All My Sons

Roslyn Packer Theatre, June 9

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Chris Ryan, John Howard and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Even if you know nothing about Arthur Miller’s classic play All My Sons, the foreboding set for Kip Williams’ shattering Sydney Theatre Company production tells you immediately that all is not well.

Instead of the usual naturalistic backyard, designer Alice Babidge sets the action in a black box with a flat cut-out of the Keller family home. The blank façade gives little away though you can see art on the walls through the windows. Later, the set will be used to echo the revealing of secrets, as lies that lurk at the heart of the play are laid bare.

In the brighter opening scenes, the darkness of the set does rather undercut Miller’s initial depiction of a happy family apparently living the American Dream. But as the play unfolds, the setting adds to the feeling of something rotten behind closed doors.

The stark staging throws a laser focus on Miller’s beautiful writing and on the exceptional performances, which stand out in sharp relief against the dark, oppressive backdrop, while Babidge’s costuming anchors the play in its period. The production is eloquently lit by Nick Schlieper while Max Lyandvert’s music subtly underscores the building of tension.

Set in 1946, wealthy factory owner Joe Keller (John Howard) was exonerated for knowingly supplying faulty aircraft parts during the war but his business partner Steve, who took the rap, is still in jail. Meanwhile, Joe’s wife Kate clings to the hope that her son Larry, a fighter pilot missing in action for three years, will return home.

Their other son Chris (Chris Ryan) has invited Ann Deever (Eryn Jean Norvill) home and Kate and Joe are on edge. Ann is Steve’s daughter and Larry’s former girlfriend. When Chris announces that he wants to marry her, a tragedy is set in motion.

Williams directs with a searing clarity, beautifully served by a cast who are able to reach deep into the emotions gnawing at the characters from within. Nevin is heart-breaking as Kate. She looks so tiny and fragile, wracked by an anguish she is too scared to acknowledge, yet she can still muster a sharp humour and a desperate cheerfulness.

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Robyn Nevin, Josh McConville and Eryn Jean Norvill. Photo: Zan Wimberley

In a wonderfully measured performance, Howard’s Joe is big and bluff with a geniality tempered by something guarded, while his sudden bursts of anger are quickly suppressed. Ryan radiates determined optimism as the idealistic, clean-cut Chris yet manages in little ways to suggest that he hasn’t completely recovered from the war. Hit hard by the truth, we watch Chris snap as his world falls apart. Norvill’s stylish Ann seems delicate yet stands her ground with surprising strength as she clings to the possibility of love.

As Ann’s avenging brother George, Josh McConville arrives (in crumpled suit) with a blast of energy.  His body is tight-wired and physically wracked as he struggles with a whirlpool of emotions: rage, guilt and long-standing love for the Kellers.

In supporting roles as the Keller’s neighbours –  Bert LaBonte as Jim, a world-weary, unhappily married doctor, Anita Hegh as his rather sour, nagging wife Sue, John Leary as the over-chatty handy-man Frank who is doing Larry’s horoscope for Kate, and Contessa Treffone as Frank’s sunny wife Lydia – the rest of the cast deliver well observed performances.

Telling a story of cowardice, denial and profit at others’ expense, All My Sons still resonates as powerfully as ever. Beautifully structured as it moves inexorably to its terrible conclusion, I felt as if I had been holding my breath for ten minutes or more by the play’s end, almost as emotionally drained as the actors.

All My Sons runs at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 12

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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

Arcadia

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 12

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Glenn Hazeldine and Ryan Corr. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Ryan Corr gives a standout, charismatic performance in Tom Stoppard’s brilliantly clever 1993 play Arcadia but the production itself wasn’t quite firing on all cylinders on opening night.

Set in a stately English country estate called Sidley Park, Arcadia unfolds across two time frames, with alternating scenes set in the early 1800s and the 1990s (which eventually begin to overlap and share the stage).

Beginning in 1809, teenage genius Thomasina Coverly (Georgia Flood) is discovering chaos theory and the Second Law of Thermodynamics a century before anyone else under the admiring eye of her dashing, witty tutor Septimus Hodge (Corr). Meanwhile, the garden is being transformed from a classical idyll to a Gothic wilderness.

In the same room 200 years later, Bernard Nightingale, a smug, ambitious Byron scholar (Josh McConville) desperate to prove that Byron fled England after killing a minor poet in a duel at Sidley Park, and Hannah Jarvis (Andrea Demetriades) a historian and author researching the mysterious hermit who lived in the garden’s faux hermitage, try to piece together the past from notes, drawings and other bits and pieces, which we have seen being created.

With illicit affairs, love, iterated algorithms, discussions about determinism and free will as well as Romanticism and Classicism in the mix, it’s heady stuff.

Richard Cottrell directs a sound, lucid, well-staged production on a handsome classical set by Michael Scott-Mitchell with stylish costumes by Julie Lynch.However, in striving to make Stoppard’s dazzling wordplay and complex ideas understandable to an audience, some characters feel underdeveloped and a little of the play’s sparkle and magic was lost on opening night.

At the moment, the historical scenes have a better rhythm than the contemporary ones where not all the humour lands, and there are times when the play feels pretty dense without enough of a leavening human dimension.

Corr has a wonderful, natural ease and charm as Septimus. He handles the zippy dialogue beautifully and his scenes with Flood have depth, heart and a lovely energy, though a stronger chemistry between them as the play progresses would make the ending more moving.

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Andrea Demetriades and Josh McConville. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Demetriades gives a strong performance as the wryly sceptical, somewhat stand-offish Hannah though one senses that there is more to find her character (a loneliness is hinted at in the play) and in her relationship with McConville’s Bernard, which we gather is underpinned by a sexual attraction, though there is little chemistry here.

