Machu Picchu

Wharf 1, March 8

STC_2016_MachuPicchu_C1_3690

Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in Machu Picchu. Photo: Brett Boardman

After the success of Sue Smith’s previous plays Kryptonite in 2014 and Strange Attractor in 2009, her latest drama Machu Picchu was keenly anticipated – particularly with Lisa McCune and Darren Gilshenan in the lead roles.

But despite the best efforts of McCune and Gilshenan, the play itself feels underdeveloped, while the production directed by Geordie Brookman does it no great favours.

Commissioned by Sydney Theatre Company, Machu Picchu is a co-production between STC and the State Theatre Company of South Australia.

In a program note, Smith reveals that she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma a month before Kryptonite went into rehearsals. Machu Picchu was written in response to that experience. The play isn’t about cancer but explores how you deal with a life-threatening or life-changing event, and how that might make you reassess and change attitudes and priorities.

Gabby (McCune) and Paul (Gilshenan) are both successful engineers and appear to live a charmed life, though after 20 years their marriage has gone off the boil. Then, on the way home from attending a disastrous mindfulness retreat, their car crashes into a kangaroo. Gabby escapes unharmed but Paul is left a quadriplegic.

STC_2016_MachuPicchu_C1_4452

Darren Gilshenan and Luke Joslin. Photo: Brett Boardman

Machu Picchu takes its name from the Inca city: an engineering marvel both admire and have long planned to visit. It represents the missed opportunities and compromises so many of us make in the busy whirl of life today. With its extraordinarily strong foundations, which have ensured its survival, the ancient site is also a resonant image for relationships.

The play shifts back and forth in time, so that we see Gabby and Paul’s relationship before and after the accident. With Paul experiencing hallucinations from the medication, the play also moves between reality and more surreal scenes but this hasn’t been fine-tuned enough in the writing. Brookman’s direction does little to help and the shifts in tone and style feel somewhat clunky.

McCune and Gilshenan both turn in accomplished performances. McCune plumbs Gabby’s guilt, loneliness and frustration beautifully, while Gilshenan brings a dry humour to the role of Paul, convincingly portraying his physical limitations, pain and indignity as well as the emotional turmoil, all of which leave him wondering whether he wants to live.

Though the chemistry between McCune and Gilshenan doesn’t totally fire, the scenes between them are the play’s strongest.

The supporting characters, however, are sketchily drawn. Best friends Marty (Luke Joslin) and Kim (Elena Carapetis) – who have their own flimsy IVF story – come across as crass, insensitive and self-absorbed when visiting Paul in hospital. If there was any sense of subtext, we might feel they are nervous, unsure what to say or perhaps trying to hide their distress. As it is, it’s hard to believe Paul and Gabby could be close friends with such boorish people.

Paul and Gabby’s daughter Lucy (Annabel Matheson), a doctor, is also conveyed in a few broad strokes, while Renato Musolino does what he can with the Lou, the psychologist from the retreat who rather improbably reappears and tries to help Paul find meaning in life.

STC_2016_MachuPicchu_C1_5077

Darren Gilshen, Luke Joslin, Elena Carapetis and Renato Musolino. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade’s drab, unattractive set (lit by Nigel Levings) has a curtained hospital bed on one side of the stage and what feels like acres of poorly used, empty space on the other. (It may well sit better in the Dunstan Playhouse when the play goes to Adelaide). The hallucinations (which include Elvis for some reason) aren’t staged with any great imagination and visually it all feels rather bland and clichéd.

Machu Picchu explores interesting themes we can all relate to but it needs further dramaturgical work if it is to draw us in, provoke us and touch us emotionally. At present, it is only part way to becoming a compelling drama.

Machu Picchu plays at Wharf 1, Sydney until April 9. Bookings: 9250 1777. Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre, April 13 – May 1. Bookings: BASS 131 246

A version of this review ran in Daily Telegraph Arts online on March 11

Advertisements

Pinocchio; The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Sydney Opera House is presenting two children’s shows for the school holidays: Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio and CDP Theatre Producers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy. And with one end of the western foyer converted to a play area, it’s a lively place for families to be.

