Jasper Jones

Belvoir St Theatre, January 6

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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.

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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

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Jumpy

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, March 28

Brenna Harding and Jane Turner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Brenna Harding and Jane Turner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Written by British playwright April De Angelis, Jumpy was a hit in the UK, where it opened at the Royal Court in 2011 then transferred to the West End.

It’s certainly refreshing to see a play where the central protagonist is a 50-year old woman – played here by Kath & Kim’s Jane Turner – and where the themes are mainly women’s issues.

Hilary (Turner) is being buffeted by life. Her job in childhood literacy is on the line due to funding cuts, her marriage is stale, her political idealism seems a thing of the past, and her surly, sexually precocious, 15-year old daughter Tilly (Brenna Harding) is an antagonistic nightmare. Hell, even the furniture seems out to get her during the scene changes in Pamela Rabe’s Melbourne Theatre Company production, now being presented in Sydney by Sydney Theatre Company.

Hilary and her best friend Frances (Marina Prior) take regular solace in a glass or three of savvy blanc, while the single, sex-starved Frances also works up a saucy burlesque act, which she describes it as “post-feminist irony” but which feels pretty desperate (and cringe-making).

Marina Prior, Brenna Harding and David Tredinnick.  Photo: Brett Boardman

Marina Prior, Brenna Harding and David Tredinnick. Photo: Brett Boardman

When Tilly begins sleeping with her boyfriend Josh (Laurence Boxhall), Hilary goes to meet Josh’s steely mother Bea (Caroline Brazier) and more amiable actor father Roland (John Lloyd Fillingham) whose take on the situation is very different. Their marriage is also on the rocks.

Jumpy is a lively, well-written comedy though it makes its themes (marriage, parenting, feminism, the sexualisation of young women and the invisibility of their older counterparts) fairly obvious.

Rabe directs an elegant production on Michael Hankin’s pale wooden, low-ceilinged set, which has the furniture glide on and off as if on a conveyor belt. It’s witty and with so many short, snappy scenes it’s a clever solution. As for having Hilary jump to avoid the scenery in the set changes, I can understand the logic, and many in the audience clearly loved the idea, but I found it a bit of a cheap laugh, making Hilary something of a buffoon, which she absolutely isn’t.

Teresa Negroponte’s costumes are spot-on and it’s all well lit by Matt Scott.

Turner gives a lovely, subtle performance, finding the humour, confusion and poignancy in Hilary’s situation. Harding glowers convincingly as Tilly, though the role is pretty one-dimensional, while Prior is very funny as Frances, as is Brazier as the cold, witheringly brusque Bea.

Tariro Mavondo shines as Tilly’s cheery, working class friend Lyndsey, who finds herself pregnant at 16, but where Tilly is a thunderous dark cloud, Lyndsey exudes sunny optimism despite having so much to contend with.

There are also strong performances from Lloyd Fillingham as the genial but awkward Roland, David Tredinnick as Hilary’s rather ineffectual husband who constantly gives in to Tilly in his anxiety to avoid conflict, Boxhall as Tilly’s monosyllabic boyfriend Josh, and Dylan Watson as Cam, another boy Tilly brings home with unexpected results.

Jumpy is somewhat reminiscent of Alan Ayckbourn or David Williamson in style. It resists tying things up too neatly, with a second act that is darker than the first, but several events feel unlikely, not least the late appearance of a gun, while De Angelis cops out a bit with a soft solution to Tilly’s later situation.

Marina Prior and Jane Turner.  Photo: Brett Boardman

Marina Prior and Jane Turner. Photo: Brett Boardman

However, the challenges Hilary and Frances face and the banter between them ring true, and many will relate to the way the two women feel about aging and our changing society.

In the end Jumpy is a lightweight play but it’s enjoyable and well staged. The chance to see Turner and Prior flex their comic muscles on stage is a particular delight.

Jumpy runs at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 16. Bookings: 02 9250 1777 or www.sydneytheatre.com.au

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

Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida

Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 27

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

Milijana Nikolic and Latonia Moore. Photo: Prudence Upton

The giant, crumbling head of Queen Nefertiti dominating the stage for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Aida looks genuinely spectacular in its stunning location and is used to great effect, with a particularly striking image at the end of the production. But with the rest of the spectacle feeling decidedly ad hoc, the opening night of Aida well and truly belonged to American soprano Latonia Moore in the title role.

