Tim Minchin: Part 1

In a wide-ranging interview with Tim Minchin, he discusses the ins-and-outs of writing Matilda, Groundhog Day, Larrkins, acting and his move to LA: so much that I’m breaking it into two parts.

The second part, coming soon, will focus on Groundhog Day, Larrikins and his move to Los Angeles. In this first part, he talks about his encounter with a (fictional) little girl called Matilda.

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney's Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

When the Royal Shakespeare Company was looking for someone to write the songs for their musical of Matilda, director Matthew Warchus went to see one of Tim Minchin’s solo shows in London.

As Minchin tells it, by the show’s end Warchus had decided that he wasn’t right for the job. Then as an encore, Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, his beautiful, heartfelt song to his baby daughter Violet about Christmas, family and love, and Warchus changed his mind.

“He was thinking, ‘no’ and then he went, ‘oh, there’s another dimension’. I’m so glad. Can you imagine? It’s made such a profound impact on my life, this musical, and my whole career,” says Minchin.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book, Matilda the Musical has proved a phenomenal success. It won a record seven Olivier Awards in London and four Tony Awards on Broadway, where the New York Times described it as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

The Australian production begins previewing in Sydney on July 28. Minchin, who grew up in Perth, will be at the official opening on August 20 and says it feels “genuinely special” to be bringing the show home to Australia.

The feeling is reciprocated. Matilda is probably the most hotly anticipated musical of the year in Sydney where the love affair with Minchin continues to grow. Tickets were snapped up in next to no time when he played two sold-out shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February. He held the ecstatic audience in the palm of his hand, with more than a few tears during White Wine in the Sun. His own mascara seemed to run a bit too.

And when he came to Sydney last October for the launch of Matilda, Destination NSW took the opportunity to honour the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll nerd” with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Jacki Weaver and John Bell.

Minchin was a star before Matilda. A comedy songwriter with trademark ratty hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and bare feet, his genius for combining pithy, witty, pointed lyrics with catchy tunes had already won him such a cult following that he could fill arenas for his solo shows and front symphony orchestras in concert halls.

But Matilda has made him a superstar, in demand around the world. He is now writing songs for a musical based on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, also directed by Warchus, which will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

He is also the songwriter and director for an animated DreamWorks movie called Larrikins, set in Australia, scheduled for release in 2018. There’s a film of Matilda the Musical in the pipeline too.

“Without Matilda, I could have gone more down the path that people who get known for comedy go on but this has taken me back to what I was doing as a kid. I wrote loads of music for the theatre in my late teens and early 20s,” says Minchin.

“Then I started getting a couple of roles in plays and I moved to Melbourne and then I got frustrated because no one would take any notice of me and so I started doing comedy. But even at the beginning of my comedy career I was writing musical scores.”

In 2004, he wrote the songs for This Blasted Earth, a Christmas musical written with Travis Cotton and Toby Schmitz, which played at Sydney’s 40-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo. In 2005, he and Kate Mulvany wrote Somewhere, a musical about Penrith for the opening of the Q Theatre. That same year, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“It does strike me as really amazing that (working on Matilda is so similar to) what I was doing 10 years ago,” he says munching on jelly snakes to keep himself awake as he battles raging jetlag.

“I listen back to those songs I wrote for the Old Fitz show and the songs from Somewhere and there are definitely songs in the Penrith musical that are as good as anything in Matilda. There was no change in tools; there was just a change in status, in who was asking me to write for them.”

Funnily enough, in a now famous anecdote, while he was writing music for theatre shows in Perth, Minchin – who is mad Dahl fan from way back – enquired about getting the stage rights for a musical of Matilda. When Dahl’s estate asked for a sample of his score, he panicked and dropped the idea.

“It’s a great story. It doesn’t sound very believable but it’s true,” he says.

Matilda tells the tale of a smart, book-loving little girl who uses intelligence, imagination, courage and magic to defy her mean parents and vicious, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

As Minchin puts it: “The show’s about a tiny person starting a revolution to overthrow the oppressors.”

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Minchin’s songs are absolutely brilliant: funny, bolshie, poignant and refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores of contemporary musical theatre. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of anyone else more suited to the task. His intelligence, irreverence, wit and heart seem such a perfect match for Dahl.

Matilda feels a particular way. It doesn’t just feel like me, it feels like me interpreting Dahl,” he says. “There’s an angularity to the opening and this semi-tonal thing going on. The dominant movement through the whole thing is a semi-tonal shift with all these crunchy harmonics. In musical theatre, it’s usually big shifts and fourths, not semi-tones. But I do think Matilda has an aesthetic that seems to work.”

You might think the first thing Minchin would have done after being commissioned by the RSC was to pick up Dahl’s novel again, but no. Instead, he looked to the show’s book by writer Dennis Kelly.

“I never went back and re-read the book because I decided Dennis’s adaptation was my source text,” says Minchin. “I didn’t re-read all my Dahl. I just had an utterly convinced sense that I knew what Dahl-ness was and I knew his themes. Obviously there’s that cheeky little tip-of-the hat to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes: ‘We are revolting children, Living in revolting times, We sing revolting songs, Using revolting rhymes…’ (Hooley-dooley, Tim Minchin is singing for me). I was taking from all Dahl’s work without even knowing I was doing it really.”

When Minchin came on board, Kelly had already been working on Matilda for a year.

“He had a script adaptation and he said, ‘I’ve (marked) some places where I think there might be songs, I’ve even written a few lyrics,’” recalls Minchin. “And I said, ‘you can’t give me any lyrics or song titles. I just want “song here, question mark” and we’ll discuss what you think they might be about, because you might have a great idea but how will I know if I have a better one if that gets in my head?’

“So he gave me a script with no songs and Matthew (Warchus) and me and Chris Nightingale, the orchestrator, who was in from the very beginning, and Dennis just talked and talked and talked. Your most pretentious, in-depth tutorial in an English Literature of a university got nowhere near the level of textural analysis that we were doing!

“I went away and broke it down and put songs in different colours representing different styles, so if it was a chorus number it was this colour and if it was a solo number it was another colour and all that sort of thing, which kind of mapped it. I didn’t start writing songs until we had a really strong map.”

Hard though it is to believe now, Minchin reveals that at one point they considered making Matilda a non-singing character.

“Early on, Matilda had no songs. I couldn’t work out how to make her sing, weirdly, because she’s so quiet. Then I wrote Quiet,” he says.

“That’s not quite true. She had a song in the second act where Quiet is now, which is just as she is about to do magic for the first time. It had this big rumbling build-up to ‘Magical! but we all went, ‘that’s not right’ so when we did the first workshop we just discarded it. She had no songs at that point and we were considering the possibility that she might not have songs; that the world revolves around her and she is a still force.

“There was another character called Hortensia who had two big songs, Revolting Children and another called Now That She’s Gone when Trunchbull leaves. It’s a really funny song but it didn’t belong in the musical and nor did Hortensia so she got dissolved and we gave her spirit to Matilda so she can sing, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – the language of rebellion.”

One of the most well-known and popular songs in the show is the sweet When I Grow Up. The idea behind it came from one of Minchin’s own childhood memories.

“I remember promising myself I would never open the farm gate. We used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm and you would always climb over the gate or flip over the gate. I’d watch the oldies fiddle with the (padlock) and I would go: ‘I hope I never have to walk through gates. Gates are to be hurdled,’” he says.

“That idea of looking at things as a child and promising yourself that as an adult you’ll do all the things you think are awesome as a child (is the idea behind the song). It’s somehow sad because you are so wrong. Or maybe you were right. That’s the point. Dahl would say that we forget that kids have the wisdom. We’re sad as adults because we don’t climb trees and eat sweets and wake up with the sun. That’s where all the melancholy comes from in that.

