Robyn Nevin – from All My Sons to My Fair Lady

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Robyn Nevin co-stars with John Howard in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons for Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: James Green

From one of the great tragedies of 20th century theatre to one of the most perfect musicals ever written, Robyn Nevin will be running the emotional gamut in her next two productions.

A grande dame of Australian theatre, Nevin is currently at Sydney Theatre Company rehearsing Arthur Miller’s powerful classic All My Sons, which begins previewing on Saturday.

She then moves straight onto My Fair Lady, directed by Julie Andrews for Opera Australia and John Frost – which will doubtless be a tonic after the emotional toll of All My Sons.

“The play is a beautifully constructed tragedy, the playing out of which leaves us as actors pretty shattered,” admits Nevin.

“But there is also inspiration and deep satisfaction. Giving the work of a great writer to a different audience at each performance, and giving everything, is what sustains me.”

All My Sons is set in 1946 in the backyard of the Keller family. They appear to be a fine example of the American dream. Patriarch Joe Keller is a successful manufacturer, while his wife Kate keeps house. But there is something rotten at the heart of the family.

Kate clings to the hope that their son Larry, missing in action for three years, will return home. When their other son Chris arrives saying he wants to marry Larry’s girlfriend Ann Deever, a tragic series of revelations and events is set in motion.

“The play is basically about denial and secrets and how that corrodes individuals and families,” says Nevin who plays Kate to John Howard’s Joe.

“(Miller) wrote it as a 30-year old man and it was only his second play. They are clearly themes he felt very deeply about and it must have been very raw at the time, after the Second World War – but you know we’re always at war, it seems, and we are always losing soldiers and losing loved ones. Australia has been amazingly fortunate that we haven’t been at war on (home) land and we haven’t had a civil war but still (war) has taken its toll,” says Nevin.

“There’s so much more emphasis now on returned soldiers and the devastation that’s caused (in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder) to all who serve. That’s only just touched on in the play because it wasn’t examined in those days. But it is a presence in the play because one son has come back from the war and is embittered about his own country because of the fact that – as happened after the Vietnam War – the soldiers who returned were almost ignored as if nothing had changed in the world that they came back to. People didn’t understand the level of their devastation at all.”

Nevin describes Miller’s writing as “so strong, very simple and beautifully structured with wonderful rhythms. They are so authentic. You feel very supported by the structure of the play and the storytelling and the power of the plot. The characters are so beautifully written and so distinct from each other. It’s terrific to do a play like that because you can kind of sink into it. It stretches you and it forces you to work to your fullest, to exercise the muscle, but it’s also very supportive.”

The production is directed by Kip Williams, who directed Nevin in last year’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, staged with a huge video screen showing both live and pre-recorded footage.

“Kip and I had an odd time on Suddenly Last Summer because he was really directing for cameras so I feel this is like a new experience. I don’t feel that we worked so closely before. He’s the politest, sweetest man,” she says.

The chance to perform opposite John Howard was a big drawcard. “I haven’t worked with John for such a long time,” says Nevin. “He’s terrific: such a powerful presence on stage. It’s fabulous. The last time he worked here (at STC) was when I directed him in (Tony McNamara’s 2000 play) The Recruit. I also directed him in The Philadelphia Story (in 1986). I’ve known John since he first got out of NIDA and it’s great to have him back at Sydney Theatre Company.”

Nevin says that these days she has to be “much more wary than in earlier decades” when tackling such emotionally devastating material.

“I used to automatically plunge in. Now I’m much more careful about myself. I still have to plunge in. I have to go there. I have to feel what the character feels and imagine what the character is going through. I do that to the nth degree and that does take its toll. That means I have to be even more careful about myself and my mental, emotional and physical health,” she says.

When she’s not working, Nevin and her partner actor/writer Nicholas Hammond (who played Friedrich in the film of The Sound of Music) spend time in the Southern Highlands, south of Sydney.

“My life is very simple. I go out very rarely. We go to the country and that is an oasis of peace and calm and nature. We’ve got sheep. It’s very restorative,” she says.

In My Fair Lady, Nevin will play Mrs Higgins, society mother of Professor Henry Higgins – a prospect that clearly excites her enormously.

“I think it’s going to be wonderful,” she says citing the “beauty, scale and richness of the music and those wonderful lyrics that make  you weep with joy, they are so witty.

“I always wanted to be able to sing so to be inside that musical beauty will be very thrilling, actually,” she says. “My character doesn’t come on for ages until the Ascot scene so I’ll be able to hear them singing when I’m in the dressing room. Imagine that thrill. I’ll be like a groupie!”

Nevin is also excited about working with Julie Andrews and says they have had “a lively conversation” about the musical.

“I’ve met her before with Nicholas but not in a way that enabled a one-on-one conversation. We talked about the piece, we talked about Shaw (on whose play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is based) because I have directed Shaw. We talked about the musicality of it and the issues. She’s completely charming, of course,” says Nevin.

