The Literati

SBW Stables Theatre, June 1

The Literati

Gareth Davies as Tristan Tosser and Miranda Tapsell as Juliet. Photo: Daniel Boud

In his latest Molière adaptation, Justin Fleming has one of the characters bemoan the proliferation of over-rated writers:

“They seem to pop up everywhere, as if we somehow breed them;                                          With so many people writing, it’s a wonder there’s anyone to read them.                            And there are people who cannot write, re-writing authors who could,                                    And giving us appalling version of works that used to be good.”

The swipe at the number of new adaptations of classic plays seen on Sydney stages in recent years (including his, of course) was met with a huge roar of laughter on opening night.

The criticism of “appalling versions” can’t be levelled at Fleming who has cornered a market adapting Molière’s satirical comedies for Australian audiences, writing them in rollicking verse laced with colourful, contemporary slang.

After staging his laugh-out-loud versions of The School for Wives in 2012 and Tartuffe in 2014, Bell Shakespeare has joined forces with Griffin Theatre Company to present the third in a winning trifecta.

The Literati is adapted from Molière’s 1672 play Les Femmes Savantes (The Learned Ladies): a piss-take on literary and intellectual pretention. Fleming has anglicised names, removed a couple of characters – an aunt and uncle whose functions in the drama are given to other characters – and turned the scholar Vadius into a woman, all of which works a treat.

In a nutshell, young lovers Juliet (Miranda Tapsell) and Clinton (Jamie Oxenbould) want to marry. Juliet’s sensible but hen-pecked father Christopher (Oxenbould again) approves of the match. But her mother Philomena (Caroline Brazier) and sister Amanda (Kate Mulvany), both dreadful cultural snobs who host a Tuesday book club, are determined she marry the aptly named Tristan Tosser (Gareth Davies) who they idolise.

In fact, Tosser is a third-rate poet described as “one sausage sanger short of a barbie” who would “bore the arse off a Mallee bull”. Though he’s a complete charlatan with an eye to their fortune, he’s a more foolish, passive villain than the devious Tartuffe and doesn’t feel as much of a real danger. As a result, the play is fairly predictable.

The Literati

Kate Mulvany as Amanda and Caroline Brazier as Philomena. Photo: Daniel Boud

Nonetheless, it’s a gloriously funny production, directed by Lee Lewis (who also directed The School for Wives), in which the virtuosity of Fleming’s verse writing is matched by brilliant comic performances all round.

Fleming mixes up his rhyme schemes so that as well as frisky rhyming couplets there are a couple of other verse patterns. The changes of gear keep things fresh and varied.

Designer Sophie Fletcher works wonders within the tiny space to evoke a chic, bourgeois Parisian home with designer furniture. An eclectic mix of art on the walls speaks of someone buying work deemed collectable rather than a reflection of personal taste and passion. At the centre of the stage is a raised revolve, which Lewis uses very cleverly to keep the action moving without overdoing it.

Dramatic Baroque-flavoured music, co-composed by Max Lambert and Roger Lock, punctuates the drama with humour while quick-smart doubling from the cast of five adds another level of fun, with all the actors except Davies playing two characters. Brazier is a commanding presence, moving with skilful ease between the domineering, pashmina-draped Philomena and the wise scholar Vadius in black jacket. While Vadius maintains her elegant poise, Philomena becomes increasingly dishevelled as the play unfolds.

Mulvany is hysterically funny as the uptight, fierce, wilfully deluded Amanda who once rejected Clinton but now won’t accept that he could have transferred his affections to Juliet. The way she edges sideways onto the raised revolve in her tight skirt and high heels is a hoot in itself. And where Brazier’s hair slowly becomes messier and more unkempt, Mulvany’s entire body is upended at one point by the comical goings-on. She also plays an officious attorney in tightly belted raincoat.

The Literati

Jamie Oxenbould as Christopher. Photo: Daniel Boud

With just a baseball cap to differentiate them, Oxenbould flips convincingly between Clinton and Christopher, bringing the house down in one hilarious scene in which he plays them both.

Tapsell glows as the guileless Juliet and the bolshie maid Martina, sacked by Philomena for her bogan-phraseology (“the woman’s a walking earache”) and crimes against language. In an interview, Tapsell told me that she uses her native Darwin accent for Martina (which she worked very hard to lose while at NIDA).

