Seventeen

Belvoir St Theatre, August 5

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Anna Volska, Maggie Dence, John Gaden, Peter Carroll and Barry Otto. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sure, it could easily have been another song in the event but it’s quite a moment when the veteran cast of Seventeen dances to Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off. Famously, it nearly didn’t happen. When rights to the song were denied at the last minute, director Anne-Louise Sarks took to Twitter. The campaign went viral with Swift tweeting her permission, gifting the production invaluable publicity.

Written by Matthew Whittet, Seventeen is a very sweet play. On the last day of high school, a small group of friends gather in the park to party the night away before they all go their separate ways and life changes forever. As they drink too much, dance and play truth and dare, anxieties, fears and secrets bubble to the surface.

It could be performed by young people but Whittet wrote it for 70-year olds, adding another level of poignancy to his examination of those uncertain years on the cusp of adulthood when you ponder who you are and what you hope to become.

And so we have a cast of esteemed older actors in the roles. There’s the loud, pushy ringleader Mike (John Gaden), his quieter, more sensitive best mate Tom (Peter Carroll) who is heading interstate to Melbourne University, Mike’s pretty, popular girlfriend Sue (Maggie Dence) and Sue’s brainy friend Edwina (Anna Volska) who rarely lets her hair down.

Joining them are the uninvited Ronny (Barry Otto), the weird, misfit kid that no-one likes, and Mike’s 14-year old sister Lizzy (played by the younger Genevieve Lemon) who won’t go home no matter how much they tell her to piss off.

The company spent time during rehearsals with some 17-year olds to get back in touch with a teenager’s energy, physicality and way of talking – and they all do a great job. Carroll and Gaden, in particular, climb the playground equipment and get their groove on with the ease and exuberance of people decades younger (movement by Scott Witt).

There are a few clunky moments as Whittet sends characters off stage to allow others to remain alone, which feel a bit engineered, but overall Sarks’ production is nicely staged on Robert Cousins’ playground set, with very clever costuming by Mel Page.

The performances are exceptional. After initial laughter at seeing septuagenarians larking around, saying “fucktard” and dancing to contemporary pop songs, we accept the convention as the actors draw us into the character’s emotional dilemmas.

There are lovely moments for all the characters, while Otto’s portrayal of the sad, alienated Ronny is heartbreaking.

The characters can’t believe how quickly their high school years have flown. Young people will doubtless relate to that, but Seventeen will probably speak loudest to people whose teenage years are long in the past and for whom the passing of time and sense of nostalgia will strike even more of a chord.

Whittet writes with love, tenderness and a gentle optimism. He doesn’t tell us what happens to the characters – which would arguably make for an even stronger play – but he leaves us hoping against hope that things will turn out well for all of them.

Seventeen runs until September 13. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444

 A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 9

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A Christmas Carol

Belvoir St Theatre, November 12

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ivan Donato, Ursula Yovich, Peter Carroll, Miranda Tapsell and Robert Menzies. Photo: Brett Boardman

The magic begins as soon as you enter the theatre to find the seats dusted with (paper) snow. All over the theatre young and old excitedly lark around with it, dumping it on each other’s heads and tossing snowballs.

It’s the perfect start to Belvoir’s A Christmas Carol: a production so delightful and touching it would melt the hardest heart.

The costuming is contemporary (Mel Page) but the adaptation by director Anne-Louise Sarks and Benedict Hardie is a faithful telling of Charles Dickens’ timeless tale.

In this materialistic society of ours, the story of the miserly Scrooge resonates as powerfully as ever. Visited on Christmas Eve by the ghost of his former business partner Jacob Marley, followed by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet To Come, Scrooge learns to open his heart (and wallet).

The messages that although you can’t change your past, it’s never too late to change your ways, and that it’s more rewarding to give than to receive, are as beautiful and timely as ever.

The Belvoir stage has rarely looked larger than it does with Michael Hankin’s steeply raked black set. It’s a deceptively simple design with trap doors and a platform that rises and falls, brought to vivid life by Benjamin Cisterne’s dynamic lighting.

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarks’ production doesn’t avoid the dark corners of the story but her production twinkles with joy and playfulness along with showers of snow and glitter, a human Christmas tree, and carol singers in wonderfully naff, knitted Christmas jumpers (think Mark Darcy in Bridget Jones’s Diary).

Robert Menzies is perfect as the mean-spirited, grouchy Scrooge, who starts the evening growling “Bah, humbug!” to any mention of Christmas and gradually thaws until he is gamboling in the snow making angel wings.

The other seven actors take on a number of roles each and work together as a tight ensemble. Steve Rodgers brings a beatific smile and deep humanity to the role of Bob Cratchitt, matched by Ursula Yovich as his kind-hearted but tougher, spirited wife. Together they are incredibly touching.

