The Present

Roslyn Packer Theatre, August 8

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh and Cate Blanchett in The Present. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Chekhov famously said that if there’s a gun on stage, then eventually it must be used. In his latest Chekhov adaptation, The Present, Andrew Upton wastes no time, starting the tragicomedy with a bang.

In fact, Upton has the characters pull the trigger several times before the play’s dramatic conclusion – just some of the fireworks, emotional and literal, that punctuate and power this blisteringly brilliant Sydney Theatre Company production.

Upton has adapted a number of classic Russian plays with considerable success – Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard, Maxim Gorky’s Philistines and Children of the Sun, and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard – but The Present is arguably his best yet.

Written around 1878, Chekhov’s sprawling, untitled first play – often called Platonov after its central character – would run around five hours in its original form but Upton has condensed it to a gripping three hours including interval.

He has updated the action from pre-revolutionary Russia to the mid-1990s, post-Perestroika, another period of great change and disillusionment. Instead of the main protagonists being 20-something as Chekhov had them, they are in their 40s, intensifying their feelings of yearning, regret and frustration.

The play is set in the country house of Anna Petrovna (Cate Blanchett), the widow of an older, powerful General, where a group of friends and acquaintances gather to celebrate her 40th birthday. Among them are local doctor Nikolai (Toby Schmitz), Anna’s stepson, the slightly nerdy, awkward Sergei (Chris Ryan) and his brittle new wife Sophia (Jacqueline McKenzie), a doctor who has recently returned from working overseas.

Anna has also invited two powerful landowners (David Downer and Martin Jacobs) hoping one of them might marry her, securing her land and fortune.

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard Roxburgh, Jacqueline McKenzie, Chris Ryan, Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland, Martin Jacobs and Cate Blanchett. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

At the heart of the play is Mikhail Platonov (Richard Roxburgh), who has not fulfilled his brilliant promise as a young intellectual and is now a womanising schoolteacher.

Mikhail brings his sweet but gauche wife (Susan Prior) and baby son. However, his roving eye soon alights on Sophia, a former flame, and Nikolai’s gorgeous girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford) – though it’s clear his heart belongs to Anna.

Irish director John Crowley helms a superbly paced production on Alice Babidge’s impressive, almost-naturalistic set, which moves from a verandah outside the dacha to a small balloon-festooned summerhouse to a night scene in swirling mist, and back to the dacha for the morning after, this time inside. It’s brilliantly lit by Nick Schlieper with a powerful sound design by Stefan Gregory who uses music by The Clash and Joy Division’s Love Will Tear Us Apart to punctuate scenes.

Together Upton, Crowley and the magnificent cast nail the Chekhovian balance between laughter and tears as the characters struggle to deal with life in the here-and-now.

The first of the four acts is a slow burn as the guests arrive. Tensions and animosities simmer beneath the desultory chat, with conversations cutting across each other, all of which is performed with a convincingly spontaneous feel. Then, in the aftermath of lunch, the play suddenly explodes into shattering life.

Roxburgh gives one of the performances of his career as Mikhail, capturing his wit and charisma but also his world-weary vulnerability and self-loathing. Blanchett is equally virtuosic as Anna, moving from bored containment to drunken abandon. Both draw on deep, uninhibited emotional reserves and the chemistry between them is electric.

But it’s a genuine ensemble piece with superb performances from the entire 13-strong cast (which also includes Eamon Farren, Brandon McClelland and Andrew Buchanan). As Upton prepares to leave STC at the end of the year, The Present is a thrilling parting gift.

The Present plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until September 19. It is sold out but $20 Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online at http://www.sydneytheatre.com.au in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

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

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Sydney Theatre Company brings Chekhov into The Present

A week into rehearsals, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Jacqueline McKenzie discuss The Present – Andrew Upton’s new adaptation of Chekhov’s Platonov

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh and Anna Bamford are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Toby Schmitz, Jacqueline McKenzie, Susan Prior, Cate Blanchett, Richard Roxburgh, Anna Bamford and Chris Ryan are among the 13-strong cast for The Present at Sydney Theatre Company. Photo: Steven Chee

Cate Blanchett is widely regarded as one of the finest stage actresses of her generation. We’ve been incredibly lucky to see her give unforgettable performances in a number of Sydney Theatre Company productions over the last few years including A Streetcar Named Desire, The Maids, Gross und Klein and Uncle Vanya.