As Tosser – or Tossère as he would have it – Davies, in artfully draped scarf and jewellery, poses and speaks with a quiet, affected languor.

Running 160 minutes including interval, The Literati makes its point about intellectual pomposity versus true wisdom, while its discussion about marriage and women’s role in society still strikes a strong chord, but mostly it’s heaps of silly fun. Recommended.

The Literati runs at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross until July 16. Bookings: www.griffin.com.au or 02 9361 3817

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 5

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Jasper Jones

Belvoir St Theatre, January 6

JasperJones3

Tom Conroy and Kate Mulvany in Jasper Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kate Mulvany’s stage adaptation of Craig Silvey’s much-loved 2009 novel for young adults, Jasper Jones, is faithful to the world, spirit and overall plot of the original book.

Set in 1965 in the small fictional town of Corrigan in Western Australia, it begins with Charlie Bucktin (Tom Conroy), a smart but dorky 14-year old, being woken by 16-year old Jasper Jones (Guy Simon), whose part Aboriginal heritage makes him a perennial scapegoat and loner.

Jasper asks Charlie to follow him to his hide-away in the bush, where he has discovered something terrible. Knowing that he will be blamed, he begs Charlie to help him find out who is responsible.

So begins a coming-of-age story in which the innocence and high-spiritedness of youth rub up against bigotry, bullying and domestic abuse. Anyone who hasn’t read the book and plans on taking young people (it’s recommended for ages 13+) should be aware that it contains these darker themes as well as a confronting death – but overall it’s a lovely, life-affirming story full of laughter and exuberant humour as well as heartache.

While Charlie waits for Jasper to reappear, he spends time with his best mate, the cricket-mad Jeffrey Lu (Charles Wu). Though the Vietnam War seems worlds away, it still resonates in the background as more Australians are called up and Jeffrey, like Jasper, is the target of casual racism because of his Vietnamese background. And then there’s the book-loving Eliza Wishart (Matilda Ridgway), Charlie’s love interest.

Inevitably some things in the book aren’t gone into in the same depth. Charlie and Jasper’s encounter with Mad Jack Lionel – another loner avoided by the town and feared by all the children – feels a bit rushed. Charlie’s evolving relationship with his quiet, retiring father is given short shrift, though the relationship with his embittered, frustrated mother is vividly evoked, enhanced by a powerful new scene between her and Charlie as she prepares to leave.

The two attacks on the Lu family don’t have as much of an impact when simply described as they are here and nor do get the same sense of the toll they take on the hitherto irrepressibly optimistic Jeffrey – a moving moment in the novel and something Charlie is acutely aware of. But overall, Mulvany has made well-considered choices in putting the novel and its characters on stage.

Directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, the Belvoir production unfolds on an evocative set by Michael Hankin with a large gum tree plus a small wooden porch and sleep-out, which can be moved to create different locations. It’s all beautifully lit by Matt Scott, while Mel Page’s costumes capture 1960s attire in regional Australia in brilliantly funny fashion for the men (shorts with long socks, tight shirts tucked into tight pants) and more attractive cotton frocks with full skirts for the women. Steve Toulmin’s sound is also very effective in enhancing the atmosphere.

Playing some scenes while racing through the auditorium adds little and is plain clunky at times with people craning their necks, but for the most part Sarks’ lively production flows smoothly. The cricket match in which Jeffrey emerges triumphant is cleverly staged and the ending – though slightly different to the novel – brings a lump to the throat.

JasperJones2

Guy Simon as Jasper and Tom Conroy as Charlie. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Conroy captures Charlie’s awkwardness, intelligence and sense of fairness, while the jokey banter between him and Wu’s Jeffrey is a delight. Simon is endearing as Jasper, quietly conveying the emotional weight he carries. Mulvany gives a vibrant portrayal of Charlie’s unhappy, snarky mother and a hilarious comic cameo as the local school bully Warwick. Ridgway glows as Eliza and Steve Rodgers brings weight to the underwritten characters of Charlie’s father and Mad Jack Lionel.

Though not all the moments hit home as powerfully as in the book, Mulvany has written a very funny, ultimately touching play with much to say for adults and teenagers alike.

