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

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Bad Jews

Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre, May 19

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Maria Angelico, Simon Corfield and Anna Burgess. Photo: supplied

At the start of Joshua Harmon’s Bad Jews, I thought it was going to be a big, broad, lightweight comedy in a sitcom vein, but it quickly turns ferocious, hooking you with its explosive passion and savage humour, underpinned by serious insights.

The viciously funny four-hander is set in a small but fabulously located apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which Jonah’s wealthy parents bought for him and his brother Liam.

Their cousin Diana – who now prefers to go by her Hebrew name of Daphna – is crashing on the floor, having attended the funeral of their beloved grandfather Poppy, a Holocaust survivor, the day before with Jonah.

Daphna is needling Jonah about all sorts – how wealthy his family is, whether he’ll visit her at college and, most importantly, whether she can have Poppy’s Chai, a gold talisman he kept safe during his two years in a concentration camp by hiding it under his tongue. As the most devout and only truly observant Jew among the three cousins, Daphna believes Poppy would want the Chai to go to her.

Then Liam arrives with his pretty but slightly vacuous gentile girlfriend Melody, having missed the funeral because he lost his iPhone while the two of them were skiing at Aspen. Liam, it quickly becomes clear, wants the Chai for himself for rather different reasons and has no intention of letting it go to Daphna.

The play pits the aggressive “uber Jew” Daphna against the secular, self-styled “bad Jew” Liam, with the non-combative Jonah looking on anxiously from the sidelines, keen to stay out of it, while Melody tries to keep the peace. Eventually the verbal stoush escalates into fisticuffs.

Amid the jaw-dropping hilarity, Harmon raises serious questions about Jewish identity and faith in today’s world as well as loss, grief and family.

Written in 2012, Bad Jews has had successful seasons on Broadway and in the West End. This production from Aleksandar Vass and Vass Theatre Group was a sell-out hit in Melbourne last year and now arrives in Sydney with the same terrific cast.

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Matt Whitty, Simon Corfield, Maria Angelico and Anna Burgess. Photo: supplied

Staged on a detailed, naturalistic set by Jacob Battista, Gary Abrahams directs at a pace to match the play’s relentless, rampaging energy. Though the four characters are pretty stereotypical, the actors give exceptional performances with Maria Angelico as Daphna and Anna Burgess as Melody shining particularly brightly.

Angelico is a force of nature as Daphna, her bulldozing personality as outsized and uncontrollable as her mane of frizzy hair. Abrasive, bossy, exhaustingly verbose, sanctimonious and manipulative, using information gleaned from Melody to score points against Liam, she’s the kind of person many of us would avoid like the plague.

Angelico plays her to the hilt yet keeps her believable and against all the odds even manages to keep her vaguely likeable. Appalling though she is, you can’t help but admire the way she stands her ground so unapologetically, while the vulnerability she reveals at the end is subtly done.

Burgess also pitches her performance as the daffy but good-hearted Melody beautifully. The scene in which she tries to pour oil on troubled waters by singing Summertime from Porgy and Bess, drawing on everything she’s ever learned about vocal technique in opera classes is excruciatingly, hysterically funny and brilliantly observed. A little masterclass in itself.

Simon Corfield’s rather self-important, uptight Liam and Matt Whitty’s cringing, awkward Jonah are also finely judged. The Everest Theatre isn’t the ideal venue for a play that would be even more explosive in an intimate space but this is such a terrific production that it fires anyway.

Jewish audiences will doubtless find huge amounts to relate to, relish and ponder in Bad Jews but you don’t have to be Jewish to find it a thoroughly enjoyable, provocative evening. Recommended.

Bad Jews plays at the Everest Theatre, Seymour Centre until June 4. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

Black Jesus

Kings Cross Theatre, May 11

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Elijah Williams as Gabriel Chibamu or Black Jesus. Photo: Nick McKinlay

In presenting the Australian premiere of Black Jesus by UK playwright, bAKEHOUSE Theatre company gives us a glimpse into a world that few of us know about a great deal about and one that is rarely portrayed on our stages.

