Xanadu The Musical

Hayes Theatre Co, May 17

Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham in XANADU (c) Frank Farrugia

Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham as Kira and Sonny. Photo: Frank Farrugia

The 1980 film Xanadu starring a roller-skating Olivia Newton-John was a famous flop, so outrageously bad that it became a cult classic.

Gleefully spoofing the movie, Xanadu the Musical proved to be a ditzy delight when it premiered on Broadway in 2007. Unfortunately, this heavy-handed production directed and choreographed by Nathan M. Wright for Matthew Management in association with the Hayes Theatre Co steamrollers the heart and much of the comedy out of the sweetly silly show.

Set in 1980, Sonny is a depressed, creatively blocked street artist with more muscles than brain. Clio, a beautiful Greek muse and daughter of Zeus, descends from Mount Olympus to Venice Beach to save him. Donning leg-warmers, roller skates and an Australian accent, she calls herself Kira and inspires him to reach for the stars – or at least open a roller disco.

Meanwhile, two of Clio’s jealous sisters try to trick her, hoping she will incur Zeus’s wrath by falling in (forbidden) love with a mortal.

Writer Douglas Carter Beane has laced his wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, knowing script with jokes about 1980s culture and musicals. At one point, for example, Zeus observes that 1980 will be a cultural turning point: “Creativity shall remain stymied for decades. The theatre? They’ll just take some stinkeroo movie or some songwriter’s catalogue, throw it onstage and call it a show.”

The score, featuring music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne from ELO and John Farrar, is just as much fun, full as it is of chart-topping hits such as Magic, Evil Woman, All Over the World, Suddenly and Xanadu.

Designers Nathan Weyers (set), James Browne (costumes) and Simon Johnson (lighting) have created just the right kind of camp, cheesy 80s look for the show with lashings of colour, glitz and humour from hilarious sirens sporting sparkly mermaid tails, who glide onto stage on wheelie boards, to a cute bicycle Pegasus.

Dion Bilios, James Maxfield, Jaime Hadwen, Ainsley Melham, Catty Hamilton, Kat Hoyos in XANADU (c) Frank Farrugia

Dion Biolos, James Maxfield, Jaime Hadwen, Ainsley Melham, Catty Hamilton and Kat Hoyos. Photo: Frank Farrugia

Wright’s lively, 80s-inspired choreography is also amusing, particularly the sequinned formations on skates at the end. His direction, however, lacks a lightness of touch. Everything is hammered out at the same relentless pace and volume, with the scenery-chewing cast dialling their performances up to 11. Some of the one-liners are thrown away, lost in motor-mouthed shouting. At other times, the humour is laboured. Either way, much of the comedy falls flat. The sound doesn’t help, with the volume on Andrew Bevis’s four-piece band cranked high.

As Kira and Sonny, Jaime Hadwen and Ainsley Melham both sing well but there’s little chemistry between them. In his first musical since leaving Hi-5, Melham’s comic timing is awry. Mugging in cartoony fashion, his blunt reading of the role diminishes the character’s goofy charm. Hadwen has a sweet presence though her strident Aussie accent dominates her portrayal.

The biggest laughs of the night come from Francine Cain and Jayde Westaby, both wonderful as Kira’s scheming sisters Calliope and and Melpomene.

Pitched right, Xanadu can be ridiculously funny. This production (which runs 90 minutes without interval) has its moments and sections of the audience clearly loved it, but I felt it pushes too hard and as a result never quite gets its skates on.

Xanadu the Musical plays at Hayes Theatre Co, Potts Point until June 12. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au or Ticketmaster 1300 723 038

A version of this review ran online for Daily Telegraph Arts

Advertisements

Asian Provocateur

Hayes Theatre Co, June 26

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

Josie Lane is a gorgeous, bubbly, warm, fabulously fierce little dynamo, both on stage and off – and her new cabaret show Asian Provocateur is all of those things and more.

