Caress/Ache

Griffin Theatre Company, SBW Stables Theatre, March 4

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Caress/Ache, a new play by Australian playwright Suzie Miller, was inspired initially by the 2005 execution of young Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore. Under Singaporean law, his mother was not allowed to hug him before his death.

The shocking inhumanity of such a ruling set Miller thinking about the importance and power of touch. The result is Caress/Ache, a play, which went through a long period of studio development at London’s National Theatre. In her program notes, Miller also acknowledges the dramaturgy of a number of highly regarded theatre professionals. And yet, after so much work, the play – which now has its premiere at Griffin Theatre Company – still lacks the emotional depth to rise above its all-too-obvious exploration of a chosen subject and truly resonate.

Miller interweaves a number of stories. There’s Mark (Ian Stenlake), a paediatric doctor who feels like a god when he is saving children’s lives. Even the sex with his wife Libby (Helen Christinson) is better after a successful operation. However, when he loses a young patient on the operating table, he can no longer bear to touch his wife or be touched.

Mark later turns to a phone sex line, speaking to Cate (Sabryna Te’o), a single mother who is working there to support her child, asking her to touch her face and arm and describe the sensation. Cate is new to the job, taught how to handle things (as it were) by her cheery, experienced colleague Belinda (Zoe Carides), who lends the fairly heavy piece a little levity.

Then there’s the furious Saskia who confronts her poet boyfriend Cameron (Gary Clementson), after discovering he has slept with her boss. We also meet Arezu (Te’o), a young Iranian woman whose parents fled to Australia to give her a better life, naming their daughter after the word for “hope”. But Arezu is frustrated that they won’t talk about Iran. When her uncle gives her a book of Farsi poetry, she starts to wear the hijab and decides to return to her homeland to discover who she really is.

Her story is less linked to the all-pervasive theme of touch, but at the airport she meets Saskia who is flying to London. In a brief encounter, Arezu ends up giving the unhappy Saskia a hug – a moment that feels utterly contrived. There’s another tenuous connection between Cate, Cameron and Saskia via an autistic child, which comes out of nowhere and really does feel as if Miller is straining things unnecessarily.

Finally, there’s Alice (Carides) who goes to Singapore to be with her son Peter (Clementson) who is about to be hanged there for drug trafficking only to find she isn’t allowed to touch or hold him. Mark is the Australian doctor/coroner who will be at Peter’s execution and complete the paperwork afterwards.

This particular story strand leads to the powerful closing scenes and the play’s undeniably moving final image. However, it was impossible to watch this without thinking of what is happening in Indonesia. On the very day of the play’s opening, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were transferred from Bali’s Kerobokan Prison to the island of Nusakambangan to await their execution for drug trafficking.

For some, the extraordinary timing heightened the emotion and lent the play an added power, with a number of audience members in tears at the end of the play. Others – myself included – found it extremely uncomfortable. Clearly, Miller could have had no idea when she was writing the play of how closely it would be reflecting newspaper headlines. Had the preceding scenes been dramatically stronger, it might not have mattered. As it was, I found those particular scenes uncomfortably close to emotional manipulation, giving the play a resonance it hadn’t earned.

Directed by Anthony Skuse, the Griffin production is staged on a stark white set designed by Sophie Fletcher, which begins as a hospital operating theatre and then allows for quick, simple changes for different locations.

As the start of the play, a quote is projected onto the theatre walls: “Human skin and tissues contain millions of sensory receptors. Without them, there would be no capacity for people to sense the touch of another.”

Various statements and statistics relating to touch are flashed up periodically throughout the play. In the end, they just get in the way, reinforcing the feeling of a lecture. And therein lies the problem with the play. It always seems to be illustrating its chosen topic, rather than organically exploring it. The characters exist only to fit the theme. They don’t feel real, lacking a convincing emotional life beyond what they represent here in relation to touch.

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

The dialogue between Saskia and Cameron feels particularly clichéd, causing some sniggers on opening night as he mutters about feeling disgusted with himself, while she can’t believe he could do this to her. (“Tell me it didn’t happen, Please just tell me you didn’t do this.”) The way she goes on and on, furiously demanding more and more graphic details about his infidelities makes her come across as a victim, wallowing in his betrayal, while he hangs his head in shame but perpetuates his lies.