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the original Broadway production, as well as OA’s 60th birthday, Andrews is recreating the 1956 production in which she co-starred opposite Rex Harrison, playing cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle – the role that catapulted her to international stardom.

Oliver Smith’s set design and Cecil Beaton’s costumes will be recreated, with new choreography from Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli.

“I think she’s got an excellent team lined up and the designs and costumes are just extraordinary. I don’t agree with some commentary I read the other day about it being an old-fashioned museum piece and why would you want to resurrect that old production?” says Nevin.

“Well, it’s because it’s exquisite and true to itself. It has its own integrity and a lot of people will appreciate that. I think it will be a winner.”

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au. My Fair Lady, Sydney Opera House, August 30 – November 5. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 29

Alex Jennings Steps Back into Professor Higgins’ Tweeds

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Alex Jennings. Photo: supplied

There is nothing like a Dame as British actor Alex Jennings knows, having performed opposite some of acting’s greatest. He co-starred with Maggie Smith in the recent film The Lady in the Van and in 2006 played Prince Charles to Helen Mirren’s monarch in The Queen.

Still, he admits he was nervous when he met Dame Julie Andrews to discuss her 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady for Opera Australia/John Frost in which he will play Professor Henry Higgins – a role he first played in the West End in 2002.

“We met in London. I had a very lovely hour with her over drinks and we chatted about the piece and about her experience in it and my experience in it. I was quite nervous and completely delighted by meeting her,” he says.

A classical actor with three Olivier Awards to his name, including one for My Fair Lady, Jennings has worked extensively at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre.

Though born in Essex, he frequently plays “posh” characters. In something of a royal flush, having previously portrayed Prince Charles, he now plays Prince Edward in Netflix’s new drama The Crown and is currently in Yorkshire filming a British television series about Queen Victoria in which he plays Leopold I, King of Belgium, uncle to both Victoria and Albert.

“Where would we be without our royal family?” he quips in his silky, sonorous voice.

Jennings is coming to Sydney in August to co-star in My Fair Lady with rising star Anna O’Byrne as Eliza Doolittle – the cockney flower-seller Higgins bets he can pass off as an aristocrat by teaching her to speak “proper”. The top-drawer Australian cast also includes Reg Livermore, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Robyn Nevin.

Jennings was at the National working with Trevor Nunn on Vanbrugh’s Restoration comedy The Relapse in 2001 when Nunn asked if he’d like to take over from Jonathan Pryce as Higgins in his production of My Fair Lady, which was transferring to the West End.

“I’d never done a musical before and it was an extraordinary experience. I absolutely loved it,” says Jennings, who played the part for 11 months.

In 2014, he took over the role of Willie Wonka in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical directed by Sam Mendes and again relished the experience. Offered the chance to revisit Higgins in Australia, Jennings leapt at the chance.

“I’m really thrilled because it’s such a great musical and it’s such a great acting role as well as being a musical theatre role. It’s like playing Hamlet in a way, it’s inexhaustible really. So I’m thrilled to be having another go and slightly overwhelmed at the thought of working with Julie,” he says.

“And I’ve never been to Australia before so it’s a big treat,” he adds, saying that his wife, landscape gardener Lesley Moors, will come with him while their two children, now in their 20s, and his “dear, old Dad” will also visit.

Andrews is recreating the 1956 Broadway production in which she starred as Eliza opposite Rex Harrison.

“Even though the framework is going to be the same with the Cecil Beaton and Oliver Smith designs, there’s new choreography (by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli) and I think there’s room for manoeuvring and putting one’s stamp on it,” says Jennings.

“And, listen, they were great designs. I’ve been told that tweed fabrics are being rewoven as we speak. I’m happy to be in Rex Harrison’s old suits.”

Jennings describes the curmudgeonly, misogynistic Higgins as “volatile” but says: “he’s doing something quite radical I think. He wants to turn things on their head and give people lower down the social ladder – specifically Eliza in this case – opportunities to shift in society.

“He wants to mess with the English class system, which is a good thing. He’s passionate, he has borderline behavioural problems, living on his own. His heart and head have never been messed with in the way they are when Eliza comes to the house.”

Now 59, Jennings thinks there will be differences in his portrayal to when he last played the role.

“Since I last did it my singing has grown. When I was doing Willie Wonka I worked with a brilliant singing teacher called Mary King and she has given me confidence and brought on my singing,” he says.

“And I’m older – though I’m not as old as Rex Harrison was when he finished doing it. But there is going to be a bigger age difference between me and Eliza than there was when I last did it so any sense of romance would perhaps be less appropriate.”

