Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15

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Heather Mitchell and Josh McConville. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Noel Coward wrote Hay Fever when he was just 24 but already a star in the making. A comedy of gleefully bad manners, it was a huge hit when it premiered in 1925 despite lukewarm reviews and is still much performed.

Coward’s plays are deceptively difficult to do well. If the actors only give us superficial flamboyance and witticisms, the humour can all too easily fall flat. But Imara Savage has directed a fabulously funny production for Sydney Theatre Company that has a fresh edge and contemporary energy while still retaining a feel of the period.

The play is set in the household of the eccentric Bliss family. Judith Bliss (Heather Mitchell) is retired actress, determined to keep performing even if she no longer has a stage. Her husband David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones) is a novelist and their grown-up children Sorrel (Harriet Dyer) and Simon (Tom Conroy) still live at home, without appearing to work.

All four invite a guest for the weekend without telling each other, thrusting them into a maelstrom of games and idiosyncratic carry-on that leaves their visitors reeling.

Essentially a lightweight comedy, Hay Fever offers the audience a vicarious thrill in experiencing life with such wayward “artistic” types. But it also celebrates bohemian freedom and vitality, and contrasts that with the rather stuffy, conservative mores of “ordinary” people and their concerns about sex and class.

Alicia Clements’ wonderful design isn’t period specific but subtly combines elements from the 1920s with later decades, setting the action in an attractively ramshackle conservatory full of greenery and eccentric touches like a bathtub for a sofa. Only the inclusion of wheelie suitcases and the decision to have Judith lip synch to Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black when she offers to sing at the piano sit a little oddly.

Clements’ costumes are also terrific with all the Blisses in a permanent state of semi-undress or dressing gowns and the outfits of the other characters speaking reams about their personalities from the anxious Jackie’s girly cotton frocks and Alice band to the vampy Myra’s stylish couture.

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Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy, Harriet Dyer and Tony Llewellyn-Jones. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Savage’s excellent cast combines wit with truth. Towards the end of the play, some of the performing becomes broadly comic and more farcical but overall the characters all feel very real.

Mitchell is sensational as Judith, a whirling dervish at the heart of the play. Her comic timing is immaculate and she is gloriously funny as she tears up the stage. Llewellyn-Jones is distinguished yet grouchy as the rather self-absorbed David. Dyer plays Sorrel with a contemporary edge as a young woman testing who she is, while Conroy’s Simon affects a nonchalant flamboyance.

Helen Thomson as the chic, sardonic Myra, Alan Dukes as the proper “diplomatist” Richard, Josh McConville as the rather gung-ho sportsman Sandy, and Briallen Clarke as the mousey, nervous Jackie are the perfect foil as the beleaguered guests. Genevieve Lemon is also very funny in a broadly comic portrayal of the exasperated housekeeper.

The Bliss family can become rather unlikeable in productions but Savage avoids that, ensuring that their love for each other comes across as strongly as their hilariously appalling behaviour.

Hay Fever plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 21. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

Switzerland

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, November 7

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Joanna Murray-Smith’s new play Switzerland is a gripping psychological thriller about renowned crime writer Patricia Highsmith that creeps up on you slowly and then has you on the edge of your seat.

Highsmith’s novels include The Talented Mr Ripley, one of several she wrote about the psychopathic, sexually ambiguous Tom Ripley, and Strangers on a Train, which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen.

Born in Texas, but bitter about her lack of serious recognition in her homeland as opposed to Europe where she was feted for her literary skill and psychological insight, she lived her last years in Switzerland, land of neutrality, secret bank accounts, picturesque mountain chalets and cuckoo clocks.

Widely regarded as a tough cookie, the eccentric, tight-fisted, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Highsmith (who was bisexual but more drawn to women) was considered misogynistic and cruel, even by her friends. She loved guns and cats and had a strange thing about snails. But Murray-Smith seamlessly weaves into the dialogue pretty much all that you need to know about her.

Murray-Smith’s play was commissioned by Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse – but fortuitously for Sydney audiences they agreed to Sydney Theatre Company staging the world premiere.

Set in the early 1990s, the cleverly constructed, tense drama finds Highsmith (Sarah Peirse) living with cancer towards the end of her life in Switzerland.

A young man called Edward Ridgeway (Eamon Farren) arrives from her New York publisher bearing jars of peanut butter (the wrong brand) and cans of soup.

Slightly nerdy and understandably nervous given the incident with the knife that befell the publisher’s previous emissary, Edward’s mission is to try to convince her to sign a deal to write one final Ripley novel.

Highsmith lacerates him with withering, caustic wit, delivered by Peirse with savagely funny brutality. But Edward – who is passionate about Highsmith’s oeuvre – holds his own (even if he can’t pronounce oeuvre) and things start to shift into a game of cat and mouse where it’s not clear who’s the cat.

Michael Scott-Mitchell’s detailed, realistic set (based apparently on Highsmith’s final Swiss home) – with large fireplace, leather chairs, desk with typewriter, framed weaponry, a portrait of Highsmith, thick windows and spiral staircase leading upstairs – makes a virtue of the awkward, wide stage and works superbly in a way you wouldn’t expect for an intimate two-hander.

