Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in Machu Picchu

2016 STC MACHU PICCHU Lisa McCune by James Green 2106

Lisa McCune. Photo: James Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

The Concourse, Chatswood, February 27

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS -18 Photo by Clare Hawley

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Clare Hawley

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks was a big hit for the Ensemble Theatre in 2006, winning a 2007 Helpmann Award for Best Regional Touring Production when they took it on the road.

The production was blessed to have Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney co-starring in the bittersweet two-hander. A decade on, the Ensemble is doubly blessed that Hayes and McKenney have reunited with director Sandra Bates for the current revival. It’s perfect casting and even more touching than last time around.

The 2001 comedy by American playwright Richard Alfieri has a classic odd-couple premise. Set in a light, bright, well-appointed Florida condominium, wealthy retiree Lily Harrison, the lonely, prim widow of a Baptist minister, has hired a dance instructor to polish her ballroom dancing.

Enter Michael Minetti, an acerbic, middle-aged, gay, former Broadway chorus boy with plenty of attitude and a bad case of foot-in-mouth.

Things don’t get off to a good start. Both initially have their guard up and are less than honest with each other. Early antagonisms threaten to detonate their lessons before they begin. But gradually they foxtrot, cha-cha, tango and waltz their way to a blossoming friendship, realising that they have far more in common than they could ever have imagined.

Six Dance Lessons is well-written with lots of zingy one-liners but it’s also fairly predictable and sentimental and could easily become schmaltzy if allowed to.

However, under Bates’ direction, Hayes and McKenney play against the sentimentality and create tough, flawed, warmly believable characters. They have a lovely rapport and both are able to play the cut-and-thrust of the comedy superbly while convincingly suggesting the emotional scars both characters carry within.

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS -41 Photo by Clare Hawley

Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney. Photo: Clare Hawley

Both Hayes and McKenney are very experienced dancers, of course, so the dancing (choreographed by John O’Connell) is effortless and full of charm. The fact that they are ten years older this time actually suits the roles and lends the play an added poignancy.

Designer Graham Maclean’s gleaming set and attractive costuming makes for a vibrant looking production that complements the feisty comedy.

Gently touching on homophobia, loneliness and ageism, Six Dance Lessons wears its heart on its sleeve but Hayes and McKenney do the play proud, bringing enough nuance to their roles to make the lightweight comedy a moving plea for understanding and acceptance.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is at The Concourse, Chatswood until March 13. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au

 This review ran in the Daily Telegraph Arts online on February 29

The Whale

Old Fitz Theatre, February 18

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Keith Agius and Meredith Penman. Photo: Rupert Reid

The lights go up on a morbidly obese man. Charlie is 600-pounds and counting – not just his weight but the number of days he has left.

“Do you find me disgusting?” he asks visitors several times during the course of Samuel D Hunter’s moving play The Whale, set in Idaho on the outskirts of Mormon country.

It’s certainly confronting initially to see someone so overweight, beached on a sofa gorging on fried chicken or masturbating to gay porn. But beneath the bulk, Charlie (Keith Agius) has an agile mind and a huge heart.

He teaches essay writing to English Literature students online (with the camera turned off). He has a close, loving friendship with Liz (Meredith Penman), a nurse who visits regularly and cajoles him into leading a healthier lifestyle while bringing him the junk food he now craves.

He is also desperate to re-connect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Chloe Bayliss), a troubled teenager whose need for love has turned into spitefulness and who he basically bribes to be there. Constantly prickly and sometimes downright vicious, Ellie lashes out at Charlie, who with the patience of a saint is prepared to take whatever she has to give in order to get to know her.

Into the mix comes a young Mormon, Elder Thomas (Alex Beauman) who wants to interest Charlie in the Church of Latter Day Saints. Charlie’s former lover Alan, it transpires, was also a Mormon. Latter in the play, Charlie’s ex-wife Mary (Hannah Waterman), a single mother doing it pretty tough, also appears.

Gradually, we discover why Charlie is eating himself to death, and what has brought all the other characters to this point.

Lacing The Whale with references to Moby Dick and the Biblical tale of Jonah and the whale, Hunter has written a humane, tender and compassionate play, which takes in themes including homophobia, religion, small-mindedness, self-loathing, grief and family.

Designer Charlie Davis has used the Old Fitz space cleverly, suggesting a hallway and other room beyond the rather squalid sitting room where the play takes place. There are also rows of seating on one side of the stage to create a more intimate performance space. Davis’s costuming is also spot-on as is Alexander Berlage’s lighting.

