Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers

The Vanguard, December 16

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Jeff Busby

Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen describe themselves as the “oddest of odd couples in opera in Australia”.

Colleagues at Opera Australia, she is a mezzo-soprano who has just played Meg Page in Verdi’s Falstaff in Melbourne and whose roles next year include Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida; he is a tenor best known for comic and character roles, who starts next year as Monostatos in The Magic Flute in Sydney.

Off-stage they have a close relationship, which they have discussed openly in recent media interviews, as a straight woman and gay man raising a son together (though he is not the biological father).

Now, as Strange Bedfellows, they are performing in their first cabaret show together, Under the Covers, which celebrates their relationship and gives vent to their wicked sense of humour and broad musical taste.

Clad in skimpy, sexy outfits, the prevailing vibe is 1930s Weimar cabaret: dark, decadent and deliciously bawdy. It’s pretty out-there on a couple of occasions, with a song about a paedophile watching a young girl on a slide and another about a ménage à trois involving a family pet, but mostly it’s full of mischievous fun.

Under the musical direction of Daryl Wallis, resplendent in sparkling red jacket on the keyboard, they’ve chosen a wonderful eclectic choice of repertoire ranging from Amanda Palmer to Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill with smatterings of INXS, Tiny Tim, Rolf Harris (Jake the Peg) and a few operatic references.

Naturally they both sing superbly. Highlights for me included the more personal moments: Breen’s take on Is That All There Is? about growing up as a gay man and a song that Dark wrote about trying to get pregnant using IVF.

The show would be even better if it had a slightly stronger framework, and if their patter early on gave us the chance to get to know them a little better and therefore connect with them more – particularly for those who don’t know a great deal about them.

However, they both exude oodles of stage presence. Dark is warmly engaging, while Breen with his fascinatingly complex, ambiguous charisma is absolutely in his element.

They ended the show touchingly with Rickie Lee Jones’s We Belong Together to rapturous applause. Under the Covers won’t be to everyone’s taste but for those who love a little salacious fun allied with wonderful musicianship it’s a great night out.

Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers returns to The Vanguard in Sydney on January 3 & 4, then plays at the Butterfly Club in Melbourne, February 18–22.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, December 10

Abbey Norman as Sophie and Jenanne Redman as Mummy with the Tiger. Photo: supplied

Abbey Norman as Sophie and Jenanne Redman as Mummy with the Tiger. Photo: supplied

David Wood’s stage adaptation of Judith Kerr’s much-loved picture book The Tiger Who Came to Tea is a fairly straightforward but enjoyable piece of children’s theatre (recommended for ages 3+).

It doesn’t have the wit or inventiveness of some of the best children’s theatre seen in Sydney over the past year – notably Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s Pete the Sheep and My Darling Patricia’s The Piper presented with Sydney Festival – but it has plenty of warmth and energy.

It tells the fairly simple story of a tiger who arrives just as young Sophie and her Mummy are sitting down for afternoon tea. While displaying exceptionally polite manners, the tiger devours every scrap of food in the house including “all the water in the tap”.

Wood has expanded the action with the addition of some songs and audience participation, including counting as the clock turns. Staged on a picture book-looking set, there’s also some cute magic used to have the food disappear as the tiger eats it.

Naturally it is the tiger – in a rather splendid orange, furry costume – that creates the most excitement, with shrieks of laughter at his pantomime-style entrance when only the audience can see him (“he’s behind you!”).

The children also enjoyed seeing Daddy getting tangled up in his jacket and putting a tea cosy on his head instead of a hat.

The British production, which arrives here after a West End season, runs for just under an hour. It does start to drag a little after the tiger has departed and the family goes out to eat at a café, particularly when a song about “yummy sausages” and “scrummy chips” is sung several times too often.

But overall, it’s a pleasant little show and the children around me seemed to have fun.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea plays at the Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 28 with morning and afternoon performances

Adrian Grant’s Thriller career

An Australian tour of Thriller Live begins in Perth tonight. Adrian Grant talks about meeting Michael Jackson and how the show came about.

