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

Swings

“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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Everybody’ Talkin’ ’bout me

Hayes Theatre, April 14

Tim Freedman as Harry Nilsson. Photo: supplied

Tim Freedman as Harry Nilsson. Photo: supplied

Tim Freedman’s show Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout me, about Harry Nilsson, is one of the best bio-cabarets I’ve seen in a long time.

Looking shaggily shambolic in beard, dressing gown (like the one Nilsson wore on the cover of his 1971 album Nilsson Schmilsson) and flat-cap, with a glass of cognac at the ready, Freedman takes us into the mind and musical world of the man he considers “a mercurial songwriter and a sublime singer”.

Nilsson, who was famously described by John Lennon and Paul McCartney as their “favourite American group”, was something of an enigma. Despite his huge success as a recording artist, Nilsson never toured and hardly ever played live. In the studio, however, he was prolific, making 18 albums between 1966 and 1980 until his hard-living took its toll. After that, he recorded virtually nothing until his death in 1994 from heart failure, aged just 52.

In Everybody’s Talkin’ ‘bout me, we find Nilsson in his songwriting den late at night. He’s 50, with two years left to live. His third wife and children are asleep upstairs and he’s trying to ration his alcohol intake with the help of an alarm clock.

Rather than trotting out an animated Wikipedia entry, the script – co-written by Freedman and David Mitchell – feels convincingly conversational. It’s full of fascinating reminiscences, reflections and anecdotes out of which the songs emerge organically without feeling shoe-horned, while the segues also flow with natural ease.

There are lots of great stories: his Brooklyn upbringing, his mathematical brain, his self-destructive streak, his hell-raising with Lennon and Keith Moon and the recording of Nilsson sings Newman among them.

Freedman – an acclaimed singer-songwriter with a lovely voice himself, best known as the  frontman of The Whitlams – inhabits the character, capturing his weathered demeanour and manner. Deploying his own quiet, effortless charisma, he gives a laconic, gently wry performance that has you leaning in to hear Nilsson’s story.

Accompanying himself at a small baby grand, Freedman performs a wide ranging selection of Nilsson’s hit songs, some that he wrote for himself or others, some that he recorded but didn’t write, among them:  Everybody’s Talkin’ from the film Midnight Cowboy (which he didn’t write), his Grammy Award-winning hit Without You, the semi-autobiographical 1941, Coconut, One (Is The Loneliest Number) recorded by Three Dog Night, Cuddly Toy recorded by The Monkees and How About You from the 1991 film The Fisher King.

All in all, it’s a fascinating, gentle, beautifully sung look at an intriguing character. Recommended.

Everybody’s Talkin’‘bout me is at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until April 19. Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or 02 8065 7337

2014: The Year That Was in Sydney Theatre

Looking back over 2014, it was a solid rather than a spectacular year in Sydney theatre. There were some impressive productions and performances but overall not a huge amount that will linger forever in my mind as unforgettable.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity. Photo: supplied

Verity Hunt-Ballard in Sweet Charity for the Hayes Theatre Co. Photo: supplied

By far the most exciting thing was the advent of the Hayes Theatre Co. A group of producers under the banner of Independent Music Theatre (IMT) took over the 115-seat theatre in Potts Point, previously the home of the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, and turned it into a venue for independent musical theatre and cabaret. Named after musical theatre legend Nancye Hayes, the Hayes Theatre Co opened with a bang in February with superb productions of Sweet Charity followed by The Drowsy Chaperone: two of my highlights for 2014.

For the rest of the year, the venue constantly generated excitement even if some of the productions were less successful than others. But it was great to see them producing two new musicals as well as a terrific cabaret festival, which confirmed how many exciting young cabaret performers are emerging in Australia and how rich and varied the genre now is, with other artists performing at the theatre during the year as part of its Month of Sundays cabaret program.

Elsewhere in Sydney theatre, it was good to see female directors and playwrights really making their mark and – as others have noted – queer theatre and indigenous stories gaining a higher profile in the mainstream. The number of powerful new Australian plays was also notable.

I saw 182 productions. These are my highlights for the year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Sweet Charity

As I say, the Hayes Theatre Co gets my vote for the most exciting venue and initiative of the year. It could hardly have found a better way to begin. Sweet Charity sold out within three days (fortunately I had already bought tickets into the run so saw it twice). Director Dean Bryant and his creative team brought a dirtier, grittier edge to the musical and staged it ingeniously in the tiny space. Verity Hunt-Ballard was gorgeous in the title role, heading a strong cast that also included Martin Crewes as Charlie, Vittorio and Oscar, and Debora Krizak as Nickie and Ursula. The production tours next year. It will be interesting to see how Bryant expands it for the larger venues.