But with the family relocating to the US when her husband Andrew Upton’s contract as artistic director of STC concludes at the end of this year (after eight years, five of them shared with Blanchett), the chances are we could be about to see her on a Sydney stage for the last time in a while.

Blanchett co-stars with Richard Roxburgh in The Present, adapted by Upton from Anton Chekhov’s sprawling first play Platonov. Directed by John Crowley, the production plays at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from August 4. The season is all but sold out but a final limited release of tickets will go on sale on Thursday July 9.

Blanchett and Roxburgh wowed audiences and critics alike when they performed together in Upton’s 2010 adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Sydney, Washington and New York. As you’d expect, their reunion has made The Present one of the hottest tickets in the STC’s 2015 season.

The rest of the 13-strong ensemble is pretty extraordinary too, among them Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz, Anna Bamford, Chris Ryan and Susan Prior who recently won an AACTA Award for The Rover.

“It’s a great bunch,” says Blanchett.

“It is an incredible cast. Looking around the table and listening to the voices when we were doing our first read-through, it was just absolutely stunning,” says McKenzie.

“But if you had seen (Blanchett and Roxburgh in) Uncle Vanya and their amazing chemistry and work together, as an actor you want to be a part of that. So that’s really how you can collect such an amazing group of people because we all want to be in amongst it. It’s Andrew’s writing too. He’s an extraordinary adaptor,” adds McKenzie who performed in Upton’s adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s Children of the Sun for STC in 2014.

“So you’ve got Chekhov, you’ve got Upton, you’ve got the Rox and you’ve got the Blanchett – and then you’ll get anyone.”

Chekhov’s first play – commonly known as Platonov after its central character – was an unstructured epic, which would have run for more than five hours if staged in its original state. The manuscript was discovered and published 16 years after his death. There have been various adaptations over the years including Michael Frayn’s Wild Honey.

 “You couldn’t do it (as written). It was a mad thing. That’s why it ended up in a Chekhovian sock drawer and he never pulled it out again,” says Roxburgh.

“The play was a broken thing, a play without a name,” says Blanchett. “Andrew has taken the fragments as a starting point, really, the characters and the basic situations.

“We’ve got this box set of rather crusty old sepia Chekhovs done by the BBC in the 70s. It’s quite useful to see just the bare bones of the storytelling. It’s very, very English (depicting) Russians as eccentrics but I went back and looked at Platonov the other night and it doesn’t make a lot of sense, and certainly the women don’t make any sense. What Andrew has done is really teased out not only the relationships but the states of being that all the various women represent in the piece.”

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Richard Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov and Cate Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna in The Present. Photo: James Green

Roxburgh plays Mikhail Platonov, once considered a great intellectual but now a disillusioned, wittily acerbic provincial schoolteacher, though still something of a Lothario. Blanchett plays Anna Petrovna, the widow of a much older General who she married in her 20s, and McKenzie plays Sophia, a former flame of Platonov’s who is now married to Anna Petrovna’s stepson.

Set in a country summerhouse where a group of old friends gather for Anna Petrovna’s 40th birthday party, the play is awash with yearning, shattered dreams and vodka.

Blanchett says that they are still discussing whether Anna Petrovna is also a former flame of Platonov’s.

“There is a sense that they are soulmates. Anna Petrovna is not at the centre of it but she’s the catalyst for the collision of desire and longing that happens around her 40th birthday.”

Upton has a fascination with late 19th century and early 20th century Russian drama and has adapted several plays of the era: Gorky’s Philistines and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard for London’s National Theatre, along with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, Gorky’s Children of the Sun and a revised version of The White Guard for STC.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC's Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Yure Covich in STC’s Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

His acclaimed adaptations are sparklingly colloquial, muscular and very funny but underpinned with melancholy, and speak very clearly to us today.

