Jasper Jones

Belvoir St Theatre, January 6

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Tom Conroy and Kate Mulvany in Jasper Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kate Mulvany’s stage adaptation of Craig Silvey’s much-loved 2009 novel for young adults, Jasper Jones, is faithful to the world, spirit and overall plot of the original book.

Set in 1965 in the small fictional town of Corrigan in Western Australia, it begins with Charlie Bucktin (Tom Conroy), a smart but dorky 14-year old, being woken by 16-year old Jasper Jones (Guy Simon), whose part Aboriginal heritage makes him a perennial scapegoat and loner.

Jasper asks Charlie to follow him to his hide-away in the bush, where he has discovered something terrible. Knowing that he will be blamed, he begs Charlie to help him find out who is responsible.

So begins a coming-of-age story in which the innocence and high-spiritedness of youth rub up against bigotry, bullying and domestic abuse. Anyone who hasn’t read the book and plans on taking young people (it’s recommended for ages 13+) should be aware that it contains these darker themes as well as a confronting death – but overall it’s a lovely, life-affirming story full of laughter and exuberant humour as well as heartache.

While Charlie waits for Jasper to reappear, he spends time with his best mate, the cricket-mad Jeffrey Lu (Charles Wu). Though the Vietnam War seems worlds away, it still resonates in the background as more Australians are called up and Jeffrey, like Jasper, is the target of casual racism because of his Vietnamese background. And then there’s the book-loving Eliza Wishart (Matilda Ridgway), Charlie’s love interest.

Inevitably some things in the book aren’t gone into in the same depth. Charlie and Jasper’s encounter with Mad Jack Lionel – another loner avoided by the town and feared by all the children – feels a bit rushed. Charlie’s evolving relationship with his quiet, retiring father is given short shrift, though the relationship with his embittered, frustrated mother is vividly evoked, enhanced by a powerful new scene between her and Charlie as she prepares to leave.

The two attacks on the Lu family don’t have as much of an impact when simply described as they are here and nor do get the same sense of the toll they take on the hitherto irrepressibly optimistic Jeffrey – a moving moment in the novel and something Charlie is acutely aware of. But overall, Mulvany has made well-considered choices in putting the novel and its characters on stage.

Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, the Belvoir production unfolds on an evocative set by Michael Hankin with a large gum tree plus a small wooden porch and sleep-out, which can be moved to create different locations. It’s all beautifully lit by Matt Scott, while Mel Page’s costumes capture 1960s attire in regional Australia in brilliantly funny fashion for the men (shorts with long socks, tight shirts tucked into tight pants) and more attractive cotton frocks with full skirts for the women. Steve Toulmin’s sound is also very effective in enhancing the atmosphere.

Playing some scenes while racing through the auditorium adds little and is plain clunky at times with people craning their necks, but for the most part Sarks’ lively production flows smoothly. The cricket match in which Jeffrey emerges triumphant is cleverly staged and the ending – though slightly different to the novel – brings a lump to the throat.

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Guy Simon as Jasper and Tom Conroy as Charlie. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Conroy captures Charlie’s awkwardness, intelligence and sense of fairness, while the jokey banter between him and Wu’s Jeffrey is a delight. Simon is endearing as Jasper, quietly conveying the emotional weight he carries. Mulvany gives a vibrant portrayal of Charlie’s unhappy, snarky mother and a hilarious comic cameo as the local school bully Warwick. Ridgway glows as Eliza and Steve Rodgers brings weight to the underwritten characters of Charlie’s father and Mad Jack Lionel.

Though not all the moments hit home as powerfully as in the book, Mulvany has written a very funny, ultimately touching play with much to say for adults and teenagers alike.

Jasper Jones plays at Belvoir St Theatre until Feburary 7. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 

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

Stick Man

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 12 at 2pm

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Paul Kane, William Cooper and Claire Dargo in Stick Man. Photo: Jacquie Manning

Sydney families have embraced recent stage adaptations of The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo’s Child and Room on the Broom. Now comes Stick Man, another delightful show for young children aged 3+, also based on a popular picture book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.

Staged by UK company Scamp Theatre, the production premiered in 2010 and has since played in London’s West End and toured internationally.

Stick Man tells the story of a happy, healthy stick who leaves his family tree to go for a walk one morning and finds himself caught up in one sticky situation after another. At the mercy of a dog, a karate-kicking girl who uses him as a Pooh stick, a swan, the ocean waves, and a pair of cricket-playing, sand castle-building beach-goers, he feels “used and abused”. Finally, he is thrown on a log fire but is rescued by Santa Claus and happily reunited with his family.

Performed by three Scottish actors, the exuberant 55-minute production is imaginatively staged using puppets, catchy songs, cute dance moves, lighting effects and other clever touches such as umbrellas to represent the ocean.

There is also plenty of gentle audience participation with a chase through the audience by Stick Man, the dog and a park keeper, and children catching beach balls and huge rubber rings and returning them to the stage. One little girl wept on her mother’s shoulder when another child beat her to the beach ball, but when it came flying out into the audience again, another mother in the row behind made sure it reached her and her smiling face was a picture. The magic of theatre (and kindly theatre-goers)!

The three actors are all terrific. William Cooper plays the put-upon Stick Man, Claire Dargo is the dog, swan, martial arts-loving girl and a beach-goer, while Paul Kane plays the other characters and also supplies live music (performed to a jaunty backing track) and sound effects, playing ukulele, saxophone, penny whistle and a neat little percussion kit on the side of the stage.

The children all around me clearly had a lovely time and I heard several singing the catching Stick Man song in the foyer afterwards.

