The Government Inspector

Belvoir St Theatre, March 30

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Gareth Davies, Mitchell Butel. Photo: Pia Johnson

As many would know, Belvoir’s 2014 season was to have included a radically reworked production of The Philadelphia Story “created by Simon Stone, based on the play by Philip Barry”.

However, after the subscription brochure was released, it transpired that Barry’s wife was a silent co-writer. The play was therefore not out of copyright and her estate refused to grant the rights.

To fill the gap Stone decided to use the same cast in a production of Nikolai Gogol’s 1836 political satire The Government Inspector. Well, sort of.

Gogol’s farce is set in rural Russia where corrupt bureaucrats mistake a lowly civil servant for a government inspector. They bribe him rotten until, having taken full advantage of them, he does a bunk just before the real inspector arrives.

Stone and his co-writer Emily Barclay have created a piece, devised with the actors, that riffs on Gogol’s themes while being set in a theatre.

The show begins with a morose Robert Menzies, in priest’s garb, stalking on stage to explain that not only will we not be seeing The Philadelphia Story but we won’t be seeing The Government Inspector either, so if anyone wants to leave, now’s the time.

On Ralph Myers’s revolving set – which has a performance space with a gold curtain on one side, and a backstage area on the other – Stone then whisks us back to three weeks before opening.

The actors – Menzies, Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Zahra Newman, Eryn Jean Norvill and Greg Stone – are discovered digesting the news that The Philadelphia Story has been cancelled. Next they learn that Stone has quit as director. Then Davies dies, choking on an activated almond.

Someone suggests staging The Government Inspector and a Google search locates Seyfat Babayev, an Uzbekistani director who recently mounted an avant-garde production. An invitation is sent and he agrees to come. To say more would spoil things.

Using their own names, the actors play heightened, wickedly comical versions of themselves. Butel is a flouncing, self-obsessed luvvie ready to decamp to Playschool if necessary, Norvill an air-headed soap star, Menzies, a grouch who will only enunciate clearly when paid, Stone, needy and ambitious, and Bazzi, a quiet, somewhat vague observer. Davies also plays a hapless actor called Frank who arrives to audition for an improvisation project, while Newman is a Hispanic cleaner with a love of musicals (and what a lovely singing voice she has).

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

Zahra Newman, Fayssal Bazzi, Greg Stone, Robert Menzies, Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Pia Johnson

They all work together as a tight ensemble. To play the panic and escalating chaos in the play requires absolute precision otherwise it descends into a total mess. They do it brilliantly with perfectly pitched performances, making sure we hear what we need to amid the hubbub.

The production becomes a rollicking, clever take on Gogol, skewering human vanity, pretension, ego and ambition, while poking delicious fun at Australian auteur directors (like Stone himself) influenced by European theatre, as well as musicals and theatre in general.

People in the business and committed theatre-goers will probably get most out of it but it’s so hilariously funny you’d have to be as curmudgeonly as Menzies is here not to enjoy it.

The Government Inspector is at Belvoir St Theatre until May 18. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6

Perplex

Wharf 1, April 4

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Perplex by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg starts intriguingly. Andrea (Andrea Demetriades) and Glenn (Glenn Hazeldine) arrive back at their apartment after a holiday to find that the electricity has been cut off, there’s an odd pot-plant in the kitchen and something strange about the coffee table in the lounge – not to mention an awful smell.

Their friends Rebecca (Rebecca Massey) and Tim (Tim Walter), who have been watering the plants for them while they were away, appear and things get weirder. Not only is the electricity on but as far as Rebecca and Tim are concerned, this is their apartment. Outplayed, Andrea and Glenn are evicted.

Then Andrea and Glenn – the four actors use their own names throughout – reappear. Now, Glenn is Rebecca and Tim’s tantrum-throwing son and Andrea is their au pair. Rebecca doesn’t remember hiring an au pair but pretty soon the power shifts and Rebecca is sent packing as Tim and Andrea cosy up.

And so it goes, with characters and relationships morphing and blurring as one scene slides into the next without referencing previous ones.

Once you realise that this is the conceit and structure, the play somehow loses its bite and fascination. There is philosophical talk embracing Darwin and evolution, Plato, and Nietzsche but though Glenn appears at one point in Nazi brown shirt regalia, and the play ends with an absurdist, Pirandello-like scene in which the actors realise they have been abandoned by their director, the dramatic stakes don’t feel particularly high or truly dangerous. In large part that’s because with each change of scene and situation, the characters are let off the existential hook so instead of the tension building, it dissipates.

