The Detective’s Handbook

Hayes Theatre Co, April 27

Detectives_ProductionPhotos-87

Rob Johnson and Justin Smith. Photo: Clare Hawley

Writing a new musical is a massive undertaking, generally requiring a huge investment of time and money. Australian musicals with an original score are pretty thin on the ground and so in 2010 the New Musicals Australia (NMA) program was established to address this.

During a two-year period, 13 new works went through various stages of development under NMA. In 2015, the Hayes Theatre Co – hub for some of the most exciting musical theatre in Sydney at the moment – took over the initiative, with funding from the Australia Council.

From 60 submissions, eight musicals were selected for “snapshot presentations”. From these, one was chosen for further development via workshops with industry mentors, leading to a full production.

The Detective’s Handbook is the first musical from the scheme to be produced at the Hayes. It’s a fun show and though it may not be the next great Australian musical – in its current form, anyway – it does herald the arrival of an exciting young writing team with plenty of talent.

With book and lyrics by 26-year old Ian Ferrington and music by 22-year Olga Solar, who recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, The Detective’s Handbook pays loving homage to the detective novel and film noir.

Set in 1950s Chicago, Frank Thompson (Justin Smith), a hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective, is called into the station one Sunday morning to investigate the murder of two cops in a factory on the seedy side of town. To his irritation, he is paired with Jimmy Hartman, a church-going rookie who likes to do things by the book – The Detective’s Handbook that is, in two volumes. With only a matchbox for a clue, they begin their investigation encountering the inevitable femme fatales along the way.

What differentiates The Detective’s Handbook is that some of the lyrics are rapped over a jazz score. Ferrington certainly has a punchy way with words and his book and lyrics are full of puns, one-liners and some brilliantly clever internal rhyming structures. Even if it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, it’s inventive and immensely enjoyable. The rapping style is primarily given to the cynical Frank, while the bright-eyed Jimmy gets to sing in a more melodic musical theatre style.

Solar’s jazzy score is also very clever, with a sound that nods to the period but also feel modern, with references ranging from Scott Joplin to Sondheim. The intricate underscoring and the lively melodies are attractive even if none of the songs are wildly memorable – on one listening anyway. A number about femme fatales sung by Sheridan Harbridge is the most obvious crowd-pleaser.

So, musically and lyrically, there is much to enjoy about the show. But, given that the tropes of the genre are so well known, the plot could do with some thickening and a more surprising twist, while the characters could be developed more. Though it only runs 80 minutes without interval, two-thirds of the way through, it feels as if the show is losing steam, despite some terrific performances.

Produced by Neil Gooding, the Hayes has done the show proud.  After a slightly slow start, Jonathan Biggins keeps things rollicking along. James Browne’s flexible black and white set works well both in practical terms and as a nod to film noir and the chalk outlining of dead bodies, while his costuming adds colour and underpins character types. Sian James-Holland’s lighting plays with noirish shadows most effectively.

Smith and Johnson complement each other well as the ‘odd couple’ cops. Smith exudes just the right amount of crumpled, jaded cynicism and handles the rap rhythms with a natural, easy confidence, while Johnson’s naïve, puppy dog eagerness is pitched to perfection.

Detectives_ProductionPhotos-60

Tony Cogin and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Clare Hawley

Harbridge is sensational as three women all called Maria: the sexy, efficient secretary to the Chief of Police, a helpful café owner, and a rather formidable mortician. Her quick changes between the three characters are skilfully handled – hilariously so at the end when two of them are in the same scene.

Lara Mulcahy is very funny as yet another Maria, who owns a Polish delicatessen and runs a matchmaking service on the side, and paired with Christopher Horsey as a couple of cheery, dim-witted cops.

Horsey, who is also the choreographer, has overseen an amusing number in which he and Mulcahy move from typewriting to tap dancing, though a later tap routine feels like filler. Tony Cogin completes the well-chosen cast as the ineffectual Irish Chief of Police.

