All My Sons

Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 9

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Chris Ryan, John Howard and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Even if you know nothing about Arthur Miller’s classic play All My Sons, the foreboding set for Kip Williams’ shattering Sydney Theatre Company production tells you immediately that all is not well.

Instead of the usual naturalistic backyard, designer Alice Babidge sets the action in a black box with a flat cut-out of the Keller family home. The blank façade gives little away though you can see art on the walls through the windows. Later, the set will be used to echo the revealing of secrets, as lies that lurk at the heart of the play are laid bare.

In the brighter opening scenes, the darkness of the set does rather undercut Miller’s initial depiction of a happy family apparently living the American Dream. But as the play unfolds, the setting adds to the feeling of something rotten behind closed doors.

The stark staging throws a laser focus on Miller’s beautiful writing and on the exceptional performances, which stand out in sharp relief against the dark, oppressive backdrop, while Babidge’s costuming anchors the play in its period. The production is eloquently lit by Nick Schlieper while Max Lyandvert’s music subtly underscores the building of tension.

Set in 1946, wealthy factory owner Joe Keller (John Howard) was exonerated for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft parts during the war but his business partner Steve, who took the rap, is still in jail. Meanwhile, Joe’s wife Kate clings to the hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot missing in action for three years, will return home.

Their other son Chris (Chris Ryan) has invited Ann Deever (Eryn Jean Norvill) home and Kate and Joe are on edge. Ann is Steve’s daughter and Larry’s former girlfriend. When Chris announces that he wants to marry her, a tragedy is set in motion.

Williams directs with a searing clarity, beautifully served by a cast who are able to reach deep into the emotions gnawing at the characters from within. Nevin is heart-breaking as Kate. She looks so tiny and fragile, wracked by an anguish she is too scared to acknowledge, yet she can still muster a sharp humour and a desperate cheerfulness.

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Robyn Nevin, Josh McConville and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

In a wonderfully measured performance, Howard’s Joe is big and bluff with a geniality tempered by something guarded, while his sudden bursts of anger are quickly suppressed. Ryan radiates determined optimism as the idealistic, clean-cut Chris yet manages in little ways to suggest that he hasn’t completely recovered from the war. Hit hard by the truth, we watch Chris snap as his world falls apart. Norvill’s stylish Ann seems delicate yet stands her ground with surprising strength as she clings to the possibility of love.

As Ann’s avenging brother George, Josh McConville arrives (in crumpled suit) with a blast of energy.  His body is tight-wired and physically wracked as he struggles with a whirlpool of emotions: rage, guilt and long-standing love for the Kellers.

In supporting roles as the Keller’s neighbours –  Bert LaBonte as Jim, a world-weary, unhappily married doctor, Anita Hegh as his rather sour, nagging wife Sue, John Leary as the over-chatty handy-man Frank who is doing Larry’s horoscope for Kate, and Contessa Treffone as Frank’s sunny wife Lydia – the rest of the cast deliver well observed performances.

Telling a story of cowardice, denial and profit at others’ expense, All My Sons still resonates as powerfully as ever. Beautifully structured as it moves inexorably to its terrible conclusion, I felt as if I had been holding my breath for ten minutes or more by the play’s end, almost as emotionally drained as the actors.

All My Sons runs at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 12

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This House is Mine

Eternity Playhouse, March 13

Chris Barwick as Mack and Fabiola Meza as Clem. Photo: Patrick Boland

Chris Barwick as Mack and Fabiola Meza as Clem. Photo: Patrick Boland

For the past 15 years, Milk Crate Theatre has been working with people who have experienced homelessness and social marginalisation to create theatre that builds their confidence and helps them make positive changes in their life.

At the same time, the stories they tell, drawn from their own experiences, challenge and inform audiences by putting a human face to social issues so many of us in Australia are lucky enough to have only read about.

This House is Mine, presented by Milk Crate in association with Darlinghurst Theatre Company, began with discussions around the complex issues surrounding homelessness, with mental health emerging as a theme that participants wanted to explore. (According to the program there are more than 20,000 homeless people in Sydney on any given night).

On paper, This House of Mine sounds like a tough night at the theatre – and it certainly doesn’t pull any punches. But it’s an absorbing, poignant piece with laughter, tears and tenderness as well as darkness and brutality, and it speaks with a great sense of shared humanity.

Written by Maree Freeman, the artistic director of the company, and directed by Paige Rattray, the play weaves a web of stories performed by six people from Milk Crate’s ensemble of more than 40, along with one professional actor (young NIDA graduate Contessa Treffone).

In between scenes, other members of the Milk Crate community talk in video interviews about their experiences and perspectives on the issues raised.

Matthias Nudl as Jason. Photo: Patrick Boland

Matthias Nudl as Jason. Photo: Patrick Boland

Entering the theatre, there’s a line of chairs on stage, a TV monitor to the right of the stage, and some sliding screens at the back (set design by Hugh O’Connor). It looks as though it might be one of those pieces of verbatim theatre, where the performers essentially sit and talk but it’s not like that at all.

Rattray’s staging is simple but effective as the stories unfold, using the screens to create different spaces, with video imagery (designed by Sarah Emery with Sean Bacon as consultant) giving us an insight into the turmoil within the minds of some of the characters.  Tom Hogan’s sound and Ross Graham’s lighting help create a strong sense of mood.

The play begins with two characters standing facing each other while their phone conversation is relayed in voice-over. Evelyn (Veronica Flynn) is worried about Jason (Matthias Nudl) who suffers from depression.

John McDonnell as Frank and Veronica Flynn as Evelyn. Photo: Patrick Boland

John McDonnell as Frank and Veronica Flynn as Evelyn. Photo: Patrick Boland

From there we meet Frank (John McDonnell), a gentle psychiatrist with a wild shock of hair who is in the early stages of dementia and will soon have lost touch with reality. The final scenes between him and the spirited, motor-mouthed Evelyn, who is his daughter, are terribly moving.

There’s also Clem (Fabiola Meza), the abused wife of Mack (Chris Barwick), whose moods swing violently, and Clem’s estranged daughter Brooke (Rach Williams) who can’t understand why her mother doesn’t leave.

Brooke, who not surprisingly finds relationships hard, is living with girlfriend Anna (Treffone), who is initially a livewire then descends into schizophrenia.

The lack of acting technique among the cast actually adds to the feeling of authenticity. All the performers are convincing, drawing us into their respective character’s stories. The scenes of domestic violence between Meza and Barwick feel particularly, chillingly believable, while Treffone handles the difficult role of Anna with subtlety.

Contessa Treffone as Anna and Rach Williams as Brooke. Photo: Patrick Boland

Contessa Treffone as Anna and Rach Williams as Brooke. Photo: Patrick Boland

This is My House is powerful and empowering theatre. Told with disarming honesty, it feels raw and real and very moving.

After the final performance on March 22, there will be a post-show panel discussion hosted by Milk Crate in partnership with the St James Ethics Centre. Entitled Breaking the Cycle: Why does homelessness still exist?, moderator Dr Simon Longstaff, Executive Director of St James Ethics Centre and panelists Katherine McKernan, CEO of Homelessness NSW, Ronni Khan, CEO of Ozharvest, Steven Persson, CEO of The Big Issue, Toby Hall Group CEO of St Vincent’s Health Australia, and Milk Crate Theatre ensemble artists will explore how they, as a community, move forward to break the cycle of intergenerational disadvantage.

This House is Mine runs at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company until March 22. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987.