Premiering as part of the Hayes Theatre Co Cabaret Season, it’s outrageously funny, sweet and ballsy. In drawing on anecdotes from her life and career, the show is not only irresistibly entertaining but has serious things to say about discrimination, without ever labouring the point.

Lane is of an “Asian persuasion” as she puts it. Her mother is from The Philippines and her father is from Footscray – making her too Asian to have many friends at primary school but not Asian enough for certain roles (or so she suspects in some instances). Apparently that’s why she didn’t get an audition for The King And I.

On the other hand, she has been prone to typecasting, though her career extends beyond that with credits in musicals such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Avenue Q, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee for Sydney Theatre Company, Into the Woods for Victorian Opera and, most recently, Miracle City at the Hayes.

For Asian Provocateur, she makes a dramatic entrance in a sparkly kimono with an ornate headpiece, then tosses the extravagant outfit aside to reveal a sassy little red and gold cheongsam.

With her musical director Mathew Frank providing excellent accompaniment on the piano, she sings a selection of songs with an Asian connotation from shows including Flower Drum Song, The King And I, South Pacific, Chess, The Mikado and Miss Saigon, as well as numbers such as Whitney Houston’s Saving All My Love For You. Frank also sings Pretty Lady from Pacific Overtures while she changes frocks later in the show.

As for her stories, they pour out at a million miles, exuberant, touching, risqué: everything from eating fish semen to her surprise at being asked to play Power Rangers at school (only because they wanted her to be the Asian Yellow Power Ranger).  She does a hilarious imitation of her wonderfully eccentric mother who constantly imagines the very worst happening to her daughter and isn’t above ringing her at two in the morning with dire warnings.

Along the way, she has a dig at the casting of Teddy Tahu Rhodes in The King and I, and Emma Stone as Eurasian character Allison Ng in the movie Aloha.

Then there’s the unfortunate, icky toilet incident which left her with Bali Belly for an entire holiday and her recent visits to a couple of Bangkok nightclubs, one called Super Pussy and another with a live gay sex show. (Yep, the show comes with an 18+ rating).

The thing about Lane is that she has the happy knack of being able to tell stories that are completely out-there without coming across as crass or crude. Instead, her vivacious storytelling is hysterically, endearingly funny. It also feels absolutely natural and truthful as if she is regaling friends at a dinner party. And she certainly makes her point.

On top of that, lordy can she sing. She has a glorious, thrilling voice that is true, clear and strong. She can belt with the best but her vocals are also coloured with emotion from the wistful beauty of Something Wonderful (The King and I) to the heartfelt pain of The Movie in My Mind (Miss Saigon).

The show looks terrific too. James Browne has designed a simple but very effective set with rice paper and bamboo screens (lit with plenty of coloured light) and two large lanterns.

Though it was advertised as running 75 minutes, the show ran for more than 90 minutes on Friday and while it never flags, a little tightening might not go astray. And – call me old-fashioned – but I didn’t think she needed to use the f-word quite so much. It felt out of place somehow.

But consider those the most minor of quibbles. Asian Provocateur is a terrific, spunky cabaret show and deserves to be widely seen.

Dogfight

Hayes Theatre Co, May 6

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole. Photo: Noni Carroll

The musical Dogfight begins with a nasty, humiliating prank but turns into a sweet, tender show where redemptive love trumps misogyny.

Written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (music and lyrics) together with Peter Duchan (book), Dogfight premiered off-Broadway in 2012. It now makes its Australian premiere with a stunning production directed and produced by Neil Gooding in association with Hayes Theatre Co.

Based on a little-known 1991 film starring River Phoenix, with screenplay by Bob Comfort, Dogfight begins in 1967 with a blank-faced, clearly traumatised young marine called Eddie Birdlace (Luigi Lucente) on a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco.

His memories take us back to 1963 when he and his two best mates – Boland (Toby Francis) and Bernstein (Rowan Witt) – spent a rowdy night on the town in San Francisco before being shipped out to Vietnam the following morning.

Swaggeringly macho, with just 13 weeks training under their belt, they naively believe they are going to storm into battle and return heroes. Their attitude to women is as aggressive as their attitude to war.