As Perplex plays with themes of what is real (in life and on the stage), identity and middle class mores and morality, it entertains but doesn’t pack as much of a punch as previous von Mayenburg plays The Ugly One and Fireface.

That’s no reflection on this classy Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Sarah Giles, who lulls us into a false sense of up-beat security with a mood-enhancing blast of Queen’s greatest hits as we enter the auditorium.

Staged on a suitably anonymous, minimalist set designed by Renee Mulder (cream brick wall, mustard carpet, sofa and wooden coffee table) the polished production moves briskly with excellent performances from all four actors. A Nordic fancy dress party, which sees Tim dressed as an elk, Andrea as a volcano, Rebecca as a Viking and Glenn as a skier, with a hilariously madcap sex scene between man and elk, is particularly funny, while Tim spends long spells expounding his theories stark naked. Hazeldine’s brilliantly observed tantrum as the boy Glenn is an inspired piece of physical comedy and a standout moment.

Mid-way through, however, I found my interest in the play waning. Maybe some of the scenes have a different resonance in Germany but here, though the plot may perplex the play doesn’t disturb, perturb or provoke and so it ends up rather washing over you in entertaining, non-threatening, bloodless fashion.

Perplex plays at Wharf 1 until May 3. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

All’s Well That Ends Well

Seymour Centre, April 3

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo:  Seiya Taguchi

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

With a new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, created for the large York Theatre at the Seymour Centre rather than for one of its outdoor seasons, Sport for Jove confirms once more that it is one of Sydney’s most impressive independent companies and its artistic director Damien Ryan an exceptionally fine director of Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely seen. It is a tricky piece: a dark comedy set against a backdrop of war, in which Helena, a smart, virtuous, beautiful young woman does her all to win the love of Bertram, a young French count and seemingly undeserving young whelp who treats her with disdain. He doesn’t love her so doesn’t want to be forced to marry her – fair enough – but his rejection is brutal.

The happy denouement is achieved thanks to a bed-swapping trick and an implausible back-from-the-dead scene – but Ryan’s intelligent, bold, contemporary production takes all this in its stride and not only gives us a compelling drama, with plenty of humour, but one that is very moving at the end.

In a nutshell, Bertram’s mother adopted the orphaned Helena after the death of her father, an eminent physician. While Bertram views her in sisterly fashion, she loves and desires him.

Helena follows Bertram to Paris where she cures the king of a fatal illness. As thanks, the king allows her to choose any husband. Bertram is horrified when she picks him. Though forced to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and flees to fight on the frontline in Italy, vowing that he will never be her husband until she can get the ring off his finger and bear his child.

Helena sets out on a barefoot pilgrimage and eventually encounters three women, one of whom is being courted by Bertram. Through their help, she finally wins her heart’s desire.

Battles of all kinds rage in the play. A literal war provides part of the backdrop but love and sex are also frequently referred to in military-like terms.

Ryan’s production begins with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) sitting on a sleek, glossy black four-poster bed playing a war game on a gaming console, the sounds of battle filling the air as Helena (Francesca Savige) enters in shorts, tights and red Doc Martens to do the hoovering.

Antoinette Barboutis’s set design centres on the one clever, versatile structure, which transforms from the four-poster bed to a sauna-like steam room, military training equipment, a field hospital and Helena’s deathbed. Apparently there are sightline problems if you sit in the side seating blocks but from the front it’s a very effective devise that morphs quickly, making for fluid scene changes.

Ryan tells the story clearly and inventively, driving his production with a hard-edged, modern, punchy energy, complimented by David Stalley’s sound and Toby Knyvett’s lighting. At the same time, the strong cast handles the language exceptionally well, by and large, with the meaning and poetry shining through.

There are lots of clever little touches, which illuminate and entertain without feeling at all gimmicky. Helena is seen reviving a swatted fly to illustrate the magical healing powers she inherited from her father and will use to save the king, while the use of smart phones for Bertram’s rejection of Helena and her bedding of him work a treat.

As for the male nudity in the scene in which all the bachelors are presented for Helena’s consideration, it’s very funny yet apposite. Without knowing most of them, it really is a meat market.

Portraying the three women who help Helena as nurses at a field hospital for wounded soldiers is also an intelligent decision, further marrying the themes of love, sex and war.

The performances are robust and considered across the board. Lembke-Hogan has a strong stage presence and manages Bertram’s sudden emotional conversion at the end so well that it is genuinely moving. Against the odds, we are left feeling that a happy ending between he and Helena is genuinely possible.