Nick Schlieper lights it so that it becomes a place of shifting light and shadows, and Steve Francis’s slightly creepy music heightens the growing tension.

Scott-Mitchell’s costuming is also excellent with loose-fitting jeans and mannish socks and shoes for Peirse, and gradually changing outfits for Farren that reflect his character’s evolution.

Sarah Goodes directs an immaculately paced production, drawing superb performances from the two actors, who take you with them through every tiny emotional twist and turn.

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Pierse. Photo: Brett Boardman

The way Peirse reveals sudden flashes of vulnerability, pleasure or admiration beneath the Teflon-tough, gruff exterior is done with a flawless subtlety. She totally inhabits the role. Edward’s transformation is brilliantly judged in an equally subtle performance by Farren.

Murray-Smith celebrates and emulates Highsmith’s writing, while giving us an insight into her fascination with violence and the dark side of human nature. At the same time, she explores a range of ideas including Highsmith’s relationship with her imagination and characters all the while playing intriguing mind games with us. The play is often laugh-out-loud funny too.

As for how the song Happy Talk from the musical South Pacific fits into all this – well, you’ll just have to go and see, but it’s an inspired theatrical moment.

Running 100 minutes without interval, Switzerland is a thrilling piece of writing given a superb production by STC. In some of Murray-Smith’s previous plays you feel her putting words into the mouths of the characters to serve the debate and themes she is discussing. Here the dialogue feels utterly truthful, emerging organically from the mouths of the characters. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s her very best play to date. Highly recommended.

Switzerland plays at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until December 20. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on November 16

Calpurnia Descending

Wharf 2, October 11

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Peter Paltos, Paul Capsis and Ash Flanders. Photo: Brett Boardman

Melbourne’s self-styled “gay DIY drag-theatre” group Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene) has made a name for itself subverting classic film genres to create hilarious, high camp stage comedies.

Last year, Sydney Theatre Company had a hit when it presented Little Mercy, which played with the tropes of the “evil child” horror film.

Now comes Calpurnia Descending, a Sisters Grimm production commissioned by STC and Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, in which Flanders and Paul Capsis play rival divas. It sounds like a match made in heaven but Calpurnia Descending ends up feeling rather less than the sum of its parts.

It’s 1939. Aging, faded, Broadway legend Beverly Dumont (Capsis) is living as a recluse in a New York apartment with her sinister butler Tootles (Sandy Gore). But when a small-town, wannabe starlet called Violet St Clair (Flanders) comes across her by accident, Dumont agrees to make a dramatic return to the Broadway stage.

Dumont will star as Caesar’s third wife Calpurnia in a tragedy written by her late husband, while St Clair will play Cleopatra.

But will Beverly tolerate Violet when the director (Peter Paltos) is so obviously infatuated with her? And will the not-so-sweet ingénue be content in Beverly’s shadow?

Calpurnia Descending begins in familiar territory with echoes of iconic films like All About Eve, Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Then a screen covering the entire stage descends and the production turns filmic. Black and white footage shot live (and badly out of sync) transform the narrative – the rehearsal period – into an old movie. This then morphs into a manic, dizzily colourful, pre-recorded animation in which Beverly appears trapped in a nightmarish video clip or web page.

Where Norma Desmond was undone by the transition from silent films to the talkies, Miss Dumont will struggle to survive in the Internet era where pop stars are the new divas.

Beverly is a gift of a role for Capsis who made his name “channeling” divas as a cabaret performer, and he makes the most of it, playing her spotlight-craving, hard-drinking monstrousness to the hilt while still making her tragic. It’s a fine performance.

Ash Flanders,  Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ash Flanders, Sandy Gore and Peter Paltos. Photo: Brett Boardman

Flanders conveys the ruthlessness beneath the sweet façade beautifully. The cross-gender casting also features Gore in nicely observed, amusing performances as Tootles and Broadway producer Max Silvestri who desperately needs a hit, while Paltos hits just the right note as the dashing, young, diva-struck director.

Calpurnia Descending is technically ambitious and cleverly designed (set and costumes by David Fleischer, AV by Matthew Gingold, animation by Matthew Greenwood, lighting by Katie Sfetkidis, sound by Jed Palmer). It’s also fun but the filmic element feels over-long and the plot twists become confusing.

Directed by Greene, the production goes beyond mere homage or parody but in the end what it’s trying to say isn’t clear. Some have read it as an exploration of the commercialisation of queer culture and appropriation of gay icons (think Katy Perry) but I’m not at all convinced that comes across.

Calpurnia Descending is at Wharf 2 until November 8

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on October 19

Macbeth

Sydney Theatre, July 25

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving as Macbeth. Photo: Brett Boardman

The casting of Hugo Weaving as Macbeth and the decision of director Kip Williams to turn the Sydney Theatre back-to-front make this Sydney Theatre Company production one of the hottest tickets of the year.

Weaving does not disappoint, giving a passionate, compelling performance, but the production itself waxes and wanes somewhat.

Entering the theatre, the audience is led to a seating bank on the stage for 360 people who sit facing the eerily empty 900-seat auditorium. On stage in front of you stands a long trestle table with a few props (a plastic tub of water, a ruff, a wig, a crown and on the back of one chair a red velvet gown with ermine collar).

