Inner Voices

Old Fitz Theatre, June 17

Damien Strouthos in INNER VOICES (c) Ross Waldron

Damien Strouthos as Ivan. Photo: Ross Waldron

Written in 1977, Inner Voices was one of Louis Nowra’s earliest plays and signalled the arrival of an Australian playwright with an exciting imaginative scope and a keen sense of theatre.

The play premiered at Nimrod directed by John Bell with a cast including Tony Sheldon, Robert Alexander and Jane Harders. It hasn’t been staged professionally in Sydney again until now, presented at the Old Fitz Theatre by Don’t Look Now in association with Red Line Productions.

It’s fascinating to see the play in the light of Nowra’s The Golden Age, written in 1985, which was staged earlier this year by Sydney Theatre Company. While The Golden Age is a more expansive, ambitious play, the seeds of Nowra’s brilliantly roving theatricality are already evident in Inner Voices: a play bursting with ideas and savage wit.

Inner Voices is inspired by the life of Ivan VI, who was born in 1740. At just two months old he was proclaimed Emperor and his mother named Regent. However, a year later a distant cousin seized the throne and Ivan and his family were imprisoned. Kept in isolation for around 20 years, which impacted on his mental health, a group of officers led by Vasily Mirovich plotted to free Ivan in 1764 and put him on the throne, ousting the ailing Catherine the Great. However, Ivan was killed by his guards. Nowra takes these basics but imagines what would have happened had Mirovich been successful.

The play begins in Ivan’s cell where isolation has taken a severe toll.  Unable to talk other than to chant his own name, he appears to be “an idiot”. The rapaciously ambitious Mirovich – a man with a gargantuan appetite for food as well as power – believes that Ivan will be easily manipulated once they get him on the throne, but things don’t go to plan, with Ivan quickly turning tyrant.

Phil Rouse directs a wonderful muscular production with first-rate production values. Anna Gardiner’s dungeon-like set with ladders and metal rails, Martelle Hunt’s period-inspired costuming, Sian James-Holland’s sickly lighting and Katelyn Shaw’s nerve-jangling sound design combine to create a dark, threatening environment.

Damien Strouthos is superb as Ivan, changing the way he holds his mouth to alter the sound as Ivan’s ear adjusts to human voices and he gradually learns to speak, and also evolving the character’s body language. It’s a minutely observed performance physically, emotionally and psychologically.

Julian Garner and Anthony Gooley in INNER VOICES (c) Ross Waldron

Julian Garner as Leo and Anthony Gooley as Mirovich. Photo: Ross Waldron

Anthony Gooley is extremely funny yet still menacing as Mirovich, a grotesquely comic character in an ever-expanding fat suit. The rest of the cast are all on-point: Julian Garner as Mirovich’s unfortunate co-conspirator, Annie Byron as Mirovich’s long-suffering, genial servant, Emily Goddard as the fake Princess Ali and Baby Face, the showgirl who becomes Ivan’s chosen lady, along with Francesca Savige and Nicholas Papademetriou in supporting roles.

Examining power and its abuse, as well as the psychological and emotional impact of isolation on people, Inner Voices is a darkly funny, provocative play given a very meaty, satisfying production.

Inner Voices plays at the Old Fitz Theatre until July 9. Bookings: oldfitztheatre.com

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The Detective’s Handbook

Hayes Theatre Co, April 27

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Rob Johnson and Justin Smith. Photo: Clare Hawley

Writing a new musical is a massive undertaking, generally requiring a huge investment of time and money. Australian musicals with an original score are pretty thin on the ground and so in 2010 the New Musicals Australia (NMA) program was established to address this.

During a two-year period, 13 new works went through various stages of development under NMA. In 2015, the Hayes Theatre Co – hub for some of the most exciting musical theatre in Sydney at the moment – took over the initiative, with funding from the Australia Council.

From 60 submissions, eight musicals were selected for “snapshot presentations”. From these, one was chosen for further development via workshops with industry mentors, leading to a full production.

The Detective’s Handbook is the first musical from the scheme to be produced at the Hayes. It’s a fun show and though it may not be the next great Australian musical – in its current form, anyway – it does herald the arrival of an exciting young writing team with plenty of talent.

With book and lyrics by 26-year old Ian Ferrington and music by 22-year Olga Solar, who recently graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium, The Detective’s Handbook pays loving homage to the detective novel and film noir.