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Alex Beauman and Keith Agius. Photo: Rupert Reid

Shane Anthony directs a tight, beautifully performed production. Agius, who wears a fat suit, conveys Charlie’s physical decay brilliantly: the laboured wheezing breath, the heart palpitations and the struggle to move. But he also warms the cockles of your heart with his endearing portrayal of a man who is patient, kind, loving, understanding and desperate to atone for previous wrongs: a true gentle giant.

The other actors all offer utterly believable, touching portrayals of people struggling with their own problems and hurts. The relationships that develop between them take you by surprise and the ending of the play is deeply affecting. Recommended.

The Whale plays at the Old Fitz until March 4. Bookings: www.oldfitztheatre.com

The Blind Giant is Dancing

Belvoir St Theatre,  February 17

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Dan Spielman and Geoff Morrell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Stephen Sewell’s blistering 1983 play The Blind Giant is Dancing is very much of its time but it still feels timely in this ferociously good Belvoir production.

The epic drama is set in the world of NSW State Labor party politics in the early 1980s at a time when Australia’s strong manufacturing base was being dismantled in favour of a free market, with devastating consequences for the working class. Seething with political intrigue, Sewell looks at how power corrupts and at how individuals both shape and are shaped by the world around them.

At the centre of the play is Allen Fitzgerald (Dan Spielman), a social economist and Marxist from a working class Catholic family who begins as an idealist. Unhappily married to Louise (Yael Stone), a Jewish feminist socialist, he is seduced by financial journalist Rose Draper (Zahra Newman) and becomes so caught up in a political power struggle that he sells his soul and his family down the river.

Director Eamon Flack and designer Dale Ferguson bring the play to furious life on a stark set at the centre of which is a large screen, which can either resemble the metal bars of a cage allowing us to see scenes behind it or light up with dazzling brightness, flashing up place names and images to locate the numerous different scenes. It’s a clever solution for a play with umpteen short scenes, while Ferguson’s keenly observed 80s costuming evokes the period.

Steve Toulmin’s sound, which includes bursts of 80s pop songs, and Verity Hampson’s lighting enhance and punctuate the fast-paced staging.

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Zahra Newman and Dan Spielman. Photo: Brett Boardman

Unfolding over three acts with two short intervals, Act I requires great concentration as Sewell establishes the main players including: Allen’s arch foe Michael Wells (Geoff Morrell), a corrupt Social Democratic Party secretary; Mr Carew (Michael Denkha) an American advisor to Wells; Bob Lang (Ben Wood) an obnoxious, misogynistic banker; and Ramon Gris (Ivan Donato) a Chilean socialist exile working with Allen, among others.

Flack directs at a cracking pace and it is hard initially to get your head around it all with so much coming at you. But as soon as Act II begins, everything becomes clear and from there the play hurtles along like a runaway train as scenes become shorter and snappier, keeping you riveted.

A family barbecue in Port Kembla where we meet Allen’s father (Russell Kiefel) and brother (Andrew Henry), who are both steelworkers, and his housewife mother (Genevieve Lemon), brings a human face to the politicking. It also gives us an insight into Allen’s tortured personality.

Spielman gives a performance of extraordinary intensity, his body language reflecting the passion that drives him and is tearing him apart. As he slides deeper into the morass, his physicality and vocals become ever more aggressive, his humour ever more sardonic. It’s a huge, demanding role and Spielman is utterly convincing every step of the way.

Stone gives an equally passionate performance as Allen’s activist wife who refuses to play the role of housebound homemaker. Kiefel is superb as both wily capitalist Sir Leslie Harris, who is prepared to take Wells on in the battle over the steel industry, and as Allen’s father Doug who rules the family with a rod of iron. In another compelling performance, Morrell’s Wells has a recognisable touch of the mongrel about him.

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Genevieve Lemon and Yael Stone. Photo: Brett Boardman

Lemon brings a gentle humour to Allen’s mother and her efforts to keep the peace within her family are quietly touching, while Newman imbues the seductive Rose with a fascinating sense of enigma. However, the acting is incredibly strong across the board.

Blind Giant is driven by a visceral rage, which Flack’s production captures superbly. At times it feels as if Sewell is delivering an impassioned lecture but overall it’s compelling stuff with an astonishingly good performance by Spielman at the heart of a wonderfully fierce production.

