A Doll’s House

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 26

Matilda Ridgway and Francesca Savige. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Matilda Ridgway and Francesca Savige. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

When Ibsen’s A Doll’s House premiered in 1879, the door that Nora slammed behind her at the end of the play sent out shock waves.

It’s not going to generate the controversy that it did then – not in our society anyway – but this finely tuned Sport for Jove Theatre Company production keeps you on the edge of your seat.

As for the play’s relevance, you don’t need to look further than the all-too-regular news stories about men threatening, even killing wives and children, as a result of ugly separations to know that many women still find themselves trapped by men, circumstances and lack of money.

Director Adam Cook takes a traditional approach with a period production that is faithful to Ibsen. It’s clearly been staged on a relatively tight budget but it is so beautifully paced and performed that it reverberates with a clarity and truthfulness that is utterly absorbing.

Hugh O’Connor’s simple set features a plain back wall, inset with three doors, which becomes slightly translucent under certain lighting (Gavan Swift) so that we glimpse the comings and goings of the characters. Carefully chosen pieces of furniture suggest the period, along with O’Connor’s costuming.

Matilda Ridgway’s lovely performance as Nora is at the heart and soul of the production. Initially she is giddily girlish as she plays at being the doll-like wife and little songbird her husband Torvald so frequently refers to. But as reality intervenes in way Torvald would never have thought possible, and the bars of her gilded cage seem to close ever tighter around her, a different Nora begins to emerge. Her final stance is deeply moving.

Ridgway’s face is wonderfully expressive as emotion after emotion chases across it. She behaves in a slightly different way to each of the other characters – Torvald, her old friend Kristine Linde, who has fallen on hard times and arrives out of the blue hoping to find work now that Torvald has been promoted to head of the bank, family friend Dr Rank who has long been in love with Nora and is now facing death, the housemaid Helen who has effectively brought Nora up, and her young children.

And then there’s Nils Krogstad from whom Nora borrowed money to fund a year in Italy that saved Torvald’s life. Not only does Torvald not know where the money came from but Nora forged her father’s signature on the contract. Since then she has been struggling to pay the loan back without Torvald knowing. Now Torvald has decided to sack Krogstad from the bank and give his job to Kristine.

Douglas Hansell is excellent as the morally upright, pompous Torvald, who is misogynistic and domineering without ever realising that he is being anything but the perfect husband. Some of his comments about his wife’s role in life (namely to look after him and their children) triggered gasps from the audience, but Hansell plays it without becoming a one-dimensional villain. His love seems genuine even if he has no idea who his wife really is beneath the identity he has created for her.

Francesca Savige is quietly contained as Kristine who believes Nora needs to grow up and take responsibility for what she has done, Anthony Gooley is suitably creepy as Krogstad, while gradually revealing the troubled man beneath, Barry French is warmly genial as Dr Rank and Annie Byron touching as Helen.

Thom and Bill Blake are cute, cheeky, confident and convincing as Nora’s young sons (roles they share with fellow ATYP students Massimo Di Napoli and Noah Sturzaker).

From start to finish, the production keeps you riveted. At the performance I saw, a young woman behind us, who presumably didn’t know the play, was almost hysterical with excitement at the ending, which had clearly taken her by surprise and knocked her for six. Thrilling.

A Doll’s House is at the Seymour Centre until August 2.

Les Miserables

Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne, July 23 matinee

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

When Les Misérables premiered at London’s Barbican Theatre in 1985, produced by Cameron Mackintosh and the Royal Shakespeare Company, reviews were decidedly mixed and the planned transfer to the West End was in doubt.

But queues began to storm the box office. The people had spoken. Nearly 30 years on, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil’s stirring musical is still running in the West End and has been seen by around 65 million people in 300 cities around the world. (The original Australian production premiered in Sydney in December 1987).

To celebrate the musical’s 25th anniversary, Mackintosh decided to produce a brand new staging of the show with new orchestrations. It’s that version that recently opened at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre – and utterly spectacular it is too, with production values of the highest order.

For the uninitiated, Les Mis is based on Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel. Sung-through in operatic fashion, it is epic in its sweep as it tells the story of Jean Valjean, who after serving 19 years of hard labour for stealing a loaf of bread for his starving niece, breaks his parole in order to break free from the shackles of his convict past and lead a reformed life.