Black Jesus is set in Zimbabwe in 2015. Robert Mugabe’s government has fallen and a new Truth and Justice Commission has been established to investigate the horrific crimes committed during his regime.

A young woman called Eunice Ncube (Belinda Jombwe-Cotterill) is called up to question a prisoner called Gabriel Chibamu (Elijah Williams) about atrocities he is alleged to have committed as one of the most notorious members of Mugabe’s youth militia, the Green Bombers.

Gabriel is known as the Black Jesus because, as he says: “I decided who would be saved and who would be condemned. I took that responsibility for others and I now I take it for myself. I am Black Jesus. I do not crawl.”

The new Zimbabwe government is keeping an eye on Eunice’s investigation through Endurance Moyo (Dorian Nkono), a smooth-talking political operator who has known her since she was a child. Then there’s Rob Palmer (Jarrod Crellin) a white lawyer working with Eunice and with whom she has had a brief affair. He wants to support her but as soon as the threats start, he is quickly out of there.

Black Jesus evokes a dark world of violence, corruption and buried secrets where nothing is clear cut; everyone shares some form of guilt and is a victim at the same time.

Produced by John Harrison, co-artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Theatre, Suzanne Millar directs a taut, powerful production. With a simple but striking set – an African tree painted on the wall with branches overhead (set design by Millar and Harrison) – Millar uses the slightly awkward space (two banks of seating on either side of a flat stage) extremely well. The use of a drummer (Alex Jalloh) helps build atmosphere and tension.

Millar has assembled an impressive cast. As Eunice, Jombwe-Cotterill looks small and fragile but allies that with a quiet steeliness. She is frequently extremely still, which gives her an understated strength and resonant presence, and meets Gabriel’s ferocious energy with a cool, hard stare. As Gabriel, Williams exudes an intimidating, explosive rage that feels genuinely threatening. Together, the game of cat-and-mouse they play keeps you tense.

Though Eunice’s relationship with Rob is not particularly well developed, Crellin is very convincing in the role, while Nkono conveys the danger lurking just beneath Moyo’s ebullient joviality.

Running an intense 75-minutes, Black Jesus raises questions about societies trying to recover after brutal regimes and sends you home, intrigued to find out more about the complexity of life in Zimbabwe. Well worth a look.

Black Jesus plays at the Kings Cross Theatre, Kings Cross Hotel until May 21. Bookings: www.kingsxtheatre.com

Pennsylvania Avenue

The Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, April 30

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Bernadette Robinson in Pennsylvania Avenue. Photo: supplied

Bernadette Robinson is well known for her uncanny ability to impersonate singers across a range of styles and genres. Keen to extend this beyond cabaret into a theatre show, she approached director Simon Phillips who commissioned Joanna Murray-Smith to write a play to showcase Robinson’s extraordinary gift.

The result was Songs for Nobodies, which premiered in 2010, in which Robinson performed monologues by five “nobodies” each of whom had had an encounter with a famous singer: Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. Naturally, Robinson gave voice to the divas too.

Songs for Nobodies was an inspired and inspiring piece of theatre and proved a huge success. Following up on it, Murray-Smith has written a new piece for Robinson called Pennsylvania Avenue, which is also directed by Phillips. Once again, Robinson leaves you marvelling at her talent but the show itself is not as engaging as its predecessor.

Pennsylvania Avenue, which premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company, is set in the White House. Robinson plays Harper Clements, a girl from the south who gets a big break as an underling at the White House where she works her way up to become a trusted aide responsible for co-ordinating entertainment events. We meet her on her final day. After 40 years of hard work, her services are no longer required and she is packing up and leaving, reminiscing as she goes.