Set in 1950s Chicago, Frank Thompson (Justin Smith), a hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective, is called into the station one Sunday morning to investigate the murder of two cops in a factory on the seedy side of town. To his irritation, he is paired with Jimmy Hartman, a church-going rookie who likes to do things by the book – The Detective’s Handbook that is, in two volumes. With only a matchbox for a clue, they begin their investigation encountering the inevitable femme fatales along the way.

What differentiates The Detective’s Handbook is that some of the lyrics are rapped over a jazz score. Ferrington certainly has a punchy way with words and his book and lyrics are full of puns, one-liners and some brilliantly clever internal rhyming structures. Even if it’s not always laugh-out-loud funny, it’s inventive and immensely enjoyable. The rapping style is primarily given to the cynical Frank, while the bright-eyed Jimmy gets to sing in a more melodic musical theatre style.

Solar’s jazzy score is also very clever, with a sound that nods to the period but also feel modern, with references ranging from Scott Joplin to Sondheim. The intricate underscoring and the lively melodies are attractive even if none of the songs are wildly memorable – on one listening anyway. A number about femme fatales sung by Sheridan Harbridge is the most obvious crowd-pleaser.

So, musically and lyrically, there is much to enjoy about the show. But, given that the tropes of the genre are so well known, the plot could do with some thickening and a more surprising twist, while the characters could be developed more. Though it only runs 80 minutes without interval, two-thirds of the way through, it feels as if the show is losing steam, despite some terrific performances.

Produced by Neil Gooding, the Hayes has done the show proud.  After a slightly slow start, Jonathan Biggins keeps things rollicking along. James Browne’s flexible black and white set works well both in practical terms and as a nod to film noir and the chalk outlining of dead bodies, while his costuming adds colour and underpins character types. Sian James-Holland’s lighting plays with noirish shadows most effectively.

Smith and Johnson complement each other well as the ‘odd couple’ cops. Smith exudes just the right amount of crumpled, jaded cynicism and handles the rap rhythms with a natural, easy confidence, while Johnson’s naïve, puppy dog eagerness is pitched to perfection.

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Tony Cogin and Sheridan Harbridge. Photo: Clare Hawley

Harbridge is sensational as three women all called Maria: the sexy, efficient secretary to the Chief of Police, a helpful café owner, and a rather formidable mortician. Her quick changes between the three characters are skilfully handled – hilariously so at the end when two of them are in the same scene.

Lara Mulcahy is very funny as yet another Maria, who owns a Polish delicatessen and runs a matchmaking service on the side, and paired with Christopher Horsey as a couple of cheery, dim-witted cops.

Horsey, who is also the choreographer, has overseen an amusing number in which he and Mulcahy move from typewriting to tap dancing, though a later tap routine feels like filler. Tony Cogin completes the well-chosen cast as the ineffectual Irish Chief of Police.

Musical director Michael Tyack leads a fine jazz quartet and sound designer Jeremy Silver balances the amplification well.

Currently The Detective’s Handbook feels slight but is still lots of fun. Most importantly, it shines a light on two very talented writers in Ferrington and Solar, giving them an opportunity to develop the show and their skill base with the likes of Biggins, Tyack, musical consultant Phil Scott and dramaturg Christie Evangelisto.

The chance for them to see The Detective’s Handbook up and running in front of an audience is invaluable experience and will hopefully encourage them to write another musical.

The Detective’s Handbook plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until May 7. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest

Love’s Labour’s Lost

Bella Vista Farm, December 12

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Lara Schwerdt, Emily Eskell, Sabryna Te’o and Madeleine Jones in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Maryne Rothe

Sport for Jove’s outdoor season is always something to look forward to during the Sydney summer (weather permitting) and this year’s production of Love’s Labour’s Lost is a delight.

I saw the play at Bella Vista Farm Park in the Hills Shire and have been tardy in reviewing it so that season is now over. However, you can catch the production at Everglades Gardens in Leura during January – and it’s well worth it.

At Bella Vista Farm, Sport for Jove has a new purpose-built stage. With a lighting rig and backstage area, it is better equipped for the cast and crew. Constructed at the bottom of a gently sloping hill, it also provides better sightlines for the audience who can either sit on a picnic blanket, or a little further up the hill on provided plastic chairs. The set-up may not have quite the same charm as when the company performed in a courtyard in front of the farmhouse or in the nearby shed, but it is eminently practical.

