The Book Club; Mothers and Sons

The Ensemble Theatre currently has two plays running in repertory: Roger Hall’s The Book Club and Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons.

Amanda Muggleton in The Book Club. Photo: Thomas Blunt

Amanda Muggleton in The Book Club. Photo: Thomas Blunt

Amanda Muggleton is in her element in The Book Club, giving a big, warm, generous, comic performance that has the audiences in the palm of her hand and frequently in stitches.

The 1999 one-woman play by British-born New Zealand playwright Roger Hall was first adapted by Rodney Fisher for Muggleton in 2008. Fisher has updated it again for this season with more recent references to books including Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda and Geraldine Brooks’s March. He has also cut the script back so that it now runs 100 minutes without interval.

Muggleton plays Deborah, an upper-middle-class Sydney housewife with too much time on her hands. Her daughters have left home and she has little in common with her sports-obsessed lawyer husband Wally, currently training for a marathon.

Realising she’s bored, a friend invites her to join a book group. When it’s her turn to host, Deb invites local author Michael (quite how she manages it is never explained, but no matter) who spices her life up in a way she had previously only fantasised about with Martin Amis.

Narrating the show directly to the audience, Muggleton plays Deborah and all the women in the book club – kindly Welshwoman Millie, snobbish Eastern suburbs socialite Meredith, sweet pregnant Caroline, Swiss PR executive Steffi who never reads more than the first chapter, and so on. She also plays Wally and Michael, morphing easily between all the different characters and accents.

Muggleton gives an exuberant, joyous, energetic performance that has her literally bouncing around the stage at times. Her warm interactions with the audience are quick smart, picking up on any reaction. On opening night, an elderly gent fell asleep in the front row, which she seized on for some gentle ribbing.

Directed by Fisher, who also designed the set, The Book Club is a lightweight entertainment but given such a consummate, gorgeous performance by Muggleton it’s a complete delight. The opening audience loved her and leapt to their feet – an unusual accolade at the Ensemble.

Mothers and Sons

Anne Tenney, Tim Draxl, Jason Langley and Thomas Fisher in Mothers and Sons. Photo: Clare Hawley

Anne Tenney, Tim Draxl, Jason Langley and Thomas Fisher in Mothers and Sons. Photo: Clare Hawley

Terrence McNally’s 2014 Broadway play Mothers and Sons canvasses the losses and gains for America’s gay community since the AIDS epidemic including same-sex marriage and gay parenting.

The play begins with two people gazing rather awkwardly out of the window of a smart New York apartment: Cal (Jason Langley) and Katharine (Anne Tenney) who, it transpires is the mother of Andre, a promising actor and Cal’s former lover who died 19 years ago of AIDS.

Quite why Katharine has decided to make an appearance now is not clear, but she is one embittered woman. Having barely seen Andre after he came out, she has never been able to deal with his death and is still in denial about his sexuality informing Cal that: “Andre wasn’t gay when he came to New York. He came to New York to be an actor.”

Cal meanwhile has moved on. He is now married to the younger Will (Tim Draxl) who he met eight years after Andre died and they have a six-year old son Bud (Thomas Fisher/Connor Burke).

Mothers and Sons is one of those plays that feels a little too overtly like a staged debate, written so that the playwright can air issues close to his heart and needing discussion. Though beautifully played by Langley, Cal is too nice a character in some ways (it’s hard to believe he is a ruthless money-maker as he supposedly is, working in some vaguely defined financial role) so he never really lets rip but remains reasonable and polite in the face of Katharine’s homophobic remarks. As a result, the emotional stakes don’t feel high enough and there is little dramatic tension. This is compounded by the gentle pace of Sandra Bates’s production, much of which unfolds at the same level.

The device of having Will and Cal alternatively go off-stage to oversee Bud’s (very long) bath, also feels rather clunky.

Still, it’s a bold choice for the Ensemble and certainly tunes into issues that are very much in the zeitgeist at the moment, putting a human face to debates such as same-sex marriage.

Running 90-minutes, Mothers and Sons is well staged and well performed. It’s an enjoyable night of theatre, though it doesn’t have quite the emotional and dramatic impact that it might.

Mothers and Sons runs until September 27 and The Book Club runs until October 3, with performances at various times. Bookings: or 02 9929 0644

The God of Hell

Old Fitzroy Theatre, Woolloomooloo, August 28

Vanessa Downing and Ben McIvor. Photo: Gareth Davies

Vanessa Downing and Ben McIvor. Photo: Gareth Davies

Rodney Fisher has worked a small miracle at the Old Fitzroy Theatre with the highly naturalistic set that he has managed to install in the tiny space for his production of Sam Shepard’s The God of Hell, which he both directs and designs.

The old-fashioned, wooden-panelled Wisconsin farmhouse that he depicts in great detail – down to the smell of real bacon frying on the stove – creates a believably ordinary world in which Shepard’s surreal black comedy can suddenly explode.

The play is set on a remote, dairy farm where Frank (Tony Poli) and his wife Emma (Vanessa Downing) still have heifers, unlike most of their neighbours who have been paid by the government not to farm.

The day begins slowly like any other. Frank sits polishing his boots, while Emma waters the plants even though the constant sound of dripping suggests watering is the last thing they need.

But today is different. A man called Haynes (Jake Lyall) – the son of an old friend of Frank’s – is hiding in the basement, having arrived terrified. He is clearly on the run, though Frank doesn’t seem too perturbed. What’s more he emits flashes of lightning whenever anyone touches him, which, as Emma says, isn’t normal.

When Frank goes off to attend his heifers, there is a knock at the door and a suited man appears brandishing a cookie with stars-and-stripes icing as if it were a business card, or something more sinister.

The pushy, over-cheery Welch (Ben McIvor) is ostensibly there to sell patriotic paraphernalia but it’s not long before he is grilling Emma about how many rooms there are in the house and whether there is anyone in the basement.

From naturalistic beginnings, the play slides into something more bizarre, with Shepard throwing satire, black comedy, absurdity, farce and elements of a psychological thriller into the mix.

The God of Hell isn’t the subtlest play, wearing its politics on its sleeve, but it burns with a fiery anger. Written in 2004, Shepard depicts old-time America being ruthlessly overtaken by a new world where not flying the American flag outside your home is tantamount to being unpatriotic; a world where democracy is to be protected at all costs and the war of terror is in danger of turning on its own. It may be set in America but its themes chime here too.

Produced by MopHead Productions in association with Sydney Independent Theatre Company (SITCO), Fisher helms an impressive production, proving once more what a terrific (and strangely under-used) director he is.

Vanessa Downing, Tony Poli, Ben McIvor and Jake Lyall. Photo: Gareth Davies

Vanessa Downing, Tony Poli, Ben McIvor and Jake Lyall. Photo: Gareth Davies

Downing gives a quietly compelling performance as Emma, who may be a rustic innocent, out of touch with the world, but is no fool or pushover. She and Poli speak with a more languid rhythm than the other two, but you see her resolve building in the face of Welch’s bullying, while Poli convinces as a decent man so naïvely set in his ways, he is a sitting target.

McIvor combines a grating, smarmy bonhomie with something more menacing, while Lyall is believably coming apart at the seams.

Their American accents sound unobtrusively authentic (to my untrained ear, anyway; props to accent coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley), while Max Lynadvert’s sound and Ryan Shuker’s lighting add to the growing sense of unease.

Running 90 minutes without interval, The God of Hell is a terrific production of a punchy, provocative play and well worth a look.

The God of Hell runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until September 13. Bookings: www.sitco.netau or 1300 307 264