2015: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over the 167 productions (theatre, musicals, dance, opera and cabaret) I saw in 2015, there was some terrific mainstage theatre but it was in the independent sector this year that many of my real highlights occurred. There were some outstanding performances across both, including a number of unforgettable solo turns.

As for musicals, the commercial scene was generally much more impressive than last year, thanks to a couple of exceptional productions, while independent musical theatre continued to thrive led by the invaluable Hayes Theatre Co. Not only did the Hayes shine a light on many little known shows and talented, emerging performers but it also provided the opportunity for several impressive directorial debuts.

So, here goes with my personal highlights for the year.

MUSICALS

Matilda the Musical

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“When I Grow Up” in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

 Tim Minchin and writer Dennis Kelly took the irreverent genius of Roald Dahl and made it sing on stage in Matilda The Musical, one of the most original and exciting new musicals in ages. The Royal Shakespeare Company production is an inspired piece of theatre and the Australian cast did it proud, thrilling adults and “maggots” alike. James Millar was a hoot as the monstrous Miss Trunchbull and Elise McCann was a quietly radiant Miss Honey, while the four young girls who played Matilda – Molly Barwick, Bella Thomas, Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin – did a fine job, as did all the children in the cast.

Les Misérables

Cameron Mackintosh’s 25th anniversary production arrived in Sydney after its Melbourne season and stormed the barricades once more. Stellar turns by Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert gave the production a profound emotional power and Kerrie Anne Greenland made a powerhouse professional debut as Eponine.

The Sound of Music

Julie Andrews’ portrayal of Maria in the film of The Sound of Music is indelibly imprinted in most people’s mind. But Amy Lehpamer made the role her own with a sensational performance that confirms she is, without question, one of the stars of Australian musical theatre.

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and child cast in The Sound of Music (c) James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer, Stefanie Jones and the child cast in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

Lehpamer has been riding a wave for a while now, and showing what an incredibly versatile performer she is. This year alone she has played Janet in The Rocky Horror Show (one of the few good things in a horribly glib production, with Craig McLachlan giving a shamelessly indulgent performance as the hammiest, least sexy Frank N Furter I’ve ever seen), followed by the glamorous Tracy Lord in High Society and now Maria in The Sound of Music. Coming after lovely performances as Christine Colgate in the musical comedy Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the sassy, fiddle-playing Reza in Once, Lehpamer shows she has got the lot.

This revival of The Sound of Music is a scaled-back version of one first seen at London’s Palladium in 2006 and while some of the sets look less than lavish – the hills are hardly rolling in the opening scene – it’s still a lovely production. Jacqui Dark’s humane portrayal of the Mother Abbess and soaring rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain is another highlight.

INDEPENDENT MUSICALS

Once again, some fabulous indie musicals emanated from the Hayes. Leader of the pack for me, by a whisker, was Violet, closely followed by Heathers, Dogfight and High Society, while Man of La Mancha was a high in a patchy year for Squabbalogic.

Violet

Blue Saint Productions - Violet - Grant Leslie Photography

Samantha Dodemaide as Violet. Photo: Grant Leslie

Mitchell Butel made a brilliant directorial debut at the helm of Violet. He displayed a sure, sensitive touch, keeping the action flowing, the different time frames clear, and the focus where it needed to be.

He also drew truthful, beautifully delineated performances from a well-chosen cast led by Samantha Dodemaide, who glowed as Violet, a young woman who crosses the US by bus hoping that a televangelist will heal a disfiguring scar on her face. Everything about the production was spot-on ensuring that the sweet, gently charming musical knocked you for six emotionally without ever becoming corny.

Heathers the Musical

 Trevor Ashley also directed his first musical this year at the Hayes, and showed that he too has got what it takes. His high-energy production of Heathers the Musical leapt off the stage at you and he pitched the dark, camp comedy just right. Jaz Flowers brought a surprising depth to Veronica while belting the hell out of her songs, Lucy Maunder was very funny as queen bitch Heather Chandler and there were impressive debuts from Stephen Madsen as the psychopathic, James Dean-like J.D. and Lauren McKenna as the bullied Martha and loopy, New Age teacher Ms Fleming.

Dogfight

 Like Violet, Dogfight is a sweet, tender little musical though it spins around a vile prank, causing some to find the show misogynistic. Director Neil Gooding handled this sensitively, clearly showing why the young marines are so full of pumped-up machismo. Hilary Cole as the gauche young waitress Rose and Luigi Lucente as Eddie, the marine who tricks her then falls for her, moved me to tears.

