Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

2S4A3322-2

Heather Mitchell and Josh McConville. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever when he was just 24 but already a star in the making. A comedy of gleefully bad manners, it was a huge hit when it premiered in 1925 despite lukewarm reviews and is still much performed.

Coward’s plays are deceptively difficult to do well. If the actors only give us superficial flamboyance and witticisms, the humour can all too easily fall flat. But Imara Savage has directed a fabulously funny production for Sydney Theatre Company that has a fresh edge and contemporary energy while still retaining a feel of the period.

The play is set in the household of the eccentric Bliss family. Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell) is retired actress, determined to keep performing even if she no longer has a stage. Her husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a novelist and their grown-up children Sorrel (Harriet Dyer) and Simon (Tom Conroy) still live at home, without appearing to work.

All four invite a guest for the weekend without telling each other, thrusting them into a maelstrom of games and idiosyncratic carry-on that leaves their visitors reeling.

Essentially a lightweight comedy, Hay Fever offers the audience a vicarious thrill in experiencing life with such wayward “artistic” types. But it also celebrates bohemian freedom and vitality, and contrasts that with the rather stuffy, conservative mores of “ordinary” people and their concerns about sex and class.

Alicia Clements’ wonderful design isn’t period specific but subtly combines elements from the 1920s with later decades, setting the action in an attractively ramshackle conservatory full of greenery and eccentric touches like a bathtub for a sofa. Only the inclusion of wheelie suitcases and the decision to have Judith lip synch to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black when she offers to sing at the piano sit a little oddly.

Clements’ costumes are also terrific with all the Blisses in a permanent state of semi-undress or dressing gowns and the outfits of the other characters speaking reams about their personalities from the anxious Jackie’s girly cotton frocks and Alice band to the vampy Myra’s stylish couture.

2S4A3666

Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Harriet Dyer and Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Savage’s excellent cast combines wit with truth. Towards the end of the play, some of the performing becomes broadly comic and more farcical but overall the characters all feel very real.

Mitchell is sensational as Judith, a whirling dervish at the heart of the play. Her comic timing is immaculate and she is gloriously funny as she tears up the stage. Llewellyn-Jones is distinguished yet grouchy as the rather self-absorbed David. Dyer plays Sorrel with a contemporary edge as a young woman testing who she is, while Conroy’s Simon affects a nonchalant flamboyance.

Helen Thomson as the chic, sardonic Myra, Alan Dukes as the proper “diplomatist” Richard, Josh McConville as the rather gung-ho sportsman Sandy, and Briallen Clarke as the mousey, nervous Jackie are the perfect foil as the beleaguered guests. Genevieve Lemon is also very funny in a broadly comic portrayal of the exasperated housekeeper.

The Bliss family can become rather unlikeable in productions but Savage avoids that, ensuring that their love for each other comes across as strongly as their hilariously appalling behaviour.

Hay Fever plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

Advertisements

2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Strictly Ballroom the Musical

Lyric Theatre, April 12

Cristina D'Agostino and Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: Jeff Busby

Cristina D’Agostino and Ryan Gonzalez. Photo: Jeff Busby

There’s a dazzling image at the start of Strictly Ballroom the Musical of the dancers standing silhouetted in a line across the back of the stage. As they start to move forwards, the lights come up on them in their sensational, sparkling costumes and the heart races.

You can feel a shiver of excitement in the audience and the collective hope that Baz Luhrmann has managed to turn his beloved, uplifting 1992 film about daring to be true to yourself into an equally successful musical.

Luhrmann does deliver an enjoyable show but, frustratingly, Strictly Ballroom never truly soars.

The buzz begins as soon as the audience spots the shiny, coloured covers on the theatre seats inside the auditorium. It’s a measure of their willingness, indeed eagerness to embrace the musical that they enter with such gusto into the pre-show audience participation routine, led by DJ JJ Silvers (Mark Owen-Taylor), which has them barracking for dance couples wearing costumes to match the coloured section in which they are sitting.

From there, the story of rebellious dancer Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey) and wallflower beginner Fran (Phoebe Panaretos), who blossoms as his partner, has been translated to the stage in straightforward fashion without being re-imagined afresh.

Most problematically, the score is a real mish-mash. Granted, the key songs from the film (“Time After Time”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and “Love Is In The Air”) need to be there; the audience would be disappointed if they weren’t.

But around those, Luhrmann and his team have added some largely unmemorable new numbers (some with a pop feel, one influenced by Les Mis) and put lyrics to Strauss’s Blue Danube and the “Habanera” from Bizet’s Carmen, which comes across as a cheap move.

