Robyn Nevin – from All My Sons to My Fair Lady

2016 STC ALL MY SONS Robyn Nevin and John Howard by James Green 3992

Robyn Nevin co-stars with John Howard in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons for Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: James Green

From one of the great tragedies of 20th century theatre to one of the most perfect musicals ever written, Robyn Nevin will be running the emotional gamut in her next two productions.

A grande dame of Australian theatre, Nevin is currently at Sydney Theatre Company rehearsing Arthur Miller’s powerful classic All My Sons, which begins previewing on Saturday.

She then moves straight onto My Fair Lady, directed by Julie Andrews for Opera Australia and John Frost – which will doubtless be a tonic after the emotional toll of All My Sons.

“The play is a beautifully constructed tragedy, the playing out of which leaves us as actors pretty shattered,” admits Nevin.

“But there is also inspiration and deep satisfaction. Giving the work of a great writer to a different audience at each performance, and giving everything, is what sustains me.”

All My Sons is set in 1946 in the backyard of the Keller family. They appear to be a fine example of the American dream. Patriarch Joe Keller is a successful manufacturer, while his wife Kate keeps house. But there is something rotten at the heart of the family.

Kate clings to the hope that their son Larry, missing in action for three years, will return home. When their other son Chris arrives saying he wants to marry Larry’s girlfriend Ann Deever, a tragic series of revelations and events is set in motion.

“The play is basically about denial and secrets and how that corrodes individuals and families,” says Nevin who plays Kate to John Howard’s Joe.

“(Miller) wrote it as a 30-year old man and it was only his second play. They are clearly themes he felt very deeply about and it must have been very raw at the time, after the Second World War – but you know we’re always at war, it seems, and we are always losing soldiers and losing loved ones. Australia has been amazingly fortunate that we haven’t been at war on (home) land and we haven’t had a civil war but still (war) has taken its toll,” says Nevin.

“There’s so much more emphasis now on returned soldiers and the devastation that’s caused (in terms of post-traumatic stress disorder) to all who serve. That’s only just touched on in the play because it wasn’t examined in those days. But it is a presence in the play because one son has come back from the war and is embittered about his own country because of the fact that – as happened after the Vietnam War – the soldiers who returned were almost ignored as if nothing had changed in the world that they came back to. People didn’t understand the level of their devastation at all.”

Nevin describes Miller’s writing as “so strong, very simple and beautifully structured with wonderful rhythms. They are so authentic. You feel very supported by the structure of the play and the storytelling and the power of the plot. The characters are so beautifully written and so distinct from each other. It’s terrific to do a play like that because you can kind of sink into it. It stretches you and it forces you to work to your fullest, to exercise the muscle, but it’s also very supportive.”

The production is directed by Kip Williams, who directed Nevin in last year’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, staged with a huge video screen showing both live and pre-recorded footage.

“Kip and I had an odd time on Suddenly Last Summer because he was really directing for cameras so I feel this is like a new experience. I don’t feel that we worked so closely before. He’s the politest, sweetest man,” she says.

The chance to perform opposite John Howard was a big drawcard. “I haven’t worked with John for such a long time,” says Nevin. “He’s terrific: such a powerful presence on stage. It’s fabulous. The last time he worked here (at STC) was when I directed him in (Tony McNamara’s 2000 play) The Recruit. I also directed him in The Philadelphia Story (in 1986). I’ve known John since he first got out of NIDA and it’s great to have him back at Sydney Theatre Company.”

Nevin says that these days she has to be “much more wary than in earlier decades” when tackling such emotionally devastating material.

“I used to automatically plunge in. Now I’m much more careful about myself. I still have to plunge in. I have to go there. I have to feel what the character feels and imagine what the character is going through. I do that to the nth degree and that does take its toll. That means I have to be even more careful about myself and my mental, emotional and physical health,” she says.

When she’s not working, Nevin and her partner actor/writer Nicholas Hammond (who played Friedrich in the film of The Sound of Music) spend time in the Southern Highlands, south of Sydney.

“My life is very simple. I go out very rarely. We go to the country and that is an oasis of peace and calm and nature. We’ve got sheep. It’s very restorative,” she says.

In My Fair Lady, Nevin will play Mrs Higgins, society mother of Professor Henry Higgins – a prospect that clearly excites her enormously.

“I think it’s going to be wonderful,” she says citing the “beauty, scale and richness of the music and those wonderful lyrics that make  you weep with joy, they are so witty.

“I always wanted to be able to sing so to be inside that musical beauty will be very thrilling, actually,” she says. “My character doesn’t come on for ages until the Ascot scene so I’ll be able to hear them singing when I’m in the dressing room. Imagine that thrill. I’ll be like a groupie!”

Nevin is also excited about working with Julie Andrews and says they have had “a lively conversation” about the musical.