My Fair Lady plays at the Sydney Opera House from August 30 – November 5. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 22

Aldo Mignone is Happy that the Old Fitz is also a Place to Call Home

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Actor Aldo Mignone. Photo: supplied

Aldo Mignone, who plays Italian dreamboat Gino Poletti in A Place to Call Home, knew that the Australian period drama had a strong fan base but he had no inkling that it was tipped to feature so strongly in this year’s TV Week Logie nominations.

“You know how I found out? I saw in the Sunday Telegraph that (fellow cast members) David (Berry) and Abby (Earl) were in Melbourne for the nominations,” says the handsome young actor with a laugh.

The tipsters were right. A Place to Call Home has five Logie nominations including the viewer-voted Best Drama and the peer-voted Most Outstanding Drama.

“It’s amazing. I’m really proud that we’ve been nominated because we’ve got such a hard-working team. So fingers crossed,” says Mignone.

Set in rural NSW in the 1950s, A Place to Call Home moved to Foxtel last year thanks to fans campaigning to save the show when Network Seven dropped it after two series.

Mignone’s character is the son of Italian farmhands, who marries the beautiful Anna Bligh (Earl) daughter of the wealthy family his parents worked for. At the end of series three their marriage was under strain after Gino’s attempts at winemaking left him in debt. Filming is now underway on the fourth season.

“Things were pretty rough there towards the end,” says Mignone of Gino and Anna’s relationship.

“I’m probably not allowed to say much but (season four) is picking up from there. The marriage almost feel apart there for a second but now we have to rekindle that and tackle the real world: how are we actually going to make a living?”

For the last month, Mignone has also been rehearsing a play called Belleville, directed by Claudia Barrie, which opens at the Old Fitz Theatre on Friday. (The scheduled opening had to be delayed a week when Emily Eskell had to withdraw unexpectedly from the production and was replaced by Taylor Ferguson).

Chatting at the Woolloomooloo pub venue, Mignone admits he wouldn’t normally take on something else while filming but says that he couldn’t resist the chance to perform in Belleville – his first professional stage play.

“I’ve been coming here for quite a while and the work they put on is absolutely amazing. These guys are at the top of their game and I really wanted to be part of what is happening at the Fitz. It’s become quite a little theatre Mecca thanks to Red Line Productions (who currently run the venue),” he says.

Mignone met Barrie when he went to see a friend performing in her powerful production of Philip Ridley’s Shivered last year, also for Mad March Theatre Company.

“She likes a dark play,” laughs Mignone. “She is doing a wonderful job at Mad March Hare Theatre. She’s just a little powerhouse.”

Belleville, by American playwright Amy Herzog, is about young American newlyweds who move to Paris where their fraught relationship quickly begins to unravel.

Mignone, who plays their landlord Alioune, describes it as “an emotional, psychological thriller: this idea of finding happiness and how far one will go, and lie, in order to realise that.

“It’s not a terribly big role but I really wanted to be part of it. I think it’s incredible writing and it really gripped me when I read it. Fortunately I was able to accommodate that with A Place to Call Home.”

Where Gino is an Italian catholic, Alioune is French Muslim – “but that’s not the focus by any means in the play. It’s just his background,” says Mignone.

However, the chance to explore such different characters is what appeals to him about acting: “I like the idea of being caught up in different jobs, different ideas, different cultures for each role. It takes you to different places,” he says.

Born into an Italian family in Adelaide where his father is a doctor and his mother manages his medical practice, Mignone has four older sisters who used to dress him up and put on plays as kids. Later, they would take him to the theatre with them. “I just got caught up in it,” says Mignone, who went to NIDA but left two years into the course.

“There were just some disagreements,” he says. “I think the school is a good school. I think it disciplines you and you learn quite a bit but I was trying to do some outside work and I just wasn’t happy with the way it was handled so I decided to leave. Then I was in limbo for a bit working in hospitality and doing what you can to get by and then fortunately I landed A Place to Call Home.”

It was through his sister Louisa, who is also an actor, that he was cast as Gino. As luck would have it, Louisa – who performed in Mortido with Colin Friels at Belvoir last year and now lives in Los Angeles – was assisting at auditions for A Place to Call Home.

“At the time I didn’t have an agent and she said, ‘you should definitely see my brother for this role’. It was like, ‘Lou, thank you so much, that’s amazing.’ I was really so nervous. I had to sing this opera song and I’m a terrible singer but it got me the role,” says Mignone.

Whether A Place to Call Home goes into a fifth season remains to be seen. “People are talking in an excited way that it’s going so well so I wouldn’t be surprised if we did go ahead with a fifth season,” says Mignone, “but you never know until you are there on set filming.”

Belleville, Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo, April 20 – May 12. Bookings: oldfitztheatre.com/belleville

 A version of this story ran in the Daily Telegraph on April 15

 

Sigrid Thornton Gets Musical with Fiddler

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Sigrid Thornton with Anthony Warlow in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

With 40 years of high-profile acting credits to her name, Sigrid Thornton is Australian showbiz royalty. But resting on her laurels clearly has zero appeal. Instead, she is always on the look out for roles that will challenge her and teach her something new.

