B-Girl

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, June 9

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

iOTA as fantasy glam-rocker Clifford North. Photo: Daniel Boud

B-Girl begins in silence with a jumpy young woman sitting nervously at a kitchen table. Suddenly musical chords crash and roar and iOTA appears silhouetted in blue light: an androgynous, glam-rock god in all his strutting glory. Talk about an entrance.

Since bursting onto the theatre scene in 2006, iOTA has established himself as a bona fide star with gender-bending performances in the cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, his concept show Smoke & Mirrors, and the Rocky Horror Show.

You can certainly see why director Craig Ilott (who collaborated with him on Hedwig and Smoke & Mirrors) might come up with the idea of a show, featuring iOTA as a fantasy glam-rocker.

As you’d expect, he’s phenomenal: sexy, enigmatic, commanding attention whenever he’s on stage. However, the show itself is a strange hybrid between a concept album and a theatre work, with a clunky structure and flimsy plot.

Co-written by Ilott and iOTA, with original songs by iOTA, B-Girl is about troubled young woman called Rachel (Blazey Best), who uses music to escape the grim reality of life with an abusive husband (Ashley Lyons). Dreaming up the glam-rocking Clifford North (iOTA), he gradually becomes more than just a figment of her imagination, giving her the strength to pack her bags and leave.

Nicholas Dare’s set design is pure rock concert, with the band on stage, a walkway over their heads, and a back wall of LED lights. Matt Marshall’s stunning lighting and the sound levels are equally rock ‘n’ roll.

A standard lamp and a table and chairs on the corners of the stage represent Rachel’s home. However, the domestic scenes feel sketchily simplistic and aren’t convincingly integrated into the show. You find yourself wanting more of Clifford instead – so much so you can’t help wondering whether it would be better if he had just told a similar story about abuse, domination and freedom through song alone in a solo show.

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

Blazey Best and iOTA. Photo: B-Girl

That’s no disrespect to Best (who also performed with iOTA in Hedwig). Though her character isn’t given much dramatic complexity, she brings a powerful emotional rawness and strong vocals to the part, while Lyons is suitably menacing in the thankless role of her violent husband.

But it’s iOTA’s show. Costumed by Heather Cairns, he is a vision in electric blue Lycra with platform boots, feathers and silver sequins. You can’t take your eyes off him. And his voice is better than ever.

He’s written some sensational songs, ranging from dirty, thrusting rock to soulful ballads and he sings the hell out of them, powering in rock mode one minute then the next, caressing gentle melodies in heart-breaking fashion. Backed by a fierce four-piece band, led by Joe Accaria on drums, the show really fires musically.

So, B-Girl is a strangely mixed experience, let down by some under-developed dramaturgy. However, iOTA’s fans won’t be disappointed by his electrifying performance.

B-Girl plays until June 21. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

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

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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.

Not a Launch: Hayes Theatre Co 2015

Hayes Theatre Co, September 29

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Blazey Best, Hilary Cole, Mike McLeish and Cameron Holmes as the Truswell family in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“It’s not a launch,” said David Campbell. “It’s just a release of information.”

Whatever it was, it was a great way to introduce the Hayes Theatre Co’s program for the first half of 2015 with performers on hand to sing numbers from the shows featured, and to give us a preview of the final shows for 2014.

British director Neil Rutherford introduced Beyond Desire, the new musical for which he has written book and lyrics, with music by Kieran Drury, which will play at the Hayes from November 21 to December 13.

Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery, inspired in part by E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, which Rutherford described as “Downton Abbey meets Hamlet”. It will feature contemporary music inspired by the period, with influences of Elgar and Debussy. The score will be performed by a six-piece orchestra.

Nancye Hayes, who plays a housekeeper, sang an amusing number about family secrets, in costume complete with a tray of tea and sandwiches. It will be the first time Hayes has performed at the venue named after her. After that performance, I can’t wait.

The 2015 season begins in January with a production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning musical Next to Normal by Geelong’s Doorstep Arts (January 8 – February 1). Introduced by the company’s founding director Darylin Ramondo, the production will feature Natalie O’Donnell as Diana, the suburban mother with worsening bipolar disorder and delusional episodes.

The cast will also include Alex Rathgeber and Anthony Harkin. O’Donnell performed I Miss the Mountains in which Diana sings about missing the dizzy heights of her non-medicated state.

In February, Enda Markey produces Blood Brothers (see related feature) with a fabulous cast led by Helen Dallimore, Michael Cormick, Blake Bowden and Bobby Fox. Running February 6 – March 8, Dallimore gave a taste of things to come with a medley of Easy Terms and Tell Me It’s Not True.

In May, Neil Gooding presents Dogfight with music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and book by Peter Duncan, all still in their 20s.

Based on the 1991 film starring River Phoenix, it tells the edgy story of three young men on their way to Vietnam who attend a “dogfight” the night before they leave at which they compete to bring the ugliest date, out of which emerges an unusual love story.

The show premiered off-Broadway to generally good reviews in 2012 and was staged at London’s Southwark Theatre in August to more mixed reviews.

Johanna Allen, who will play the prostitute Marcie, sang a number called Pretty Funny, performed in the show by the leading lady Rose. Dogfight runs May 1– 31. Gooding said that Pasek & Paul will hopefully come to Australia towards the end of the season and conduct some workshops and masterclasses.

Meanwhile, Miracle City by Max Lambert and the late Nick Enright plays at the Hayes from October 17 to November 16. The keenly anticipated revival of the musical, which had a brief work-in-progress season at Sydney Theatre Company in 1996, will be a brand new show directed by Darren Yap.