“I’ve met her before with Nicholas but not in a way that enabled a one-on-one conversation. We talked about the piece, we talked about Shaw (on whose play Pygmalion, My Fair Lady is based) because I have directed Shaw. We talked about the musicality of it and the issues. She’s completely charming, of course,” says Nevin.

In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the original Broadway production, as well as OA’s 60th birthday, Andrews is recreating the 1956 production in which she co-starred opposite Rex Harrison, playing cockney flower seller Eliza Doolittle – the role that catapulted her to international stardom.

Oliver Smith’s set design and Cecil Beaton’s costumes will be recreated, with new choreography from Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli.

“I think she’s got an excellent team lined up and the designs and costumes are just extraordinary. I don’t agree with some commentary I read the other day about it being an old-fashioned museum piece and why would you want to resurrect that old production?” says Nevin.

“Well, it’s because it’s exquisite and true to itself. It has its own integrity and a lot of people will appreciate that. I think it will be a winner.”

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre until July 9. Bookings: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au. My Fair Lady, Sydney Opera House, August 30 – November 5. Bookings: 02 9250 7777 or www.sydneyoperahouse.com

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on May 29

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Alex Jennings Steps Back into Professor Higgins’ Tweeds

AJ photo 2015

Alex Jennings. Photo: supplied

There is nothing like a Dame as British actor Alex Jennings knows, having performed opposite some of acting’s greatest. He co-starred with Maggie Smith in the recent film The Lady in the Van and in 2006 played Prince Charles to Helen Mirren’s monarch in The Queen.

Still, he admits he was nervous when he met Dame Julie Andrews to discuss her 60th anniversary production of My Fair Lady for Opera Australia/John Frost in which he will play Professor Henry Higgins – a role he first played in the West End in 2002.

“We met in London. I had a very lovely hour with her over drinks and we chatted about the piece and about her experience in it and my experience in it. I was quite nervous and completely delighted by meeting her,” he says.

A classical actor with three Olivier Awards to his name, including one for My Fair Lady, Jennings has worked extensively at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre.

Though born in Essex, he frequently plays “posh” characters. In something of a royal flush, having previously portrayed Prince Charles, he now plays Prince Edward in Netflix’s new drama The Crown and is currently in Yorkshire filming a British television series about Queen Victoria in which he plays Leopold I, King of Belgium, uncle to both Victoria and Albert.

“Where would we be without our royal family?” he quips in his silky, sonorous voice.

Jennings is coming to Sydney in August to co-star in My Fair Lady with rising star Anna O’Byrne as Eliza Doolittle – the cockney flower-seller Higgins bets he can pass off as an aristocrat by teaching her to speak “proper”. The top-drawer Australian cast also includes Reg Livermore, Tony Llewellyn-Jones and Robyn Nevin.

Jennings was at the National working with Trevor Nunn on Vanbrugh’s Restoration comedy The Relapse in 2001 when Nunn asked if he’d like to take over from Jonathan Pryce as Higgins in his production of My Fair Lady, which was transferring to the West End.

“I’d never done a musical before and it was an extraordinary experience. I absolutely loved it,” says Jennings, who played the part for 11 months.

In 2014, he took over the role of Willie Wonka in the West End production of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory The Musical directed by Sam Mendes and again relished the experience. Offered the chance to revisit Higgins in Australia, Jennings leapt at the chance.

“I’m really thrilled because it’s such a great musical and it’s such a great acting role as well as being a musical theatre role. It’s like playing Hamlet in a way, it’s inexhaustible really. So I’m thrilled to be having another go and slightly overwhelmed at the thought of working with Julie,” he says.

“And I’ve never been to Australia before so it’s a big treat,” he adds, saying that his wife, landscape gardener Lesley Moors, will come with him while their two children, now in their 20s, and his “dear, old Dad” will also visit.

Andrews is recreating the 1956 Broadway production in which she starred as Eliza opposite Rex Harrison.

“Even though the framework is going to be the same with the Cecil Beaton and Oliver Smith designs, there’s new choreography (by Tony Award-winner Christopher Gattelli) and I think there’s room for manoeuvring and putting one’s stamp on it,” says Jennings.

“And, listen, they were great designs. I’ve been told that tweed fabrics are being rewoven as we speak. I’m happy to be in Rex Harrison’s old suits.”

Jennings describes the curmudgeonly, misogynistic Higgins as “volatile” but says: “he’s doing something quite radical I think. He wants to turn things on their head and give people lower down the social ladder – specifically Eliza in this case – opportunities to shift in society.

“He wants to mess with the English class system, which is a good thing. He’s passionate, he has borderline behavioural problems, living on his own. His heart and head have never been messed with in the way they are when Eliza comes to the house.”

Now 59, Jennings thinks there will be differences in his portrayal to when he last played the role.

“Since I last did it my singing has grown. When I was doing Willie Wonka I worked with a brilliant singing teacher called Mary King and she has given me confidence and brought on my singing,” he says.