“As you can tell when I talk about these things, I tend to go, ‘oh, here’s an idea and if I do that….’ That’s how I find my way into things. There’s a lot of emotion to be got out of thinking your way into it. But I think having young kids really allowed that.”

Asked if he does still leap the gate, he grimaces a bit. “No. I’m a bit sore these days. But when I run I have a compulsion to jump up on picnic tables. I’m like an old shitty Parkour runner.”

When I Grow Up is the first non-narrative song Minchin wrote for the show. “It’s a reflective piece, although in the musical Miss Honey sings the last verse about being brave enough to fight the creatures, which gives you a hint of what’s to come,” he says.

When I Grow Up always sat outside the piece and one of the ways it doesn’t now is because I took the whole thing and wrote a new tune over the chord structure and that’s Naughty. It’s basically the same song. Naughty and When I Grow Up are almost identical harmonically and that’s why they go from one to the other in the mash-up (at the end).”

Thinking back on the robust working relationship between him and Kelly, as Matilda gradually took shape, Minchin laughs with genuine pleasure.

“He’d never written a musical before. We tugged and pulled and pushed for the whole writing period. We didn’t know each other very well early on and Matthew would sit there quietly letting us fight it out. Then he’d say one sentence and we’d go, ‘right’. He’s such a genius and so quiet. But we’d all make each other laugh all the time.

“Dennis Kelly is now one of my favourite humans on the planet,” adds Minchin. “We’re from very different backgrounds and we approach art in a different way. I don’t know but perhaps if you write something like this and it goes so well, you are bonded by a very positive experience. As the time went on, I just fell in love with him. He’s such a brilliant guy.”

Matilda plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from July 28. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 28

Robyn Nevin plays Mother Courage

Robyn Nevin has had a long, illustrious stage career, but 2015 could be one of her most memorable years yet.

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

Robyn Nevin with Mark Leonard Winter and Eryn Jean Norvill in a promotional image for Suddenly Last Summer. Photo: James Green

She started it as the ruthless Mrs Venable in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer for Sydney Theatre Company, earning rave reviews, and will end the year there playing the Fool to Geoffrey Rush’s King Lear in a production directed by Neil Armfield.

Currently, she is preparing to play Mother Courage in Bertolt Brecht’s great anti-war play Mother Courage and her Children for Belvoir, directed by in-coming artistic director Eamon Flack, who helmed Belvoir’s superb 2013 production of Angels in America in which Nevin also performed.

“It’s a wonderful year. I’m one very grateful woman,” says Nevin, now 72, during a break in rehearsals.

Best known as one of our leading stage actors, Nevin has found a whole new fan base since playing the posh, bigoted Margaret in the ABC-TV comedy Upper Middle Bogan.

She looks set to boost her screen profile still further with her performance in Brendan Cowell’s new film Ruben Guthrie, a black comedy based on his play, which opened the Sydney Film Festival this week before its general cinema release on July 16.

Ruben is a hard-living advertising executive who tries to get sober when he nearly kills himself jumping off a roof while pissed. Nevin plays his well-heeled mother, who keeps pushing him to go back on the bottle, because she finds him more fun when he drinks.

“It’s a great role. She’s fantastic,” says Nevin enthusiastically.

“She was a hard character to understand because I’m a great believer in Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step program. I know people who’ve been saved by those programs. I value them very highly. She’s got one fabulous line where she says, ‘Oh, I don’t think that’s very impressive, do you, one day at a time?’ She’s just a brute, a wonderful character. I loved it. I had a wonderful time doing that film and Brendan was wonderful directing it. It’s a quintessentially Sydney story in its outlook and tone and visually. In a way, it’s a wonderful celebration of Sydney and a terrible indictment of it at the same time.”

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage.  Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin during rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Anna Fierling – or Mother Courage as she is known – is yet another formidable character in Nevin’s armory (joining the likes of Miss Docker in Patrick White’s A Cheery Soul and Ana in Lally Katz’s Neigbourhood Watch). A refugee with three children and a cart, from which she sells food, liquor and other provisions, she buys and sells her way through a pointless, religious war, putting profit above all else. During the play, her three children are all killed.

Brecht wrote it in 1939 in response to the rise of fascism in Germany and Germany’s invasion of Poland.

Nevin directed the play for STC in 2006, choosing it as the first production for her newly formed ensemble, the STC Actors’ Company, with Pamela Rabe in the title role. Since then, it’s been on her bucket list of roles.

“I didn’t feel it was finished business although it was a very successful production. I loved getting to know the play and so I just thought, ‘yes, that’s a role I could one day have a go at,’” she says.

She programmed it at STC, she says, because she considers it “a great ensemble piece. It’s a very powerful piece of theatre. It’s arresting and gripping and entertaining and it’s a challenge for a company. Brecht has written it in such a way that there are 12 scenes and each scene requires a complex transition, which needs to be made slick and easy.

“In a small space, that takes a lot of time and effort and everyone is involved in that. I think audiences love watching a production unfold with ease and skill in a deft kind of way and Eamon is brilliant at that. But it’s taken an awful lot of time and it does require trust in each other. We all have to work very carefully in concert with each other, which I like about the piece itself. I like being part of a team. I’m addicted to the notion of an ensemble. I think they work, I think they’re very valuable and everybody gets better as a result of being in an ensemble production because so much is required of everyone.”

Asked whether she ever considered playing the role herself in the STC production, she gives the idea short shrift.

“I couldn’t possibly have considered playing it because I couldn’t give myself the lead role in the first play (by the STC Actors Company). The commentary from the media would have been too much for me to handle at that stage. They would have just thought it was personal vanity and I was not ambitious in that way at all. I gave opportunities to other people and rarely took the best opportunities for myself. And that was an occasion where I thought it would just look like hubris for me to lead the company in the first, inaugural production of the Actors’ Company so I directed it instead.”

Flack’s production for Belvoir features a new translation by Australian playwright Michael Gow and new songs by Stefan Gregory.

Brecht originally set the play in the 17th century during the Thirty Year War, but the Belvoir production has a contemporary setting. Nevin describes Gow’s translation as “ short, sharp and to the point. It’s got a directness, which I like. The lyrics are wonderful; the songs are fantastic….. It’s completely new compositions, it’s absolutely wonderful (music) by Stefan Gregory. He last did the entire musical score for Suddenly Last Summer. That was brilliant too.

“I don’t know how to describe (the Belvoir) production but it’s a thrill to be in it so I think it will be thrilling to see.”

An example of Brecht’s epic theatre, he wrote it to engage the audience intellectually rather than emotionally and apparently rewrote the role of Mother Courage when audiences sympathised too much with her.

Robyn Nevin rehearses Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Robyn Nevin with Anthony Phelan in rehearsals for Mother Courage. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Nevin says she doesn’t spend time wondering how audiences will relate to the character.

“I just play one moment at a time and one action at a time. I play the action of the scenes; the meaning will be determined by the audience. I can’t preoccupy myself with what sort of person she is. She is defined by her actions so if I play the actions then the audience will judge as they will judge. But if you want to know what I think…..” she adds with a huge laugh.

She then cites a horrendous scene, which they have just been rehearsing, in which Mother Courage’s daughter Kattrin returns having been brutally raped. Her mother tells her that she is lucky she’s not better looking or it could have been worse.

“That’s the tough job that Brecht gives the actors to do. He makes them say things that shock the audience horribly, (telling) a girl who’s just been raped that she probably would have been raped over and over if she’d been attractive enough. That’s actually what the woman is saying, and it’s hard to say, but that’s her way of dealing with it,” says Nevin.

“But in a minute she talks about Kattrin is a very different way, which shows her concern but is in no way sentimental, never sentimental. Over the course of the play she’s tough, she’s pragmatic, she’s only concerned about survival through trade even as her three children are killed.