What’s more, the set (co-designed by Damien Ryan and Anna Gardiner) is vibrantly attractive in a shabby chic kind of way with wisteria-draped screens and walls and a “marble” floor: a staging that sits well and looks good in the outdoor setting under Sian James-Holland’s lighting.

Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of Shakespeare’s early, rarely performed comedies. It’s a wordy piece though it never feels cumbersomely so here. In his program notes, director Damien Ryan writes that he has removed the play’s “most impenetrable material” but admits that some of the language remains “a curiously knotted garden”. However, there’s lots of wonderful poetry and the production rollicks along with such an infectious energy that any difficult language never becomes an issue.

The plot is light and rather silly. The young King Ferdinand of Navarre (Edmund Lembke-Hogan) and his friends Lord Biron (Tim Walter), Dumain (Curtis Fernandez) and Longaville (Gabrielle Scawthorn) take a pledge to avoid woman and wine for three years and instead devote themselves to study.

But before the ink is dry, the Princess of France (Emily Eskell) and her ladies-in-waiting Rosaline (Sabryna Te’o), Maria (Lara Schwerdt) and Katherine (Madeleine Jones) arrive and test their resolve.

A second plot involves a Spanish nobleman, Don Adriano de Armado (Berynn Schwerdt) who is bent on wooing a comely country maid called Jaquenetta (Claire Lovering). A bumpkin called Costard (George Banders) is also sweet on Jaquenette but is no match for the Don and finds himself being used at the go-between for one and all.

The women in the play are highly spirited and independent, and while attracted to the men refuse to become their playthings. As a way to increase the number of roles for women, Ryan has Longaville played by a woman in masculine attire (Scawthorn) who holds her own in the privileged men’s world. By doing so, Ryan introduces the issue of marriage equality. The device works brilliantly, without feeling at all gimmicky. When the young people eventually pair off, there just happens to be one lesbian couple.

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Edmund Lembke-Hogan, Curtis Fernandez, Tim Walter and Gabrielle Scawthorn in Love’s Labour’s Lost. Photo: Marnya Rothe

While using Elizabethan costuming, Ryan also injects a great deal of fun by portraying the officious, bureaucratic Anthony Dull (Scott Sheridan) as a contemporary park ranger.

Speaking of costuming, Melanie Liertz has done an exceptional job on the smell of an oily rag. Apparently the women’s gowns are made from painted canvas. Amazing.

Ryan’s cast is terrific. Some handle the language better than others, but overall it’s performed with a zest that fills the air, sailing effortlessly to the top of the hill. Beryn Schwerdt is hilarious as Don Adriano, flouncing around in melodramatic fashion with a fruity, comedic Spanish accent to match.

Aaron Tsindos is also funny as the Don’s manservant Moth. Scawthorn is impressive as Longaville, Lembke-Hogan exudes confident poise as Navarre and Walter is dashing as the serious, cynical Biron. But all the cast – which also includes Wendy Strehlow and James Lugton – are on song. A fun night.

The evening begins with a short curtain raiser: Josh Lawson’s Shakespearealism, a clever, 30-minute send-up about Ralph Shakespeare, a young playwright who pioneered realism on stage but lived forever in the shadow of his brother William. Directed by Lizzie Schebesta, with Lembke-Hogan as Ralph, James Lugton as jaded theatre manager Philip Henslowe, and Scawhtorn and Tsindos as two actors, it’s a cute piece but makes for a long night.

The Importance of Being Earnest

Bella Vista Farm, December 19

Earnest Production Photo 5 - Credit Marnya Rothe

Deborah Kennedy as Lady Bracknell and Scott Sheridan as Jack Worthing. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the greatest comedies of all time, but I’m not sure that the play with its witty repartee and drawing room settings lends itself to an outdoor production in the same way that Shakespeare does. Damien Ryan directs an enjoyable enough production but it often feels a bit try-hard in the comedy stakes. The slapstick routine of Algernon (Aaron Tsindos) and his manservant Lane (James Lugton) falling off the stage doesn’t sit right in Wilde’s stylish world, nor does Cecily (Eloise Winestock) gagging on the name Algernon. What’s more, I didn’t find any of that particularly funny.

Some of the gags work well – the running joke about the servant’s bell is amusing – but the portrayals of the gun-toting Cecily and hyper Gwendolen (Claire Lovering) feel far too overplayed.

Deborah Kennedy has the style absolutely right as Lady Bracknell and nails every laugh, delivering the famous lines as if they’ve never been said before in a standout performance. Wendy Strehlow is also on the money with Miss Prism, while Tsindos has the measure of the witty, devil-may-care Algernon.