The Drowsy Chaperone

Sweet Charity set the benchmark high but The Drowsy Chaperone matched it. Staged at the Hayes by Squabbalogic (which began the year as part of IMT but parted ways, presenting the rest of its productions at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre), Jay James-Moody directed a deliciously inventive production of the delightful, tongue-in-cheek, meta-theatrical show. James-Moody also played the Man in Chair and gave a very funny but sweetly poignant performance. The entire ensemble cast was spot-on and the feel-good show sold out like Sweet Charity before it, leaving many lamenting they were unable to see it. One to revive in 2015 perchance?

Miracle City

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford in Miracle City. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

The Hayes also staged a long-awaited revival of Max Lambert and Nick Enright’s legendary Australian musical Miracle City, not seen in Sydney since Sydney Theatre Company gave it a development production in 1996. With Lambert as musical director, the show about a US televangelist family raised the roof with its gospel-country songs and struck a strong chord with its dark story. Blazey Best was sensational as the unravelling Lora-Lee Truswell and Esther Hannaford broke your heart with her exquisite rendition of the show’s best-known song I’ll Hold On.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You, Beyond Desire

All power to the Hayes for staging two new musicals, even though neither were an unqualified success. Both were strong musically but need further work on the book. But there were some wonderful performances in both shows, notably Ian Stenlake and Scott Irwin in Truth, Beauty and Picture of You (featuring the music of Tim Freedman and a book by Alex Broun) and Nancye HayesChristy Sullivan and Blake Bowden in Beyond Desire (by Neil Rutherford).

OTHER MUSICAL THEATRE

Ruthless! The Musical

Elsewhere in independent musical theatre, a new indie company called The Theatre Division staged Marvin Laird and Joel Paley’s 1992 off-Broadway show Ruthless! at the Reginald Theatre. A send-up of showbiz and the pursuit of fame, it’s a very lightweight little piece but lots of fun. The production was stylishly designed and well performed by a strong female cast led by the ever-reliable Katrina Retallick, with Geraldine Turner as an acid-tongued theatre critic.

Strictly Ballroom

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos. Photo: Jeff Busby

Thomas Lacey and Phoebe Panaretos in Strictly Ballroom. Photo: Jeff Busby

 As in 2013, commercial musical theatre was decidedly patchy in 2014. Baz Luhrmann’s hotly anticipated musical based on his film Strictly Ballroom had its moments but didn’t fully fire. The score was a bit of a mish-mash, some of the choreography felt flat when it needed to soar, and the production was often over busy. Catherine Martin’s costumes were sensational though.

Phoebe Panaretos made an impressive debut as Fran, with standout performances from Robert Grubb as the conniving Barry Fife and Heather Mitchell as Scott’s pushy mother. Luhrmann has already improved the show since opening and is reworking it further for its Melbourne opening. I will be fascinated to see it again there.

The King and I

Lisa McCune shone even brighter than Roger Kirk’s glorious costumes, giving a radiant performance as Anna in the Opera Australia/John Frost revival of Frost’s 1991 production. There was some controversy about the handling of the racial elements in the musical, particularly the casting of the non-Asian Teddy Tahu Rhodes as the King. Politics aside, the production was beautifully staged and I found Tahu-Rhodes moving as the King. The Asian characters were also sympathetically performed within the context of a 1950s musical.

Besides that, Sydney saw the return of Wicked, with Jemma Rix in fine form as Elphaba and Reg Livermore bringing a winning showmanship and humanity to the role of the Wizard, as well as a rather ordinary production of Dirty Dancing that has nonetheless been delighting audiences, with Kirby Burgess stealing the show as Baby – her first leading role.

Les Miserables

The barricades in Les Mis. Photo: Matt Murphy

The barricades in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

The hugely popular musical is back to storm the barricades afresh in a 25th anniversary production featuring new staging and new orchestrations – and stunning it is too. Beginning its tour in Melbourne, there are superb performances from Simon Gleeson as Valjean and Hayden Tee as Javert, who head a generally excellent cast. I thought I’d miss the revolving stage. I doubted I’d be as moved as in the past but I was bowled over and emotionally undone. Can’t wait to see it again in Sydney in 2015.