It looks like a rehearsal room and when the actors appear casually dressed in contemporary street wear and begin performing seated at the table under a general lighting state, that’s exactly what it feels like. It’s a slow start.

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

Kate Box, Paula Arundell, Robert Menzies, John Gaden and Eden Falk. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s not until after the death of Duncan (John Gaden) when fog fills the stage and sound and lighting start to transform the space that excitement levels begin to rise.

It’s a valid enough conceit to have the full theatricality only kick in once Macbeth has sealed his fate and begun his descent into a nightmarish world full of bloody horror. It’s just that the early stage business feels a bit silly. The witches (Kate Box, Ivan Donato and Robert Menzies) dunk their heads in the tub of water, blow bubbles and then recite their lines while dripping. As an image for the boiling cauldron it comes up short.

Having Melita Jurisic in a plastic rain mac, chugging on a cup of blood and then dribbling it down her front as the wounded Captain reporting from the battle also comes across as gimmicky.

But as Duncan lies dead, the production starts to hit its stride. The actors bang their hands on the table, Max Lyandvert’s visceral sound design picks up on the drumming and amplifies it tenfold, the stage fills with fog, the lighting changes and we’re off.

The stunningly staged banquet scene with candles, flowers and place settings comes as a relief. Having the murdered Banquo (Paula Arundell) sit at the table has been done before, of course, but it works exceptionally well.

There are some other wonderful effects – the sudden fall of a black curtain not far from us, isolating Macbeth from the world beyond, for example, and later Macbeth strobe-lit in battle. There is also an extended fall of shimmering “rain”, which inevitably recalls the golden shower in Benedict Andrews’s production of The War of the Roses in the same venue. But, no matter, it’s incredibly beautiful and very effective.

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo Brett Boardman

Under Nick Schlieper’s lighting, the auditorium does become a haunting, ghostly backdrop. Williams doesn’t stage many scenes there but those that he does work well. Banquo is chased through the auditorium and murdered in the stalls. When Macduff (Kate Box) goes to England to beg Malcolm (Eden Falk) to return to Scotland, their encounter takes place at the front of the circle while Macbeth stands silhouetted on stage.

Many liked Williams’ restraint in not using the auditorium too much; I liked what he did with it but felt he could have used it a little bit more.

The costumes by the show’s designer Alice Babidge come across as rather ad hoc without a unifying style. The street wear is uninspiring, despite odd touches like the ruff and kingly robe, and Jurisic’s Lady Macbeth dress is downright drab and unflattering. It’s a shame the costuming doesn’t develop more as the rest of the production builds theatrically. That said, when Babidge does go for a flourish with the final image of Malcolm being dressed in doublet and hose for his coronation, it sits oddly.

The play is performed by an ensemble of eight, all of whom double except for Weaving. The acting is a little uneven with a range of vocal styles.

Weaving gives a magnetic performance that focuses on Macbeth’s interior torture. He spits and snarls as he gives physical and emotional expression to the conflict that rages within him between vaulting ambition, doubt, fear, ruthlessness and fleeting regret. His anguish is utterly palpable.

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

Hugo Weaving. Photo: Brett Boardman

As Lady Macbeth, Jurisic is so febrile and intense from the start that she almost leaves herself nowhere to go. Like Weaving, her vocals are rich and mellifluous but in starting at such a pitch, some of her dialogue is lost by the time she plays the mad scene.

Gaden handles the language with effortless eloquence, as ever, and is very touching as Macduff’s young son in a moving scene with Arundell as Lady Macduff. Box is also impressive, bringing a quiet dignity to the role of Macduff.

In the end, however, the production – which runs a tight two hours without interval – is set around the mesmerising performance of Weaving. The back-to-front staging doesn’t make any strong comment on the play but proves to be an atmospheric backdrop and Weaving’s performance is thrilling.

Macbeth plays at Sydney Theatre until September 27. Most performances are sold out. A few tickets were released yesterday so check with the box office on 02 9250 1777. Otherwise a limited number of Suncorp $20 tickets go on sale at 9am each Tuesday for the following week either in person at the Wharf Theatre box office or on 02 9250 1929

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on July 27

Pinocchio; The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Sydney Opera House is presenting two children’s shows for the school holidays: Windmill Theatre’s Pinocchio and CDP Theatre Producers’ The Incredible Book Eating Boy. And with one end of the western foyer converted to a play area, it’s a lively place for families to be.

Pinocchio

Drama Theatre, April 13

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O'Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jonathon Oxlade, Nathan O’Keefe and Danielle Catanzariti. Photo: Brett Boardman

Acclaimed Adelaide company Windmill Theatre, which makes adventurous shows for children, is in Sydney with its 2012 musical production of Pinocchio, presented by the Sydney Opera House and Sydney Theatre Company.

Based on Carlo Collodi’s book about the wooden boy who longs to become real, director Rosemary Myers and writer Julianne O’Brien have created a version that combines a dark fairytale feel with a fun modern edge.

It begins unexpectedly with a blue-haired girl crashing her motorbike into the tree from which Pinocchio will be carved (an underdeveloped take on the blue fairy, who we don’t see again until the second act).