High Society

High Society got a mixed response but I very much liked Helen Dallimore’s production ingeniously staged by Lauren Peters in the tiny Hayes. Daryl Wallis’s jazz quartet arrangements worked a treat, Amy Lehpamer shone as Tracy, while Virginia Gay gave one of the musical theatre performances of the year as Liz, the newspaper photographer quietly in love with her colleague Mike (Bobby Fox). Her performance was full of lovely, surprising little details, her comic timing was immaculate and she knew exactly how to deliver Cole Porter’s songs.

Gay

Virginia Gay and Bobby Fox in High Society. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Man of La Mancha

Jay James-Moody’s inventive, low-tech staging of Man of La Mancha was a highlight of Squabbalogic’s 2015 season. Set entirely in a prison dungeon (set by Simon Greer, costumes by Brendan Hay), the gritting reimagining brought new life and emotion to the somewhat hoary old musical. Having the cast play various musical instruments also worked well. At the heart of the production, Tony Sheldon’s Cervantes was dignified, frail and very moving.

MUSICAL ON THE HIGH SEAS

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

 The Norwegian Epic, a cruise liner sailing around the Mediterranean, is known for its entertainment and is currently staging terrific productions of Priscilla and Burn the Floor in its 750-seat theatre. Priscilla stars several Australians among its international cast. Rohan Seinor is sublime as Bernadette bringing enormous warmth, humanity and wit to the role, while Joe Dinn anchors the show as an endearing Tick. I must declare that I went to see my son Tom Sharah, who is a very sassy Miss Understanding. Staged by Australians (director Dean Bryant, choreographer Andrew Hallsworth, costume designer Tim Chappel) it’s a sparkling production – Priscilla, Queen of the Ocean!

MAINSTAGE THEATRE

After Dinner

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Helen Thomson, Rebecca Massey and Anita Hegh in After Dinner. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sydney Theatre Company began the year with a pitch-perfect production of Andrew Bovell’s excruciatingly funny yet tender comedy After Dinner, set in a 1980s pub bistro. Alicia Clements’ set was spot-on down to the icky carpet and yellowing tiles on the wall, while her costumes were 1980s fashion at its hilarious worst. Imara Savage directed a superb cast who had you laughing uproariously yet feeling for the sad, loner characters.

The Present

2015 was Andrew Upton’s last year as artistic director of STC (though he has programmed the 2016 season, which incoming artistic director Jonathan Church will caretake). The Present was a wonderful parting gift. Adapted by Upton from Chekhov’s early, sprawling play Platonov but set in the mid-1990s with the main protagonists now in their mid-40s rather than their 20s, the blistering production was awash with yearning, regret and frustration – as well as plenty of gun shots. Helmed by Irish director John Crowley, there were superb performances all round from the top-notch ensemble cast, which included Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh giving the performance of his career.

Endgame

 Upton also directed an engrossing production of Beckett’s bleak but surprisingly funny absurdist play Endgame for STC. Staged on an imposing, monumental set by Nick Schlieper that reeked of foreboding (beautifully lit by Schlieper too), Hugo Weaving gave a masterful performance as Hamm, mesmerising with the dynamic range of his voice. Dark and difficult but thrilling stuff.

Suddenly Last Summer

Also at STC, Kip Williams directed a highly inventive production of Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer, which synthesised live performance and video more completely than we have seen previously on the Sydney stage. Not everyone was convinced but after a slow start, I found the production worked its magic to deliver an intense telling of the surreal, dreamlike play. Among a strong cast, Eryn Jean Norvill was exquisite as Catharine who is administered the “truth drug” to reveal the details of her cousin’s terrible death.

Ivanov

Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack got the balance between comedy and despair just right when he directed his own adaptation of Chekhov’s Ivanov, set in contemporary Russia. Ewen Leslie was compelling as the self-loathing Ivanov but all the cast gave a very human account of people struggling to get by in a society obsessed with self and money. They sang with great vitality too in a production full of music.

My Zinc Bed

Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble’s incoming artistic director, helmed an elegant production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, an intriguing play of ideas centring on addiction and driven by Hare’s heightened use of language. Sean Taylor was magnificent as the suave, Mephistophelian Victor, hinting at the emptiness within.