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell. Photo: Brett Boardman

Miranda Tapsell’s radiantly glowing face could light the darkest night as Tiny Tim. Wearing a gorgeous confection-of-a-costume made from gold tinsel, Kate Box brings a deliciously mischievous exuberance to the Ghost of Christmas Present. Ivan Donato is a more solemn presence as the Ghost of Christmas Past in a shiny suit, Peter Carroll is hilariously, maniacally unhinged as Jacob Marley, while Eden Falk is decency and kindness personified as Scrooge’s nephew.

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

Robert Menzies, Ursula Yovich, Steve Rodgers, Peter Carroll, Kate Box. Photo: Brett Boardman

With music by Stefan Gregory and movement by Scott Witt, the heartwarming, family-friendly production (which runs 75 minutes) moves you to laughter and tears, sending you home filled with the spirit of Christmas.

In fact, I felt so uplifted that the next morning I booked tickets to take my family to see it just before Christmas. A real gift of a show.

A Christmas Carol is at Belvoir St Theatre until December 24. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 9699 3444

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 23

Oedipus Rex

Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs, August 26

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll as Oedipus. Photo: Pia Johnson

It begins in darkness. A couple of minutes tick past in a silent void. Some have found this initial blackout (with more to follow) uncomfortable and agonisingly long but I have to admit it didn’t feel that unsettling or threatening in the audience I sat with.

Then in a watery pale half-light we glimpse a frail old man in grimy-looking underwear and blindfold breathing noisily through an oxygen mask. The darkness returns and a barrage of cacophonous sound throbs through the theatre.

As the light comes and goes, he clambers onto the chair and strikes a series of agonised poses reminiscent of classical sculpture.

When the lights finally come up fully, a young woman enters with towels, a basin of water and a laundry bag of clothes. Stripping the old man she washes him in a bored, matter-of-fact way but not without tenderness. Then they play games to while away the time, games that he cannot hope to win.

This is Oedipus (Peter Carroll), now aged, almost senile and in exile, looking back in anguish on the terrible tragedy of his life: fated to murder his father, marry his mother and sire children that are his half-siblings. He has already gouged out his eyes. He lives in the kind of darkness the production periodically thrusts us into. Now his daughter/sister Antigone (Andrea Demetriades) is with him as he faces death.

Director Adena Jacobs describes her hour-long production – which references Sophocles’ plays Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Colonus – as “a meditation on the myth of Oedipus Rex, and the notion of suffering itself. It is a poem. A code of symbols. A series of impressions that emerge from the darkness of the theatre. Tragedy cannot be represented. It can only be experienced through the senses,” she writes in the program notes.

It certainly helps to at least know the outline of Oedipus’s story, though there is a short section of text in which Carroll briefly articulates his tragedy, capturing through the poetry Oedipus’s once heroic status.

But for the most part, Jacobs uses loaded imagery. Are the games (which feel somewhat over-extended) a reference to human beings suffering as the playthings of the gods? Oedipus’s destiny was after all predicted before he was even born. The riddle of the sphinx was a kind of cruel game, as Antigone is at times here. Or is the game-playing merely a way of passing of the unendurably long days waiting for death?

One particularly striking image offers various possibilities around the theme of incest: perhaps a memory of the past or another twist in the present.

Max Lyandvert’s soundscape moves between rumbling electronic noise and glorious, lush early music that summons a sense of the epic, tragic grandeur of the myth – in complete contrast to the ugly, painful, squalid reality of what we see unfolding before us in this drab, carpeted room backed by a wall of timber frames and plastic sheeting (designed by Paul Jackson, who also did the lighting).

Somehow, though, as we ponder what each image might mean, we respond intellectually rather than viscerally. As with Jacobs’s recent production of Hedda (also for Belvoir) we are held at arm’s length emotionally.

Carroll gives a wonderful portrayal of a haunted man confused, possibly suffering dementia, consumed by suffering and the horror of what has been, yet still able to lash out in rage. The black contact lenses, which make dark holes of his eyes, lend a genuinely frightening touch to his haggard face.

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Peter Carroll with Andrea Demetriades. Photo: Pia Johnson

Demetriades is also impressive as Antigone, by turns caring, cruel and exasperated: a down-to-earth foil to the dramatic intensity of Carroll’s tortured performance.

It’s strange though, at the end of a piece that explores such a horrifying tale, for it to have had such little impact emotionally. It should be harrowing and full of pain. Instead I watched with cool detachment, admiring, pondering, wondering, yet not really emotionally involved.

Oedipus Rex plays at Belvoir St Theatre, Downstairs until September 14.