Keith Robinson, back where he belongs


Keith Robinson and Lucia Mastrantone rehearse Twelfth Night for Belvoir. Photo: Brett Boardman

In 2006, Keith Robinson went from being a fit, active young man to suddenly being unable to walk.

The highly regarded, busy actor, known for his comedy skills, was diagnosed with a variant of Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rapid-onset condition causing extreme muscular weakness, and was in hospital and rehabilitation for five-and-a-half months.

“I went from running around the block to not be able to walk in a three-week period. There was no sense of being unwell or sick, it was just like it was happening to somebody else. My whole body muscularly just powered down to nothing virtually. But then I regained some strength to where I’m wheelchair bound but I can take care of myself, sort of,” says Robinson.

A decade on, he is back on stage for the first time since his diagnosis, playing the clown Feste in a Belvoir production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, directed by the company’s artistic director Eamon Flack.

Robinson has performed in many Belvoir productions over the years. In the early 1990s he was part of the Company B ensemble and appeared in landmark productions including Hamlet with Richard Roxburgh, Geoffrey Rush and Cate Blanchett in 1994 and The Tempest with Blanchett and John Bell in 1995.

His other credits include the original Australian production of Les Miserables and Nicholas Nickleby for Sydney Theatre Company. He also co-wrote The Popular Mechanicals with Tony Taylor, a wonderfully mad comedy inspired by Bottom and co in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which premiered at Belvoir directed by Rush.

Returning to the stage is “wonderful”, says Robinson during a break in rehearsals.

“For better or worse I actually identified myself almost entirely through my work so when that was taken away it’s like my whole life was just ripped away from me.

“This was the first (acting) offer I’ve had and it came out of the blue. At the end of last year my agent Sue Barnett was calling me. I thought she was ringing to say ‘let’s have a coffee’ but she said, ‘no, I am actually ringing as your agent.’ All those synapses and nerves just sparked back into life: a job!” says Robinson with a laugh, admitting he now hopes others will follow.

Robinson says he doesn’t know why Flack decided to offer him the role. “That may be a question for the final night at the bar: ‘so, how did it happen?’” he says grinning.

“There seems to be a society-wide sea-change in terms of diversity in all sorts of areas and certainly in the theatre in terms of gender blind casting, ethnicity blind casting and now mobility/ability blind casting. To my knowledge this is the first time that one of the main (Australian) theatre companies has cast like this where the character isn’t in a wheelchair but the actor is. So I take my hat off to Belvoir,” says Robinson.

Chatting in the rehearsal room, where a special ramp has been built leading up onto the stage area and where there are several wheelchairs behind a wall on the set, Robinson admits that having excitedly accepted the offer to perform in Twelfth Night, he then had second thoughts.

Feste has several melancholic songs in the play – with Alan John composing the score for Flack’s production – and Robinson was worried that he wouldn’t be able to handle them.

“To be honest with you, I actually said ‘yes’ and then got cold feet and pulled out and said, ‘no, this is beyond my technical and physical capability’ because one of the things that happened to me is that I lost all my abdominal muscles, all my intercostals, all my breath support, diaphragm muscles. I just felt that the songs that Feste has were an essential part of the character and I felt, ‘I can’t do them,’” he says.

“I met with Eamon one more time and he literally batted away all the negative feelings that I brought to the table and he said, ‘we’ll deal with it, we’ll deal with it.’ And I felt, ‘well if you are willing, who am I to say no?’ So we are finding theatrical ways to render the songs that might not be expected.”

Working with Flack has been “fantastic”, says Robinson. “I wanted to be in a rehearsal room with Eamon (because) his ethos and aesthetics seemed to be like-minded to mine and a lot of the fun you have (on a show) is in that initial rehearsal period where you are delving into the piece and exploring it, and I liked his mind.

“I was so thrilled when he got the artistic directorship of Belvoir. Having seen his productions of The Glass Menagerie and Angels in America, I felt there was nobody better suited to the Belvoir company. I think he is in so many ways the natural successor to the company that it had been in the past. He will take it into new territory but not in a divorced way from what has gone before.”