Robert Alexander is a standout as the king – frail and at death’s door one minute then in commanding, authoritative form the next, while George Banders brings emotional depth and comic nous to the role of the cowardly Parolles.

But all the cast – which also includes Savige as Helena, Sandra Eldridge, James Lugton, Eloise Winestock, Teresa Jakovich, Megan Drury, Chris Stalley, Sam Haft, Robin Goldsworthy, Chris Tomkinson, Damien Strouthos and Mike Pigott – deserve praise.

Running for three hours and ten minutes, there are times when you feel a little editing might not go astray but no matter. This is a great chance to see a little-staged play in a clear, intelligent, funny and visceral production.

All’s Well That Ends Well is at the Seymour Centre until April 12. Bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au or 02 9351 7940

Pete the Sheep

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, March 29

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s new 50-minute musical for children, Pete the Sheep, is a real beaut show.

Based on the Australian picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, it tells a quirky story with a gentle message about difference, individualism and acceptance.

A new shearer called Shaun arrives in Shaggy Gully – but because he has a sheep-sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog like everyone else, the other shearers send him packing.

However, Pete knows just how to treat a sheep and quickly wins the favour of the flock. When Shaun gives Pete a fancy new look, the other animals (sheep dogs included) are soon lining up to be styled so Shaun and Pete open a shearing salon, inviting the shearers to join them.

Writers Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge have fleshed out the characters and added every pun imaginable, with plenty to amuse adults as well as the children, including the requisite poo joke. (You may never eat a Malteser in quite the same way again). The songs by Phillip Scott (who has written music and lyrics) are very catchy, with a nod to a range of styles from country to jazz, blues and a dash of Broadway.

Jonathan Biggins directs a lively, imaginative production on James Browne’s simple but highly effective set, which captures the feel of the picture book as it transforms from a corrugated iron shearing shed to Shaun’s salon, staged with a little extra sparkle for good measure, all beautifully lit lit by Matthew Marshall.

Dressed in shorts and singlets, the talented cast of four ­– Andrew James, Nat Jobe, Todd Keys and Jeff Teale – play sheep, sheepdogs and shearers morphing between roles with just a change of hat and a different physicality. They all sing, dance and act a treat and give very funny performances ­– though one bright spark in the opening audience wasn’t buying the fact that they were female sheep. “They’re not ladies!” he called out to general merriment.

Recommended for children aged four to nine, Pete the Sheep is a hugely entertaining show with heaps of humour and heart. So don’t be a dag, flock to it!

Pete the Sheep plays at the Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 24 and then on tour. Bookings: http://www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6

Golden Age prices at the Golden Age Cinema and Bar

The top price for an ordinary cinema ticket has hit $20 in Sydney, it was reported over the weekend, with some wondering whether it might prove a psychological barrier. Remember when they cost the equivalent of around just $2? Well, many won’t as that was back in the 1950s.

But on the right night you can still pay $2 for a 1950s film at the Golden Age Cinema and Bar in Surry Hills. If that’s not enough of an inducement, how about tickets costing a mere five cents each?

The newly restored 1940s cinema, which opened in September, is taking cheap Tuesdays to a new level with Golden Age Prices where you pay the same as audiences did when the film was released.

Tomorrow, for example, there’s a screening of 1954 monster horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon with tickets costing $2. On April 22, the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow will set you back all of $4. Recent screenings of the Marx Brothers’ Horse Feathers and Duck Soup from the early 1930s cost just five cents each.

“People love it, it’s a novelty,” says Kate Jinx, the cinema’s director of programming.

“We do classics on Sunday afternoon, cult films on a Saturday night, Fright Friday when it’s horror films, and we also play new releases so this is an opportunity to throw in these oddball films that people really want to see.”

Golden Age Price tickets go on sale at the bar half an hour before the movie.

“You can’t pre-book. The online booking fee would be more than the film sometimes,” says Jinx.

The elegant 56-seat Golden Age Cinema is in heritage-listed Paramount House, an iconic Art Deco building in the area of Surry Hills once known as the Hollywood Quarter.

Originally the head office for Paramount Pictures, the basement cinema was used as its VIP screening room. It has been beautifully restored with antique seats dating from the same era, imported from Zurich, while the original 35mm film projectors are still in the projection room.

The project began a few years ago when Bob Barton and his brothers Barrie and Chris of Right Angle Studio, who launched Rooftop Cinema in Melbourne in 2006, were asked to do something similar as part of the Paramount House redevelopment. When building permission for a rooftop cinema was quashed by objections from neighbours, they decided to restore the screening room instead and build a chic adjoining bar.