The Tempest

For his final production as artistic director of Bell Shakespeare, the company he founded 25 years ago, John Bell directed a lyrical production of The Tempest, staging the romantic tale of forgiveness and reconciliation with an eloquent simplicity and deft lightness. Matthew Backer was spellbinding as the spirit Ariel, his singing evoking the magic in the isle.

INDEPENDENT THEATRE

Of Mice and Men

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Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

 Iain Sinclair directed a beautiful, understated production of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Sport for Jove that felt utterly truthful. Andrew Henry as the simple-minded Lennie, a gentle giant unaware of his own strength, and Anthony Gooley as his loyal friend George broke your heart. The off-stage shooting of the dog reduced some to tears too.

The Aliens

In Annie Baker’s The Aliens, about a couple of slackers in their 30s who take a younger man under their wing, not much seems to happen but plenty bubbles away beneath the surface. Craig Baldwin’s direction, Hugh O’Connor’s design and the performances by Ben Wood, Jeremy Waters and James Bell made for a deeply affecting piece of theatre.

The Aliens was just one of several memorable productions staged at the Old Fitz. It was great to see the tiny pub theatre in Woolloomooloo flying high again under Red Line Productions. There was a focus on male issues and casts in their 2015 program, which they have acknowledged and plan to address in 2016, as has Darlinghurst Theatre Company in the wake of debate about the gender imbalance in Australian theatre.

Cock

Red Line Productions presented a taut production of Mike Bartlett’s provocatively named play Cock about a love triangle between two men and a woman. Shane Bosher’s production, staged on a gleaming white stage, crackled with tension, with Michael Whalley and Matilda Ridgway turning in particularly fine performances.

The Dapto Chaser

Mary Rachel Brown’s keenly observed play The Dapto Chaser, presented as part of Griffin Independent, is an unflinching, extremely funny yet poignant look at the world of greyhound racing through the story of one struggling family. Glynn Nicholas’s production felt utterly authentic and the way the family’s dog Boy Named Sue was evoked through mime and panting noises was just brilliant.

SOLO SHOWS

2015 was notable for several excellent solo theatre shows.

Thomas Campbell gave a tour de force performance as the disturbed evangelistic Thomas Magill in Enda Walsh’s demanding play Misterman in a superb production directed by Kate Gaul at the Old Fitz.

Kate Cole was remarkable in the Red Stitch Actors Theatre production of Grounded by George Brant, playing a ‘top gun’ fighter pilot who finds herself flying drones after she has a child and struggling to deal with the schism between operating in a war zone one moment then driving home to family life. Extraordinary theatre.

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison (c) Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin in Blonde Poison. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Belinda Giblin turned in a riveting performance as Stella Goldschlag, a blonde Jewish woman living in Berlin during World War II who worked for the Gestapo, in Gail Louw’s unsettling, provocative play Blonde Poison directed by Jennifer Hagan at the Old Fitz.

Amanda Muggleton charmed audiences at the Ensemble with an exuberant, generous, comic performance in Roger Hall’s highly entertaining play The Book Club about a bored housewife looking to spice up her life. Muggleton was in her element as she conjured all the women in the book group as well as other characters.

Ben Gerrard also slipped effortlessly between a number of characters and accents as Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a Berlin transvestite who survived the Nazis, giving a lovely subtle performance in Doug Wright’s play I Am My Own Wife directed by Shaun Rennie at the Old Fitz.

Jeanette Cronin gave a very lively impression of Bette Davis in Queen Bette, which she devised with director/producer Peter Mountford, capturing her clipped way of speaking and fierce presence while taking us through her life at the Old 505 Theatre.

Irish actor Olwen Fouréré gave an astonishingly expressive performance, physically and vocally, in Riverrun, her adaptation of James Joyce’s fiendishly difficult Finnegan’s Wake with its own language, at Sydney Theatre Company.

CABARET

My pick of the cabaret shows I saw this year are:

Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur

JosieLane

Josie Lane. Photo: supplied

An outrageously funny, sweet, ballsy and, yes, provocative, piece by a little dynamo-of-a-performer who is, as she puts it, of an “Asian persuasion”. Taking us through her life and career, Lane was hysterically funny but had serious points to make about prejudice and narrow-minded casting.