Jasper Jones plays at Belvoir St Theatre until Feburary 7. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 

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

Tim Minchin: Part 1

In a wide-ranging interview with Tim Minchin, he discusses the ins-and-outs of writing Matilda, Groundhog Day, Larrkins, acting and his move to LA: so much that I’m breaking it into two parts.

The second part, coming soon, will focus on Groundhog Day, Larrikins and his move to Los Angeles. In this first part, he talks about his encounter with a (fictional) little girl called Matilda.

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney's Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

When the Royal Shakespeare Company was looking for someone to write the songs for their musical of Matilda, director Matthew Warchus went to see one of Tim Minchin’s solo shows in London.

As Minchin tells it, by the show’s end Warchus had decided that he wasn’t right for the job. Then as an encore, Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, his beautiful, heartfelt song to his baby daughter Violet about Christmas, family and love, and Warchus changed his mind.

“He was thinking, ‘no’ and then he went, ‘oh, there’s another dimension’. I’m so glad. Can you imagine? It’s made such a profound impact on my life, this musical, and my whole career,” says Minchin.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book, Matilda the Musical has proved a phenomenal success. It won a record seven Olivier Awards in London and four Tony Awards on Broadway, where the New York Times described it as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

The Australian production begins previewing in Sydney on July 28. Minchin, who grew up in Perth, will be at the official opening on August 20 and says it feels “genuinely special” to be bringing the show home to Australia.

The feeling is reciprocated. Matilda is probably the most hotly anticipated musical of the year in Sydney where the love affair with Minchin continues to grow. Tickets were snapped up in next to no time when he played two sold-out shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February. He held the ecstatic audience in the palm of his hand, with more than a few tears during White Wine in the Sun. His own mascara seemed to run a bit too.

And when he came to Sydney last October for the launch of Matilda, Destination NSW took the opportunity to honour the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll nerd” with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Jacki Weaver and John Bell.

Minchin was a star before Matilda. A comedy songwriter with trademark ratty hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and bare feet, his genius for combining pithy, witty, pointed lyrics with catchy tunes had already won him such a cult following that he could fill arenas for his solo shows and front symphony orchestras in concert halls.

But Matilda has made him a superstar, in demand around the world. He is now writing songs for a musical based on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, also directed by Warchus, which will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

He is also the songwriter and director for an animated DreamWorks movie called Larrikins, set in Australia, scheduled for release in 2018. There’s a film of Matilda the Musical in the pipeline too.

“Without Matilda, I could have gone more down the path that people who get known for comedy go on but this has taken me back to what I was doing as a kid. I wrote loads of music for the theatre in my late teens and early 20s,” says Minchin.

“Then I started getting a couple of roles in plays and I moved to Melbourne and then I got frustrated because no one would take any notice of me and so I started doing comedy. But even at the beginning of my comedy career I was writing musical scores.”

In 2004, he wrote the songs for This Blasted Earth, a Christmas musical written with Travis Cotton and Toby Schmitz, which played at Sydney’s 40-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo. In 2005, he and Kate Mulvany wrote Somewhere, a musical about Penrith for the opening of the Q Theatre. That same year, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“It does strike me as really amazing that (working on Matilda is so similar to) what I was doing 10 years ago,” he says munching on jelly snakes to keep himself awake as he battles raging jetlag.

“I listen back to those songs I wrote for the Old Fitz show and the songs from Somewhere and there are definitely songs in the Penrith musical that are as good as anything in Matilda. There was no change in tools; there was just a change in status, in who was asking me to write for them.”

Funnily enough, in a now famous anecdote, while he was writing music for theatre shows in Perth, Minchin – who is mad Dahl fan from way back – enquired about getting the stage rights for a musical of Matilda. When Dahl’s estate asked for a sample of his score, he panicked and dropped the idea.

“It’s a great story. It doesn’t sound very believable but it’s true,” he says.

Matilda tells the tale of a smart, book-loving little girl who uses intelligence, imagination, courage and magic to defy her mean parents and vicious, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

As Minchin puts it: “The show’s about a tiny person starting a revolution to overthrow the oppressors.”

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Minchin’s songs are absolutely brilliant: funny, bolshie, poignant and refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores of contemporary musical theatre. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of anyone else more suited to the task. His intelligence, irreverence, wit and heart seem such a perfect match for Dahl.