Barton says that the bar “was mean’t to feel like it could be from the past or present. It’s like a first-class lounge on a space ship.”

“It is quite futuristic,” agrees Jinx. “It’s a bit like a David Lynch take on the past, I suppose.”

“We didn’t want it to be kitsch,” adds Barton. “We wanted to put people in an evening where they felt they were very much part of the show rather than just an audience so it was very much about putting light on their faces and everyone feeling like a character.”

The bar offers food and quality wine and beers as well as a selection of cocktails, some of them film-themed with terrible puns for names.There was a Gin Hackman, for example, to accompany a screening of The Conversation starring Gene Hackman. Some cocktails are cheaper on a Tuesday along with other drinks specials.

“It’s very much about the whole experience otherwise we would just run a small cinema,” says Barton.

The Golden Age Cinema and Bar is quickly gathering a following.

“It’s great because we get a diverse crowd, so old faces and young glamour all mixing in,” says Barton. “I think that’s the mature kind of place Sydney needs.”

Find out more at http://www.ourgoldenage.com.au

Lucinda Dunn’s Swansong

Lucinda Dunn in one of her Manon costumes. Photo: Lynette Wills

Lucinda Dunn in one of her Manon costumes. Photo: Lynette Wills

Lucinda Dunn was dancing the coveted role of Manon in Brisbane in February when she knew instinctively that the time had come to end her long, brilliant career with the Australian Ballet.

Last month, she announced that after 23 years with the company she will retire at the end of the current Sydney season of Manon, giving her farewell performance on April 23.

Dunn is the AB’s longest reigning ballerina having joined its ranks in 1991 at age 17. Promoted to the top tier of principal in 2002, she was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in January for service to the performing arts through ballet.

She admits that the decision to retire wasn’t easy. “It was hard deciding when to go. It was always going to be difficult. The longer you leave it, the harder it is to leave. I haven’t made the decision lightly or without thought – I’ve been thinking about it for a while,” she says.

Making her long-awaited debut as the tragic Manon in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s beloved, sumptuous ballet ­ – to rapturous reviews – clinched it for her.

“It’s such a fantastic role and ballet that it seemed a fitting way to end my career rather than with a contemporary ballet,” she says. “I was scheduled to dance later in the year but I decided to go while I still have a lot to offer on stage and to an audience.”

Although Dunn has had the odd injury of late, she has been dancing as beautifully as ever despite turning 40 in December.

“(I’ve spent) more than half my life in the company. It’s a part of me but the fact is that when you get older your body is not as resilient. I feel a little bit compromised so I didn’t want the audience seeing that and feeling that,” she says.

“Also, I have two beautiful girls (Claudia and Ava) aged five and two. They mean the world to me and I need to give them more time.”

Dunn is married to the AB’s associate artistic director Danilo Radojevic, who recently announced his own retirement from the company after 17 years. Meanwhile, Claudia and Ava, who have spent a fair amount of time at the AB studio, are already showing signs of wanting to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

“They both love it, coming to ‘mummy’s ballet class,’” says Dunn. “Claudia, my eldest, did her first ballet concert last year and Ava won’t take the tutu off which Claudia has passed down to her. They have been around the dancers and the studio quite a bit. It’s been fantastic that I have been able to have them here.

“I’m extremely lucky that I have been able to return to dancing, because you don’t know what pregnancy will do to your body. I’m so grateful that I was able to return twice and finish my career.”

For Dunn, who has always had a particular love of story ballets, Manon seemed the perfect role for her swansong.

Set in 18th century France, it tells of a beautiful, young woman who is torn between her love for a poor student called Des Grieux and the seductive lure of the wealthy lifestyle of a courtesan offered by the wealthy Monsieur GM. The tragic ending has her dying in Des Grieux’s arms in a Louisiana swamp.

Hard though it is to believe, Dunn hasn’t danced the role until now. “I’ve been in the ballet numerous times in other roles but in 2008 when they last did it I was pregnant with my first daughter so it has been something that I’ve wanted to do,” she says.

“I’ve known the complexity of the character and it’s such a beautiful ballet. At this point in my life I have the artistry to portray her and say farewell.”

She agrees that it is an emotional rollercoaster to perform. “You do have to get to the crux of the character. You can’t hold back. The audience can tell if you are faking it. The end is devastating. I’m drained by the end of it.”