Take the new Australian production of Fiddler on the Roof in which she plays Golde, the wife of Tevye (played by Anthony Warlow) the milkman with five daughters who tries to hold onto tradition in a changing world.

Directed by Roger Hodgman, the production opened in Melbourne at the end of last year and has its official Sydney opening tonight.

“It’s my second musical. I have to laugh because I never imagined that I would ever work in musical theatre but it started with A Little Night Music (for Opera Australia in 2009, also with Warlow). And I love it, I absolutely love it,” says Thornton.

“There’s something about having (a score). This is really from Anthony’s mouth so I’ll quote him in saying that it’s a soundtrack for your performance – because that is exactly what happens. Having musical accompaniment, working with an orchestra and actually singing some of your emotions is very exciting. I’m on a huge learning curve. I’m surrounded by people who have been doing it for a very long time and that is an attraction.”

This time around Thornton decided to take singing lessons before going into rehearsals.

“That was an attraction for me, a genuine pull. I said ‘if I’m going to tackle this at all I wanted to improve my singing voice,’” she says brightly.

“Now, I’m not in the job to sing like Anthony or indeed any of the other singers in the show but having said that I fancy that my voice has definitely strengthened during the course of the run. I always wanted to be able to pull off a song better, simply for my own pleasure. I never imagined I’d be able to put it to professional use but it’s been a gift.

“It’s always a gift to keep learning. It sounds terrifically corny but that’s why I’m still doing what I do. I like to keep stretching it out and discovering what I can and can’t achieve. You are always discovering the limitations and boundaries of your skills but you want to try and extend those as much as possible,” she says.

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Sigrid Thornton as Golde in Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thornton has a small, light singing voice, it must be said, but she creates a strong, believable character as Golde.

Set in 1905 in a small Jewish village in Tzarist Russia, which the inhabitants are forced to leave at the end of the show, Fiddler on the Roof is a musical theatre classic with a much-loved score including songs such as If I Were a Rich Man, Tradition, Matchmaker and Sunrise Sunset.

“It’s about a marginalised people but fundamentally it’s about love and family and community and connection and so they’re universal themes. Despite the fact that the show has been around a long time, the refugee thing is more current now than ever,” says Thornton.

Prior to rehearsals, Thornton knew the show “to the extent that a musical tourist would know it. I’d seen the film many years ago and I’d seen Topol (playing Tevye on stage) maybe 11 or 12 years ago,” she says.

“This is a very different production. One of the major differences is that it is a new orchestration. The most recent London production negotiated to do a new orchestration, which is a very complex thing as you can imagine, and so we were able to ride with that and it’s very beautiful. It’s much simpler, much more folky and it’s probably more true to the music culture of the day.”

With her children now grown-up, Thornton has been able to take on plenty of work in recent years.

“I’ve always been a career mother but I actually have had long periods away from work for reasons of family. But the kids are now 24 and 30 so they are adults,” she says.

She has certainly been busy. Last year, she received accolades for her performance as Judy Garland in the Channel Seven miniseries Peter Allen: Not the Boy Next Door. She has joined the cast of Wentworth, Foxtel’s contemporary re-imagining of Prisoner, playing a cosmetic executive accused of murder.

“I have the honour and privilege apparently of being the only original Prisoner cast member to appear on Wentworth,” she says.

She also has a role as a cyber-security executive in the second series of the ABC’s acclaimed political drama The Code and features in the Cairnes Brothers’ much anticipated second feature Scare Campaign.

“It’s actually been quite a roller-coaster year now that I think about it,” she says of the past 12 months or so.

“That was another attraction to Fiddler – to play a serious character role in something that was a different medium because I’ve done quite a lot of films and television recently. That’s been really exciting but I wanted to try something completely different as Monty Python would say.”

Now 57, Thornton says she needs “to explore what’s out there for women my sort of age. There are still limitations for women but I think the gap will gradually close on that score. I think it’s really interesting looking at what’s coming out of the States. I was browsing through Variety the other day (and looking at) the pilots that are being made in the States and the majority seemed female driven and I was quite interested to see that.

“I’m an optimistic type. That’s my personality. I think in general equality and opportunity for the sexes (in Australia) has still got a fair way to go for a country that’s highly developed in all sort of ways. But it is changing and it’s changing for the better.”

Fiddler on the Roof plays at the Capitol Theatre, March 24 – May 6. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 20

Make Believe with Stage Illusionist Paul Kieve

SPOILER ALERT: No illusions are explained in the making of this story but some plot details and special effects are described so if you want to go to see Ghost the Musical without knowing anything about it, avert your eyes.

Stage illusionist Paul Kieve has collaborated with director Matthew Warchus on a number of projects over the last 20 years including Ghost the Musical, Matilda the Musical and Tim Minchin’s forthcoming musical Groundhog Day.

