Blue/Orange

Ensemble Theatre, October 29

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Written by British playwright Joe Penhall (who grew up in Australia), Blue/Orange is a fierce comedy bursting with conflicting ideas about mental illness, its diagnosis and its treatment. Premiered by London’s National Theatre in 2000, it is given three exemplary performances in this impressive Ensemble Theatre production.

Christopher (Dorian Nkono), a young black Londoner, is 24 hours away from being released from a psychiatric hospital. The police sectioned him after an “incident” at a market but legally he can only be held for 28 days and he can’t wait to get out. In fact, he is climbing the walls – even without the coffee and coke he craves.

Christopher has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder but Bruce (Ian Meadows), a young trainee psychiatrist who has been treating him, suspects that he is actually a paranoid schizophrenic and wants to keep him at the hospital to do more tests.

He asks his mentor Robert (Sean Taylor), a senior doctor, to sit in on one of their sessions. But instead of supporting Bruce, Robert is dismissive. He is writing a book about “black psychosis” in which he argues that ethnic and cultural factors play more of a role in mental illness that is recognised and argues that growing up black and poor in Britain could go a long way to explaining Christopher’s problem. Besides, he needs the bed for other patients.

Soon the two doctors are at loggerheads. Robert insists Christopher be allowed to go home – even though it becomes clear that he has no home or family to go to. Bruce fights tooth and nail to change Robert’s mind, fearful that Christopher is a danger to himself and others.

As for Christopher, he thinks his father is Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and that the oranges in the room are blue.

Blue/Orange is passionately written. The arguments swing back and forth and Penhall keeps us wondering about the true state of Christopher’s mental health. At times though it feels overwritten, with dialogue turning into big, weighty speeches that feel imposed on the drama.

A couple of the twists don’t ring totally true and it’s hard to believe that the two doctors would argue so vehemently about Christopher in front of him, as they do at times. Robert also feels a tad too overtly Machiavellian. But then the play is also very much about power and ego, with the two doctors shown to be more interested in their own careers than Christopher.

Running two hours and twenty minutes (including interval) Blue/Orange would be sharpened by an edit. But the writing is so robust, and laced with so much humour, that it keeps you thoroughly engaged – especially when performed as well as it is here.

Anna Crawford directs a brisk, well-paced production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that contrasts a bland room with a large sculptural backdrop at the heart of which is a round void (somewhat reminiscent of an Anish Kapoor void) onto which coloured light is projected (a visual metaphor for Christopher’s confused perceptions).

Taylor is perfectly cast as Robert, capturing his patrician, easy swagger and enunciating each word with crisp precision in his seductively rumbling voice. But his charm becomes almost sinister as he is revealed to be patronising, bitter and manipulative.

Meadows is equally persuasive as the decent, passionate but inexperienced Bruce who speaks his mind with injudicious frankness, and Nkono is wonderful as Christopher, hyper-active one minute, forlorn and touchingly vulnerable the next. Remaining somewhat enigmatic throughout, Nkono’s Christopher certainly defies easy diagnosis, showing how hard it can be to recognise and treat mental illness – particularly when there are other agendas at play.

It’s a fascinating play that would probably be even stronger with an edit but nonetheless it still packs a considerable punch.

Blue/Orange is at the Ensemble Theatre until November 29. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644

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Other Desert Cities

Ensemble Theatre, September 13

Deborah Kennedy, Ken Shorter and Lisa Gormley.   Photo: Clare Hawley

Deborah Kennedy, Ken Shorter and Lisa Gormley. Photo: Clare Hawley

A Wyeth family reunion may not be quite as ferociously venomous as the Westons’ gathering in Tracy Letts’ blisteringly funny August: Osage County, but it ain’t far behind.

Other Desert Cities by American playwright Jon Robin Baitz – which was nominated for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play – pitches five members of the Wyeth family into a reunion from hell.

