Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bella Vista Farm, December 12

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Lara Schwerdt, Emily Eskell, Sabryna Te’o and Madeleine Jones in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Maryne Rothe

Sport for Jove’s outdoor season is always something to look forward to during the Sydney summer (weather permitting) and this year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a delight.

I saw the play at Bella Vista Farm Park in the Hills Shire and have been tardy in reviewing it so that season is now over. However, you can catch the production at Everglades Gardens in Leura during January – and it’s well worth it.

At Bella Vista Farm, Sport for Jove has a new purpose-built stage. With a lighting rig and backstage area, it is better equipped for the cast and crew. Constructed at the bottom of a gently sloping hill, it also provides better sightlines for the audience who can either sit on a picnic blanket, or a little further up the hill on provided plastic chairs. The set-up may not have quite the same charm as when the company performed in a courtyard in front of the farmhouse or in the nearby shed, but it is eminently practical.

What’s more, the set (co-designed by Damien Ryan and Anna Gardiner) is vibrantly attractive in a shabby chic kind of way with wisteria-draped screens and walls and a “marble” floor: a staging that sits well and looks good in the outdoor setting under Sian James-Holland’s lighting.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s early, rarely performed comedies. It’s a wordy piece though it never feels cumbersomely so here. In his program notes, director Damien Ryan writes that he has removed the play’s “most impenetrable material” but admits that some of the language remains “a curiously knotted garden”. However, there’s lots of wonderful poetry and the production rollicks along with such an infectious energy that any difficult language never becomes an issue.

The plot is light and rather silly. The young King Ferdinand of Navarre (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) and his friends Lord Biron (Tim Walter), Dumain (Curtis Fernandez) and Longaville (Gabrielle Scawthorn) take a pledge to avoid woman and wine for three years and instead devote themselves to study.

But before the ink is dry, the Princess of France (Emily Eskell) and her ladies-in-waiting Rosaline (Sabryna Te’o), Maria (Lara Schwerdt) and Katherine (Madeleine Jones) arrive and test their resolve.

A second plot involves a Spanish nobleman, Don Adriano de Armado (Berynn Schwerdt) who is bent on wooing a comely country maid called Jaquenetta (Claire Lovering). A bumpkin called Costard (George Banders) is also sweet on Jaquenette but is no match for the Don and finds himself being used at the go-between for one and all.

The women in the play are highly spirited and independent, and while attracted to the men refuse to become their playthings. As a way to increase the number of roles for women, Ryan has Longaville played by a woman in masculine attire (Scawthorn) who holds her own in the privileged men’s world. By doing so, Ryan introduces the issue of marriage equality. The device works brilliantly, without feeling at all gimmicky. When the young people eventually pair off, there just happens to be one lesbian couple.

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Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Curtis Fernandez, Tim Walter and Gabrielle Scawthorn in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Marnya Rothe

While using Elizabethan costuming, Ryan also injects a great deal of fun by portraying the officious, bureaucratic Anthony Dull (Scott Sheridan) as a contemporary park ranger.

Speaking of costuming, Melanie Liertz has done an exceptional job on the smell of an oily rag. Apparently the women’s gowns are made from painted canvas. Amazing.

Ryan’s cast is terrific. Some handle the language better than others, but overall it’s performed with a zest that fills the air, sailing effortlessly to the top of the hill. Beryn Schwerdt is hilarious as Don Adriano, flouncing around in melodramatic fashion with a fruity, comedic Spanish accent to match.

Aaron Tsindos is also funny as the Don’s manservant Moth. Scawthorn is impressive as Longaville, Lembke-Hogan exudes confident poise as Navarre and Walter is dashing as the serious, cynical Biron. But all the cast – which also includes Wendy Strehlow and James Lugton – are on song. A fun night.

The evening begins with a short curtain raiser: Josh Lawson’s Shakespearealism, a clever, 30-minute send-up about Ralph Shakespeare, a young playwright who pioneered realism on stage but lived forever in the shadow of his brother William. Directed by Lizzie Schebesta, with Lembke-Hogan as Ralph, James Lugton as jaded theatre manager Philip Henslowe, and Scawhtorn and Tsindos as two actors, it’s a cute piece but makes for a long night.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Bella Vista Farm, December 19

Earnest Production Photo 5 - Credit Marnya Rothe

Deborah Kennedy as Lady Bracknell and Scott Sheridan as Jack Worthing. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the greatest comedies of all time, but I’m not sure that the play with its witty repartee and drawing room settings lends itself to an outdoor production in the same way that Shakespeare does. Damien Ryan directs an enjoyable enough production but it often feels a bit try-hard in the comedy stakes. The slapstick routine of Algernon (Aaron Tsindos) and his manservant Lane (James Lugton) falling off the stage doesn’t sit right in Wilde’s stylish world, nor does Cecily (Eloise Winestock) gagging on the name Algernon. What’s more, I didn’t find any of that particularly funny.