Pinocchio

Drama Theatre, April 13

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O'Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O’Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Acclaimed Adelaide company Windmill Theatre, which makes adventurous shows for children, is in Sydney with its 2012 musical production of Pinocchio, presented by the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Theatre Company.

Based on Carlo Collodi’s book about the wooden boy who longs to become real, director Rosemary Myers and writer Julianne O’Brien have created a version that combines a dark fairytale feel with a fun modern edge.

It begins unexpectedly with a blue-haired girl crashing her motorbike into the tree from which Pinocchio will be carved (an underdeveloped take on the blue fairy, who we don’t see again until the second act).

Then we’re into familiar territory with the tale of the naughty, easily led Pinocchio who is lured away from his maker/father the lonely toymaker Geppetto by the evil Stromboli. After a series of frightening adventures, Pinocchio returns home to Geppetto with love in his heart.

With one section set in the reality TV-like Stromboliland, Windmill’s production is more of a cautionary tale about greed and the lure of celebrity, while raising questions about what is real, rather than about simply telling the truth.

It’s cleverly staged around a large, flexible tree trunk on a revolving stage (designed by Jonathon Oxlade) onto which images are projected. The most charming effects, however, are the simpler theatrical ones – the way Geppeto carves Pinocchio, the way Pinocchio’s nose grows.

There are excellent performances across the board. Nathan O’Keefe uses his lanky frame brilliantly as a larky, willful Pinocchio, Alirio Zavarce is touching as the soft-hearted, clown-like Geppetto, Paul Capsis is a deliciously wicked Stromboli, Jude Henshall and Luke Joslin are very funny as roving wannabes Kitty Poo and Foxy, Danielle Catanzariti is suitably ethereal as Blue Girl and Oxlade is delightfully whimsical as the cricket (for which he uses a puppet).

Pinocchio runs around two hours including interval. For all its colourful treatment, it’s a fairly dark show (as is Collodi’s original story) and younger children could be frightened. It’s recommended for ages 7+.

Jethro Woodward’s songs have an energetic rock vibe but I’m not sure they are pitched at children and some of the humour didn’t land with youngsters around me. Others clearly loved it, however, and the show got a rousing response at the end.

Pinocchio runs until May 4. Bookings: sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Playhouse Theatre, April 13

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

For the littlies (aged 3+) the Opera House is presenting CDP Theatre Producers’ stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ best-selling picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Henry loves books – well, eating them anyway. The more he eats, the smarter he gets and so his appetite for the printed word grows and grows. But that many books are hard to digest. When he starts to feel ill and begins muddling up all the information he has consumed, he has to stop. Eventually, a sad Henry picks up one of his half-eaten books and begins to read it and falls in love with books afresh.

Writer Maryam Master fleshes out the story with an opening nightmare and more about Henry’s family and cat, most of which works well though the extended cat poo joke feels overdone and gratuitous – in fact, it made me feel a bit sick. By the time Henry began regurgitating books, I was feeling almost as queasy as him.

Directed by Frank Newman, the production is beautifully staged. Andrea Espinoza’s lovely set and costumes have the look of a picture book while cleverly incorporating books into every aspect of the stage design.

The cast of three – Gabriel Fancourt as Henry with Madeleine Jones and Jo Turner playing several roles – are all very good, creating characters the young audience can relate to.

The message that it’s better to read books than chow down on them is a quirky way to inspire children. The production would benefit from a little more dramatic magic at the end when Henry finally discovers the joy of reading to underline how exciting books can be. As it is, he just smiles, so it’s the images of eating and vomiting books that we remember.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy runs until April 27. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

The 13-Storey Treehouse

Sydney Opera House

Mark Owen-Taylor and Luke Joslin. Photo: supplied

Mark Owen-Taylor and Luke Joslin. Photo: supplied

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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