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

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Seventeen

Belvoir St Theatre, August 5

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sure, it could easily have been another song in the event but it’s quite a moment when the veteran cast of Seventeen dances to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Famously, it nearly didn’t happen. When rights to the song were denied at the last minute, director Anne-Louise Sarks took to Twitter. The campaign went viral with Swift tweeting her permission, gifting the production invaluable publicity.

Written by Matthew Whittet, Seventeen is a very sweet play. On the last day of high school, a small group of friends gather in the park to party the night away before they all go their separate ways and life changes forever. As they drink too much, dance and play truth and dare, anxieties, fears and secrets bubble to the surface.

It could be performed by young people but Whittet wrote it for 70-year olds, adding another level of poignancy to his examination of those uncertain years on the cusp of adulthood when you ponder who you are and what you hope to become.

And so we have a cast of esteemed older actors in the roles. There’s the loud, pushy ringleader Mike (John Gaden), his quieter, more sensitive best mate Tom (Peter Carroll) who is heading interstate to Melbourne University, Mike’s pretty, popular girlfriend Sue (Maggie Dence) and Sue’s brainy friend Edwina (Anna Volska) who rarely lets her hair down.

Joining them are the uninvited Ronny (Barry Otto), the weird, misfit kid that no-one likes, and Mike’s 14-year old sister Lizzy (played by the younger Genevieve Lemon) who won’t go home no matter how much they tell her to piss off.

The company spent time during rehearsals with some 17-year olds to get back in touch with a teenager’s energy, physicality and way of talking – and they all do a great job. Carroll and Gaden, in particular, climb the playground equipment and get their groove on with the ease and exuberance of people decades younger (movement by Scott Witt).

There are a few clunky moments as Whittet sends characters off stage to allow others to remain alone, which feel a bit engineered, but overall Sarks’ production is nicely staged on Robert Cousins’ playground set, with very clever costuming by Mel Page.

The performances are exceptional. After initial laughter at seeing septuagenarians larking around, saying “fucktard” and dancing to contemporary pop songs, we accept the convention as the actors draw us into the character’s emotional dilemmas.

There are lovely moments for all the characters, while Otto’s portrayal of the sad, alienated Ronny is heartbreaking.

The characters can’t believe how quickly their high school years have flown. Young people will doubtless relate to that, but Seventeen will probably speak loudest to people whose teenage years are long in the past and for whom the passing of time and sense of nostalgia will strike even more of a chord.

Whittet writes with love, tenderness and a gentle optimism. He doesn’t tell us what happens to the characters – which would arguably make for an even stronger play – but he leaves us hoping against hope that things will turn out well for all of them.

Seventeen runs until September 13. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 9

Elektra/Orestes

Belvoir St Theatre, March 18

Ben Winspear, Hunter Page-Lochard and Ursula Mills. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Ben Winspear, Hunter Page-Lochard and Ursula Mills. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

A crumpled, somewhat slovenly figure is slumped at a dining table in a starkly furnished modern room having presumably sat up all night. Above her, a red neon sign spells out the name Elektra.

Sure enough, it is the Elektra of Jada Alberts’ and Anne-Louise Sarks’ Elektra/Orestes: a contemporary adaptation of the Greek myth about a family steeped in violence in the name of revenge. Dressed in baggy track-pants and a T-shirt bearing the scrawled words “My Mum Killed My Dad”, her hair wild and uncombed, she is angry, antsy, anguished, zapping a remote control to turn blasting music on and off.

The mythical tragedy survives in various versions by ancient Greek dramatists Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus. Elektra and her brother Orestes kill their mother Klytemnestra in revenge for her murder of their father Agamemnon with the help of her lover Aegisthus. Klytemnestra was in turn avenging the death of her eldest daughter Iphigenia, sacrificed by Agamemnon to appease the goddess Artemis in return for the winds to sail his ships to the Trojan War. He returned home with Cassandra, a war trophy who had borne him twins.

Alberts and Sarks (who also directs) give their new version a modern domestic setting, with a stage design by Ralph Myers. Running a tight one-hour, the first half takes place in the dining room on the day that Orestes finally returns after years in exile to exact Elektra’s long-planned revenge. A door leads into the kitchen, through which the characters disappear then return as events unfold.