Matilda feels a particular way. It doesn’t just feel like me, it feels like me interpreting Dahl,” he says. “There’s an angularity to the opening and this semi-tonal thing going on. The dominant movement through the whole thing is a semi-tonal shift with all these crunchy harmonics. In musical theatre, it’s usually big shifts and fourths, not semi-tones. But I do think Matilda has an aesthetic that seems to work.”

You might think the first thing Minchin would have done after being commissioned by the RSC was to pick up Dahl’s novel again, but no. Instead, he looked to the show’s book by writer Dennis Kelly.

“I never went back and re-read the book because I decided Dennis’s adaptation was my source text,” says Minchin. “I didn’t re-read all my Dahl. I just had an utterly convinced sense that I knew what Dahl-ness was and I knew his themes. Obviously there’s that cheeky little tip-of-the hat to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes: ‘We are revolting children, Living in revolting times, We sing revolting songs, Using revolting rhymes…’ (Hooley-dooley, Tim Minchin is singing for me). I was taking from all Dahl’s work without even knowing I was doing it really.”

When Minchin came on board, Kelly had already been working on Matilda for a year.

“He had a script adaptation and he said, ‘I’ve (marked) some places where I think there might be songs, I’ve even written a few lyrics,’” recalls Minchin. “And I said, ‘you can’t give me any lyrics or song titles. I just want “song here, question mark” and we’ll discuss what you think they might be about, because you might have a great idea but how will I know if I have a better one if that gets in my head?’

“So he gave me a script with no songs and Matthew (Warchus) and me and Chris Nightingale, the orchestrator, who was in from the very beginning, and Dennis just talked and talked and talked. Your most pretentious, in-depth tutorial in an English Literature of a university got nowhere near the level of textural analysis that we were doing!

“I went away and broke it down and put songs in different colours representing different styles, so if it was a chorus number it was this colour and if it was a solo number it was another colour and all that sort of thing, which kind of mapped it. I didn’t start writing songs until we had a really strong map.”

Hard though it is to believe now, Minchin reveals that at one point they considered making Matilda a non-singing character.

“Early on, Matilda had no songs. I couldn’t work out how to make her sing, weirdly, because she’s so quiet. Then I wrote Quiet,” he says.

“That’s not quite true. She had a song in the second act where Quiet is now, which is just as she is about to do magic for the first time. It had this big rumbling build-up to ‘Magical! but we all went, ‘that’s not right’ so when we did the first workshop we just discarded it. She had no songs at that point and we were considering the possibility that she might not have songs; that the world revolves around her and she is a still force.

“There was another character called Hortensia who had two big songs, Revolting Children and another called Now That She’s Gone when Trunchbull leaves. It’s a really funny song but it didn’t belong in the musical and nor did Hortensia so she got dissolved and we gave her spirit to Matilda so she can sing, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – the language of rebellion.”

One of the most well-known and popular songs in the show is the sweet When I Grow Up. The idea behind it came from one of Minchin’s own childhood memories.

“I remember promising myself I would never open the farm gate. We used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm and you would always climb over the gate or flip over the gate. I’d watch the oldies fiddle with the (padlock) and I would go: ‘I hope I never have to walk through gates. Gates are to be hurdled,’” he says.

“That idea of looking at things as a child and promising yourself that as an adult you’ll do all the things you think are awesome as a child (is the idea behind the song). It’s somehow sad because you are so wrong. Or maybe you were right. That’s the point. Dahl would say that we forget that kids have the wisdom. We’re sad as adults because we don’t climb trees and eat sweets and wake up with the sun. That’s where all the melancholy comes from in that.

“As you can tell when I talk about these things, I tend to go, ‘oh, here’s an idea and if I do that….’ That’s how I find my way into things. There’s a lot of emotion to be got out of thinking your way into it. But I think having young kids really allowed that.”

Asked if he does still leap the gate, he grimaces a bit. “No. I’m a bit sore these days. But when I run I have a compulsion to jump up on picnic tables. I’m like an old shitty Parkour runner.”

When I Grow Up is the first non-narrative song Minchin wrote for the show. “It’s a reflective piece, although in the musical Miss Honey sings the last verse about being brave enough to fight the creatures, which gives you a hint of what’s to come,” he says.