Murray-Smith uses the fictitious Clements as a clever way to interweave historical facts and anecdotal stories about various American presidents from John F. Kennedy to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, along with their First Ladies and the many entertainers who performed for them.  (I imagine it would go down a treat in the US). In narrating the piece, Robinson voices umpteen characters, male and female.

It begins with Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday for JFK in 1962 and takes in singers as diverse as Sarah Vaughan, Barbra Streisand, Maria Callas, Sarah Vaughan, Eartha Kitt, Diana Ross, Peggy Lee, Tammy Wynette and even an amazingly convincing, raspy Bob Dylan singing Eve of Destruction.

Her Sarah Vaughan is arguably the least successful but overall it’s extraordinary the way Robinson conveys such different vocalists, and she had the audience bopping in their seats for Aretha Franklin’s Respect.

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Bernadette Robinson. Photo: supplied

Harper is a no-nonsense, resourceful character who is seen dispensing advice to everyone from Marilyn Monroe on knicker lines to Ronald Reagan on his famous Berlin Wall speech. However, her personal story is less interesting and the final revelation doesn’t have the emotional impact it is clearly supposed to.

The set by Shaun Gurton is a plush, upholstered room called The Blue Room with six large framed portrait of early presidents on the wall, which prove to be screens on which historical photographs are shown. Blue drapes at the back occasionally become transparent under the lighting to show the three-piece band sitting behind them. It looks suitably stylish but Robinson rattles around it a bit, shifting from chair to chair, moving her box of things or pouring a drink to keep her busy.

Often it looks as if she is moving for the sake of doing something. Nonetheless, she is a fine actor as well as an exceptional singer and she holds the stage in commanding fashion as she moves with quicksilver ease between numerous characters.

Running 90 minutes without interval, Pennsylvania Avenue feels a touch long but it keeps you entertained and is a lively showcase for a unique performer.

Pennsylvania Avenue plays at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until May 22. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

Disgraced

Wharf 1, April 21

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Sachin Joab as Amir. Photo: Prudence Upton

There were audible gasps among the opening night audience several times during the Sydney Theatre Company’s gripping production of Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Disgraced.

 First staged in New York in 2012 and then produced on Broadway last year, Disgraced is a well-made American play clearly crafted to debate certain issues but it feels urgent and timely prompting plenty of discussion in the foyer afterwards around its provocative themes.

Set now, Amir Kapoor (Sachin Joab) is a successful New York corporate lawyer who puts in the hard yards as he aims for promotion at the Jewish firm he works for. He has denounced his Islamic faith, describing the Koran as “one very long hate mail letter to humanity” and is somewhat vague about his background, saying his parents were born in India though the area they come from is now in Pakistan.

Happily married to Emily (Sophie Ross), an artist with a particular interest in Islamic art, and living in a swanky Upper East Side apartment, life looks pretty rosy.

But when Emily and Amir’s nephew Hussein (Shiv Palekar) – or Abe as he prefers to be known – push him to represent an imam imprisoned for raising funds for Hamas, the consequences are far-reaching.

Things start to come apart when Amir and Emily have a dinner party for Isaac (Glenn Hazeldine), a Jewish curator who is considering including Emily’s work in a major exhibition at the Whitney Museum, and his African-American wife Jory (Paula Arundell) who is a colleague of Amir’s at the law firm.

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Sachin Palekar, Paula Arundell, Sophie Ross and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Prudence Upton

A dinner party is a well-worn dramatic device and naturally articulate arguments flow. But Akhtar has written well-rounded, believable characters and they are the kind of people who would have such passionate, intelligent, political debates, so it remains convincing even if you are aware of the dramatic set-up. What’s more, Aktar throws some provocative sentiments, sudden eruptions of drama and surprise twists into the mix that jolt and shock you.

Nothing is black and white as the play raises complex questions about identity, race, religion, prejudice, radicalisation and what it is to be a Muslim man living in the West. Amir may have turned his back on Islam but some of the views he has grown up with prove more difficult to dislodge.

