Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

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Heather Mitchell and Josh McConville. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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As You Like It

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 25

Emily Askell, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

Emily Askell, Abi Tucker, Gareth Davies, John Bell, Alan Dukes, Zahra Newman. Photo: Rush

2015 marks Bell Shakespeare’s 25th anniversary so it’s a shame that their first production of the year is a disappointment.

Set in the Forest of Arden, As You Like It is a delightful comedy that pokes gleeful fun at romantic love and supposedly idyllic rustic life. It is full of humour – but hardly any of it lands in this production directed by Peter Evans.

The laughs on opening night came mainly from various bits of stage business rather than the comedy in the play itself. Few of the touching or serious moments hit home either.

Michael Hankin’s set features paper flowers on hanging ropes backed by a canvas drape, along with a costume basket and a large ladder, which looks as if it has been left behind by the technical crew (a reference presumably to “all the world’s a stage”).

The staging doesn’t quite capture the romantic nature of the forest where people are changed and relationships healed, and Evans doesn’t manage to create any real sense of a world within it, or outside it. The production instead seems to be a mish-mash with no cohesive visual or performance style, and little unifying vision.

Kelly Ryall’s songs don’t feel as though they emerge organically from the production and Kate Aubrey-Dunn’s costumes, inspired by the 1930s, 50s and 60s, often sit oddly. Orlando appears on stage looking like an insurance salesman in neatly pressed trousers, shirt and brogues, while complaining about his brother keeping him “rustically at home” and having to eat “with his hinds”. Celia sports an elegant coat with fur trim and diamante buttons when she’s supposed to be disguised as a poor country maid. Worse, Rosalind’s disguise as the boy Ganymede consists of tight pants and fitted waistcoat, which actually emphasise her feminine curves.

Rosalind is one of Shakespeare’s great female characters: strong, clever, witty and resourceful. Banished from her uncle’s court, she comes up with a plan to flee to the forest disguised as the young man Ganymede with her cousin Celia pretending to be Ganymede’s sister. She then hatches a scheme to have Orlando (who has fallen for her, and who has also had to flee to the forest) use Ganymede as a way to practice wooing Rosalind.

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Zahra Newman in Ganymede disguise. Photo: Rush

Evans’ direction, however, robs the role of nuance and playfulness. Zahra Newman gives us no discernible difference between her Rosalind and Ganymede. All the gender-bending layers and much of the fun are therefore lost in the scenes between Orlando and Ganymede, when Orlando finds himself attracted to the youth.

In Shakespeare’s day, with the all-male casts, the exploration of sexual ambiguity would have been further compounded by having a boy play a girl disguised as a boy. We get none of that here.

Aside from that, Newman handles the language well and after a slightly tentative start is a lively presence.

Charlie Garber looks awkward as Orlando, giving a performance full of the jittery, emotionally detached, comic mannerisms we have seen from him so often before and misses Orlando’s honourable, romantic, dashing and tender sides. Scenes such as Orlando comforting his exhausted, elderly manservant Adam as he goes off to find him food aren’t moving, as they usually are. And there is little chemistry between Garber and Newman.

Evans has chosen not to portray the rustics as country bumpkins. But the decision to have them speak pretty much like the courtiers, without any kind of rural accent, diminishes the divide between the two worlds, and again much of the comedy is lost despite the cast’s best efforts.

As the melancholy Jaques, John Bell delivers a fresh and poignant “Seven Ages of Man” speech while, in one of the standout performances, Kelly Paterniti’s effervescent Celia has welcome heart and depth. Tony Taylor brings a droll charm to the role of Adam and Dorje Swallow impresses as Oliver.

Evans has clearly tried to avoid the tried-and-true tropes of this popular and regularly staged play but in putting them to one side, much of what makes it so delightfully entertaining has been lost.

As You Like It runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until March 28 then tours to the Canberra Theatre Centre, April 7 – 18 and Arts Centre Melbourne, April 23 – May 10

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 1

 

Noises Off

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 21

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waves of laughter swept through the opening night audience at Sydney Theatre Company’s riotously funny production of Noises Off.

Michael Frayn’s 1982 comic masterpiece is a mind-bogglingly clever feat of construction. Add to that Julie Lynch’s gloriously OTT, psychedelic 70s costumes (which drew applause of their own) and some superb comic performances, and you have a night of laugh-out-loud mayhem.

The farce-within-a farce (which comes with a very funny program-within-a-program) follows a third-rate company of actors as they tour the English provinces with a lame bedroom farce called Nothing On.

Frayn has peopled Noises Off with a rum bunch. There’s the show’s backer Dotty Otley (Genevieve Lemon), a one-time “name” who is playing the housekeeper Mrs Clackett and having an affair with Nothing On’s temperamental leading man, the younger Garry Lejeune (Josh McConville); the somewhat vacant Brooke Ashton (Ash Ricardo), a blonde bombshell who keeps losing her contact lenses and who is having a fling with the philandering director Lloyd Dallas (Marcus Graham); Belinda Blair (Tracy Mann) who tries to keep things on an even keel but loves a good gossip; an elderly dipsomaniac (Ron Haddrick); and the morose, anxious Frederick Fellowes (Alan Dukes) who needs to be given acting motivations for every move his character makes.

Getting/keeping the show on the road are the timid but conscientious assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Danielle King) who is also involved with the director Lloyd, and the sleep-deprived stage manager/general dog’s body Tim Allgood (Lindsay Farris).

Over the course of three acts, we watch the same section of Nothing On as the production gradually disintegrates.

In Act I we see the disastrous dress rehearsal. Act II takes place at a matinee a month later when things are beginning to go wrong – the twist being that it’s shown from backstage. Act III takes place at the end of the tour when hostilities between the actors are spilling onto the stage and everything that could go wrong does.

Act I feels a little slow as Frayn sets everything up but from there on the play is like a runaway train.

The unfolding chaos requires absolute precision – which it gets in Jonathan Biggins’ very fine production, staged on Mark Thompson’s handsome, suitably old-fashioned set complete with the requisite eight doors. The set then spins to show the Spartan backstage area.

Lynch’s costumes are a delight: patchwork bell bottom jeans, patterned flares, clinging polyester shirts, frocks with bold geometric designs and platform boots among other wonderfully colourful outfits.

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Biggins’ has elicited priceless comic performances across the board from his excellent cast but McConville is an absolute standout as Lejeune, his daredevil physicality drawing gasps. Lemon is also a hoot, while Graham is “faded charm” to a tee as the droll, exasperated director.

Beneath all the hilarity there is a dark sense of the absurd and the creeping terror of things spiraling beyond our control. We laugh uproariously but we can’t help but feel for the characters, trapped in an existential theatrical nightmare, much of it of their own making.

Noises Off runs until April 5. Bookings: http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 2