Adrian Grant. Photo: supplied

Adrian Grant. Photo: supplied

In 1988, at age 19, Adrian Grant began publishing a Michael Jackson fanzine called Off the Wall from his bedroom in the UK town of Reading.

Little did he know that it would lead to him becoming a long-time associate of Jackson’s, writing three books about the King of Pop, and co-producing a stage show celebrating his music.

Thriller Live has been running in London’s West End for six years now. It has toured to 28 countries and been seen by over three million people. An Australian production opens in Perth tonight then tours to Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney.

“It’s really down to the popularity of Michael’s music,” says Grant of the show’s success. “Those songs will live on forever. We’re just happy to be a small part of his legacy and keep that magic going.”

It all began for Grant when he first saw Jackson moonwalk. “I went out and got the Thriller album and I fell in love with it,” he says.

“Prince had a fan magazine in the UK called Controversy. I used to get it every quarter. I’d just left college, where I was doing business studies, and I wanted to get into the media and I thought, ‘well if Prince is selling 3000 magazines, why hasn’t Michael Jackson got a magazine?’”

After getting permission from Sony, Grant got a grant, bought himself a computer and began publishing a magazine he named Off the Wall after Jackson’s fifth studio album.

“The first one, I printed 200 copies and I sold them by mail order and they all sold out. It was just black and white and there were lots of mistakes,” says Grant.

But he learned quickly. Within a couple of years, he was selling 25,000 copies per issue around the world. He also started sending copies to Jackson’s company in Los Angeles and in 1990 received an invitation to meet Jackson while he was recording his Dangerous album in Los Angeles.

“I went to the studio. I remember that day very clearly. He was wearing a black fedora and a black shirt and I could hear him singing as he came around the corner into the studio,” says Grant.

“I had this painting commissioned by this artist called Vincent McKoy, which was a montage of Michael over the last 20 years, and he was very grateful.”

Not only did Jackson invite Grant to spend the whole day at the studio, he then asked him to have lunch at his house in Neverland at the weekend.

“Again I remember it like yesterday,” says Grant. “I remember driving through the big gates and the security guy escorting me down to the main house. As I was walking down I was just blown away by the scene. There was classical music coming out of the flowerbeds. I could see two little chimpanzees rolling around in the grass – their names were Max and Alex.

“Beyond that there was a giraffe and lamas and a funfair. I said to the guy, ‘this isn’t reality’ and he said, ‘this is reality for Michael Jackson. This is what he wakes up to everyday.’ It kind of made me realise what Michael’s world was. He had the opportunity to have pretty much whatever he wanted.

“At the time much of the media had (mocked) Michael Jackson for the zoo, for the lamas, for the chimpanzees, but I thought, ‘these are the things that he loves.’ They weren’t there just for his personal amusement. They were there for other people to enjoy as well, such as underprivileged and disabled kids who used to go on visits to the ranch. And that was Michael Jackson down to a tee. He was always giving to other people. And he gave me a lot of his time because he knew what I was doing was not just for myself but for his fan base and he appreciated the love and support they were giving him.”

Adrian Grant with Michael Jackson. Photo: supplied

Adrian Grant with Michael Jackson. Photo: supplied

As for the controversial headlines, that wasn’t the man that Grant knew or saw. “He was very open, he was very chatty, he laughed a lot. He was a big kid at heart,” says Grant.

“A couple of his musicians who were working on the album were there (at Neverland) and they were discussing the songs they were working on. He wanted me to feel very comfortable there. We went and played in the arcade room and we watched a movie in his movie theatre. He was just really down to earth. I found him to be like that the whole time I knew him.”

Jackson continued to give Grant access over the years. “I think I must have gone to Neverland at least twice a year every year and I toured with him on his HIStory tour. I saw him recording in the studio a couple more times in New York when he was recording the HIStory album,” says Grant.

“At the time I didn’t think much of it. I was just doing my job and Michael was very open and very giving. But it was good to watch him work. He was a complete genius in the studio. I don’t think people realise what a great musician he was because he often employed the best people and had a very talented team with him. He was such a perfectionist and that’s something I’ve tried to carry through to the show.”