Stick Man plays at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until January 17. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

The Object Lesson

Sydney Town Hall, January 7

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Geoff Sobelle in the Sydney Town Hall. Photo: Nic Walker, Sydney Morning Herald

Geoff Sobelle’s absurdist performance installation The Object Lesson is by turns intriguing, whimsical, gently amusing, infuriating, tedious and utterly magical.

First staged by the American actor and illusionist in Philadelphia in 2013, with direction by David Neumann, set design by Steven Dufala, lighting by Christopher Kuhl and sound by Nick Kourtides, it won the top prize at the 2014 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and had a successful New York season later that year. Now it’s here as part of the Sydney Festival.

Entering the main ballroom at the Sydney Town Hall, you find yourself in a newly created space framed by towering walls of cardboard boxes, many of them labelled, while other boxes are scattered around the room. Filled with all kinds of stuff – toys, clothes, lamps and bric-a-brac – you are invited to rifle through them as a prologue to the main act.

When Sobelle first presented The Object Lesson, he was moving house and put his own belongings into the boxes. Here, they have come from op shops and donations.

Gradually, the audience finds somewhere to sit, some choosing the stage, others perching on boxes marked “sit on me”. Then Sobelle emerges from the crowd in well-worn brown suit and bare feet and begins unpacking furniture from boxes to form a small room with carpet, big leather armchair, plant and an old-fashioned gramophone, which isn’t quite what it seems.

Using a small tape machine, he records seemingly random comments, which then become a fairly aimless two-way conversation on a phone. Scrambling up the mountain of boxes, he extracts a letter, recalling a student holiday in France, and some traffic lights, which feature in a rambling story. He shares bread and wine. He gets two audience members to go through their wallets. My friend and colleague Diana Simmonds was one of those chosen on opening night and injected some wry humour into her account. Read Diana’s review here: http://www.stagenoise.com/review/2016/sydfest-2016-the-object-lesson

While some in the audience seemed fascinated, to me it all felt fairly random, a little boring, and kind of pointless. Maybe that was the point. But I have to admit it was trying my patience.

And then Sobelle does a wonderful thing with ice skates, salad and a lady plucked from the audience. I don’t want to give too much away but from there, I was hooked.

The final sequence is magical, quite literally, as Sobelle takes us on a journey from cradle to grave, pulling all manner of things from an apparently bottomless box that looked empty when he set it on the stool.

It’s an extraordinary coup de theatre. Finally, with a mountain of life’s detritus tossed onto the floor in front of him, the lights go out and we are left to ponder the stuff we accumulate, how much of it we actually need, the memories that objects hold for us, and whether/when/how to let things go. As Sobelle says: “there’s a thin line between vintage and crap.”

The Object Lesson is almost completely sold out. However, an extra performance on Sunday January 10 at 8pm is now on sale: www.sydneyfestival.org.au/object or 1300 856 876

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bella Vista Farm, December 12

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Lara Schwerdt, Emily Eskell, Sabryna Te’o and Madeleine Jones in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Maryne Rothe

Sport for Jove’s outdoor season is always something to look forward to during the Sydney summer (weather permitting) and this year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a delight.

I saw the play at Bella Vista Farm Park in the Hills Shire and have been tardy in reviewing it so that season is now over. However, you can catch the production at Everglades Gardens in Leura during January – and it’s well worth it.

At Bella Vista Farm, Sport for Jove has a new purpose-built stage. With a lighting rig and backstage area, it is better equipped for the cast and crew. Constructed at the bottom of a gently sloping hill, it also provides better sightlines for the audience who can either sit on a picnic blanket, or a little further up the hill on provided plastic chairs. The set-up may not have quite the same charm as when the company performed in a courtyard in front of the farmhouse or in the nearby shed, but it is eminently practical.

What’s more, the set (co-designed by Damien Ryan and Anna Gardiner) is vibrantly attractive in a shabby chic kind of way with wisteria-draped screens and walls and a “marble” floor: a staging that sits well and looks good in the outdoor setting under Sian James-Holland’s lighting.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s early, rarely performed comedies. It’s a wordy piece though it never feels cumbersomely so here. In his program notes, director Damien Ryan writes that he has removed the play’s “most impenetrable material” but admits that some of the language remains “a curiously knotted garden”. However, there’s lots of wonderful poetry and the production rollicks along with such an infectious energy that any difficult language never becomes an issue.

The plot is light and rather silly. The young King Ferdinand of Navarre (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) and his friends Lord Biron (Tim Walter), Dumain (Curtis Fernandez) and Longaville (Gabrielle Scawthorn) take a pledge to avoid woman and wine for three years and instead devote themselves to study.

But before the ink is dry, the Princess of France (Emily Eskell) and her ladies-in-waiting Rosaline (Sabryna Te’o), Maria (Lara Schwerdt) and Katherine (Madeleine Jones) arrive and test their resolve.

A second plot involves a Spanish nobleman, Don Adriano de Armado (Berynn Schwerdt) who is bent on wooing a comely country maid called Jaquenetta (Claire Lovering). A bumpkin called Costard (George Banders) is also sweet on Jaquenette but is no match for the Don and finds himself being used at the go-between for one and all.

The women in the play are highly spirited and independent, and while attracted to the men refuse to become their playthings. As a way to increase the number of roles for women, Ryan has Longaville played by a woman in masculine attire (Scawthorn) who holds her own in the privileged men’s world. By doing so, Ryan introduces the issue of marriage equality. The device works brilliantly, without feeling at all gimmicky. When the young people eventually pair off, there just happens to be one lesbian couple.