Twelfth Night plays Belvoir St Theatre until September 4. Book: or 02 9699 3444

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on Sunday July 24

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown

Hayes Theatre Co, July 6

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Sheridan Harbridge, Laura Murphy, Mike Whalley, Andy Dexterity, Nat Jobe and Ben Gerrard. Photo: Noni Carroll

First staged off-Broadway in 1967, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is based on Charles M. Schulz’s legendary, long-running comic strip Peanuts with its group of anxious children and their beagle Snoopy, whose imaginary life includes being a World War I flying ace.

The musical comedy charts a day in the life of Charlie Brown told through a series of vignettes with catchy songs by Clark Gesner and Andrew Lippa (brought to perky life by musical director Michael Tyack and his four-piece band).

In keeping with the simplicity of Schulz’s drawings, Georgia Hopkins has designed a minimal set consisting of several drapes and a few set pieces including Schroeder’s piano, Snoopy’s kennel and a bench, while her costumes are instantly recognisable. Hugh Hamilton’s lighting brings plenty of colour to the simple staging.

Deftly directed by Shaun Rennie, the production boasts a cast of gifted comic actors who capture the wry, bittersweet humour of the piece so that it is charming but not too cutesy.

Interestingly, the York Theater Company experimented with a production, that ran off-Broadway in June, featuring relatively young children who had professional stage experience, some of them on Broadway. It led the New York Times to conclude that “this is a more demanding musical than you might remember” and that “there is a fair amount of complexity in these seemingly simple characters, which is why Charlie Brown is best when performed by adults, or at least by high school students.”

The adults in this Hayes Theatre Co production certainly find the emotional nuances in the characters.

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Sheridan Harbridge and Mike Whalley. Photo: Noni Carroll

At the heart of the show, Mike Whalley may not have the strongest singing voice but he is endearing as the lovable loser Charlie Brown. At times you want to hug him but his Charlie is no sad sack. Along with his loneliness and awkwardness, Whalley conveys Charlie’s resilient hope and droll self-awareness.

Sheridan Harbridge is hilarious as the forceful, super-crabby Lucy. Laura Murphy brings just the right heightened energy to Charlie’s indignant, stroppy younger sister Sally and her song My New Philosophy is a musical highlight.

Ben Gerrard as the smart, lisping, blanket-carrying Linus and Nat Jobe as the Beethoven-loving Schroeder are also spot on. Andy Dexterity (who does a terrific job as choreographer) stepped in late as Snoopy and does a commendable job though he still has more to find in his two big numbers.

Unfolding in a similar vein throughout, there are no great dramatic surprises but the musical is funny and gently touching. Children will find it accessible but the stronger appeal is the sense of nostalgia for adults looking back on childhood.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until July 30. Bookings: or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 9

Singin’ in the Rain

Lyric Theatre, July 9


Grant Almirall as Don Lockwood singin’ and dancin’ in the rain. Photo: Hagen Hopkins.

Based on the beloved 1952 MGM movie, this production of the musical Singin’ in the Rain is largely faithful to the film. You get what you expect but without the excitement of a truly inventive, reimagined staging.

However, there’s no denying the thrill of the joyous, splashy Singin’ in the Rain sequences at the end of Act I and the finale, which take place in heavy showers (12,000 litres of water apparently), dousing people in the front few rows of the stalls (ponchos provided) and sending the audience out on a high.

Directed by Jonathan Church, who left Sydney Theatre Company in May just months after being appointed artistic director, the production originated at the UK’s Chichester Festival in 2011 then transferred to the West End.

Act I is slow to fire. Apparently Church was given little freedom to rework the original screenplay. Simon Higlett’s set is also partly to blame. Set in Hollywood in the late 1920s as the talkies were about to revolutionise the industry, it’s a clever idea to set the show on a Hollywood soundstage. However, the grey walls make for a drab setting that frequently leeches energy despite coloured back lighting (Tim Mitchell) and attractive costuming. It’s not such an issue in Act II where rainbow hues and illuminated signs brighten the stage for the Broadway Ballet.

The black and white footage of the talkie that they are making, shown on a giant screen, is brilliantly done and extremely funny (video design by Ian William Galloway).

Andrew Wright had more leeway to change the choreography, which is always lively and sometimes thrilling as in the tap routines for Moses Supposes and Good Morning, though we miss some of the famous tricks (like the backflip off the wall) in Make ‘Em Laugh.


