Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bella Vista Farm, December 12

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Lara Schwerdt, Emily Eskell, Sabryna Te’o and Madeleine Jones in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Maryne Rothe

Sport for Jove’s outdoor season is always something to look forward to during the Sydney summer (weather permitting) and this year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a delight.

I saw the play at Bella Vista Farm Park in the Hills Shire and have been tardy in reviewing it so that season is now over. However, you can catch the production at Everglades Gardens in Leura during January – and it’s well worth it.

At Bella Vista Farm, Sport for Jove has a new purpose-built stage. With a lighting rig and backstage area, it is better equipped for the cast and crew. Constructed at the bottom of a gently sloping hill, it also provides better sightlines for the audience who can either sit on a picnic blanket, or a little further up the hill on provided plastic chairs. The set-up may not have quite the same charm as when the company performed in a courtyard in front of the farmhouse or in the nearby shed, but it is eminently practical.

What’s more, the set (co-designed by Damien Ryan and Anna Gardiner) is vibrantly attractive in a shabby chic kind of way with wisteria-draped screens and walls and a “marble” floor: a staging that sits well and looks good in the outdoor setting under Sian James-Holland’s lighting.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s early, rarely performed comedies. It’s a wordy piece though it never feels cumbersomely so here. In his program notes, director Damien Ryan writes that he has removed the play’s “most impenetrable material” but admits that some of the language remains “a curiously knotted garden”. However, there’s lots of wonderful poetry and the production rollicks along with such an infectious energy that any difficult language never becomes an issue.

The plot is light and rather silly. The young King Ferdinand of Navarre (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) and his friends Lord Biron (Tim Walter), Dumain (Curtis Fernandez) and Longaville (Gabrielle Scawthorn) take a pledge to avoid woman and wine for three years and instead devote themselves to study.

But before the ink is dry, the Princess of France (Emily Eskell) and her ladies-in-waiting Rosaline (Sabryna Te’o), Maria (Lara Schwerdt) and Katherine (Madeleine Jones) arrive and test their resolve.

A second plot involves a Spanish nobleman, Don Adriano de Armado (Berynn Schwerdt) who is bent on wooing a comely country maid called Jaquenetta (Claire Lovering). A bumpkin called Costard (George Banders) is also sweet on Jaquenette but is no match for the Don and finds himself being used at the go-between for one and all.

The women in the play are highly spirited and independent, and while attracted to the men refuse to become their playthings. As a way to increase the number of roles for women, Ryan has Longaville played by a woman in masculine attire (Scawthorn) who holds her own in the privileged men’s world. By doing so, Ryan introduces the issue of marriage equality. The device works brilliantly, without feeling at all gimmicky. When the young people eventually pair off, there just happens to be one lesbian couple.

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Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Curtis Fernandez, Tim Walter and Gabrielle Scawthorn in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Marnya Rothe

While using Elizabethan costuming, Ryan also injects a great deal of fun by portraying the officious, bureaucratic Anthony Dull (Scott Sheridan) as a contemporary park ranger.

Speaking of costuming, Melanie Liertz has done an exceptional job on the smell of an oily rag. Apparently the women’s gowns are made from painted canvas. Amazing.

Ryan’s cast is terrific. Some handle the language better than others, but overall it’s performed with a zest that fills the air, sailing effortlessly to the top of the hill. Beryn Schwerdt is hilarious as Don Adriano, flouncing around in melodramatic fashion with a fruity, comedic Spanish accent to match.

Aaron Tsindos is also funny as the Don’s manservant Moth. Scawthorn is impressive as Longaville, Lembke-Hogan exudes confident poise as Navarre and Walter is dashing as the serious, cynical Biron. But all the cast – which also includes Wendy Strehlow and James Lugton – are on song. A fun night.

The evening begins with a short curtain raiser: Josh Lawson’s Shakespearealism, a clever, 30-minute send-up about Ralph Shakespeare, a young playwright who pioneered realism on stage but lived forever in the shadow of his brother William. Directed by Lizzie Schebesta, with Lembke-Hogan as Ralph, James Lugton as jaded theatre manager Philip Henslowe, and Scawhtorn and Tsindos as two actors, it’s a cute piece but makes for a long night.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Bella Vista Farm, December 19

Earnest Production Photo 5 - Credit Marnya Rothe

Deborah Kennedy as Lady Bracknell and Scott Sheridan as Jack Worthing. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the greatest comedies of all time, but I’m not sure that the play with its witty repartee and drawing room settings lends itself to an outdoor production in the same way that Shakespeare does. Damien Ryan directs an enjoyable enough production but it often feels a bit try-hard in the comedy stakes. The slapstick routine of Algernon (Aaron Tsindos) and his manservant Lane (James Lugton) falling off the stage doesn’t sit right in Wilde’s stylish world, nor does Cecily (Eloise Winestock) gagging on the name Algernon. What’s more, I didn’t find any of that particularly funny.