Musical director Michael Tyack leads a fine jazz quartet and sound designer Jeremy Silver balances the amplification well.

Currently The Detective’s Handbook feels slight but is still lots of fun. Most importantly, it shines a light on two very talented writers in Ferrington and Solar, giving them an opportunity to develop the show and their skill base with the likes of Biggins, Tyack, musical consultant Phil Scott and dramaturg Christie Evangelisto.

The chance for them to see The Detective’s Handbook up and running in front of an audience is invaluable experience and will hopefully encourage them to write another musical.

The Detective’s Handbook plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

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Violet

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide and the cast of Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Hayes Theatre Co, December 2

Violet is a lovely little musical with a gentle charm that gets under the skin. Before you know it, you’ve been knocked for six.

Written by composer Jeanine Tesori (who won Best Musical and Best Original Score for Fun Home at this year’s Tony Awards) and writer Brian Crawley, it is based on a short story by Doris Bett called The Ugliest Pilgrim.

The show premiered off-Broadway in 1997 and had a short season on Broadway last year with Sutton Foster as Violet. But it couldn’t have been given a more loving production than it gets here, produced by Blue Saint Productions in association with the Hayes, and directed by Mitchell Butel.

Set in 1964, Violet tells the story of a young woman (Samantha Dodemaide) who takes a Greyhound bus from North Carolina to Oklahoma, hoping that a televangelist can heal a disfiguring scar on her face, gained 12 years earlier when the blade flew from her father’s axe.

En route, she meets two soldiers – the cocky Monty (Steve Danielsen) and the kindly Flick (Barry Conrad) who as an African American understands what it’s like to be a misfit. The two buddies take her under their wing and fall for her.

Tesori’s music includes gospel, country, blues, soul, folk as well as ballads and soaring anthems in a more traditional musical theatre style. It’s a gorgeous score, with the songs emerging organically from the story and the characters.

Butel makes a very impressive directorial debut. For starters, his casting is excellent and he draws clearly delineated, truthful performances from the actors. He keeps the action moving fluidly at a perfect pace, and he knows exactly how to put the focus where it needs to be.

Simon Greer’s non-naturalistic set is a clever, evocative space, which Butel uses extremely well, with great support from the rest of the creative team (lighting by Ross Graham, costumes by Lucetta Stapleton and choreography by Amy Campbell).

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

With her expressive face and voice, Dodemaide gives a radiant performance as Violet, capturing her prickly exterior and inner vulnerability. She manages to make the character’s deluded naivety believable and has a lovely, shy smile that lights up the stage.

Luisa Scrofani and Damien Bermingham are moving in flashback scenes between the young Violet and her father. Danielsen and Conrad give warm, appealing, believable performances as Monty and Flick, Dash Kruck nails the charlatan preacher, while Genevieve Lemon is a scene-stealer as an old Lady on the bus and a Memphis lady of the night.

The rest of the ensemble – Katie Elle Reeve, Linden Furnell, Ryan Gonzalez and Elenoa Rokobaro – all play their part beautifully and between them unleash some powerhouse vocals, while Musical Director Lucy Bermingham leads a tight six-piece band.

The lyrics in the opening number are a little hard to hear with everyone singing so loudly, but after that the sound (sound design by Jeremy Silver) is as good as I’ve heard it at the Hayes.

Violet is a simple, optimistic piece about self-acceptance and forgiveness. The ending won’t surprise but it touches the heart without being sentimental or corny.

Violet is at the Hayes until December 20. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 29

Little Shop of Horrors is Back for More Blood

Brent Hill will play Seymour and Esther Hannaford will play Audrey in the new Hayes Theatre Co production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: supplied

Brent Hill will play Seymour and Esther Hannaford will play Audrey in the new Hayes Theatre Co production of Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: supplied

In February 2014, the Hayes Theatre Co burst onto Sydney’s musical theatre scene with a brilliantly re-imagined, award-winning production of Sweet Charity, which later had a return season at the Sydney Opera House and then toured.