Gretel Scarlett, Jack Chambers and Grant Almirall in Good Morning. Photo: Lindsay Kearney

The iconic pas de deux between Cyd Charisse and Gene Kelly in the film has been replaced by the girl (a wonderful Nadia Coote with gorgeous leg extensions) partnered by the male ensemble and is beautifully danced (the ensemble dancing is sharp throughout) though it doesn’t have quite the same impact as that gorgeous, sexy duet.

Replacing the injured Adam Garcia as Hollywood heartthrob Don Lockwood, South African performer Grant Almirall is a strong dancer, sings well and understands the period style but he doesn’t exude huge charisma.

As aspiring actor and Don’s love interest, Kathy Selden, Gretel Scarlett dances up a storm, sings sweetly and conveys a warm sincerity in a winning performance. Erika Heynatz is a hoot as Don’s shrill, manipulative co-star Lina Lamont. She does a great job of sustaining Lina’s screechy voice and strangled accent, while the scene in which she tries to act in her first talkie is a comic highlight.

As Don’s sidekick Cosmo Brown, the elastic-limbed Jack Chambers dances superbly and lands the cheesy, vaudevillian shtick, while Rodney Dobson has just the right comic energy as film director Roscoe Dexter.

The 14-piece band, perched high above the stage, is impressive under musical director Adrian Kirk.


Rodney Dobson and Erika Heynatz. Photo: Jeff Busby

Overall, it’s a polished production with plenty to enjoy. But apart from the stunning rain routines, it just lacks that special something that makes a good production great.

Singin’ in the Rain plays at the Lyric Theatre until September 4. Bookings:

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 10

Hispanic Attack!

Hayes Theatre Co, June 26

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Ryan Gonzalez as his comic alter-ego….. Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: supplied

Ryan Gonzalez, Spanish singer/dancer and leading man of telenovela, is a superstar all over the Latin world – and in parts of South Korea – but he is yet to crack it in the English-speaking world thanks to his one-time friend, now sworn enemy, Ricky Martin.

In Australia for first time, he was to have performed at the Sydney Cricket Ground but due to a rather mysterious ticketing mix-up the venue was suddenly unavailable (guess who had the dates) and so rather than disappoint his fans, he decides to unleash his “hispanic attack” at the rather smaller Hayes Theatre Co.

Ryan Gonzalez is the comic creation of his real-life musical theatre performer namesake, whose credits include Strictly Ballroom, King Kong, Legally Blonde, Violet and the forthcoming Kinky Boots. He is currently dancing in Opera Australia’s new production of Carmen at the Sydney Opera House.

In his first cabaret show Hispanic Attack!, written and directed by Richard Carroll, Gonzalez unleashes the ultimate hip-swivelling Latin lothario, who loves the ladies almost as much as himself, keeping count of his virgin conquests with the number of ruffles on his unbuttoned shirt.

Telling the story of his life from humble beginnings as the only son in a family of 18 children (dutifully naming all 17 sisters), Gonzalez takes us through his life from his discovery on a children’s television talent show, to stardom in a boyband with Ricky Martin, whose subsequent betrayal has left him eternally embittered despite performing at the Eurovision Song Contest three times.

The real Gonzalez is a fabulous dancer and a strong singer and actor. He fully inhabits his self-obsessed comic alter-ego, sustaining the heavy accent and character with oodles of pizzazz. Accompanied by musical director Conrad Hamill on keys, the soundtrack to the show includes hits by the likes of Gloria Estefan, Santana, Jennifer Lopez, Shakira and even his nemesis Ricky Martin.

Having starred in a production of The Phantom of the Opera with Christine Aguilera, who was supposed to appear but has gone the same way as the SCG booking, there’s also a very funny version of All I Ask of You in which he sings Christine in a soaring pop voice and Raoul in a traditional musical theatre tenor (even though he says he played the Phantom, but no matter).

Amy Campbell’s Latin-inspired choreography gives him the chance to make the most of his mobile hips and fleetest of feet and he struts his stuff with consummate flair, throwing in the splits for good measure.

The show explodes at a similar pitch throughout and many of the jokes centre around his gyrating groin, but Gonzalez plays the stereotype to the hilt with such infectious good humour, it’s a great deal of fun.