Love’s Labour’s Lost and The Importance of Being Earnest, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 9 – 24. Bookings: http://www.sportforjove.com.au

Of Mice and Men

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, July 16

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Andrew Henry and Anthony Gooley. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Iain Sinclair has directed a production of John Steinbeck’s Of Men and Men for Sport for Jove that feels heartbreakingly truthful.

Steinbeck himself adapted the play from his classic 1937 novella set during the Depression. Two itinerant ranch workers George Milton (Anthony Gooley) and Lennie Small (Andrew Henry) have been roaming California looking for work. To keep them going, George inspires Lennie with the dream that one day they will buy their own property (from some elderly folk he knows) where they will keep a few animals including Lennie’s longed-for fluffy rabbits.

The trouble is that Lennie is a bit soft in the head. A gentle-minded giant who doesn’t know his own strength, he keeps petting small animals to death. Arriving at a farm, George tells Lennie to say nothing, keep his head down and do what he says in the hope that they will be left alone and all will be well. And Lennie so wants to do the right thing but when situations conspire against him, he just can’t help himself.

Sinclair has directed a beautiful, understated production that unfolds at an unhurried pace, while still building the feeling of inexorable tragedy. It is a clear, empathic reading that strikes at the heart, while the play feels as timely as ever given the vast numbers of displaced, disenfranchised, struggling people the world over.

Michael Hankin’s set design – a wooden slatted wall, four long wooden poles and a dirt floor with wood chips, along with basic wooden beds, tables and crates – feels just right, while Sian James-Holland’s lighting creates changing moods and captures the passing of time.

Sinclair has cast it perfectly – right down to the poor old dog, which is taken out and shot because it is stinking up the place. It’s a tense moment as we wait, seemingly for ages, to hear the shot – foreshadowing things to come.

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Laurence Coy, Anthony Gooley and Andrew Henry. Photo: Marnya Rothe

Henry gives an unforgettable performance as Lennie. He is a tall man and naturally slim but he stacked on around 20 kilos for the role. It certainly gives him a sense of bulkiness, emphasised by the way he stands very squarely and solidly when still, feet planted apart, and lumbers around the stage in his dirty overalls.

He also captures Lennie’s naivety beautifully with a slightly bemused expression. When something delights him, he gives this childish little jump of joy accompanied by a beatific smile. At times, it’s almost unbearably touching, knowing what’s coming.

Gooley balances him perfectly as the loyal, steady George who battles constant frustration but stands by Lennie through thick and thin. The two of them really do convey the feeling of a long-standing relationship and of great love.

They are surrounded by an impressive ensemble: Christopher Stollery as Slim, a decent man with natural authority, Laurence Coy as Candy, an old-timer who has lost one hand and who allows himself to dream of a better future with George and Lennie, John McNeil as the bullish Carlson, Tom Stokes as the young, inexperienced Whit, Andre de Vanny as the boss’s aggressive son Curley, Anna Houston as Curley’s unhappy wife, Terry Serio as the Boss (who also plays some guitar blues), and Charles Allen as the segregated black worker Crooks.

Running around two hours and forty minutes including interval, the production keeps you gripped throughout. As it moves to its shattering conclusion you can feel people holding their breath. On the night I saw it there was a long silence at the end – a mark, I think, of how deeply affected people were.

Of Mice and Men plays at the Seymour Centre until August 1. Bookings: www.seymourcentre.com or 02 9351 7944

The Crucible

Bella Vista Farm, Baulkham Hills, December 13

Julian Garner (centre) as John Proctor. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Julian Garner (centre) as John Proctor. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

The historic barn at Bella Vista Farm makes an atmospheric, rustic setting for Sport for Jove’s powerful production of Arthur Miller’s classic play.

Set in the repressive, Puritan community of Salem, Massachusetts during the 1692 witch-hunt, the play was Miller’s horrified response to Senator McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade in 1950s America.

A number of young women have been spotted dancing naked in the woods. In order to protect themselves from certain punishment, they point the finger at others, suggesting witchcraft at work. As accusations lead to more and more hangings, other motives come into play including jealousy and revenge.

Damien Ryan keeps the play in the 17th century but under his clear, beautifully measured direction the themes of fear-mongering, hysteria, sexual repression and a community turning on itself strike strong chords in today’s world.

