Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

The Concourse, Chatswood, February 27

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS -18 Photo by Clare Hawley

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Clare Hawley

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks was a big hit for the Ensemble Theatre in 2006, winning a 2007 Helpmann Award for Best Regional Touring Production when they took it on the road.

The production was blessed to have Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney co-starring in the bittersweet two-hander. A decade on, the Ensemble is doubly blessed that Hayes and McKenney have reunited with director Sandra Bates for the current revival. It’s perfect casting and even more touching than last time around.

The 2001 comedy by American playwright Richard Alfieri has a classic odd-couple premise. Set in a light, bright, well-appointed Florida condominium, wealthy retiree Lily Harrison, the lonely, prim widow of a Baptist minister, has hired a dance instructor to polish her ballroom dancing.

Enter Michael Minetti, an acerbic, middle-aged, gay, former Broadway chorus boy with plenty of attitude and a bad case of foot-in-mouth.

Things don’t get off to a good start. Both initially have their guard up and are less than honest with each other. Early antagonisms threaten to detonate their lessons before they begin. But gradually they foxtrot, cha-cha, tango and waltz their way to a blossoming friendship, realising that they have far more in common than they could ever have imagined.

Six Dance Lessons is well-written with lots of zingy one-liners but it’s also fairly predictable and sentimental and could easily become schmaltzy if allowed to.

However, under Bates’ direction, Hayes and McKenney play against the sentimentality and create tough, flawed, warmly believable characters. They have a lovely rapport and both are able to play the cut-and-thrust of the comedy superbly while convincingly suggesting the emotional scars both characters carry within.

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS -41 Photo by Clare Hawley

Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney. Photo: Clare Hawley

Both Hayes and McKenney are very experienced dancers, of course, so the dancing (choreographed by John O’Connell) is effortless and full of charm. The fact that they are ten years older this time actually suits the roles and lends the play an added poignancy.

Designer Graham Maclean’s gleaming set and attractive costuming makes for a vibrant looking production that complements the feisty comedy.

Gently touching on homophobia, loneliness and ageism, Six Dance Lessons wears its heart on its sleeve but Hayes and McKenney do the play proud, bringing enough nuance to their roles to make the lightweight comedy a moving plea for understanding and acceptance.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is at The Concourse, Chatswood until March 13. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au

 This review ran in the Daily Telegraph Arts online on February 29

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Noel and Gertie review

Glen Street Theatre May 22

Noel and Gertie is a delicious, frothy confection of a show that has the sparkle of fine bubbly and a similarly intoxicating effect.

It was devised in 1982 by Sheridan Morley who used the words and music of Noel Coward to tell the story of Coward’s legendary, tempestuous friendship with actor Gertrude Lawrence – his sometime muse for whom he wrote Private Lives.

The show doesn’t break any ground dramatically. Morley tells their story chronologically using a montage of songs and extracts from Coward’s plays, diaries and letters. But when performed as well as it is here by James Millar and Lucy Maunder, it’s a delight.

 

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

The production, deftly directed by Nancye Hayes, has an elegant simplicity. Graham Maclean has designed a simple, Art Deco-inspired set and a gorgeous, slinky, white satin, Molyneux-like gown for Maunder, while Millar wears black tie.

Millar is cut out to play Coward. He looks the part and tosses off Coward’s witticisms effortlessly in a precise, clipped, English accent as if born to it, bringing the house down with his rendition of Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington.

Maunder also gives a lovely performance. Like Millar she is attuned to the sophistication and rhythms of Coward’s writing and sings more beautifully than Lawrence in numbers including Sail Away and Parisian Pierrot.

Together, they have a scintillating chemistry and capture the mischievous, bantering relationship between the two stars.

 

Lucy Maunder and James Millar.  Photo by Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar. Photo by Nicholas Higgins

It’s not easy to perform Coward – and even harder when you’re performing extracts out of context. But the scenes from plays including Private Lives and Blithe Spirit work a treat, while the one from Still Life (which became the film Brief Encounter) is touching. There is still a little more emotional depth and nuance to be found but this will doubtless develop as the show settles in.

Musical director Vincent Colagiuri provides sensitive accompaniment on a grand piano sitting unobtrusively at the back of the stage.

Morley tells us almost nothing about Coward’s private life. There is one passing reference to Graham Payn performing in Tonight at 8.30pm but no mention of the fact that he was Coward’s partner for 30 years. Nor does Morley include the more colourful incidents from Lawrence’s. Watching it you feel you’d like to know more about them.

Nonetheless, in the hands of Millar and Maunder, Noel and Gertie is a stylish, delightful entertainment.

Noel and Gertie plays at Glen Street Theatre until June I then tours nationally to the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5 – 8; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11 – 15; Frankston Arts Centre, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21 – 22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26 – 29; The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, July 2 – 7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, July 12 – 13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16 – 18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; Adelaide Festival Centre, July 23 – 27.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 16.