Thriller Live has its roots in a Michael Jackson tribute concert that Grant began staging annually in London in 1991 for readers of the fanzine.

“I think about 1000 people came to the first one. The first show was on a par with the first magazine!” admits Grant with a laugh. “But the audience had a great time. They used dress up like Michael and we invited people to sing his songs and dance in a competition. Again, it got bigger and better every year and the acts got more professional and by the end of it they were giving proper concert performances. Michael used to send over prizes – signed fedoras and the prize for one competition was to go to his home – and he sent over a video crew to film it.

“For the 10th concert in 2001 we went to a bigger venue: the Hammersmith Apollo, which held 3000 fans, and Michael actually attended in person for that one. We built a little tent on the side of the stage so he could watch the whole show without being disturbed. He came on stage afterwards and he said he loved it and that it was incredible and beautiful. That kind of gave me the inspiration to do something bigger not just for Michael Jackson’s fans but for the public at large.

“In 2005, I really started to put it into development. We did a one-off show in August 2006 to see how the public would respond and they loved it. After that I teamed up with Flying Music who were producers with 25 years experience and we put together the first UK tour in 2007 and then in January 2009 we moved into the West End where it’s still running.”

MiG Ayesa in the London production of Thriller Live. Photo: supplied

MiG Ayesa in the London production of Thriller Live. Photo: supplied

The show features two hours of non-stop hits by Jackson and the Jackson 5 performed by five lead singers (including MiG Ayesa and Prinnie Stevens in Australia), 16 dancers and a nine-piece band.

“It’s definitely all about the music,” says Grant. “When I first conceived the show I wanted to bring people back to Michael Jackson’s music, which had been a bit forgotten at the time. There was a lot of media controversy surrounding Michael Jackson and people were just talking about the headlines and not about the artist so I wanted to create a show, which just focused on Michael’s music and artistry on stage. There’s a brief narrative that runs through the show which outlines his achievements and his accolades but it’s there just as timeline to his career.”

Right from the outset, Grant decided to have a number of singers performing Jackson’s songs rather than just one. “First, I didn’t want it to be perceived as a look-alike tribute shot. Secondly, I didn’t think there was anybody who could play Michael Jackson so I wanted to have different performers representing different (aspects) of his personality on stage. It also makes it more interesting for the audience rather than just listening to one voice.”

Grant was at home in London when he heard about Jackson’s death, and could hardly believe it.

“Obviously my first thoughts were with his family, with his young children and his mother (Katherine). I flew out to Los Angeles. I went to the memorial and paid my respects and then I went to Katherine’s home and I met with Paris, Michael’s daughter. I gave her one of my books and she gave me the biggest hug.”

“The night after he passed I didn’t personally want the show to go on,” says Grant. “I wanted to cancel it out of respect to Michael but along with the other producers we made a decision that there was a demand for the show. The cast were in tears and very emotional and they all gave an electric performance. There was thunderous applause from the audience.

“In the end it was the right decision to go on because the venue itself became like a shrine for Michael’s fans.”

Five years since Jackson’s death, Thriller Live continues to moonwalk around the world.

“Really it’s not like a job doing this,” says Grant. “It’s a love for me and a passion.”

Thriller Live plays at the Crown Theatre, Perth until December 21; Festival Theatre, Adelaide, December 30 –January 11; QPAC, Brisbane, January 14 – 25; Arts Centre Melbourne, January 28 – February 8; Lyric Theatre, Sydney, February 26 – March 15

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 30

 

Beyond Desire

Hayes Theatre Co, November 26

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

In development off-and-on for 25 years, the musical Beyond Desire finally has its world premiere at the Hayes Theatre Co. It’s by no means an unqualified success but the music is lovely, with potential for further development of the show as a whole.

Written by Neil Rutherford (book and lyrics) and Kieran Drury (music), Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery inspired by Hamlet, with elements of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and a healthy dash of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.

