The Nick Enright Songbook

Eternity Playhouse, March 29

The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press

The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press

Last night, I tore myself away from the Cricket World Cup Final (tough call) to attend the launch of The Nick Enright Songbook published by Currency Press. Hosted by Darlinghurst Theatre Company at the Eternity Playhouse, it was a lovely, warm event with performances and fond reminiscences from several of his collaborators and former students, among other artists.

As well as a playwright and screenwriter, Enright ­– who died 12 years ago today – collaborated on many Australian musicals. The best known is The Boy From Oz for which he wrote the book but he was also a gifted lyricist.

The publication brings together 50 of the best songs from ten musicals for which he wrote the lyrics, with music by five composers. These include The Venetian Twins, Variations and Summer Rain written with composer Terence Clarke, Buckley’s! with Glenn Henrich, Orlando Rourke with Alan John, The Betrothed, Mary Bryant and The Good Fight with David King, and Miracle City with Max Lambert.

Miracle City was produced last year by the Hayes Theatre Co, winning two Sydney Theatre Awards: Best Performance by a Female Actor in a musical for Blazey Best and Best Musical Direction for Lambert. A cast recording is on the way and Currency Press is publishing the show’s book.

The Nick Enright Songbook also includes two numbers from On the Wallaby – Enright’s play with music – one of which has music by Enright himself, and a cabaret song written with Lambert. Composer and academic Peter Wyllie Johnson edited the book and wrote the commemorative foreword.

Ian Enright introduced last night’s launch, recalling that his brother wrote 13 musicals and 250 songs.

Clarke, Lambert and Henrich were on hand to chat about their different ways of working with Enright and to play several of their songs, while performers including Jay James-Moody, Genevieve Lemon, Margi de Ferranti and Anthony Harkin among others sang a selection of them.

Lemon said that she had recently been to a school concert and hoped that school libraries will acquire or be given the book so that the school children are able to discover and sing some of his songs at such events.

The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir performed a beautifully arranged version of Sail Away from Mary Bryant, which was very moving, and Eddie Perfect, who was taught by Enright at WAAPA, sang a number he wrote (in 15 minutes between lectures) called Someone Like You as a tribute to Enright immediately after being told of his death.

The evening was a reminder of what an intelligent, skilled, sensitive and witty lyricist Enright was.

The foyer bar at the Eternity Playhouse is called Nick’s, named after Enright. The Enright Family is supporting Darlinghurst Theatre Company to stage three Enright plays over three years. The partnership began last year with a production of Daylight Saving and continues this year with Good Works.

Ian Enright said last night that he’d like to see one of Enright’s musicals being staged there. Let’s hope.

The Nick Enright Songbook (RRP $49.94) retails from all good bookstores and online at www.currency.com.au

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Daylight Saving

Eternity Playhouse, November 4

Rachel Gordon and Ian Stenlake. Photo: Helen White

Rachel Gordon and Ian Stenlake. Photo: Helen White

When Nick Enright wrote his 1989 rom-com Daylight Saving, it was a last-ditch effort. Had it not been a success, he had threatened to turn his back on playwriting.

But the play, which premiered at the Ensemble Theatre, was a big hit. Enright went on to a stellar career (cut sadly short when he died from melanoma in 2003) with writing credits including Cloudstreet, The Boy From Oz and the film Lorenzo’s Oil. He also wrote the book and lyrics for the musical Miracle City, currently enjoying a brilliant revival at the Hayes Theatre Co.

Darlinghurst Theatre Company is now staging Daylight Saving (with support form the Enright Family). It’s been lovingly directed by Adam Cook, who has chosen to keep it in its original 1980s time period, but the play itself feels rather dated and lightweight. The humour doesn’t zing in quite the same way that it did back in 1989 (the biggest laugh of the night is a sight gag: a huge, brick-like mobile phone) and its themes of loneliness in marriage, the passing of time and seizing the day don’t have quite the same traction – perhaps because we’ve heard them discussed so often.