Then we’re into familiar territory with the tale of the naughty, easily led Pinocchio who is lured away from his maker/father the lonely toymaker Geppetto by the evil Stromboli. After a series of frightening adventures, Pinocchio returns home to Geppetto with love in his heart.

With one section set in the reality TV-like Stromboliland, Windmill’s production is more of a cautionary tale about greed and the lure of celebrity, while raising questions about what is real, rather than about simply telling the truth.

It’s cleverly staged around a large, flexible tree trunk on a revolving stage (designed by Jonathon Oxlade) onto which images are projected. The most charming effects, however, are the simpler theatrical ones – the way Geppeto carves Pinocchio, the way Pinocchio’s nose grows.

There are excellent performances across the board. Nathan O’Keefe uses his lanky frame brilliantly as a larky, willful Pinocchio, Alirio Zavarce is touching as the soft-hearted, clown-like Geppetto, Paul Capsis is a deliciously wicked Stromboli, Jude Henshall and Luke Joslin are very funny as roving wannabes Kitty Poo and Foxy, Danielle Catanzariti is suitably ethereal as Blue Girl and Oxlade is delightfully whimsical as the cricket (for which he uses a puppet).

Pinocchio runs around two hours including interval. For all its colourful treatment, it’s a fairly dark show (as is Collodi’s original story) and younger children could be frightened. It’s recommended for ages 7+.

Jethro Woodward’s songs have an energetic rock vibe but I’m not sure they are pitched at children and some of the humour didn’t land with youngsters around me. Others clearly loved it, however, and the show got a rousing response at the end.

Pinocchio runs until May 4. Bookings: sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on April 20

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Playhouse Theatre, April 13

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

Madeleine Jones, Gabriel Fancourt and Jo Turner. Photo: supplied

For the littlies (aged 3+) the Opera House is presenting CDP Theatre Producers’ stage adaptation of Oliver Jeffers’ best-selling picture book The Incredible Book Eating Boy.

Henry loves books – well, eating them anyway. The more he eats, the smarter he gets and so his appetite for the printed word grows and grows. But that many books are hard to digest. When he starts to feel ill and begins muddling up all the information he has consumed, he has to stop. Eventually, a sad Henry picks up one of his half-eaten books and begins to read it and falls in love with books afresh.

Writer Maryam Master fleshes out the story with an opening nightmare and more about Henry’s family and cat, most of which works well though the extended cat poo joke feels overdone and gratuitous – in fact, it made me feel a bit sick. By the time Henry began regurgitating books, I was feeling almost as queasy as him.

Directed by Frank Newman, the production is beautifully staged. Andrea Espinoza’s lovely set and costumes have the look of a picture book while cleverly incorporating books into every aspect of the stage design.

The cast of three – Gabriel Fancourt as Henry with Madeleine Jones and Jo Turner playing several roles – are all very good, creating characters the young audience can relate to.

The message that it’s better to read books than chow down on them is a quirky way to inspire children. The production would benefit from a little more dramatic magic at the end when Henry finally discovers the joy of reading to underline how exciting books can be. As it is, he just smiles, so it’s the images of eating and vomiting books that we remember.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy runs until April 27. Bookings: www.sydneyoperahouse.com or 02 9250 7777

Perplex

Wharf 1, April 4

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter, Andrea Demetriades, Glenn Hazeldine and Rebecca Massey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Perplex by German playwright Marius von Mayenburg starts intriguingly. Andrea (Andrea Demetriades) and Glenn (Glenn Hazeldine) arrive back at their apartment after a holiday to find that the electricity has been cut off, there’s an odd pot-plant in the kitchen and something strange about the coffee table in the lounge – not to mention an awful smell.

Their friends Rebecca (Rebecca Massey) and Tim (Tim Walter), who have been watering the plants for them while they were away, appear and things get weirder. Not only is the electricity on but as far as Rebecca and Tim are concerned, this is their apartment. Outplayed, Andrea and Glenn are evicted.

Then Andrea and Glenn – the four actors use their own names throughout – reappear. Now, Glenn is Rebecca and Tim’s tantrum-throwing son and Andrea is their au pair. Rebecca doesn’t remember hiring an au pair but pretty soon the power shifts and Rebecca is sent packing as Tim and Andrea cosy up.

And so it goes, with characters and relationships morphing and blurring as one scene slides into the next without referencing previous ones.

Once you realise that this is the conceit and structure, the play somehow loses its bite and fascination. There is philosophical talk embracing Darwin and evolution, Plato, and Nietzsche but though Glenn appears at one point in Nazi brown shirt regalia, and the play ends with an absurdist, Pirandello-like scene in which the actors realise they have been abandoned by their director, the dramatic stakes don’t feel particularly high or truly dangerous. In large part that’s because with each change of scene and situation, the characters are let off the existential hook so instead of the tension building, it dissipates.

As Perplex plays with themes of what is real (in life and on the stage), identity and middle class mores and morality, it entertains but doesn’t pack as much of a punch as previous von Mayenburg plays The Ugly One and Fireface.

That’s no reflection on this classy Sydney Theatre Company production, directed by Sarah Giles, who lulls us into a false sense of up-beat security with a mood-enhancing blast of Queen’s greatest hits as we enter the auditorium.