With the exception of Eddie Perfect’s rousing, Russian-inflected “Dance to Win” for Barry Fife (Robert Grubb) the songs rarely deepen character, heighten emotion or advance the plot as they do in a good musical, while the lyrics are at best ordinary.

“Time After Time”, which Scott and Fran sing under the Coca-Cola sign, comes closest to transporting us – again you start to feel your heart race, your spine tingle – but Luhrmann interrupts it with cuts to Scott’s father Doug (Drew Forsythe) in the studio below and the mood is broken.

Several important choreographic moments also fail to take flight. Scott’s first big solo dance, when he expresses his frustration and desire to dance his own steps, hardly dazzles with unorthodox choreography. What’s more, cast members wheel four large mirrors around him. You expect there to be a thrilling interplay of reflections, but no. For the most part, they just block your view.

Scott and Fran’s climactic dance also falls a bit flat. It’s the exciting paso doble led by Fran’s father (Fernando Mira) that emerges as the dance highlight. In a way, that’s as it should be for it’s here that Scott encounters genuinely passionate dancing from the heart, but it shouldn’t eclipse Scott and Fran’s final, defiant routine.

Catherine Martin’s glittering costumes are stunning though, a real triumph. Everything that could possibly glitter does from gorgeous dresses with layers of floating tulle to itsy-bitsy sequined numbers to sparkly jumpsuits for the boys.

Martin’s sets also work well. Various sections are wheeled around by the cast, in a whirling dance of their own, to create different settings – though there are times when Luhrmann has them spinning more than is necessary.

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

In the central roles, newcomer Phoebe Panaretos is lovely as Fran. She has a sweet voice and a truthfulness that makes for some of the most moving moments, while Thomas Lacey has an appealing presence as Scott. He has a light voice but he dances well, though he could with a bit more fire in the belly and a sharper, sexier swagger.

An experienced cast does a fine job in the fairly broadly drawn supporting roles. Everyone does their bit but standouts include Heather Mitchell, who does a superb job in finding some emotional nuance as Scott’s pushy, highly strung mother, Robert Grubb, who is an entertainingly large, comically malevolent presence as the conniving Barry Fife, Drew Forsythe, who is amusingly dorky as Scott’s timid, put-upon father and Natalie Gamsu, who brings passion and welcome powerful vocals as Fran’s grandmother. The ensemble is also terrific.

As it stands, Strictly Ballroom has enough going for it to be a crowd-pleaser – by all reports audience are lapping it up – but it could be so much more. Hopefully Luhrmann will develop it further.

Strictly Ballroom is at the Lyric Theatre until July 6. Bookings: www.ticketmaster.com.au or 136 100

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: review

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead you can’t help marvelling yet again that Tom Stoppard was still in his 20s when he wrote it.

The absurdist play, which made his name when it premiered at the 1966 Edinburgh Fringe, is not only an existential riff on Shakespeare’s Hamlet but also draws on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

As we’ve come to expect from Stoppard, it is full of dazzling verbal and intellectual gymnastics, as well as meta-theatrical musings. When Rosencrantz and Guildenstern watch their death predicted by the players it becomes a play within a play within a play within a play. I think.

With all the double entendres, puns, witticisms, word games and allusions it is a dense, cerebral piece and pays to listen closely. And yet, when it’s performed well – as it is here – it is as funny and poignant as it is clever.

In this smashing Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Simon Phillips, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz play the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who find themselves centrestage trapped in a world they don’t understand, with no knowledge about where they came from or what they are there to do beyond what they’re told.

As they wait – like Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon – for something to happen, the rest of Shakespeare’s play unfolds in the wings, spilling occasionally onto stage around them as events beyond their control hurtle them towards their death.

Minchin and Schmitz make a charismatic double act. As the more authoritative, philosophical Guildenstern, who has a keener awareness of their existential plight, Schmitz has the lion’s share of the words and delivers them superbly with an increasingly desperate bravado. I’ve rarely seen him in better form. He really does disappear into the character – and not just because his trademark floppy hair is hidden by a curly wig.

Minchin’s Rosencrantz is more of an innocent: a gentle, naive, clown-like soul. Cheerfully oblivious at first to their plight, he gradually becomes increasingly exasperated and then anxious. Together they mine the comedy brilliantly but are also touchingly tragic figures as they face their fate.

Angus King, Berynn Schwerdt, Paul Cutlan, Ewen Leslie, Aaron Tsindos, George Kemp and Nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Angus King, Berynn Schwerdt, Paul Cutlan, Ewen Leslie, Aaron Tsindos, George Kemp and Nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

They are surrounded by an exceptionally fine cast. Ewen Leslie is in swashbuckling form as The Player – the actor-manger of a rag-tag company who still loves a grand, theatrical flourish but is well aware that life is a charade.

