Beyond Desire

Hayes Theatre Co, November 26

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore. Photo: Oliver Toth

In development off-and-on for 25 years, the musical Beyond Desire finally has its world premiere at the Hayes Theatre Co. It’s by no means an unqualified success but the music is lovely, with potential for further development of the show as a whole.

Written by Neil Rutherford (book and lyrics) and Kieran Drury (music), Beyond Desire is an Edwardian murder mystery inspired by Hamlet, with elements of E.M. Forster’s Maurice and a healthy dash of Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey.

There’s also a cute Mousetrap-like coda in which the cast ask you – in song – not to reveal the mystery. To be honest, it’s fairly easy to guess what’s going on in the first act and though the show takes a few more surprising twists and turns in the second, not all are convincing.

Beyond Desire is essentially an entertainment: a melodrama lightly laced with serious themes including class and forbidden love.

Set in 1910, Anthony (Blake Bowden) is holidaying in Italy having just graduated from university when he receives a telegram from his mother Louise (Chloe Dallimore). His father Edward (Phillip Lowe) has been found dead in a London hotel room.

The police rule it a suicide but Anthony is suspicious, particularly since Louise marries Edward’s former business partner George (Tony Cogin) shortly afterwards. What’s more, George figures prominently in Edward’s will.

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Phillip Lowe and Blake Bowden. Photo: Oliver Toth

Together with his university friend James (Ross Hannaford) – who has arrived at the behest of Louise – the melancholic, angry Anthony sets out to discover what really happened.

Making up the household are the housekeeper Mrs Milson (Nancye Hayes) who makes sure she knows everyone’s business, her daughter Emily (Christy Sullivan) who is a maid, and a manservant Syd (David Bulters).

The music, which combines an Edwardian feel with contemporary resonances (Sondheim, Wildhorn, Schonberg & Boublil), is beautiful and emotive. The arrangements for piano, violin, cello, harp, clarinet and horn are lush and sensitively performed by the six-piece band led by musical director Peter Rutherford.

The lyrics, however, are uneven, verging on workmanlike at times, rarely revealing psychological depth. For the most part, the characters sing about the situation they’re in, without adding a great deal more to what we already know.

A poignant duet between Emily and James about their respective love for Anthony is one of the exceptions and a highlight.

Having chosen to present an Edwardian melodrama, Rutherford could have had more fun with the genre and also sharpened the book to build more tension in a show that revolves around deception and secrets. Instead, it’s a bit of an uneasy mix, with audiences not quite sure at times whether they are meant to be laughing or taking it all very seriously.

Rutherford also directs. In fact, his hand is all over the production. Take a good look at the names of the set designer (Luther Forinder) and orchestrator (Leon Ferrithurd).

The costuming is excellent (presumably borrowed as there is no costume design credit). The set isn’t wildly attractive but it works OK in the small space, quickly reforming into various configurations for different settings – though with the band sitting behind, it does all look rather cramped. The lighting meanwhile (Nicholas Rayment) is somewhat heavy-handed.

The production boasts impressive performances from the entire cast. The singing is terrific – though the sound is over-amplified. And the underscoring is sometimes distracting, making it difficult to hear dialogue.

Hayes is outstanding as Mrs Milson, understanding the melodrama style instinctively and bringing just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek fun to her portrayal. It’s a hugely enjoyable, precisely judged comic performance – and a delight to see her making her debut in the theatre that has been named in her honour.

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

Ross Hannaford and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Oliver Toth

She is matched by a winning performance from Sullivan as the young maid Emily, which feels truthful and heartfelt (accent and all), while Bowden is in glorious voice as Anthony. But all the cast have their moments.

Despite the flaws, I still found the show entertaining. It’s refreshing to be taken into a different kind of musical world to the ones we have been seeing on our stages of late. The tone could do with finessing and some tightening would sharpen it (it runs around two hours and 45 minutes including interval) but there is potential for further work.

The theatre program, presented as a 1910 London newspaper, is a nice little touch.

Beyond Desire runs at the Hayes Theatre Co until December 14. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 8065 7337

 

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

 

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Todd McKenney’s Centre Stage Tours: interview

Todd McKenney

Todd McKenney

Todd McKenney is used to being centre stage. Now the musical theatre performer who has starred in shows including The Boy From Oz, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert – the Musical, Crazy for You and Annie among many others, is organising a series of personally guided theatre tours, which will give others the chance to join him there – if only after the curtain has fallen.

Todd McKenney’s Centre Stage Tours will kick off during the Sydney leg of the forthcoming tour of Grease – in which he plays Teen Angel – when he will take people backstage after the show, ending up on stage for photographs with himself and other cast members.

He is also opening up his beautiful, spacious home on Sydney’s Upper North Shore for high tea soirées at which guests will wander his lovely garden then gather around his piano for a relaxed private performance.

The first soirée on August 4, at which he will perform with Nancye Hayes and Chloe Dallimore, sold out within a matter of hours after he chatted about it on radio with Alan Jones. However, there are still some tickets available for his first theatre tours. Some of the proceeds from the tours will go to the Children’s Cancer Institute Australia.

The idea began during a conversation with his friends Julie and Chris Walker, co-owners of several Sydney restaurants including Berta in Surry Hills.

“They said, ‘have you ever thought of taking groups to Broadway and the West End?’” recalls McKenney. “I thought about it more and more and said to Julie, ‘why don’t you run it with me?’ So we looked at putting it together and decided to start closer to home where we have the contacts.”

John Frost, the producer of Grease, and the Lyric Theatre, where the show is playing in Sydney, both loved the idea. “The Lyric are giving us private champagne rooms as the guests arrive, all sorts of stuff. We have had two travel agents contact us now so we are meeting them. It’s just taken off,” says McKenney.

The first tours on offer are dinner-theatre tours on October 25 and November 1 when a group of 30 will dine at Berta, which offers modern Italian cuisine, then go by private coach back to the theatre for pre-show champagne. After seeing they show, McKenney will take them on a backstage tour. There are also sip-a-soda tours on December 1 and 8 after the matinee with an optional meal.

The reason McKenney is able to dine with guests before the show is that as Teen Angel he only sings one song in the second act – however, he plans to dazzle, literally.

“They asked what I wanted to wear and I said, ‘I want to blind them,’ says McKenney with a laugh.

“If I’ve only got one number I want to hit that stage like a human mirror ball so I’ve got a costume covered in Swarovski crystals with silver aviators, a big white quiff and silver crocodile skin boots, which I’ve just had made. So it’s going to be a good look. I’m going to make an impact.”

Into the future, McKenney is performing in another musical for Frost next year, which is yet to be announced. He has also put in a couple of requests.

“There are a couple of shows I really, really want to do before I can’t do them. One of them is Barnum,” he says. “I’m desperate to do Barnum so I rang Frosty one day and he and I have been talking about that for the future. I don’t know if he’s got it.

“It’s a role I’ve always wanted to play. I love the music, I love the character, I love the story. He’s a showman but he’s got a dark side and I get to do acrobatic tricks. It’s an itch which I haven’t been able to scratch – and it’s my Mum’s favourite musical.”

Meanwhile, Dancing with the Stars – where McKenney has made his mark as the “nasty” judge – is set to return to Channel Seven for its 13th season. The line-up has not yet been announced but McKenney is keen to return.

Dancing with the Stars and The Boy From Oz changed my life,” he says. “As long as they keep running it and asking me back, I’ll be there.”

Tour information and bookings: toddmckenneyscentrestagetours.com.au or Julie 0411 424 010.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 14.