Staged on a suitably anonymous, minimalist set designed by Renee Mulder (cream brick wall, mustard carpet, sofa and wooden coffee table) the polished production moves briskly with excellent performances from all four actors. A Nordic fancy dress party, which sees Tim dressed as an elk, Andrea as a volcano, Rebecca as a Viking and Glenn as a skier, with a hilariously madcap sex scene between man and elk, is particularly funny, while Tim spends long spells expounding his theories stark naked. Hazeldine’s brilliantly observed tantrum as the boy Glenn is an inspired piece of physical comedy and a standout moment.

Mid-way through, however, I found my interest in the play waning. Maybe some of the scenes have a different resonance in Germany but here, though the plot may perplex the play doesn’t disturb, perturb or provoke and so it ends up rather washing over you in entertaining, non-threatening, bloodless fashion.

Perplex plays at Wharf 1 until May 3. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

Noises Off

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 21

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Marcus Graham and Alan Dukes. Photo: Brett Boardman

Waves of laughter swept through the opening night audience at Sydney Theatre Company’s riotously funny production of Noises Off.

Michael Frayn’s 1982 comic masterpiece is a mind-bogglingly clever feat of construction. Add to that Julie Lynch’s gloriously OTT, psychedelic 70s costumes (which drew applause of their own) and some superb comic performances, and you have a night of laugh-out-loud mayhem.

The farce-within-a farce (which comes with a very funny program-within-a-program) follows a third-rate company of actors as they tour the English provinces with a lame bedroom farce called Nothing On.

Frayn has peopled Noises Off with a rum bunch. There’s the show’s backer Dotty Otley (Genevieve Lemon), a one-time “name” who is playing the housekeeper Mrs Clackett and having an affair with Nothing On’s temperamental leading man, the younger Garry Lejeune (Josh McConville); the somewhat vacant Brooke Ashton (Ash Ricardo), a blonde bombshell who keeps losing her contact lenses and who is having a fling with the philandering director Lloyd Dallas (Marcus Graham); Belinda Blair (Tracy Mann) who tries to keep things on an even keel but loves a good gossip; an elderly dipsomaniac (Ron Haddrick); and the morose, anxious Frederick Fellowes (Alan Dukes) who needs to be given acting motivations for every move his character makes.

Getting/keeping the show on the road are the timid but conscientious assistant stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor (Danielle King) who is also involved with the director Lloyd, and the sleep-deprived stage manager/general dog’s body Tim Allgood (Lindsay Farris).

Over the course of three acts, we watch the same section of Nothing On as the production gradually disintegrates.

In Act I we see the disastrous dress rehearsal. Act II takes place at a matinee a month later when things are beginning to go wrong – the twist being that it’s shown from backstage. Act III takes place at the end of the tour when hostilities between the actors are spilling onto the stage and everything that could go wrong does.

Act I feels a little slow as Frayn sets everything up but from there on the play is like a runaway train.

The unfolding chaos requires absolute precision – which it gets in Jonathan Biggins’ very fine production, staged on Mark Thompson’s handsome, suitably old-fashioned set complete with the requisite eight doors. The set then spins to show the Spartan backstage area.

Lynch’s costumes are a delight: patchwork bell bottom jeans, patterned flares, clinging polyester shirts, frocks with bold geometric designs and platform boots among other wonderfully colourful outfits.

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Josh McConville and Genevieve Lemon. Photo: Brett Boardman

Biggins’ has elicited priceless comic performances across the board from his excellent cast but McConville is an absolute standout as Lejeune, his daredevil physicality drawing gasps. Lemon is also a hoot, while Graham is “faded charm” to a tee as the droll, exasperated director.

Beneath all the hilarity there is a dark sense of the absurd and the creeping terror of things spiraling beyond our control. We laugh uproariously but we can’t help but feel for the characters, trapped in an existential theatrical nightmare, much of it of their own making.

Noises Off runs until April 5. Bookings: http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on March 2

The Long Way Home review

Sydney Theatre, February 8

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

When Sydney Theatre Company announced that it was co-producing a new work with the Australian Defence Force about returning servicemen and women, it sounded like a wonderful initiative – though quite how it would play out on stage, given that the majority of the cast were to be soldiers, was anyone’s guess.

Well, not only is The Long Way Home a wonderful initiative but an important, moving piece of theatre with the power to make an impact on several levels. As well as offering the general public a glimpse into the experiences of our military personnel, it will hopefully aid the recovery of the participants, and help other returned soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who see it – many of whom are in denial – to realise that they are far from alone and seek help.

The production was initiated by General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, after he saw a production in London called The Two Worlds of Charlie F based on the experiences of British soldiers. Stephen Rayne, who directed that production, was enlisted by the STC to direct here.

Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene crafted the script after spending a five-week workshop with 15 volunteer soldiers, who had seen active service in Afghanistan, Iraq or East Timor. Twelve of them appear in the play: Will Bailey, David Cantley, James Duncan, Wayne Goodman, Craig Hancock, Kyle Harris, Patrick Hayes, Tim Loch, Emma Palmer, Sarah Webster, James Whitney and Gary Wilson.