There’s also a cute Mousetrap-like coda in which the cast ask you – in song – not to reveal the mystery. To be honest, it’s fairly easy to guess what’s going on in the first act and though the show takes a few more surprising twists and turns in the second, not all are convincing.

Beyond Desire is essentially an entertainment: a melodrama lightly laced with serious themes including class and forbidden love.

Set in 1910, Anthony (Blake Bowden) is holidaying in Italy having just graduated from university when he receives a telegram from his mother Louise (Chloe Dallimore). His father Edward (Phillip Lowe) has been found dead in a London hotel room.

The police rule it a suicide but Anthony is suspicious, particularly since Louise marries Edward’s former business partner George (Tony Cogin) shortly afterwards. What’s more, George figures prominently in Edward’s will.

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Together with his university friend James (Ross Hannaford) – who has arrived at the behest of Louise – the melancholic, angry Anthony sets out to discover what really happened.

Making up the household are the housekeeper Mrs Milson (Nancye Hayes) who makes sure she knows everyone’s business, her daughter Emily (Christy Sullivan) who is a maid, and a manservant Syd (David Bulters).

The music, which combines an Edwardian feel with contemporary resonances (Sondheim, Wildhorn, Schonberg & Boublil), is beautiful and emotive. The arrangements for piano, violin, cello, harp, clarinet and horn are lush and sensitively performed by the six-piece band led by musical director Peter Rutherford.

The lyrics, however, are uneven, verging on workmanlike at times, rarely revealing psychological depth. For the most part, the characters sing about the situation they’re in, without adding a great deal more to what we already know.

A poignant duet between Emily and James about their respective love for Anthony is one of the exceptions and a highlight.

Having chosen to present an Edwardian melodrama, Rutherford could have had more fun with the genre and also sharpened the book to build more tension in a show that revolves around deception and secrets. Instead, it’s a bit of an uneasy mix, with audiences not quite sure at times whether they are meant to be laughing or taking it all very seriously.

Rutherford also directs. In fact, his hand is all over the production. Take a good look at the names of the set designer (Luther Forinder) and orchestrator (Leon Ferrithurd).

The costuming is excellent (presumably borrowed as there is no costume design credit). The set isn’t wildly attractive but it works OK in the small space, quickly reforming into various configurations for different settings – though with the band sitting behind, it does all look rather cramped. The lighting meanwhile (Nicholas Rayment) is somewhat heavy-handed.

The production boasts impressive performances from the entire cast. The singing is terrific – though the sound is over-amplified. And the underscoring is sometimes distracting, making it difficult to hear dialogue.

Hayes is outstanding as Mrs Milson, understanding the melodrama style instinctively and bringing just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek fun to her portrayal. It’s a hugely enjoyable, precisely judged comic performance – and a delight to see her making her debut in the theatre that has been named in her honour.

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

She is matched by a winning performance from Sullivan as the young maid Emily, which feels truthful and heartfelt (accent and all), while Bowden is in glorious voice as Anthony. But all the cast have their moments.

Despite the flaws, I still found the show entertaining. It’s refreshing to be taken into a different kind of musical world to the ones we have been seeing on our stages of late. The tone could do with finessing and some tightening would sharpen it (it runs around two hours and 45 minutes including interval) but there is potential for further work.

The theatre program, presented as a 1910 London newspaper, is a nice little touch.

Beyond Desire runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until December 14. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

 

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 30

 

A Christmas Carol

Belvoir St Theatre, November 12

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

The magic begins as soon as you enter the theatre to find the seats dusted with (paper) snow. All over the theatre young and old excitedly lark around with it, dumping it on each other’s heads and tossing snowballs.

It’s the perfect start to Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol: a production so delightful and touching it would melt the hardest heart.

The costuming is contemporary (Mel Page) but the adaptation by director Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie is a faithful telling of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale.

In this materialistic society of ours, the story of the miserly Scrooge resonates as powerfully as ever. Visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, Scrooge learns to open his heart (and wallet).

The messages that although you can’t change your past, it’s never too late to change your ways, and that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, are as beautiful and timely as ever.