Some of the gags work well – the running joke about the servant’s bell is amusing – but the portrayals of the gun-toting Cecily and hyper Gwendolen (Claire Lovering) feel far too overplayed.

Deborah Kennedy has the style absolutely right as Lady Bracknell and nails every laugh, delivering the famous lines as if they’ve never been said before in a standout performance. Wendy Strehlow is also on the money with Miss Prism, while Tsindos has the measure of the witty, devil-may-care Algernon.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 9 – 24. Bookings: http://www.sportforjove.com.au

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The Merchant of Venice

York Theatre, Seymour Centre, May 23

John Turnbull as Shylock.

John Turnbull as Shylock.

The Merchant of Venice is one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. It’s technically a comedy but it contains some decidedly dark elements, particularly its uncomfortable anti-Semitism.

Richard Cottrell’s production for Sport for Jove doesn’t bring a strong director’s “take” to bear on the play and isn’t revelatory in the way that the best Sport for Jove productions have been.

Its strength is the great clarity of the storytelling, with a keen focus on the text. Energetically and warmly performed, it’s a solid, enjoyable production with the comedy to the fore.

Anna Gardiner’s art deco set with a translucent screen wall and doors at the back and a parquet floor (by Lucilla Smith) locates it during the 1920s or 1930s: an era close enough to our own to feel contemporary but pre-dating World War II and the horrors of the holocaust. (A final image of Shylock’s daughter Jessica, left alone on stage as dark looks are thrown at her, is a nod to what is to come).

The production opens with a burst of We’re in the Money from the musical 42nd Street, which is set in the 1930s during the Great Depression. Beyond that, however, the choice of era seems mainly an aesthetic one, and even that becomes rather lost as the production unfolds.

The costuming doesn’t locate things specifically in the 1930s, the music moves from jazz age to classical, and overall there’s not a strong sense of time or place.

Writing in the program, Cottrell argues that though race is a factor, “the play is about money rather than money lending”.

“Antonio and Shylock represent the getting and spending of money. The relationship between them is not about a Jew and Gentile but about two men who hate each other,” he says.

Portia, meanwhile, is exceptionally wealthy – the main reason Bassanio, who is broke and needs to make a good marriage, was initially attracted to her.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

Lizzie Schebesta as Portia.

It’s true that in the play money makes the world go around, but it doesn’t register here as a touchstone or a key, overarching theme.

Instead, the production foregrounds the comedy and fun, tripping along lightly for much of the evening and generating plenty of laughter on opening night. Occasionally it is almost taken too far. Aaron Tsindos gives such a broadly comic, boomingly voiced portrayal of the Prince of Morocco that it feels dangerously close to racial caricature in a play where race is an unavoidable issue. That said, the audience lapped it up and roared with laughter.

But there’s no getting away from the prejudice at the centre of the play. We hear how Shylock has been called a dog and spat on; we understand why he wants revenge through his pound of flesh yet we shudder at what he is prepared to do, and at his ruthless refusal of mercy.

At the same time, when the judge rules against Shylock and he is ordered to renounce his Judaism it’s a deeply uncomfortable moment, with Gratiano’s boorish jubilation an ugly sight.

As Shakespeare shows, and as we well know, prejudice brings out the worst in people – both those doling it out and those on the receiving end. It’s something we are wrestling with here and now in Australia.

John Turnbull is terrific as Shylock, portraying him as a smart, dignified businessman who has been insulted once too often.

It’s not an unsympathetic portrayal – we see clearly why he behaves as he does – but nor is it an overly sympathetic one. The sight of him sharpening his knife on his shoe, while Antonio removes his shirt, is chilling. His steadfast refusal to grant mercy when the money he is owed and more is offered to him is done with a coldness as steely as his knife. And when he realises his daughter Jessica has left him, he seems only concerned about the money and jewels she has taken with her.

Turnbull keeps all this in balance in a powerful performance.