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Stage illusionist Paul Kieve. Photo: supplied

“I’ve worked with him many times and I always say to him, ‘Matthew, if you want to do great stuff, you’ve got to put the magic in really early,’” says London-born Kieve.

That was certainly the case with Ghost the Musical. In fact, the entire set design was built around the show’s most famous illusion, which sees the deceased Sam Wheat walk through a closed door.

“It’s one moment in the story. It lasts 45 seconds in our version but although you wouldn’t know it, everything about the set was dictated by it,” says Kieve.

“We had to put that in first and work everything else backwards. It’s very unusual for the design to be worked out backwards. And to be worked out backwards from an illusion is almost unheard of. It was a long and not always easy process. As the original set designer Rob Howell – who also did the West End and Broadway productions – said at the time, normally as a designer you want your best ideas on show and in this, in some respects, the best ideas are hidden because there is all this other stuff going on that you don’t know about.”

Based on the blockbuster 1990 film starring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze, Ghost the Musical premiered in Manchester in 2011 then moved to the West End and Broadway. It was redesigned for a UK tour, and it is that touring version, which is now being used in Australia where the show arrives in Sydney this week after seasons in Adelaide and Melbourne.

“There’s no difference to what you see, it’s just some of the technical side and some of the engineering is reduced but it looks the same,” says Kieve.

Kieve’s mother was an actor so he was taken to the theatre regularly from a young age. He began doing magic as a 10-year old when he was given a magic set as a birthday present and by his teens was performing as a professional magician.

“Then a local theatre – the Theatre Royal, Stratford East where Joan Littlewood started out – asked me to work on The Invisible Man, which had never been done on stage before. I was slightly terrified and threw myself in the deep end and worked on it for four months. We did all these daft things like bicycles cycling about by themselves and the Invisible Man unwrapping the bandages from around his head and smoking a cigarette. They became quite famous effects and the show went into the West End and launched me into that side of things. Before I knew it people were asking me to do other stage effects so I pretty much learned on the job,” says Kieve.

He first worked with Warchus in 1995 on a production of Peter Pan for West Yorkshire Playhouse and is now an associate artist at the Old Vic where Warchus is artistic director. They are currently collaborating on Groundhog Day: The Musical, which previews at the Old Vic from July. Kieve’s many other credits include the film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Kate Bush’s 2014 tour Before the Dawn.

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Wendy Mae Brown as Oda Mae Brown, Rob Mills as Sam Wheat and Jemma Rix as Molly Jensen in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Kan Nakanishi

For anyone who doesn’t know about Ghost, it’s a supernatural love story between high-flying banker Sam Wheat and his artist girlfriend Molly Jensen. They have just found their dream loft apartment in Manhattan. Walking home from a restaurant, Sam is killed in a street mugging. However, his spirit is trapped between this world and the next as he attempts to save Molly from mortal danger by communicating through a shyster psychic called Oda Mae Brown, who to her astonishment can actually hear Sam from beyond the grave.

“When Ghost came along, Matthew wanted it to be this beautiful love story but he also wanted to have this juxtaposition of the beautiful soft story and a bit of a rock concert feel to some of the lighting,” says Kieve.

“He also wanted it to be like a magic show and for the magic to be really central to it. We didn’t really know if it was going to work but there was something about this story that completely lends itself to illusion because I suppose it’s asking the audience to believe – and magic questions what you believe and what you’re seeing.

“The reason I think the magic works very well in it – and I’m not talking myself up, I’m talking about the actual context and why an audience enjoys the magic in it – is because the whole story you’re wanting Molly to believe that Oda Mae really is in contact with Sam. You want Molly to listen to Sam from beyond (the grave). You want that moment to happen, so I think that whenever anything magical happens you are on the side of it happening,” says Kieve.

“There’s that famous scene in the movie where Demi Moore dances with Whoopi Goldberg (who played Oda Mae) and then Demi Moore closes her eyes and feels Sam there. The show is a lot about that. It’s about what people are feeling and what they are sensing – and at its best, magic encourages that. It should be about a sense of wonder, a sense of astonishment, a sense of amazement. So it’s a great vehicle because it is asking these very profound questions about if someone dies will you ever see them again?

“I saw it in Adelaide and there was a woman in front of me who was absolutely sobbing (when they dance) and I think it’s because it’s such a beautiful idea that comes true; that in the end Molly does believe and she does see Sam.”

The show contains various illusions besides Sam passing through a solid door including subway passengers being thrown through the air and spirits leaving dead bodies. It also features dynamic video projections.

“Technically it’s a very interesting piece because it really was a collaboration between the video and the movement and the acting and the storytelling,” adds Kieve. “Bruce Joel Rubin (who wrote the original Academy Award-winning screenplay and the book and lyrics for the musical) was around and he wrote parts of the script to help make the illusions work because we had to set things up without (the audience) knowing.”