Upton has updated Platonov to the mid-1990s, to Russia post-Perestroika, and has the characters in their 40s rather than their 20s as in the original.

“What I like about the updating – Andrew’s updated it to 1995 I think we’ve settled on – is that when Chekhov was writing there was the sense of Russia in transition but it was quite a dangerous time politically and morally. Setting it in the mid 1990s, Russia is once again in that similar state of transition. With the wisdom of hindsight you see that there was a real chance for change,” says Blanchett.

“What is beautiful about it is that it really mirrors the state the characters are in. There’s still that opportunity to change. When you’re in your 40s, as we know, life’s not over.”

“It becomes so much more make and break than in your 20s when you’ve got the whole world laid out in front of you,” says McKenzie.

“It has that depth of meaning when someone is approaching the middle of their life,” agrees Blanchett. “Had the characters been in their 20s, there’s a self-centredeness to it whereas there’s a desperate futility and sadness about it. Suddenly the play has a purpose and an energy and an ache inside it.”

“It has a much darker depth to it, doesn’t it? It’s really fabulous,” says Roxburgh.

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC's Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in STC’s Uncle Vanya. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Upton’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya, set in the 1950s and directed by Tamas Ascher, got the tightrope balance between laughter and tears just right. The highly physical production verged on slapstick at times with pratfalls, pillow fights and drunken dancing. Blanchett’s elegant Yelena cooled her sudden ardour by standing in front of an open fridge. Hugo Weaving’s Astrov did a boisterous, drunken jig then fell backwards through a window. But for all the laughter you never lost sight of their misery.

The Present has “a different spirit”, says Roxburgh. “I think the fact that it has a contemporary setting gives it a different quality. What is I would say is that what is incredibly manifest is this energy in the storytelling. There’s a fantastic energy to it that gets pushed and pushed.

“It’s people in extremis. Things unfold that push people to their various breaking points and that can be terrible and hilariously funny, so it does explore all those things. But it’s by no means slapstick. It feels very real. It is people in extremis. To my mind that’s the definition of great theatre.

“But it is hilariously funny. I was rolling about laughing when I read it, which is not what you expect when you read an adaptation of Chekhov. But it’s never silly. It really feels like Chekhov, but not as you’ve ever got him.”

“The dialogue is fantastic,” says McKenzie. “It’s very witty, very fast. It’s like throwing little darts across the room. I’m laughing on stage. I have to stop.”

“John Crowley has a terrific way of putting it, which is that it seems like all of the scenes are not the scenes you’re supposed to be seeing,” says Roxburgh. “They are the grabbed moments in between. There’s a dinner, there’s a lunch, but you don’t see those, you see everything around that, the accidental moments or the catastrophic conclusion of the lunch. It’s a kind of string of all these broken, wrong moments.”

“Those points of genuine contact are like a life raft,” says Blanchett. “They happen occasionally when people do connect in the play. I was reading one of Chekhov’s short stories the other night, I think it was The House with the Mezzanine. It’s a brilliant story and it was describing a painter who was having a conversation with someone he was lodging with and he said that this lodger had the student’s predilection for turning a conversation into an argument. And that’s why this feels like a young play. Conversations very quickly turn into argument, sometimes fierce and sometimes frivolous. But there’s that cut-and-thrust in the play. My character is constantly saying: ‘can everyone just stop being mean!’”

“The crafting of the writing is very finessed,” says Roxburgh. “There’s a lot of overlap in it, which I reckon had Chekhov lived into these times he would have used because his sense of rhythm was so beautiful. It obviously wasn’t a thing of the time but the overlapping dialogue just creates this constant feeling of the shadow play of life. It feels just like we are with one another.”

The three actors speak very highly of Crowley, who has directed in London and on Broadway. McKenzie says that during the first week he got them all to research different aspects of Russian culture and politics from Russian oligarchs to Perestroika.