When I Grow Up always sat outside the piece and one of the ways it doesn’t now is because I took the whole thing and wrote a new tune over the chord structure and that’s Naughty. It’s basically the same song. Naughty and When I Grow Up are almost identical harmonically and that’s why they go from one to the other in the mash-up (at the end).”

Thinking back on the robust working relationship between him and Kelly, as Matilda gradually took shape, Minchin laughs with genuine pleasure.

“He’d never written a musical before. We tugged and pulled and pushed for the whole writing period. We didn’t know each other very well early on and Matthew would sit there quietly letting us fight it out. Then he’d say one sentence and we’d go, ‘right’. He’s such a genius and so quiet. But we’d all make each other laugh all the time.

“Dennis Kelly is now one of my favourite humans on the planet,” adds Minchin. “We’re from very different backgrounds and we approach art in a different way. I don’t know but perhaps if you write something like this and it goes so well, you are bonded by a very positive experience. As the time went on, I just fell in love with him. He’s such a brilliant guy.”

Matilda plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from July 28. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 28

Masquerade

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, January 9

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O'Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Louis Fontaine, Helen Dallimore and Nathan O’Keefe. Photo: Brett Boardman

Laid low with cancer as a child, Kate Mulvany fell in love with Kit Williams’ classic picture book Masquerade while in hospital. She has now adapted it for the stage, interweaving the moving story of a very sick child and his mother.

Co-produced by Griffin Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company of South Australia, and playing as part of the Sydney Festival, Masquerade is a delightful family show that captures the style, tone and quirky magic of the quixotic book.

Masquerade tells a strange, fantastical, riddle-filled story. The Moon is full of longing for the Sun and so sends the bumbling Jack Hare to deliver him a message of love along with a golden, bejeweled, hare-shaped amulet. Given the laws of nature, Jack has just 12 hours to complete his mission between sunrise and sunset.

Along the way he meets all kinds of crazy characters from Tara Treetops and The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round to Sir Isaac Newton. But when he reaches the Sun Jack finds he has lost the amulet and forgotten the precise wording of the message.

Published in 1979, the book became a phenomenon not just for its story but for the wonderfully detailed paintings (also by Williams) that illustrated it. In each picture was hidden a hare. On top of that, the book contained clues to a real golden amulet that Williams had hidden somewhere in England (which was discovered in 1982).

Williams is now something of a recluse but Mulvany managed to make contact with him through his wife Eleyn (a jeweler) and visited them at their home in Gloucestershire. Touched by the story of her own connection to the book, Williams gave Mulvany permission to adapt it for the stage on two conditions: that she include her own story and that the production be a family play for anyone aged nine to 90.

Mulvany’s adaptation begins in a hospital where a single mother called Tessa (Helen Dallimore) starts reading the book to her son Joe (Jack Andrew at the opening performance, a role he shares with Louis Fontaine) to help cheer him after chemotherapy. As she reads, the story unfolds around Joe’s curtained hospital bed.

Mulvany adds a second act in which Tessa and Joe enter the world of the story and try to help Jack Hare (Nathan O’Keefe) find the amulet.

Directed by Lee Lewis and Sam Strong, the production features a vibrant, clever design by Anna Cordingley that references the look of the book while creating an aesthetic of its own.

Pip Brandon, Nathan O'Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

Pip Brandon, Nathan O’Keefe and Kate Cheel. Photo: Brett Boardman

A band of letters frames the stage (as it does the drawings in the book) and is used to spell out the answers to the riddles. Joe’s hospital bed sits centrestage on a revolve, with images projected onto the curtains when they are drawn. The bed is replaced by another structure for the second act.

Cordingley’s wonderful costumes are colourful and inventive, though the text cries out for a more dazzlingly gold suit for the Sun (Mikelangelo) than the rather subtly shiny one he wears.

Geoff Cobham’s lighting also brings colour and magic to the stage, though some performers occasionally got caught in half-light on opening night. The silvery light for the Moon (Kate Cheel) could be a little more luminously otherworldly, but there are lots of nice lighting effects.

The production also features original music and songs composed by Pip Branson and Mikelangelo and performed live by Balkan cabaret band Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen, which work a treat.