Kieve cites the sequence in the subway with a poltergeist as a good example of how all the various departments collaborated, with choreography, illusion and video all playing their part.

“It’s really inventive. It’s like you are looking through the train like an X-ray and you see what’s going on inside it and you see it from different perspectives. At one point you are looking down the train as if you are standing at one end of the carriage and then it’s as if you are seeing through the side of it and it keeps shifting perspective,” says Kieve.

The show also uses a lot of imagery around shadows to suggest the spirit world. “Even in the opening scene in (the song) Here Right Now, Sam and Molly are dancing and there’s a shadow of them dancing in the air almost. It’s not just to make it look pretty. It’s the idea that all the time there is this other world, a secondary ghost world going on,” says Kieve.

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Wendy Mae Brown and ensemble cast in Ghost the Musical. Photo: Jeff Busby

Though Kieve is hardly going to reveal how any of the illusions work, he admit that state-of-the-art lighting is crucial to some of it – though many of the effects use time-honoured magic techniques.

“I love the history of illusion and some of the effects that appear to be state-of-the-art are drawing on techniques that are over 100 years old. We are combining them with modern lighting, and the way that we can get into the and out of them so precisely, and the way they can be cued by computers – but the essence of some of them are ideas that have been around a long time.

“I’m also using psychological techniques – (guiding) where you are looking and where your eye is drawn,” says Kieve.

One of his favourite illusions in the show is also one of the least flashy. “It’s simply a letter that Molly reads. Sam has written it to her but the medium can somehow read it because Sam is reading it to her and then the letter just folds itself up in Molly’s hands. It’s really the pivotal moment when she realises that Sam is really there. It’s such an important moment because it’s the moment that she does believe. It’s not really a technological moment but it’s where the story and the effects combine and that’s when you get this gold dust when magic carries the weight of the story behind it.”

Casting his mind back over a career spent creating illusions, Kieve says that “it’s fun but it can be extraordinarily frustrating as well and you can get things wrong. You don’t always know if it will work, especially with something that hasn’t been done before like walking through the door.

“I can remember very distinctly being quite anxious about it because it was so audacious. You go, ‘what happens if (it doesn’t work)? But then you go, ‘we’re not brain surgeons. What happens if? You find another way to tell that part of the story.’ It’s risky but playfully risky as long as you’ve got a director who’s got the nerve and trusts you. I have to say that 99 percent of the time I find a way.

“In Ghost some of the trickiest moments were when someone dies and the spirit splits from the physical body. We’d worked it out and had got to the last death – of Carl – and we realised we couldn’t do it in the same way just because the body couldn’t be left in the middle of the stage. So we had to restage it in about five minutes – and that’s the version we use. Sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.”

Ghost the Musical plays at the Theatre Royal, Sydney, March 18 – May 14 and at the Crown Theatre, Perth, May 21 – June 12. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

Buckingham Palace drama is no fringe show

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Robert Powell as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

To cut or not to cut a fringe? Without being too superficial about it, you can’t play the Duchess of Cambridge – Kate Middleton as was –without taking her lustrous locks into account, even if you aren’t attempting an impersonation.

“It’s amazing really to make the front cover of most newspapers just for the very fact that you’ve had a hair cut. When her fringe was cut (in September) suddenly that was massive news,” says Jennifer Bryden who plays Kate in King Charles III, the phenomenally popular, award-winning play by British playwright Mike Bartlett.

In fact, Bryden won’t be sporting bangs when the British production arrives at Sydney Theatre Company later this month.

“I wanted to. I angled for it but because we weren’t doing impersonations they felt that actually having long dark hair was enough. So I’ve kept mine long and we put it in hot rollers,” she says.

Ben Righton who plays William has a much healthier head of hair than the Duke of Cambridge with his receding thatch.

“He was slightly dreading the fact that they were going to suggest shaving a bald patch,” says Bryden with a laugh.

King Charles III premiered at London’s 325-seat Almeida Theatre in 2014. Directed by Rupert Goold, it quickly became the hottest ticket in town and transferred to the West End. When a Broadway season was confirmed, a second company was formed to take the play on a UK tour. Led by Robert Powell as Charles, that company is en route to Sydney.

Described as “a future history play”, Queen Elizabeth II is dead and Charles finally ascends the throne, Camilla at his side. But when he refuses to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press, he triggers a constitutional storm. With civil war brewing, there are suddenly tanks outside Buckingham Palace.

Praised by New York critics as “flat-out brilliant” and “breathtakingly audacious”, Bartlett’s Buckingham Palace drama about a monarchy in crisis is written in iambic pentameter, giving the play a Shakespearean feel infused with a dash of Fleet Street.