Reborn as a pillar of society and a kind man with a strong social conscience, he is hunted down across the years by the unforgiving policeman Javert. Unfolding against a backdrop of terrible inequality and suffering, leading to a student uprising in Paris, the story embraces themes of class struggle, political idealism, love and self-sacrifice.

 

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean. Photo: Matt Murphy

Simon Gleeson as Jean Valjean. Photo: Matt Murphy

The original production famously used a revolving stage in order to keep the sprawling action moving fluidly across numerous locations and characters, and across time (1815 to 1832).

The revolve was so much part of the original concept that I wondered what the show would be like without it. But the new staging is superb, with state-of-the technology and dramatic lighting allowing for seamless scene changes.

Directed by Laurence Connor and James Powell, with set design by Matt Kinley, substantial scenic elements appear in the blink of an eye, while wonderful, moody projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself help conjure different settings, lend extra atmosphere and create special effects – the convict ship in the opening scene, the underground tunnels of the sewer through which Valjean carries the injured student Marius, and Javert’s jump from the bridge are all brilliantly evoked with projected images.

Paule Constable’s lighting is a vital part of the equation, creating a dark, shadowy world in which white light sculpts the barricades or shines on the dying. The effect is one of painterly chiaroscuro, while the darkness renders many of the scene changes invisible.

Christine Rowland has developed Andreane Neofitou’s original costumes, which add the odd splash of colour to a generally somber palette.

Simon Gleeson is superb as Valjean. His transformation from starving, desperate convict to respected gentleman and loving father to Cosette is brilliantly done and he ages convincingly, helped by the costuming and wigs. As for his singing he is in glorious voice, nowhere more so than with a sublime, heartbreaking rendition of Bring Him Home.

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee is his match as the implacable Javert, turning in a commanding performance vocally and dramatically as he stalks the stage, ramrod straight, exuding a powerful intensity.

Patrice Tipoki finds all the broken-hearted fragility in the destitute Fantine, her lovely voice soaring with a spine-tingling belt. Kerrie Anne Greenland is also a knockout as the streetwise Eponine, hopelessly in love with Marius yet feisty to the last.

Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin (covering for the injured Lara Mulcahy) are hilarious as the inn-keeping Thenardiers. Both have powerful pipes and a sure-fire sense of comedy, providing welcome relief from the darkness of the rest of the story. The way Barron Martin attacks a baguette while dismissing her husband’s manhood, or tilts her head coquettishly when Valjean appears to rescue the young Cosette is priceless, while Ashley brings a wicked gleefulness to Thenardier’s underhand shenanigans. Together they are a grotesquely funny double act.

Euan Doidge has a sweet but fairly light voice, which in this vocal company sounds a bit underpowered, but he is endearing as Marius, coming across as a boyish innocent in the first flush of first love. And he sings Empty Chairs at Empty Tables beautifully.

Chris Durling as Enjolras and Emily Langridge as Cosette don’t yet radiate all the charisma they might but their performances will doubtless grow, and the ensemble is fierce.

From the very opening bars, this new production lifts you up and sweeps you along. The combined power of the story, lyrics and music, complemented by splendid staging and performances, is dramatically thrilling and deeply moving. By the end, I was undone emotionally – and I was not alone.

Les Misérables is currently booking until November 9 in Melbourne. It opens in Perth on January 13 and then in Sydney in March.

The Arrangement

Ken Unsworth’s Studio, Alexandria, July 16

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser and Susannah Lawergren. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Right up front I need to say that Anca Frankenhaeuser and Patrick Harding-Irmer – who together with Susan Barling and Ross Philip make up Australian Dance Artists – are close personal friends.

As a result, I haven’t featured or reviewed any of the wondrous work that they have done in Sydney over the past two decades. Now that I have my own blog, the time has come to rectify that, while declaring my connection.

Last week, in collaboration with eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, composer Jonathan Cooper and The Song Company, Australian Dance Artists (ADA) gave seven performances of a production called The Arrangement, which a small invited audience (around 50 each show) was privileged to see.

The seeds for ADA were sown in 1993, when independent choreographer Norman Hall worked with four dancers from four different generations (Elizabeth Dalman, Harding-Irmer, Barling and Gideon Obarzanek) on a production called 4 Generations. (A history of the company can be found on their website www.australiandanceartists.com).

The four performers that make up ADA are senior artists (veterans, in dance terms) who have had long, prestigious careers in contemporary dance. Among other credits, Philip danced with Sydney Dance Company from 1977 to 1992, while Barling was a member of SDC from 1978 to 1991. Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer performed for 15 and 17 years respectively with London Contemporary Dance Theatre during the 1970s and 80s.