Lizzie Schebesta invests Portia with a playful intelligence, James Lugton plays Antonio with a mournful sincerity and Chris Stalley makes a dashing Bassanio.

There are strong performances from the rest of the cast, which includes Damien Strouthos as an exuberant Gratiano, Erica Lovell as Portia’s maid Nerissa, Jonathan Elsom as the comical, blind Old Gobbo and Lucy Heffernan as Jessica, along with Darcy Brown, Lucy Heffernan, Jason Kos, Michael Cullen and Pip Dracakis.

There are a few odd touches in the production, such as why does Jessica start out with auburn hair then suddenly appear in a blonde wig? Is she trying to disguise her Jewish heritage and look more like a Gentile or is it part of the spending spree Jessica and Lorenzo go on? I wasn’t sure.

All in all, it may not be the most memorable production of the play but it’s enjoyable, entertaining and well-staged, allowing the play to speak clearly.

The Merchant of Venice plays at the Seymour Centre until May 30. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7940

Unholy Ghosts

SBW Stables Theatre, August 29

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

James Lugton and Anna Volska. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Campion Decent’s touching autobiographical play Unholy Ghosts “tells the story of my family and our navigation of loss” as he writes in his program notes.

Effectively putting his own parents on stage, it’s no wonder he creates such vivid characters in this heartfelt yet funny three-hander in which a man known only as Son (James Lugton) tells us about the loss of his warring mother and father to cancer within seven months of each other.

Hovering beneath this is the shadow of his sister, who died 12 years ago, whose loss he still keenly feels.

Decent has the Son act as both narrator and player as he guides us from scene to scene and the emotional roller-coaster that he finds himself on.

The product of a dysfunctional family, the Son is a playwright in his 40s who lives with his male partner and their two children.

His mother (Anna Volska) is a former star of stage and radio who gave up her career for her children and has resented it ever since but whose life is still one big, grand performance. Drily witty, she smokes and drinks ferociously despite cancer riddling her body and applies lipstick liberally – even for her last rites, which is both funny and sad.

His father (Robert Alexander) is a cantankerous old grouch who has little sympathy with his son’s sexuality (describing homosexuals as “your lot”) or career choice.

There’s no love lost between the divorced pair and their Son finds himself caught in the middle as he visits them both during their illness, keen to ask questions about his parents’ damaging treatment of him as a child.

Anyone who has ever experienced the loss of a parent or someone close will find aspects of the play to relate to. The mother’s description of her frail flesh literally coming apart at the seams hit home hard for me.

All three performers are excellent. Volska, who hasn’t been on stage for around a decade, brings precision timing and a compelling mix of diva-like manipulation and charm to the role of the mother. It’s wonderful to see her back in the theatre.

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Robert Alexander. Photo: Danielle Lyonne

Alexander is very touching as the father who wants to express regret in his dying days but must struggle to find a way, while Lugton gives a winning, truthful performance as a man torn between love and frustration, irritation and hurt, relief and fear of coming adrift.

Produced by White Box Theatre as part of Griffin Independent, Kim Hardwick directs the production with a light, understated touch and a lack of sentimentality, even as recrimination slides into redemption.

Coming toward the end, a fantasy scene set in heaven therefore feels out of place. The final scene in which the Son realises with euphoria that the family he now has is the one he has chosen – partner, children and friends – also sits slightly oddly after what has gone before but sends the audience out on a warm, fuzzy note.

On opening night I felt that the play didn’t build quite as strongly emotionally as it doubtless will (navigating the jumps between narration and scenes perhaps?) – but others apparently sobbed.

Unholy Ghosts is a lovely, heartfelt play. Decent’s script has a zing about it with big laughs as well as tears. One sentence rang out, and has echoed in my mind ever since: “We all know our parents teach us how to live, or not to live, but, of course, I realise now they also teach us how to die.”

Unholy Ghosts is at the SBW Stables Theatre until September 20. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

The Young Tycoons

Eternity Playhouse, May 20

Edmund Lembke-Hogan and Andrew Cutcliffe. Photo: Noni Carroll

Edmund Lembke-Hogan and Andrew Cutcliffe. Photo: Noni Carroll

A smash hit in 2005 and 2006, Darlinghurst Theatre Company is reviving CJ Johnson’s gleefully corrosive satire at its new venue.

Subtitled “a ruthless comedy”, The Young Tycoons is set in 2003 as two aging Australian media moguls start to hand over control of their empires to their sons.

