The Way Things Work

Bondi Pavilion, November 11

Ashley Lyons and nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Ashley Lyons and nicholas Papademetriou. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

For his final production as artistic director of Rock Surfers Theatre Company, Leland Kean is directing a new Australian play by Aidan Fennessy called The Way Things Work, which won the inaugural Rock Surfers/Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder (CJZ) Playwriting Commission.

A dark satire about corruption in NSW, from the highest level down to the criminal underbelly, Fennessy won’t have needed to look far for inspiration with the newspapers full of corruption allegations on both sides of NSW politics and elsewhere in the private sector.

Investigative journalist Kate McClymont was a guest on opening night and in a short speech afterwards confirmed that the fiction on stage wasn’t that far removed from reality.

The Way Things Work unfolds in three sections with two actors playing three sets of characters.

The play opens with Minister Barlow (Nicholas Papademetriou) feeling the heat. The Minister (who surname has lent itself to umpteen scathing headlines) has overseen the construction of a multi-million dollar East-West road tunnel, funded by a public-private partnership. He has brought it in on time and on budget. The trouble is, it’s already beginning to crumble because it was built using ordinary concrete not the required “special concrete” and will eventually cost taxpayers vastly more to repair than it did to build.

The project is now the subject of a Royal Commission and the Minister is keen that certain behind-the-scenes deals are not revealed. He calls his departmental secretary (Ashley Lyons), a senior public servant, in for a meeting and puts pressure on him to “forget” a certain name.

In the second section, we meet the two Greek-Australian brothers whose company supplied the concrete and who are engaged in a power struggle of their own as their company is about to be bought out by a major media conglomerate.

The third section features a prison warden (Papademetriou) and a prisoner (Lyons) who have forged a close relationship over many years. The warden has just enlisted the prisoner as a hit man to prevent another of the inmates testifying at the commission, but there is more bubbling away beneath the surface.

Kean, who designed the set as well as directing, stages the play in a concrete box, which changes under Luiz Pampolha’s noir-ish lighting but which lends the piece a consistently tangible feeling of brutality, ruthlessness and claustrophobia, heightened by Jed Silver’s sound.

On opening night Papademetriou rather overplayed the Minister so that the character verged on the cartoonish, undercutting any genuine sense of reality. Some of the dialogue he was given also stretched credibility a little.

But Papademetriou settled down in the next two scenes with two far more potent, believable characterisations and as the play progressed the tension built nicely.

Lyons gives a chameleon-like performance, morphing convincingly from the anxious public servant determined not to compromise his integrity, to the cocky, blinged-up brother, to the prisoner whose sense of betrayal is surprisingly touching.

Running a tight 100-minutes, Kean keeps the action taut, driven by a macho energy. After a somewhat shaky start, The Way Things Work becomes a darkly funny, entertaining play that will certainly resonate with Sydneysiders.

The Way Things Work plays at Bondi Pavilion until November 29. Bookings: www.rocksurfers.org or 1300 241 167

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Empire: Terror on the High Seas

Bondi Pavilion, September 3

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Anthony Gooley, Nathan Lovejoy, Billie Rose Prichard and Fayssal Bazzi. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

You have to applaud Toby Schmitz for the ambition behind his new play Empire: Terror on the High Seas. But it still has a way to go before that ambition is realised on stage.

Set in 1925 on board a cruise liner called the Empress of Australia, headed for New York, we meet a group of first class passengers: the dandyish Richard (Dick) Civil-Lowe Cavendish (Nathan Lovejoy) who managed to avoid service in World War I, a brash South African called Anthony Hertz-Hollingsworth (Anthony Gee) and his new wife Nicole (Ella Scott Lynch), a London flapper and party-girl with a taste for cocaine, and a gangster-like Chicago businessman called Jacob ‘Bang’ Reiby (Fayssal Bazzi) who works for emerging company IBM.

There’s also Mr Frey (Anthony Gooley), a bookish, Australian poet who fought in the war and has been seduced by Dadaism, who has been invited onto the upper decks as a guest, a bigoted priest (James Lugton), a cabaret singer (Billie Rose Prichard) and a plodding detective (Duncan Fellows), among others.