The opening scene in which Mark rhapsodises about his feelings when he is operating uses a heightened, poetic language. He rolls along the top of the metal bench as in a piece of choreographed physical theatre, while music swells. But this style of performance is just as suddenly dropped, apart perhaps from a bath scene featuring Saskia and Cameron.

And why, when Mark’s marriage has obviously been a loving one, would he not at least try to explain to Libby why he now shrinks from her? Instead he silently turns his back. As for Nate Edmondson’s music, sung by the cast, it feels overblown and sits oddly stylistically.

Skuse has the actors play things at full bore. The five performers turn in strong performances, but the play resists their attempts to give it a convincing emotional life. Instead Caress/Ache speaks to us “about” a theme. What’s more, it doesn’t have anything particularly new to say in relation to it.

The fact that a mother can’t hold her son before he is executed is a truly terrible thought. You can see why it would capture Miller’s imagination. She has clearly done a huge amount of research into the subject of touch and all that it involves but she hasn’t found a way to synthesise this into a genuine drama.

Caress/Ache runs at the SBW Stables until April 11. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

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Masquerade

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 9

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O'Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O’Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Laid low with cancer as a child, Kate Mulvany fell in love with Kit Williams’ classic picture book Masquerade while in hospital. She has now adapted it for the stage, interweaving the moving story of a very sick child and his mother.

Co-produced by Griffin Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and playing as part of the Sydney Festival, Masquerade is a delightful family show that captures the style, tone and quirky magic of the quixotic book.

Masquerade tells a strange, fantastical, riddle-filled story. The Moon is full of longing for the Sun and so sends the bumbling Jack Hare to deliver him a message of love along with a golden, bejeweled, hare-shaped amulet. Given the laws of nature, Jack has just 12 hours to complete his mission between sunrise and sunset.

Along the way he meets all kinds of crazy characters from Tara Treetops and The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round to Sir Isaac Newton. But when he reaches the Sun Jack finds he has lost the amulet and forgotten the precise wording of the message.

Published in 1979, the book became a phenomenon not just for its story but for the wonderfully detailed paintings (also by Williams) that illustrated it. In each picture was hidden a hare. On top of that, the book contained clues to a real golden amulet that Williams had hidden somewhere in England (which was discovered in 1982).

Williams is now something of a recluse but Mulvany managed to make contact with him through his wife Eleyn (a jeweler) and visited them at their home in Gloucestershire. Touched by the story of her own connection to the book, Williams gave Mulvany permission to adapt it for the stage on two conditions: that she include her own story and that the production be a family play for anyone aged nine to 90.

Mulvany’s adaptation begins in a hospital where a single mother called Tessa (Helen Dallimore) starts reading the book to her son Joe (Jack Andrew at the opening performance, a role he shares with Louis Fontaine) to help cheer him after chemotherapy. As she reads, the story unfolds around Joe’s curtained hospital bed.

Mulvany adds a second act in which Tessa and Joe enter the world of the story and try to help Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe) find the amulet.

Directed by Lee Lewis and Sam Strong, the production features a vibrant, clever design by Anna Cordingley that references the look of the book while creating an aesthetic of its own.

Pip Brandon, Nathan O'Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

Pip Brandon, Nathan O’Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

A band of letters frames the stage (as it does the drawings in the book) and is used to spell out the answers to the riddles. Joe’s hospital bed sits centrestage on a revolve, with images projected onto the curtains when they are drawn. The bed is replaced by another structure for the second act.

Cordingley’s wonderful costumes are colourful and inventive, though the text cries out for a more dazzlingly gold suit for the Sun (Mikelangelo) than the rather subtly shiny one he wears.

Geoff Cobham’s lighting also brings colour and magic to the stage, though some performers occasionally got caught in half-light on opening night. The silvery light for the Moon (Kate Cheel) could be a little more luminously otherworldly, but there are lots of nice lighting effects.