Phil Scott’s Reviewing the Situation

A cleverly written and structured piece (co-written by Scott and director Terence O’Connell) taking us through the rags-to-riches-and-back-again story of British composer Lionel Bart. Scott embodied the Cockney Bart brilliantly and gee did his fingers fly across the piano keys.

Tim Freedman’s Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout Me

Looking suitably shambolic, Freedman took us into the mind and musical world of the enigmatic, self-destructive Harry Nilsson. Co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell, the show felt convincingly conversational in tone, while Freedman deployed his own innate charm in a winning bio-cabaret.

OPERA

 Faust

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Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Faust. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

 Sir David McVicar’s production is impressive in its own right but it was the central performances by Michael Fabiano, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes that made the Opera Australia production so exciting.

Car – a young Australian soprano who made such an impression with her radiant performance as Tatyana in last year’s Kasper Holten’s production of Eugene Onegin for OA – confirmed her extraordinary talent. In her role debut as Marguerite, her singing had a sweet, luscious beauty and was full of emotion. She is also a strong actor, her early innocence every bit as convincing as her later anguish. Towards the end of 2015, Car made her debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden as Micaela in Carmen, followed by a return to Tatyana, receiving rave reviews. A rising star indeed.

Other memorable productions in OA’s 2015 season included the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s Don Carlos with Ferruccio Furlanetto as Philip II, Latonia Moore, Diego Torre and Jose Carbo; and McVicar’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro with Taryn Fiebig as Susanna and Nicole Car as the Countess.

DANCE

Frame of Mind

Only six companies in the world have been allowed to perform William Forsythe’s sublime contemporary dance classic Quintett – and Sydney Dance Company showed why they are one of the chosen few. Paired with a moving new work by Rafael Bonachela called Frame of Mind, this thrilling double bill was contemporary dance at its most exhilarating.

The Sleeping Beauty

Artists of The Australian Ballet in David McAllister's The Sleeping Beauty. 2015. photo Jeff Busby_0

Artists of the Australian Ballet in The Sleeping Beauty. Photo: Jeff Busby

 Lavishly designed by Gabriela Tylesova, The Australian Ballet’s new production of The Sleeping Beauty is breathtakingly beautiful.

Created by artistic director David McAllister, it’s a very traditional production with McAllister retaining key passages of Marius Petipa’s original choreography and devised linking material in a similar classical style.

The storytelling is crystal clear, with elements incorporated from other versions, but the production feels a bit safe at times with room for more dramatic tension between the forces of good and evil. Visually though, it’s a triumph. Tylesova’s sumptuous sets feature baroque and rococo elements, while her costumes use an intoxicating range of colour and feature some of the prettiest tutus imaginable. Lana Jones as Aurora, Kevin Jackson as the Prince and Amber Scott as the Lilac Fairy all shone at the Sydney opening, while Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo lit up the stage as the Bluebird and Princess Florine.

 Conform

 At Sydney Dance Company’s showcase of emerging choreographers New Breed, Kristina Chan’s Conform was an exciting highlight. A punchy piece about masculinity, it has its own distinctive choreographic voice and plenty to say. Chan is already a thrilling dancer. I can’t wait to see her next choreographic venture.

Departures

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Susan Barling, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Ross Philip and Ken Unsworth. Photo: Regis Lansac

Australian Dance Artists (Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer, Ross Philip and Norman Hall) collaborated again with eminent sculptor and artist Ken Unsworth on a new production called Departures. Part-performance, part-installation, with live music, it was a fascinating ride into a strange world full of stunning visual imagery and evocative choreography. Magical.

RISING STARS

Amy Lehpamer (see The Sound of Music), Nicole Car (see Faust) and Kristina Chan (see above) are all rising stars with talent to burn. Add to that list Australian Ballet dancer Benedicte Bemet. Few were surprised when Bemet won the 2015 Telstra Ballet Dancer Award. Still only 21 and a coryphée, she is already dancing lead roles for the Australian Ballet like Clara in The Nutcracker. She made her debut recently as Aurora in The Sleeping Beauty and apparently the audience went wild, giving her a standing ovation after the Rose Adagio and at the final curtain. I predict a big future.

That’s it folks! There are so many other things I enjoyed during 2015 – too many to include here. Wishing you all a Happy New Year and lots of happy theatre-going in 2016.