Running two hours including interval, the first act unfolds a little slowly and could be tightened. Some people who didn’t know the book were also slightly bemused by some of the characters.

In Act Two, however, the play finds its rhythm. Mulvany has included lots of fun word play with jokes for adults and children. Jack’s lusting for carrots, in particular, caused much laughter from the young children near me.

The emotional dimension of the play also really kicks in after interval (though it has been building towards the end of the first act). Mulvany hasn’t shied away from darker themes of mortality, pain and grief (as well as the power of love) ­­– though the way she uses the explanation of death from The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round is movingly and gently applied.

Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nathan O’Keefe, Louis Fontaine, Kate Cheel and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Brett Boardman

There are terrific performances across the board. O’Keefe is outstanding as Jack Hare, bringing oodles of endearing charm and sweet, goofy comedy to the pivotal role.

Dallimore and Andrew work beautifully together as the deeply worried but loving, stalwart Tessa and the terminally ill Joe, both giving authentic, moving performances that never tip into sentimentality.

Cheel is lovely as the ethereal Moon and ebullient Tara Treetops, while Zindzi Okenyo – who juggles the roles of a Fat Nurse, a dancing Fat Pig, the mean Penny Pockets, the yoga-practicing Dawn and a friendly fish – does a great job of creating very different, clearly delineated, quirky characters.

The musicians also take on roles with Mikelangelo as The Sun and The Practical Man, Branson as The Man Who Plays the Music That Makes the World Go Round and Sir Isaac Newton, and Guy Freer, Sam Martin and Phil Moriarty as a tone-deaf Barber’s Quartet reduced to a trio.

The production will doubtless be finessed as it develops but already Masquerade is a gently charming, moving show made with a lot of love.

Masquerade plays at the Sydney Opera House until January 17. Bookings: www.sydneyfestival.org.au/masquerade or 1300 856 876 or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 11

2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

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

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

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Tartuffe

Drama Theatre, July 30

Kate Mulvany, Genevieve Hakewill, Charlie Garber, Sean O'Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan and Robert Jago. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Kate Mulvany, Geraldine Hakewill, Charlie Garber, Sean O’Shea, Helen Dallimore, Jennifer Hagan and Robert Jago. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Right from the get-go, Justine Fleming’s contemporary adaptation of Molière’s Tartuffe has the audience chortling in this new Bell Shakespeare production.

As with his adaptation for Bell’s 2012 production of Molière’s The School for Wives, Fleming combines colourful, irreverent colloquialism with rhyming couplets. Phrases such as “bunch of losers”, “shut your gob” and “a piddle short of a piss” had the delighted audience in stitches.

At the same time, it’s an extremely clever adaptation that faithfully captures the spirit of Molière’s satire about religious hypocrisy and gullibility and tells the story with great élan and clarity. Locating it in the present day, the themes certainly feel as relevant as ever.

Rich, successful and married to a gorgeous, younger second wife Elmire (Helen Dallimore), Orgon (Sean O’Shea) is looking for spiritual meaning in his life. Sensing that he’s ripe for the picking, the devious, duplicitous Tartuffe (Leon Ford) schemes to take him to the cleaners. Tartuffe also has his eye on Elmire, while Orgon wants him to marry his daughter Mariane (Geraldine Hakewill). No matter that she is already promised to Valère (Tom Hobbs).

Orgon and his mother (Jennifer Hagan) may be taken in, but the rest of the family see straight through Tartuffe’s fraud and plot to trick him into revealing his true nature.

Peter Evans directs a rollicking, extremely funny production on a set by Anna Cordingley with oversized furniture that not only matches the excess of all that unfolds but also suggests the childishness of their behaviour. Besides a massive sofa, there’s an off-kilter grandfather clock and a giant closet with an ever-changing interior. In the second act a sign descends inviting you, in Facebook fashion, to “accept” or “ignore” a request to  befriend Jesus.

Cordingley’s colourful costumes are also amusing, wittily combining styles and eras, while Kelly Ryall’s jaunty, synthesised versions of baroque music work a treat.

In the original 1664 comedy, tragedy is averted at the last minute with an intervention from the King. Here, Fleming puts his own twist on the ending with Poetic Justice saving the day, while tipping a nod to Molière being the French Shakespeare.