The Belvoir stage has rarely looked larger than it does with Michael Hankin’s steeply raked black set. It’s a deceptively simple design with trap doors and a platform that rises and falls, brought to vivid life by Benjamin Cisterne’s dynamic lighting.

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarks’ production doesn’t avoid the dark corners of the story but her production twinkles with joy and playfulness along with showers of snow and glitter, a human Christmas tree, and carol singers in wonderfully naff, knitted Christmas jumpers (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Robert Menzies is perfect as the mean-spirited, grouchy Scrooge, who starts the evening growling “Bah, humbug!” to any mention of Christmas and gradually thaws until he is gamboling in the snow making angel wings.

The other seven actors take on a number of roles each and work together as a tight ensemble. Steve Rodgers brings a beatific smile and deep humanity to the role of Bob Cratchitt, matched by Ursula Yovich as his kind-hearted but tougher, spirited wife. Together they are incredibly touching.

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell’s radiantly glowing face could light the darkest night as Tiny Tim. Wearing a gorgeous confection-of-a-costume made from gold tinsel, Kate Box brings a deliciously mischievous exuberance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Ivan Donato is a more solemn presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a shiny suit, Peter Carroll is hilariously, maniacally unhinged as Jacob Marley, while Eden Falk is decency and kindness personified as Scrooge’s nephew.

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

With music by Stefan Gregory and movement by Scott Witt, the heartwarming, family-friendly production (which runs 75 minutes) moves you to laughter and tears, sending you home filled with the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, I felt so uplifted that the next morning I booked tickets to take my family to see it just before Christmas. A real gift of a show.

A Christmas Carol is at Belvoir St Theatre until December 24. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 9699 3444

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

The Way Things Work

Bondi Pavilion, November 11

Ashley Lyons and nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Ashley Lyons and nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

For his final production as artistic director of Rock Surfers Theatre Company, Leland Kean is directing a new Australian play by Aidan Fennessy called The Way Things Work, which won the inaugural Rock Surfers/Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ) Playwriting Commission.

A dark satire about corruption in NSW, from the highest level down to the criminal underbelly, Fennessy won’t have needed to look far for inspiration with the newspapers full of corruption allegations on both sides of NSW politics and elsewhere in the private sector.

Investigative journalist Kate McClymont was a guest on opening night and in a short speech afterwards confirmed that the fiction on stage wasn’t that far removed from reality.

The Way Things Work unfolds in three sections with two actors playing three sets of characters.

The play opens with Minister Barlow (Nicholas Papademetriou) feeling the heat. The Minister (who surname has lent itself to umpteen scathing headlines) has overseen the construction of a multi-million dollar East-West road tunnel, funded by a public-private partnership. He has brought it in on time and on budget. The trouble is, it’s already beginning to crumble because it was built using ordinary concrete not the required “special concrete” and will eventually cost taxpayers vastly more to repair than it did to build.

The project is now the subject of a Royal Commission and the Minister is keen that certain behind-the-scenes deals are not revealed. He calls his departmental secretary (Ashley Lyons), a senior public servant, in for a meeting and puts pressure on him to “forget” a certain name.

In the second section, we meet the two Greek-Australian brothers whose company supplied the concrete and who are engaged in a power struggle of their own as their company is about to be bought out by a major media conglomerate.

The third section features a prison warden (Papademetriou) and a prisoner (Lyons) who have forged a close relationship over many years. The warden has just enlisted the prisoner as a hit man to prevent another of the inmates testifying at the commission, but there is more bubbling away beneath the surface.

Kean, who designed the set as well as directing, stages the play in a concrete box, which changes under Luiz Pampolha’s noir-ish lighting but which lends the piece a consistently tangible feeling of brutality, ruthlessness and claustrophobia, heightened by Jed Silver’s sound.

On opening night Papademetriou rather overplayed the Minister so that the character verged on the cartoonish, undercutting any genuine sense of reality. Some of the dialogue he was given also stretched credibility a little.

But Papademetriou settled down in the next two scenes with two far more potent, believable characterisations and as the play progressed the tension built nicely.