It’s not long before we discover there is a serial killer on board. The first victims are Bengali ship stewards but the murders quickly escalate, becoming ever more grisly, so that no one is safe.

In a story by Elissa Blake in the Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/theatre/sailing-into-the-darkness-20130829-2srew.html) Schmitz said that “the set-up is deliberately Agatha Christie” but that the ship is actually a metaphor for “a nation adrift” and a way to examine Australia’s post-colonial history.

In the theatre program Schmitz references the British Empire Exhibition of 1924 (also alluded to in the play), which showcased the various nations in the Empire, while director Leland Kean writes: “As a nation, Australians find it extremely hard to face the fact that in the name of bettering the world we live in, we did some terrible things. That our ancestors committed atrocities in the name of race is something we still struggle to comprehend, and admit. Likewise it is also extremely hard to imagine the world they lived in, as it was when these atrocities occurred. This play bravely attempts to take us to this horror.”

I must confess that had I not read the story and program notes I wouldn’t have realised that this was Schmitz’s aim. Though the characters talk and talk, voicing views about the Empire, race, class, war and history, the play doesn’t cohere dramatically.

I found myself straining to follow what was being said. A lot of it is smart and amusing, with Noel Coward-like witticisms, but there is just so much of it that it’s an uncomfortable experience as you struggle to pull it all together and shape it in your mind.

There is a somewhat Stoppardian feel about it. Schmitz is, of course, starring in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company at the moment. But where Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is also dense and rewards close listening, Stoppard allows you to relax, follow what is being said and enjoy it. Empire has you straining so hard it’s exhausting. Gee’s aggressively loud turn as Hertz-Hollingsworth coupled with a frequently indecipherable South African accent doesn’t help.

There’s little tension along the whodunit lines; it’s obvious fairly early on who the killer is and the perpetrator is revealed in Act I – though the other characters remain in the dark. Why the killer is driven to murder so indiscriminately and voraciously isn’t entirely clear. Post-traumatic stress as a result of war? Or were they already a psychopath? As for the mix of styles, the play never convincingly moves beyond the nod to Coward and Christie to something genuinely horrific.

There has been publicity about the gothic horror being similar to something from the Saw films but don’t believe it. It’s hard to put fake intestines on stage and make it look believable. I’m incredibly squeamish but the gory scenes come across as comical in a gross-out way rather than stomach churning.

Staging a play this big – with a cast of 15 – is just as ambitious on the part of Rock Surfers Theatre Company. Kean runs a fairly tight ship in his staging.  James Browne’s handsome set with wooden crates, suitcases and a chintzy looking cabin is effective and his costumes are stylish.

The performances are generally good. Lovejoy is particularly impressive as the “pansexual” Cavendish, tossing off witticisms with just the right level of breezy, self-satisfied affectation, his comic timing immaculate as the words trip effortlessly off his tongue.

But in the end it just doesn’t come together. Running three hours including interval, Empire feels long and underdeveloped.

Schmitz is an exciting writer. His play Capture the Flag about the Hitler Youth movement is a little gem and his recent work I Want to Sleep With Tom Stoppard (also directed by Kean) is an entertaining, intelligent comedy.

Empire is commendably ambitious. All too rarely these days so we see work of this scale.  But the play needs further work for the themes and big ideas in it to emerge more strongly.

Empire plays at the Bondi Pavilion until September 28

The Removalists; Happiness reviews

There are two David Williamson plays running in Sydney at the moment – The Removalists from early in his career and a new play, Happiness, which has just premiered at the Ensemble Theatre.

They make a study in contrasts. The Removalists is a reminder of what a tough, terrific playwright Williamson has been in his time and why this particular play is considered a classic of Australian theatre. In recent years, however, his plays have become somewhat formulaic: pick a topical subject, find the characters to debate it on stage, and stir in some laughs. Happiness is all this – and one of Williamson’s least convincing plays.