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Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Curtis Fernandez, Tim Walter and Gabrielle Scawthorn in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Marnya Rothe

While using Elizabethan costuming, Ryan also injects a great deal of fun by portraying the officious, bureaucratic Anthony Dull (Scott Sheridan) as a contemporary park ranger.

Speaking of costuming, Melanie Liertz has done an exceptional job on the smell of an oily rag. Apparently the women’s gowns are made from painted canvas. Amazing.

Ryan’s cast is terrific. Some handle the language better than others, but overall it’s performed with a zest that fills the air, sailing effortlessly to the top of the hill. Beryn Schwerdt is hilarious as Don Adriano, flouncing around in melodramatic fashion with a fruity, comedic Spanish accent to match.

Aaron Tsindos is also funny as the Don’s manservant Moth. Scawthorn is impressive as Longaville, Lembke-Hogan exudes confident poise as Navarre and Walter is dashing as the serious, cynical Biron. But all the cast – which also includes Wendy Strehlow and James Lugton – are on song. A fun night.

The evening begins with a short curtain raiser: Josh Lawson’s Shakespearealism, a clever, 30-minute send-up about Ralph Shakespeare, a young playwright who pioneered realism on stage but lived forever in the shadow of his brother William. Directed by Lizzie Schebesta, with Lembke-Hogan as Ralph, James Lugton as jaded theatre manager Philip Henslowe, and Scawhtorn and Tsindos as two actors, it’s a cute piece but makes for a long night.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Bella Vista Farm, December 19

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Deborah Kennedy as Lady Bracknell and Scott Sheridan as Jack Worthing. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the greatest comedies of all time, but I’m not sure that the play with its witty repartee and drawing room settings lends itself to an outdoor production in the same way that Shakespeare does. Damien Ryan directs an enjoyable enough production but it often feels a bit try-hard in the comedy stakes. The slapstick routine of Algernon (Aaron Tsindos) and his manservant Lane (James Lugton) falling off the stage doesn’t sit right in Wilde’s stylish world, nor does Cecily (Eloise Winestock) gagging on the name Algernon. What’s more, I didn’t find any of that particularly funny.

Some of the gags work well – the running joke about the servant’s bell is amusing – but the portrayals of the gun-toting Cecily and hyper Gwendolen (Claire Lovering) feel far too overplayed.

Deborah Kennedy has the style absolutely right as Lady Bracknell and nails every laugh, delivering the famous lines as if they’ve never been said before in a standout performance. Wendy Strehlow is also on the money with Miss Prism, while Tsindos has the measure of the witty, devil-may-care Algernon.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 9 – 24. Bookings: http://www.sportforjove.com.au

2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over the 167 productions (theatre, musicals, dance, opera and cabaret) I saw in 2015, there was some terrific mainstage theatre but it was in the independent sector this year that many of my real highlights occurred. There were some outstanding performances across both, including a number of unforgettable solo turns.

As for musicals, the commercial scene was generally much more impressive than last year, thanks to a couple of exceptional productions, while independent musical theatre continued to thrive led by the invaluable Hayes Theatre Co. Not only did the Hayes shine a light on many little known shows and talented, emerging performers but it also provided the opportunity for several impressive directorial debuts.

So, here goes with my personal highlights for the year.

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

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“When I Grow Up” in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

 Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly took the irreverent genius of Roald Dahl and made it sing on stage in Matilda The Musical, one of the most original and exciting new musicals in ages. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is an inspired piece of theatre and the Australian cast did it proud, thrilling adults and “maggots” alike. James Millar was a hoot as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull and Elise McCann was a quietly radiant Miss Honey, while the four young girls who played Matilda – Molly Barwick, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin – did a fine job, as did all the children in the cast.

Les Misérables

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne season and stormed the barricades once more. Stellar turns by Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert gave the production a profound emotional power and Kerrie Anne Greenland made a powerhouse professional debut as Eponine.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the film of The Sound of Music is indelibly imprinted in most people’s mind. But Amy Lehpamer made the role her own with a sensational performance that confirms she is, without question, one of the stars of Australian musical theatre.

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and child cast in The Sound of Music (c) James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and the child cast in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

Lehpamer has been riding a wave for a while now, and showing what an incredibly versatile performer she is. This year alone she has played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (one of the few good things in a horribly glib production, with Craig McLachlan giving a shamelessly indulgent performance as the hammiest, least sexy Frank N Furter I’ve ever seen), followed by the glamorous Tracy Lord in High Society and now Maria in The Sound of Music. Coming after lovely performances as Christine Colgate in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Lehpamer shows she has got the lot.

This revival of The Sound of Music is a scaled-back version of one first seen at London’s Palladium in 2006 and while some of the sets look less than lavish – the hills are hardly rolling in the opening scene – it’s still a lovely production. Jacqui Dark’s humane portrayal of the Mother Abbess and soaring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is another highlight.

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

Once again, some fabulous indie musicals emanated from the Hayes. Leader of the pack for me, by a whisker, was Violet, closely followed by Heathers, Dogfight and High Society, while Man of La Mancha was a high in a patchy year for Squabbalogic.

Violet

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Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Mitchell Butel made a brilliant directorial debut at the helm of Violet. He displayed a sure, sensitive touch, keeping the action flowing, the different time frames clear, and the focus where it needed to be.

He also drew truthful, beautifully delineated performances from a well-chosen cast led by Samantha Dodemaide, who glowed as Violet, a young woman who crosses the US by bus hoping that a televangelist will heal a disfiguring scar on her face. Everything about the production was spot-on ensuring that the sweet, gently charming musical knocked you for six emotionally without ever becoming corny.