Elizabeth Gadsby’s stunning design brilliantly evokes Amir and Emily’s swish apartment full of art and chic designer furniture, while Sarah Goodes’ superb direction gradually ratchets up the tension as she draws compelling performances from her excellent cast. Some have disliked the way she has the cast change the set but for me it worked fine; the way Amir slowly clears the dinner table is actually very poignant.

Joab has plenty of film and television credits but is making his stage debut as Amir– which surely says something about casting in this country – and gives an impressive performance moving believably from suave confidence to explosive behaviour that surprises even him and then a shattering sense of loss. The primal moan he emits when he realises the ramifications of all that has happened is harrowing.

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Sachin Joab and Shiv Palekar. Photo: Prudence Upton

Ross also colours her character’s emotional arc convincingly as she gradually realises what she has unwittingly triggered. Her interest in the history of Islam is conveyed with girlish enthusiasm initially and her pain and anger later in the piece feels very real.

Arundell brings plenty of sparky attack and zing to the piece as the smart, plain-speaking Jory, eliciting many laughs. Hazeldine finds the humour, passion and rather self-regarding arrogance in Isaac and Palekar makes a strong impression as Abe, whose attitude to his heritage changes through the course of the play.

Running a tight 90 minutes, Disgraced in a knotty play, engrossing play that raises plenty of pressing, topical questions and shows that there are no easy answers.

Disgraced runs at Wharf I until June 4. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 24

Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

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Heather Mitchell and Josh McConville. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever when he was just 24 but already a star in the making. A comedy of gleefully bad manners, it was a huge hit when it premiered in 1925 despite lukewarm reviews and is still much performed.

Coward’s plays are deceptively difficult to do well. If the actors only give us superficial flamboyance and witticisms, the humour can all too easily fall flat. But Imara Savage has directed a fabulously funny production for Sydney Theatre Company that has a fresh edge and contemporary energy while still retaining a feel of the period.

The play is set in the household of the eccentric Bliss family. Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell) is retired actress, determined to keep performing even if she no longer has a stage. Her husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a novelist and their grown-up children Sorrel (Harriet Dyer) and Simon (Tom Conroy) still live at home, without appearing to work.

All four invite a guest for the weekend without telling each other, thrusting them into a maelstrom of games and idiosyncratic carry-on that leaves their visitors reeling.

Essentially a lightweight comedy, Hay Fever offers the audience a vicarious thrill in experiencing life with such wayward “artistic” types. But it also celebrates bohemian freedom and vitality, and contrasts that with the rather stuffy, conservative mores of “ordinary” people and their concerns about sex and class.

Alicia Clements’ wonderful design isn’t period specific but subtly combines elements from the 1920s with later decades, setting the action in an attractively ramshackle conservatory full of greenery and eccentric touches like a bathtub for a sofa. Only the inclusion of wheelie suitcases and the decision to have Judith lip synch to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black when she offers to sing at the piano sit a little oddly.

Clements’ costumes are also terrific with all the Blisses in a permanent state of semi-undress or dressing gowns and the outfits of the other characters speaking reams about their personalities from the anxious Jackie’s girly cotton frocks and Alice band to the vampy Myra’s stylish couture.

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Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Harriet Dyer and Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Savage’s excellent cast combines wit with truth. Towards the end of the play, some of the performing becomes broadly comic and more farcical but overall the characters all feel very real.

Mitchell is sensational as Judith, a whirling dervish at the heart of the play. Her comic timing is immaculate and she is gloriously funny as she tears up the stage. Llewellyn-Jones is distinguished yet grouchy as the rather self-absorbed David. Dyer plays Sorrel with a contemporary edge as a young woman testing who she is, while Conroy’s Simon affects a nonchalant flamboyance.