It’s Christmas Eve, 2004 in the Palm Springs home of proud Republican couple Lyman Wyeth (Ken Shorter) and his wife Polly (Deborah Kennedy). Lyman is a former Hollywood actor, known for his dramatic death scenes, who became a US ambassador. Polly used to be a Hollywood scriptwriter with her alcoholic sister Silda Grauman (Diana McLean), who is now living with them and trying Polly’s patience.

The Wyeth’s two left-leaning children Brook (Lisa Gormley) and Trip (Stephen Multari) arrive for the holidays. Trip is a reality television producer and fairly easy come, easy go. But the passionate Brook, who has struggled back from severe depression, comes bearing an explosive gift: the manuscript of a memoir in which she addresses the story of her brother Henry, a political activist who killed himself after being involved with a failed bombing.

The incident has already driven Lyman and Polly into their desert exile and Brook’s book is the last thing they want published.

Baitz’s vividly drawn characters are all fiercely articulate, and political and personal arguments fly but the play is so well written we never feel we are watching a staged debate.

Directing the play for the Ensemble Theatre, Mark Kilmurry helms a fine production that keeps you enthralled, wondering what on earth will come tumbling out of the closet, as the ground keeps shifting.

Kilmurry is well served by his cast. Kennedy is in her element as the redoubtable Polly who stands her ground no matter what, delivering the razor-sharp, witheringly witty lines with killer timing. Gormley captures Brook’s fragility and desperate need to hold onto her newly found sense of balance through the publication of her book, while McLean gradually reveals more layers to the wisecracking Silda. Shorter and Multari complete the taut ensemble with persuasive performances.

Ailsa Paterson’s set seems just a little too tastelessly ugly for such high-fliers though it works well on a practical level.

Other Desert Cities is a fairly conventional play, using a well-worn conceit, but it’s extremely well written and so well performed that it makes for a sizzling piece of theatre.

Other Desert Cities runs at the Ensemble Theatre until October 18. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644

Cruise Control

Ensemble Theatre, April 30

Clockwise from back left, Helen Dallimore, Henri Szeps, Kate Fitzpatrick, Felix Williamson, Michelle Doake and Peter Phelps. Photo: Clare Hawley

Clockwise from back left, Helen Dallimore, Henri Szeps, Kate Fitzpatrick, Felix Williamson, Michelle Doake and Peter Phelps. Photo: Clare Hawley

Inspired by a transatlantic cruise that he and his wife took, David Williamson’s latest comedy Cruise Control features three incompatible couples, each hoping to resolve their relationship issues on a luxury cruise, who find themselves having to share a dinner table every night.

There’s Richard (Felix Williamson), a failed British novelist who is arrogant, abusive and a compulsive womaniser, and his long-suffering wife Fiona (Michelle Doake), a successful publisher.

Joining them are elderly New York Jewish periodontist Sol (Henri Szeps) and his bored wife Silky (Kate Fitzpatrick) who spends his money freely while constantly undermining him, along with Australians Darren (Peter Phelps), a Bra Boy who manufactures surf wear, and his gorgeous wife Imogen (Helen Dallimore) who was “cut and polished” at Ascham.

Looking after them is Filipino waiter Charlie (Kenneth Moraleda), who is just happy to be providing for his much-loved family.

The first act is an entertaining comedy of manners as Williamson establishes the characters and the spiky dynamics between them. But in the second act some of the steam goes out of the play with a few fairly unconvincing plot turns and a lack of any real tension as things begin to feel predictable.

The final tying up of the light-weight plot is somewhat contrived and spelling out what happens to Richard at the end feels unnecessarily tacked on.

Williamson directs the play himself and keeps the action moving fluidly on Marissa Dale-John’s cleverly compact set, which certainly captures the world of a cruise ship. In the naturalistic setting, it’s odd though (and distracting) to see the actors “pouring” pretend wine into cheap plastic glasses.