Heathers the Musical

 Trevor Ashley also directed his first musical this year at the Hayes, and showed that he too has got what it takes. His high-energy production of Heathers the Musical leapt off the stage at you and he pitched the dark, camp comedy just right. Jaz Flowers brought a surprising depth to Veronica while belting the hell out of her songs, Lucy Maunder was very funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler and there were impressive debuts from Stephen Madsen as the psychopathic, James Dean-like J.D. and Lauren McKenna as the bullied Martha and loopy, New Age teacher Ms Fleming.

Dogfight

 Like Violet, Dogfight is a sweet, tender little musical though it spins around a vile prank, causing some to find the show misogynistic. Director Neil Gooding handled this sensitively, clearly showing why the young marines are so full of pumped-up machismo. Hilary Cole as the gauche young waitress Rose and Luigi Lucente as Eddie, the marine who tricks her then falls for her, moved me to tears.

High Society

High Society got a mixed response but I very much liked Helen Dallimore’s production ingeniously staged by Lauren Peters in the tiny Hayes. Daryl Wallis’s jazz quartet arrangements worked a treat, Amy Lehpamer shone as Tracy, while Virginia Gay gave one of the musical theatre performances of the year as Liz, the newspaper photographer quietly in love with her colleague Mike (Bobby Fox). Her performance was full of lovely, surprising little details, her comic timing was immaculate and she knew exactly how to deliver Cole Porter’s songs.

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Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Man of La Mancha

Jay James-Moody’s inventive, low-tech staging of Man of La Mancha was a highlight of Squabbalogic’s 2015 season. Set entirely in a prison dungeon (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay), the gritting reimagining brought new life and emotion to the somewhat hoary old musical. Having the cast play various musical instruments also worked well. At the heart of the production, Tony Sheldon’s Cervantes was dignified, frail and very moving.

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

 The Norwegian Epic, a cruise liner sailing around the Mediterranean, is known for its entertainment and is currently staging terrific productions of Priscilla and Burn the Floor in its 750-seat theatre. Priscilla stars several Australians among its international cast. Rohan Seinor is sublime as Bernadette bringing enormous warmth, humanity and wit to the role, while Joe Dinn anchors the show as an endearing Tick. I must declare that I went to see my son Tom Sharah, who is a very sassy Miss Understanding. Staged by Australians (director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, costume designer Tim Chappel) it’s a sparkling production – Priscilla, Queen of the Ocean!

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh in After Dinner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company began the year with a pitch-perfect production of Andrew Bovell’s excruciatingly funny yet tender comedy After Dinner, set in a 1980s pub bistro. Alicia Clements’ set was spot-on down to the icky carpet and yellowing tiles on the wall, while her costumes were 1980s fashion at its hilarious worst. Imara Savage directed a superb cast who had you laughing uproariously yet feeling for the sad, loner characters.

The Present

2015 was Andrew Upton’s last year as artistic director of STC (though he has programmed the 2016 season, which incoming artistic director Jonathan Church will caretake). The Present was a wonderful parting gift. Adapted by Upton from Chekhov’s early, sprawling play Platonov but set in the mid-1990s with the main protagonists now in their mid-40s rather than their 20s, the blistering production was awash with yearning, regret and frustration – as well as plenty of gun shots. Helmed by Irish director John Crowley, there were superb performances all round from the top-notch ensemble cast, which included Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh giving the performance of his career.

Endgame

 Upton also directed an engrossing production of Beckett’s bleak but surprisingly funny absurdist play Endgame for STC. Staged on an imposing, monumental set by Nick Schlieper that reeked of foreboding (beautifully lit by Schlieper too), Hugo Weaving gave a masterful performance as Hamm, mesmerising with the dynamic range of his voice. Dark and difficult but thrilling stuff.

Suddenly Last Summer

Also at STC, Kip Williams directed a highly inventive production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which synthesised live performance and video more completely than we have seen previously on the Sydney stage. Not everyone was convinced but after a slow start, I found the production worked its magic to deliver an intense telling of the surreal, dreamlike play. Among a strong cast, Eryn Jean Norvill was exquisite as Catharine who is administered the “truth drug” to reveal the details of her cousin’s terrible death.

Ivanov

Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack got the balance between comedy and despair just right when he directed his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, set in contemporary Russia. Ewen Leslie was compelling as the self-loathing Ivanov but all the cast gave a very human account of people struggling to get by in a society obsessed with self and money. They sang with great vitality too in a production full of music.

My Zinc Bed

Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s incoming artistic director, helmed an elegant production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, an intriguing play of ideas centring on addiction and driven by Hare’s heightened use of language. Sean Taylor was magnificent as the suave, Mephistophelian Victor, hinting at the emptiness within.

The Tempest

For his final production as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago, John Bell directed a lyrical production of The Tempest, staging the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and deft lightness. Matthew Backer was spellbinding as the spirit Ariel, his singing evoking the magic in the isle.

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

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Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

 Iain Sinclair directed a beautiful, understated production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Sport for Jove that felt utterly truthful. Andrew Henry as the simple-minded Lennie, a gentle giant unaware of his own strength, and Anthony Gooley as his loyal friend George broke your heart. The off-stage shooting of the dog reduced some to tears too.

The Aliens

In Annie Baker’s The Aliens, about a couple of slackers in their 30s who take a younger man under their wing, not much seems to happen but plenty bubbles away beneath the surface. Craig Baldwin’s direction, Hugh O’Connor’s design and the performances by Ben Wood, Jeremy Waters and James Bell made for a deeply affecting piece of theatre.