Helen Thomson as the chic, sardonic Myra, Alan Dukes as the proper “diplomatist” Richard, Josh McConville as the rather gung-ho sportsman Sandy, and Briallen Clarke as the mousey, nervous Jackie are the perfect foil as the beleaguered guests. Genevieve Lemon is also very funny in a broadly comic portrayal of the exasperated housekeeper.

The Bliss family can become rather unlikeable in productions but Savage avoids that, ensuring that their love for each other comes across as strongly as their hilariously appalling behaviour.

Hay Fever plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

The Peasant Prince

Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, April 9

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Jenevieve Chang, John Gomez and Edric Hong. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Monkey Baa Theatre Company has a reputation for its delightful stage adaptations of children’s books and The Peasant Prince is another charmer.

It tells the true story of Li Cunxin (pronounced Lee Schwin Sing), whose autobiography Mao’s Last Dancer was published in 2003 and subsequently made into an Australian film by director Bruce Beresford. Li also wrote a picture book about his life called The Peasant Prince, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas, and it is that version that Monkey Baa’s creative directors Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry have drawn on for their stage adaptation for children aged 6+.

Born in a village in Shandong Province in China, Li was the sixth of seven sons in an impoverished but very loving peasant family. An extraordinary opportunity came knocking when a delegation from Madame Mao arrived in the village looking for talented children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. After initially being overlooked, Li was chosen as one of just 15 children from around the country and at age 10 he left his home for Beijing.

The training was relentlessly tough and Li was terribly homesick, but eventually he found the courage, fortitude and determination to succeed. Selected by Ben Stevenson, the artistic director of Houston Ballet, to go to the US on a cultural exchange, Li defected. After a diplomatic standoff when he was held in the Chinese Embassy, he was eventually released a free man.

Li danced with Houston Ballet for 16 years and was a guest artist around the world. After meeting Australian-born dancer Mary McKendry in London, they married and came to Melbourne in 1995 where he danced with the Australian Ballet. Li is now artistic director of the Queensland Ballet.

The Peasant Prince begins with Li waiting backstage to make his debut in The Nutcracker for Houston Ballet, with his parents in the audience. It then rewinds to tell his story up to that point.

The script by Di Cesare, Eldrige and McGarry is succinct without it ever feeling that it is just ticking off plot points. A story Li loved his father to tell him about a frog acts as a metaphor for what is to come and the writers create many lively little vignettes that speak reams about Li’s life and relationship with his parents and brothers, a dance teacher who encouraged him, and Stevenson.

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Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

McGarry’s direction, with movement by Danielle Micich, keeps the action moving swiftly on a minimal but very effective set by Michael Hankin featuring David Bergman’s beautiful video designs, which locate scenes as the story moves from the village to a school room to the dance academy and onto Houston. Hankin’s costuming is also very evocative, as is Daryl Wallis’s music.

The early scenes in China work wonderfully well with simple staging effects proving extremely eloquent. There’s a lovely sequence in which Li’s mother uses a blanket in various ways to suggest feeding, washing and drying her son with loving care. At the dance academy, two performers merely hold a pole to create a ballet barre.

The Houston scenes don’t have quite the same flow. A ballet rehearsal feels a little overlong and the coercion Li suffers in the Chinese Embassy doesn’t have the same clarity as the rest of the storytelling; I imagine children will be asking what was happening at that point. But overall it’s beautifully told.

As Li, John Gomez Goodway brings a wide-eyed, open-hearted exuberance and emotional vulnerability to the role that is very endearing. The other three actors – Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong – each play several roles and do an impressive job of slipping quickly between them to create various well-defined characters.

Running around 55 minutes, The Peasant Prince tells an inspiring story about courage, resilience, family love and following your dreams that kept the young audience engaged.

Li Cunxin was at the opening. Asked to make a short speech afterwards, which he hadn’t anticipated, he said he was deeply moved by the production. I imagine that young audiences will be touched, amused and inspired by it too.

The Peasant Prince plays at Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 20 and then tours to 37 Australian venues. See www.monkeybaa.com.au for details.