They decide to celebrate their last night on home soil with a “dogfight”, a vile “Jarhead” tradition whereby they compete to see who can bring the ugliest woman to a party. Each puts money into a pot; the winner takes all.

At the heart of the show are Eddie and Rose Fenny (Hilary Cole), the shy, awkward, guitar-playing waitress he picks up at a diner and takes to the party, then unexpectedly falls for.

Duchan has created a strong narrative structure from which the songs emerge naturally. Ranging from testosterone-powered rock numbers to lilting, wistful melodies, it’s an appealing, catchy score. Some of the songs have a folksy feel, with Rose foreshadowing the hippie era, while her number “Nothing Short of Wonderful” has something of a Sondheim influence.

James Browne and Georgia Hopkins have designed an economical set backed by a gauzy “brick wall” scrim featuring an enormous image of Cole’s face through which we glimpse the terrific six-piece band led by musical director Isaac Hayward. Four large diner seats are moved around into various configurations for the different locations. Effectively lit by Ross Graham and Alex Berlage, it’s a flexible space in which Gooding keeps the tightly choreographed action flowing freely: yet another clever design solution for the tiny 111-seat venue.

Cole is beguiling as Rose. She is naturally very pretty but manages to convince us of Rose’s vulnerability and gaucheness (helped by Elizabeth Franklin’s excellent costuming) as well as her strength, spirit and humour, while her pure, shining voice suits the character’s innocence perfectly.

Lucente is equally impressive as Eddie, conveying the turmoil of emotion coiled beneath the tough, terse exterior in a beautifully understated performance that moves from bravado to brokenness. There is great chemistry between the two of them, and both moved me to tears.

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Luigi Lucente, Rowan Witt and Toby Francis. Photo: Noni Carroll

Among the strong ensemble cast of 11, Francis radiates Boland’s pumped-up, bone-headed machismo, while Witt gives a very convincing portrayal of the geeky Bernstein, who gets high on the general macho posturing and snaps at one point in a surprisingly brutal moment.

Johanna Allen brings powerhouse vocals to the role of the brassy hooker Marcy, another of the so-called “dogs”, while Mark Simpson takes on a number of very different roles with chameleon ease.

Dogfight portrays abhorrent macho behaviour, which the writers neither condone nor judge, but they make it clear that this is the culture that the young marines have grown up in and been shaped by: a culture, which dehumanises women as much as the enemy they are off to fight, but also knocks the soul out of the young men themselves.

When the musical played in London last year, some slammed it for its ugly misogyny, but the writers undercut this with the central love story, which is sweet, sad and genuinely moving. Our sympathies, meanwhile, are clearly with the women in the show, who are strong, funny and forgiving.

This production captures all that nuance most touchingly. Once again, the Hayes Theatre proves to be a leading light in Sydney’s musical theatre scene.

Dogfight plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 31. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 10

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show

Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, January 13 at 12 noon

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show is a gorgeous little stage production for children aged one to seven that captivates with its clear storytelling, its fresh, bright design and its simple but inventive staging.

Based on four pictures books by Eric Carle, including his iconic bestseller The Very Hungry Caterpillar, the show has been three years in the making.

Australian Jonathan Worsley, who is the creator and co-producer, approached Carle “several years ago, several times”, visiting the American author and illustrator at his Massachusetts studio with a series of sketches to convince him that he would put a faithful version of Carle’s books on stage.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar is the popular hook for audiences but it is too short to stage without expanding it so Worsley instead suggested using three of Carle’s other books as well: The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse, Mister Seahorse and The Very Lonely Firefly. Having won Carle’s approval, Worsley approached New York’s Puppet Kitchen to bring the sketches to three-dimensional life.

The Puppet Kitchen has done a sensational job in creating 75 puppets, using similar materials and techniques to Carle so that they really do look like his distinctive, hand-painted collage illustrations, and move well on stage.