The Removalists

Bondi Pavilion, May 29

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Justin Stewart Cotta and Laurence Coy. Photo: Zak Kaczmarek

Written in 1971, The Removalists launched David Williamson’s career, sending a shock of recognition through audiences with its stark, savage portrayal of the ugly side of Australian culture: the open, rampant sexism, in particular.

Forty-two years on, Leland Kean’s terrific production for Rock Surfers Theatre Company still packs a real punch. Blatant sexism certainly isn’t as rife in public life as it was back then, but it ain’t disappeared.

Meanwhile, the themes of police corruption and brutality, abuse of authority, and domestic violence feel just as relevant.

On his first day in the police force, rookie Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan) finds himself under the command of Sergeant Simmonds (Laurence Coy), a lazy, manipulative, sexist bully who prides himself on having never made an arrest in 23 years despite the high crime-rate in his area.

When the confident, well-heeled Kate (Caroline Brazier) and her quieter sister Fiona (Sophie Hensser) report that Fiona’s husband Kenny (Justin Stewart Cotta) has been beating her up, the lecherous Simmonds decides they will help her move out while Kenny is at his usual Friday night drinking session. But Kenny returns home early.

Kean has wisely decided to keep the play in its original period, using blasts of 70s Oz rock and Ally Mansell’s drab, dung-coloured set with cheap furniture to create the perfect setting.

With excellent performances from the entire cast, which includes Sam Atwell in the comic role of the removalist, Kean’s production feels tough, raw and very real.

Coy’s Simmonds is a man both odious and deeply ordinary. A school group attending the performance I saw remained attentive throughout, while the boys, in particular, seemed shocked by his behaviour, wincing visibly at his sexist remarks and sleazy bottom-patting.

O’Sullivan captures Ross’s naivety and nails the moment he suddenly snaps, Stewart Cotta is a convincingly brutish Kenny yet manages to make us feel something like sympathy when the tables are turned on him, while Brazier and Hensser deliver beautifully detailed, in-depth performances.

Kean’s production strikes just the right balance between humour, menace and violence as it builds tension. We laugh but we also cringe and shudder at a classic Australian play that still rings horribly true.

Bondi Pavilion until June 16.

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 2.

Happiness

Ensemble Theatre, May 17

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

Glenn Hazeldine and Erica Lovell. Photo: Steve Lunam

In Happiness, David Williamson takes on an interesting, pertinent question: why are Australians seemingly so dissatisfied and unhappy when we have never had it so good? However, the play barely scratches the surface of the idea.

It begins with a lecture by Roland Makepeace (Mark Lee), a professor of psychology who specialises in happiness – or “human wellbeing” as he prefers to put it – which sets up Williamson’s theme.

However, Roland’s own life isn’t exactly overflowing with wellbeing. His hard-drinking wife Hanna (Anne Tenney) is bitter and forever snapping at him, while his daughter Zelda (Erica Lovell) claims to feel suicidal on occasions.

When Roland tries to help Zelda with advice to go out and forgive someone, apologise to someone and do an anonymous good deed, there are all kinds of unintended consequences.

Rounding out the cast are Peter Kowitz as a rich, former lover of Hanna’s, Glenn Hazeldine as the editor of a right-wing newspaper where Zelda is an environmental reporter, and Adriano Cappelletta as two of Zelda’s love interests.

It’s all pretty unconvincing, while Williamson’s trademark ability to deliver cracking one-liners has also deserted him. Some of the audience laughed along now and then but I hardly cracked a smile.

Sandra Bates directs a pedestrian production in which the actors, by and large, do what they can. Hazeldine, Kowitz and Lee deliver the most believable characters, though they are all pretty sketchily written and we don’t particularly care about any of them. It feels very under-developed with more work needed on both the script and the production.

That said, as I left the theatre an elderly gent in front of me, who had clearly enjoyed it said, “Good old Williamson”. What’s more, the production is apparently almost sold out – which goes to show how many fans Williamson still has. It’s just a shame he hasn’t given them something better.

Ensemble Theatre until July 6. Noosa Long Weekend Festival, June 18 & 19.