Their experience brings an emotional depth to their dancing that speaks reams.

Since 2000, ADA has collaborated with Unsworth (now 84). Their productions – which are part-performance and part-installation, frequently with live music – are something of a mindf**k. Stunning visual images from the wonderfully whacky world according to Unsworth, which often have you feeling like you have fallen down a rabbit’s hole, combine with profound connections between the four dancers whose choreography is a response to both Unsworth’s imagery and the music.

Together, Unsworth and ADA have presented work at a range of different venues including the Art Gallery of NSW, Cockatoo Island and Unsworth’s studio in Alexandria, where he has created a stage and a small auditorium with three rows of church pews.

The Arrangement, which, like all their work was totally financed by Unsworth, features a newly commissioned score by Cooper for piano, cello, flute and clarinet. A song cycle with settings of texts by A.E. Housman, Federico Garcia Lorca, W. H. Auden, Barnabe Googe and Rainer Maria Rilke for six singers, the score also includes musical interludes.

With Roland Peelman, director of The Song Company, as musical director, the music is beautiful and well suited to dance.

For The Arrangement, staged at Unsworth’s studio, Unsworth dug a pit beneath the stage especially and moved a pillar to extend the stage width-wise.

The production begins with projections (AV design by Tim Hope) of the dancers’ faces. Unsworth then glides across the stage behind a black shape suggesting the back of a piano. With his long, silvery white hair gleaming in the lights, he turns his head from side to side like one of those galleries of clowns at the fairground where you attempt to throw a ball into their open mouth. Then, sounding a large tuning fork like a magician conjuring the show with a wand, the music begins.

The non-narrative production is full of arresting images and vignettes around themes of ascension and descent, levitation, love, consolation, the passing of time and the inevitability of death – at least that’s what I took from it. Unsworth has never been one to spell anything out.

Early in the production, a singer (soprano, Susannah Lawergren) rises angel-like from the illuminated pit beneath the stage through a trap door, disappearing through a hole in the ceiling, chanting “again, and again, and again”. Later she descends in a space-age looking bubble (pictured) and at the end of the production descends back into the pit.

The vocalists all have a fair amount to do while singing. Alto Hannah Fraser flies through the air on a swing. (Mathew Lynn’s portrait of Unsworth in this year’s Archibald Prize features the sculptor on a swing, referencing Fragonard’s famous Rococo painting The Swing). The six-strong vocal ensemble climbs a frame along the back wall of the stage and pass wine from glass to glass. An archangel-type figure in long golden gown with stick arms and legs (baritone, Mark Donnelly) is suspended over the stage from an overhead track.

Visually, as in all the collaborations between Unsworth and ADA, the tumult of images never ceases to surprise and delight, enhanced by Pamela McGraw’s costumes and Eddi Goodfellow’s lighting. Barling reclines in a quivering bed of flowers, Philip interacts with a leg and arm from a mannequin, Harding-Irmer hangs listlessly in a hammock while Frankenhaeuser clambours over him in cajoling fashion. A large doll crosses the stage on a wooden rocking horse as a baby’s cries fill the space and, in a beautiful moment using video, Frankenhaeuser appears to levitate.

The choreography is by the four dancers, with Hall as choreographic collaborator. One of the most powerful moments is a duet between Frankenhaeuser and Harding-Irmer. He stands on an illuminated ball, back to the audience. From behind him, Frankenhaeuser’s hands, arms and feet float and flutter in a dance of their own. Appearing at his side, her body seems charged with an agitated, buzzing energy, which she then plucks and flicks from her, channeling it into his body until his hands and arms start to shake as hers had done.

The duets between Harding-Irmer and Frankenhaeuser seem to speak of nurturing and symbiosis. Those between Philip and Barling suggest something spikier, edgier, more tempestuous and perhaps combative.

Without the budget of a big commercial production where hydraulics and computerisation make for fluid scene changes, some of the scenic elements judder, clank and bang but that is part of the charm of a production, hand-made with so much love, unfolding there for us, so close to us.

The collaborations between Unsworth and ADA are unique, idiosyncratic and special. There is an element of the weird and wonderful as well as the impishly playful, yet the work is underpinned at every turn by a sense of humanity and layered emotion. It is a shame these productions aren’t being picked up and given another life. I’m surprised festivals aren’t tuning in. As it is, Unsworth and ADA have already started talking about the next one.