“I got post-Soviet country houses, where this is set. But it was fantastic because we all came together and shared our findings. It was so great because normally you all do your research yourself. I’ve got a six-year old now and my situation isn’t as free to sit in a library for hours obsessing, which is what I used to do.”

Working with Crowley “is about discovery”, says McKenzie. “What happens with actors a lot of the time is that things happen osmotically. He allows that to happen at the different paces that people work at. It’s just very generous. I tell you, I trust him. I really do. I don’t feel any agenda other than to find the best play.”

“And he seems to have great taste as well,” says Roxburgh “I saw his production of The Pillowman in London. It was a beautiful, very classy piece of work.”

Blanchett and Upton met Crowley when they were living in London. “We’ve been talking about working together for a long time. We’ve been trying to lure him here but dates and situations didn’t work so it’s great that it has now,” says Blanchett.

Asked if it’s hard to return to a rehearsal room when you have a young baby, Blanchett responds with an emphatic “yes!”.

She and Upton adopted baby Edith from the US earlier this year and have said that they and their three sons are “besotted”.

“I feel a bit sleep deprived,” she admits. “But you have to work with whatever state you’re in and turn it into a positive. Sometimes it can be good to be a bit tired in a rehearsal room because your defences are down, your guard is down.”

“You seemed to be working very well this morning in your mad aria!” chuckles Roxburgh.

“But Chekhov is excruciating (to rehearse),” rejoins Blanchett. “The couple of times I’ve had the fortune to work on Chekhov it’s really difficult. There’s nothing to hide behind. That’s why it was so wonderful touring Vanya because by the time we got to New York and we’d done three seasons of it, it had gone to another level. When you work on great writing – and what Andrew has written is really great – it’s difficult to get there but the longer you live with it, the richer it becomes, the more it feeds you and the more the company can bring to it.”

“I’m not finding it excruciating,” says Roxburgh cheerily. “I’m having great fun.”

The Present plays at the Rosyln Packer Theatre (formerly Sydney Theatre), August 4 – September 19. A final limited release of tickets will go on sale to the public at 9am on Thursday July 9. Bookings can be made at www.sydneytheatre.com.au, by phoning 02 9250 1777 or in person at the Wharf box office.

 STC also has its Suncorp Twenties program, which makes a limited number of $20 tickets available to each production, even if a season is otherwise sold out. Suncorp tickets are released at 9am each Tuesday for performances during the following week. They are available online, in person or by calling 02 9250 1929.

 A version of this story appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on July 5

Tim Minchin: Part II

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

Tim Minchin. Photot: Kevin Patrick Robbins

When Tim Minchin played to adoring, sell-out crowds on the steps of the Sydney Opera House Forecourt in February, he included a song called Seeing You, from Groundhog Day, the new musical he is currently working on.

He has also performed the song at London’s Hyde Park and various other gigs. As a first-taste introduction to Groundhog Day, the gentle, lilting, country ballad is excitingly promising.

“It’s a bit weird because it’s the final song in the whole musical so it doesn’t really give you the tone of what’s gone on before,” says Minchin.

Groundhog Day follows in the wake of the phenomenal success of the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Matilda the Musical for which Minchin wrote music and lyrics.

It’s based on the brilliant 1993 film: a comedy classic scripted by Danny Rubin and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. Rubin himself is writing the book, Minchin is writing music and lyrics, and Matthew Warchus, who helmed Matilda, is directing.

The show will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year as part of Warchus’s inaugural season as artistic director, prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

Writing on his blog, when news of the project leaked last year, Minchin described the plot in his inimitable way: “For the handful of you who’ve never seen the film (philistines!), Groundhog Day is about a cantankerous weatherman who is sent to a small town to do a weather report, and gets stuck in a time loop, living the same day over and over again until – eventually – he figures out how to be less of a miserable, egotistical git. It’s about selflessness and acceptance and love and time and life and death and all that good stuff.”

Minchin says that their stage adaptation will be “instantly recognisable and utterly different”.