The Blind Giant is Dancing plays at Belvoir St Theatre until March 20. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

Arcadia

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 12

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Glenn Hazeldine and Ryan Corr. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ryan Corr gives a standout, charismatic performance in Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly clever 1993 play Arcadia but the production itself wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders on opening night.

Set in a stately English country estate called Sidley Park, Arcadia unfolds across two time frames, with alternating scenes set in the early 1800s and the 1990s (which eventually begin to overlap and share the stage).

Beginning in 1809, teenage genius Thomasina Coverly (Georgia Flood) is discovering chaos theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics a century before anyone else under the admiring eye of her dashing, witty tutor Septimus Hodge (Corr). Meanwhile, the garden is being transformed from a classical idyll to a Gothic wilderness.

In the same room 200 years later, Bernard Nightingale, a smug, ambitious Byron scholar (Josh McConville) desperate to prove that Byron fled England after killing a minor poet in a duel at Sidley Park, and Hannah Jarvis (Andrea Demetriades) a historian and author researching the mysterious hermit who lived in the garden’s faux hermitage, try to piece together the past from notes, drawings and other bits and pieces, which we have seen being created.

With illicit affairs, love, iterated algorithms, discussions about determinism and free will as well as Romanticism and Classicism in the mix, it’s heady stuff.

Richard Cottrell directs a sound, lucid, well-staged production on a handsome classical set by Michael Scott-Mitchell with stylish costumes by Julie Lynch.However, in striving to make Stoppard’s dazzling wordplay and complex ideas understandable to an audience, some characters feel underdeveloped and a little of the play’s sparkle and magic was lost on opening night.

At the moment, the historical scenes have a better rhythm than the contemporary ones where not all the humour lands, and there are times when the play feels pretty dense without enough of a leavening human dimension.

Corr has a wonderful, natural ease and charm as Septimus. He handles the zippy dialogue beautifully and his scenes with Flood have depth, heart and a lovely energy, though a stronger chemistry between them as the play progresses would make the ending more moving.

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Andrea Demetriades and Josh McConville. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Demetriades gives a strong performance as the wryly sceptical, somewhat stand-offish Hannah though one senses that there is more to find her character (a loneliness is hinted at in the play) and in her relationship with McConville’s Bernard, which we gather is underpinned by a sexual attraction, though there is little chemistry here.

McConville looks a little ill at ease as Bernard, though his zinging barbs are often very funny. Michael Sheasby gives a lively portrayal of Valentine, a gifted mathematician like his ancestor Thomasina before him, and Glenn Hazeldine is a hoot as Ezra Chater, a poet with precious little poetry in his soul whose wife has been discovered in “a carnal embrace” with Septimus. But not all the other performances feel entirely believable.

Given the brilliance of Stoppard’s writing and the top-notch production values, there is already much to enjoy but once the production settles, the cast will hopefully convey more of the play’s humanity and passion, and then it will really soar.

Arcadia plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 2. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 14

The Pride

Eternity Playhouse, February 9

Matt Minto, Geraldine Hakewill, Simon London (c) Helen White

Matt Minto, Geraldine Hakewill and Simon London. Photo: Helen White

Terrible repression in Britain in the 1950s when homosexuality was still a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison leading many men to live a life of denial, secrets and guilt; hard won sexual liberation in the present that makes relationships between gay men infinitely easier but not necessarily without complications.

Alexi Kaye Campbell’s award-winning play The Pride, which premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2008, moves between the two eras to explore the huge shift in attitudes to homosexuality over the last 50 years.

Set in London, the play opens in 1958 with a scene that could come straight out of a drawing room comedy where so much is unspoken or merely hinted at, with shades of Terence Rattigan or Noel Coward (drinks trolley and all).

Sylvia (Geraldine Hakewill), a former actress, has invited children’s author Oliver (Matt Minto) whose book she is illustrating to meet her strait-laced real estate husband Phillip (Simon London). Over drinks before the three of them go out for dinner, the conversation is polite and stilted with tension crackling beneath the surface. Sylvia cajoles an embarrassed Oliver into telling an epiphany he had in Greece that suggests he is gay. Philip meanwhile seems struggling with an attraction to him.

The play then jumps to the present with Oliver entertaining a costumed rent-boy. The names of the three central characters are the same but they are completely different people. Oliver is a freelance journalist with an addiction to anonymous sex, which his partner Phillip can no longer cope with. Miserable at losing him, Oliver constantly turns to his loyal best friend Sylvia for comfort.