The warring families are fictionalised, of course, but no prizes for guessing who they’re modeled on.

The fathers and their heirs are a study in contrasts. The bullying, potty-mouthed Ted Vogler (Laurence Coy), now focused primarily on television, is a high roller, loves cricket and has a dodgy heart, not helped when his “knucklehead” son Kim (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) loses a billion in a bad investment.

Liam Warburton (John Turnbull), who dominates the nation’s newspapers, is cool, pragmatic and US-based, while his suave son Trevor (Andrew Cutcliffe) is Ivy League educated.

Then there are the son’s girlfriends (Paige Gardiner and Gabrielle Scawthorn), a business journo from an opposition broadsheet (James Lugton) who has them in his sights, Liam’s long-serving, right-hand-man Donald (Terry Serio), and Kim’s personal assistant/press secretary (Briallen Clarke).

It’s a world where wives are picked as if part of a business deal – though the women in the play are no pushovers.

Johnson’s script unfolds over numerous short scenes not unlike a TV drama but director Michael Pigott keeps things moving snappily on Katja Handt’s excellent, sparse set with its curving plywood wall, helped by Murray Jackson’s jazzy music.

The writing is robust with plenty of laughs. Act I takes a little time to hit its stride but the play ramps up in Act II when there is more punchy drama between the characters.

Johnson decided not to update the play but has added a few new references (Grange, Barangaroo), while a punch-up was apparently included just days before the James Packer-David Gyngell street brawl.

Lembke-Hogan is outstanding as the pugnacious, not-so-smart Kim, revealing flickers of self-doubt as he tries to assert himself with blinkered, puppy-dog impulsiveness. Serio is also excellent as the veteran newspaperman who finds himself becoming collateral damage, while Turnbull and Coy contrast each other nicely as the two rival media barons. But all the cast are terrific and deserve praise.

Johnson doesn’t depart too far from reality so there are few real surprises, particularly since this era has been much picked over of late on TV. However, the play plugs into Australia’s continuing fascination with its business heavyweights offering an entertaining, fly-on-the-wall look at the lives of the filthy rich and very powerful.

The Young Tycoons runs until June 15. Bookings: 02 8356 9987 or www.darlinghursttheatre.com

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

All’s Well That Ends Well

Seymour Centre, April 3

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo:  Seiya Taguchi

Francesca Savige and Edmund Lembke-Hogan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

With a new production of All’s Well That Ends Well, created for the large York Theatre at the Seymour Centre rather than for one of its outdoor seasons, Sport for Jove confirms once more that it is one of Sydney’s most impressive independent companies and its artistic director Damien Ryan an exceptionally fine director of Shakespeare.

One of Shakespeare’s so-called “problem plays”, All’s Well That Ends Well is rarely seen. It is a tricky piece: a dark comedy set against a backdrop of war, in which Helena, a smart, virtuous, beautiful young woman does her all to win the love of Bertram, a young French count and seemingly undeserving young whelp who treats her with disdain. He doesn’t love her so doesn’t want to be forced to marry her – fair enough – but his rejection is brutal.

The happy denouement is achieved thanks to a bed-swapping trick and an implausible back-from-the-dead scene – but Ryan’s intelligent, bold, contemporary production takes all this in its stride and not only gives us a compelling drama, with plenty of humour, but one that is very moving at the end.

In a nutshell, Bertram’s mother adopted the orphaned Helena after the death of her father, an eminent physician. While Bertram views her in sisterly fashion, she loves and desires him.

Helena follows Bertram to Paris where she cures the king of a fatal illness. As thanks, the king allows her to choose any husband. Bertram is horrified when she picks him. Though forced to marry her, he refuses to sleep with her and flees to fight on the frontline in Italy, vowing that he will never be her husband until she can get the ring off his finger and bear his child.

Helena sets out on a barefoot pilgrimage and eventually encounters three women, one of whom is being courted by Bertram. Through their help, she finally wins her heart’s desire.

Battles of all kinds rage in the play. A literal war provides part of the backdrop but love and sex are also frequently referred to in military-like terms.

Ryan’s production begins with Bertram (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) sitting on a sleek, glossy black four-poster bed playing a war game on a gaming console, the sounds of battle filling the air as Helena (Francesca Savige) enters in shorts, tights and red Doc Martens to do the hoovering.