“The narrative is very similar but tonally it’s completely different. You can’t make the character of Phil like Bill Murray – by which I mean the Bill Murray-ness of that character would not allow him to sing. It can’t be Bill Murray. It has to be a slightly more standard Scroogian character,” he says.

“And also you can’t write a piece of theatre – or I don’t want to in 2015 – with a woman as passive as Andie MacDowell. You take the opportunity to write a stronger woman whose influence is more profound and who has her own sense of humour. Andie was very charming in that movie but we need to know more about her.

“In musicals – just like in Matilda – you want to know more. You can’t maintain a distance in a musical and that’s why you have to consider very seriously which texts you do. Is going into their head – which is what a musical does because they sing their feelings – is going into their head going to help us?

“And if you are going into their head, how do you make sure the character doesn’t become mawkish and over demonstrative? That’s the problem with Matilda and Miss Honey (in Matilda). Miss Honey isn’t a demonstrative person so how do you get her to sing? That’s why I made her sing about her house, which is her singing about herself by not singing about herself. Those sorts of solutions are what musical theatre writers have always done but Groundhog Day is a particular challenge like that because you’ve got to keep it funny and witty and dry.”

In the story, the same scenes keep playing out, with the weatherman Phil gradually responding differently each time he relives a moment. Asked whether the music will repeat with gradual transformations, Minchin says not.

“Music reflects your protagonist’s state of mind. You could take the same music and put different angles on it but I realised early on that it’s not the songs repeating – because songs repeating is not unconventional. It’s dialogue and action repeating which is where the magic is in theatre. You have a complex series of events that are exactly the same. That’s like a magic trick; that’s awesome.”

Minchin says the songs will have a more poppy feel than Matilda. “It’s less Dahly. There are songs you could play on the radio. Anyway, it’s such an exciting challenge. I just hope we don’t fuck it up.”

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Tim Minchin. Photo: supplied

Minchin is currently alternating between writing the songs for Groundhog Day and the songs for Larrikins, an animated DreamWorks movie scheduled for release in 2018, which he is also directing.

Set in the Australian outback, Larrikins centres on an anxious little bilby called Perry and a kangaroo called Red.

“The kangaroo is hard-edged and unemotional, thinks everything is a bit of a joke, hates authority and all that good Aussie stuff – though it’s very important to me that the movie moves us beyond that,” says Minchin.

“Perry is an OCD, hyper-controlling, very fearful, very kind little dude compulsively stacking berries all the time. They go on this massive road journey together and Perry has to learn to be brave and Red has to learn to be more caring. It all sounds quite twee but it’s actually very funny. There are lots of laughs in it. The term Larrikin is used, but its definition is actually only obliquely discussed. We never clearly define it, that’s part of the charm of the word – it’s kind of ambiguous.”

“It’s an Australian story and I’m writing very much as an Australian writing about Australia,” adds Minchin.

As you’d expect, he will be making some political points along the way. There’s a song called Proper Aussie, for example. “It’s sung by Howard the crocodile, who is a bureaucratic bully in charge of a bit of river that our heroes have to cross. He sees his job as preventing ‘non-native species’ from spreading. It’s quite fun because we get to talk about fauna issues as well as xenophobia,” says Minchin.

On top of all his composing, Minchin has managed to find time to take to the stage himself in recent years. In 2012/13 he turned in a sensational performance as Judas in an arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which toured around the UK and Australia.

In 2013, he also co-starred with long-time mate Toby Schmitz in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for Sydney Theatre Company. On screen, he has just been seen as the odious Smasher Sullivan in the ABC’s acclaimed mini-series The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s novel about the early days of Australian colonisation.

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

He’s keen to do some more acting. However, he’s unlikely to have time for much theatre in the immediate future, given the demands of Groundhog Day and Larrikins.

“I want to act more but I think it’s more likely to be a few eps on a TV series or a cameo role in a film,” he says. “I’m interested in film and TV now. It’s all weird and a slightly sitty-around industry but it’s great to be a part of something, to do these little scenes and then see it all put together.”