They perform alongside five professional actors: Martin Harper, Emma Jackson, Odile Le Clezio, Tahki Saul and Warwick Young. Both Harper and Young have served in the Regular Army and the Army Reserve.

Keene and Rayne decided not to create a piece of verbatim theatre, preferring the dramatic flexibility of a play with characters and several interweaving narratives.

But as Keene writes in the theatre program: “Is The Long Way Home fictional? Yes, and no. Every situation that it presents and every line of dialogue is born out of the experiences of the soldiers who perform in the play. They will play themselves re-imagined. They are bringing their reality into contact with that of their audience.”

What emerges is a tapestry of scenes in Afghanistan and Australia through which we gain an insight into the life of the soldiers during active service – the camaraderie, the terror, the adrenaline, the thrill, the horrific injuries – and then the struggle to readjust to civilian life when they return home with physical and/or psychological injuries.

Linking the scenes are various narrative arcs, the strongest of which follow two soldiers with PTSD, both battling a gnawing sense of loss and uselessness now that they can no longer be soldiers. We have known about PTSD for decades, of course, but The Long Way Home gives it a human face, taking us into the two soldiers’ minds and homes.

One of them, played by Loch, compulsively irons, cleans the house and mows the lawn to give himself something to do when sleep eludes him and hallucinations crowd in on him. The other played by Hancock finds himself becoming increasingly short-tempered and aggressive with his wife.

With professional actors Le Clezio and Jackson as their wives providing a strong emotional anchor in their scenes, both Loch and Hancock are superb, performing with a raw honesty.

As you’d expect, some of the soldiers are more relaxed and convincing on stage than others but overall they do exceptionally well and their physicality when in military mode is naturally utterly authentic.

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Among many strong performances, Wilson plays a mostly comatose soldier with severe physical injuries including brain damage, who occasionally whispers lines from The Odyssey from his hospital bed. His final monologue had many in the opening night audience in tears – civilians and uniformed men alike.

Whitney is also terrific as a soldier giving stand-up comedy a go, with some cringe-makingly awful jokes.

Rayne directs a tight, brilliantly staged production. Renee Mulder’s flexible set with sliding screens and a huge screen at the back, onto which is projected video imagery by David Bergman as well as text and interviews with the soldiers, is highly effective. The recurring image of armed soldiers in combat camouflage silhouetted against the back screen becomes like a leit motif, both familiar and also somewhat sinister.

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Damien Cooper’s masterly lighting and Steve Francis’ crashing, rock-like soundscape also play a huge role in creating a highly charged, atmospheric space.

Keene’s script is funny, poetic and moving. It captures the robust, droll, F-bombing humour of the soldiers, which has the audience roaring with laughter. The next minute we are holding our breath at the brutal honesty of some of the confessions – from the mistaken killing of civilian women and children to the emotional breakdown of a weeping, traumatised ex-soldier.

Two sketch-like scenes in which a comedy character called Lieutenant Neville Stiffy (Tahki) dissects the “yes” and “no” parts of a soldier’s brain, and the way commands from the top brass filter down to the lower ranks, sit a bit oddly. There are also a few things that don’t quite ring true (would the doctor really talk like that about a patient, in front of him, even if he does appear to be comatose?).

But overall, even if there are no profound insights, The Long Way Home (which runs around two hours and ten minutes including interval) is a remarkable achievement.

The participating soldiers, some of whom had never even been in a theatre before, deserve high praise for opening themselves up in this way and for their commendable performances. Hopefully they will gain something from the experience. (Apparently Wilson’s speech – which was affected by his horrific injuries after a helicopter crash – has developed markedly after working with vocal coach Charmian Gradwell).

Audiences will certainly be enlightened and moved by the play. And if returned military personnel, particularly those suffering with PTSD, do see it – as hopefully they will – one can only imagine how it might speak to them.

The Long Way Home plays at Sydney Theatre until February 15 then tours to Darwin (February 22), Brisbane (February 27 – March 1), Wollongong (March 5 – 8), Townsville (March 14 – 15), Canberrra (March 19 – 22), Melbourne (March 27 – 29), Adelaide (April 1 – 5) and Perth (April 11 – 12). Booking details: www.sydneytheatre.com.au

An interview with Corporal Tim Loch and playwright Daniel Keene can be found here: https://jolitson.com/2014/01/28/the-long-way-home/

Travelling North

Wharf 1, Sydney, January 18

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

Bryan Brown and Alison Whyte. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s a big year for David Williamson with eight of his plays to be staged in Sydney. It’s a shame then that the first of them – Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Travelling North – is a disappointment.

Written in 1979, Travelling North is a gentle, elegiac comedy about an autumnal romance between Frances (Alison Whyte, replacing the injured Greta Scacchi) and the grouchy, older Frank (Bryan Brown).

To the chagrin of Frances’s unhappily married daughters (Harriet Dyer and Sara West), she and Frank decide to head north together – but when Frank’s health fails there is trouble in paradise.

Directed by Andrew Upton, the production is hampered by David Fleischer’s stark, unattractive set. Performed on a large, slatted wooden platform backed by dark walls, with virtually no props, there is no sense of place, which the play needs. Instead, it is left to Nick Schlieper’s lighting to convey the shifts between chilly Melbourne and tropical Queensland.