Well constructed and elegantly written, the play is stylistically not dissimilar to Alan Ayckbourn or David Williamson. There are some deft, very funny one-liners that the cast deliver with consummate timing,  but the laughs are slow to build and rather sporadic.

Felicity (Rachel Gordon) is a successful restaurateur on Sydney’s northern beaches. She lives in a gorgeous house overlooking Pittwater and would seem to have it all. However, her husband Tom (Christopher Stollery), who manages a top-ranking but temperamental young tennis player Jason Strutt (Jacob Warner), devotes so much time to work that she is feeling increasingly lonely and under-valued.

This time, Tom has forgotten their wedding anniversary as he heads off overseas yet again. So when her old flame Joshua Makepeace (Ian Stenlake), to whom she lost her virginity in America as a student, appears out of the blue Felicity contemplates a romantic night. Somehow the fact that it’s the night that the clocks go back, gifting them an extra hour together, makes it seem even more special.

But plans for a candlelit lobster dinner go awry with a procession of visitors interrupting the evening.

Hugh O’Connor has designed a bright, gleaming set that captures the feel of a comfortable, advantageously positioned waterside home, beautifully lit by Gavan Swift, and his costumes have 80s elements without feeling like a parody.

Helen Dallimore, Ian Stenlake, Belinda Giblin, Rachel Gordon and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Helen White

Helen Dallimore, Ian Stenlake, Belinda Giblin, Rachel Gordon and Christopher Stollery. Photo: Helen White

Cook has gathered a strong cast, with the women in particularly fine form. As Felicity, Gordon gives a performance that feels effortlessly natural and real, her disappointment lying just beneath the surface. Belinda Giblin is absolutely on the money as Felicity’s well-meaning but interfering mother: a North Shore widow with fake tan who arrives like a whirlwind, dispensing advice, inedible cookies and deliciously dry witticisms, delivered to perfection.

Helen Dallimore is also extremely funny as Felicity’s rather boorish next-door neighbour Stephanie, whose boyfriend has given her up for Lent and who is so wrapped up in her own indignation she is oblivious to what’s going on around her.

Stenlake offers the kind of winning charm that Stollery’s grouchy Tom lacks, while Warner plays Jason’s bratishness to the hilt.

Cook has found as much humanity in it as he can, but at the end of the day it all feels rather slight: a play that hasn’t quite stood the test of time but one that is still gently amusing.

Daylight Saving runs at the Eternity Playhouse until November 30. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com or 02 8356 9987

Rachel Gordon interview

Rachel Gordon is about to star in Nick Enright’s 1989 rom-com Daylight Saving for Darlinghurst Theatre Company. She talks about the play and the many diverse credits in her bio.

Rachel Gordon. Photo: Helen White

Rachel Gordon. Photo: Helen White

Logie Award nominee Rachel Gordon has some pretty interesting things in her bio besides her many acting credits.

In 2007, she was personally trained by Al Gore and The Australian Conservation Foundation as a presenter for The Climate Change Project.

The following year she spent a month walking the Great Wall of China with various celebrities to raise money for Olivia Newton-John’s Cancer and Wellness Centre.

“Joan Rivers was on it. She turned up and said, ‘When you said the Great Wall I thought you said the Great Mall. What am I doing here?’ She was on the Great Wall of China walking along in her high heels. She was hilarious.

“I’m very lucky to have had a lot of incredible experiences like that,” says Gordon.

And don’t be surprised if Gordon one day adds “politician” to her c.v.

Her great grandfather was Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, while his wife, Dame Enid Lyons, was the first woman in the Australian parliament.

“That’s really cool for a feminist, isn’t it?” says Gordon.

“They died before I was born but I’d like to get into politics and I know my brother is very keen as well so it might be in the blood.

“I have a lot of things I would like to change. I really love that Ghandi quote: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ There’s no point sitting back and pointing the finger at politicians. I should probably get up and do something, so who knows?”

For the time being, however, Gordon continues to be in demand as an actor.

She is about to star in a production of Nick Enright’s 1989 hit rom-com Daylight Saving directed by Adam Cook for Darlinghurst Theatre Company with a cast including Helen Dallimore, Belinda Giblin and Ian Stenlake.

