Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks

The Concourse, Chatswood, February 27

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS -18 Photo by Clare Hawley

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes. Photo: Clare Hawley

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks was a big hit for the Ensemble Theatre in 2006, winning a 2007 Helpmann Award for Best Regional Touring Production when they took it on the road.

The production was blessed to have Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney co-starring in the bittersweet two-hander. A decade on, the Ensemble is doubly blessed that Hayes and McKenney have reunited with director Sandra Bates for the current revival. It’s perfect casting and even more touching than last time around.

The 2001 comedy by American playwright Richard Alfieri has a classic odd-couple premise. Set in a light, bright, well-appointed Florida condominium, wealthy retiree Lily Harrison, the lonely, prim widow of a Baptist minister, has hired a dance instructor to polish her ballroom dancing.

Enter Michael Minetti, an acerbic, middle-aged, gay, former Broadway chorus boy with plenty of attitude and a bad case of foot-in-mouth.

Things don’t get off to a good start. Both initially have their guard up and are less than honest with each other. Early antagonisms threaten to detonate their lessons before they begin. But gradually they foxtrot, cha-cha, tango and waltz their way to a blossoming friendship, realising that they have far more in common than they could ever have imagined.

Six Dance Lessons is well-written with lots of zingy one-liners but it’s also fairly predictable and sentimental and could easily become schmaltzy if allowed to.

However, under Bates’ direction, Hayes and McKenney play against the sentimentality and create tough, flawed, warmly believable characters. They have a lovely rapport and both are able to play the cut-and-thrust of the comedy superbly while convincingly suggesting the emotional scars both characters carry within.

Todd McKenney and Nancye Hayes SIX DANCE LESSONS IN SIX WEEKS -41 Photo by Clare Hawley

Nancye Hayes and Todd McKenney. Photo: Clare Hawley

Both Hayes and McKenney are very experienced dancers, of course, so the dancing (choreographed by John O’Connell) is effortless and full of charm. The fact that they are ten years older this time actually suits the roles and lends the play an added poignancy.

Designer Graham Maclean’s gleaming set and attractive costuming makes for a vibrant looking production that complements the feisty comedy.

Gently touching on homophobia, loneliness and ageism, Six Dance Lessons wears its heart on its sleeve but Hayes and McKenney do the play proud, bringing enough nuance to their roles to make the lightweight comedy a moving plea for understanding and acceptance.

Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks is at The Concourse, Chatswood until March 13. Bookings:

 This review ran in the Daily Telegraph Arts online on February 29

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 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.


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.