It also seems odd that though the play stretches over a year or more, Whyte wears the same dress throughout while other actors have costume changes.

Brown brings little emotional depth or nuance to the role of Frank. He is at his most believable when angrily demanding information from his doctor (Russell Kiefel) but mostly looks slightly awkward as if uncomfortable on stage and captures little of Frank’s irascible charm.

Whyte is an elegant, dignified, warm-hearted Frances. Despite her late addition to the cast, hers is the most convincing performance, though Andrew Tighe gives the production an engaging shot in the arm with a very funny, sweet performance as the interfering but well-meaning neighbour in short shorts, socks and sandals.

It seemed to me that the problem is not in the writing. Williamson writes believable dialogue laced with a wry, gentle humour and canvases pertinent issues: older love, the generation divide and the way grown-up children so often demand that their parents remain at their beck and call – something we see a lot these days as more and more grandparents find themselves co-opted as child carers. We should care about the characters a whole lot more than we do here.

Instead, it feels as if none of the different elements of the production have really gelled. The emotional heart of the play is missing in this rather one-dimensional production, which doesn’t do Williamson justice.

Travelling North runs at Wharf I until March 22. Bookings: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777

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

The Long Way Home

Members of Mentoring Team One, part of Mentoring Task Force - Four, move across the the 'Dasht' (desert) during a mentored patrol with members of the Afghanistan National Army in Uruzgan. Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Force

Members of Mentoring Team One, part of Mentoring Task Force – Four, move across the the ‘Dasht’ (desert) during a mentored patrol with members of the Afghanistan National Army in Uruzgan. Photo courtesy of the Australian Defence Force

In 2009, Corporal Tim Loch was deployed in Afghanistan where his work as a combat engineer involved detecting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that threatened the movement of Australian troops.

While a searching a road one day, their “means were defeated” as he puts it.

“I was crew commander that day. I was standing up in the little manhole in the top of the vehicle and we were crumped (blown up). ‘Crumped’ – because that’s what it sounds like,” he explains.

“My right heel was crushed, my right femur was snapped. The machine gun in front was hewn off its bolts and hit me in the face. I can remember being conscious for a few minutes and seeing my leg at a 45 degree angle and I can remember claret (blood) all over my jacket and then I passed out.”

As he floated in and out of consciousness he was taken to hospitals in Tarin Kowt and Khandahar (he thinks) and then flown to Germany where his leg was properly set. He was then brought back to Brisbane where, he says, “they put a Meccano set in my right foot – and that felt like someone had parked a truck on it.”

His weight dropped from around 90kg to 57kg and it took him two years to learn to walk without a walking stick and run again and to bulk up after his . “I still can’t pack march, there are still a few things I can’t do, but then you look at other guys and think, ‘hey, I’m still alive and I’ve still got a leg so I guess I’m lucky,’” he says.

His tone is neutral as he talks matter-of-factly about his experience, neither dramatising nor underplaying it (though he has a vivid turn of phrase), emphasising several times that everyone who has been injured in active service has “a sob story”.

Corporal Loch is one of 13 servicemen and women performing alongside four professional actors in The Long Way Home, a new play co-produced by Sydney Theatre Company and the Australian Defence Force (ADF), which opens in Sydney next month and then tours nationally.

The project was initiated by General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, with the aim of aiding the recovery of the participants and giving audiences an insight into what our armed forces have to cope with both during active service and when they return. Hurley was inspired by a play he saw in London in 2012 called The Two Worlds of Charlie F, directed by British director Stephen Rayne, in which wounded British soldiers told their stories on stage. Rayne is directing the Australian production.

The Long Way Home was written by Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene after a five-week workshop during which 15 soldiers – all of whom suffered physical or psychological injury in Afghanistan, Iraq or East Timor – talked openly and honestly about their experiences.

“It’s been an extraordinary experience emotionally and artistically. ‘Intense’ is the word,” says Keene.

The soldiers opened up to him and the other theatre-makers “with various degrees of difficulty”, says Keene. “At the very beginning people didn’t know what to expect from us and we didn’t know what to expect from them so it was tentative, but ultimately everyone was very open and very honest and very direct and courageous, actually, in what they were telling us.”

Neither Rayne nor Keene wanted to produce a piece of verbatim documentary theatre, but a drama.

“The whole notion of creating something rather than (the soldiers) just repeating their experience was very important for us,” says Keene. “We wanted them to create a piece of work. They all play characters so they have a mask if you like. They re not playing themselves, they are playing someone else so in a way that’s a freedom for them.

“It’s a complex piece of work. There are five different narratives that run through the play, it’s not just one story. Everything that any character says is based on something we’ve been told, so all the stories, all the little narratives that unfold are drawn from the core material we had from the ADF members.”

Loch describes it as “a fiction based on reality. I play a character called Tom. I won’t give too much away. He’s returned from overseas and he’s having a difficult time adjusting back to life in Australia. The hoops he has to jump through are some of the things I’ve had to do and things that some of the other participants have had to deal with.”

Though the play moves between Australia and Afghanistan, Keene says that the essential focus is on the difficult transition between being deployed in a dangerous war zone, where your life depends daily on the decisions you make, and then returning to life in Australia.