As the day begins, Elektra (Katherine Tonkin) is petulant and aggressive towards her mother (Linda Cropper), while her sister Khrysothemis (Ursula Mills) makes coffee and tries to keep the peace. Aegisthus (Ben Winspear) comes and goes, a sleazy figure in boxer shorts and untied velvety dressing gown. Then a messenger (Hunter Page-Lochard) arrives to say that Orestes is dead; but it is Orestes himself.

Halfway through the play, the stage turns and the action start over again, as we watch what was happening unseen in the kitchen during the first part (including Orestes’ climactic murder of Klytemnestra).

It’s a clever concept that makes for an intriguing structure and gripping drama. Sarks balances the production beautifully, making sure the timings work and ensuring that we hear and glimpse just enough from the other room to trace the unfolding drama from the two perspectives.

She and Alberts have also added a shocking, new twist to the family dynamic that ups the ante yet another notch.

Where the Greeks kept the violence off-stage, leaving it to the imagination, Sarks puts it on stage. It’s not easy to portray violence live in the theatre and there were a few giggles on opening night but I thought they handled it well (fight direction by Scott Witt) with enough blood but not too much. The production certainly gives you pause to ponder what a body being stabbed more than 20 times (as we have read about in the news recently) actually means, and the frenzied nature of such an attack.

Hunter Page-Lochard and Linda Cropper. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hunter Page-Lochard and Linda Cropper. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The performances are generally excellent. Tonkin is ferociously good as Elektra, her fierce performance convincingly powered by overwhelming emotions that she can’t deal with. Instead she lashes out physically and verbally, in almost childlike fashion at times, as grief, anger and bitter resentment consume her.

Cropper is also superb as the cool, chic Klytemnestra encapsulating her tough steeliness yet also the world-weariness, regret and internal conflict she is now forced to live with. The script makes her actions understandable and the final scenes in which she explains herself have a real power.

Mills and Winspear make the most of relatively small roles with vivid performances, and Page-Lochard’s portrayal grows in strength as the play progresses.

Mel Page’s costuming, Damien Cooper’s lighting and Stefan Gregory’s sound all contribute to the taut, effective, stark staging.

The dialogue itself is believably every-day, though certain phrases sing, and there is a surprising amount of humour predominantly as a result of Elektra’s agro. But stripped of the poetry and grandeur of ancient Greek tragedy, Elektra/Orestes makes the violence real and ugly.

Elektra/Orestes doesn’t have quite the same emotional impact as Sarks’ 2012 award-winning, contemporary Medea (co-adapted with Kate Mulvany), which operated in a similar fashion, telling the story from the point of view of Medea’s murdered young sons, seen in their bedroom.

The concluding image of Orestes and Klytemnestra would be more moving if we had seen some of the conflicting emotions raging within Page-Lochard’s Orestes in the lead-up to the murder. As it is, his final reaction comes rather out of nowhere and is therefore less potent.

Nonetheless, Elektra/Orestes is a clever, provocative, pithy piece, showing that revenge only perpetuates cycles of violence and doesn’t assuage anger, grief and resentment (understandable though they may be). Only in forgiveness can we hope to find any peace – something we so often struggle to accept and achieve.

Elektra/Orestes plays at Belvoir St Theatre until April 26. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

A Christmas Carol

Belvoir St Theatre, November 12

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

The magic begins as soon as you enter the theatre to find the seats dusted with (paper) snow. All over the theatre young and old excitedly lark around with it, dumping it on each other’s heads and tossing snowballs.

It’s the perfect start to Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol: a production so delightful and touching it would melt the hardest heart.

The costuming is contemporary (Mel Page) but the adaptation by director Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie is a faithful telling of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale.

In this materialistic society of ours, the story of the miserly Scrooge resonates as powerfully as ever. Visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, Scrooge learns to open his heart (and wallet).

The messages that although you can’t change your past, it’s never too late to change your ways, and that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, are as beautiful and timely as ever.

The Belvoir stage has rarely looked larger than it does with Michael Hankin’s steeply raked black set. It’s a deceptively simple design with trap doors and a platform that rises and falls, brought to vivid life by Benjamin Cisterne’s dynamic lighting.

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarks’ production doesn’t avoid the dark corners of the story but her production twinkles with joy and playfulness along with showers of snow and glitter, a human Christmas tree, and carol singers in wonderfully naff, knitted Christmas jumpers (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Robert Menzies is perfect as the mean-spirited, grouchy Scrooge, who starts the evening growling “Bah, humbug!” to any mention of Christmas and gradually thaws until he is gamboling in the snow making angel wings.