Once

Staged in Melbourne, with no plans to tour apparently, Once is a bittersweet, wistful little musical, based on the film. The lo-tech staging is so clever and so right for the show, the music is infectious, and the performances lovely. Totally charming.

THEATRE

Henry V, Bell Shakespeare

Can Damien Ryan do no wrong? His idea of staging Henry V (for Bell Shakespeare) as if performed by a group of school students taking refuge in a shelter during the 1940 London Blitz proved inspired. Performed by a marvellous ensemble, Ryan brought his customary clarity to the dense play and left us in no doubt as to the ugliness of war.

Ryan also directed riveting, intelligent, moving productions of All’s Well That Ends Well and The Crucible for his own company Sport for Jove – arguably the most exciting indie theatre company in Sydney.

Tartuffe, Bell Shakespeare

Another terrific Bell Shakespeare production directed by Peter Evans. Featuring a hilariously funny contemporary adaptation by Justin Fleming, the rollicking production was a complete hoot with Kate Mulvany a knockout as the sassy, cheeky maid Dorine.

Pete the Sheep, Monkey Baa Theatre Company

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Nat Jobe (as Pete), Todd Keys and Andrew James. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

A gorgeous show for children, adapted for the stage by Eva di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge from the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley about a sheep shearer who has a sheep called Pete rather than a sheepdog. Directed by Jonathan Biggins, with songs by Phil Scott, the production tickled adults as much as children, with everyone laughing uproariously while still being touched by the message about difference and acceptance. A real beaut.

A Christmas Carol, Belvoir

Another delightful adaptation, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, that while not shying away from the darker corners of Dickens’ novella, filled the stage with joyousness and snow. The entire cast were perfect but Miranda Tapsell’s smile as Tiny Tim and Kate Box’s playfulness as the Ghost of Christmas Present, sparkling in a glorious costume made from gold tinsel (by Mel Page), would have melted the hardest hearts.

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir

After several disappointing adaptations of classics, Belvoir made up for it with Eamon Flack’s production of Tennessee Williams’ semi-autobiographical play. Flack’s use of two large screens on either side of the stage showing black and white footage emphasised that what we are seeing are Tom’s memories and gave the production a dream-like quality and sense of the past. Luke Mullins was marvellous as Tom and Pamela Rabe was a tough Amanda. My only reservation – there were sightline issues for anyone sitting on the side.

Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Griffin Theatre Company and Perth Theatre Company

A new Australian play by Declan Greene, set in the Internet era, that is emotionally hardcore rather than pornographic. Written with a spiky economy, it features two desperately lonely, middle-aged people full of self-loathing. Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs bared themselves emotionally in extraordinary performances. Directed by Lee Lewis, the production was insightful and painfully sad.

Switzerland, Sydney Theatre Company

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

Sarah Peirse and Eamon Farren. Photo: Brett Boardman

A thrilling new play inspired by the life and writing of Patricia Highsmith in which playwright Joanna Murray-Smith weaves a psychological thriller set in Switzerland at the end of Highsmith’s life. Adroitly directed by Sarah Goodes, Sarah Peirse fully inhabited the role of Highsmith in a magnificent performance, with Eamon Farren also compelling as an emissary from her publisher sent to cajole her into writing another Tom Ripley novel, subtly and convincingly conveying his character’s gradual evolution. Brilliantly constructed, witty and gripping, the play will soon be seen at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre Company

It was interesting to see Cyrano de Bergerac again, having been bowled over by Sport for Jove’s production at the end of last year. The STC production, featuring an adaptation by Andrew Upton, is very different, retaining the original 17th century setting. Truth be told I preferred Sport for Jove’s production but Richard Roxburgh gave a sublime performance as Cyrano, underpinned at every turn by a deep, dark, painful melancholy. Yalin Ozucelik (who was also wonderful as a more exuberant Cyrano for Sport for Jove) was the perfect foil to Roxburgh, giving a beautifully measured performance as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret. Eryn Jean Norvill was lovely as Roxane.

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company

Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play was given an elegant, eloquent production by director Kip Williams. Set in the 1860s, with revolution in the air, it concerns an upper middle class Russian family whose lives are about to change forever. Featuring a fine cast, including Jacqueline McKenzie as the only one who senses what is coming, it was deeply moving.