Now, as revealed in today’s Sunday Telegraph, the same creative team is reuniting almost exactly two years later to stage a production of Little Shop of Horrors, produced by Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions.

Dean Bryant will direct with musical direction by Andrew Worboys, choreography by Andrew Hallsworth, set design by Owen Phillips, costume design by Tim Chappel, lighting design by Ross Graham and sound design by Jeremy Silver.

The kooky musical about a man-eating plant will open at the Hayes in February then tour nationally.

“We had so much fun (on Sweet Charity),” says Lisa Campbell of Luckiest Productions.

“We were very fortunate that Sweet Charity got the life that it did and I’m very proud of what the creative team produced. It was a very special time. It’s not that we’re trying to rebottle that but the team worked so incredibly well together it makes sense to jump back on the bus and do another one.”

A national tour has already been locked in for logistical reasons, says Campbell: “With the amount of musicals in the market over the next year or so it would have been very difficult to wait and see how the Hayes season went and hope for a transfer and extension afterwards so we had to think about it in those terms. We also decided that if we were going to be able to do the show that we wanted, we needed to have enough venues to support it as we wanted the plant to be as spectacular as possible.”

Little Shop of Horrors was written by composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman, who went on to co-write the songs for Disney’s animated films The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. (The Disney musical of Aladdin opens in Sydney next August). Little Shop premiered off-off Broadway in 1982 then ran off-Broadway for five years.

Set in the early 1960s, Seymour Krelborn is a hapless, meek florist’s assistant on Skid Row, who dreams of a better life and winning the love of his co-worker Audrey. When he discovers a strange plant, which he calls Audrey II, fame and fortune follow. But as Audrey II grows, so does its appetite for human flesh.

Based on Roger Corman’s 1960 film, Menken has described the musical as “a merry little musical romp about how greed will end the world.”

The catchy score is composed in the style of 1960s rock and roll, doo-wop and early Motown with songs including Feed Me, Suddenly Seymour and Somewhere That’s Green.

“I think the music is spectacular and I think the story is tragic and beautiful and hilarious. When we got to the Hayes, it was one of the first things that I thought deserved to be on that stage and would suit it,” says Campbell.

The new Hayes production features a top-notch cast with Brent Hill (Rock of Ages, Once) as Seymour, Esther Hannaford (King Kong, Miracle City) as Audrey, Tyler Copin (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) as the florist Mr Mushnik and Scott Johnson (Jersey Boys) as Audrey’s sadistic dentist boyfriend, along with Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane, Chloe Zuel, Dash Kruck and Kuki Tipoki.

Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford with Audrey II. Photo: supplied

Brent Hill and Esther Hannaford with Audrey II. Photo: supplied

Audrey II is being created by Erth, a theatre company known for its extraordinary puppets in shows such as Dinosaur Zoo. Campbell, who had been aware of their work for several years, went to talk with them 18 months ago.

“I met with Steve Howarth, one of the founders of Erth, and I said, ‘I’m not sure if you’re aware of the musical Little Shop of Horrors but I need somebody to create a man-eating plant.’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’ve been waiting for 25 years for somebody to ask me to do this,’” says Campbell.

“We have three versions of Audrey II and within each of those there is room for the plant to grow. It’s very exciting.”

The Hayes will unveil the rest of its program for the first half of 2016 at a launch tomorrow night.

A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on October 18

TOUR DATES

 Sydney – Hayes Theatre Co from February 18th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE NOW

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Adelaide – Her Majesty’s Theatre from April 20th 2016

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Melbourne – Comedy Theatre from May 4th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

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Canberra – Canberra Theatre from May 25th 2016

TICKETS ON SALE WEDNESDAY 25TH NOVEMBER

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Brisbane – Playhouse Theatre QPAC from June 1st 2016

TICKETS ON SALE MONDAY 30TH NOVEMBER

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High Society

Hayes Theatre Co, September 7

Amy Lehpamer and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer, sizzling in red, and the cast of High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

High Society is set in the palatial home of rich socialites complete with swimming pool: quite a challenge in a 111-seat theatre.

