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

Aldo Mignone

Actor Aldo Mignone. Photo: supplied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

King Charles III

Roslyn Packer Theatre, April 2

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Robert Powell as Charles and Tim Treloar as the Prime Minister, Mr Evans. Photo: Prudence Upton

Queen Elizabeth II is dead. Long live King Charles III – or maybe not.

Unlike the Queen, who never meddled in affairs of State, Charles hasn’t even made it to his coronation when he astonishes the Prime Minister by refusing to sign a bill restricting the freedom of the press. With neither Charles nor Parliament prepared to budge, a constitutional crisis looms. Before long there’s unrest on the street and a tank parked outside Buckingham Palace.

So begins Mike Bartlett’s fascinating play 2014 King Charles III. Directed by Rupert Goold for London’s Almeida Theatre, it has had hugely successful seasons in the West End and on Broadway. Now a British company led by Robert Powell as Charles, which has been touring the play around the UK, is in Sydney with a finely honed production.

Set in the near future, King Charles III has the ring of one of Shakespeare’s history plays with Charles as a tragic figure: a principled man with a conscience but also a yen to hold more sway than a mere figurehead.

The Duchess of Cambridge, meanwhile, is well aware of the monarchy as a brand, its strength measured in column inches.

There are numerous Shakespearean echoes through the play with references to Lear, Henry IV, Macbeth Richard II and Hamlet. Bartlett has even written most of it in blank verse (apart from scenes featuring Prince Harry and his commoner girlfriend Jess, a Republican arts student from a working class background) using the iambic pentameter as Shakespeare did.

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Lucy Phelps as Jess and Rupert Glaves as Prince Harry. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

It’s a clever, daring concept, which Bartlett has pulled off with considerable skill and wit. The language is actually very accessible, so much so you almost forget that it’s verse at times, while the inclusion of contemporary words and phrases is often very funny.

Though there’s certainly a comic frisson in first meeting the Royal characters – Charles, Camilla, William, Kate, Harry and a certain family ghost proffering conflicting prophecies – the play is by no means a parody. The characters are presented as real and Bartlett canvasses serious issues regarding the role and value (if any) of the Royal Family, the power of the media, and the impact of a rapidly changing society on the mindset of its people.

However, a small section of the opening night audience seemed determined to see the play in superficial terms and laugh at everything, upsetting the rhythm and tension of certain scenes.

What the play doesn’t generate is a great deal of emotional connection. Charles’ fate is unexpectedly moving and Harry’s misgivings and confusion about his role in life are touchingly understandable but mostly it’s a cerebral affair.

Designer Tom Scutt sets the action on a raised dais surrounded by a bare brick wall with darkened doors and a frieze of blurry faces suggesting the populace beyond the palace walls. Using minimal props, Goold stages the action with elegant simplicity. Stylised touches such as the choral singing and the use of Guy Fawkes masks in a street riot are strikingly effective. Only the scenes with the ghost feel unconvincingly staged.

Jocelyn Pook’s score adds plenty of atmosphere, and captures a sense of past and present with music ranging from the opening Requiem to pulsing minimalist chords.

Powell is marvellous as Charles, portraying a dignified but conflicted man driven by an uneasy mix of idealism and frustration after his long wait to become king. As the play unfolds, he also displays a slightly manic attachment to the power of the monarch, while his sense of betrayal is keenly felt.

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Robert Powell as Charles with Ben Righton and Jennifer Bryden as Will and Kate. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Jennifer Bryden and Ben Righton do a wonderful job of capturing the clean-cut, photogenic glamour of Kate and Will, before revealing a steely strategic nous.

In a comic sub-plot reminiscent of Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I, Harry is portrayed as a disconsolate, troubled figure unsure of his role in life. Dressed in hoodie and jeans, Rupert Glaves conveys a surly passion and vulnerability as he contemplates life with a commoner, rather than the affable ease that the real ginger-headed Prince projects, while Lucy Phelps is a spirited Jess.

Carolyn Pickles is very funny as Camilla, urging her man to stand firm while displaying little understanding of what is unfolding. Tim Treloar is excellent as the Welsh Prime Minister, who is not a million miles from former Labour leader Neil Kinnock, while Giles Taylor exudes a born-to-the-manor confidence as the Tory opposition leader.

King Charles III is excitingly adventurous theatre in the way is plays with form. It also ignites healthy debate. With the Republican issue still unresolved in Australia, the foyer was full of heated discussions afterwards.

