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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The Lysicrates Prize

Verbrugghen Hall, Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Botanic Garden, January 30

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden, Sydney after Premier Mike Baird announced the winner of the first Lysicrates Prize.From left:  Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

In front of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates at the Royal Botanic Garden. From left: Lee Lewis, Artistic Director Griffin Theatre Company, Finance Minister Dominic Perrottet, Environment Minister Rob Stokes, Patricia Azarias, Kim Ellis, Executive Director, Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, NSW Premier Mike Baird, and John Azarias. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

The inaugural Lysicrates Prize for new Australian playwriting was to have taken place in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Garden on the Band Lawn near the replica of the original Choragic Monument of Lysicrates that gives the competition its name.

It would have been a lovely spot for such an event. However, torrential rain earlier in the week left the grass too wet for the seating stand, so the play readings took place in Verbrugghen Hall. Guests then walked down to the lawn for the announcement of the prizewinner by NSW Premier Mike Baird.

The Lysicrates Prize calls for Australian playwrights to submit the first act of a new play. The three short-listed submissions are given a rehearsed play-reading in front of an invited audience. What sets this Prize apart from any other Australian playwriting award is that the audience decides the winner – as happened in Ancient Greece. The prize is a $12,500 commission from Griffin Theatre Company, with the runners-up receiving $1000 each.

The three finalists for the inaugural 2015 Lysicrates Prize were Steve Rodgers, Lally Katz and Justin Fleming, with Rodgers awarded the prize for his play Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam.

It all began early in 2014 when John and Patricia Azarias, the founders of the Prize, took a walk through the Botanic Garden.

John Azarias loves Hellenic culture and had seen the original monument in Athens. On that particular day, as he and his wife approached the sandstone replica (commissioned in 1870 by Sir James Martin), they were struck by how eroded it was becoming. He decided then and there to raise the funds for its restoration in readiness for the Botanic Garden’s bicentenary in 2016.

The original monument was built by a rich sponsor (or choregoi) called Lysicrates to celebrate the winning play at the Dionysia Festival in Athens in 334 BC, as was the tradition during the 4th and 5th centuries BC. The monument has a frieze featuring Dionysus, the god of theatre. In a nice little link, the name ‘Sydney’ is an English version of the French ‘St Denis’, which in turn is a Gallic version of ‘St Dionysius’ – as John explained in his welcoming speech.

Patricia suggested that they also establish a theatre competition associated with the monument as a way to celebrate its restoration. They approached Lee Lewis at Griffin Theatre Company, which is dedicated to the performance of Australian plays, who agreed to run the competition. With some assistance from the NSW Government, along with additional funds raised by John, and the support of the Royal Botanic Garden, they were off.

For the first Lysicrates Prize, an audience made up of Griffin supporters and subscribers, politicians and theatre industry folk gathered at the Conservatorium to watch readings (rehearsed over three days) of the three short-listed plays.

Entering the auditorium, audience members were each given a gold coin with which to cast our vote in large pottery urns.

Rodgers’ Jesus Wants Me For a Sunbeam is adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novella and is a haunting story of suffocating love, grief and loss, and a family so close that the parents made an extreme decision when their young daughter is diagnosed with leukemia; a decision their son will struggle to understand.

Darren Yap – who approached Rodgers in the first place about a stage adaptation – directed the extract, which was performed by Jennifer Hagan, Anthony Harkin, Natalie O’Donnell, Rodgers himself and Govinda Röser-Finch.

The emotional scenario and complex moral dilemma posed clearly struck a chord with the audience.

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Prize winner Steve Rodgers. Photo: Jessica Lindsay

Rodgers said of his win: “Jesus Wants me For a Sunbeam isn’t a play yet. It’s just a bunch of scenes and ideas adapted from Peter Goldsworthy’s novel. But because of The Lysicrates Prize, we now get the chance to develop it into a truly important new Australian play. I’m over the moon.

“Philanthropy of this kind in Australia isn’t common, so obviously I’m more than thrilled. This play is about family and explores a kind of love that in one moment you’re completely in sympathy with, and the next, you’re reeling away from in horror. The Lysicrates Prize gives us the chance, to hopefully unleash all that familial complexity on an audience.”

The evening began with Lally Katz’s Fortune, directed by Kate Gaul and performed by Briallen Clarke, Anni Finsterer, Sean Hawkins and Russell Kiefel.

The black comedy is set in a seedy hotel in the US where the woman who owns it has asked a psychic with a crystal ball to tell her about a man who spent time in one of the rooms. The Romany fortune-teller is pregnant and she and her cowboy boyfriend desperately need money to start a new life on his father’s land. Meanwhile, two men who have just lost their Wall Street jobs in the GFC are waiting to book into the hotel: one of them has been around the block, the other is a young Australian who had only just joined the company. It’s an intriguing set-up, the characters are all fascinating and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.