Described by Campbell as “a shitload of fun”, Miracle City is inspired by US televangelists Jimmy and Tammy Bakker. Telling the story of the Truswell family, it is set in real time during a live-to-air evangelical television show.

Blazey Best, Mike McLeish, Hilary Cole and Cameron Holmes who play the Truswell family performed the song Miracle City, a very funny, jaunty, gospel hoedown in which they sing about the Christian theme park they are building. The song was the first they wrote, said Lambert, but didn’t make it into the original show.

It was a spectacular way to end the evening and a fantastic teaser for Miracle City.

Sweet Charity, the Hayes’ inaugural, sellout production, which won three Helpmann Awards, will tour in 2015. A Canberra season has already been announced for February with other dates to be confirmed.

Details can be found at www.hayestheatre.com.au

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

Miss Julie: review

Belvoir St Theatre, August 28

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Brendan Cowell and Taylor Ferguson. Photo: Ellis Parrinder

Known for his contemporary rewrites of classical plays, Simon Stone’s radical 2011 adaptation of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck was devastatingly good and has enjoyed considerable success in Europe.

His adaptation of Miss Julie, which is billed as being “by Simon Stone after August Strindberg”, is less persuasive – though powerfully performed.

Written in 1888, Strindberg’s drama about class and sexual power – examined through the story of the daughter of a Swedish count sleeping with one of his servants – was deemed so shocking it was banned in Sweden for years.

Updating the action to present-day Sydney, Stone retains the key elements of Strindberg’s plot but where the original play unfolded over one claustrophobic act, Stone adds an interval and sets the second act ­in a motel.

He has also changed the original ending, which had Miss Julie taking the “honourable” way out (Strindberg’s word in his foreword) and leaving the stage with a razor given her by Jean to commit suicide.

Miss Julie’s father is now a high-profile politician in the running to become Prime Minister. Jean (Brendan Cowell) is his chauffeur and security guard with a gun on his hip. As in the original, Jean’s fiancée Christine (Blazey Best) is the housekeeper and cook.

Though class certainly exists in Australia – no matter how much we might like to deny it – it doesn’t trap people in the same way that it did in Strindberg’s day. And though rich people employ servants, the situation doesn’t resonate with the same widespread recognition.

So, in order to up the ante Stone has made Miss Julie 16 instead of 25, while Jean who was 30 in the original is here closer to 40.

After being discovered in a car with a boy and drugs, Julie has been grounded. Her absent father has charged Jean and Christine with looking after her. On this particular night, Jean has had to physically drag her out of a party. Now here she is in skimpy baby doll PJs (costumes by Tess Schofield) insisting he stay with her while she eats pizza.

Directed by Leticia Caceres, this Belvoir production is impressively staged. Set designer Robert Cousins creates a gleaming white, minimalist kitchen for the first act where Christine stands beneath a portrait of Julie cooking a risotto as the audience enters the auditorium, while second act takes place in a non-descript motel.

The sharp, strident chords of music by The Sweats that open and close the play help establish an unsettling mood.

The age difference between Jean and Julie certainly brings a different edge to the play. Watching him allow her to seduce him and then plan to use her as a way to a better life does feel shockingly grubby – wince-makingly so when 20-year old Taylor Ferguson (who looks convincingly younger) takes retainers out of her mouth before she kisses him.

The central problem of the adaptation is that it never feels believable that the Jean of Stone’s version would work for such a family. Cowell gives a very convincing portrayal of a gruff, lumbering, mono-tonal, Aussie bloke desperate to join “the secret club” as he puts it. But you can more readily imagine him working for a heavyweight in the Cross than for a leading politician.

Surely a wealthy businessman turned politician would employ someone more personable? And would he really leave such a thuggish man to look after his daughter?

Strindberg’s Jean was the son of a labourer but has “educated himself towards becoming a gentleman” and “has a sense of beauty” (Strindberg’s foreword again). He also has some charisma. Cowell’s Jean is such a charmless character it’s hard to believe Julie would fall for him – even as a means of escape or to get back at her father.

As for him being a former sommelier in London, it beggars belief. Cowell even pronounces the word wrong – which rings true for the character, but not for someone who really has worked as one.

Though the second act verges on soap opera, the production is powerfully performed. Cowell is a visceral, dangerous presence, while Best gives a fine performance as the mature, practical, pragmatic Christine who is prepared to stand by her man.

Ferguson makes a remarkable stage debut as the troubled Julie: a poor little rich girl, on the verge of womanhood, fast discovering her sexual power. Imperious one minute, throwing a childish tantrum the next, she captures the depth of the character’s loneliness and her sense of abandonment in a brave performance.

But where Strindberg’s Miss Julie willfully degrades herself, “trying to behave like the common people” as Jean puts it when she attends the servants’ party and insists he dance with her in front of everyone, here you feel Julie is so young and lost she just needs someone to love her and doesn’t quite realise what she is unleashing.

Ferguson’s raw, exposed emotion at the end certainly left me feeling churned up but the adaptation itself doesn’t totally convince.

There is plenty to be examined around the idea of class and ambition in contemporary Sydney but transposing Strindberg’s play from 19th century Sweden isn’t the most effective way of addressing it, while making Julie 16 subtly changes what Strindberg was saying about strong women who use sex for power.

Miss Julie runs at Belvoir St Theatre until October 8

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on September 1