Moving back and forth between the two timeframes, The Pride is a very well written and constructed drama in which Kaye Campbell balances the tortuous angst, guilt and dark, intense elements of the play with wit and humour.

Occasionally, it feels a little over-written: for example, a present day scene between Oliver and the editor of a lad’s mag who wants an article about gay sex that will appeal to straight men feels too long, if not unnecessary. And the 1950s scenes are more powerful than the present day ones but overall it’s a provocative, brave, compassionate play.

Directing it for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival, Shane Bosher helms a riveting production on Lucilla Smith’s stark set with grey back wall, onto which the cast carry minimal furniture and props in quick flowing scene changes.

Bosher directs with sensitivity, finding both the humour and the deep, intense pain inherent in the piece. He stages one particularly brutal moment with a frank authenticity but without it feeling salacious. Above all, he draws excellent performances from a fine cast.

Geraldine Hakewill, Matt Minto (c) Helen White

Geraldine Hakewill and Matt Minto. Photo: Helen White

London and Minto are exceptional. Both of them create two characters across the eras that are so totally different (their physicality, accents, vocal rhythms and mannerisms) they could almost be different actors – supported by Lisa Mimmocchi’s excellent costuming.

London is so stitched up and humourless as the 1950s Phillip it’s as if he has every muscle in his body clenched, while his present day character has a physical ease about him. Minto’s 1950s Oliver is fumbling, awkward, embarrassed and clearly lonely yet witty and endearing, while his modern persona is louche, funny and confident in his own skin.

Hakewill is also terrific as the rather delicate, sensitive Sylvia married to Phillip, who intuitively knows what is going on, and as the sassy, open-minded contemporary Sylvia.

Kayle Kazmarzik lends strong support as the rent-boy (showing a sure comic timing), magazine editor and a doctor to whom the 1950s guilt-ridden Phillip turns to.

The Pride asks tough questions about gay life today as well as in the past, questions about fidelity, promiscuity, the pursuit of happiness, and being true both to yourself and others. Recommended.

The Pride plays at the Eternity Playhouse until March 6. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987

Brooke Satchwell is Back on the Boards

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Brooke Satchwell during a break in rehearsals for David Williamson’s Jack of Hearts at the Ensemble Theatre, wearing a dress by Melbourne fashion label LIFEwithBIRD. Photo: Brett Costello

Brooke Satchwell has grown up in the public eye. Cast in Neighbours just before she turned 16, snaring the Logie for Most Popular New Talent, she celebrated 20 years as an actor last year.

The bulk of her work has been in television with credits such as Water Rats, Packed to the Rafters and Wonderland in which she played uptight lawyer Grace Barnes.

“I’m still hearing from people who are disappointed that Wonderland isn’t returning (this year). It was their guilty pleasure,” says Satchwell.

She’s hoping, “fingers crossed”, that Dirty Laundry Live, the comedy quiz show about popular culture on which she is a regular celebrity panelist, will return to the ABC this year. And she will definitely pop up again in the ABC’s comedy sketch show Black Comedy, reprising her jaw-dropping turn as “black white woman” Tiffany.

However, in a change of pace, Satchwell starts 2016 on stage in David Williamson’s new play Jack of Hearts at the Ensemble Theatre. Having done comparatively little theatre over the years, she is excited to be treading the boards again.

“When I finished Neighbours, I moved to Sydney and I did a version of The Tempest in the Botanic Gardens. That was an incredible experience, which led to The Graduate with Wendy Hughes and Mark Priestley (in 2001). Then I had a run of about eight years straight in commercial television,” says Satchwell.

The last time she performed on stage was in 2010, when she appeared in a comedy called Clean House for Perth’s Black Swan State Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre Company.

“Every time I step on stage people are quite surprised and say, ‘oh, you can do that.’ And I’m like, ‘yeah, I really quite enjoy it, the liberty of a performance that’s purely in the moment.’ And they say, ‘oh we’ll have to get you to do more’ and then time passes, different projects occur and it just hasn’t happened. But the timing of this at the Ensemble was fabulous,” says Satchwell.

Chatting during a break in rehearsals, Satchwell is smart, funny, articulate and down-to-earth. Asked by the publicist if she’d like a coffee of some description she says she’ll have whatever’s going “as long as it’s caffeine and milk”.

Jack of Hearts, which is directed by Williamson himself, also features Craig Reucassel and Chris Taylor from The Chaser. Taylor plays Jack, a loveable loser whose partner Emma dumps him for the smooth, arrogant, successful Carl despite her best friend’s warning. Jack sets out to get her back.

