actor, give them an audition piece and work with them’ so it was like a mock audition.

“So I worked with all the directors one of them being Lucas and he gave me the Grand High Witch’s monologue (from Wood’s play) when she enters the ballroom: ‘You may ree-moof your gloves! You may ree-moof your shoes!’

“I did this crazy (read) – Lucas says like an ape crossed with Hitler. I just say a camp Hitler. Lucas says in that moment he actually thought (a one-man version) might be achieved, because he’d toyed with the idea but couldn’t quite visualise it.”

Edmonds plays nine characters including the young boy who narrates the tale, his chain-smoking grandmother, the greedy kid Bruno, a French waiter and the evil Grand High Witch.

Edmonds delineates them without changing costumes, but vocally and physically.

“It’s not a dance piece or physical theatre but there’s a lot of movement in it, more than I would normally do in a play,” he says.

“There are very clear voice shifts between the characters but when it moves at such a rapid-fire pace you need physical signifiers as well. That’s where Lucas was great because he has a dance background as a choreographer and an ex-dancer. He works at Sydney Dance Company now (as rehearsal director). So he was really good to work with. As an actor you consider what your body is doing to a point but, for me, never in the way that I have done with this show.”

As for props, he has a large chest, a colander, a saucepan, a ball of twine, a toothbrush and a paint tin.

“Every object has seven or eight meanings as the play goes,” says Edmonds. “When we started, the chest was full of stuff and in the first week we just threw everything at the wall just to see which would stick and it was a process of elimination. We had a tennis racket and said, ‘OK, well we use the tennis racket for that but is there a way to use the saucepan instead?’ So it was a process of whittling away until we got to these five essential props.

“It’s really just the power of the imagination. Pure storytelling. It’s the kind of show that if the lighting board went down and all we had were the house lights and none of my props showed up I could still do it.”

The show, which runs for a breathless 40 minutes, is recommended for all the family from age six upwards.

“The brief for the show was to make adults feel like children and I would like to think that we’ve succeeded in that,” says Edmonds.

“It’s certainly a show for all ages but a wonderful show to bring young people to. When we did the Malthouse season (in Melbourne) one night we had three generations of a family – there were 10-year old kids, the parents and the grandparents and by the end they all had the same expression on their face.”

Edmonds will be returning to Griffin next year as part of the 2015 Griffin Studio artistic development program.

“My friend and writing partner Matt Zeremes (with whom he co-starred in Holding the Man) are Boomshaka Films, a production company that develops TV and film,” says Edmonds.

“Through our one-year residency at the Griffin Studio we are going to develop a musical  set on Christmas Island. It’s a musical comedy – with quite a sting in the tail. It’s called Rock the Boat.”

Edmonds and Zeremes will co-write the book and lyrics. The name of the composer has yet to be announced.

In the meantime, Edmonds is thrilled to be at Griffin performing The Witches again, saying: “It’s totally exhausting but a real joy to do.”

The Witches, SBW Stables Theatre, September 24 – October 5. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 9361 3817

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 7

The God of Hell

Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo, August 28

Vanessa Downing and Ben McIvor. Photo: Gareth Davies

Vanessa Downing and Ben McIvor. Photo: Gareth Davies

Rodney Fisher has worked a small miracle at the Old Fitzroy Theatre with the highly naturalistic set that he has managed to install in the tiny space for his production of Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell, which he both directs and designs.

The old-fashioned, wooden-panelled Wisconsin farmhouse that he depicts in great detail – down to the smell of real bacon frying on the stove – creates a believably ordinary world in which Shepard’s surreal black comedy can suddenly explode.

The play is set on a remote, dairy farm where Frank (Tony Poli) and his wife Emma (Vanessa Downing) still have heifers, unlike most of their neighbours who have been paid by the government not to farm.

The day begins slowly like any other. Frank sits polishing his boots, while Emma waters the plants even though the constant sound of dripping suggests watering is the last thing they need.

But today is different. A man called Haynes (Jake Lyall) – the son of an old friend of Frank’s – is hiding in the basement, having arrived terrified. He is clearly on the run, though Frank doesn’t seem too perturbed. What’s more he emits flashes of lightning whenever anyone touches him, which, as Emma says, isn’t normal.

When Frank goes off to attend his heifers, there is a knock at the door and a suited man appears brandishing a cookie with stars-and-stripes icing as if it were a business card, or something more sinister.

The pushy, over-cheery Welch (Ben McIvor) is ostensibly there to sell patriotic paraphernalia but it’s not long before he is grilling Emma about how many rooms there are in the house and whether there is anyone in the basement.

From naturalistic beginnings, the play slides into something more bizarre, with Shepard throwing satire, black comedy, absurdity, farce and elements of a psychological thriller into the mix.

The God of Hell isn’t the subtlest play, wearing its politics on its sleeve, but it burns with a fiery anger. Written in 2004, Shepard depicts old-time America being ruthlessly overtaken by a new world where not flying the American flag outside your home is tantamount to being unpatriotic; a world where democracy is to be protected at all costs and the war of terror is in danger of turning on its own. It may be set in America but its themes chime here too.

Produced by MopHead Productions in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO), Fisher helms an impressive production, proving once more what a terrific (and strangely under-used) director he is.

Vanessa Downing, Tony Poli, Ben McIvor and Jake Lyall. Photo: Gareth Davies

Vanessa Downing, Tony Poli, Ben McIvor and Jake Lyall. Photo: Gareth Davies

Downing gives a quietly compelling performance as Emma, who may be a rustic innocent, out of touch with the world, but is no fool or pushover. She and Poli speak with a more languid rhythm than the other two, but you see her resolve building in the face of Welch’s bullying, while Poli convinces as a decent man so naïvely set in his ways, he is a sitting target.

McIvor combines a grating, smarmy bonhomie with something more menacing, while Lyall is believably coming apart at the seams.

Their American accents sound unobtrusively authentic (to my untrained ear, anyway; props to accent coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley), while Max Lynadvert’s sound and Ryan Shuker’s lighting add to the growing sense of unease.

Running 90 minutes without interval, The God of Hell is a terrific production of a punchy, provocative play and well worth a look.

The God of Hell runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until September 13. Bookings: www.sitco.netau or 1300 307 264