The other seven actors take on a number of roles each and work together as a tight ensemble. Steve Rodgers brings a beatific smile and deep humanity to the role of Bob Cratchitt, matched by Ursula Yovich as his kind-hearted but tougher, spirited wife. Together they are incredibly touching.

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell’s radiantly glowing face could light the darkest night as Tiny Tim. Wearing a gorgeous confection-of-a-costume made from gold tinsel, Kate Box brings a deliciously mischievous exuberance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Ivan Donato is a more solemn presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a shiny suit, Peter Carroll is hilariously, maniacally unhinged as Jacob Marley, while Eden Falk is decency and kindness personified as Scrooge’s nephew.

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

With music by Stefan Gregory and movement by Scott Witt, the heartwarming, family-friendly production (which runs 75 minutes) moves you to laughter and tears, sending you home filled with the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, I felt so uplifted that the next morning I booked tickets to take my family to see it just before Christmas. A real gift of a show.

A Christmas Carol is at Belvoir St Theatre until December 24. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 23

Nora

Belvoir St Theatre, August 13

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo:  Brett Boardman

Blazey Best as Nora. Photo: Brett Boardman

When Nora slammed the door behind her at the end of Ibsen’s 1879 drama A Doll’s House, her decision to leave her husband and children was so controversial that it sent shock waves around Europe.

The actor playing her in the German premiere refused to perform the ending and Ibsen was forced to rewrite it, with Nora deciding to stay because of her responsibility to her children. Eventually, of course, the original – and far more powerful – ending was restored.

We don’t know what happens to Ibsen’s Nora but we know how hard it will be for her in a patriarchal society without money, work experience or a family to turn to. Ibsen has already shown us this through the story of her widowed friend Kristine. Nora will have the added shame of leaving her family to contend with.

In Nora, co-adaptors Kit Brookman and Anne-Louise Sarks (who also directs the Belvoir production) ask what that decision would mean for a woman in Sydney in 2014, and follow her out of the door.

Since Nora’s decision doesn’t have the same shock value in this day and age, Brookman and Sarks have put a strong focus on her willingness to leave her children – something many would still struggle to understand today.

Act I is a very loose contemporary retelling of Ibsen’s play with Nora, her husband Torvald (here a corporate financier about to be promoted) and their two children, but none of the other characters.

The play opens with Nora (Blazey Best) lying next to her young son as he goes to sleep, while her daughter lies above them in the bunk bed. It is clear they have a close relationship and all the scenes between her and the children are touching, emphasising how desperately they will miss her.

Set designer Marg Horwell has put a skeletal white metal frame of the whole house on stage so that we are able to see into all the rooms at once. Nora seems to be suffering from severe depression, periodically extricating herself from her husband (Damien Ryan) and children (Toby Challenor and Indianna Gregg on opening night) as they tear around the house to gaze blankly out of the window or cry bitterly. In one scene, she dances frenetically, her despair further highlighted by her children joining in joyfully.

Where the tension in Ibsen’s play builds inexorably as Nora waits for Torvald to discover that she borrowed money from Krogstad by forging her father’s signature, the first act of Nora is a slow burn.

In Ibsen’s play, Torvald’s appalled and appalling reaction to Krogstad’s revelation sends Nora out of the door but there is no such dramatic flash point here. Torvald discovers she has opened a secret bank account and has been “squirreling” money away but though he is upset that she wasn’t honest with him, he seems to accept what she has done.

Instead, Nora appears worn down by Torvald’s well-meaning but patronising control of all she does. Her decision to leave has clearly been brewing for some time.

Act II takes place later on the night of her leaving. Nora has gone to the home of Helen (Linda Cropper), a woman she worked with some years ago but hardly knows to ask if she can stay for a few days while she finds her feet. Helen is bemused as to why Nora has chosen to go to her, while her own personal situation means she finds it incredibly hard to comprehend how Nora could leave her children.

Horwell has created a similar-style set for Helen’s smaller home. There are sightline issues, which I noticed more in Act II, with the steel frame bisecting the face of the actors quite regularly.

If Act I was a slow (but interesting) burn, then Act II falls rather flat. Essentially Nora articulates why she left. She “feels dead”, “my children cannot be a reason for being”, “I can’t live not knowing who I am” – all of which we have already inferred.