Antoinette Barboutis’s set design centres on the one clever, versatile structure, which transforms from the four-poster bed to a sauna-like steam room, military training equipment, a field hospital and Helena’s deathbed. Apparently there are sightline problems if you sit in the side seating blocks but from the front it’s a very effective devise that morphs quickly, making for fluid scene changes.

Ryan tells the story clearly and inventively, driving his production with a hard-edged, modern, punchy energy, complimented by David Stalley’s sound and Toby Knyvett’s lighting. At the same time, the strong cast handles the language exceptionally well, by and large, with the meaning and poetry shining through.

There are lots of clever little touches, which illuminate and entertain without feeling at all gimmicky. Helena is seen reviving a swatted fly to illustrate the magical healing powers she inherited from her father and will use to save the king, while the use of smart phones for Bertram’s rejection of Helena and her bedding of him work a treat.

As for the male nudity in the scene in which all the bachelors are presented for Helena’s consideration, it’s very funny yet apposite. Without knowing most of them, it really is a meat market.

Portraying the three women who help Helena as nurses at a field hospital for wounded soldiers is also an intelligent decision, further marrying the themes of love, sex and war.

The performances are robust and considered across the board. Lembke-Hogan has a strong stage presence and manages Bertram’s sudden emotional conversion at the end so well that it is genuinely moving. Against the odds, we are left feeling that a happy ending between he and Helena is genuinely possible.

Robert Alexander is a standout as the king – frail and at death’s door one minute then in commanding, authoritative form the next, while George Banders brings emotional depth and comic nous to the role of the cowardly Parolles.

But all the cast – which also includes Savige as Helena, Sandra Eldridge, James Lugton, Eloise Winestock, Teresa Jakovich, Megan Drury, Chris Stalley, Sam Haft, Robin Goldsworthy, Chris Tomkinson, Damien Strouthos and Mike Pigott – deserve praise.

Running for three hours and ten minutes, there are times when you feel a little editing might not go astray but no matter. This is a great chance to see a little-staged play in a clear, intelligent, funny and visceral production.

All’s Well That Ends Well is at the Seymour Centre until April 12. Bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au or 02 9351 7940

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

Fireface: review

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Darcie Irwin-Simpson and Darcy Brown. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf

ATYP Studio 1, August 4

Adolescence can be a confusing, angst-ridden time – particularly if your parents are everything you don’t want to become as an adult. But how much does ineffectual (as opposed to abusive) parenting shape a troubled teenager?

In his 1997 play Fireface (first seen in Sydney when the Sydney Theatre Company presented it in 2001) German writer Marius Von Mayenburg presents us with a middle-class family where communication has broken down.

The parents aren’t talking. The father (James Lugton) would rather read newspaper reports about murdered prostitutes than communicate with his wife (Lucy Miller), while she flaunts herself around the home in various states of undress.

Their alienated children, meanwhile, are exhibiting worrying behavioural traits. The burnt blackbird that the mother discovers wrapped in newspaper behind the garage is surely a warning sign but the father is in denial, dismissing it as nothing serious.

In this emotionally arid world, provocative teenager Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson) starts using her burgeoning sexuality as a form of power, solace and a means of escape, first seducing her equally alienated younger brother Kurt (Darcy Brown) and then Paul (Ryan Bennett) who catches her eye because of his motorbike.

Jealous at Paul’s arrival, Kurt’s fascination with flames escalates and he really starts playing with fire. There’s no doubt it will end badly – with no prizes for guessing how.

Von Mayenburg structures his taut 100-minute play using 94 short, snappy scenes.

Directing the play for Stories Like These and atyp Under The Wharf, Luke Rogers punctuates the myriad scenes with sharp blackouts and a surge of sound not unlike the explosive crackle of fire (sound design by Nate Edmondson). At times the momentum falters with so many scene breaks but on the whole Rogers manages to keep the tension building.

Simply staged around a table and chairs (set and costume design by Lucilla Smith), Rogers puts the focus firmly on the performances.

The cast of five are all convincing, with Brown in particular capturing Kurt’s weird, psychotic nature, his face looking increasingly blank and his eyes ever more dead as the play unfolds, while Lugton and Miller give just the right weight to the black comedy, as the parents sidestep responsibility and console themselves with the thought that it won’t be long before their troublesome offspring leave home.

Though we may know where it’s going, Fireface is a dark, disturbing play. Rogers could perhaps ramp up the sense of menace a little more but his production is certainly unsettling and sends you home pondering what you’ve just seen.

Fireface is at the ATYP Studio 1, The Wharf, until August 17