The Aliens was just one of several memorable productions staged at the Old Fitz. It was great to see the tiny pub theatre in Woolloomooloo flying high again under Red Line Productions. There was a focus on male issues and casts in their 2015 program, which they have acknowledged and plan to address in 2016, as has Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the wake of debate about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre.

Cock

Red Line Productions presented a taut production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively named play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman. Shane Bosher’s production, staged on a gleaming white stage, crackled with tension, with Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway turning in particularly fine performances.

The Dapto Chaser

Mary Rachel Brown’s keenly observed play The Dapto Chaser, presented as part of Griffin Independent, is an unflinching, extremely funny yet poignant look at the world of greyhound racing through the story of one struggling family. Glynn Nicholas’s production felt utterly authentic and the way the family’s dog Boy Named Sue was evoked through mime and panting noises was just brilliant.

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

Thomas Campbell gave a tour de force performance as the disturbed evangelistic Thomas Magill in Enda Walsh’s demanding play Misterman in a superb production directed by Kate Gaul at the Old Fitz.

Kate Cole was remarkable in the Red Stitch Actors Theatre production of Grounded by George Brant, playing a ‘top gun’ fighter pilot who finds herself flying drones after she has a child and struggling to deal with the schism between operating in a war zone one moment then driving home to family life. Extraordinary theatre.

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin turned in a riveting performance as Stella Goldschlag, a blonde Jewish woman living in Berlin during World War II who worked for the Gestapo, in Gail Louw’s unsettling, provocative play Blonde Poison directed by Jennifer Hagan at the Old Fitz.

Amanda Muggleton charmed audiences at the Ensemble with an exuberant, generous, comic performance in Roger Hall’s highly entertaining play The Book Club about a bored housewife looking to spice up her life. Muggleton was in her element as she conjured all the women in the book group as well as other characters.

Ben Gerrard also slipped effortlessly between a number of characters and accents as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived the Nazis, giving a lovely subtle performance in Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife directed by Shaun Rennie at the Old Fitz.

Jeanette Cronin gave a very lively impression of Bette Davis in Queen Bette, which she devised with director/producer Peter Mountford, capturing her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence while taking us through her life at the Old 505 Theatre.

Irish actor Olwen Fouréré gave an astonishingly expressive performance, physically and vocally, in Riverrun, her adaptation of James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult Finnegan’s Wake with its own language, at Sydney Theatre Company.

CABARET

My pick of the cabaret shows I saw this year are:

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

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Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

An outrageously funny, sweet, ballsy and, yes, provocative, piece by a little dynamo-of-a-performer who is, as she puts it, of an “Asian persuasion”. Taking us through her life and career, Lane was hysterically funny but had serious points to make about prejudice and narrow-minded casting.

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

A cleverly written and structured piece (co-written by Scott and director Terence O’Connell) taking us through the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of British composer Lionel Bart. Scott embodied the Cockney Bart brilliantly and gee did his fingers fly across the piano keys.

Tim Freedman’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout Me

Looking suitably shambolic, Freedman took us into the mind and musical world of the enigmatic, self-destructive Harry Nilsson. Co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell, the show felt convincingly conversational in tone, while Freedman deployed his own innate charm in a winning bio-cabaret.

OPERA

 Faust

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Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Faust. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

 Sir David McVicar’s production is impressive in its own right but it was the central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes that made the Opera Australia production so exciting.

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression with her radiant performance as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – confirmed her extraordinary talent. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing had a sweet, luscious beauty and was full of emotion. She is also a strong actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. Towards the end of 2015, Car made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Micaela in Carmen, followed by a return to Tatyana, receiving rave reviews. A rising star indeed.

Other memorable productions in OA’s 2015 season included the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s Don Carlos with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo; and McVicar’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna and Nicole Car as the Countess.

DANCE

Frame of Mind

Only six companies in the world have been allowed to perform William Forsythe’s sublime contemporary dance classic Quintett – and Sydney Dance Company showed why they are one of the chosen few. Paired with a moving new work by Rafael Bonachela called Frame of Mind, this thrilling double bill was contemporary dance at its most exhilarating.

The Sleeping Beauty

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jeff Busby_0

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

 Lavishly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, The Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is breathtakingly beautiful.

Created by artistic director David McAllister, it’s a very traditional production with McAllister retaining key passages of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and devised linking material in a similar classical style.

The storytelling is crystal clear, with elements incorporated from other versions, but the production feels a bit safe at times with room for more dramatic tension between the forces of good and evil. Visually though, it’s a triumph. Tylesova’s sumptuous sets feature baroque and rococo elements, while her costumes use an intoxicating range of colour and feature some of the prettiest tutus imaginable. Lana Jones as Aurora, Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Amber Scott as the Lilac Fairy all shone at the Sydney opening, while Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo lit up the stage as the Bluebird and Princess Florine.

 Conform

 At Sydney Dance Company’s showcase of emerging choreographers New Breed, Kristina Chan’s Conform was an exciting highlight. A punchy piece about masculinity, it has its own distinctive choreographic voice and plenty to say. Chan is already a thrilling dancer. I can’t wait to see her next choreographic venture.

Departures

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Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Ross Philip and Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Australian Dance Artists (Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Norman Hall) collaborated again with eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth on a new production called Departures. Part-performance, part-installation, with live music, it was a fascinating ride into a strange world full of stunning visual imagery and evocative choreography. Magical.

RISING STARS

Amy Lehpamer (see The Sound of Music), Nicole Car (see Faust) and Kristina Chan (see above) are all rising stars with talent to burn. Add to that list Australian Ballet dancer Benedicte Bemet. Few were surprised when Bemet won the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Still only 21 and a coryphée, she is already dancing lead roles for the Australian Ballet like Clara in The Nutcracker. She made her debut recently as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and apparently the audience went wild, giving her a standing ovation after the Rose Adagio and at the final curtain. I predict a big future.