“Brecht wrote that but he can’t stop that well of emotion, he can’t separate an audience from their humanity. (But) in a way the play is saying, ‘what good is humanity during war?’

“One of the songs really speaks to this quite clearly. It’s the Song of Solomon. One by one they describe the qualities of the great men of history and each one of them died for their good qualities: their wisdom, their courage. So what’s the point of being brave, of being wise, of telling the truth, of fearing God? So you’re playing characters who crush their better qualities in order to survive.”

Funnily enough, it’s King Lear that Nevin has been having nightmares about during Mother Courage rehearsals, rather than the Brecht.

“I’ve already had my Lear nightmare in which we were about to go on stage and I didn’t know a word, not a word. I was asking for a script and no one had one because they all knew theirs and they’d left it at home. Just terrifying! Then we went on stage and Geoffrey lay back and didn’t say a word and I thought, ‘well if he’s not going to speak, I’m not going to speak.’ It was just awful.”

Nevin laughs. “I should be having nightmares about Mother Courage, I’m already having nightmares about Lear.”

Accepting the offer to play the Fool was “a hard decision”, she says. “I don’t even know where to begin with the Fool but the thought of being in a (rehearsal) room with Neil doing a Shakespeare was exciting because I haven’t done a Shakespeare with Neil. I’ve done very few Shakespeares so that’s very exciting.”

Mother Courage and Her Children plays at Belvoir St Theatre, June 6 – July 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

King Lear plays at Sydney Theatre, November 24 – January 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 31

Anh Do interview

Anh Do in his studio. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Anh Do in his studio with two of the portraits in his first solo exhibition Man. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

When the finalists for last year’s Archibald Prize were announced, many were surprised to see that comedian Anh Do was represented with a portrait of his father.

Do himself was utterly thrilled: “Just to walk into the Art Gallery of NSW and see what was sitting in your garage a few weeks earlier hanging up there was wonderful,” he says.

“The woman who hung the exhibition said, ‘I hope you like the spot, Anh.’ I said, ‘I’m just so thankful. I’d be happy to be hung anywhere in the Archibald. I’d take cubicle three of the men’s.”

It was no flash in the pan either. Do won the 2014 Kogarah Art Prize with another portrait and currently has his first solo exhibition at Olsen Irwin in Woollahra, one of Sydney’s leading commercial art galleries.

Do famously arrived in Australia at age three as a refugee when his family fled strife-torn Vietnam in a leaky boat. Drawing on his life story in his stand-up shows, he has become one of Australia’s best-loved comedians, filling venues and popping up on TV programs such as Thank God You’re Here and Dancing With the Stars on which he was the runner-up in 2007.

Russell Crowe is going to direct a film based on Do’s award-winning autobiography The Happiest Refugee for which Do has been working on the screenplay and will play his own father.

Anh Do's portrait of his father. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

Anh Do’s portrait of his father. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

In between all that, he now spends much of his time painting in a large garage at his home on the Illawarra coast where he lives with his wife Suzie and their four children.

The solitary hours spent applying thick oils to canvas suits his temperament.

“People who know me will tell you that I’m more of an introvert than people think. Actually, a lot of comedians are and it surprises people,” he says, chatting at his home with its view of the ocean.

“I love being on stage and connecting with 2000 people but you don’t really see me that often at the Logies and all that red carpet stuff. I’d rather just have dinner with my wife and kids.”

Do has always loved art but has come to it relatively late – partly because his father, who was an alcoholic, walked out on the family when Do was 13. He didn’t see his father again until he was 21, though they are now very close.

“As a kid I loved art, loved it,” he says. “But somewhere along the line in school I stopped taking art classes because people told me if you want to get high marks in the school certificate don’t do art.

“My mum raised three kids on her own on sweatshop wages of about six bucks an hour so there was a lot of late rent and landlords knocking on the door,” recalls Do.

“When I was about 10 I remember thinking, ‘one day I’m going to buy a big house we can all live in together and we’ll never have to be hassled by landlords again’. So I went to school and asked around and said, ‘guys what’s the job that pays the most money?’ and someone said, ‘lawyers get loads’ and so I thought ‘that’s what I’m going to be’.”

Do got into Law at university. “But I couldn’t help myself. I signed up to study art at TAFE simultaneously. You can’t really do both so I ended up skipping all the law classes because they were really boring and going to all the art classes. Then, of course, comedy came along and wiped both out,” he says.

“But about four or five years ago, a comedian mate called Dave Grant passed away and a cousin of mine passed away in his late 20s. I always thought I’d paint one day after I retire, buts something made me go, ‘you know what, I’ve got to do it now’. So I went back to TAFE.”

One of the portraits in Anh Do's solo exhibition Man. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

One of the portraits in Anh Do’s solo exhibition Man. Photo: Eamonn McLoughlin

His solo show, entitled Man, features a series of portraits, many of them with a haunting gaze similar to that of his father in his Archibald painting.

“These guys that I’ve painted, they’re lived a full life and they’ve had their ups and downs and it shows in their eyes. That’s what interests me,” says Do.

“A lot of being a comedian is about observing people. When I’m on stage I look at people in the audience. It might be 2000 people in the State Theatre but I’ll look at a few people and make eye contact with them. It’s an incredibly powerful connection for two people who have never really met properly.

“I’m interested in everything about people. Not just, ‘what do you do for a living?’ but I want to know about their fears and their sadnesses and listen to their regrets and all of that, both sides of it, the happy and the sad. A lot of my work is driven by what makes people human.

“Years ago my comedy used to just be funny gags strung together with dodgy segues but recently I’ve been delving into my childhood so some stories make people laugh and other make people cry. My comedy shows these days are so much richer for the fact that there’s laughter and tears in the audience.”

Anh Do's portrait of comedian Dave Hughes. Photo: Eaonn McLoughlin

Anh Do’s portrait of comedian Dave Hughes. Photo: Eaonn McLoughlin

Do credits fellow comedian Dave Hughes with encouraging him to draw on his own experience.

“A couple of years ago me and Hughesy had just finished filming Thank God You’re Here. We were just hanging out and I started telling him real life stories and he goes, ‘mate, this stuff is fascinating, you should tell it on stage,” recalls Do.

“I said to Hughesy, ‘I want to make people laugh not cry’ and he said, ‘Anh, make ‘em laugh and cry.’ That’s probably why I started mixing in all that real life story so I have Hughesy to thank for my show becoming richer and deeper.”

Hughes was one of the first people Do painted. He entered the portrait into the Swan Portrait Prize in Perth and was selected as a finalist.

Do says that now that he paints regularly, he notices things he never did before.

“I used to look at a rusty old tap and it’s just a rusty old tap but now I see 15 shades of brown and orange and there’s even a lot of green and a couple of shades of purple. Before, it was a rusty old tap, now it’s a beautiful array of colour. These days, I can tell you the eye colours of most of my good friends. Before that I’d be stumped.”

Do has been performing his comedy show The Happiest Refugee Live for three years now but there is so much demand for it that he will take it on another national tour in May and June.

“It’s not just stand-up. There are videos and pictures and props on stage. It’s almost a theatre show,” he says.

It’s certainly an inspiring story – as is Do’s positive outlook on life.

“When we were at sea (en route to Australia) we ran out of food and water and we could easily have died,” he says. “My mum always taught us as kids that we are lucky just to be alive so you may as well make your life worth something, throw something into the hat and contribute.”

Do’s exhibition Man runs at Olsen Irwin Gallery in Woollahra, Sydney until May 10

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 19

Hayden Tee interview

Hayden Tee (left) with fellow Les Mis cast members Patrice Tapoki (Fantine) and Simon Gleeson (Valjean). Photo: supplied

Hayden Tee (seated) with fellow Les Mis cast members Patrice Tipoki (Fantine) and Simon Gleeson (Valjean). Photo: supplied

In early 2013, Hayden Tee was in Pittsburgh performing in a musical called 1776, playing a strutting landowner with a chilling song extolling the slave trade. The US tour of Cameron Macintosh’s new production of Les Misérables happened to be in town at the same time and unbeknown to Tee someone from the company saw his performance.