The production also features original music and songs composed by Pip Branson and Mikelangelo and performed live by Balkan cabaret band Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, which work a treat.

Running two hours including interval, the first act unfolds a little slowly and could be tightened. Some people who didn’t know the book were also slightly bemused by some of the characters.

In Act Two, however, the play finds its rhythm. Mulvany has included lots of fun word play with jokes for adults and children. Jack’s lusting for carrots, in particular, caused much laughter from the young children near me.

The emotional dimension of the play also really kicks in after interval (though it has been building towards the end of the first act). Mulvany hasn’t shied away from darker themes of mortality, pain and grief (as well as the power of love) ­­– though the way she uses the explanation of death from The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round is movingly and gently applied.

Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nathan O’Keefe, Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

There are terrific performances across the board. O’Keefe is outstanding as Jack Hare, bringing oodles of endearing charm and sweet, goofy comedy to the pivotal role.

Dallimore and Andrew work beautifully together as the deeply worried but loving, stalwart Tessa and the terminally ill Joe, both giving authentic, moving performances that never tip into sentimentality.

Cheel is lovely as the ethereal Moon and ebullient Tara Treetops, while Zindzi Okenyo – who juggles the roles of a Fat Nurse, a dancing Fat Pig, the mean Penny Pockets, the yoga-practicing Dawn and a friendly fish – does a great job of creating very different, clearly delineated, quirky characters.

The musicians also take on roles with Mikelangelo as The Sun and The Practical Man, Branson as The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round and Sir Isaac Newton, and Guy Freer, Sam Martin and Phil Moriarty as a tone-deaf Barber’s Quartet reduced to a trio.

The production will doubtless be finessed as it develops but already Masquerade is a gently charming, moving show made with a lot of love.

Masquerade plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 17. Bookings: www.sydneyfestival.org.au/masquerade or 1300 856 876 or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 11

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography

SBW Stables Theatre, May 7

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography is a provocative title so it should be said right up front that this new play by Melbourne writer Declan Greene is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic.

There is some nudity, but it accompanies a fleeting glimpse of tenderness rather than anything raunchy, and some strong language. Essentially, however, the play is a dark, raw exposé of two desperately lonely people.

Greene has written a very ‘now’ play set in the Internet world where people around the world are connected like never before, while genuine human interaction seems more difficult than ever; a world where everything from groceries to porn are just a few clicks away.

It features two fairly unprepossessing, unfulfilled, middle-aged people. He (Steve Rodgers) works in IT and is unhappily married. She (Andrea Gibbs) is a nurse with two children and a crushing debt. Both are lonely and full of self-loathing. To fill the void he consumes Internet porn, she shops. They connect via an online dating site then meet at a bar.

Written with an incisive economy, most of the spiky dialogue is addressed directly to the audience as the characters confess their fears, dreams and dark secrets. Only now and again do they actually talk to each other. In a way this holds us a little at bay – which is partly the point – but gradually the actors draw us in.

Co-produced by Griffin and Perth Theatre Companies, Lee Lewis directs a stark production on a minimal set by Marg Horwell (pale mauve shagpile carpet on the floor and walls, and large white blinds), colourfully lit by Matthew Marshall, which captures the anonymity of cyberspace and the aridity of their lives, with a nod to the world of porn.

Lewis’s direction is as taut as the writing but she also leavens the bleakness with a surprising amount of humour.

Rodgers and Gibbs give unflinchingly brave performances as they mine their characters’ addictions, vulnerability and longing with devastating authenticity, bringing warmth where it might easily not exist.

Running a tight one hour, Eight Gigabytes is troubling, insightful and terribly sad.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography runs until June 4. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817. It then plays at The Street Theatre, Canberra, June 17 – 21, and Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA, July 1 – 12.

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….

Beached: review

Blake Davis and Kate Mulvany. Photo: Brett Boardman

Blake Davis and Kate Mulvany. Photo: Brett Boardman

Arty (Blake Davis) is a sweet but morbidly obese teenager who dreams of being an explorer or a handsome movie star. In reality, he is marooned like a beached whale at home with his bogan mother JoJo (Gia Carides) who keeps him well fed as a result of her own personal issues.