“Ian Stenlake and I actually went to NIDA together and lived together for a while – not as a couple but in a share house with lots of other students. We’ve never worked together professionally so that’s really nice,” she says.

Gordon is best known for her television work in shows such as The Moodys, Blue Heelers and Home and Away. She has just finished filming a new Channel Seven series called The Killing Field with Rebecca Gibney and Peter O’Brien in which she plays Gibney’s character’s sister.

She has also done plenty of theatre over the years.

“When I first came out of NIDA that’s all I did,” she says. “It took a long time to get much TV work and then that was what I did for a period of time. But over the last couple of years I’ve been doing quite a lot of theatre again and I absolutely adore it. There’s nothing like having an audience in the room with you.”

Enright (The Boy From Oz, Cloudstreet, Lorenzo’s Oil) wrote Daylight Saving for his close friend, actor Sandy Gore. At the time, he was dispirited by his lack of playwriting success and he considered the play a last ditch effort. Fortunately it proved to be a hit, leading to a stellar career. Sadly, he died in 2003 from melanoma, aged 52.

“It’s such an honour to play this role especially because Nick Enright was so dearly loved by pretty much everybody in the theatre community that met him,” says Gordon.

“But I was terrified when I actually got the role because Sandy is such a dear friend and I so want to do the play and her justice. So I called her and told her and she’s been very supportive.”

Gordon plays a successful Sydney restaurateur who contemplates having a fling with an old flame (Stenlake) while her husband is overseas on one of his many business trips. But their candle-lit dinner is constantly interrupted.

“There’s this beautiful feeling in the play, which I think Nick fostered in a lot of his work of really seizing the moment – as he did in his own life. He filled it with so much and affected so many people on so many levels through his generosity of spirit, his largesse, his intellect and his humour. He gave us these wonderful plays and he taught thousands of students.

“There is a real sense of urgency in the play. Felicity, my character, has one night to perhaps live out her dream of being with this ex-flame. We all have these moments in our lives where you think ‘what would have happened if I had taken a different turn?’

“It’s a very charming romantic comedy and I think it will make people laugh and feel happy and hold their dear ones close,” says Gordon.

Gordon’s own dear ones include her two children with actor Jon Sivewright, who she met on Home and Away.

“I’ve got a three-year old and a ten-month old. He’s with the babies at the moment being a very good father,” she says. “They probably feel like they’re on holiday getting everything they want!”

Daylight Saving runs at the Eternity Playhouse until November 30. Bookings: darlinghursttheatre.com or 8356 9987

A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 26

Constellations

Eternity Playhouse, August 12

Sam O'Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Written by British playwright Nick Payne when he was just 29, Constellations was rapturously received in the UK in 2012. In January, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in a Broadway production.

Grab the chance to see it here because it really is an ingeniously constructed, beautifully written two-hander – and this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production, directed by Anthony Skuse, more than does it justice.

Marianne (Emma Palmer) is a vivacious, voluble physicist interested in the “multiverse” theory. Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) is a laid-back beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue. She goes over to chat but he snubs her, saying he’s married. End of story. Or is it? The scene is then replayed again and again, each time with a slightly different outcome.

This pattern repeats throughout the play at different points in their relationship. But no matter how different possible outcomes we experience, they all end in imminent, untimely death.

Early on, Marianne says to Roland: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made, and never made, exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

Although Payne uses the idea of parallel universes for the play’s structure, he doesn’t actually explore the philosophical and scientific ideas around this in any depth. Instead, the play riffs on the idea of “what if?” and the way our lives could go in so many different directions depending on the little choices we make, the people we meet, when we meet them, and so on. Think Sliding Doors meets Groundhog Day (happening here and now in our world – or so it seemed to me).

Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s wonderfully spare set, which opens up the theatre to its bare, beautiful walls, Skuse directs with great precision but lightness of touch giving the piece room to breathe while putting the focus firmly on the human dimension.