King Charles III plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until April 30. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

Swansong

Old Fitz Theatre, March 15

Swansong

Andre de Vanny. Photo: Robert Catto

In the late-night 9.30pm time slot at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo, Andre de Vanny is performing Connor McDermottroe’s solo show Swansong. Returning after a brief season in the same venue at the end of last year, it’s a sterling performance that is very much worth catching.

McDermottroe is an Irish actor, writer and director, who lived in Australia for 10 years in the 1980s after coming to the Sydney Festival with the Druid Theatre Company. Swansong is set mainly in his native Sligo and centres on a troubled, violent misfit called Occi Byrne, the illegitimate child of a single mother in the Catholic West of Ireland whose life has been lived on the margins for as long as he can remember.

Occi suspects that an unfortunate but typically rash, barrel-rolling incident as a child may have shaken his head a bit loose. Be that as it may, he is full of uncontrollable rage that can bubble over in an instant. One particular piece of name-calling is guaranteed to get him really riled and then look out. At the same time, he has a poet’s eye as well as a keen sense of self-awareness and can spin an eloquent, compelling yarn.

It’s similar terrain to Enda Walsh’s Misterman and Mark O’Rowe’s Howie the Rookie, both given superb productions in recent times at the Old Fitz. Swansong may not be in quite the same league as a play, though there is plenty to admire and enjoy in the writing. But De Vanny’s performance is every bit as electrifying.

We meet Occi feeding a swan he has named Agnes. Swans mate for life, he tells us, but Agnes is alone after two swans fought over her and died. Instead, Occi is there for her, bringing her bread and finding strength in her grace and beauty. From there, he takes us on a journey through his miserable life from school days to a disastrous attempt to join the army.

After an appalling incident at the social security centre, Occi spends time in a psychiatric hospital where he glimpses salvation in the form of a depressive young woman called Mary. There’s also a blissful afternoon on an island while he is working on a fishing trawler. But with Occi’s explosive temper happiness isn’t destined to last.

Directed by Greg Carroll, De Vanny keeps the audience gripped for the play’s 80-minute duration. Wiry, compact and muscly with blazing eyes, he is able to spin on a dime – dancing around like a boxer, cheery, optimistic and laughing one minute; the next, his body contorted into a tense knot of coiled energy, eyes cold and crazed. Physically and vocally, it’s an astonishing performance, while emotionally he takes you through every twist and turn of Occi’s psychotic personality.

De Vanny even manages to elicit empathy. Against the odds, you care about Occi and can’t help but be moved by his awful existence – a tribute to both the writing and the performance.

Swansong plays at the Old Fitz Theatre until March 26. Bookings: oldfitztheatre.com

80 Minutes No Interval

Old Fitz Theatre, March 15

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Ryan Johnson as the hapless Louis in 80 Minutes No Interval. Photo: Rupert Reid

As it says on the packet, 80 Minutes No Interval runs for 80 minutes without an interval – which would doubtless please Claire, the girlfriend of the play’s hapless anti-hero Louis, who has no great love of theatre, particularly of the lengthy, pretentious variety.

Written and directed by Travis Cotton, and produced by Thread Entertainment in association with Red Line Productions, 80 Minutes No Interval is a ripping black comedy, which turns a satirical gaze on subsidised theatre, theatre critics, publishing, perfectionism and cursed bad luck.

Louis (Ryan Johnson) has an unhappy knack of detonating pretty much everything he touches. An aspiring but so-far failed novelist, he is sacked from his job as a newspaper theatre critic when his editor comes across a small red box robot, which uses algorithms to write better reviews than any mere mortal. Later Louis purports to be making a decent living as a freelance theatre reviewer (which had theatre reviewers chortling).

The kind of diner who would try the patience of the most solicitous waiter, Louis’s restaurant proposal to long-suffering (and clucky) girlfriend Claire (Sheridan Harbridge) is memorable for all the wrong reasons. His parents want him out of their investment property and the publisher who shows an interest in his latest novel– as long as he changes it and wracks up an army of Twitter followers – may not have quite the eye he once had. From there, it just goes from bad to worse.

80 Minutes No Interval rocks along with many laughs on the way (though I didn’t find it as wildly funny as some of the audience around me who roared out loud for much of it). The scene in the restaurant as an OCD Louis tries to order is a gem and Harbridge delivers a monologue, which is comic gold, about all that is wrong with theatre from seven-hour shows with dinner breaks, to Perspex boxes, blue faces and a litany of other clichés (many seen on Sydney stages in recent years).

As for the scene between Louis and the ruthlessly commercial publisher Dan Kurtz (an outrageously funny, outsized turn by Robin Goldsworthy), it’s gross-out hilarious.