Clybourne Park, Ensemble Theatre

Tanya Goldberg directed the highly anticipated production of Bruce Norris’s award-winning play for the Ensemble and did a fine job. The first act is set in 1959 in a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, the second in 2009 when the suburb is now mainly home to Afro-Americans. An excellent ensemble had us wincing at some of the attitudes in the provocative, discomforting play. All the cast were terrific but Nathan Lovejoy was outstanding as the bigoted neighbour in Act I and a new, white home buyer in Act II.

A Doll’s House, Sport for Jove

Adam Cook’s beautifully paced, richly nuanced, period production kept you on the edge of your seat. A young woman behind me who didn’t know the play was hysterical with excitement at the end. Matilda Ridgway gave us a multi-faceted Nora in a production that added yet another feather to Sport for Jove’s already well-covered cap.

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions and SITCo

One of the best indie theatre productions of the year. Directed by Toby Schmitz at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins gave exceptional performances as two working class Dubliners telling a blood-and-guts yarn through Mark O’Rowe’s two intersecting monologues. Lisa Mimmocchi designed the perfect minimal space. A dark little gem.

Is This Thing On?, Belvoir Downstairs

A riotous new play by Australian writer/performer Zoe Coombs Marr about a lesbian stand-up comedienne at five stages of her life and career, swirling around the night when it all imploded. Kit Brookman directed on a set by Ralph Myers that captured the feel of a grotty pub. Susan Prior’s no-holds-barred, manic performance was at the heart of the show.

NEW AUSTRALIAN PLAYS

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Steve Rodgers and Andrea Gibbs in Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography. Photo: Brett Boardman

Besides Eight Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography, Switzerland and Is This Thing On? there were many strong new Australian plays in 2014 including:

Black Diggers by Tom Wright about Indigenous soldiers who fought during World War I and their appalling treatment when they returned to Australia. Premiered by Queensland Theatre Company and Sydney Festival.

Jump for Jordan by Donna Abela for Griffin Theatre Company, about a young woman born in Australia to Jordanian parents struggling to negotiate the gap between their culture and expectations, and her world.

Krytonite by Sue Smith in which she traced Australia-China relations through a personal relationship between two people who meet at university. Ursula Mills gave a sensational performance as Chinese woman Lian for STC.

Sugarland by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair, commissioned by atyp and written after a series of workshops with young people in the Top End town of Katherine. A moving piece about troubled teenagers, both indigenous and non-indigenous, in remote communities, with touching performances by a cast including Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu and Elena Foreman.

Brothers Wreck by Jada Alberts A heartfelt Indigenous story about a young man called Ruben (Hunter Page-Lochard) struggling to cope with his cousin’s suicide, and his family’s struggle to care for him and keep him safe. A dark but humane, optimistic play, premiered by Belvoir.

M.Rock by Lachlan Philpott about a grandmother (Valerie Bader) who heads to Europe to find her missing granddaughter and becomes a famous DJ, staged by STC and atyp.

The Long Way Home by Daniel Keene, commissioned by STC and the Australian Defence Force and written from first-hand accounts of returned servicemen and women, many suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. The play was performed by returned soldiers alongside four professional actors. A powerful production and a wonderfully enlightened ADF initiative.

Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow. A theatre director already searching for meaning spends Christmas with his dying mother. Gow explores numerous themes including political theatre, consumerism, mortality and love. Brendan Cowell gave a searing, raw performance, with Helen Morse as his frail mother in the Belvoir production.

Unholy Ghosts by Campion Decent, premiered by Griffin Theatre Company. Decent’s touching autobiographical play about a playwright torn between his divorced but still warring parents – a grouchy father and diva-like mother – both facing death.

A FEW OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Handa Opera on Sydney Habour: Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia A stunning, grittily contemporary production directed by Alex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus) with a heart-breaking performance by Hiromi Omura. And what a location.

Louder Than Words, Sydney Dance Company An exhilarating double bill of works by Rafael Bonachela and Greek choreographer Andonis Fondiakis. I particularly liked Bonachela’s exquisite Scattered Rhymes. And the dancing! Never has the company looked better.

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

The Bangarra ensemble in Patyegarang. Photo: Jess Bialek

Patyegarang, Bangarra Dance Theatre A luminous production, choreographed by Stephen Page, telling the fascinating “first contact” story of Lieutenant William Dawes and Patyegarang, a young woman of the Eora nation. Told through 13 almost dreamlike scenes and ravishingly staged (set by Jacob Nash, costumes by Jennifer Irwin, lighting by Nick Schlieper, music by David Page), it could have been a little bit more dramatic at times but it was just beautiful.