But, true to form, the Hayes Theatre Co production solves it ingeniously. Set designer Lauren Peters has come up with four elegant, moveable arches and a clever reveal for the party scene. Lucetta Stapleton’s 1930s costuming, a few props and some sound effects (Jeremy Silver) are enough to complete the picture, along with Gavan Swift’s lighting.

The 1998 stage musical is based on the 1956 film High Society starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra and Philip Barry’s 1939 play The Philadelphia Story. It has a very funny script by Arthur Kopit and songs by Cole Porter, some of which were in the movie, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Well, Did you Evah! and True Love, along with others of his that weren’t. Not all the lyrics relate as well as they might to the situation but overall it works a treat.

It’s the eve of Tracy Lord’s wedding to the rather pompous, dull George Kittredge. However, her younger sister Dinah is determined that Tracy remarry her first husband CK Dexter Haven, who turns up unexpectedly with a pair of reporters from Spy Magazine, Mike Connor and Liz Imbrie.

Helen Dallimore directs with a sure, light touch, telling the story with great clarity, while Cameron Mitchell’s choreography suits the period. In another ingenious touch, Dallimore uses a quartet led by musical director Daryl Wallis whose jazzy arrangements of the score work brilliantly.

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Amy Lehpamer positively glows as Tracy: glamorous, tough and very funny when drunk, her singing, acting and dancing all perfectly pitched. Virginia Gay is sensational as Liz, who is quietly in love with Mike. Her comic timing is impeccable, her performance is full of delicious, surprising little details (the way she hesitates to articulate the word ‘you’ when singing “All I want is you” in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? just one of many) and she knows exactly how to deliver the songs.

Bobby Fox convincingly conveys Mike’s gradual softening as he falls for Tracy in a charismatic performance, while Bert LaBonté is an understated, rather melancholic Dexter whose charm grows on you.

Along the rest of the exceptionally strong cast, there are well judged comic performance from Scott Irwin as George, Jessica Whitfield as Dinah and Laurence Coy as the lecherous uncle Willy, while Delia Hannah is lovely as Tracy’s mother. All in all, divine.

High Society plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until October 3. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on September 13

Blonde Poison

Old Fitz Theatre, July 30

Belinda Giblin as Stella Goldschlag. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin as Stella Goldschlag. Photo: Marnya Rothe


Gail Louw’s one-woman play Blonde Poison tells the confronting, true story of Stella Goldschlag, taking its title from the nickname the Nazis gave her.

Also known as “the blonde ghost”, Berlin-born Goldschlag was 18 when World War II began. Very beautiful with blonde hair and blue eyes, she looked Aryan but was actually Jewish. Living illegally in war-torn Berlin, she was captured and tortured by the Gestapo. In order to save herself and her parents from Auschwitz, she agreed to become a “greifer” or “catcher”, informing on Jews in hiding. Because of her, up to 3000 Jews are said to have been sent to concentration camps.

The play requires an extraordinary performance to keep you riveted for its entire 90 minutes – and it gets it from Belinda Giblin in a production currently playing at Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre, produced by Adam Liberman in association with Red Line Productions.

Louw is a British playwright, whose grandparents died during the Holocaust. She based her play largely on a book by David Wyden, a journalist who had been smitten with Goldschlag at school and interviewed her when she was in her 70s. Wyden’s family was able to escape Berlin in 1937 and go to the US, but Goldschlag’s family didn’t have the means or the connections.

In the play, Goldschlag – now living as a recluse – is waiting nervously for Wyden to arrive and begins going over in her mind all the questions he is bound to ask about her life.