Out of the blue, Macintosh’s London office asked him to record videos of him singing Stars from Les Mis and his song from 1776. Several auditions later, both online and in person in Australia, Tee landed the prize role of Javert in the Australian production, for which he has won rave reviews.

After six months in Melbourne and two in Perth, the production is currently playing in Sydney. Chatting in his dressing room at the Capitol Theatre, Tee is great company. He’s never been happier, he says, and he certainly exudes a tangible feeling of excitement, bonhomie and wellbeing.

He has done his dressing room up as a kind of home away from home for the next few months with a pink wall, red sofas, coffee table, lamp, photographs and several soft toys from fans including a Jabear (a small bear dressed as Javert) and a penguin.

New Zealand-born Tee began his career in Australia after studying at NIDA but moved to the US five years ago where his credits include the Wolf/Cinderella’s Prince in Into the Woods in Atlanta, Freddy in My Fair Lady in Boston, Arthur in Camelot and Rutledge in 1776 in Pittsburgh and, most recently, Jack in a new musical called Being Earnest in San Francisco.

However, he leapt at the opportunity to return to Australia to play Javert, the implacable policeman who hunts reformed convict Jean Valjean (played by Simon Gleeson) across the years.

“I moved to America because I wanted to do new musicals and be the first to sing a song. But I got there are realised that in order to do that you’ve actually got to do a lot of crap, you know what I mean,” he says with a chuckle.

“The good ones come along very seldomly. In workshops it’s an amazing process but it takes time to hone something so it’s really nice to come here now for Les Mis. I think it’s absolutely my favourite role that I’ve ever played. I’ve wanted to do it for a long time,” says Tee, who in 2005 played the young, love-struck student Marius in London’s West End.

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert. Photo: Matt Murphy

Tee sees Javert as more of “an antagonist” than a villain. “I’ve grown up with these characters, Marius at 25 and now Javert at 35. I love Javert. He’s not a villain. He’s written in such a way that he’s just a man doing what he thinks is right. I have to walk out there every night firmly believing that he’s the hero and he is trying to get Valjean off the streets to protect people,” he says.

“Javert doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean meets the Bishop and has a real life change. He doesn’t get to see that Jean Valjean finds a new reason to live in this girl he looks after. When he finally sees an element of that in the sewers where he’s got Marius and he says, ‘let me go, the boy’s done nothing wrong’, that’s when the whole thing starts to fall apart for him.

“(The character) is so well written, it’s so multi-layered. I’m openly gay and very different to Javert so it’s personally rewarding to prove to myself and others that I can inhabit the particular type of masculinity required for a role like this,” adds Tee.

Born in a small New Zealand town called Maungaturoto (population around 800), Tee (who turns 35 in June) began acting in his teens.

“There was a very strong theatre group in the village where I grew up. My stepfather and mother and little brother are now involved. That’s where I started. I remember I was very shy growing up and my Nana thought it would be a good idea to boost my confidence by sending me along to the Otamatea repertory theatre – and it did.”

Mind you, he never suspected then that it could become a career. “People including myself didn’t think it was possible that you could get paid for doing that. My Dad now can’t quite get his head around the fact that it’s professional theatre. I think he still thinks I have a job and it’s kind of what I do on the side.”

He does, in fact, have another job that he has done between acting gigs and, for a while, alongside his theatre career: fashion make-up – though one suspects there won’t be much time for that in the coming years.

“I love fashion,” says Tee. “In New York I spend so much money on clothes. I feel a little bit guilty but I’ll just have to wear them now. That’s the world I got into in New York more because I’m a make-up artist as well. I designed 14 shows for fashion week in New York in February last year. For years I tried to keep them very separate and would never talk about the make-up stuff if I was acting and vice versa. I guess as I’m getting older, I think, ‘who cares?’”

Tee was first introduced to Les Misérables by his stepfather. “He was courting my mother and to get in my good books he bought me the video of the 10th anniversary production of Les Mis and I watched that on repeat until it fell apart. I didn’t know the show. I watched it and went, ‘oh my god, this is amazing.’ I just loved it.”

The original production famously used a revolving stage. This 25th anniversary production has replaced that with a stunning new staging, which includes projections inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo himself.

Tee, who knew the original staging intimately after his stint as Marius, describes it as “new and fresh. It’s almost like an homage to the original but at the same time it’s very different. I thought it might be a bit more scaled down but I think it’s actually more epic.

“I think getting rid of the revolve has really exploded the whole thing out in many directions. I love the new lighting and the new orchestrations. I think it’s much more epic in general. The new projections are beautiful. I think you really feel you are stepping into Victor Hugo’s version of Les Mis, the way he envisaged it.”

Tee has read Hugo’s epic 1862 novel on which the musical is based three times now – the first time when he played Marius and twice in preparation for this current production – and says that Hugo uses a lot of animal imagery, describing Javert as a tiger.

“I initially thought he’s a bit of a wolf. He’s very dark but wolves hunt in packs. After I read that I went and watched a few tiger documentaries. They are very still but when they go, they are decisive, and they are lone hunters. They are very solitary animals, which is absolutely what Javert is,” says Tee.

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee.

Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee. Photo: Matt Murphy

“I don’t think anyone knows him. He keeps up an absolutely façade. He was born to a gypsy prostitute mother and a convict father and I think he’s trying to hide that so people don’t know where he comes from. He has this kind of posh upper-class exterior but there are certain moments when he lets that animal inside him out, and the only that really triggers that in his life is this dude called Jean Valejan.

“I’m so lucky to have Gleeson. He’s such a generous beautiful man. And he’s so present (as a performer). He’s an absolute gift to work with.”

Some people have said to Tee that he’s too young for the role. “But Philip Quast was 29 when he started. I’m actually older than Philip was,” he says.

A “huge fanboy” of Quast, who played the role in the original Australian production, Tee had to pinch himself when he was asked to sing Lily’s Eyes from The Secret Garden with Quast at a fund-raising concert for the Hayes Theatre Co.

“He’s such an amazing man and such an amazing performer. I feel the pressure of his legacy and the way he did the role. I don’t want to copy him. We spent the whole day together (rehearsing at the Hayes). Philip brought in this truncheon for me to look at that he made himself (for Javert) and gave me lots of little tips that I came back and shared with my two understudies as well.”

As for Russell Crowe’s widely maligned performed in the film: Tee isn’t one to put the boot in.

“I honestly do think that Russell Crowe brought something new to the role I hadn’t seen before, a certain vulnerability. Whether or not that vulnerability was (him thinking) ‘I don’t know if I can hit those notes or not’, there were moments where it really did work, I think, like leading up to the suicide. I liked that part of the film. I could do without his voice but he is amazing actor. And he’s a Kiwi.”

Tee says that the show is attracting hordes of fans, many of whom gather at the stage door after the show, some of them in costume.

“The amount of middle-aged women I have coming dressed as Javert…. I love and adore them but it’s like, what’s with that? This one woman has every costume I have in every scene. It’s just one of those musicals. But they are very, very supportive, I must say.

“We had the same thing when I did it in London 10 years ago now. We had these fans, mostly women, who came like two or three times a week and they always came to the stage door. They had their favourites. There was one in London – Fred her name was – and she hated me. When I left, she bought me a suitcase and said, ‘pack it up’. Others loved me and they would get into fights. Very bizarre.”

Whatever Fred may have thought of Tee’s Marius, it’s hard to believe she wouldn’t be blown away by his Javert. He is superb: a commanding, dark presence, who stalks the stage with a contained yet ferocious power and his spine tingling rendition of Stars is one of the highlights of the show.