Some of the gags work well – the running joke about the servant’s bell is amusing – but the portrayals of the gun-toting Cecily and hyper Gwendolen (Claire Lovering) feel far too overplayed.

Deborah Kennedy has the style absolutely right as Lady Bracknell and nails every laugh, delivering the famous lines as if they’ve never been said before in a standout performance. Wendy Strehlow is also on the money with Miss Prism, while Tsindos has the measure of the witty, devil-may-care Algernon.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 9 – 24. Bookings: http://www.sportforjove.com.au

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Avenue Q

Enmore Theatre, July 2

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod. Photo: supplied

Matthew Predny as the closeted Rod, with Julia Dray and Nicholas Richard operating Nicky. Photo: supplied

Avenue Q opened at Sydney’s Enmore Theatre with little fanfare in the mainstream media. Presented by first-time producer Luke Westley and his associate Natasha Sparrow for LCW, I admit I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s terrific – every bit as accomplished and enjoyable as the acclaimed commercial production seen in Sydney in 2009.

With book and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, and book by Jeff Whitty, the musical premiered off-Broadway in March 2003, before moving to Broadway later that year where it won three Tony Awards including Best Musical.

Performed by actors with Muppet-like puppets, the show pays homage to the children’s television show Sesame Street, while cheekily sending up its politically correct, rosy optimism with perky songs like It Sucks To Be Me, Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist, Schadenfreude and The Internet Is For Porn.

With some colourful language, references to porn, and puppets getting drunk and having vigorous sex, it’s definitely not for children. But for all its naughtiness, it’s very sweet with a big heart. More than a decade since premiering, it still feels fresh and topical, with Gary Coleman the only really dated element beyond a reference to a mixed-tape.

The story centres on Princeton (Matthew Predny), an arts graduate who arrives in Avenue Q in a downbeat New York neighbourhood looking for his Purpose in life. There he meets among others kindergarten teacher Kate Monster (Madeleine Jones), porn-addicted Trekkie Monster (Nicholas Richard), closeted gay Republican investment banker Rod (Predny), and former child star Gary Coleman (Shauntelle Benjamin), who is now the superintendent of the housing block.

It’s far from Easy Street as characters wrestle with unemployment, homelessness, heartbreak and their sexuality.

With a score full of perky tunes, a clever book and savvy, witty lyrics, Avenue Q zips along in thoroughly entertaining fashion while its celebration of friendship and its simple message – that, sure, life sometimes sucks but that’s OK – sends you home uplifted.

Jo Turner directs a very nifty, polished production. Cat Raven’s set with its row of apartment housing, and small set pieces that are moved quickly into place for various interior scenes, works a treat.

The musical features three human characters and 12 puppet characters, operated by clearly visible actors. Turner has gathered an excellent cast, all sing of whom sing strongly and get the balance between comedy and emotion, as well as flesh and fur, just right as they manipulate and interact with the puppets. (Props to puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne).

Madeleine Jones, who recently played the Girl in the musical Once, is lovely as the good-hearted, wistful Kate Monster and plays the predatory Lucy T Slut with plenty of vampish va va voom. Recent NIDA graduate Matthew Predny also exudes plenty of presence as the naïve, immature Princeton and the camp, sexually repressed Rod.

Nicholas Richard unleashes a fruity baritone as Trekkie and Rod’s slovenly but understanding roommate Nicky. Rowena Vilar is extremely funny as Japanese therapist Christmas Eve (a human character) and Justin Smith gives a warmly engaging performance as her fiancé Brian, an unsuccessful stand-up comic.

There are also strong performances from Shauntelle Benjamin as Gary Coleman, Julia Dray and Owen Little as the Bad Idea Bears, and Kimberley Hodgson and Riley Sutton in smaller roles.

Musical director Shannon Brown heads the seven-strong band, keeping things bouncing along nicely. All in all, a great little production, that charms in equal parts, fun and heart.

Avenue Q plays at the Enmore Theatre until July 18. Bookings: www.ticketek.com.au or 132 849

Once

Princess Theatre, Melbourne, October 18 matinee

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons.  Photo: Jeff Busby

Madeleine Jones and Tom Parsons. Photo: Jeff Busby

Once is a lovely, wistful little musical that could charm the birds from the trees, so it could. It certainly had the audience entranced at the performance I saw.