Then there are his solo shows. He had 10,000 people across two nights eating out of the palm of his hand when he performed at the Sydney Opera House in February but, again, it’s a challenge to find the time.

“I think I can do it all,” he says. “I just need to manage my time and not lose my mojo. Comedy is a game of fearlessness and you’ve got to do it lots to stay fearless. I kind of had a wobble last year when I first went back after two years of not doing a solo show. I found it hard. I’d forgotten that you can’t just wander up. You’ve got to get your chops back up. It’s not something that comes with no work, the fast lyrics and all that stuff. But it’s worked out all right.”

Minchin, his wife Sarah and their two young children Violet and Caspar now live in Los Angeles after a decade in London, where his fame had reached the point that he was recognised pretty much wherever he went.

“LA was a lot about the film (Larrikins) and a lot about knowing that I had to leave London one day because it was just getting harder and harder. And also about coming home (to Australia) eventually. So LA is meant to be a stepping stone,” he says.

It was while he was living in Coogee during the STC season of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he decided he wanted his kids to grow up in Australia.

“The Larrikins thing was initially a songwriting gig then they said, ‘would you like to direct it?’ So I said to Sarah, ‘maybe this is our window out.’ It was awful leaving London. It was really, really hard, for Sarah particularly, but LA is kind of fun. We’ve met some really great people. You can drive around in your car. It’s a bit more like living in Perth. (Our house) is not a big place but it’s got a comparatively big garden with a pool and our kids haven’t been sick since moving there.

“People in America don’t really know me apart from Californication (the US TV series in which he played a coked-up rock star) though I was stoked that Spielberg and those people know exactly who I am. That’s their job to know who everyone is, and I am directing a movie for Jeffrey Katzenberg.

“So I’ve been shocked to realise it’s a perfect balance. I don’t get recognised in the street but the people who matter are keeping an eye on me. I sit in my room all day with a piano and when the kids come home I’m there. That’s why we moved to LA. And we can go to the shops and no one cares.”

Tim Minchin: Part 1

In a wide-ranging interview with Tim Minchin, he discusses the ins-and-outs of writing Matilda, Groundhog Day, Larrkins, acting and his move to LA: so much that I’m breaking it into two parts.

The second part, coming soon, will focus on Groundhog Day, Larrikins and his move to Los Angeles. In this first part, he talks about his encounter with a (fictional) little girl called Matilda.

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney's Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

Tim Minchin is honoured with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk. Photo: Brett Hemmings

When the Royal Shakespeare Company was looking for someone to write the songs for their musical of Matilda, director Matthew Warchus went to see one of Tim Minchin’s solo shows in London.

As Minchin tells it, by the show’s end Warchus had decided that he wasn’t right for the job. Then as an encore, Minchin sang White Wine in the Sun, his beautiful, heartfelt song to his baby daughter Violet about Christmas, family and love, and Warchus changed his mind.

“He was thinking, ‘no’ and then he went, ‘oh, there’s another dimension’. I’m so glad. Can you imagine? It’s made such a profound impact on my life, this musical, and my whole career,” says Minchin.

Based on Roald Dahl’s popular children’s book, Matilda the Musical has proved a phenomenal success. It won a record seven Olivier Awards in London and four Tony Awards on Broadway, where the New York Times described it as “the most satisfying and subversive musical ever to come out of Britain.”

The Australian production begins previewing in Sydney on July 28. Minchin, who grew up in Perth, will be at the official opening on August 20 and says it feels “genuinely special” to be bringing the show home to Australia.

The feeling is reciprocated. Matilda is probably the most hotly anticipated musical of the year in Sydney where the love affair with Minchin continues to grow. Tickets were snapped up in next to no time when he played two sold-out shows on the steps of the Sydney Opera House in February. He held the ecstatic audience in the palm of his hand, with more than a few tears during White Wine in the Sun. His own mascara seemed to run a bit too.

And when he came to Sydney last October for the launch of Matilda, Destination NSW took the opportunity to honour the self-proclaimed “rock ‘n’ roll nerd” with a plaque in Sydney’s Theatre Walk at Walsh Bay, joining the likes of Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush, Jacki Weaver and John Bell.