Asked whether there has been any interest in him playing the role elsewhere, he pauses. “Maybe…” he says with laugh.

You get the impression that he’d be happy to play the role for some time to come.

“I’m happier than I have ever been in my life at the moment,” he says. “I love playing Javert. I love it so much. I feel very lucky. It’s a real pleasure to come to work.”

Les Misérables runs at the Capitol Theatre until July 12. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 558 878

A version of this interview ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 22

Matthew Mitcham interview

When it comes to slashie careers, Olympic diver/cabaret artist is one of the more unusual ones. For Matthew Mitcham, the leap from the diving board to the stage began with the ukulele.

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

“I had to take three months of bed rest because I had stress fractures in my spine,” says Mitcham, who famously won gold with an unprecedented perfect score at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“That was in 2010. Because I was going stir crazy I bought a toy ukulele for $24 and started teaching myself how to play it by watching YouTube videos. And from there, that ignited a hunger for more information so I went on these little learning adventures and taught myself music theory, chord theory and jazz theory. It was insatiable, I was like a sponge and couldn’t stop learning.”

Ever the perfectionist, Mitcham spent hours fine-tuning his playing and during the 2012 London Olympics posted video clips on YouTube of him playing Beyonce’s Single Ladies and the Family Guy theme tune from his room in the Olympic Village.

To his surprise they went viral. Musical director Jeremy Brennan saw them and invited him to play in a couple of cabaret nights at Sydney’s Slide Cabaret.

“From there the Melbourne Cabaret Festival invited me to MC and perform at their closing gala in 2013 and the producers were so impressed that they asked me if I would consider turning the book (his revealing 2012 autobiography Twists and Turns) into a cabaret show,” says Mitcham.

They put him in touch with Rhys Morgan (aka cabaret artist Spanky) to help write the show and director Nigel Turner-Carroll, while Mitcham approached Brennan to be involved as musical director.

The resulting show Twists & Turns premiered at the 2014 Perth Fringe World Festival where it won Best Cabaret and has since toured widely. Mitcham is back on the road with it again now. After selling-out in Melbourne, he plays Brisbane and Perth before winding up in Sydney at the end of this month to perform as part of the Mardi Gras Festival.

Mitcham, who turns 27 next month, has quite a story to tell. Behind his Olympic triumphs, the openly gay diver – who was brought up in Brisbane by an alcoholic single mother – was struggling with low self-esteem, depression and drug abuse, including crystal meth addiction.

As he did in his autobiography, he discusses all this in his show with an unflinching, winning honesty. He is equally forthcoming in an interview situation, replying openly and straightforwardly when questioned but without it ever feeling like he is grandstanding or dramatising. Nor does he seem remotely bitter.

“I’ve had really good experiences with being very candid in the public spotlight with the coming-out just before Beijing,” he says. “That was received so well by the public and handled so well by the media, (I received) just unanimous support. That was really heart-warming and gave me the confidence that I could be vulnerable with the public and the media and that I would be held and supported. So when it came to writing the book, I was a bit more comfortable to be as candid as I was,” he says.

“There were some pretty serious topics that I spoke about but I kind of thought there’s no point writing a biography if you are going to skim over things. So I went into quite a lot of detail because I felt if the potential benefit to others outweighs the potential detriment to myself then I really ought to share it, and so I just shared everything.”

Mitcham admits that at the last minute he got cold feet and almost deleted the darker, more confronting material but finally decided to go ahead.

“I’m so glad that I did it, because it opens up a dialogue and it gives people permission to be able to share their stories. I’ve had a lot of people share their stuff with me after the show,” he says.

“I think there is a positive outcome to my story and I guess that means it’s easier to share the harder stuff because there is light at the end of the tunnel. I think it is a positive story and an encouraging story.”

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Matthew Mitcham. Photo: John McRae

Mitcham certainly seems to be happy. Despite a decidedly unconventional upbringing and some seriously troubled years, he now appears centred and levelheaded – though he admits to a pathological need to be loved. He is still diving, having won silver and gold medals at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, and he is in a settled eight-year relationship with Lachlan Fletcher who tours with him on Twists & Turns, looking after “logistics” and merchandise.

– “I think I’ve always been a performer, a show pony. If you were going to psychoanalyse it, it would be searching for validation and positive reinforcement” – 

In putting the show together, Morgan wrote a first draft, which he and Mitcham discussed. “We got up to about four or five drafts before we knew the show well enough to stop using it,” says Mitcham.

“We wanted to keep the story-telling more natural. I’m not an actor so it’s better for it not to be a set script because I don’t have the practice to deliver a script naturally. Now it’s just me telling the story.”

Morgan – in his trash-drag Spanky guise – also features in the show, personifying Mitcham’s childhood invisible friend and his inner demons, as well as singing backing vocals. The show also includes a trampoline (Mitcham was a trampoline gymnast before he began diving, winning an event at the 2001 World Junior Championships), an eclectic selection of songs, and some pre-recorded voiceovers by his mother Vivienne (who he describes as “nuttier than a bag of trailmix”).

One of the stories Mitcham tells is spending six months without electricity as a five-year old when his mother had an argument with the electricity supplier. During this time, she bought a wind-up gramophone on which they used to listen to old records.

His mother was certainly eccentric, I suggest. “That’s the diplomatic way of putting it,” says Mitcham with a laugh. “But she has given me some fantastic anecdotes to tell in the show.

“Recording the voiceovers was so painful. She’s not done anything like that before. I had my laptop and my microphone and she was just bouncing all around the living room doing them over and over again. Nigel (the director) had to stand in the other room to try and keep a straight face. It was like a puppy with the worst ADHD you’ve ever seen. It was hilarious.”

Mitcham says that his mother likes the show. “She was even quite supportive of everything I put in the book because it is my story and she’s at peace with all that stuff from my childhood. She knows she could have done things better but we both know she did the best she could at the time. She’s done a lot of work on herself since, in the last seven years or so. She’s gotten sober as well and done a lot of personal development. She’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s and stuff so she’s working on those kinds of behavioural things as well.

“Before the book came out I gave her the manuscript because I was kind of worried about how she might feel about it all and after she read it she said, ‘Oh God! I thought you were going to be so much harsher than that, you could have been, I wouldn’t have blamed you.’ I think she’s a lot harder on herself but she is forgiving herself,” says Mitcham.

The songs in the show are well-chosen and include Irving Berlin’s Blue Skies, Pink Martini’s Sympathique (one of his mother’s favourites), Nick Cave’s Water Song, the Spice Girls’ Too Much and New Order’s True Faith among others. Brennan also uses some Erik Satie and Philip Glass as underscoring.

Another telling song choice is Alanis Morrisette’s Perfect. “I felt there was no way we couldn’t have that in the show because it is perfect. It basically tells my story,” says Mitcham.

As for his singing, it has developed steadily since he began performing due to “hours and hours of practice” with Brennan.

The quest for perfectionism again? “Yes exactly,” says Mitcham. “I think it’s a pathological need for people to love me. It’s the perfectionist in me. I don’t like to do anything half-hearted.”

Having contemplated retirement after the London Olympics, and again after the recent Commonwealth Games, Mitcham is still diving – for now.

“I’ve been on reduced training since the Commonwealth Games because I have been trying to rehabilitate an injury,” he says.

“I tore a tendon in my elbow. I was dealing with that all last year. I got to the point where I had achieved everything I wanted to achieve in sport (having won a gold medal) at the Commonwealth Games so I’m just about ready to let the sport go but I’ve been talked into staying until (the Olympic Games in) Rio, which I’m OK with. But my condition was that I want to be injury free before I begin ramping up the training again.

“So I did this fairly new procedure where they harvested some tendon cells from the wrist and they injected those cells into the tear in my elbow tendon and hope that fills in the gap and repairs the injury.”