Both actors are superb, bringing untold nuance to numerous variations of similar lines (which must make it devilish hard to learn), while creating totally consistent, convincing characters. The way the play loops back on itself also means they frequently have to turn on a dime emotionally, ending one phase in deepest melancholy before returning to perky cheeriness seconds later.

Palmer has the added challenge of portraying Marianne’s developing aphasia (which affects language), which she does in heartbreaking fashion. What’s more, they both nail the English accents – and from two different regions, no less. (Praise to the vocal and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley).

Sara Swersky’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s subtle sound also play their part in a beautifully modulated production.

The play runs a tight 80 minutes, which is the perfect length. Any longer and it could start to wear thin. Constellations may wear its scientific conceit very lightly but Skuse’s exquisite, moving production enthralls. Recommended.

Constellations runs at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until September 7. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 17

Every Second

Eternity Playhouse, July 1

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

Simon Corfield, Julia Ohannessian, Glenn Hezeldine, Georgina Symes. Photo: Louis Dillon-Savage

“How could there not be a baby? With all that love?”

So says Bill in Every Second, a new Australian play by Vanessa Bates about two couples struggling to conceive.

Bill (Glenn Hazeldine) and Jen (Georgina Symes) decide to try IVF and stay strong through the ordeal. Their younger friends Meg (Julia Ohannessian) and Tim (Simon Corfield) are finding their quest for a baby more stressful.

Meg opts for natural therapies but is becoming very anxious. Tim is heartily sick of vile-tasting herbal remedies and sex becoming a chore. (There are several candid representations of sex and fertility testing, just so you know.)

Bates’s writing is pared back, heightened and very funny at times. She creates believable characters but needs to explore their situation in greater emotional depth if we are to be moved by their plight. Desperately wanting a child and not being able to have one is emotionally devastating for many people and Bates goes some way to capturing that. But it would be interesting if she were to analyse why they want a child so desperately. Is it just the hormonal urge or something else?

Certain things in the script (a hit-and-run accident, a plea to a dead friend, an extramarital fling) feel unresolved and rather cursorily dealt with, while a sperm ballet (a nod, presumably, to the sperm scene in Woody Allen’s film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) sits oddly and isn’t that funny.

That said, Shannon Murphy directs a terrific, nifty, inventive production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company, with strong performances from all four actors. Andy McDonell’s abstract set – a spiral ramp around a womb-like core – works extremely well.

One in 33 Australian babies are conceived via IVF so Bates has tuned into a common experience. For the drama to resonant more broadly, she could usefully expand her story and deepen its emotional layers.

Every Second plays at the Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst until July 27. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 13

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

Falsettos

Eternity Playhouse, February 11

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall, Elise McCann and Margi de Ferranti. Photo: Helen White

William Finn’s Falsettos is an intelligent, witty, tender musical. However, the Darlinghurst Theatre Company production has so much stage business going on that it takes a fair amount of time before it finally hits its mark and draws you in emotionally.

With witty lyrics and a beautiful, eclectic score by Finn, who also co-wrote the book with James Lapine, the economical, sung-through show consists of two one-act musicals written a decade apart.

The first act, March of the Falsettos, which premiered in 1981, is set in New York in 1979 against the backdrop of gay liberation. The second act Falsettoland, which premiered in 1991, is set in 1981 when “something bad” – later identified as the deadly AIDS virus – was beginning to ravage the gay community. They were combined as Falsettos in 1992. Two decades on, the times may be different but Falsettos still feels relevant and moving.

It tells the story of Marvin (Tamlyn Henderson), a Jewish father who leaves his wife Trina (Katrina Retallick) and young son Jason (Anthony Garcia on opening night) for a gay man called Whizzer (Ben Hall). However, Marvin wants it all and tries to create a tight knit family with all of them living together. The tensions send Trina off to see Marvin’s shrink Mendel (Stephen Anderson) who she ends up marrying, further complicating the web of relationships.

The second act, in which Jason’s Bar Mitzvah looms, also introduces Marvin’s lesbian neighbours Dr Charlotte (Margi de Ferranti) and Cordelia (Elise McCann).