Ryan Johnson, Jacob Allan & Sheridan Harbridge in 80 Minutes No Interval (c) Rupert Reid

Ryan Johnson, Jacob Allan and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Rupert Reid

Cotton’s writing has a great deal of comic flair but after a while the play does feel a bit like an over-extended skit with loads of things thrown into the mix, not all of which are followed through or fully come together. However, the show is deftly directed and staged with a set design by Georgia Hopkins, which includes a lovely reveal.

Johnson is the perfect foil to all the comical carry-on, playing things straight with an endearing performance as Louis. The rest of the cast, which also includes Jacob Allan as the admirably restrained waiter and Julia Rorke as a young florist, let rip with performances that knock the comedy out of the park though at times it feels as if they are all doing their own thing rather than responding to what’s happening around them.

A nip and tuck wouldn’t go astray, but 80 Minutes No Interval is often wickedly funny with serious points to make, and clearly tickled many in Tuesday’s packed house.

80 Minutes No Intervals runs at the Old Fitz Theatre until April 9. Bookings: www.oldfitztheatre.com

Machu Picchu

Wharf 1, March 8

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Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in Machu Picchu. Photo: Brett Boardman

After the success of Sue Smith’s previous plays Kryptonite in 2014 and Strange Attractor in 2009, her latest drama Machu Picchu was keenly anticipated – particularly with Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in the lead roles.

But despite the best efforts of McCune and Gilshenan, the play itself feels underdeveloped, while the production directed by Geordie Brookman does it no great favours.

Commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company, Machu Picchu is a co-production between STC and the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

In a program note, Smith reveals that she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma a month before Kryptonite went into rehearsals. Machu Picchu was written in response to that experience. The play isn’t about cancer but explores how you deal with a life-threatening or life-changing event, and how that might make you reassess and change attitudes and priorities.

Gabby (McCune) and Paul (Gilshenan) are both successful engineers and appear to live a charmed life, though after 20 years their marriage has gone off the boil. Then, on the way home from attending a disastrous mindfulness retreat, their car crashes into a kangaroo. Gabby escapes unharmed but Paul is left a quadriplegic.

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Darren Gilshenan and Luke Joslin. Photo: Brett Boardman

Machu Picchu takes its name from the Inca city: an engineering marvel both admire and have long planned to visit. It represents the missed opportunities and compromises so many of us make in the busy whirl of life today. With its extraordinarily strong foundations, which have ensured its survival, the ancient site is also a resonant image for relationships.

The play shifts back and forth in time, so that we see Gabby and Paul’s relationship before and after the accident. With Paul experiencing hallucinations from the medication, the play also moves between reality and more surreal scenes but this hasn’t been fine-tuned enough in the writing. Brookman’s direction does little to help and the shifts in tone and style feel somewhat clunky.

McCune and Gilshenan both turn in accomplished performances. McCune plumbs Gabby’s guilt, loneliness and frustration beautifully, while Gilshenan brings a dry humour to the role of Paul, convincingly portraying his physical limitations, pain and indignity as well as the emotional turmoil, all of which leave him wondering whether he wants to live.

Though the chemistry between McCune and Gilshenan doesn’t totally fire, the scenes between them are the play’s strongest.

The supporting characters, however, are sketchily drawn. Best friends Marty (Luke Joslin) and Kim (Elena Carapetis) – who have their own flimsy IVF story – come across as crass, insensitive and self-absorbed when visiting Paul in hospital. If there was any sense of subtext, we might feel they are nervous, unsure what to say or perhaps trying to hide their distress. As it is, it’s hard to believe Paul and Gabby could be close friends with such boorish people.

Paul and Gabby’s daughter Lucy (Annabel Matheson), a doctor, is also conveyed in a few broad strokes, while Renato Musolino does what he can with the Lou, the psychologist from the retreat who rather improbably reappears and tries to help Paul find meaning in life.

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Darren Gilshen, Luke Joslin, Elena Carapetis and Renato Musolino. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade’s drab, unattractive set (lit by Nigel Levings) has a curtained hospital bed on one side of the stage and what feels like acres of poorly used, empty space on the other. (It may well sit better in the Dunstan Playhouse when the play goes to Adelaide). The hallucinations (which include Elvis for some reason) aren’t staged with any great imagination and visually it all feels rather bland and clichéd.

Machu Picchu explores interesting themes we can all relate to but it needs further dramaturgical work if it is to draw us in, provoke us and touch us emotionally. At present, it is only part way to becoming a compelling drama.

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

A version of this review ran in Daily Telegraph Arts online on March 11

Buckingham Palace drama is no fringe show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in Machu Picchu

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Lisa McCune. Photo: James Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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