That’s it folks! There are so many other things I enjoyed during 2015 – too many to include here. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of happy theatre-going in 2016.

 

Sean Taylor in My Zinc Bed

Sean Taylor plays a charismatic millionaire in David Hare's My Zinc Bed

Sean Taylor plays a charismatic millionaire in David Hare’s My Zinc Bed

While rehearsing at the Ensemble Theatre for its current production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, Sean Taylor also managed to fit in a couple of day’s filming on Secret City, a new political drama for Foxtel being shot in Canberra.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with an Oscar nominee so it was daunting,” he quips.

The Academy Award nominee in question is his wife Jacki Weaver. They’ve acted opposite each other many times. In fact, they met when they played lovers in David Williamson’s Soulmates for Sydney Theatre Company in 2002, marrying the following year.

“But this is the first time post-nomination, well, twice nominated,” he says.

“But, no, it’s been a lot of fun. Jacki plays the Attorney General and I play the Head of ASIO so she’s my boss and there’s one scene where she fires me. She’s been working very hard and from the little I’ve seen I think it’s going to be a good series.”

It was just coincidence that filming on Secret City coincided with rehearsals for My Zinc Bed but it has given them a chance to spend some time together and for Weaver to be at the opening night this Thursday.

Born in South Africa, Taylor emigrated to Australia in 2000 to be near his two daughters who moved here with their mother after they divorced.

“I try to go back to Africa at least once a year and see friends and family but I suppose I’m spending most of my time these days in Los Angeles (due to Weaver’s career),” he says.

Blessed with a beautiful, deep, sonorous voice, Taylor is a commanding stage actor recently seen at the Ensemble in productions of Hare’s Skylight and Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange. 

In Hare’s intriguing play My Zinc Bed, which explores themes of addiction, he plays Victor Quinn, a charismatic millionaire. Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble is staging a new 90-minute version.

Taylor bought the script and learned the whole play while in LA prior to rehearsals without knowing that they were using a different version.

“I’m of an age now (60) where I can’t learn something in 10 days, it takes longer,” he admits candidly.

“I got here and suddenly there was this other tighter version of the play and I thought that Hare had cut some very nice stuff out so I persuaded Mark to bring some of the other stuff back in and it’s working very well I think.”

When a hard-up poet and reformed alcoholic called Paul Peplow is sent to interview Victor for a newspaper profile, he finds himself enticed into a thrilling but dangerous world. As Paul spars verbally with Victor and flirts with his younger wife Elsa, his hard-won sobriety is threatened. But is Victor just using Paul to amuse his wife and reinvigorate their stale marriage?

Sam O'Sullivan and Sean Taylor in My Zinc Bed. Photo: Clare Hawley

Sam O’Sullivan and Sean Taylor in My Zinc Bed. Photo: Clare Hawley

“There’s a lot of game-playing and manipulation in the way Victor sets things up,” says Taylor.

“In the last couple of runs I’ve been playing against that a bit just to see how it goes but Mark prefers it that I lay it on a bit. I’m trying to make him not quite so obvious. But Paul, who is played by Sam O’Sullivan, actually says: ‘Am I Faust? Is he Mephistopheles? Am I making a pact with the devil?’

“It’s about addiction to many things, I think, besides drink and drugs. I think there’s a certain addiction to chaos. Some people thrive on it. When their life is running smoothly they veer off. I think the other two characters especially seek that because it makes them feel alive but they also realise that if they do follow those instincts then they can spiral into a very bad situation,” says Taylor.

“Hare always deals with politics even if he doesn’t overtly state it,” he adds. “My character used to be a communist and now he’s this capitalist – which is kind of a similar journey to what Hare’s been on, I think. He was a big leftie when he was younger. I remember readings his plays like Fanshen, which was about the Chinese revolution. Now he’s an older man and very successful. The younger character is maybe a bit like Hare in that he’s a writer.”

Taylor also plays Harold Holt in a new short film called The Defector directed by Scott Mannion, with Oscar winner Russell Boyd (Master and Commander) as Director of Photography, which he describes as “a quirky film”.

“What really got me interested when I was approached about it was that Russell Boyd was the cameraman on it. And Russell Boyd has actually written a thing online about this young director saying he believed in him so I thought that’s a project I’d like to be involved in.”

Taylor admits that life has changed since Weaver’s breakout film role in Animal Kingdom.

“Five or six years ago, I never dreamed we’d be living in Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s an interesting city but it’s not a city I would choose to live. Hollywood was never on my radar. So I don’t know that I love Los Angeles, but Jacki really loves it. She’s really enjoying it, and so she should. She’s been in this game a long time. I said to her, ‘you’ve got to take this ball and run with it. You never know when it will implode. It might never implode but it might, so just enjoy it,’” he says.

“I’m still working on trying to get a visa so it get a bit boring when you’re not working. I’ve been for a couple of screen tests and had very good responses. But the people in my age bracket have been working there for 40 years and they’re established.

“I was up against Nick Nolte for a role and you go: ‘well I ‘m farting against thunder here aren’t I?’ But still it’s good to go and meet these people. The role is out there somewhere. It might never land in my lap but if I’m fortunate to be in the right place at the right time that will be great. If it happens I’ll embrace it.”