As Frank Rich so eloquently put it in his New York Times review, the show is not just about Marvin but “about all its people together, a warring modern family divided in sexuality but finally inseparable in love and death.”

As anticipated, the new Eternity Playhouse proves a lovely space for a small-scale musical. The 200-seat venue is intimate enough for the show to be performed without amplification – and therefore with just a piano. Gez Xavier Mansfield’s set has co-musical director Nigel Ubrihien sitting at a grand piano in an alcove built into the back wall of the set, which works a treat – as does Ubrihien’s sensitive accompaniment.

The rest of the set consists of large wooden, coffin-shaped boxes, which may have been chosen to help with the acoustics but make for some fairly clunky scene changing as the cast drags them around.

More problematic is the barrage of stage business from director Stephen Colyer. The first act in particular is so busy, tricksy and over-choreographed that it distracts from the songs and diminishes our emotional connection with the characters.

For the very funny opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, the actors appear in matching grey pants, white shirts and Groucho Marx-like false noses. Later there’s a blow-up doll, which feels tacky, particularly when Jason is handling it. Retallick wears a steel mesh basket on her head while singing “Trina’s Song”. Quite why she also lines up six kitchen sponges I’m not sure. (The reason for the cast carrying their scores for the opening number and briefly later when Whizzer is ill also eluded me).

For Trina’s big, show-stopping number “I’m Breaking Down” Retallick has to do a workout routine on an aerobic stepper. She still got a well-deserved, rousing response but, as in numerous other instances during the show, it felt that the choreography was competing with the song.

Even Jason’s poignant little musical interludes are accompanied by a distracting pattern of hand movements.

A moment of stillness towards the end of Act I comes as blessed relief. Marvin and Jason sit facing each other. Without moving, Henderson focuses on his son and sings the touching lullaby-like “Father to Son” and for the first time the emotion feels real.

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

Ben Hall, Margi de Ferranti, Elise McCann, Tamlyn Henderson, Isaac Shaw, Katrina Retallick, Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White

The second act is a big improvement despite masks with clown noses. Instead of the matching grey and white outfits, the characters appear in colourful costumes that help define their characters and the stage business isn’t so relentless – though why, oh why, in the middle of Marvin’s beautiful love ballad “What More Can I Say”, movingly sung by Henderson to a sleeping Whizzer, does Colyer have him take a pee?

Overall, however, the second act hits its moments. The ensemble number “The Baseball Game” in which the extended family goes to watch “Jewish boys who can’t play baseball play baseball” is very funny and snappily performed. The quartet “Unlikely Lovers” is also a poignant moment, impressively sung by Henderson, Hall, De Ferranti and McCann. And even though the ending of the musical is a little sentimental, Colyer shows more restraint here and allows the material to speak for itself with touching results.

The cast works extremely hard and all have their moment. Retallick captures Trina’s zesty vim and neuroses with an exuberant performance, her renowned comic chops as sure as ever. Henderson does a good job of conveying Marvin’s arc from self-absorption to a more mature appreciation of family and love, becoming ever more engaging as the show progresses, while Anderson brings a kooky warmth to the role of Mendel.

But on opening night it was 13-year old Garcia who all but stole the show, handling Jason’s conflicted emotions superbly well for his age, singing securely and exuding an effortless ease and sense of timing on stage.

There’s no doubting Colyer’s love for the show in which he has found “inspiration, encouragement and consolation” as he writes in the theatre program. Perhaps it’s because of his passion for it that he has tried to do too much with it at times.

Sydney hasn’t seen a professional staging of Falsettos since the wonderful Sydney Theatre Company version in 1994. (The New Theatre also staged a production in 2004, which I didn’t see). Musical theatre aficiandos will therefore be excited at the chance to see it now. It is a beautiful little show and despite my reservations about this production, there’s more than enough in it that’s enjoyable to make it well worth seeing.

Falsettos plays at the Eternity Playhouse until March 16 as part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Bookings: darlinghursttheatre.com