Louw has Goldschlag tell her story in fairly straightforward fashion but she doesn’t dodge the moral complexities, with our sympathy shifting back and forth. Jennifer Hagan directs the play with understated sensitivity, eschewing bells and whistles and Giblin gives one of the performances of her career with an emotionally layered portrayal that is full of nuance and complexity.

Brought up to think of herself as “a princess” by her father and beloved Mutti, Giblin portrays a vain woman with a strong sense of entitlement and a keen awareness of her sexual power. At the same time, she is a victim of her time and place, who makes difficult choices in order to survive.

At times, we understand and empathise with Goldschlag; at other times we are taken aback by her ruthlessness and her candid admission that she loved the power and privilege her acts of betrayal conferred on her. One particular incident, where she nearly seals the fate of a Jewish boy in the Hitler Youth, and describes the thrill she experiences is particularly unsettling. Giblin plays it all beautifully without ever judging the character. She also conveys Goldschlag’s heartbreak when her daughter is taken away from her as a baby and later rejects her.

Belinda Giblin. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Derrick Cox has designed a small, shabby apartment that makes for a convincingly naturalistic setting in which a basket of rag dolls sits oddly for such a stylish, tough woman: a sad, almost pathetic, substitute for or reminder of the daughter she lost.

The play itself is a bit long-winded and repetitive and could easily be trimmed. However, Hagan’s production (with sound by Jeremy Silver and lighting by Matthew Tunchon) is powerfully evoked. But it’s Giblin’s portrayal of a flawed human being that makes the play soar, keeping us gripped, fascinated, appalled and moved as we contemplate what we would have done in her place.

Blonde Poison runs at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo until August 15. Bookings: http://www.oldfitztheatre.com

Howie the Rookie

Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Irish writer Mark O’Rowe spins a gripping, blood-and-brawl yarn in the two intersecting 40-minute monologues that make up his 1999 play Howie the Rookie, which feels slightly fantastical and yet profoundly, horribly human.

Brought to brilliant life by Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins, the production directed by Toby Schmitz packs a knockout punch.

Set in a tough, working-class suburb of Dublin in the late 1990s, the Howie Lee (Henry) begins the tale. He is, he tells us, out to bash up the Rookie Lee (same surname, but no relation) for infecting a mate’s mattress, where he sometimes sleeps, with scabies. So when his mum asks him to babysit his five-year old brother the Mouse Lee, he tells her in no uncertain terms where to get off.

When the Rookie (Hawkins) takes up the story, he reveals that he is in considerably more trouble than a bashing at the hands of the Howie and his mates. He has inadvertently killed the Siamese fighting fish belonging to the Ladyboy, a brutal gangster, and has to raise a substantial amount of cash if he wants to keep his kneecaps in tact, as a result of which an unlikely alliance forms between the Howie and the Rookie.

O’ Rowe’s use of language is exhilarating. Writing in a vibrant, robust, vital style that sings with a kind of blistering, slangy poetry (words like “slappercopper” for police woman, for example), he creates such vivid, visceral images you feel you are there.

The story is peopled with eccentric characters. The Howie is a bit of a dag and useless when it comes to chatting up girls, unlike the good-looking Rookie.

Then there’s the Avalanche, a mountainous vision in white ski pants who lusts after the Howie (who has bedded her once) and now keeps appearing at inopportune times like when he’s taking a leak.

The Howie’s friends include Flan Dingle, who has dreadful BO, Ginger Boy with blazing red hair and the Avalanche’s towering brother (“six feet tall, built like a human white puddin’), who may not be quite the full quid. As for the Ladyboy, he is rumored to have three rows of teeth like a shark.

A dark, ugly comedy full of booze, piss, blood, biff and violence, it’s very funny – until it suddenly gets all too real.