As the players, George Kemp, Angus King, Nicholas Papademetriou, Berynn Schwerdt, Aaron Tsindos and Paul Cutlan create a wonderfully eccentric, tatty and downtrodden group.  Kemp, in particular, as young Alfred, who has to play all the female roles, does a lovely, very funny job of capturing their abject situation.

The fact that actors of the calibre of John Gaden, Heather Mitchell and Christopher Stollery were happy to play the small supporting roles of Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius says a great deal about the esteem in which they hold Minchin, Schmitz and Phillips – and the play itself.

Together with Adele Querol and Tim Walter as Hamlet, they play the court scenes from Hamlet with an outlandish theatricality, creating hilarious caricatures that emphasise the strangeness of the world in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern find themselves.

Gabriela Tylesova’s design is a triumph. A steeply raked stage is flanked by sharply converging black walls that lead to a vanishing point in the void, while three arched tunnels down each side play tricks with perception under Nick Schlieper’s lighting. Hanging overhead is a weird funnel spouting a dead tree (a nod to Godot) that becomes a candelabra.

Into this mysterious, foreboding space, Tylesova introduces sudden explosions of colour with her whacky Elizabethan costumes for Hamlet’s court.

Phillips collaborated with Tylesova on the dazzlingly staged Australian production of Love Never Dies – and this production confirms that theirs is a very fruitful creative partnership.

All in all this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a stunning production, which, not surprisingly, is all but sold out. However, you can still try for one of STC’s Suncorp $20 tickets – on sale at 9am each Tuesday morning for the following week, either in person at the box office or on 9250 1929.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at Sydney Theatre until September 14

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 18

Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz: interview

Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz discuss Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and other future projects including the Australian tour of Matilda the Musical and the new musical Minchin is writing.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: James Penlidis/EllisParrinder

In 1996, Tim Minchin and Toby Schmitz performed together in a University of Western Australia (UWA) student production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – the 1966 play that made Tom Stoppard’s name.

Schmitz was initially cast in one of the lead roles but during rehearsals broke up with the director, who he’d been dating, and promptly found himself demoted to the much smaller part of Hamlet. Minchin played the meatier role of The Player and helped his brother write the music.

Seventeen years on, they about to co-star in the play for Sydney Theatre Company, this time with Minchin as Rosencrantz and Schmitz as Guildenstern: a casting coup that has triggered such demand for tickets, the production has extended before opening.

The excitement at such a double act is hardly surprising. Minchin is now a superstar comedy-musician whose hilarious satirical songs have won him an international cult following and who is regularly hailed “a genius”.

Based in London with his wife and two young children, he recently received rave reviews for his rock star turn as Judas in the UK arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar alongside Mel C and Ben Forster. He has also been winning serious plaudits as the composer/lyricist of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda the Musical, currently doing a roaring business in the West End and on Broadway, and headed for Australia in 2015 – more of which later.

Schmitz, meanwhile, is one of Australia’s most in-demand actors. In October, he plays Hamlet for Belvoir then jets off to Cape Town to film a second season of US television series Black Sails: a pirate drama prequel to Treasure Island, which premieres early next year.

He is also a successful playwright whose comedy I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for Tamarama Rock Surfers (TRS) last year and whose latest play Empire: Terror on the High Seas opens at Bondi Pavilion for TRS next month.

Friends since they met as teenagers at a youth theatre company in Perth, an interview with the two of them is a lively affair with thoughtful, intelligent conversation punctuated by sharp wit and much easy banter.

“We arm-wrestled and I lost,” deadpans Minchin when asked how they decided who should play who in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Stoppard’s play was just one of many productions they collaborated on at the UWA drama society, during which time they also performed as a cabaret duo.

In 2004, after Schmitz had graduated from NIDA and Minchin had moved to Melbourne to kick-start a career in music and cabaret, they co-wrote a show with Travis Cotton called This Blasted Earth, which had a short season at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre.

“It was a musical about putting on a terrible musical,” says Minchin. “The first half was the terrible musical and the second half was the cast saying: ‘I can’t believe we are in this terrible show.’ I think I came away with $50 for my songs and three months of work.”

To date, it hasn’t been revived. “Travis and Tim and I talk about it. It wouldn’t take too much work to re-mould it for 2013,” says Schmitz.

“If we didn’t have anything else to do we would probably do it,” says Minchin. “If we had spare time on an island together it would be fun.”