* The singers from The Song Company also included Clive Birch, Richard Black and Anna Fraser, while Ollie Miller played cello, Lamorna Nightingale played flute and Jason Noble played clarinet.

Every Second

Eternity Playhouse, July 1

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

“How could there not be a baby? With all that love?”

So says Bill in Every Second, a new Australian play by Vanessa Bates about two couples struggling to conceive.

Bill (Glenn Hazeldine) and Jen (Georgina Symes) decide to try IVF and stay strong through the ordeal. Their younger friends Meg (Julia Ohannessian) and Tim (Simon Corfield) are finding their quest for a baby more stressful.

Meg opts for natural therapies but is becoming very anxious. Tim is heartily sick of vile-tasting herbal remedies and sex becoming a chore. (There are several candid representations of sex and fertility testing, just so you know.)

Bates’s writing is pared back, heightened and very funny at times. She creates believable characters but needs to explore their situation in greater emotional depth if we are to be moved by their plight. Desperately wanting a child and not being able to have one is emotionally devastating for many people and Bates goes some way to capturing that. But it would be interesting if she were to analyse why they want a child so desperately. Is it just the hormonal urge or something else?

Certain things in the script (a hit-and-run accident, a plea to a dead friend, an extramarital fling) feel unresolved and rather cursorily dealt with, while a sperm ballet (a nod, presumably, to the sperm scene in Woody Allen’s film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) sits oddly and isn’t that funny.

That said, Shannon Murphy directs a terrific, nifty, inventive production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, with strong performances from all four actors. Andy McDonell’s abstract set – a spiral ramp around a womb-like core – works extremely well.

One in 33 Australian babies are conceived via IVF so Bates has tuned into a common experience. For the drama to resonant more broadly, she could usefully expand her story and deepen its emotional layers.

Every Second plays at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst until July 27. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 13

Mario

Hayes Theatre Co, July 9

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

Blake Bowden and Phil Scott. Photo: supplied

The new cabaret show Mario, conceived and performed by Phil Scott and Blake Bowden, takes a fairly straightforward biographical approach to the life of Mario Lanza, lacing the narrative with much of the music he was famous for singing.

With his glorious romantic tenor voice, the Brooklyn-born American-Italian was a 1950s superstar. He could have sung at the Met but chose to stay at MGM, where he had become a silver screen heartthrob, in order to play his hero in The Great Carouso.

Lanza’s career blazed brightly – but fizzled out just as quickly. He over-indulged in food and drink, and threw his weight around on set, getting himself sacked from MGM’s The Student Prince. He died aged 38, probably from a pulmonary embolism – though there were rumours the mafia had bumped him off.

Written by Scott and directed by Chris Parker, the show takes a linear, chronological approach. Given the 70-minute time constraint, it fairly hurtles through Lanza’s life: his discovery, rocketing career, marriage, the war and his demise.

Some things like his many affairs are dealt with in a phrase or two, while cheeky jump cuts help pack it all in. A brief war scene is followed by the comment, “Well, now that the war’s over” (or words to that effect). And on we go.

Scott’s script is well-written but is a fairly superficial skimming over Lanza’s life with just enough information to link the musical numbers.

Although Bowden doesn’t have quite the same dark, passionate, Italianate sound as Lanza, he does have a lovely tenor voice and sings the material beautifully, moving effortlessly between numbers including Granada, Your tiny hand is frozen from La Boheme, Nessun Dorma, We’ll Meet Again, The Loveliest Night of the Year, and the drinking song from The Student Prince.

Lanza’s growing girth, so frequently referred to, is left to our imagination – (Bowden is a lithe, trim figure) – and a padded jacket or some such costuming might not go astray.

Scott accompanies him brilliantly on piano, with his usual panache. He also plays a cavalcade of characters including a singing teacher, Louis B. Mayer, a personal trainer and a mafia hit man, lending the piece an extra theatricality.

If you know about Lanza, there’s nothing terribly surprising here in terms of the story or the way it is told. But for many in the opening night audience it was clearly a wonderful nostalgia trip. For those who don’t know about Lanza, it’s an entertaining introduction to a legendary performer who died all too young, that may well send them in search of more information.

Mario plays at the Hayes Theatre Co tonight and tomorrow at 6.30pm. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au

Love and Death and an American Guitar

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Toby Francis. Photo: supplied

Even if you don’t know the name Jim Steinman, you will almost certainly know many of his songs. He wrote Meatloaf’s epic Bat out of Hell, for starters, along with Total Eclipse of the Heart, Holding Out for a Hero, You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth and It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.