Ryan and designer Anna Gardiner create a pressure-cooker environment with the audience close to the action, seated on three sides around a dimly lit central wooden stage lined with hundreds of candles in jam jars (lighting by Sian James-Holland). A hanging platform is cleverly used as a bed, dining table and courtroom seating. Gardiner’s dark costuming is also very effective.

Julian Garner leads a solid ensemble cast of 20 as flawed hero John Proctor, conveying an intelligent, decent man who frequently flares with fiery impatience, while also struggling with the guilt that wracks him having had a fling with Abigail while his wife Elizabeth was sick.

Georgia Adamson is compelling and touching as the deeply honest Elizabeth, imbuing her with more warmth than she is frequently portrayed. Lizzie Schebesta plays Abigail, the ringleader of the girls, as a wilful, calculating flirt, lapping up the sudden attention and power.

There are also standout performances from Matilda Ridgway as Mary Warren, who now works for the Proctors in the wake of Abigail’s dismissal and, while becoming quite a little Madam, finds herself caught between strong opposing forces, Philip Dodd as the pompous, hard-line Judge Danforth and Anthony Gooley as the more reasonable, well-meaning Reverend Hale.

The decision to lead the audience out of the barn for the final scenes dissipates the tension somewhat, but overall Ryan helms a beautifully wrought, thought-provoking and harrowing production.

Bella Vista Farm, Baulkham Hills until December 30, Everglades Gardens, Leura, January 11 – 25. Information and bookings: www.sportforjove.com.au

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on December 21

Henry V

Playhouse Theatre, Sydney Opera House, October 23

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

It is 1940. The date is clearly written on the blackboard in a basement room of a London school where a cardigan-wearing teacher (Keith Agius), some of his pupils and the school nurse (Danielle King) take shelter as German bombs rain down outside.

To distract the students from the air raid, the teacher hands out play scripts and an improvised performance takes place. Brief scenes from Richard II and Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 act as a prologue and then we are into Henry V, a play about war.

It’s an inspired device by director Damien Ryan, which doesn’t just frame Shakespeare’s play but runs parallel throughout the multi-layered production. We never forget that this is Henry V as performed by terrified young people during wartime.

Now and again the stories intersect in moments of enormous power – one of them deeply shocking, another incredibly poignant.

Directing for Bell Shakespeare, Ryan proves yet again what an exciting director of Shakespeare he is. Henry V is a dense play yet he brings a customary clarity, energy and modern edge to it.

Ryan was inspired by real life accounts he read of a Boy’s Club, which put on plays and cabarets to raise the spirits of people in London air raid shelters during the Blitz.

The terrific set by Anna Gardiner gives the cast bookcases, books, blankets, a bucket, newspaper crowns and armour, among various other props, which they use with thrilling invention.

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

The cast of Henry V. Photo: Michele Mossop

In a play in which Shakespeare calls for the audience to use their imagination on an empty stage, Ryan gets us to do the same but with a plethora of props. Full of surprises, the staging is quite brilliant. It looks improvised, with the actors moving the furniture around at breakneck speed for different scenes, but it’s highly detailed and precisely choreographed. Full credit to movement director Scott Witt who worked with Ryan.

Ryan has gathered a superb ensemble of 10 actors: Keith Agius, Danielle King, Michael Sheasby, Matthew Backer, Drew Livingston, Damien Strouthos, Gabriel Fancourt, Eloise Winestock, Darcy Brown and Ildiko Susany.

Sheasby plays Henry V with the charisma of the captain of the school rugby team. Everyone else plays multiple roles and yet it is always clear who is who and what is happening. Agius makes a wonderful Falstaff (with cushion up his cardigan) and also plays the Chorus, and Winestock is very funny as the feisty, French Princess Katherine, but each and every one of the actors plays their numerous parts with élan.

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

Eloise Winestock and Michael Sheasby. Photo: Michele Mossop

The sound by Steve Francis, moving vocal compositions by actor Drew Livingston and lighting by Sian James-Holland all contribute magnificently.

Ryan balances the valour and heroism of Henry – who has matured from the callow, irresponsible youth in Henry IV, who hung out in taverns with the reprobate Falstaff, to inspiring leader of his underdog “band of brothers” – with a powerful portrayal of the rank brutality, ugliness and futility of war.

This is one of the most exciting, moving pieces of theatre I’ve seen in Sydney this year. Don’t miss it.

Henry V runs at the Playhouse, Sydney Opera House until November 16. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 26