Schmitz – who is currently based in South Africa where he is playing a featured role in the pirate TV series Black Sails – returned to Australia briefly to direct Howie the Rookie.

Lisa Mimmocchi has designed him the perfect, minimal set: a black box space with nothing in it except two chairs for the storytellers, a tiny up-ended chair in the corner (the meaning of which is explained in the course of the tale) and a pile of beer bottle tops. The tracksuits she chooses for the two storytellers are also spot-on, while the shaved pattern in Hawkins’ hair is an inspired touch.

Schmitz, who performed at the Old Fitz several times early in his career, uses the space exceptionally well. His decision to have both men there throughout the two monologues is a canny one, for starters. They sit, sipping on a beer, while the other talks, occasionally reacting and making eye contact, but mostly just present. But it somehow makes it feel more real to see the other key person in the story.

Schmitz also uses the bottle tops, just twice, to send a jolt through the audience. Alexander Berlage’s lighting and Jeremy Silver’s sound complete the picture perfectly.

Henry and Hawkins are both excellent; Henry capturing the insecurity beneath the loutish Howie’s almost pathetic bravado, Hawkins also conveying the vulnerability beneath the Rookie’s far cooler façade. By the end of the piece we have come to care about both of them and the denouement is surprisingly moving.

The two actors do a pretty good job with the Oirish accent too (dialect coach, Gabrielle Rogers).

Howie the Rookie is a tough little gem, which sits perfectly in the tiny, 50-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitz. Recommended.

Howie the Rooks runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until October 25. Bookings: www.sitco.net.au or 1300 307 264

The 13-Storey Treehouse

Sydney Opera House

Mark Owen-Taylor and Luke Joslin. Photo: supplied

Mark Owen-Taylor and Luke Joslin. Photo: supplied

Such is the popularity of writer Andy Griffiths’ and illustrator Terry Denton’s children’s book The 13-Storey Treehouse that when the Sydney Opera House programmed a stage production in September it all but sold out before even opening – so a return season was announced quick smart.

It’s not the most obvious book to stage. For starters it’s set in, well, a 13-storey treehouse with a bowling alley, lemonade fountain, see-through swimming pool, man-eating shark tank, vines you can swing on and a secret underground laboratory. And then there are those pesky monkeys, a mermaid/sea monster, a marauding gorilla and a flying cat: all in a fun day’s work in the world according to Andy and Terry but far easier to conjure on the page than the stage.

The premise of the book is that it tells of all the adventures Andy and Terry have when they should be writing their overdue book – adventures, which ultimately become the story of the book.

For the stage production, writer Richard Tulloch gives this meta-joke a theatrical twist. Andy (Luke Joslin) and Terry (Mark Owen-Taylor) arrive at the Sydney Opera House to rehearse a play about the treehouse. The only trouble is they’ve forgotten to write a script or hire any actors and the opening night audience is already in the house.

Their no-nonsense stage manager Val (Sarah Woods) insists that the show must go on. And so with a box of props and a 2D-3D converter that brings drawings to life, they do indeed stage the story of The 13-Storey Treehouse – with the trusty Val agreeing under sufferance to take on the other roles (including the mermaid-sea monster) when they tell her that Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe were unavailable.

Directed by Julian Louis with design by Mark Thompson, lighting by Nicholas Higgins and sound by Jeremy Silver, the show relies on a large dose of imagination from the audience – which is cleverly, dare I say imaginatively, harnessed by the creative team.

However, the production’s success is also due in large part to the all-stops-out performances of Joslin and Owen-Taylor who both bring ripper comic timing and the manic energy of a hypo child to their roles, working their butts off.

There are some brilliant little moments. A drawing competition between Andy and Terry (which as the adults realise includes sleight-of-hand) drew gasps of appreciation from the kids near me, while the gorilla trampling Mr Barky triggered shrieks of laughter.

The 13-Storey Treehouse runs at the Sydney Opera House until January 25. Bookings: sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777