On top of that, children can see the puppeteers and how the puppets are manipulated, which adds to the joyous sense of creativity that the show engenders.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show had its world premiere at the Riverside Theatres in Parramatta as part of the Sydney Festival and from here tours to Melbourne, Brisbane, Penrith, Queanbeyan and Newcastle.

Director Naomi Edwards builds the show beautifully, creating an arc that leads organically to the highly anticipated caterpillar. James Browne has designed a white set that looks as if it is made up of several giant, blank books on which the various stories can be “written”. It’s the perfect backdrop for the stories to burst into colourful life via the puppets and their manipulators, with the help of a few simple projections, a couple of props and one or two little pieces of scenery.

Costume designer Andrea Espinoza has the four puppeteers (Gavin Clarke, Dannielle Jackson, Justine Warner and Drew Wilson) in white dungarees and tee shirts to throw the focus on the puppets, while The Artist wears an outfit to match the book. The puppets, meanwhile, are a pure delight, with lovely work from movement director Samantha Chester in choreographing their manipulation. The music by Nate Edmondson and Stephen Baker, and Nicholas Rayment’s lighting are also pitch-perfect.

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

A scene from The Artist Who Painted a Blue Horse in The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show. Photo: supplied

Each of the four stories makes clever use of simple repetition. The show begins with The Artist who ”paints” several colourful animals including a blue horse, a yellow cow, an orange elephant and a poker-dotted donkey. A white canvas on a white easel is quickly spun around and the painting appears as if by magic.

“How did they do that?” asked the little boy next to me, mouth open. After watching intently as The Artist did a similar thing several times, he shouted: “that’s how they did it” and proceeded to explain excitedly to his mother. Bless.

We then go underwater for Mister Seahorse in which a rainbow-coloured, sparkly seahorse takes care of his wife’s eggs, until they hatch, meeting other male fish along the way who do the same – a sweet tale about role and responsibility.

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

Mister Seahorse. Photo: supplied

From there we head into the dark of the night for the story of The Very Lonely Firefly who mistakes various lights for fellow fireflies until he finally finds his tribe (a tale of belonging). This leads naturally to the appearance of the moon and the story of the caterpillar, who eats and eats and eats before making a cocoon from which he emerges as a beautiful butterfly.

Children in the audience were clearly waiting for the caterpillar but it’s testament to the show that it kept their attention in the lead-up to his appearance.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

The Very Hungry Caterpillar puppet. Photo: supplied

It was an inspired idea to adapt the book, given its massive popularity around the world, and Worsley’s production does it justice. The show will doubtless tour here, there and everywhere for many years to come.

The Very Hungry Caterpillar Show plays in Parramatta until January 18 then tours to Melbourne’s Chapel off Chapel, March 23 – April 2; Brisbane’s Round House Theatre, July 13 – 19; The Q Theatre, Penrith, September 24 – 26; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, September 30 – October 4; Newcastle’s Civic Theatre, October 9 – 10.

Full details: www.hungrycaterpillarshow.com

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

Hayes Theatre Co, May 14

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

You can see why Tim Freedman’s songs appealed to playwright Alex Broun as the inspiration for a musical. Not only do they have beautiful melodies and pithy lyrics that ring emotionally true but a strong sense of narrative and character, written as they were about real people, places and incidents.

Broun co-wrote his new musical Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You with Freedman (frontman of Sydney rock band The Whitlams) and uses 19 Whitlams classic including “No Aphrodisiac”, “Blow Up the Pokies”, “Keep the Light On”, “Beauty in Me” and the “Charlie” series.

Set in Newtown’s grungy pub scene, 20-year old Tom (Ross Chisari) arrives from Taree with a letter from his Mum, in search of Anton (Ian Stenlake) and Charlie (Scott Irwin), former members of a band in which his dead father Stewie (Toby Francis in flashback scenes) once played.

“Famous on three blocks” in Sydney’s inner west in their heyday, Anton and Charlie are now wrestling with demons and rapidly going to seed. Tom meets a girl called Beatrice (Erica Lovell) who is also searching for herself, having fled Mosman. The encounter between the four leads, predictably enough, to revelations from the past and the possibility of healing.