McConville looks a little ill at ease as Bernard, though his zinging barbs are often very funny. Michael Sheasby gives a lively portrayal of Valentine, a gifted mathematician like his ancestor Thomasina before him, and Glenn Hazeldine is a hoot as Ezra Chater, a poet with precious little poetry in his soul whose wife has been discovered in “a carnal embrace” with Septimus. But not all the other performances feel entirely believable.

Given the brilliance of Stoppard’s writing and the top-notch production values, there is already much to enjoy but once the production settles, the cast will hopefully convey more of the play’s humanity and passion, and then it will really soar.

Arcadia plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 2. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on February 14

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

Noises Off

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 21

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waves of laughter swept through the opening night audience at Sydney Theatre Company’s riotously funny production of Noises Off.

Michael Frayn’s 1982 comic masterpiece is a mind-bogglingly clever feat of construction. Add to that Julie Lynch’s gloriously OTT, psychedelic 70s costumes (which drew applause of their own) and some superb comic performances, and you have a night of laugh-out-loud mayhem.

The farce-within-a farce (which comes with a very funny program-within-a-program) follows a third-rate company of actors as they tour the English provinces with a lame bedroom farce called Nothing On.

Frayn has peopled Noises Off with a rum bunch. There’s the show’s backer Dotty Otley (Genevieve Lemon), a one-time “name” who is playing the housekeeper Mrs Clackett and having an affair with Nothing On’s temperamental leading man, the younger Garry Lejeune (Josh McConville); the somewhat vacant Brooke Ashton (Ash Ricardo), a blonde bombshell who keeps losing her contact lenses and who is having a fling with the philandering director Lloyd Dallas (Marcus Graham); Belinda Blair (Tracy Mann) who tries to keep things on an even keel but loves a good gossip; an elderly dipsomaniac (Ron Haddrick); and the morose, anxious Frederick Fellowes (Alan Dukes) who needs to be given acting motivations for every move his character makes.

Getting/keeping the show on the road are the timid but conscientious assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Danielle King) who is also involved with the director Lloyd, and the sleep-deprived stage manager/general dog’s body Tim Allgood (Lindsay Farris).

Over the course of three acts, we watch the same section of Nothing On as the production gradually disintegrates.

In Act I we see the disastrous dress rehearsal. Act II takes place at a matinee a month later when things are beginning to go wrong – the twist being that it’s shown from backstage. Act III takes place at the end of the tour when hostilities between the actors are spilling onto the stage and everything that could go wrong does.

Act I feels a little slow as Frayn sets everything up but from there on the play is like a runaway train.

The unfolding chaos requires absolute precision – which it gets in Jonathan Biggins’ very fine production, staged on Mark Thompson’s handsome, suitably old-fashioned set complete with the requisite eight doors. The set then spins to show the Spartan backstage area.

Lynch’s costumes are a delight: patchwork bell bottom jeans, patterned flares, clinging polyester shirts, frocks with bold geometric designs and platform boots among other wonderfully colourful outfits.

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Biggins’ has elicited priceless comic performances across the board from his excellent cast but McConville is an absolute standout as Lejeune, his daredevil physicality drawing gasps. Lemon is also a hoot, while Graham is “faded charm” to a tee as the droll, exasperated director.

Beneath all the hilarity there is a dark sense of the absurd and the creeping terror of things spiraling beyond our control. We laugh uproariously but we can’t help but feel for the characters, trapped in an existential theatrical nightmare, much of it of their own making.

Noises Off runs until April 5. Bookings: http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 2

Moving Parts: review

Colin Friels and Josh McConville. Photo: Matt Hart

Colin Friels and Josh McConville. Photo: Matt Hart

David Nobay is the creative director of an award-winning Sydney advertising agency. As a playwright, however, he is a novice. Moving Parts is his first play – and in many ways it shows – but he has been lucky enough to secure two very fine actors in Colin Friels and Josh McConville.

He has also gathered a creative team with a slew of international film credits with lighting by Russell Boyd (who won an Academy Award for Master and Commander), set design by Steven Jones-Evans and costumes by Margot Wilson, while Steve Rogers, a sought-after director of TV commercials and music videos, directs.

Produced by a new company called Will O_Rourke, the production certainly looks very handsome but the play itself still has a way to go.

Moving Parts is a 70-minute two-hander set in an exclusive London jewellery store. It’s almost closing time when a young man (McConville) arrives, ostensibly to buy a prestige watch. It’s not long, however, before we realise that he has other business with the shop owner (Friels).

Suffice to say the play explores family, self-worth, men’s struggle to communicate, resentment and reconciliation, using watches as a metaphor.

Some of the early dialogue feels self-consciously portentous, but there’s no doubt Nobay can write; it’s the structure that lets him down.

He manages to keep you wondering where the play is going but the twists and turns of the plot don’t build enough dramatic tension or particularly surprise you. Just when you think he is going to turn the screw, the plays veers off somewhere else and the tension dissipates.

There are holes in the narrative that need better explanation and a couple of major revelations fail to make the emotional impact they should. The regular use of blackouts also breaks the momentum and building of tension.

Friels is wonderful as the shop owner, moving from smooth-talking salesman to irascible Londoner whose wry, spiky humour covers untold hurt, his voice often a mere whisper. As usual, he performs with such raw honesty it hardly feels he’s acting.

The character and emotional journey of the brooding, younger, Australian man is less developed so McConville doesn’t have a lot to work with. He plays him in a (mostly) coolly restrained fashion that makes him hard to engage with.

The play ends abruptly without reaching a terribly satisfying conclusion but the performances make it worth a look.

NIDA Parade Playhouse until August 10.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 28.