My Zinc Bed plays at the Ensemble Theatre until November 22. Bookings: 9929 0644

The Aliens

Old Fitz Theatre, August 28

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood. Photo: Rupert Reid

Jeremy Waters, James Bell and Ben Wood. Photo: Rupert Reid

Annie Baker is an award-winning 34-year old American playwright with a growing reputation. Her gentle three-hander The Aliens, which premiered off-Broadway in 2010, shows why.

It’s set in small-town Vermont, where a couple of fringe-dwelling slackers in their 30s – Jasper (Jeremy Waters) and KJ (Ben Wood) – pass the days in the grungy backyard of a café.

Passionate about the poetry of Charles Bukowski and smarting from having been dropped by his girlfriend, Jasper smokes broodily and is writing a novel. KJ, meanwhile, nurses a deep well of sadness beneath the bravado and isn’t doing much beyond whiling away the hours with his best mate.

The backyard is off-limits to customers but when Evan (James Bell), a shy high school student who works at the café, tentatively asks them to leave, it’s clear they’re going nowhere. Instead they decide to take him under their wing and a touching relationship between the three begins to form.

The Aliens is a deceptively simple play, which creeps up on you. Not a great deal actually happens, but there is plenty bubbling away beneath the surface as Baker deals with love, death, art and the ties that bind.

She never spells things out but subtly reveals more and more about the characters through their sporadic conversations. The silences, the things left unsaid and things mentioned in passing but not elucidated upon all gradually build to offer an incredibly moving insight into three social misfits.

Directing for Outhouse Theatre, Craig Baldwin helms a wonderfully sensitive production. Hugh O’Connor’s set perfectly captures the feel of the grungy backyard right down to the weeds poking through the concrete, while the actors inhabit the characters so truthfully it hardly feels like acting at all.

The Aliens plays at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo until September 19. Bookings: www.oldfitztheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 6

Bull

Old Fitz Theatre, September 5

Philippe Klaus, George Kemp and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Philippe Klaus, George Kemp and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

Bull, by British playwright Mike Bartlett, is considered a companion piece to his much-admired play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman, which also had a production at the Old Fitz earlier this year (see review on the blog).

Bull is a less subtle play. Running a tight 55-minutes, it is a savage black comedy about bullying, going straight for the jugular from the opening moments.

Set in a London office, three young employees – Isobel (Romy Bartz), Tony (Philippe Klaus) and Thomas (George Kemp) – are waiting for an interview with their boss (Craig Ashley), knowing that one of them is to lose their job due to cost cutting.

The steely, power-dressed Isobel and more laid-back but equally manipulative Tony are determined that it won’t be them, working together to ritually humiliate and undermine Thomas. It’s the law of the jungle and though Thomas tries to fight back, he’s no match for them. He’s one of life’s loner-losers no matter how much he tries not to be.

The verbal viciousness is breath-taking at times, the outcome mercilessly inevitable.

Directing the play for Ronaissance Production in association with Red Line Productions, Rowan Greaves has the actors go full-bore from the start. The play might perhaps have built tension had they played cat-and-mouse a little more initially, pretending some semblance of nicety before they go in for the kill. Instead, the play feels like a full-on assault.

George Kemp, Philippe Klaus and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

George Kemp, Philippe Klaus and Romy Bartz. Photo: Geoff Sirmai

The actors are all terrific. Bartz is chillingly cold and utterly remorseless as the main aggressor Isobel, staring at Thomas with withering condescension. As the private school educated Tony, Klaus is the good cop to her bad cop, less obviously aggressive but just as ruthlessly nasty in a slightly more insidious way, performing with an arrogant insouciance.

Kemp is also excellent as the hapless, floundering Thomas, his body language reflecting his growing desperation, as he is gradually undone.

In London, the play was performed in a boxing ring. Here, given that it’s a late-night production, it is staged on the set of The Aliens – but really very little is needed in the way of props or staging with the focus on the verbal cut-and-thrust.

Bull is a short, sharp, brutal play and though it isn’t as fascinating or thought-provoking a drama as Cock it’s still packs a punch.

One of Britain’s leading contemporary playwrights, Bartlett won the 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Play for his epic drama King Charles III, which comes to Sydney next year as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2016 season. And it’s the original Almeida Theatre production from London that we’ll see, arriving here direct from Broadway. In the interim, it’s worth catching Bull as a little taster of Bartlett’s considerable way with words.

Bull plays at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo until September 12. Bookings: http://www.oldfitz.com/bull

The Tempest

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, August 21

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

Brian Lipson, Eloise Winestock and Damien Strouthos. Photo: Prudence Upton

The symbolism may have been unconscious as John Bell insists, but he couldn’t have chosen a more apt play than The Tempest as his final production for Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago.

Thought to be Shakespeare’s last full-length play, Prospero’s final renunciation of his “rough magic” has been seen as the Bard’s farewell to the stage. This enchanting production is a perfect farewell for Bell too.

Bell doesn’t overlay any political interpretation but directs the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and a deft lightness, helming a production in which all the elements cohere in delightful fashion.

The opening storm conjured by Prospero to bring his former foes to the magical isle, where he has been living for the past 12 years with his daughter Miranda, is dramatically staged with wind machines, billowing drapes, operatic music and strobe lighting as the actors cling to a thick rope to represent the lurching ship.

As the winds abate, Julie Lynch’s minimal set (a disc-like platform backed by silvery-grey drapes) together with her costumes create the perfect setting for Bell’s lyrical vision, enhanced by Damien Cooper’s lighting, Alan John’s music and Nate Edmondson’s sound.

Brian Lipson’s Prospero is discovered sitting cross-legged on the stage meditating as we enter the theatre. His portrayal is less an avenging, autocratic sorcerer and more a world-weary, slightly absent-minded, emotional man with a wry manner, a fierce love for his daughter and a great deal of humanity.