The Arrangement A collaboration between Australian Dance Artists (veteran dancers Susan Barling, Anca Frankenhaeuser, Patrick Harding-Irmer and Ross Philip), eminent sculptor Ken Unsworth, The Song Company and composer Jonathan Cooper, staged at Unsworth’s studio. A tumult of ever-suprising visual images combined with glorious music and fascinating movement that reverberated with a profound sense of humanity to create a unique and wondrous piece of work.

Skylight in London I was lucky enough to catch Stephen Daldry’s superb production of David Hare’s 1995 play in the West End on a brief visit to London. Featuring the kind of intelligent writing you long to encounter more often, it explores the political through the personal, with nothing cut-and-dried or black-and-white as your sympathies swing back and forth. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan were both wonderful.

Limbo, Strut & Fret and Underbelly Productions A dark, sexy, enthralling circus-cabaret show, staged in the Spiegeltent as part of the Sydney Festival that combined jaw-dropping acts with a coherent, netherworld-like aesthetic and a strong sense of drama. It was exhilarating and it sold out fast. If you missed out it’s back at the 2015 Sydney Festival so get booking. I’ll be going back to see it again.

And that’s it. Here’s to a chilled New Year and to many theatrical delights in 2015.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You

Hayes Theatre Co, May 14

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

Left to right, Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis, Scott Irwin, Erica Lovell, Ross Chisari. Photo: Noni Carroll

You can see why Tim Freedman’s songs appealed to playwright Alex Broun as the inspiration for a musical. Not only do they have beautiful melodies and pithy lyrics that ring emotionally true but a strong sense of narrative and character, written as they were about real people, places and incidents.

Broun co-wrote his new musical Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You with Freedman (frontman of Sydney rock band The Whitlams) and uses 19 Whitlams classic including “No Aphrodisiac”, “Blow Up the Pokies”, “Keep the Light On”, “Beauty in Me” and the “Charlie” series.

Set in Newtown’s grungy pub scene, 20-year old Tom (Ross Chisari) arrives from Taree with a letter from his Mum, in search of Anton (Ian Stenlake) and Charlie (Scott Irwin), former members of a band in which his dead father Stewie (Toby Francis in flashback scenes) once played.

“Famous on three blocks” in Sydney’s inner west in their heyday, Anton and Charlie are now wrestling with demons and rapidly going to seed. Tom meets a girl called Beatrice (Erica Lovell) who is also searching for herself, having fled Mosman. The encounter between the four leads, predictably enough, to revelations from the past and the possibility of healing.

Produced and directed by Neil Gooding for Hayes Theatre Co, there’s much to enjoy about the production. It’s well staged and performed, the band led by musical director Andrew Worboys is terrific and the songs are great, but Broun’s script is not strong enough for the show to really take off.

Broun draws on Freedman’s themes of male friendship, lost love, disappointment and emotional damage but the characters and plot aren’t developed enough at this point for the climax to convince.

The writing is often perfunctory and never quite rises above the feeling that scenes are contrived to fit the musical numbers. The meeting between Tom and Beatrice, in particular, is clichéd and glib. In fact, the entire story of Tom and Beatrice is far less interesting than the story of the band yet it’s fore-grounded. The scenes about the band – which are the best written and performed – are the ones where we feel ourselves being suddenly drawn in and wanting to know more.

Staged as if in a grotty inner-city pub, Jackson Browne’s set design (lit by Richard Neville) provides just the right vibe. There’s a band set-up on a high stage, backed by all kinds of signs. The stage moves backwards to create room in front of it for various other scenes with simple props sliding out from underneath. It’s a clever solution in the tiny venue.

The actors work hard to bring the show to life. Stenlake as the shambolic, hard-drinking Anton, now letting it all hang out, and Irwin as the pokies-addicted Charlie are particularly impressive, both acting-wise and vocally, the scenes between them some of the most moving.

In the short time that it has been operating, the Hayes has already proved itself an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene and it’s great to see them providing a launch pad for new local musicals like this. Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You still needs work but it’s well worth a look. There’s already much to enjoy about it and there’s plenty of potential for it to be honed into something even better.

Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until June 1. Bookings: hayestheatre.com.au

A version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on May 19