 

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Sean Taylor in My Zinc Bed

Sean Taylor plays a charismatic millionaire in David Hare's My Zinc Bed

Sean Taylor plays a charismatic millionaire in David Hare’s My Zinc Bed

While rehearsing at the Ensemble Theatre for its current production of David Hare’s My Zinc Bed, Sean Taylor also managed to fit in a couple of day’s filming on Secret City, a new political drama for Foxtel being shot in Canberra.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever worked with an Oscar nominee so it was daunting,” he quips.

The Academy Award nominee in question is his wife Jacki Weaver. They’ve acted opposite each other many times. In fact, they met when they played lovers in David Williamson’s Soulmates for Sydney Theatre Company in 2002, marrying the following year.

“But this is the first time post-nomination, well, twice nominated,” he says.

“But, no, it’s been a lot of fun. Jacki plays the Attorney General and I play the Head of ASIO so she’s my boss and there’s one scene where she fires me. She’s been working very hard and from the little I’ve seen I think it’s going to be a good series.”

It was just coincidence that filming on Secret City coincided with rehearsals for My Zinc Bed but it has given them a chance to spend some time together and for Weaver to be at the opening night this Thursday.

Born in South Africa, Taylor emigrated to Australia in 2000 to be near his two daughters who moved here with their mother after they divorced.

“I try to go back to Africa at least once a year and see friends and family but I suppose I’m spending most of my time these days in Los Angeles (due to Weaver’s career),” he says.

Blessed with a beautiful, deep, sonorous voice, Taylor is a commanding stage actor recently seen at the Ensemble in productions of Hare’s Skylight and Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange. 

In Hare’s intriguing play My Zinc Bed, which explores themes of addiction, he plays Victor Quinn, a charismatic millionaire. Directed by Mark Kilmurry, the Ensemble is staging a new 90-minute version.

Taylor bought the script and learned the whole play while in LA prior to rehearsals without knowing that they were using a different version.

“I’m of an age now (60) where I can’t learn something in 10 days, it takes longer,” he admits candidly.

“I got here and suddenly there was this other tighter version of the play and I thought that Hare had cut some very nice stuff out so I persuaded Mark to bring some of the other stuff back in and it’s working very well I think.”

When a hard-up poet and reformed alcoholic called Paul Peplow is sent to interview Victor for a newspaper profile, he finds himself enticed into a thrilling but dangerous world. As Paul spars verbally with Victor and flirts with his younger wife Elsa, his hard-won sobriety is threatened. But is Victor just using Paul to amuse his wife and reinvigorate their stale marriage?

Sam O'Sullivan and Sean Taylor in My Zinc Bed. Photo: Clare Hawley

Sam O’Sullivan and Sean Taylor in My Zinc Bed. Photo: Clare Hawley

“There’s a lot of game-playing and manipulation in the way Victor sets things up,” says Taylor.

“In the last couple of runs I’ve been playing against that a bit just to see how it goes but Mark prefers it that I lay it on a bit. I’m trying to make him not quite so obvious. But Paul, who is played by Sam O’Sullivan, actually says: ‘Am I Faust? Is he Mephistopheles? Am I making a pact with the devil?’

“It’s about addiction to many things, I think, besides drink and drugs. I think there’s a certain addiction to chaos. Some people thrive on it. When their life is running smoothly they veer off. I think the other two characters especially seek that because it makes them feel alive but they also realise that if they do follow those instincts then they can spiral into a very bad situation,” says Taylor.

“Hare always deals with politics even if he doesn’t overtly state it,” he adds. “My character used to be a communist and now he’s this capitalist – which is kind of a similar journey to what Hare’s been on, I think. He was a big leftie when he was younger. I remember readings his plays like Fanshen, which was about the Chinese revolution. Now he’s an older man and very successful. The younger character is maybe a bit like Hare in that he’s a writer.”

Taylor also plays Harold Holt in a new short film called The Defector directed by Scott Mannion, with Oscar winner Russell Boyd (Master and Commander) as Director of Photography, which he describes as “a quirky film”.

“What really got me interested when I was approached about it was that Russell Boyd was the cameraman on it. And Russell Boyd has actually written a thing online about this young director saying he believed in him so I thought that’s a project I’d like to be involved in.”

Taylor admits that life has changed since Weaver’s breakout film role in Animal Kingdom.