In the meantime, he has been training in the day while performing at night. “Diving Australia has been really wonderful. They have facilitated that I can train at any sports institute wherever I go with the show,” he says. “I don’t think I have totally integrated into the cabaret life, which involves a lot of late nights and alcohol. Everyone else goes out drinking (after the show) and I go back to the hotel and go to sleep so I can get up in the morning for training.”

The move from diving into cabaret wasn’t actually such a big leap, says Mitcham.

“I think I’ve always been a performer, a show pony. If you were going to psychoanalyse it, it would be searching for validation and positive reinforcement. They way I was discovered diving was because I was at the Chandler Aquatic Centre in Brisbane – which is one of the national diving centres but used to be open to the public – and everyone was doing bomb dives.

“I was doing double flips into bomb dives and showing off and one of the national coaches happened to be walking along the pool deck and called me over and said, ‘how do you know how to do that?’ So I started diving the next week. And that’s because I was showing off and performing. I’ve always felt that diving is a kind of performance art.”

Twists & Turns plays at the Brisbane Powerhouse on February 5 & 6, at the Perth Fringe World, February 10 – 16, and at Sydney’s Seymour Centre, February 26 – 28

Rachel Gordon interview

Rachel Gordon is about to star in Nick Enright’s 1989 rom-com Daylight Saving for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. She talks about the play and the many diverse credits in her bio.

Rachel Gordon. Photo: Helen White

Rachel Gordon. Photo: Helen White

Logie Award nominee Rachel Gordon has some pretty interesting things in her bio besides her many acting credits.

In 2007, she was personally trained by Al Gore and The Australian Conservation Foundation as a presenter for The Climate Change Project.

The following year she spent a month walking the Great Wall of China with various celebrities to raise money for Olivia Newton-John’s Cancer and Wellness Centre.

“Joan Rivers was on it. She turned up and said, ‘When you said the Great Wall I thought you said the Great Mall. What am I doing here?’ She was on the Great Wall of China walking along in her high heels. She was hilarious.

“I’m very lucky to have had a lot of incredible experiences like that,” says Gordon.

And don’t be surprised if Gordon one day adds “politician” to her c.v.

Her great grandfather was Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, while his wife, Dame Enid Lyons, was the first woman in the Australian parliament.

“That’s really cool for a feminist, isn’t it?” says Gordon.

“They died before I was born but I’d like to get into politics and I know my brother is very keen as well so it might be in the blood.

“I have a lot of things I would like to change. I really love that Ghandi quote: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ There’s no point sitting back and pointing the finger at politicians. I should probably get up and do something, so who knows?”

For the time being, however, Gordon continues to be in demand as an actor.

She is about to star in a production of Nick Enright’s 1989 hit rom-com Daylight Saving directed by Adam Cook for Darlinghurst Theatre Company with a cast including Helen Dallimore, Belinda Giblin and Ian Stenlake.

“Ian Stenlake and I actually went to NIDA together and lived together for a while – not as a couple but in a share house with lots of other students. We’ve never worked together professionally so that’s really nice,” she says.

Gordon is best known for her television work in shows such as The Moodys, Blue Heelers and Home and Away. She has just finished filming a new Channel Seven series called The Killing Field with Rebecca Gibney and Peter O’Brien in which she plays Gibney’s character’s sister.

She has also done plenty of theatre over the years.

“When I first came out of NIDA that’s all I did,” she says. “It took a long time to get much TV work and then that was what I did for a period of time. But over the last couple of years I’ve been doing quite a lot of theatre again and I absolutely adore it. There’s nothing like having an audience in the room with you.”

Enright (The Boy From Oz, Cloudstreet, Lorenzo’s Oil) wrote Daylight Saving for his close friend, actor Sandy Gore. At the time, he was dispirited by his lack of playwriting success and he considered the play a last ditch effort. Fortunately it proved to be a hit, leading to a stellar career. Sadly, he died in 2003 from melanoma, aged 52.

“It’s such an honour to play this role especially because Nick Enright was so dearly loved by pretty much everybody in the theatre community that met him,” says Gordon.

“But I was terrified when I actually got the role because Sandy is such a dear friend and I so want to do the play and her justice. So I called her and told her and she’s been very supportive.”

Gordon plays a successful Sydney restaurateur who contemplates having a fling with an old flame (Stenlake) while her husband is overseas on one of his many business trips. But their candle-lit dinner is constantly interrupted.

“There’s this beautiful feeling in the play, which I think Nick fostered in a lot of his work of really seizing the moment – as he did in his own life. He filled it with so much and affected so many people on so many levels through his generosity of spirit, his largesse, his intellect and his humour. He gave us these wonderful plays and he taught thousands of students.

“There is a real sense of urgency in the play. Felicity, my character, has one night to perhaps live out her dream of being with this ex-flame. We all have these moments in our lives where you think ‘what would have happened if I had taken a different turn?’

“It’s a very charming romantic comedy and I think it will make people laugh and feel happy and hold their dear ones close,” says Gordon.

Gordon’s own dear ones include her two children with actor Jon Sivewright, who she met on Home and Away.

“I’ve got a three-year old and a ten-month old. He’s with the babies at the moment being a very good father,” she says. “They probably feel like they’re on holiday getting everything they want!”

Daylight Saving runs at the Eternity Playhouse until November 30. Bookings: darlinghursttheatre.com or 8356 9987

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 26

Blood Brothers at the Hayes

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden, Helen Dallimore and Bobby Fox. Photo by Kurt Sneddon

The Lion King is now the top-selling musical of all time but only three musicals have played in London’s West End for more than 10,000 performances – and Blood Brothers is one of them.

Written by Willy Russell (Educating Rita, Shirley Valentine), Blood Brothers ran there for more than 24 years, becoming London’s third longest-running show after The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.

There hasn’t been a professional production in Sydney for 20 years, but Blood Brothers is about to make a return, with Enda Markey producing it at the Hayes Theatre Co in February.

The show has attracted a top-drawer cast headed by Helen Dallimore (Wicked in London, Legally Blonde) as Mrs Johnstone, Michael Cormick (Mamma Mia!) as the narrator, and Blake Bowden (South Pacific) and Bobby Fox (Jersey Boys) as the twins Edward and Mickey.

The cast also includes Bronwyn Mulcahy as Mrs Lyons, Phillip Lowe as Mr Lyons, Christy Sullivan as Linda, Jamie Kristian as Sammy and Erin James as Donna Marie. Andrew Pole directs with Michael Tyack as musical director.

Blood Brothers began life in 1982 as a school play, before debuting as a musical in Liverpool the following year. It tells the story of fraternal twins separated at birth when their mother, Mrs Johnstone, cannot afford to keep them both.

Growing up just streets apart they become best friends, despite being divided by class, but fall for the same girl, with tragic results.

Boisterously funny and gut-wrenchingly sad with an authentic working class voice, the show is full of sweet, simple melodies that hit a nerve.

Blood Brothers was last staged in Sydney in 1994 with a cast including Delia Hannah and David Soul. A 1988 production starring Chrissie Amphlett is now part of Australian theatre folklore because a young Russell Crowe was sacked for head-butting Peter Cousens, his on-stage twin.

Markey has loved the show for yonks. “I saw it when I was nine and it was one of the most defining theatre-going experiences of my life,” he says.

In 1997, he worked on an Irish production as an assistant to Rebecca Storm, who played Mrs Johnstone.

“It’s such a great show. I believe that it’s among the top five musicals ever written in terms of the way it’s structured and its characters. There’s no fat on it. When I was looking for a project to produce I was thinking ‘what was the show that if someone else produced it I’d be devastated?’” says Markey.

Cormick, who plays the narrator, has seen the show three times. “The first was in London with Kiki Dee and David Soul,” he says.