Minchin was a star before Matilda. A comedy songwriter with trademark ratty hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and bare feet, his genius for combining pithy, witty, pointed lyrics with catchy tunes had already won him such a cult following that he could fill arenas for his solo shows and front symphony orchestras in concert halls.

But Matilda has made him a superstar, in demand around the world. He is now writing songs for a musical based on the 1993 film Groundhog Day, also directed by Warchus, which will premiere at London’s Old Vic next year prior to a Broadway opening in 2017.

He is also the songwriter and director for an animated DreamWorks movie called Larrikins, set in Australia, scheduled for release in 2018. There’s a film of Matilda the Musical in the pipeline too.

“Without Matilda, I could have gone more down the path that people who get known for comedy go on but this has taken me back to what I was doing as a kid. I wrote loads of music for the theatre in my late teens and early 20s,” says Minchin.

“Then I started getting a couple of roles in plays and I moved to Melbourne and then I got frustrated because no one would take any notice of me and so I started doing comedy. But even at the beginning of my comedy career I was writing musical scores.”

In 2004, he wrote the songs for This Blasted Earth, a Christmas musical written with Travis Cotton and Toby Schmitz, which played at Sydney’s 40-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitzroy in Woolloomooloo. In 2005, he and Kate Mulvany wrote Somewhere, a musical about Penrith for the opening of the Q Theatre. That same year, he won the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

“It does strike me as really amazing that (working on Matilda is so similar to) what I was doing 10 years ago,” he says munching on jelly snakes to keep himself awake as he battles raging jetlag.

“I listen back to those songs I wrote for the Old Fitz show and the songs from Somewhere and there are definitely songs in the Penrith musical that are as good as anything in Matilda. There was no change in tools; there was just a change in status, in who was asking me to write for them.”

Funnily enough, in a now famous anecdote, while he was writing music for theatre shows in Perth, Minchin – who is mad Dahl fan from way back – enquired about getting the stage rights for a musical of Matilda. When Dahl’s estate asked for a sample of his score, he panicked and dropped the idea.

“It’s a great story. It doesn’t sound very believable but it’s true,” he says.

Matilda tells the tale of a smart, book-loving little girl who uses intelligence, imagination, courage and magic to defy her mean parents and vicious, tyrannical headmistress Miss Trunchbull.

As Minchin puts it: “The show’s about a tiny person starting a revolution to overthrow the oppressors.”

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

The UK company in the RSC production of Matilda the Musical. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Minchin’s songs are absolutely brilliant: funny, bolshie, poignant and refreshingly different to so many of the pop scores of contemporary musical theatre. In retrospect, it’s hard to think of anyone else more suited to the task. His intelligence, irreverence, wit and heart seem such a perfect match for Dahl.

Matilda feels a particular way. It doesn’t just feel like me, it feels like me interpreting Dahl,” he says. “There’s an angularity to the opening and this semi-tonal thing going on. The dominant movement through the whole thing is a semi-tonal shift with all these crunchy harmonics. In musical theatre, it’s usually big shifts and fourths, not semi-tones. But I do think Matilda has an aesthetic that seems to work.”

You might think the first thing Minchin would have done after being commissioned by the RSC was to pick up Dahl’s novel again, but no. Instead, he looked to the show’s book by writer Dennis Kelly.

“I never went back and re-read the book because I decided Dennis’s adaptation was my source text,” says Minchin. “I didn’t re-read all my Dahl. I just had an utterly convinced sense that I knew what Dahl-ness was and I knew his themes. Obviously there’s that cheeky little tip-of-the hat to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes: ‘We are revolting children, Living in revolting times, We sing revolting songs, Using revolting rhymes…’ (Hooley-dooley, Tim Minchin is singing for me). I was taking from all Dahl’s work without even knowing I was doing it really.”

When Minchin came on board, Kelly had already been working on Matilda for a year.