Eloise Winestock plays Miranda with a touch of untamed animal about her, as well as wide-eyed delight when she sees other people for the first time, while Felix Gentle is a sweet-natured Ferdinand.

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer and Brian Lipson. Photo: Prudence Upton

Matthew Backer’s spellbinding portrayal of Ariel makes the spirit’s desperate longing for freedom palpable. His tippy-toe physicality gives him an otherworldly quality and the way his movement echoes the mortals when he leads them with his magic is a lovely touch. In fact, movement director Scott Witt has done a superb job throughout. Backer’s clear-voiced singing also helps evoke the magic in the air.

Damien Strouthos’s Caliban is less brutish than often portrayed, making his famous speech about the noises of the isle all the more believable. Arky Michael and Hazem Shammas are genuinely funny as the comic servants Trinculo and Stephano, while also doubling effectively as Antonio and Sebastian. Robert Alexander as the kindly, dignified Gonzalo and Maeliosa Stafford as King Alonso complete the fine cast.

“Let you indulgence set me free,” says Prospero to the audience in the epilogue.

The words resonated beyond the play on opening night as the audience stood and turned to face John Bell sitting in the audience, offering him applause not just for the production but for his great achievements at Bell Shakespeare.

The Tempest plays at the Sydney Opera House Playhouse until September 18. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 30

The Book Club; Mothers and Sons

The Ensemble Theatre currently has two plays running in repertory: Roger Hall’s The Book Club and Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons.

Amanda Muggleton in The Book Club. Photo: Thomas Blunt

Amanda Muggleton in The Book Club. Photo: Thomas Blunt

Amanda Muggleton is in her element in The Book Club, giving a big, warm, generous, comic performance that has the audiences in the palm of her hand and frequently in stitches.

The 1999 one-woman play by British-born New Zealand playwright Roger Hall was first adapted by Rodney Fisher for Muggleton in 2008. Fisher has updated it again for this season with more recent references to books including Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda and Geraldine Brooks’s March. He has also cut the script back so that it now runs 100 minutes without interval.

Muggleton plays Deborah, an upper-middle-class Sydney housewife with too much time on her hands. Her daughters have left home and she has little in common with her sports-obsessed lawyer husband Wally, currently training for a marathon.

Realising she’s bored, a friend invites her to join a book group. When it’s her turn to host, Deb invites local author Michael (quite how she manages it is never explained, but no matter) who spices her life up in a way she had previously only fantasised about with Martin Amis.

Narrating the show directly to the audience, Muggleton plays Deborah and all the women in the book club – kindly Welshwoman Millie, snobbish Eastern suburbs socialite Meredith, sweet pregnant Caroline, Swiss PR executive Steffi who never reads more than the first chapter, and so on. She also plays Wally and Michael, morphing easily between all the different characters and accents.

Muggleton gives an exuberant, joyous, energetic performance that has her literally bouncing around the stage at times. Her warm interactions with the audience are quick smart, picking up on any reaction. On opening night, an elderly gent fell asleep in the front row, which she seized on for some gentle ribbing.

Directed by Fisher, who also designed the set, The Book Club is a lightweight entertainment but given such a consummate, gorgeous performance by Muggleton it’s a complete delight. The opening audience loved her and leapt to their feet – an unusual accolade at the Ensemble.

Mothers and Sons

Anne Tenney, Tim Draxl, Jason Langley and Thomas Fisher in Mothers and Sons. Photo: Clare Hawley

Anne Tenney, Tim Draxl, Jason Langley and Thomas Fisher in Mothers and Sons. Photo: Clare Hawley

Terrence McNally’s 2014 Broadway play Mothers and Sons canvasses the losses and gains for America’s gay community since the AIDS epidemic including same-sex marriage and gay parenting.

The play begins with two people gazing rather awkwardly out of the window of a smart New York apartment: Cal (Jason Langley) and Katharine (Anne Tenney) who, it transpires is the mother of Andre, a promising actor and Cal’s former lover who died 19 years ago of AIDS.

Quite why Katharine has decided to make an appearance now is not clear, but she is one embittered woman. Having barely seen Andre after he came out, she has never been able to deal with his death and is still in denial about his sexuality informing Cal that: “Andre wasn’t gay when he came to New York. He came to New York to be an actor.”

Cal meanwhile has moved on. He is now married to the younger Will (Tim Draxl) who he met eight years after Andre died and they have a six-year old son Bud (Thomas Fisher/Connor Burke).

Mothers and Sons is one of those plays that feels a little too overtly like a staged debate, written so that the playwright can air issues close to his heart and needing discussion. Though beautifully played by Langley, Cal is too nice a character in some ways (it’s hard to believe he is a ruthless money-maker as he supposedly is, working in some vaguely defined financial role) so he never really lets rip but remains reasonable and polite in the face of Katharine’s homophobic remarks. As a result, the emotional stakes don’t feel high enough and there is little dramatic tension. This is compounded by the gentle pace of Sandra Bates’s production, much of which unfolds at the same level.

The device of having Will and Cal alternatively go off-stage to oversee Bud’s (very long) bath, also feels rather clunky.

Still, it’s a bold choice for the Ensemble and certainly tunes into issues that are very much in the zeitgeist at the moment, putting a human face to debates such as same-sex marriage.

Running 90-minutes, Mothers and Sons is well staged and well performed. It’s an enjoyable night of theatre, though it doesn’t have quite the emotional and dramatic impact that it might.

Mothers and Sons runs until September 27 and The Book Club runs until October 3, with performances at various times. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644