“I remember walking out at interval thinking ‘this is fantastic’. But at the end I couldn’t speak for 10 minutes, I was that emotional. I thought then: ‘one day I would love to play the narrator.’”

Bowden has never seen the show live but was just as emotional when he watched a recording of it recently. “I got completely hooked,” he says. “I laughed the whole way through, it’s so funny, but I think I cried about three times as well.’

Dallimore auditioned for the show in London four years ago and saw it then.

“I loved it. It’s beautifully written. (Mrs Johnstone) is really a gift of a role, a bit of a bucket list role I think,” she says. “As a mother it’s going to be quite a harrowing experience to go through every night but there are a lot of laughs in it as well and she’s got a real warmth and humour.”

Markey, who is presenting it with a cast of nine and four musicians, believes that it will sit well in the intimate 100-seat Hayes Theatre.

“It was written for an intimate space, though not quite as intimate as this. (Russell) wrote it as a school play, then they expanded it for the Everyman in Liverpool, which was a 300 or 400-seater,” he says.

“It was only when it became a hit that they pumped a lot of air into it for the West End. So I think the Hayes brings it back more to where it started.”

The Hayes burst onto the Sydney musical theatre scene in January with a stunning production of Sweet Charity, which won three Helpmann Awards including Best Director for Dean Bryant.

For the four leading players, the chance to perform in a musical at the Hayes was part of the appeal of Blood Brothers.

“It really is the hottest new spot and it felt like it happened overnight actually and that Sydney really embraced it,” says Bowden who performed his cabaret show Mario there recently.

Sweet Charity let everyone know that really you can do anything you want there, with The Drowsy Chaperone afterwards and all those cabaret shows. It’s a malleable venue that now has this street cred,” says Fox.

“I think it’s the perfect place for (Blood Brothers),” says Cormick. “I’ve been looking for a project to do there so when this came up I thought, ‘this is feel absolutely right on both levels.’ I think it’s perfect that it’s in a small, intimate theatre but this piece is very much about storytelling. You don’t need very much more than the actors.”

“It’s amazing how a different energy can transform a space: the emotional energy and passion of the people behind it,” says Dallimore. “It’s been there forever and it’s always been a great little space but it’s just got this magic in it now. There is a buzz as soon as you walk in.”

As a producer, Markey believes that the Hayes is an invaluable addition to the musical theatre scene.

“I think for larger musicals the Hayes is really important because it allows the industry to thrive and to nurture new talent and to be a little bit more daring. I think we really need it and as we’ve seen the public have just embraced it.”

Blood Brothers plays at the Hayes Theatre Co, February 6 – March 8, 2015. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 28

From Kath to Margaret Thatcher, Jane Turner loves wigging it

Jane Turner as Margaret Thatcher. Photo: supplied

Jane Turner as Margaret Thatcher. Photo: supplied

Jane Turner loves nothing better than a wig to help her get into character. The frizzy perm was the crowning jewel in her creation of foxy moron Kath Day-Knight in Kath & Kim.

So playing Margaret Thatcher with her famous, immaculate helmet of hair has obvious appeal.

As revealed in the Sunday Telegraph, Turner is one of the actors in the Sydney season of Rupert, David Williamson’s cabaret-infused stage biography of media titan Rupert Murdoch.

The cast is led by James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett in Babe) as Murdoch and Guy Edmonds as his younger self, with Turner playing Thatcher and Dame Elisabeth Murdoch among other roles.

Rupert premiered at the Melbourne Theatre Company last year. It has since toured to Washington and will go to London’s West End next year. But first it has a four-week season in Sydney.

Though reviews have been mixed, with some critics considering it as little more than an animated Wikipedia entry, audiences have embraced it (as is usually the way with Williamson).

Turner saw the play in Melbourne and found it “thoroughly entertaining”. Asked to take over the roles of Thatcher and Dame Elisabeth, she says she didn’t hesitate.

“I love doing a lot of different roles in a show. I think it’s always great fun, particularly doing it in a fabulous, funny wig.”

Asked if she’ll have several wigs in Rupert, she laughs. “I hope so. I cannot perform without a wig. That’s in my rider!

“There is an amazing difference between a wig that is funny and a wig that isn’t funny. To the naked eye it might look exactly the same wig but when you put them on you just know if they are funny or not,” says Turner.

“I had some wigs (for Kath) along the way that weren’t funny. The original, scrawny, nylon wig that we used for the first series was pure comic gold. By the end (of the series) I was wearing that wig back to front because it was so stretched in the front of it. It was very funny. It’s still in my cupboard like an old, dead rat. I love it.”

Turner has plenty of experience playing real people from her sketch show days in Fast Forward and Full Frontal when she parodied the likes of Lady Di, Ita Buttrose, Sharon Stone and even Woody Allen.

When it comes to Thatcher, she says: “it’s all in the wig again because her hair was pretty distinctive, and also the voice. And she had a bit of a waddly walk, similar to mine. But hopefully I’ll get a chance to bring something more than just a sketch quality.”

Turner was last seen on the Sydney stage in 1999 in Ben Elton’s Popcorn. But she says she loves returning to the theatre when she can. In 2010, she performed in Tommy Murphy’s Holding the Man in London.

Next year, she stars in Jumpy, an English comedy by April De Angelis, for the Sydney and Melbourne Theatre Companies, in which she plays a woman facing the mother of all mid-life crises and battling with her teenage daughter.

“That will be so much fun. It’s a very meaty role for me,” says Turner.

As for a return of Kath & Kim: “never say never,” says Turner.

“We are having a nice lie down and trying to kill them off but they keep rearing their ugly heads. We do like them so who knows. I love doing Kath and I find her so easy to write for too. One day we might put her in a different format. She could have her own Tonight show or something.

“A long time ago we talked about a stage play. We love the cast and we love writing for them so we may do something, but who knows. At the moment we are happy to do other things.”

Rupert is at Sydney’s Theatre Royal, November 25 – December 21. Bookings: Ticketmaster 136 100

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 14

 

 

Guy Edmonds has wicked fun with The Witches

Guy Edmonds in The Witches. Photo: Brett Boardman

Guy Edmonds in The Witches. Photo: Brett Boardman

As a child, Guy Edmonds loved Roald Dahl’s books with their twisted stories full of irreverent, sometimes grotesque humour.

“They are a challenge to young people. It’s not sugar and lollipops – it’s sugar and lollipops and wolves,” he says with relish.

Edmonds is best known for his role in the ABC’s A Moody Christmas and for playing Timothy Conigrave in the original Australian stage production of Holding the Man, a role he later reprised in London.

Among his many other credits, he also portrayed the young Rupert Murdoch in David Williamson’s play Rupert for Melbourne Theatre Company last year, and when the production toured to Washington in the US. He will feature in Rupert again in the forthcoming Sydney season at the Theatre Royal (November 25 – December 14).

But first, he is giving full vent to his love of Dahl in a one-man stage version of The Witches, adapted from a play by David Wood.

A sell-out hit in Melbourne in June, with interest now from London and New York, The Witches arrives at the SBW Stables Theatre later this month just in time for the school holidays.

Dahl’s witches don’t wear black pointy hats and ride broomsticks. They disguise themselves as ordinary women but they are every bit as evil. Revolted by children, who smell like dog droppings to them, they plan to get turn all of England’s youngsters into mice. A young boy and his grandmother, who accidentally overhear their plot, set out to stop them.

The show is the brainchild of director/choreographer Lucas Jervies and began in 2012 as a project at NIDA where he did the directing course.

“Egil Kipste, the head of the directing course, gets me in from time to time to work with the directing students,” says Edmonds.

“He was doing an audition workshop with them so he said, ‘here’s a real actor, give them an audition piece and work with them’ so it was like a mock audition.