“And I’m older – though I’m not as old as Rex Harrison was when he finished doing it. But there is going to be a bigger age difference between me and Eliza than there was when I last did it so any sense of romance would perhaps be less appropriate.”

My Fair Lady plays at the Sydney Opera House from August 30 – November 5. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 9250 7777

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 22

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Sarah-Louise Young

Sarah-Louise Young discusses her new cabaret show Julie Madly Deeply

Sarah-Louise Young

Sarah-Louise Young

Over the years, people have often said to Sarah-Louise Young that they can see a bit of Julie Andrews in her.

“It’s probably just because we’re both very well spoken,” says the British musical theatre and cabaret performer in her crisp, beautifully enunciated English accent.

Modesty aside, Young also has a great singing voice and though she wouldn’t consider comparing herself to Andrews – “that would be scandalous” – she is excited about performing the Andrews songbook in a new cabaret show called Julie Madly Deeply.

The songs will be intertwined with stories and anecdotes from Andrews’ life along with “a selection of witty and insightful elaborations” as the press release puts it, promising a show in which “Miss Squeaky-Clean finally comes clean.”

But Andrews fans can rest assured that though Julie Madly Deeply may be a little mischievous at times, it comes from a place of love.

“It’s always been our benchmark that if she ever came to see the show she would love it. We are describing it as a cheeky and affectionate love letter,” says Young.

Julie Madly Deeply starts its Australian tour at the Noosa Long Weekend Festival on June 16 then goes to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival followed by dates in Victoria, New South Wales and the Northern Territory.

It follows in the wake of Dame Julie herself, who tours Australia for the first time this month. However, Andrews doesn’t sing anymore after her four-octave voice was damaged during a throat operation in 1997, leaving it to Young to turn on the pure but killer vocals in songs from Mary Poppins, The Sound of Music and My Fair Lady as well as less well known Andrews numbers.

Young’s cabaret career is riding high. She won Best Musical Variety Act at the 2013 London Cabaret Awards and in 2011 was named one of Time Out London’s Top Ten Cabaret Artists.

In 2010, David and Lisa Campbell brought her show Cabaret Whore to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival then toured it around Australia the following year. During this time, Young met Richard Carroll, who works at the Campbells’ production company Luckiest Productions. They hit it off and co-conceived Julie Madly Deeply, which Carroll is producing.

Sarah-Louise Young will play a Julie Andrews impersonator in Julie Madly Deeply

Sarah-Louise Young will play a Julie Andrews impersonator in Julie Madly Deeply

Young has been a fan of Andrews since childhood. “When I was a little kid my parents got divorced and I thought if Julie Andrews came in, married my Dad and made a dress from curtains then everything would be all right,” she says.

When it came to putting a show together about her, Young says they wanted to avoid doing something that comes across like “Wikipedia live. You can’t tell anybody’s life in 55 minutes, it’s just not long enough,” she says. Nor did she want to pretend to be Andrews.

“My producer Richard and I felt very strongly that nobody can sing like Julie Andrews. You can’t impersonate that voice. There is so much love and respect for her that we didn’t want to put words into her mouth.

“Obviously we’ve read her autobiography and watched hours and hours of documentaries and we thought very, very carefully about the best framing device. It would be easy to do an hour of her songs and chat about them but the device we use is that I play a Julie Andrews impersonator doing a tribute act,” says Young.

“That person can investigate other people’s relationships with Julie Andrews so I play Audrey Hepburn, Richard Burton, Carol Channing, Liza Minnelli – little bits of all of these. So there will be times when I do my best to sound like her but it’s also a lovely excuse to explore the other relationships in her life.

“We’ll sing the hits from her shows and also a few unexpected songs that you don’t associate with her. There’s such an amazing back catalogue of songs so we’re going to do a medley at the end because we just couldn’t fit in all the songs that we wanted to.”

Young believes that although Andrews tried to change her sweet, wholesome image later in her career with some interesting choices including working with Hitchcock and famously going topless in the film S.O.B. directed by her husband Blake Edwards, “it was really tough for her. People wanted to see her in that maternal role because it made us feel safe.

“She was obviously a lovely woman but it was well known that she swore like a trooper and was a great practical joker. She worked with Hitchcock, she did some really unusual and interesting stuff but people didn’t want her to break the mould.”

Young hopes that people who see Julie Madly Deeply “will fall in love with the songs again and go home and watch the movies, and question their own relationship with her.”

Noosa Long Weekend Festival, June 16; Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 19 – 20; Chapel off Chapel, Melbourne, June 21 – 22; Karralyka Centre, Ringwood, June 25; The Q, Queanbeyan, June 26; Araluen Arts Centre, Alice Springs, June 29; Seymour Centre, Sydney, July 4 – 6; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, July 7; Glen Street Theatre, Belrose, July 9.

An edited version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 7.