In order to pay for life-saving gastric surgery, they agree to go on a reality TV show called Shocking Fat Stories where Arty’s struggle to lose enough weight to be able to undergo the operation is charted over 235 days.

And so into their home comes a ruthless, parasitic TV producer (Arka Das) and a stitched-up Pathways to Work CentreLink officer called Louise (Kate Mulvany) whose idea of a bright future for Arty is an office job and a tax file number.

With obesity on the rise and reality TV dominating the ratings, Melissa Bubnic’s black comedy Beached is a timely piece but it doesn’t get to grips with the issues it raises in any serious, in-depth way.

Though the play won the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, it still needs work if it is to really hit home. As it is, the characters are one-dimensional and the plot superficial.

The script is full of gags (many of them cheap, some downright gross) but the satire isn’t sharp or clever enough to really shock so the play – particularly the reality TV aspect – comes across as a rather glib parody.

The co-dependent relationship between Arty and his mother could be fascinating but the reason given for JoJo’s compulsive feeding of her son is simplistic in the extreme.

Shannon Murphy directs an ambitious production for Griffin Theatre Company using cameras operated by the hard-working cast of four so that they are seen “live” and on screen.

Mulvany delivers a richly detailed and very funny performance as Louise: an uptight, daggy character whom she evokes with an array of nervous tics and lank hair. But it stretches believability that someone with so many insecurities and personal issues of their own would be employed in such a job – or that she would start a relationship with Arty.

Carides also gives a strong, layered performance as the loving but manipulative JoJo, doing all she can to make her real, while Davis exudes a lovely boyish innocence as Arty – though he is so sprightly and skinny it seems slightly odd for a character who supposedly tips the scales at 400 kg.

Of course, no-one is expecting naturalism here. Murphy and designer James Browne portray Arty as part of the brown, fleshy chair on which he sprawls, inserting Davis into it. It’s a nice idea but doesn’t look terribly effective in practice.

As for the TV producer, he is so crudely and predictably drawn that Das has little to work with but he brings a hard-edged energy to the role.

And so, despite the best efforts of the cast, Beached feels just that. Bubnic certainly raises some interesting, hefty (excuse the pun) ideas and the acting is enjoyable – particularly from Mulvany and Carides – but ultimately Beached feels lightweight.

Beached runs at the SBW Stables Theatre until August 31.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 4.

Gia Carides: interview

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

It’s been over a decade since Gia Carides last performed in a full-length play.

But the actor who is best known for her roles in the films Strictly Ballroom, My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, is about to make her return to the stage in Beached by Melissa Bubnic for Griffin Theatre Company.

“I did a play in Tribeca, New York (called) Rocket to the Moon just before I had my daughter and she’s ten now so it will be 11 years since I did a full play,” says Carides who lives in Los Angeles with her actor husband Anthony LaPaglia and their daughter Bridget.

“When she was small, the idea of doing theatre and missing bedtime every night wasn’t right but it feels fine now; she’s independent enough.”

In the interim, as well as appearing on television, Carides has done a lot of radio plays in LA and a few months ago performed there in a short play as part of an evening of comedy shorts.

“It was amazing to be on stage again,” she says. “But this is a full play and I’m very excited that it’s Griffin. I did my first play there when I was 14; a play called Dancing Partners. The next time I worked at the Stables was to originate the role of (the teacher) Papa in The Heartbreak Kid. Then I did a production of Michael Gow’s The Kid.

“So I did a bunch of work there in the late 80s and very early 90s, so it’s a lovely to be back.”

Beached, which won the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, centres on a massively obese teenager called Arthur, who tips the scales at over 400 kilograms. Requiring a life-saving gastric bypass, he and his mother agree to go on a reality TV show in return for the all-expenses-paid surgery.

Carides plays his protective mother. “My character is kind of enabling this unhealthy life her son has been living. She is certainly not doing this on purpose. She loves her son very much but she is not realising what damage she is doing,” she says.