“So I worked with all the directors one of them being Lucas and he gave me the Grand High Witch’s monologue (from Wood’s play) when she enters the ballroom: ‘You may ree-moof your gloves! You may ree-moof your shoes!’

“I did this crazy (read) – Lucas says like an ape crossed with Hitler. I just say a camp Hitler. Lucas says in that moment he actually thought (a one-man version) might be achieved, because he’d toyed with the idea but couldn’t quite visualise it.”

Edmonds plays nine characters including the young boy who narrates the tale, his chain-smoking grandmother, the greedy kid Bruno, a French waiter and the evil Grand High Witch.

Edmonds delineates them without changing costumes, but vocally and physically.

“It’s not a dance piece or physical theatre but there’s a lot of movement in it, more than I would normally do in a play,” he says.

“There are very clear voice shifts between the characters but when it moves at such a rapid-fire pace you need physical signifiers as well. That’s where Lucas was great because he has a dance background as a choreographer and an ex-dancer. He works at Sydney Dance Company now (as rehearsal director). So he was really good to work with. As an actor you consider what your body is doing to a point but, for me, never in the way that I have done with this show.”

As for props, he has a large chest, a colander, a saucepan, a ball of twine, a toothbrush and a paint tin.

“Every object has seven or eight meanings as the play goes,” says Edmonds. “When we started, the chest was full of stuff and in the first week we just threw everything at the wall just to see which would stick and it was a process of elimination. We had a tennis racket and said, ‘OK, well we use the tennis racket for that but is there a way to use the saucepan instead?’ So it was a process of whittling away until we got to these five essential props.

“It’s really just the power of the imagination. Pure storytelling. It’s the kind of show that if the lighting board went down and all we had were the house lights and none of my props showed up I could still do it.”

The show, which runs for a breathless 40 minutes, is recommended for all the family from age six upwards.

“The brief for the show was to make adults feel like children and I would like to think that we’ve succeeded in that,” says Edmonds.

“It’s certainly a show for all ages but a wonderful show to bring young people to. When we did the Malthouse season (in Melbourne) one night we had three generations of a family – there were 10-year old kids, the parents and the grandparents and by the end they all had the same expression on their face.”

Edmonds will be returning to Griffin next year as part of the 2015 Griffin Studio artistic development program.

“My friend and writing partner Matt Zeremes (with whom he co-starred in Holding the Man) are Boomshaka Films, a production company that develops TV and film,” says Edmonds.

“Through our one-year residency at the Griffin Studio we are going to develop a musical  set on Christmas Island. It’s a musical comedy – with quite a sting in the tail. It’s called Rock the Boat.”

Edmonds and Zeremes will co-write the book and lyrics. The name of the composer has yet to be announced.

In the meantime, Edmonds is thrilled to be at Griffin performing The Witches again, saying: “It’s totally exhausting but a real joy to do.”

The Witches, SBW Stables Theatre, September 24 – October 5. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 9361 3817

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 7

Kieran Culkin interview: This Is Our Youth

Kieran Culkin, Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson are currently on Broadway at the Cort Theatre performing in previews of Kenneth Lonergan’s 1996 drama This Is Our Youth. Directed by Anna D. Shapiro, the production – which arrives direct from a Steppenwolf Theatre Company season in Chicago – opens on September 11.

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

Kieran Culkin, Tavi Gevinson and Michael Cera. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe

In 2012, Culkin and Cera appeared in a production of the same play at the Sydney Opera House. Here is an interview I did with Culkin then:

Ever since Kieran Culkin appeared in Kenneth Lonergan’s acerbically funny play This is Our Youth in London’s West End in 2003, he has wanted to perform in it again.

“I never actually stopped looking at it,’ he says over the phone from New York where the cast is rehearsing prior to a season at the Sydney Opera House.

“I’ve carried the same copy around with me for the last 10 years. I loved the play from the moment I first read it and when I got off stage well over nine years ago I just knew immediately that I wanted to do it again. I played the character of Warren the first time around. I knew I wanted to play Dennis at some point.”

Set in New York in 1982, This is Our Youth follows 48 turbulent hours in the life of two disaffected college dropouts from affluent but dysfunctional families: the magnetic, domineering, drug-dealing Dennis and the weedier, awkward Warren who arrives at Dennis’s Manhattan apartment one day with $15,000 stolen from his abusive father.

Since premiering off-Broadway in 1996, the play has starred the likes of Matt Damon, Jake Gyllenhall, Casey Affleck, Hayden Christensen, Mark Ruffalo and Anna Paquin.

For the Sydney season, Culkin plays Dennis with Michael Cera (Arrested Development, Juno) as Warren. Completing the cast is Australian actor Emily Barclay as the fashion student Warren wants to bed. They make a pretty cool young trio.

Having spent ages looking around the right person to play Warren, Culkin realised Cera would be perfect when they were doing re-shoots for Scott Pilgrim vs the World, the 2010 geek-gamer movie in which Cera played Scott Pilgrim and Culkin his amusing gay roommate Wallace.

“I gave him the play about a year and a half ago,” says Culkin. “I didn’t realise he hadn’t done a play. I said you should read it. I don’t know anybody who has read it and not loved it so I figured if he read it he’d fall in love with it.

“The second I handed it to him I thought I can’t believe (I didn’t think of him earlier). I was smacking myself in the forehead. Now I can’t read it any other way. Every time I read it I see him in the part.

“He read it that night and came back the next day and said, ‘I love it. Can we do it?’ Being naïve, I said, ‘yes let’s put it up next month’ but it took about a year and a half.”

Eventually discussions between Broadway producer David Binder and the SOH’s head of commercial programming Andrew Spencer led to a Sydney season.

“The fact we’re all getting a trip to Sydney out of it is pretty amazing because I’ve never been there and I’m really looking forward to it,” says Culkin.

Asked if it will tour elsewhere, Culkin says: “That would be wonderful but there are no further plans. I’d do it for many more months in Australia. I’ll do it anywhere.”

Both the boys in the play have troubled relationships with their parents. Culkin and his siblings – which include Home Alone child star Macaulay – famously had a fraught relationship with their ambitious actor father Kit who pushed them all into acting and who was criticized for mismanaging Macaulay’s career.

However, Culkin says he has not drawn on personal experience for the play. “I can’t say that because their situations are extraordinarily different – especially Dennis and his family. It seems pretty dysfunctional. He mentions that he has brothers and sisters but he can’t be close to them as he hardly mentions them.

“I can’t draw on that at all from my personal experience. My mother is an amazing woman and I’m very close to all my siblings.”

Culkin began acting at age eight in the first Home Alone film. His other film credits include The Cider House Rules and Igby Goes Down (2002) for which he got a Golden Globe nomination.

Shortly after that he stopped acting for several years and disappeared from sight.

“I never thought, ‘no I don’t want to do this’ (acting) but I definitely reached a point around age 20 where I was uncertain,” he says. “Because of starting so young I never actively chose to be an actor. I never said, ‘I want to pursue this’ and it was strange to be 20 and have a career and never have decided to have that. So I took a lot of time to myself and just sort of figured out if it’s what I wanted to do. I was pretty sure it was what I wanted but I wanted to give myself (some) distance from it to come to that conclusion on my own. So that’s what I did.”

Fame doesn’t particularly interest him. “I’ve always been pretty fortunate that I haven’t had to deal with a lot of that stuff. I’ve tried my best to be as distant from that as possible by trying to remain uninteresting and beneath the radar.”

NEW SYDNEY SEASON OF THIS IS OUR YOUTH

While Culkin, Cera and Gevinson preview in New York, a new Sydney production is in rehearsal. Newly formed Sydney-based indie group The King’s Collective is presenting three American plays that explore youth at the Tap Gallery (September 10 – 28) as part of the Sydney Fringe: This Is Our Youth, Mark St Germain’s Out of Gas on Lover’s Leap and Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.