Spare time, however, is the last thing on their hands right now.

It was Luke Cowling, a co-director of the UWA production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who suggested around four years ago that they revisit the play with the two of them co-starring.

“But then he had a baby, blah, blah, blah and it kind of ground to a half. But my manager Michael knew it was a good idea and wasn’t going to let it go so he set up a meeting with these guys (STC),” says Minchin.

The play is an absurdist tragicomedy in which the two hapless courtiers of the title – minor characters in Shakespeare’s play – find themselves in the spotlight, trapped in a confusing, existential world where most of the drama is happening elsewhere as the plot of Hamlet unfolds predominantly offstage.

On the page, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem somewhat interchangeable. They finish each other’s sentences, are mistaken for each other by other people, and even muddle their own names up.

In the stage directions at the start of Act One in which Rosencrantz is tossing a coin that improbably keeps coming up Heads, Stoppard writes that Rosencrantz “betrays no surprise at all – he feel none. However, he is nice enough to felt a little embarrassed at taking so much money off his friend. Let that be his character note.

“Guildenstern is well alive to the oddity of it. He is not worried about the money, but it is worried by the implications; aware but not going to panic abut it – let that be his character note.”

Schmitz and Minchin chuckle at the casual brilliance of Stoppard’s succinct character notes.

“At the beginning you think, ‘I wish you’d given us just a tiny bit more here Tom!” says Schmitz. “But the genius is that you realise he has given you just enough. It’s your job to take one word and riff on it for four pages or hark back to a moment an act ago.”

“We bang on about his incredible genius to be able to write this play at the age he wrote it – you know, almost in a Shakespearean way, how could he have the knowledge?” agrees Minchin.

“But there’s an incredible maturity in how he used that knowledge and I reckon that’s very apparent in the stage directions: ‘Let that be your character note.’ What 29 -year old writes that? The effortless authority at age 29 – I would have wanted to punch him!”

“It becomes quite quickly apparent in performance or on reading out loud even that Stoppard has delineated two quite different personalities,” says Schmitz. “And then in the third act when things start to fall apart for them, lines are crossed and the characters are blurred a little more but I think it’s very clever in its delineation.”

“For the first half of the first act Rosencrantz does a lot of listening,” adds Minchin. “Guildenstern has a lot more text throughout the play. Rosencrantz does a lot more reacting and responding so that when his rants come they are really exceptions to the rule.”

The STC production is directed by Simon Phillips and designed by Gabriela Tylesova who produced the extraordinary sets and costumes for Phillips’ production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Love Never Dies.

Schmitz was at NIDA with Tylesova and says that even then the students were excited by her special talent – “and it’s not that common among the acting fraternity to go and be interested in any other department at acting school.”

He describes her design as “a vision of Elizabethan England” though Minchin qualifies that as being “not so much Elizabethan England as a traditional, Elizabethan-style Hamlet.

“The set is a minimalist, post-modern set, so it’s a Beckettian, Stoppardian non-specific set with entrances and exits designed to have their own weight because of our (Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s) inability to enter and exit. So the entrances are foreboding and the stage disappears in a converging line into infinity.

“There’s a nod to Godot because the play was a nod to Godot so the set design is very minimal but the costumes make it very clear that it’s a traditional Hamlet. You need that to anchor the play. If you reinterpret what are meant to be the foundations then your house crumbles a bit.”

Not surprisingly, Schmitz and Minchin are relishing Stoppard’s famously dazzling word play.

At one point, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play a game akin to verbal tennis where they have to keep lobbing questions at each other.

“In that questions game, everything they say is utterly related to the characters and the text as well as relating to a rhythm and a toying and a playfulness,” says Minchin. “It’s scary, man. He’s the monster as they say in jazz. The monster.”

Phillips has gathered an exceptionally fine company of actors for the supporting roles, among them Ewen Leslie as The Player, John Gaden, Christopher Stollery and Heather Mitchell: “an embarrassingly fabulous cast” says Schmitz.

“It’s thrilling when the court (characters) come on. It’s seismic. You can do nothing but be slightly rattled and a rabbit in the headlights – which is exactly the effect you want.”

“I think it’s very difficult to do a brilliant production of a Stoppard play,” adds Schmitz. “You need a sparkling cast, great direction and great resources.

“And you need time too,” says Minchin.

“That’s right, like a Shakespeare you need time to plumb and realise that a lot of it is bottomless but you just have to pull up somewhere and say, ‘OK we’re going to have to make a decision.’ Like all brilliant plays, it just continues to reveal itself,” says Schmitz who first read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at age 12.

Schmitz played Dadaist Tristram Tzara in STC’s 2009 production of Travesties – his only other experience of performing Stoppard – while for Minchin it’s his first on-stage encounter with the playwright.

However, he has met the playwright a couple of times at awards nights. “The first time I met him it was just me going, ‘oh my god?’” he says. “And the second time he’d become aware of who I was – which is the most profoundly satisfying thing from someone. You want to meet your idols but actually you don’t want to meet them. What you want is for them to meet you.

“He’s so youthful in his curiosity that he had gone ‘OK, that guy wrote Matilda’ so he’d gone away and discovered I do other things.”

Schmitz has also met Stoppard – though it was only the briefest of encounters. “It was during a writers’ festival and a bunch of young playwrights were being herded into a back room at the Opera House to meet him,” says Schmitz. “Someone had told him I’d written a play called I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard. He said, ‘I’m just glad it’s not called I just want to sleep during Tom Stoppard.’ I didn’t even name the play, it was my Dad’s title.”

The chance to see Minchin on stage in Jesus Christ Superstar and now Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is something for Sydneysiders to cherish because we’re not likely to see him in another musical or play any time soon given his hectic schedule.

However, we will be seeing Matilda the Musical. Ever since the show premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in 2010, Australian producers have been vying for the rights.

Adapted from Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel and featuring songs by Minchin, the RSC production transferred to the West End in November 2011 where it won rave reviews and a record seven Olivier Awards including Best Musical. In April this year it opened on Broadway, again to ecstatic reviews and 12 Tony nominations (though it was pipped to the post for Best Musical by Cyndi Lauper’s Kinky Boots).

At last, a deal has been done for the RSC to present it in Australia in 2015 in association with a local producer, reveals Minchin.

“We actually know who the local producer is going to be (but) it’s still embargoed. I only found out (on Tuesday),” he says. “The plan is for it to open in Melbourne in September 2015.”

Meanwhile, Minchin is busy writing a new musical. “It’s still embargoed even though I’ve been working on it for six months,” he says. “But it’s a very interesting, arty but much-loved early ‘90s film we are adapting for the stage: very conceptual, somewhat Stoppardian. It will be more complex and dark (than Matilda). Even though I am working on it with Matthew Warchus, who was the architect and director of Matilda, we are going to try and start it quietly.”

Minchin is also working on an animated musical film for DreamWorks about animals in the Australian outback and when that is done will put a new solo show together.

Schmitz also has a lot happening. Rehearsals for Belvoir’s Hamlet (his second stab at playing the Prince of Denmark after taking on the role for Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre in 2010) begin while he is still performing in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which will make for “an interesting double play”, as he puts it.

At the end of August, TRS will premiere his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas about a serial killer aboard a luxury cruise liner in the 1920s featuring a cast of 20.

“The first half is my take on an Agatha Christie and the second half descends into something far more gothic and horror,” says Schmitz. “It’s a spectacle. It’s huge and it’s really ambitious. Leland Kean (artistic director of TRS, who is directing) has always done my stuff well and the cast is really talented and stupidly good-looking, I realise.”

Schmitz wrote his first play at NIDA. He won the 2002 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award for Lucky and was shortlisted for the Philip Parsons Young Playwrights Award for Chicks Will Dig You in 2003. His 2007 play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth has toured widely and I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard was a hit for TRS last year.

“I’ve never had any interest from any (mainstage) theatre company in putting on any of my plays, ever – and this is play number 12. And I’ve had some really popular ones and critically acclaimed and even relatively economically successful ones,” says Schmitz. “But it got to the point a few years ago where I said to Leland Kean, ‘I’m just trying to get a mainstage company to put one on’ – hence I Want to Sleep with Tom Stoppard (with) four middle class people and a couch.

“And he said, ‘for your own soul, write one as if it was going on independently as a commercial thing like The 39 Steps or The Mousetrap or something. Don’t worry about the budget.’ I don’t think he was expecting 20 characters or an ocean liner.”

Given the number of projects they both have on the go, is there no end to their talents?

“I hope not,” fires back Schmitz.

“Is there no end to your ego is really the question,” quips Minchin.

But in the end, they agree, it all comes back to a love of words – and music, in Minchin’s case.

“It’s not multi-skilling,” says Minchin. “It’s a love of language and expressing ideas, wanting to perform other people’s great work and wanting to perform your own. That explains everything I do pretty much.”

“Yes it’s just another way of generating your own material,” says Schmitz. “We’ve both been doing that since before we can really remember.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at the Sydney Theatre from August 6 to September 14. Bookings: 9250 1777 or http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au