“Five or six years ago, I never dreamed we’d be living in Los Angeles,” he says. “It’s an interesting city but it’s not a city I would choose to live. Hollywood was never on my radar. So I don’t know that I love Los Angeles, but Jacki really loves it. She’s really enjoying it, and so she should. She’s been in this game a long time. I said to her, ‘you’ve got to take this ball and run with it. You never know when it will implode. It might never implode but it might, so just enjoy it,’” he says.

“I’m still working on trying to get a visa so it get a bit boring when you’re not working. I’ve been for a couple of screen tests and had very good responses. But the people in my age bracket have been working there for 40 years and they’re established.

“I was up against Nick Nolte for a role and you go: ‘well I ‘m farting against thunder here aren’t I?’ But still it’s good to go and meet these people. The role is out there somewhere. It might never land in my lap but if I’m fortunate to be in the right place at the right time that will be great. If it happens I’ll embrace it.”

My Zinc Bed plays at the Ensemble Theatre until November 22. Bookings: 9929 0644

Blue/Orange

Ensemble Theatre, October 29

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Written by British playwright Joe Penhall (who grew up in Australia), Blue/Orange is a fierce comedy bursting with conflicting ideas about mental illness, its diagnosis and its treatment. Premiered by London’s National Theatre in 2000, it is given three exemplary performances in this impressive Ensemble Theatre production.

Christopher (Dorian Nkono), a young black Londoner, is 24 hours away from being released from a psychiatric hospital. The police sectioned him after an “incident” at a market but legally he can only be held for 28 days and he can’t wait to get out. In fact, he is climbing the walls – even without the coffee and coke he craves.

Christopher has been diagnosed as having a borderline personality disorder but Bruce (Ian Meadows), a young trainee psychiatrist who has been treating him, suspects that he is actually a paranoid schizophrenic and wants to keep him at the hospital to do more tests.

He asks his mentor Robert (Sean Taylor), a senior doctor, to sit in on one of their sessions. But instead of supporting Bruce, Robert is dismissive. He is writing a book about “black psychosis” in which he argues that ethnic and cultural factors play more of a role in mental illness that is recognised and argues that growing up black and poor in Britain could go a long way to explaining Christopher’s problem. Besides, he needs the bed for other patients.

Soon the two doctors are at loggerheads. Robert insists Christopher be allowed to go home – even though it becomes clear that he has no home or family to go to. Bruce fights tooth and nail to change Robert’s mind, fearful that Christopher is a danger to himself and others.

As for Christopher, he thinks his father is Ugandan dictator Idi Amin and that the oranges in the room are blue.

Blue/Orange is passionately written. The arguments swing back and forth and Penhall keeps us wondering about the true state of Christopher’s mental health. At times though it feels overwritten, with dialogue turning into big, weighty speeches that feel imposed on the drama.

A couple of the twists don’t ring totally true and it’s hard to believe that the two doctors would argue so vehemently about Christopher in front of him, as they do at times. Robert also feels a tad too overtly Machiavellian. But then the play is also very much about power and ego, with the two doctors shown to be more interested in their own careers than Christopher.

Running two hours and twenty minutes (including interval) Blue/Orange would be sharpened by an edit. But the writing is so robust, and laced with so much humour, that it keeps you thoroughly engaged – especially when performed as well as it is here.

Anna Crawford directs a brisk, well-paced production on a set by Tobhiyah Stone Feller that contrasts a bland room with a large sculptural backdrop at the heart of which is a round void (somewhat reminiscent of an Anish Kapoor void) onto which coloured light is projected (a visual metaphor for Christopher’s confused perceptions).

Taylor is perfectly cast as Robert, capturing his patrician, easy swagger and enunciating each word with crisp precision in his seductively rumbling voice. But his charm becomes almost sinister as he is revealed to be patronising, bitter and manipulative.

Meadows is equally persuasive as the decent, passionate but inexperienced Bruce who speaks his mind with injudicious frankness, and Nkono is wonderful as Christopher, hyper-active one minute, forlorn and touchingly vulnerable the next. Remaining somewhat enigmatic throughout, Nkono’s Christopher certainly defies easy diagnosis, showing how hard it can be to recognise and treat mental illness – particularly when there are other agendas at play.

It’s a fascinating play that would probably be even stronger with an edit but nonetheless it still packs a considerable punch.

Blue/Orange is at the Ensemble Theatre until November 29. Bookings: www.ensemble.com.au or 02 9929 0644