In his new cabaret show, Love and Death and an American Guitar, Toby Francis picks up an electric guitar and in the guise of Steinman gives voice to his songs, ambitions and frustrations. Chief among the latter are his bitter resentment at Meatloaf getting all the glory (and the money) and his angst at never getting his musical Neverland off the ground.

Francis, who wrote the show, has employed a clever structure in which he has Steinman talk through his ideas for Neverland – a dystopian take on J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, set in New York, which he is struggling to finish – as if pitching the show to potential producers.

Steinman did, in fact, begin his career in musical theatre, where his credits include writing the lyrics for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Whistle Down the Wind and music for Dance of the Vampires. In 1997, he held a workshop of Neverland, three songs from which were picked up by Meatloaf: Bat out of Hell, Heaven Can Wait, and The Formation of the Pack, which was re-titled All Revved Up With No Place to Go.

Francis begins his show with Steinman’s spoken rock song Love and Death and an American Guitar (later recorded as Wasted Youth) and from there launches into Bat Out of Hell.

With occasional support from guest singer Noni McCallum, he rips through many of Steinman’s hits, his rock tenor voice well suited to the material. The dialogue gives us a fascinating taste of Steinman’s career and the musical that Neverland might have been, as well as a keen sense of his disillusionment.

Directed by Neil Gooding with moody projections evoking the world of Neverland by production designer Lauren Peters, the show begs to be performed with a fierce, rocking live band but musical director Andrew Worboys does a good job on piano and synthesizer.

The three-performance season as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season ended on Sunday with Francis going down on bended knee to propose to Peters at the curtain call. What an encore!

The show deserves to make a return – and doubtless will.

Snow White – Winter Family Musical

State Theatre, July 4

Magda Szubanski and ensemble. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Magda Szubanski and ensemble. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

The Christmas pantomime is a popular British tradition. After success in the US, Bonnie Lythgoe hopes to introduce an annual panto here. If her first production, Snow White – Winter Family Musical, is anything to go by, she could be onto a winner.

Snow White takes the time-honoured panto formula and gives it a contemporary shake, adding pop songs by the likes of One Direction and Michael Jackson, and lacing the script with just enough local references and topical jokes for both adults and children.

The costumes and old-school painted backdrops hark back to classic panto, giving the show a nostalgic charm, and look great.

On opening night, the performers quickly involved the audience who entered into the spirit of it with gusto, booing the Wicked Queen, shouting to warn Snow White not to eat the apple, and shrieking during the famous ghost gag.

Lythgoe, who produces and directs, has cast the show cleverly with celebrities and actors who understand the performance style. Magda Szubanski, in particular, is fabulous as the wicked Queen Grismalda, interacting with the audience with quick-smart ease.

Josh Adamson, Peter Everett and Jimmy Rees. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Josh Adamson, Peter Everett and Jimmy Rees. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Jimmy Rees (aka Jimmy Giggle from the ABC TV show Giggle & Hoot) also nails it as the hapless jester Muddles, who is hopelessly devoted to Snow White. Both of them pitch their performances perfectly, mining every ounce of comedy without overdoing it.

Newcomer Erin Clare (who was discovered during a national search for an unknown performer to play the role) shines as Snow White, embodying just the kind of fairytale heroine that little children imagine. Peter Everett is endearing as Chambers, loyal courtier and friend to Snow White, Andrew Cutcliffe is suitably dashing as Prince Handsome, and Josh Adamson has the right swagger as Herman the Huntsman. Sir Cliff Richard and Kyle Sandilands lend strong support as the Queen’s (pre-recorded) two-faced mirror.

The seven dwarves are played by children in cartoony heads, straight out of a picture book or animated film, which works surprisingly well.

Erin Clare with the seven dwarves. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Erin Clare with the seven dwarves. Photo: Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Running just over two hours including interval, Snow White does feel a little long at times, particularly the extended ghost gag. The odd nip and tuck wouldn’t hurt. However, the three little girls in front of us, who ranged in age from around three to six, clearly had a wonderful time and hardly a restless moment.

In Lythgoe’s care, Snow White is good old-fashioned entertainment and great fun for all the family. “Oh no it isn’t! Oh YES it is!”

Snow White – Winter Family Musical plays at Sydney’s State Theatre until July 13. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

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