The play is well performed by the strong cast. Felix Williamson gives a darkly entertaining performance as the irredeemably unlikeable Richard, Phelps brings just the right swagger to the tough, tattooed Darren, Dallimore shines as the voluptuous Imogen who is frustrated by her husband’s lack of attention, Doake is also very good as the put-upon, kindly Fiona, Fitzpatrick nails many of the biggest laughs as the elegant, bored Silky, Szeps is touching as Sol (though he was a little hesitant with some of his lines on opening night), and Moraleda injects some welcome heart as Charlie.

Though Cruise Control isn’t as gripping as it clearly aims to be, and peters out towards the end, there are some very funny lines, some astute observations and some poignant moments.

Cruise Control runs at the Ensemble Theatre until June 14. All performances are sold out so three new performances have been added at The Concourse, Chatswood on June 24 & 25. Bookings: http://www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644 or http://www.ticketek.com.au or 1300 795 012

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 4

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

Neighbourhood Watch

Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, December 18

Brian Meegan and Fiona Press. Photo: Natalie Boog

Brian Meegan and Fiona Press. Photo: Natalie Boog

Written in 2011, Neighbourhood Watch is Alan Ayckbourn’s 75th play – and we thought David Williamson was prolific. It may not be vintage Ayckbourn but it’s an entertaining, darkly funny satire.

Tuning into the perennial fear of the unknown or “other”, as well as concerns about the changing face of Britain and the breakdown of society, Ayckbourn proved to have his finger on the pulse: the London Riots happened shortly after the play’s Scarborough premiere.

Devout Christian siblings Martin (Brian Meegan) and Hilda (Fiona Press), both unmarried, move into a nice, middle-class suburb, bringing a garden gnome called Monty and a statue of Jesus with them. They’ve only just arrived when Martin spots a teenager clambering over the next-door fence. Taking the boy to be an intruder and warned by neighbours about the “drugs, violence and incest” in the nearby, run-down council estate, he decides to form a neighbourhood watch committee.

Joining Martin and Hilda, are local gossip Dorothy (Gillian Axtell), ex-security guard Rod (Bill Young), Gareth (Jamie Oxenbould), a whining engineer with a mania for medieval punishment devices, Gareth’s promiscuous wife Amy (Olivia Pigeot) and Magda (Lizzie Mitchell), a troubled music teacher who lives next door with her aggressive husband Luther (Douglas Hansell).

Before long, the do-gooders have become every bit as frightening as the “riff raff and vermin” they are supposedly protecting themselves from, instituting a gated community with ID cards, volunteer vigilantes and a set of stocks on the roundabout into town.

The characters never feel entirely real but under the direction of Anna Crawford the excellent cast give sterling performances, doing their utmost to bring them to vibrant life.

Press is disturbingly good as Hilda, proving every bit as pushy as she is pious, while Meegan’s Brian merges decency and tyranny with self-satisfied ease. Oxenbould meanwhile is very funny as the wimpy Gareth, whinging about his wife’s behaviour one minute and pontificating over the difference between stocks and pillories the next.

The second act in which Ayckbourn focuses on the characters’ personal issues isn’t as sharp as the first and peters out a bit, but Crawford’s well-paced production keeps us engaged.

Neighbourhood Watch is a morality tale that underlines the potential danger of religious fervour and any form of dictatorship no matter how seemingly benign. We know we are being fed a message by Ayckbourn but it’s done with plenty of humour and enough of a sting in the tail to make us ponder.

Neighbourhood Watch runs at the Ensemble Theatre until January 24. Bookings: ensemble.com.au or (02) 9929 8877

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on December 29

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….

The Removalists; Happiness reviews

There are two David Williamson plays running in Sydney at the moment – The Removalists from early in his career and a new play, Happiness, which has just premiered at the Ensemble Theatre.

They make a study in contrasts. The Removalists is a reminder of what a tough, terrific playwright Williamson has been in his time and why this particular play is considered a classic of Australian theatre. In recent years, however, his plays have become somewhat formulaic: pick a topical subject, find the characters to debate it on stage, and stir in some laughs. Happiness is all this – and one of Williamson’s least convincing plays.