Satchwell plays Denise who is married to the philandering Stu (Reucassel) but sticks by him, partly because of the material security he provides and partly because she desperately wants children and has invested a lot in the relationship.

“It’s looking at the dynamics of relationships. Increasingly these days choice is more widely available across the board and that means we are a little more indecisive in what we’re committing to – and that (includes) partners,” says Satchwell.

“David pointed out that quite often if we are too picky in looking for a coupling we might miss the boat. So this play, in a very hilarious way, looks at that. It’s quite farcical with elements of high camp and drama as the couples enter the warring stage and are forced to deal with each other.”

Satchwell famously went out with actor Matthew Newton but their five-year relationship ended in 2006 when he was charged with assault. She is now very happily engaged to Sydney film editor David Gross.

Satchwell met him when she spent four years working as a production and camera assistant. That’s how, in 2008, she was caught up in a terrorist attack at a Mumbai hotel and was very lucky that she had just gone to some toilets away from the main lobby and pool.

Asked how that has affected her, particularly with so much terrorism in the world today, she admits that she probably has “a raised awareness in terms of security or just being very aware of my surroundings having seen first-hand the horror of that kind of experience.

“However, because bad news sells, I find the saturation of negative stories and the coverage is quite often disproportionate to the reality. Not to undermine the horror of those experiences for those involved but I don’t believe it is as all-encompassing as we quite often feel, given that (news coverage) is coming at us from every corner,” she says.

“I think if anything it does inspire me to concentrate on living in a more good and principled way in the hope that you inspire that in other people. I do believe that the natural reaction to destructive behaviour is for people to respond with greater generosity in the way they operate within society and I can’t help but think that will have a greater velocity.”

Jack of Hearts plays at the Ensemble Theatre, January 29 – April 2. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January24

The Tribe

A backyard near Belvoir St Theatre, January 20

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Hazem Shammas in The Tribe. Photo: Catherine Cranston

In the theatre program for The Tribe, Michael Mohammed Ahmad writes: “This is my attempt to counteract the limited and simplistic representation that the Arab-Australian Muslim communities of Western Sydney have received to date, and to offer a broader, more intimate understanding. It is also an act of self-determination – a declaration of the right to reclaim and tell our own stories in our own way.”

Performed by Hazem Shammas and accompanied by Oonagh Sherrard on cello and a few percussion instruments, The Tribe is a beguiling piece of storytelling, staged in a Surry Hills backyard where the audience sits on an assortment of picnic rugs, milk crates and chairs.

The performance I saw was staged at a home just across the road from the theatre. There are three different venues, with the furthest one a 10-minute walk away.

Adapted from Ahmad’s novel of the same name by Ahmad and Janice Muller, and directed by Muller, The Tribe is told by Bani, a young boy living in Sydney with his extended Shiite Muslim family who fled Lebanon. He takes us into his family home and school, conjuring vivid little pictures of his relations and friends, particularly his beloved grandmother to whom he is extremely close.

The production, from Urban Theatre Projects, premiered at last year’s Sydney Festival and is now presented by Belvoir.

Shammas is a mesmerising storyteller, sliding effortlessly between different characters and voices. Sherrard’s music, with Arabic influences, underscores the performance beautifully, while delightful little interactions between her and Shammas’s storytelling add to the understated humour.

The Tribe feels like an intimate yarn, offering an authentic glimpse into a family and a culture: a genuine slice of life delivered with real love.

The Tribe plays until February 7. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

The Golden Age

Wharf Theatre, January 19

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Back: Robert Menzies, Sarah Peirse, Anthony Taufa. Front: Liam Nunan, Rarriwuy Hick and Zindzi Okenyo. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Louis Nowra’s epic play The Golden Age hasn’t been staged professionally in Sydney since 1987, following its Melbourne premiere two years earlier. This stunning Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Kip Williams, confirms that it is an Australian classic and as relevant as ever.

Thrillingly ambitious in its scope and imagination, the play roams from Hobart to the Tasmanian wilderness to Berlin at the end of World War II.

It begins in 1939. Two young men – Francis (Brandon McClelland), an engineer from a working class background, and his friend Peter (Remy Hii) from a well-to-do Hobart family – hike into the Tasmanian wilderness and discover a lost tribe descended from a motley group of European convicts and settlers, including one actor.