Todd McKenney: What a Life!

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Todd McKenney. Photo: supplied

Todd McKenney is not one to sit around waiting for work. If he’s not in a musical or on television, he produces things for himself. And with three stage shows on the go, he is becoming quite the entrepreneur.

“I’ve got a big mortgage, I have to,” he says with a big laugh.

“That’s the problem with buying a big house, it comes with a big mortgage. It does motivate me to keep getting out there but I am also single. I’ve got my dogs and I’ve got my career. I don’t have a partner. I don’t have any real distractions. If I’m not (working) I’m just sitting at home. And I love (performing) so why not do it?

“I do think it’s a double edged thing,” he adds. “Because I work so much I don’t get out to meet people but then if I had a partner I don’t think I’d work as much – so I don’t know if I really want one or not. It’s a cliché but I’m pretty much married to my work.”

McKenney’s latest show What a Life! premieres at Glen Street Theatre in Belrose on July 7 and then tours to Dapto, Campbelltown, Bankstown and Rooty Hill, with performances in Melbourne at the end of the year.

Although it celebrates his 30 years in showbiz, McKenney says that it won’t be a chronological survey of his career. “I don’t want it to be a musical theatre show. I want it to be artists and music from whatever genre that have influenced me growing up. Every single song has had a big impact on me,” he says.

“It’s a really mixed bag of material. There’s some Peter Allen, of course, but not much of it. There is everything from The Andrews Sisters to Bette Midler, Tom Jones, Prince – all the music that I grew up with – and a medley from Cabaret so it’s musical theatre meets pop meets nostalgia meets Peter Allen.”

The former hoofer has decided to dust off his tap shoes for a rendition of I Got Rhythm to end Act I. “I put them on and clopped around my lounge room making sure my feet still know what to do – and they did.  My dogs were looking at me thinking, ‘what the heck?’ But that was when I got the biggest wave of nostalgia. I haven’t choreographed tap dancing for myself in 25 years,” he says.

The show will end with a Peter Allen mega-medley. “I think I’d by lynched if I didn’t do Peter Allen. But I want to try and do slightly different arrangements of things and some songs that aren’t in the Peter Allen show,” he says.

His other shows include the popular Todd McKenney Sings Peter Allen, performed with his band and backing vocalists (which arrives at Penrith Panthers on July 1 and Mittagong RSL on July 2) and The Piano Sessions, a more intimate show touring regional NSW from September, which he describes as a cross-between the Peter Allen show and What a Life!

In September, McKenney also plans to launch a series of Sunday afternoon “in conversations” at the Ensemble Theatre where he is patron, at which he will interview a musical theatre performer and intersperse their chat with songs.

As he says: “I’m not short of an idea!”

What a Life! plays at Glen St Theatre, Belrose, July 7 – 9. Bookings: 02 9975 1455. Touring details:

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 26

Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark

Wharf 1, June 19

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Richard Higgins as Hamlet and Matt Kelly as Claudius. Photo: Prudence Upton

Anyone familiar with children’s comedy duo The Listies will know that fart, poo and vomit jokes feature large – and a Listies production of Shakespeare is no different.

The Listies are a classic odd couple with Richard Higgins as the sensible straight man and Matt Kelly as the goofy mischief-maker. Their latest show Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark, was created in cahoots with Declan Greene (of renowned queer Melbourne theatre group Sisters Grimm).

It’s a terrific match. Greene, who also directs, has helped them streamline their shtick into a more tightly structured show without losing any of the ridiculous fun that they are known for.

Presented by Sydney Theatre Company, Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark begins with Higgins and Kelly in usher’s outfits doing a lackadaisical job of guiding people to their seats. But when the lights go up on stage, there’s not an actor in sight. It turns out they are all suffering from “the brown plague” having eaten blue cheese that was 400-years past its use-by date, which Matt gave them in an opening night gift basket.

Rather than disappointing the audience, the duo decide to perform the play themselves with Rich in doublet and hose as Hamlet and Matt as everyone else except Ophelia, who they talk the stage manager Olga (Olga Miller) into playing.

However, they only have 60 minutes because that’s how long it takes for the brown plague to turn your innards to liquid, and Matt has made Rich taste the poisonous cheese too.