The Removalists

Bondi Pavilion, May 29

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Written in 1971, The Removalists launched David Williamson’s career, sending a shock of recognition through audiences with its stark, savage portrayal of the ugly side of Australian culture: the open, rampant sexism, in particular.

Forty-two years on, Leland Kean’s terrific production for Rock Surfers Theatre Company still packs a real punch. Blatant sexism certainly isn’t as rife in public life as it was back then, but it ain’t disappeared.

Meanwhile, the themes of police corruption and brutality, abuse of authority, and domestic violence feel just as relevant.

On his first day in the police force, rookie Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan) finds himself under the command of Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy), a lazy, manipulative, sexist bully who prides himself on having never made an arrest in 23 years despite the high crime-rate in his area.

When the confident, well-heeled Kate (Caroline Brazier) and her quieter sister Fiona (Sophie Hensser) report that Fiona’s husband Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta) has been beating her up, the lecherous Simmonds decides they will help her move out while Kenny is at his usual Friday night drinking session. But Kenny returns home early.

Kean has wisely decided to keep the play in its original period, using blasts of 70s Oz rock and Ally Mansell’s drab, dung-coloured set with cheap furniture to create the perfect setting.

With excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Sam Atwell in the comic role of the removalist, Kean’s production feels tough, raw and very real.

Coy’s Simmonds is a man both odious and deeply ordinary. A school group attending the performance I saw remained attentive throughout, while the boys, in particular, seemed shocked by his behaviour, wincing visibly at his sexist remarks and sleazy bottom-patting.

O’Sullivan captures Ross’s naivety and nails the moment he suddenly snaps, Stewart Cotta is a convincingly brutish Kenny yet manages to make us feel something like sympathy when the tables are turned on him, while Brazier and Hensser deliver beautifully detailed, in-depth performances.

Kean’s production strikes just the right balance between humour, menace and violence as it builds tension. We laugh but we also cringe and shudder at a classic Australian play that still rings horribly true.

Bondi Pavilion until June 16.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 2.

Happiness

Ensemble Theatre, May 17

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

In Happiness, David Williamson takes on an interesting, pertinent question: why are Australians seemingly so dissatisfied and unhappy when we have never had it so good? However, the play barely scratches the surface of the idea.

It begins with a lecture by Roland Makepeace (Mark Lee), a professor of psychology who specialises in happiness – or “human wellbeing” as he prefers to put it – which sets up Williamson’s theme.

However, Roland’s own life isn’t exactly overflowing with wellbeing. His hard-drinking wife Hanna (Anne Tenney) is bitter and forever snapping at him, while his daughter Zelda (Erica Lovell) claims to feel suicidal on occasions.

When Roland tries to help Zelda with advice to go out and forgive someone, apologise to someone and do an anonymous good deed, there are all kinds of unintended consequences.

Rounding out the cast are Peter Kowitz as a rich, former lover of Hanna’s, Glenn Hazeldine as the editor of a right-wing newspaper where Zelda is an environmental reporter, and Adriano Cappelletta as two of Zelda’s love interests.

It’s all pretty unconvincing, while Williamson’s trademark ability to deliver cracking one-liners has also deserted him. Some of the audience laughed along now and then but I hardly cracked a smile.

Sandra Bates directs a pedestrian production in which the actors, by and large, do what they can. Hazeldine, Kowitz and Lee deliver the most believable characters, though they are all pretty sketchily written and we don’t particularly care about any of them. It feels very under-developed with more work needed on both the script and the production.

That said, as I left the theatre an elderly gent in front of me, who had clearly enjoyed it said, “Good old Williamson”. What’s more, the production is apparently almost sold out – which goes to show how many fans Williamson still has. It’s just a shame he hasn’t given them something better.

Ensemble Theatre until July 6. Noosa Long Weekend Festival, June 18 & 19.