Produced and directed by Neil Gooding for Hayes Theatre Co, there’s much to enjoy about the production. It’s well staged and performed, the band led by musical director Andrew Worboys is terrific and the songs are great, but Broun’s script is not strong enough for the show to really take off.

Broun draws on Freedman’s themes of male friendship, lost love, disappointment and emotional damage but the characters and plot aren’t developed enough at this point for the climax to convince.

The writing is often perfunctory and never quite rises above the feeling that scenes are contrived to fit the musical numbers. The meeting between Tom and Beatrice, in particular, is clichéd and glib. In fact, the entire story of Tom and Beatrice is far less interesting than the story of the band yet it’s fore-grounded. The scenes about the band – which are the best written and performed – are the ones where we feel ourselves being suddenly drawn in and wanting to know more.

Staged as if in a grotty inner-city pub, Jackson Browne’s set design (lit by Richard Neville) provides just the right vibe. There’s a band set-up on a high stage, backed by all kinds of signs. The stage moves backwards to create room in front of it for various other scenes with simple props sliding out from underneath. It’s a clever solution in the tiny venue.

The actors work hard to bring the show to life. Stenlake as the shambolic, hard-drinking Anton, now letting it all hang out, and Irwin as the pokies-addicted Charlie are particularly impressive, both acting-wise and vocally, the scenes between them some of the most moving.

In the short time that it has been operating, the Hayes has already proved itself an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene and it’s great to see them providing a launch pad for new local musicals like this. Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You still needs work but it’s well worth a look. There’s already much to enjoy about it and there’s plenty of potential for it to be honed into something even better.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 1. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 19

 

Pete the Sheep

Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre, March 29

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

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

Monkey Baa Theatre Company’s new 50-minute musical for children, Pete the Sheep, is a real beaut show.

Based on the Australian picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, it tells a quirky story with a gentle message about difference, individualism and acceptance.

A new shearer called Shaun arrives in Shaggy Gully – but because he has a sheep-sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog like everyone else, the other shearers send him packing.

However, Pete knows just how to treat a sheep and quickly wins the favour of the flock. When Shaun gives Pete a fancy new look, the other animals (sheep dogs included) are soon lining up to be styled so Shaun and Pete open a shearing salon, inviting the shearers to join them.

Writers Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge have fleshed out the characters and added every pun imaginable, with plenty to amuse adults as well as the children, including the requisite poo joke. (You may never eat a Malteser in quite the same way again). The songs by Phillip Scott (who has written music and lyrics) are very catchy, with a nod to a range of styles from country to jazz, blues and a dash of Broadway.

Jonathan Biggins directs a lively, imaginative production on James Browne’s simple but highly effective set, which captures the feel of the picture book as it transforms from a corrugated iron shearing shed to Shaun’s salon, staged with a little extra sparkle for good measure, all beautifully lit lit by Matthew Marshall.

Dressed in shorts and singlets, the talented cast of four ­– Andrew James, Nat Jobe, Todd Keys and Jeff Teale – play sheep, sheepdogs and shearers morphing between roles with just a change of hat and a different physicality. They all sing, dance and act a treat and give very funny performances ­– though one bright spark in the opening audience wasn’t buying the fact that they were female sheep. “They’re not ladies!” he called out to general merriment.

Recommended for children aged four to nine, Pete the Sheep is a hugely entertaining show with heaps of humour and heart. So don’t be a dag, flock to it!

Pete the Sheep plays at the Lend Lease Darling Quarter Theatre until April 24 and then on tour. Bookings: http://www.monkeybaa.com.au or 02 8624 9340

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 6

Empire: Terror on the High Seas

Bondi Pavilion, September 3

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

You have to applaud Toby Schmitz for the ambition behind his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas. But it still has a way to go before that ambition is realised on stage.