The cast all bring an enormous vigour to the roles. Kate Mulvany is a knockout as the outspoken, sassy, exasperated maid Dorine. Tottering around on vertiginous heels, her effortless command of the language and comedy is deliciously spot-on.

Ford is smoothly, smarmily sanctimonious as Tartuffe one minute, then breaks out with hilarious abandon when he thinks no one is watching. His pelvic thrusting move across the stage to Elmire is hilarious while his amorous advance on her, using her fishnets and high heels, is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in ages.

Leon Ford and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Lisa  Tomasetti

Leon Ford and Helen Dallimore. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

O’Shea is also very funny as the well-meaning but bullish, deluded Orgon. I’m not sure that in this day and age Mariane needed to be quite such a ditzy bimbo but Hakewill plays it to the hilt. The lovers’ tiff between her and Valère is a hoot, while Hobbs has fun and games breaking the fourth wall.

In fact, there are terrific performances all round from Charlie Garber as Orgon’s hot-headed son Damis, Robert Jago as Orgon’s level-headed, clear-sighted brother-in-law Cléante, Hagan as the haughty, disapproving Madame Pernelle, Russell Smith as Monsieur Loyal and Scott Witt as the bumbling servant (among other roles).

All in all, the production is a delight, full of inspired comic touches from the funny little bounce as various characters flop onto the sofa to Dorine stashing a half-smoked cigarette in her bra. Too much fun. Highly recommended.

Tartuffe is at the Drama Theatre until August 23. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 3

Beached: review

Blake Davis and Kate Mulvany. Photo: Brett Boardman

Blake Davis and Kate Mulvany. Photo: Brett Boardman

Arty (Blake Davis) is a sweet but morbidly obese teenager who dreams of being an explorer or a handsome movie star. In reality, he is marooned like a beached whale at home with his bogan mother JoJo (Gia Carides) who keeps him well fed as a result of her own personal issues.

In order to pay for life-saving gastric surgery, they agree to go on a reality TV show called Shocking Fat Stories where Arty’s struggle to lose enough weight to be able to undergo the operation is charted over 235 days.

And so into their home comes a ruthless, parasitic TV producer (Arka Das) and a stitched-up Pathways to Work CentreLink officer called Louise (Kate Mulvany) whose idea of a bright future for Arty is an office job and a tax file number.

With obesity on the rise and reality TV dominating the ratings, Melissa Bubnic’s black comedy Beached is a timely piece but it doesn’t get to grips with the issues it raises in any serious, in-depth way.

Though the play won the 2010 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award, it still needs work if it is to really hit home. As it is, the characters are one-dimensional and the plot superficial.

The script is full of gags (many of them cheap, some downright gross) but the satire isn’t sharp or clever enough to really shock so the play – particularly the reality TV aspect – comes across as a rather glib parody.

The co-dependent relationship between Arty and his mother could be fascinating but the reason given for JoJo’s compulsive feeding of her son is simplistic in the extreme.

Shannon Murphy directs an ambitious production for Griffin Theatre Company using cameras operated by the hard-working cast of four so that they are seen “live” and on screen.

Mulvany delivers a richly detailed and very funny performance as Louise: an uptight, daggy character whom she evokes with an array of nervous tics and lank hair. But it stretches believability that someone with so many insecurities and personal issues of their own would be employed in such a job – or that she would start a relationship with Arty.

Carides also gives a strong, layered performance as the loving but manipulative JoJo, doing all she can to make her real, while Davis exudes a lovely boyish innocence as Arty – though he is so sprightly and skinny it seems slightly odd for a character who supposedly tips the scales at 400 kg.

Of course, no-one is expecting naturalism here. Murphy and designer James Browne portray Arty as part of the brown, fleshy chair on which he sprawls, inserting Davis into it. It’s a nice idea but doesn’t look terribly effective in practice.

As for the TV producer, he is so crudely and predictably drawn that Das has little to work with but he brings a hard-edged energy to the role.

And so, despite the best efforts of the cast, Beached feels just that. Bubnic certainly raises some interesting, hefty (excuse the pun) ideas and the acting is enjoyable – particularly from Mulvany and Carides – but ultimately Beached feels lightweight.

Beached runs at the SBW Stables Theatre until August 31.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 4.