For its fourth harbour outing, Opera Australia has chosen Verdi’s Aida, which combines lavish spectacle with an intimate love triangle between Egyptian military commander Radames, Ethiopian slave Aida (later revealed to be a Princess) and the jealous Princess Amneris, daughter of the Pharoah.

In the first part, it’s spectacle all the way as director Gale Edwards and designer Mark Thompson fill the stage with ceremonial pomp and bucket-loads of glitz.

The costuming mixes styles and eras (“a world caught between times” says the program): men in contemporary suits and others in Fascist military uniforms, ornately clad priests looking straight out of ancient Egypt, OTT golden gowns for the Egyptian women (dubbed the Kardashian chorus by the cast) in which the singers look rather awkward, and vibrantly coloured, boldly patterned fabrics for the Ethiopians.

There doesn’t seem to be any coherent vision behind it; instead it just looks like a lot of disparate visual elements. Worse, the camp costumes for the dancers look oddly out of place, even crass. There are space age storm troopers in Latex (or some such fabric) with helmets and jackboots who would be right at home in the Mardi Gras parade, can-can girls (yes, really) and ceremonial male dancers whose tight black outfits with chains shout bondage. Apparently they’re jackals, though I couldn’t pick that from my seat near the back. Dancing with golden-clad ballet dancers, it is a low point of the production. Lucas Jervies’ clichéd choreography doesn’t help.

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The Aida stage is dominated by a giant head of Queen Nefertiti. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s true that the positioning of the priests and soldiers around the stage frequently looks dazzling under Matt Scott’s highly dramatic, coloured lighting, but then a distracting gaudy or camp element will intrude, undercutting the effect.

Oil drums stacked at the back of the stage suggest wealth built on petrol – though this isn’t true of Egypt – but nothing more is done with them. Edwards also includes rows of black coffins, which are set out on stage, each with a single lily on them, in the famous Triumphal March. It’s a powerful image alongside the spoils of war and the spectacle of four camels and fireworks, but the politics of the piece don’t reverberate anywhere near as strongly as promised in pre-publicity.

At the same time, any sense of genuine human intimacy is lost in the first half of the production with Amneris, Aida and Radames frequently singing to each other across acres of stage.

After interval, when things quieten and human emotion is allowed to shine through, the production is much more successful. A stronger, clearer focus on the leading characters, positioned close together centrestage, opens the way for us to engage emotionally.

Even then there is a strange piece of staging when a metal mesh frame rises from the front of the stage (creating sight line issues) and then lowers again later. I think it was meant to suggest the opening and closing of the vault in which Radames is buried alive. However, there is no sense whatsoever of he and Aida being sealed in a dark tomb.

Fortunately Latonia Moore is superb. Singing with great beauty and warmth across her range from a rich, strong bottom register to a glowing top, her gorgeous voice outshines the spectacle. Acting with great conviction, she brings real heart to the production.

As Amneris, Serbian-born mezzo-soprano Milijana Nikolic gives a compelling, passionate performance, convincingly moving from imperiousness to heartfelt, bitter regret.

Walter Fraccaro is less persuasive as Radames. He sings with power but little expressiveness, while his voice showed a tendency to wobble on opening night. Acting-wise he has little charisma and next to no chemistry with Moore.

Among the rest of the cast, Michael Honeyman as Amonasro and David Parkin as Ramphis are particularly impressive.

There are two alternating casts with Daria Masiero, Arnold Rawls, Jacqueline Dark and Warwick Fyfe leading the other.

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

The spectacle of Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Verdi’s music is glorious, of course, and the orchestra led by Brian Castles-Onion does it justice, while the sound, though muddy at times, is overall reasonably good.

The production is worth seeing if just for Latonia Moore and the Queen Nefertiti set piece. Some of the staging is undeniably spectacular, but compared to last year’s brilliant, hard-hitting, contemporary production of Madama Butterfly, staged by members of Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, Aida is rather disappointing.

Aida runs until April 26

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on March 29