Isolated for 80 years, they have developed their own language and culture but have serious physical and mental disorders because of inbreeding. Realising that “the circle is burst” and they have no future, their leader Queenie Ayre (Sarah Peirse) decides they will return to civilisation with Francis and Peter.

However, the government is concerned that their genetic problems will be used as proof of Nazi propaganda and insists on putting them in an asylum until the end of the war.

Nowra vividly evokes the world of the tribe, inventing a muscular language drawn from Cockney, Irish, 1840s convict slang and bawdy verses. At first we have little idea what they’re saying but as some of it is explained and our ear attunes, we begin to decipher meaning. He also folds Greek drama and Shakespeare into the mix of the play.

The Golden Age takes an unflinching look at Australia’s colonial past and culture of ‘she’ll be right’ indifference, articulated in a particularly passionate speech by Francis. Themes include the destruction of one culture by another, what constitutes civilisation, war, class and the search for love, identity and belonging.

At its heart is the touching love story between Francis and Betsheb (Rarriwuy Hick), a young woman from the tribe, who are separated during the war years when Francis and Peter enlist and are sent to Europe, but who offer a glimpse of optimism amid the tragedy.

Williams’ production unfolds with cinematic fluidity on David Fleischer’s set, dominated by a huge mound of earth. It’s not particularly attractive and works better in some scenes than others. Initially, it seems like a rather drab, arid rendering of the Tasmanian wilderness, even with the odd leafy branch thrown onto it. It also looks odd to have an elegant dinner party scene in Hobart next to it. But it gradually seems to accrue meaning, symbolising the harshness of the story and the intermingling of the characters’ fates as the earth is paddled around the stage.

Fleischer’s excellent costuming feels very authentic. The production is beautifully lit by Damien Cooper, while Max Lyandvert’s sound is richly evocative.

It’s terrific to see such colour-blind casting, with actors from a number of different backgrounds, most of which simply ‘is’. Having Indigenous actor Ursula Yovich as the aristocratic, rather cold Elizabeth Archer, who utters sentiments such as “What a pathetic group they look, like those Aboriginals in shanty towns”, meanwhile, feels deliberately provocative and heightens the discomfort of such lines.

Among a strong ensemble, Hick shines as Betsheb, capturing her inquisitive, high-spirited, wild nature. Peirse is compelling as Ayre, exuding a natural authority as well as her desperation to protect the tribe and its heritage. Liam Nunan’s physicality as the crippled Stef is superb and McClelland is a passionate Francis. Robert Menzies also excels as combative tribesman Melorne and as Peter’s father, Doctor Archer, who becomes obsessed with the tribe.

Complex, challenging and wildly theatrical, The Golden Age has a haunting, dreamlike quality yet at the same time it feels painfully, movingly real.

The Golden Age plays at Wharf I until February 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

Sticks Stones Broken Bones

Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre, January 20 at 10.30am

TimSneddon

Tim Sneddon in Sticks Stones Broken Bones. Photo: supplied

Sticks Stones Broken Bones is an award-winning show from Bunk Puppets, which has toured to 15 countries, picking up gongs including Best Newcomer and Spirit of the Fringe at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2010 and Best Puppet Show at the Adelaide Fringe in 2011.

The production is currently in Sydney for the first time, presented by Monkey Baa Theatre Company.

Created and directed by Jeff Achtem and performed by Tim Sneddon, it celebrates shadow puppetry and the art of creative play.

Drawing on his background in clowning, puppetry and physical theatre, Sneddon is an engaging, comical figure, who uses all kinds of bits and bobs including a shoe, teddy bear, cardboard, tinsel, socks, balloon, curly wig and lots of sticky tape to create objects that look nothing in real life but which are then transformed on screen.

The fun of the show is wondering what these random looking objects will become as shadow puppets, and the clever way Sneddon interacts with them to create on-screen vignettes.

A few segments including a comical brain transplant and a chess game didn’t really connect with the children around me but others drew lots of laughter.

A man breaking out various dance moves is pretty funny, while a hilarious Ninja routine is a show highlight. At the performance I saw, a very fit and game father from the audience threw himself into playing a Ninja who fights a monster (created on screen by Sneddon), delighting adults and kids alike.

Running around an hour and recommended for ages 5+, Sticks Stones Broken Bones ends with the observation that “you are never too old to play”, a sentiment that captures the spirit of the show.

Sticks Stones Broken Bones plays at the Lendlease Darling Quarter Theatre until January 22. Bookings: www. monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340