“That’s a huge problem for returning soldiers,” says Keene. “That’s why it’s called The Long Way Home because it’s about the emotional and spiritual cost of that return.”

Like most of the participating soldiers, Loch knew little about theatre at the start of the project. The only show he has seen was The Pirates of Penzance with Jon English, which he was taken to see as “a wee tacker” in Rockhampton.

He has only been inside a theatre once since then – and that was to search a Townsville venue for bombs during a training exercise.

“I can tell you where the best spots are to hide things in a theatre but how to project your voice from the stage is a new territory,” he says.

Loch admits that when he was first approached about participating in The Long Way Home (“because I’ve got a little bit of a name for being a character and because I was working in Afghanistan”), he was hesitant.

“It’s nothing against the theatre, it’s just going from being a combat engineer, which is something considered very alpha male, a beef-eating type, to something in the theatre, which is not what a strong silent type does (is a big step),” says Loch who grew up “on a cattle station with the cowboy mentality of suffer in silence.”

However, once his Regiment Sergeant Major explained the project to him in depth, he decided to do it not just to explain to audiences what soldiers go through but also in the hope that it may help soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) admit they have a problem and seek help.

“I see a lot of guys in the military who are having a hard time and they just don’t want to communicate or they feel uncomfortable about it,” he says. “They can’t stick up their hand and say, ‘I have a mental injury, I need to do something about it.’

“I personally don’t have PTSD but some of the other cast members do so I guess it’s like, ‘hey, we have this, but we are able to stand up in front of several people hopefully at a time and we are able to be open about it and there is no reason why you can’t either,’ and essentially if that’s what we can achieve that will be great. If we can get together and make an entertaining show that’s great too – but if we get the first priority done I’m happy regardless.”

Though Loch may not have PTSD he admits to having experienced some difficult times during his recovery, particularly while in hospital in Brisbane.

“I spent God knows how many months in that place. That’s when I started to get angry and that irrational it wasn’t fun,” he says. “I lost a relationship out of it. I was dumped on Facebook. That was good fun. But everyone’s got a sob story.”

Loch admits he also struggled with guilt that he was back here while his mates were still in Afghanistan – though he takes some comfort from the fact that he was the worst injured when they were crumped, praising their section commander who realised such an attack was likely and took precautions to minimise injuries in the event of it happening.

Loch is still a member of the ADF (which he joined in 2004) and currently teaches at the School of Military Engineering – at his own request.

“When I was injured in 2009, I had to learn to walk again and I wasn’t able to run and I asked my regiment, ‘can you send me to the School of Engineering’ and they said, ‘why?’” he explains. “I said, ‘well, even if I have a walking stick I can still give a PowerPoint presentation. At least I’ve got something to do’ – and I found that was a very big part of my individual recovery process.

“However, the recovery process needs to be individually structured. What works for one guy may be the worst thing you can do for another guy and that’s where it gets very tricky. If you talk to other guys about their recovery process you rarely get the same story twice.”

For all the challenges of being deployed in Afghanistan, Loch admits he’d “go back in a heartbeat. I’ll be honest, as hot as it is, as much as it sucks, as much as everything annoys you, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing.

“The main thing is everything feels real. You are getting stressed about how close you are to a rocket range, or (that) we may not have enough ammunition or we are starting to run low on radio battery and if we have no communication we are buggered. That’s what you get stressed out about. But then you come back to Australia and everyone is stressed out about them playing the same song on radio all the time or ‘I don’t like this television show’. It’s like, really? Get some real problems.”

Loch believes that it will be hard to get returned servicemen and women suffering from PTSD, most of whom would rarely, if ever, go to the theatre, to come to see The Long Way Home.

“When guys are going through depression, PTSD and alcoholism you tend to go into a shell, you lock yourself in a room and you don’t want to come out,” he says. “Everyone’s got their own favourite little hiding spots. When I was going through a tough time, mine was the backyard with an outdoor table setting and I’d sit there with a bottle of rum and a packet of cigarettes and I’d go through the whole lot. I’d run out, I’d drive to the shop, get some more and come back. That went for a couple of weeks until someone clipped me around the ears and told me to wake up to myself.

“But what I’m hoping is a lot of the family members will come and look at the show whether it be soldier’s mothers, grandmothers, fathers, grandfathers, uncles and aunties. That’s one thing. But what we’re really hoping is a lot of the people who have these symptoms, hopefully their partners will see the advertisements and say, ‘hey, maybe we should go along to this and have a look.’”

After opening in Sydney, The Long Way Home tours to Darwin, Brisbane, Wollongong, Townsville, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. (Full details of the tour are available on the Sydney Theatre Company website).

“The main garrison cities if you like are Darwin and Townsville,” says Loch. “And even Wollongong, there are a lot of navy guys down there. But Townsville and Darwin are definitely going to be the biggest shows simply because that’s where a lot of us come from. That’s why I am most looking forward to the Townsville show because that’s where my old regiment was. Hopefully, I don’t embarrass them too much.”

The Long Way Home plays at Sydney Theatre, February 7 – 15, and then tours nationally. Bookings and tour information: www.sydneytheatre.com.au or 02 9250 1777