The night wound up with Justin Fleming’s The Savvy Women, another of his rollicking, contemporary Australian adaptations of Molière, following his success with Tartuffe and The School for Wives.

Directed by Gale Edwards, and performed by Andrea Demetriades, Morgan Powell, Fiona Press and Christopher Stollery, it began with two sisters vying for one man, their parents arguing over which daughter should prevail, and the mother’s sacking of the maid for her massacre of the English language. Fleming’s clever, witty rhymes drew much laughter, especially the maid’s bogan utterings.

Having the audience choose is a different way of commissioning a play these days. The proof will be in the production. But you’d have to say it was an impressive, well-chosen short list. All three extracts were entertaining and showed significant potential; hopefully we will get to see productions of them all in the fullness of time.

The Young Tycoons

Eternity Playhouse, May 20

Edmund Lembke-Hogan and Andrew Cutcliffe. Photo: Noni Carroll

Edmund Lembke-Hogan and Andrew Cutcliffe. Photo: Noni Carroll

A smash hit in 2005 and 2006, Darlinghurst Theatre Company is reviving CJ Johnson’s gleefully corrosive satire at its new venue.

Subtitled “a ruthless comedy”, The Young Tycoons is set in 2003 as two aging Australian media moguls start to hand over control of their empires to their sons.

The warring families are fictionalised, of course, but no prizes for guessing who they’re modeled on.

The fathers and their heirs are a study in contrasts. The bullying, potty-mouthed Ted Vogler (Laurence Coy), now focused primarily on television, is a high roller, loves cricket and has a dodgy heart, not helped when his “knucklehead” son Kim (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) loses a billion in a bad investment.

Liam Warburton (John Turnbull), who dominates the nation’s newspapers, is cool, pragmatic and US-based, while his suave son Trevor (Andrew Cutcliffe) is Ivy League educated.

Then there are the son’s girlfriends (Paige Gardiner and Gabrielle Scawthorn), a business journo from an opposition broadsheet (James Lugton) who has them in his sights, Liam’s long-serving, right-hand-man Donald (Terry Serio), and Kim’s personal assistant/press secretary (Briallen Clarke).

It’s a world where wives are picked as if part of a business deal – though the women in the play are no pushovers.

Johnson’s script unfolds over numerous short scenes not unlike a TV drama but director Michael Pigott keeps things moving snappily on Katja Handt’s excellent, sparse set with its curving plywood wall, helped by Murray Jackson’s jazzy music.

The writing is robust with plenty of laughs. Act I takes a little time to hit its stride but the play ramps up in Act II when there is more punchy drama between the characters.

Johnson decided not to update the play but has added a few new references (Grange, Barangaroo), while a punch-up was apparently included just days before the James Packer-David Gyngell street brawl.

Lembke-Hogan is outstanding as the pugnacious, not-so-smart Kim, revealing flickers of self-doubt as he tries to assert himself with blinkered, puppy-dog impulsiveness. Serio is also excellent as the veteran newspaperman who finds himself becoming collateral damage, while Turnbull and Coy contrast each other nicely as the two rival media barons. But all the cast are terrific and deserve praise.

Johnson doesn’t depart too far from reality so there are few real surprises, particularly since this era has been much picked over of late on TV. However, the play plugs into Australia’s continuing fascination with its business heavyweights offering an entertaining, fly-on-the-wall look at the lives of the filthy rich and very powerful.

The Young Tycoons runs until June 15. Bookings: 02 8356 9987 or www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 25

Clybourne Park

Ensemble Theatre, March 19

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

Briallen Clarke, Cleave Williams, Paula Arundell and Nathan Lovejoy. Photo: Clare Hawley

There was such interest in Clybourne Park that the Ensemble Theatre production sold out before opening so two performances in Chatswood have been added.

Written by American actor-playwright Bruce Norris, the play arrives in Sydney trailing numerous awards including the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play and the 2011 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Expectations were therefore high – and the Ensemble production more than meets them.

The pithy drama straddles 50 years in a Chicago suburb. It begins in 1959. A clearly unhappy couple – the angry, taciturn Russ (Richard Sydenham) and his over-cheery wife Bev (Wendy Strehlow) – is packing up their home with the help of their black maid Francine (Paula Arundell).

Their local preacher (Thomas Campbell) arrives, clearly hoping to have a meaningful conversation with Russ, followed not long after by a neighbour called Karl (Nathan Lovejoy) with his deaf, pregnant wife Betsy (Briallen Clarke).

Politely outraged that they have sold the property to a “coloured” family at a knock-down price (for reasons revealed later), Karl tries to convince them to change their mind, his appalling bigotry expressed in the nicest way possible.