Based on John Carney’s low-budget 2006 film starring Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also wrote the songs, it maintains the bittersweet, understated feel of the movie but has enough added brio to really shine on stage.

Winner of eight Tony Awards including Best Musical when it opened on Broadway in 2012, the Australian production is co-produced by John Frost with the Melbourne Theatre Company.

As soon as you enter the auditorium you are swept up into the world of the piece. Several performers are already on stage making music and dancing, joined by various members of the audience who hang around, drink in hand, as if at an impromptu ceilidh in an Irish pub. Then, before we know it, we are into the action of the piece.

Set in Dublin, Once tells the story of an Irish Guy and Czech Girl (we never learn their names). They meet when she passes him busking on the street, howling a song in anger and pain. She recognises some kind of kindred spirit in him. Both are musicians (she plays piano) and both are dealing with difficult, unresolved relationships.

Disillusioned, he is on the verge of giving up music but over the next five days she badgers and cajoles him into recording an album. He meets her mother, daughter and friends – who support him on the album – and as they bond over music, love quietly blooms between them. But it is not destined to be.

Bob Crowley’s set design is an old-style pub with walls covered by framed, tarnished mirrors. A hidden walkway over the top is used for brief scenes when the Guy and Girl escape town. Other than that different locations are suggested with little more than the odd prop moved quickly into place.

The lo-tech nature of the staging adds to the charm. The busking scene segues into a hoover repair shop simply by someone pushing a vacuum cleaner across the stage to Girl, for example. It looks deceptively simple but director John Tiffany has done an ingenuous job of keeping the action flowing in ways that are inventive and often witty.

The direction is complemented by Steven Hoggett’s stunning movement – which isn’t dancing in the ‘big-production-number’ way of many musicals. Instead it combines dancing that emerges directly from the story with more gestural movement that feels deeply imbued with emotion.

Tiffany and Hoggett collaborated on Black Watch, the superb National Theatre of Scotland production seen at the 2008 Sydney Festival, and their work is just as special here.

The cast of Once.  Photo: Jeff Busby

The cast of Once. Photo: Jeff Busby

The songs, which combine a Celtic folksy feel with light pop-rock and gorgeous ballads, spring naturally from the action and seduce with their infectious, lilting rhythms. They include the haunting Academy Award-winning song Falling Slowly.

The fact that the music is performed by the cast, all of whom play instruments (fiddle, guitar, cello, mandolin, drums etc) and most of whom rarely leave the stage, also adds to the charm of the show.

Enda Walsh’s book manages to include sentiment without becoming sentimental and offsets it with lots of humour, from the straight-talking bluntness of Girl to the slapstick humour of her manic drummer friend. When Guy sings a song in the pub, introducing it as one that he wrote, someone in the crowd groans “Aw, fuck.”

The use of surtitles is also cleverly done. Most of the dialogue between the Czech characters is conducted in English with Czech surtitles, but occasionally they speak Czech with English surtitles. It’s a neat touch and used in just the right way.

The production has been beautifully cast. Madeleine Jones (best known in Sydney as a straight actor for companies including Sport for Jove and pantsguys) is gorgeous as Girl, underpinning her pugnacious, straight-speaking feistiness with plenty of heart. Her comic timing is great and she has a lovely voice.

Tom Parsons (who is a British actor) captures Guy’s lanky, slightly daggy-shaggy quality but also conveys his soulfulness and pain, and he sings with a heartfelt rawness. The chemistry between them is tangible and when they sing and make music together it’s magic.

There’s a terrific supporting cast. Amy Lehpamer exudes great energy and zesty charisma as the fiddle-playing, sassy Reza (one of Girl’s Czech friends). Colin Dean is very funny as the grouchy music shop owner Billy who hankers after Girl, as is Susan-ann Walker as Girl’s mother, Brent Hill as Czech drummer Svec, and Anton Berezin as the bank manager with musical aspirations.

The ending is bittersweet. The unfulfilled love story gives the piece an air of melancholy but both Girl and Guy have been reinvigorated by their relationship, while the friendships that blossom – even between the initially hostile Billy and the bank manager – are uplifting. Somehow it all feels real: some things work out, some don’t but that’s life.

A paen to the power of music and the importance of friendship, Once creeps gently up on you and plays with your heartstrings. I must admit I didn’t expect to be so moved by it but I went home enchanted.

Once is at Melbourne’s Princess Theatre until December 31. Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au

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