“The play is definitely about (obesity) but it’s also about reality TV. The family are victims of a reality TV show as much as Arthur is a victim of his obesity.”

The cast also includes Blake Davis as Arthur, Arka Das as the television producer and Kate Mulvany as a CentreLink ‘Pathways to Work’ Officer.

“They are really incredible actors and Shannon Murphy (the director) is a force – she’s so strong and so clever and so smart – and it’s just fantastic to be working with a young, female director. So I love the fact that I’m back with all these ‘youngsters’ who are all so talented,” says Carides smiling.

“It’s a black comedy but definitely has very moving moments as we get inside the heads of all four characters.”

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

Gia Carides in rehearsals for Beached

As for how they will portray Arthur’s obesity, Murphy wants the company to keep that secret – and hopes that reviewers will refrain from giving it away so that it is a surprise for audiences. However, she doesn’t mind revealing that they are using cameras.

“I don’t want to spoil anything but are we are working with film so it’s very ambitious,” says Carides. “We are operating cameras, we are acting live within the scene and acting for the camera so there is a lot going on.”

Approached about the play by an email from Murphy, Carides says she loved the play as soon as she read it and was keen to work with Murphy, who she knows, describing her as “an extraordinary young director, definitely one to watch”.

As luck would have it the season coincided with Bridget’s school summer holidays.

“I grew up here so coming back to Australia for any work is always a really appealing idea,” she says.

Last time she was back she appeared in the 2011 TV drama series Small Time Gangster and in 2008 spent time in Byron Bay working on East of Everything.

“My daughter wasn’t in proper school yet at that point so it suited us as a family,” she says.

“Sometimes my husband will have work that fits into that time frame too so we’ll come out as a family and he’ll do that work. So we really just take it case by case (depending on) whoever gets offered what/when and we just try to work it out.”

Beached plays at the SBW Stables Theatre, July 19 – August 31. Bookings: 9361 8817 or griffintheatre.com.au

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 7

The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars: review

Griffin Theatre Company, Hothouse Theatre and Merrigong Theatre Company, Stables Theatre, May 8

In her new play The Bull, the Moon and the Coronet of Stars, Australian playwright Van Badham takes a contemporary love story and gives it a mythic dimension by entwining it with the Greek legend of Ariadne and Theseus.

It’s worth knowing the basics of Ariadne’s tale. (Briefly, she helps Theseus defeat the Minotaur, they elope, he deserts her and she marries the god Dionysus.)

Here, Marion (Silvia Colloca) is an artist-in-residence at a museum where she falls for the married publications officer Michael (Matt Zeremes). After a night of passion in the museum he dumps her. Heartbroken, she flees and, while teaching art classes to a group of raunchy septuagenarians, meets Mark (also Zeremes), a sommelier with an eye for the ladies.

Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca  Photo: Brett Boardman

Matt Zeremes and Silvia Colloca Photo: Brett Boardman

On one level it’s a small, intimate play: a two-hander running 80 minutes. But Badham’s lush, poetic language and mythical references tap into the epic, overwhelming emotions we feel when in the grip of love or heartbreak.

Simply staged on Anna Tregloan’s set, which uses rectangular wooden frames in various formations for different scenes, the focus is very much on the words.

The text slips between third person narration, interior thoughts and dreams, and dialogue, which occasionally overlaps. Written with an innate musicality, it needs to be precisely performed – as it is by Colloca and Zeremes, who give lovely performances under Lee Lewis’s direction.

It’s a passionate play but for some reason it doesn’t really connect emotionally. It’s perhaps the size of the venue. As the two actors tune into the mythical aspect their performances sometimes seem too large for the tiny venue so rather than being drawn into their emotional world, it feels like the play is coming at us.

Also, because there’s more dramatised narrative than dialogue, we are told rather than shown things so that at times it feels almost like a short story rather than a fully-fledged drama and the characters don’t emerge in quite the emotional depth that they might.

But it’s still an ambitious, potent piece of writing that is sexy and funny with a beautiful, romantic ending.

Stables Theatre until June 8, Hothouse Theatre, Albury-Wodonga, June 13 – 22.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 12