The two women sit in silence while they wait for a kettle to burn. We watch them slowly make a sofa bed. Playing this out silently in real time does ratchet up the awkwardness of the situation but it doesn’t make for great drama. What’s more, it’s pretty clear that Nora has no intention of returning home – at this point anyway – so there is little to keep us on the edge of our seats.

Sarks draws fine performances from her cast. Best gives a powerful portrayal of a listless, unhappy woman struggling with depression – though for some reason I didn’t feel a great deal for her emotionally, which I suspect is more to do with the play than Best, who is terrific. Ryan gives a wonderful character study of a man who loves and cares for his wife but is oblivious to the way he patronises and controls her. His priggish nature is more subtle than in Ibsen’s play but still in evidence.

His children seem to love him. The way his little boy runs into his arms is lovely and he is gentle with his daughter but the fact that he pushes them to practice golf putting when they don’t want to because it could be useful to them speaks reams.

Cropper is also excellent as Helen and the children are very convincing.

Nora follows Sport for Jove’s recent, beautifully wrought, period production of A Doll’s House, which really packed a punch dramatically in a way that Nora doesn’t manage to do. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting venture and the first act works well. However, having followed Nora through the door I’d have liked to have seen how she fared weeks, months or maybe years down the track. As it is, Act II just seems to articulate, in rather deadly fashion, what we pretty much already know and leaves it at that.

Nora plays at Belvoir until September 14. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

The Hayloft Project Relocates to Sydney

Hayloft's Delectable Shelter. Photo: Pia Johnson

Hayloft’s Delectable Shelter. Photo: Pia Johnson

Founded in 2007 by Simon Stone, The Hayloft Project has quickly established itself as one of Melbourne’s most exciting theatre companies with critics hailing it as “a shining light in Melbourne theatre” and “the hottest property in Melbourne’s indie theatre scene.”

So news that the company is relocating to Sydney in 2014 under its recently appointed artistic director Benedict Hardie is very welcome – at least to theatre lovers at the Sydney end of the Hume Highway.

The move follows in the footsteps of Stone, who left Melbourne to become resident director at Belvoir in 2011, and Anne-Louise Sarks who took over from him as artistic director of Hayloft and has now replaced him at Belvoir as one of two new resident directors.

Hardie describes the relocation as “a very exciting challenge for the company next year, to see if we can’t work up some of our Hayloft magic (in Sydney).”

He says that there was a mix of reasons for the decision, some of them personal. “It’s a bit of a homecoming for me. I’m from the Blue Mountains, I went to school in Penrith so coming back is an exciting new challenge for me and an excuse to see my Mum a bit more.

“I think Sydney is looking like an exciting prospect to a lot of theatre artists,” adds Hardie. “The independent scene in Sydney in the last five or ten years has been expanding and acquiring much more legitimacy and interest from audiences and that means, I think, that the Sydney scene is poised only to expand and get more exciting in the next few years and it’s great to be a part of that.”

As to whether he hopes to keep working with actors already associated with the company he says: “We like to establish long-term collaborative relationships with actors and designers so those who can work in Sydney, then absolutely I would jump at the chance to have them working (with us) but that will be on a case by case basis.

“Many actors that we have worked with before have already relocated to Sydney, some of whom you see regularly on the Belvoir stages, so I am looking forward to reconnecting with some of those actors.”

Actors performing in Sydney who have worked with Hayloft include Gareth Davies, Ashley Zuckerman, Shelley Lauman and Eryn Jean Norvill.

Sydney has already seen several Hayloft productions including Stone’s memorable Thyestes, his version of Spring Awakening and The Only Child, which he adapted from Ibsen’s Little Eyolf.

This week the company will perform its post-apocalyptic, black comedy Delectable Shelter at the Seymour Centre as part of a national tour.

Written and directed by Hardie, the play (which premiered in 2011) is set in a bunker where the last five surviving humans plan a utopian future. The production features an eye-popping design, elaborate, five-part, Bach-style, a cappella arrangements of 1980s love songs (arranged by Benny Davis from The Axis of Awesome) and a range of comedy styles.

“My intention was to write a comedy where I could shine a harsh light on some of the prejudices and fears that people harbour but don’t talk about,” says Hardie. “Then it all became bonkers and I ended up creating this very elaborate play set in a bunker underground and spanning 350 years with choral arrangements of 1980s pop ballads.

“But it’s a lot of fun. Silliness and fun were the guiding principles for a lot of it. It leaves no comedy style unturned.”

Delectable Shelter, Seymour Centre, August 13 – 17

An edited version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 11