At the beginning of next year, Dunn will become artistic director of the Tanya Pearson Classical Coaching College and the Sydney City Youth Ballet – a return to the Academy where she herself was a student as a teenager.

“Tanya Pearson was influential in my early career,” says Dunn. “My aim was to perform in musicals. My Mum performed in the West End as a singer, dancer and actor and on cruise ships and I thought that would be my path. But Tanya Pearson saw potential in me in the classical field. I entered (and won) the Prix de Lausanne when I was 15. That’s when things changed. As a result of the Prix de Lausanne I won a scholarship to the Royal Ballet School in London and then came back to the Australian Ballet.”

“I’m grateful to have that in front of me,” she says of the new job. “It’s going to be a mourning process, that realisation that I won’t have class everyday or be performing on stage but I will be able to transition to a new career.

“I hope I can pass on what I have learned to help get the most out of a dancer. I have done a bit of teaching and coaching at Tanya Pearson in the past so I have had some experience. I hope I can pass on things to them (to help them) in their early stages. There’s that thing of ‘if I only knew then what I know now.’ I’ll need to learn some new skills in the coming months to be an artistic director. But I’m looking forward to it.”

Manon plays at the Sydney Opera House until April 23. Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com.au or 9250 7777

An edited version of this story appeared in the Daily Telegraph on March 22

Bernadette Peters in Concert

Theatre Royal, April 2

Bernadette Peters performing in Sydney. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters performing in Sydney. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Bernadette Peters is Broadway royalty – and she showed why with this thrilling concert at the start of her Australian tour.

Peters is now 66 but – as we’ve been saying for years – she looks decades younger. In a sparkly, figure-hugging, lavender gown split up the front, her face framed by those trademark russet curls, she looked a million dollars and has a scintillating stage presence to match.

Her distinctive voice, which moves from a gorgeous husky rasp to soaring, bell-like clarity, is also in great shape. Keeping her patter fairly tight, she let the songs do most of the talking, while still maintaining a warm rapport with the audience.

Accompanied by an 11-piece orchestra led by longtime musical director Marvin Laird, she opened with a somewhat tentative version of “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy but with her second number, “No One Is Alone” from Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, she took flight, undoing us emotionally in an instant.

As one of Sondheim’s foremost interpreters, her career has been closely associated with his so it wasn’t surprising that his music dominated the night, with numbers that she has performed in his shows, and others that she hasn’t.

Not that it was all Sondheim by any means. She gave us a handful of songs by Rodgers and Hammerstein: a playful, sassy version of “There is Nothin’ Like a Dame” that showed off her sure sense of comedy and a beautiful rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” both from South Pacific, as well as a cute “(When I Marry) Mr Snow” from Carousel.

Non-Broadway material included an amusingly sexy version of “Fever”, sung draped over the piano, which she has added to her repertoire relatively recently (“it’s my first time, so please be gentle with me”) and Disney’s “When You Wish Upon A Star”.

But it was with the Sondheim that she really shone in numbers including “Being Alive” and “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” from Company, “Johanna” from Sweeney Todd, “With So Little To Be Sure Of” from Anyone Can Whistle and “Children Will Listen” from Into the Woods.

The highlights for me (though I loved it all) were heart-stopping renditions of Sally’s two numbers, “In Buddy’s Eyes” and “Losing My Mind”, from Follies, the last Broadway show she did in 2011. She also sang a moving version of “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, which she performed when she played Desiree in the 2010 Broadway revival. It’s a song that rarely has the same impact when performed out of context but Peters brought it to fresh life.

What makes Peters so incredibly special is the way she tells a story with a song, connecting to each and every word so truthfully that it sends shivers down the spine. Sondheim’s inspired lyrics and haunting melodies seem to shimmer with extra emotion in her caressing care. Performing these three numbers in character, she broke your heart without overplaying them in any way.

She ended the night with two Peter Allen songs, “If You Were Wondering” and “I Honestly Love You” and a lullaby she wrote herself called “Kramer’s Song” to go with a children’s book she penned about her dog. As a composer/lyricist she’s no Sondheim but it was a sweet, heartfelt way to end a magical night.

Peters is Broadway royalty for a reason. Anyone who loves musical theatre should try to catch her while she’s here.

Scroll down to read my interview with Bernadette Peters about the concert tour

Bernadette Peters in Concert: Theatre Royal, Sydney, April 2 – 4, bookings www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100; Jupiters Hotel & Casino, Gold Coast, April 5, bookings www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne April 7 – 8, bookings www.ticketek.com.au