Righton says he was “blown away” when he read the script. “That kind of writing does a lot of the work for you because it tells you which words to stress. It forces you into a style of talking. What is brilliant about Mike’s script is it refers to all kinds of modern things but in verse. I love it. It pushes the play along at a wonderful pace,” he says.

Will and Kate are among the most photographed people on earth but both Righton and Bryden decided to focus on the script itself rather than taking a forensic look at the young Royals when preparing for their audition.

“That turned out to be the right decision. Something we were told early on in rehearsals is that this wasn’t about impersonating. We were to approach the text as we would any text and approach the character as we would any other character. And only then, at the end, were we allowed to add suggestions of mannerisms that we had observed in real life,” says Bryden.

“They were never after imitations,” agrees Righton. “It’s like an alternative reality this play, a ‘what if’ Charles were to take the throne.”

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton in KCIII Tour. Credit Richard Hubert Smith

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton as Kate and Will in King Charles III. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

When it came to observing mannerisms, Righton noted that the Duke of Cambridge speaks in a “breathy” way, fiddles with his hands a lot and often has them in his pockets. “He’s left-handed. I’m right-handed so I’ve had to teach myself to be left-handed,” says the actor.

“If you look at Will for any length of time he’s – I’m trying to find a nice way of putting this – but he’s quite bland. He’s very straightforward and polite and he smiles a lot so there’s not a lot to go on. He’s a blank canvas.

“Because he’s been photographed since he was born you feel you know so much about him but you realise that we don’t. They’ve done a very good job of keeping his life private and what makes the bloke tick is very hard to find out anywhere. I know two people who went to school with him and I tried to get them to tell me a bit about him but they were very loyal and haven’t said a word. I can’t get anything out of them,” says Righton.

Bryden believes that the way Kate dresses has a strong influence over the way we perceive her. “I am lucky with the silhouettes of the costumes she wears and the heels. Once I was in costume that really helped.

“It’s amazing what the power of the imagination does,” adds Bryden. “In real life I don’t think any of us look particularly like the members of the Royal Family. There are similar shapes, colourings and heights but that’s about it. But actually once we’ve got the costumes on and the characters are introduced in the first scene, the power of the imagination lies with the audience to see the person they are used to seeing in the public eye.”

Beneath the fashionable outfits and flowing hair, there’s a backbone to Bartlett’s Kate that comes as a surprise. Portrayed as a shrewd political operator, who supports and motivates William, she has been compared to Lady Macbeth.

“She definitely wears the royal trousers…. In our play she’s a very commanding figure,” says Righton with a chuckle.

Careful not to give too much away, Bryden says: “She is the key operator, the person who makes the changes in the action of the play. She’s the one person within the Royal Family who can look at what’s going on objectively because everyone else is too tied up with their own family drama. Because Kate is new to all this, she is the one with the outside eye.”

Before she had any idea that she would be auditioning for the play, Bryden saw King Charles III in the West End from a seat in the gods with a friend of hers.

“It was so fascinating in the interval hearing all the discussions. So often everyone just makes and a beeline for the bar and it’s about what they’ve been doing that day. Here, everyone was talking (about the play), whether it was politics or family or actors playing real people or the monarchy. It was amazing. My friend said, ‘you should play that part one day,'” says Bryden.

None of the Royal Family has been to see the play. However, Tim Piggott-Smith who played Charles in the original production, received a letter from a member of the staff at Clarence House, Charles’s official London residence, pointing out that Charles doesn’t wear a wedding ring.

“I think everyone has taken that as a bit of a nod that they’re watching and hopefully approve,” says Bryden.“I’m sure they know all about it but I don’t think they would ever come and see it.”

King Charles III, Roslyn Packer Theatre, March 31 – April 30. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 13

Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in Machu Picchu

2016 STC MACHU PICCHU Lisa McCune by James Green 2106

Lisa McCune. Photo: James Green

Australian sweetheart Lisa McCune, who shot to fame at age 22 as Constable Maggie Doyle in Blue Heelers, is about to take on her first middle-age roles. And it feels like “the right fit”, she says.

Best known for her television work and, more recently, her roles in musicals such as South Pacific and The King And I, McCune returns to straight theatre in a new Australian play called Machu Picchu opening tonight in Sydney in which she plays Gabby, a middle-aged civil engineer, whose life and marriage is upended when her husband is involved in a serious car crash.

In May, she plays Sally, a former showgirl who is now 49 but “still remarkably like the girl she was thirty years ago” in a concert version of the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies in Melbourne.

McCune, who recently turned 45, still looks extremely youthful herself but is very happy to embrace the more mature roles coming her way.

She describes Machu Picchu as: “a grown-up play about relationships and mid-life” and “a fascinating subject matter.

“It’s my first role playing (a middle-aged woman). Well, I suppose Anna in The King and I was too. But it’s a more mature part of my life as well so that is interesting to me. It’s not the ingénue any more. And it’s really nice to explore that,” says McCune.