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Olga Miller and Matt Kelly. Photo: Prudence Upton

Aiming for a “confrontingly traditional” production, Rich does his best to stick to the plot, explaining it in simple terms for children and jumping from one big moment to the next. But before too long things start spinning out of control. Matt can’t help playing up and Olga’s feisty Ophelia isn’t going quietly to a nunnery and instead heads to Planet Nunnery with Claudius, returning as a zombie.

Throw in a dancing dinosaur, tea towel aliens, a giant ear, silly string, a communal version of “To be, or not to be” and a trademark list and you have one of the funniest introductions to Shakespeare imaginable.

Renee Mulder’s set (a painted castle which looks like a storybook pop-up) and wonderfully silly costumes complement the shenanigans perfectly.

Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark is recommended for ages 5+ but there is plenty of smart humour for the adults too, with young and old all laughing along together at the riotously funny Bard-arse show.

Hamlet: Prince of Skidmark plays at Wharf 1 until July 17. Bookings: or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on June 26

Inner Voices

Old Fitz Theatre, June 17

Damien Strouthos in INNER VOICES (c) Ross Waldron

Damien Strouthos as Ivan. Photo: Ross Waldron

Written in 1977, Inner Voices was one of Louis Nowra’s earliest plays and signalled the arrival of an Australian playwright with an exciting imaginative scope and a keen sense of theatre.

The play premiered at Nimrod directed by John Bell with a cast including Tony Sheldon, Robert Alexander and Jane Harders. It hasn’t been staged professionally in Sydney again until now, presented at the Old Fitz Theatre by Don’t Look Now in association with Red Line Productions.

It’s fascinating to see the play in the light of Nowra’s The Golden Age, written in 1985, which was staged earlier this year by Sydney Theatre Company. While The Golden Age is a more expansive, ambitious play, the seeds of Nowra’s brilliantly roving theatricality are already evident in Inner Voices: a play bursting with ideas and savage wit.

Inner Voices is inspired by the life of Ivan VI, who was born in 1740. At just two months old he was proclaimed Emperor and his mother named Regent. However, a year later a distant cousin seized the throne and Ivan and his family were imprisoned. Kept in isolation for around 20 years, which impacted on his mental health, a group of officers led by Vasily Mirovich plotted to free Ivan in 1764 and put him on the throne, ousting the ailing Catherine the Great. However, Ivan was killed by his guards. Nowra takes these basics but imagines what would have happened had Mirovich been successful.

The play begins in Ivan’s cell where isolation has taken a severe toll.  Unable to talk other than to chant his own name, he appears to be “an idiot”. The rapaciously ambitious Mirovich – a man with a gargantuan appetite for food as well as power – believes that Ivan will be easily manipulated once they get him on the throne, but things don’t go to plan, with Ivan quickly turning tyrant.

Phil Rouse directs a wonderful muscular production with first-rate production values. Anna Gardiner’s dungeon-like set with ladders and metal rails, Martelle Hunt’s period-inspired costuming, Sian James-Holland’s sickly lighting and Katelyn Shaw’s nerve-jangling sound design combine to create a dark, threatening environment.

Damien Strouthos is superb as Ivan, changing the way he holds his mouth to alter the sound as Ivan’s ear adjusts to human voices and he gradually learns to speak, and also evolving the character’s body language. It’s a minutely observed performance physically, emotionally and psychologically.

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Julian Garner as Leo and Anthony Gooley as Mirovich. Photo: Ross Waldron

Anthony Gooley is extremely funny yet still menacing as Mirovich, a grotesquely comic character in an ever-expanding fat suit. The rest of the cast are all on-point: Julian Garner as Mirovich’s unfortunate co-conspirator, Annie Byron as Mirovich’s long-suffering, genial servant, Emily Goddard as the fake Princess Ali and Baby Face, the showgirl who becomes Ivan’s chosen lady, along with Francesca Savige and Nicholas Papademetriou in supporting roles.

Examining power and its abuse, as well as the psychological and emotional impact of isolation on people, Inner Voices is a darkly funny, provocative play given a very meaty, satisfying production.

Inner Voices plays at the Old Fitz Theatre until July 9. Bookings: