Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

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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.

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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

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After Dinner

Wharf 1, January 20

Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh. Photo: Brett Boardman

Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh. Photo: Brett Boardman

After Dinner is an excruciatingly funny yet surprisingly tender comedy of manners that pretty well everyone will relate to in some way or other.

Written by Andrew Bovell (The Secret River, Lantana) in 1988, it was his first play – but shows an extraordinary level of technical assurance and human insight for one so young and inexperienced.

Set in the 1980s in a pub bistro, After Dinner features five desperately lonely, sexually frustrated singletons on a Friday night out.

There’s the fun-loving, good-natured Paula (Anita Hegh) and her bossy friend Dympie (Rebecca Massey), who go there every week. In order to get a table, they have to eat. Paula would like to be close to the band and would happily stand but Dympie isn’t having any of it. At the back, well away from the press of sweaty bodies, is where they will stay.

Tonight they have invited Monika (Helen Thomson) a recently widowed work colleague to join them. At a nearby table is Gordon (Glenn Hazeldine) whose wife has left him and who needs to talk, and the seemingly cocksure Stephen (Josh McConville) who is only interested in chasing a bit of skirt. Naturally, they will end up interacting and there will be tears before bedtime.

Josh McConville and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Glenn Hazeldine. Photo: Brett Boardman

Alicia Clements has designed an instantly recognisable set with icky carpet, plant mural on the walls and yellowing tiles, while her costumes are hilariously 80s-awful. Imara Savage directs a pitch-perfect production with riotously funny yet beautifully observed, painfully truthful performances from the cast. All the actors are superb, though the magnificent Thomson is the first among equals, delivering a drunken monologue about her adventures in the pub after escaping the toilet and a sexually graphic rant about her husband that is comic gold.

Massey, looking almost unrecognisable with long hair, large glasses and a deeply unflattering dress, is wonderfully sour as the passive-aggressive Dympie. Hegh captures Paula’s long-suffering kindness and desperation to have a good time, while looking faintly ridiculous in a dress with a hood.

Hazeldine is perfectly cast as the mild, conventional Gordon, who is smarting from his wife leaving him, while McConville – ever the chameleon – is hilarious as Stephen with slightly padded paunch and slicked-back hair, giving him a cheesy, sleazy swagger.

After Dinner will have you laughing like a drain but at the same time feeling great compassion for its sad characters.

After Dinner runs at Wharf 1 until March 7

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 25

The Winter’s Tale

Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, March 5

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Rory Potter as Mamillius. Photo: Michele Mossop

Shakespeare’s rarely performed play The Winter’s Tale is tragic and terrible in the first half, fantastical in the second, moving in fairytale fashion from jealousy and cruelty to love and forgiveness. Because of the stylistic disparity, it’s often considered one of his “problem” plays.

Out of the blue, for the flimsiest of reasons, a suddenly jealous King Leontes of Sicily (Myles Pollard) wrongly accuses his wife Hermione (Helen Thomson) of adultery with his best friend King Polixenes of Bohemia (Dorian Nkono).

Leontes imprisons Hermione and orders that their newborn daughter Perdita be abandoned. His young son Prince Mamillius (Rory Potter) and Hermione both die of heartbreak.

In the second half, set sixteen years later, order is magically restored and the characters are reconciled.

In this new production for Bell Shakespeare Company, director John Bell focuses his interpretation around Mamillius, presenting the play from the boy’s perspective. So, the first half is what really happens and the second half is what the boy – now a spiritual observer – wishes had happened and conjures with magic wand in hand.

It’s an interesting, intelligent idea, which Bell is able to explore without altering the text. He merely reallocates a few lines to Mamillius (the reading of the Delphic oracle and the description of Perdita’s reunion with Leontes, told using hand puppets).

However, the production doesn’t totally work, somewhat diminishing the horror of Leontes’ actions at the beginning and detracting a little from the moving reconciliation at the end.

The entire play is set in a child’s bedroom – though Stephen Curtis’s set looks more like a pretty nursery than a boy’s room with diaphanous white curtains, a wicker basinet for the impending baby, a white bunk bed on stilts, and a large mobile with stars and other pretty knick-knacks as well as a few macabre ones (a naked baby doll, a skeletal forearm) foreshadowing things to come. There are also a few boys’ toys (castle, lego, dinosaur, teddy bear) and a dress-up box.

Many scenes in the first act sit oddly in such a setting. Some of the audience laughed on opening night when Leontes sat on a toddler’s chair holding a toy sword as he pronounced his awful judgment on Hermione. It did make him seem somewhat crazed – which works on one level – but we should have been shuddering not laughing. Pollard was not able to cut through and bring quite enough menace to the situation.

Most of the second half is set in Bohemia, which is here given a kind of 60s hippy-trippy vibe, with the plot, colourful costumes and special effects emerging as if from Mamillius’s imagination and dress-up box.

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

Michelle Doake, Terry Serio, Helen Thomson and Justin Smith. In the background, Felix Jozeps and Liana Cornell. Photo: Michele Mossop

There are some lovely moments. The famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” is cleverly done – one of several neat effects using shadows – and Matthew Marshall’s many-hued lighting also adds lots of colour, emphasising mood swings.

There are a few changes to the mobile and some vibrantly bright costumes – but the idea of moving from cold, hard reality to Mamillius’s dream-world might have been more effective if the transformation in the set had been a little more dramatic perhaps.

Though the second half exudes a sense of joyousness, it labours under too much comedy that no longer strikes a chord today and does start to drag. (The production runs for three hours).

The acting is a little mixed. Pollard’s light voice and Aussie inflections don’t bring sufficient weight to the difficult role of Leontes and he isn’t totally convincing in either his fury or his anguish.

Thomson is moving as Hermione and Michelle Doake is in commanding form as Hermione’s fiercely loyal friend Paulina, delivering the language with great clarity. Both are also very funny as shepherdesses.

Meanwhile, at the heart of the production 13-year old Potter (who shares the role with Otis Pavlovich) gives yet another wonderfully subtle, touching performance as Mamillius, remarkable for one so young.

The Winter’s Tale runs until March 29. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 9