“I don’t consciously go ‘oh these characters are older’. I think it’s just that feeling of the right thing. I certainly not going to be botoxing to try and play ingénues who are in their late 20s. It’s just where you start to fit I think.”

Though she denies giving too much thought to getting older, McCune admits that she felt different the second time she played the vivacious nurse Nellie Forbush in South Pacific.

“It’s funny, I did the first season of South Pacific (in 2012). By the time I came back to it a year later, I thought ‘I can’t play this any more’. I’m actually getting too old to play her and that’s when I did Anna and that felt right.

“It’s nice with this play (Machu Picchu) that it hasn’t been done before and there are no comparisons. We’re starting from scratch.”

Machu Picchu is a co-production between Sydney Theatre Company (who commissioned it) and the State Theatre Company of South Australia. It is written by Sue Smith, whose TV credits include Brides of Christ and Mabo and whose last play Kryptonite was premiered by STC in 2014.

It centres on a middle-aged couple who seem to have it all, but who must reassess their lives, priorities and relationship when the husband Paul is left a paraplegic after a car crash. The play moves back and forth in time, so that we see them before and after the life-changing accident.

Machu Picchu is worlds removed from the lavish musicals McCune has performed in of late, throwing up many questions about how you live your life after such an event. McCune’s character also wrestles with a lot of guilt.

McCune agrees it’s “tricky subject matter” but says the play has “many humorous moments” and “great heart. I think Sue’s language is really beautiful and her observations are fantastic,” she says.

In rehearsals, McCune found that performing in a straight play has required her to flex different acting muscles.

“It sharpens different things and that’s great. It’s the different language. A musical heightens things in different spots whereas when its just text, not backed up by songs, it doesn’t happen that way. So for me, it’s a new experience again. I’m finding it challenging – which is what you want out of your work really.”

Darren Gilshenan, who plays Paul, believes the role is very different to the parts McCune is usually cast in.

“I think she’s really excited that people will see her in a different guise and see what she’s capable of. This allows her to dig deep and find a lot of ugliness as well that you wouldn’t normally associate with Lisa,” he says.

Gilshenan is a fine comedy actor whose numerous credits include the seemingly hapless but kindly, occasionally wily neighbour Jack in Channel Nine’s Here Come the Habibs!, Uncle Terry in ABC-TV’s The Moodys and Bell Shakespeare’s hilarious production of The Servant of Two Masters.

McCune and Gilshenan have worked together once before: in the musical Urinetown for STC in 2006.

“I’ve admired his work for a long time. He was one of the reasons I wanted to do (Machu Picchu),” says McCune.

On the face of it, it seems almost perverse to cast an actor renowned for his physicality as a character in a wheelchair. But Gilshenan’s physical skills will be tested in Machu Picchu. “The level of detail that happens in the nine months (Paul is) in hospital, his development physically through rehab and the various stages needs to be very clear,” he says.

“I was saying to my wife after the first couple of day’s rehearsal that the scope of this piece emotionally, physically and intellectually, and what I can do with it, is fantastic. It’s a dream role.

“A lot of the comedy I’ve done recently is based on humour through the pain and truth of flawed individuals. But there’s always an awareness you’re in a comedy, whereas in this it’s really surprising where the real tragedy is at times. In the awfulness of the situation, there also a lightness and a comedy in there too.”

Smith has described the play as “both a grand love story, and a deeply ordinary one”, as well as a celebration of courage.

“That’s the part I love about it,” says McCune. “I’m such a romantic. I think the romantic side of it is really beautiful. It’s about a couple who are somehow meant to be together and how they are going to travel the next part of their life that’s really hard. It’s a tricky subject matter. I think Darren has had a lot to contemplate for his role.”

Asked if anything has happened in her own life to make her stop and take stock, McCune says: “I think for me the biggest turning point in my life was having children.”

McCune, who has never commented on her reputed relationship with opera singer Teddy Tahu Rhodes, has three children aged 15, 13 and 11 with her husband Tim Disney.

Machu Picchu rehearsed in Adelaide and has a season there after its Sydney run – which means a fair amount of time away from her Melbourne-based family.

“It’s one of the lines in the play: ‘work is work and it must be attended to,’” says McCune.

“It’s a different part of my life. Isn’t it funny: that’s what the play is about. It’s about living your life. And I guess for me I’m a better mum when I am doing some work. I think I feel more content. I’m happier and I’m happy to go and really throw myself back my life at home. I kind of need it.

“The kids are fantastic. They are a little bit older now and they understand that that’s the life that we’ve chosen (and) that they’re a part of. So they are OK and we just make sure we talk about it with them. And they’ll come away for holidays. Once you start throwing in holidays, you’re not actually away for that much.”

Machu Picchu plays at Wharf 1, Sydney until April 9. Bookings: 9250 1777. Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, April 13 – May 1. Bookings: BASS 131 246

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 6