When Francine’s husband Albert (Cleave Williams) arrives to pick her up, his attempt to help Russ becomes excruciatingly awkward.

The second act is set in 2009. A white couple (Lovejoy and Clarke) has bought the run-down house in the now predominantly Afro-American suburb and wants to rebuild. This time, there are objections from a young, black woman (Arundell) who wants the history of the area to be respected.

Clybourne Park is a provocative play with some truly cringe-making moments, including several rancid jokes. But it is also very funny and sad as it tackles racism, political correctness and real estate, while weaving in grief and post-traumatic stress disorder too.

You’re aware that the play’s neat structure – which has the cast playing two different sets of characters across the two time-frames, some of them related – is well-crafted if not contrived in its balanced halves and set-piece debates. However, it’s so cleverly done and the writing so good that it works.

Tanya Goldberg directs a terrific production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that manages to make the stage look much bigger than usual (a feat that Lauren Peters has pulled off with equal flair for The Drowsy Chaperone currently playing at the tiny Hayes Theatre Co). The way the house is transformed into a graffiti-covered state of disrepair during the interval is very cleverly done.

Goldberg has elicited uniformly strong, utterly truthful performances from her excellent cast who work together as a well-oiled ensemble.

Clybourne Park could easily be set in Sydney, where right now there are plans for public housing in prime, inner-city locations to be sold off by the NSW State Government, despite the long-standing history of the area.

It’s a thought-provoking play that has you squirming at times and underlines with discomforting power that attitudes haven’t changed anywhere near as much as we’d like to think.

Clybourne Park runs at the Ensemble Theatre until April 19 and then at The Concourse Chatswood on April 23 & 24. Bookings: 9929 0644

All My Sons

Eternity Playhouse, November 5

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Meredith Penman, Marshall Napier and Andrew Henry. Photo: Brett Boardman

Darlinghurst Theatre Company has christened the new Eternity Playhouse with Arthur Miller’s first commercially successful play, the gut-wrenching All My Sons from 1947 – and both the venue and the production have come up trumps.

The sensitive conversion of the newly restored Baptist Tabernacle, a 126-year old, heritage-listed building in Burton Street, Darlinghurst features a spacious timber foyer and a beautifully appointed 200-seat theatre with excellent sight lines and acoustics. It all feels fresh and welcoming, while original features such as the ornate ceiling and stained glass windows add to the venue’s charm.

Miller’s tightly plotted play resonates powerfully in the intimate space. Set in the aftermath of World War II, Joe Keller (Marshall Napier) and his wife Kate (Toni Scanlan) are living a life of suffocating denial.

Convicted for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft engine parts from his factory, which caused the death of 21 pilots during the war, Joe was subsequently exonerated leaving his business partner Steve to take the rap. Kate, meanwhile, clings to hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot, is still alive despite having been missing for three years.

A sense of tragedy hangs over the play from the beginning, as Joe and Kate’s other son Chris (Andrew Henry) invites Larry’s former sweetheart Anne (Meredith Penman) to stay, hoping to marry her. Anne, who grew up next door, is Steve’s daughter.

When Anne’s brother George (Anthony Gooley) arrives, having just visited their father in jail, dark secrets are revealed leaving no possibility of a happy outcome for any of them.

Unlike many of the auteur, re-imagined productions of classics that we have seen in Sydney of late, Iain Sinclair directs a traditional production set in the period and using American accents, but it is fluent, well paced and beautifully performed, unfolding with the inexorable undertow of Greek tragedy.

Scanlan breaks your heart as the desperate, deluded, at times feverish Kate who dares not admit the possibility that her son is dead, while Napier convincingly conveys the gruff bonhomie covering a dark, gnawing secret.

Henry excels as the open-hearted Chris who longs to step out of Larry’s blighted shadow and live his own life, while Gooley ramps up the energy with a bristling anger as George.

On opening night, Penman brought a sparkling warmth to the role of Anne, but due to a major television opportunity has since been replaced by Anna Houston.

In the supporting roles, Sinclair (who plays a doctor as well as directing), Mary Rachel Brown, Briallen Clarke and Robin Goldworthy all acquit themselves admirably.

Luke Ede’s set works well enough and is subtly lit by Nicholas Rayment. Occasionally Nate Edmondson’s music feels a little too overtly manipulative emotionally as in a film score, particularly in the climactic scenes when it is distracting and unnecessary, but that’s a minor quibble.

Performed with an intense honesty, Miller’s timeless story about the link between commerce and war, and self-interest in the name of the family, still rings devastatingly true in this stirring production.

All My Sons runs at the Eternity Playhouse until December 1

 An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 10