Lyons gives a chameleon-like performance, morphing convincingly from the anxious public servant determined not to compromise his integrity, to the cocky, blinged-up brother, to the prisoner whose sense of betrayal is surprisingly touching.

Running a tight 100-minutes, Kean keeps the action taut, driven by a macho energy. After a somewhat shaky start, The Way Things Work becomes a darkly funny, entertaining play that will certainly resonate with Sydneysiders.

The Way Things Work plays at Bondi Pavilion until November 29. Bookings: www.rocksurfers.org or 1300 241 167

Switzerland

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 7

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland is a gripping psychological thriller about renowned crime writer Patricia Highsmith that creeps up on you slowly and then has you on the edge of your seat.

Highsmith’s novels include The Talented Mr Ripley, one of several she wrote about the psychopathic, sexually ambiguous Tom Ripley, and Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen.

Born in Texas, but bitter about her lack of serious recognition in her homeland as opposed to Europe where she was feted for her literary skill and psychological insight, she lived her last years in Switzerland, land of neutrality, secret bank accounts, picturesque mountain chalets and cuckoo clocks.

Widely regarded as a tough cookie, the eccentric, tight-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Highsmith (who was bisexual but more drawn to women) was considered misogynistic and cruel, even by her friends. She loved guns and cats and had a strange thing about snails. But Murray-Smith seamlessly weaves into the dialogue pretty much all that you need to know about her.

Murray-Smith’s play was commissioned by Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse – but fortuitously for Sydney audiences they agreed to Sydney Theatre Company staging the world premiere.

Set in the early 1990s, the cleverly constructed, tense drama finds Highsmith (Sarah Peirse) living with cancer towards the end of her life in Switzerland.

A young man called Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren) arrives from her New York publisher bearing jars of peanut butter (the wrong brand) and cans of soup.

Slightly nerdy and understandably nervous given the incident with the knife that befell the publisher’s previous emissary, Edward’s mission is to try to convince her to sign a deal to write one final Ripley novel.

Highsmith lacerates him with withering, caustic wit, delivered by Peirse with savagely funny brutality. But Edward – who is passionate about Highsmith’s oeuvre – holds his own (even if he can’t pronounce oeuvre) and things start to shift into a game of cat and mouse where it’s not clear who’s the cat.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s detailed, realistic set (based apparently on Highsmith’s final Swiss home) – with large fireplace, leather chairs, desk with typewriter, framed weaponry, a portrait of Highsmith, thick windows and spiral staircase leading upstairs – makes a virtue of the awkward, wide stage and works superbly in a way you wouldn’t expect for an intimate two-hander.

Nick Schlieper lights it so that it becomes a place of shifting light and shadows, and Steve Francis’s slightly creepy music heightens the growing tension.

Scott-Mitchell’s costuming is also excellent with loose-fitting jeans and mannish socks and shoes for Peirse, and gradually changing outfits for Farren that reflect his character’s evolution.

Sarah Goodes directs an immaculately paced production, drawing superb performances from the two actors, who take you with them through every tiny emotional twist and turn.

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

The way Peirse reveals sudden flashes of vulnerability, pleasure or admiration beneath the Teflon-tough, gruff exterior is done with a flawless subtlety. She totally inhabits the role. Edward’s transformation is brilliantly judged in an equally subtle performance by Farren.

Murray-Smith celebrates and emulates Highsmith’s writing, while giving us an insight into her fascination with violence and the dark side of human nature. At the same time, she explores a range of ideas including Highsmith’s relationship with her imagination and characters all the while playing intriguing mind games with us. The play is often laugh-out-loud funny too.

As for how the song Happy Talk from the musical South Pacific fits into all this – well, you’ll just have to go and see, but it’s an inspired theatrical moment.

Running 100 minutes without interval, Switzerland is a thrilling piece of writing given a superb production by STC. In some of Murray-Smith’s previous plays you feel her putting words into the mouths of the characters to serve the debate and themes she is discussing. Here the dialogue feels utterly truthful, emerging organically from the mouths of the characters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s her very best play to date. Highly recommended.

Switzerland plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 16