Set in 1925 on board a cruise liner called the Empress of Australia, headed for New York, we meet a group of first class passengers: the dandyish Richard (Dick) Civil-Lowe Cavendish (Nathan Lovejoy) who managed to avoid service in World War I, a brash South African called Anthony Hertz-Hollingsworth (Anthony Gee) and his new wife Nicole (Ella Scott Lynch), a London flapper and party-girl with a taste for cocaine, and a gangster-like Chicago businessman called Jacob ‘Bang’ Reiby (Fayssal Bazzi) who works for emerging company IBM.

There’s also Mr Frey (Anthony Gooley), a bookish, Australian poet who fought in the war and has been seduced by Dadaism, who has been invited onto the upper decks as a guest, a bigoted priest (James Lugton), a cabaret singer (Billie Rose Prichard) and a plodding detective (Duncan Fellows), among others.

It’s not long before we discover there is a serial killer on board. The first victims are Bengali ship stewards but the murders quickly escalate, becoming ever more grisly, so that no one is safe.

In a story by Elissa Blake in the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/sailing-into-the-darkness-20130829-2srew.html) Schmitz said that “the set-up is deliberately Agatha Christie” but that the ship is actually a metaphor for “a nation adrift” and a way to examine Australia’s post-colonial history.

In the theatre program Schmitz references the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (also alluded to in the play), which showcased the various nations in the Empire, while director Leland Kean writes: “As a nation, Australians find it extremely hard to face the fact that in the name of bettering the world we live in, we did some terrible things. That our ancestors committed atrocities in the name of race is something we still struggle to comprehend, and admit. Likewise it is also extremely hard to imagine the world they lived in, as it was when these atrocities occurred. This play bravely attempts to take us to this horror.”

I must confess that had I not read the story and program notes I wouldn’t have realised that this was Schmitz’s aim. Though the characters talk and talk, voicing views about the Empire, race, class, war and history, the play doesn’t cohere dramatically.

I found myself straining to follow what was being said. A lot of it is smart and amusing, with Noel Coward-like witticisms, but there is just so much of it that it’s an uncomfortable experience as you struggle to pull it all together and shape it in your mind.

There is a somewhat Stoppardian feel about it. Schmitz is, of course, starring in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company at the moment. But where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also dense and rewards close listening, Stoppard allows you to relax, follow what is being said and enjoy it. Empire has you straining so hard it’s exhausting. Gee’s aggressively loud turn as Hertz-Hollingsworth coupled with a frequently indecipherable South African accent doesn’t help.

There’s little tension along the whodunit lines; it’s obvious fairly early on who the killer is and the perpetrator is revealed in Act I – though the other characters remain in the dark. Why the killer is driven to murder so indiscriminately and voraciously isn’t entirely clear. Post-traumatic stress as a result of war? Or were they already a psychopath? As for the mix of styles, the play never convincingly moves beyond the nod to Coward and Christie to something genuinely horrific.

There has been publicity about the gothic horror being similar to something from the Saw films but don’t believe it. It’s hard to put fake intestines on stage and make it look believable. I’m incredibly squeamish but the gory scenes come across as comical in a gross-out way rather than stomach churning.

Staging a play this big – with a cast of 15 – is just as ambitious on the part of Rock Surfers Theatre Company. Kean runs a fairly tight ship in his staging.  James Browne’s handsome set with wooden crates, suitcases and a chintzy looking cabin is effective and his costumes are stylish.

The performances are generally good. Lovejoy is particularly impressive as the “pansexual” Cavendish, tossing off witticisms with just the right level of breezy, self-satisfied affectation, his comic timing immaculate as the words trip effortlessly off his tongue.

But in the end it just doesn’t come together. Running three hours including interval, Empire feels long and underdeveloped.

Schmitz is an exciting writer. His play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth movement is a little gem and his recent work I Want to Sleep With Tom Stoppard (also directed by Kean) is an entertaining, intelligent comedy.

Empire is commendably ambitious. All too rarely these days so we see work of this scale.  But the play needs further work for the themes and big ideas in it to emerge more strongly.

Empire plays at the Bondi Pavilion until September 28