“He had a script adaptation and he said, ‘I’ve (marked) some places where I think there might be songs, I’ve even written a few lyrics,’” recalls Minchin. “And I said, ‘you can’t give me any lyrics or song titles. I just want “song here, question mark” and we’ll discuss what you think they might be about, because you might have a great idea but how will I know if I have a better one if that gets in my head?’

“So he gave me a script with no songs and Matthew (Warchus) and me and Chris Nightingale, the orchestrator, who was in from the very beginning, and Dennis just talked and talked and talked. Your most pretentious, in-depth tutorial in an English Literature of a university got nowhere near the level of textural analysis that we were doing!

“I went away and broke it down and put songs in different colours representing different styles, so if it was a chorus number it was this colour and if it was a solo number it was another colour and all that sort of thing, which kind of mapped it. I didn’t start writing songs until we had a really strong map.”

Hard though it is to believe now, Minchin reveals that at one point they considered making Matilda a non-singing character.

“Early on, Matilda had no songs. I couldn’t work out how to make her sing, weirdly, because she’s so quiet. Then I wrote Quiet,” he says.

“That’s not quite true. She had a song in the second act where Quiet is now, which is just as she is about to do magic for the first time. It had this big rumbling build-up to ‘Magical! but we all went, ‘that’s not right’ so when we did the first workshop we just discarded it. She had no songs at that point and we were considering the possibility that she might not have songs; that the world revolves around her and she is a still force.

“There was another character called Hortensia who had two big songs, Revolting Children and another called Now That She’s Gone when Trunchbull leaves. It’s a really funny song but it didn’t belong in the musical and nor did Hortensia so she got dissolved and we gave her spirit to Matilda so she can sing, ‘sometimes you have to be a little bit naughty’ – the language of rebellion.”

One of the most well-known and popular songs in the show is the sweet When I Grow Up. The idea behind it came from one of Minchin’s own childhood memories.

“I remember promising myself I would never open the farm gate. We used to spend a lot of time when I was growing up on my grandfather’s farm and you would always climb over the gate or flip over the gate. I’d watch the oldies fiddle with the (padlock) and I would go: ‘I hope I never have to walk through gates. Gates are to be hurdled,’” he says.

“That idea of looking at things as a child and promising yourself that as an adult you’ll do all the things you think are awesome as a child (is the idea behind the song). It’s somehow sad because you are so wrong. Or maybe you were right. That’s the point. Dahl would say that we forget that kids have the wisdom. We’re sad as adults because we don’t climb trees and eat sweets and wake up with the sun. That’s where all the melancholy comes from in that.

“As you can tell when I talk about these things, I tend to go, ‘oh, here’s an idea and if I do that….’ That’s how I find my way into things. There’s a lot of emotion to be got out of thinking your way into it. But I think having young kids really allowed that.”

Asked if he does still leap the gate, he grimaces a bit. “No. I’m a bit sore these days. But when I run I have a compulsion to jump up on picnic tables. I’m like an old shitty Parkour runner.”

When I Grow Up is the first non-narrative song Minchin wrote for the show. “It’s a reflective piece, although in the musical Miss Honey sings the last verse about being brave enough to fight the creatures, which gives you a hint of what’s to come,” he says.

When I Grow Up always sat outside the piece and one of the ways it doesn’t now is because I took the whole thing and wrote a new tune over the chord structure and that’s Naughty. It’s basically the same song. Naughty and When I Grow Up are almost identical harmonically and that’s why they go from one to the other in the mash-up (at the end).”

Thinking back on the robust working relationship between him and Kelly, as Matilda gradually took shape, Minchin laughs with genuine pleasure.

“He’d never written a musical before. We tugged and pulled and pushed for the whole writing period. We didn’t know each other very well early on and Matthew would sit there quietly letting us fight it out. Then he’d say one sentence and we’d go, ‘right’. He’s such a genius and so quiet. But we’d all make each other laugh all the time.

“Dennis Kelly is now one of my favourite humans on the planet,” adds Minchin. “We’re from very different backgrounds and we approach art in a different way. I don’t know but perhaps if you write something like this and it goes so well, you are bonded by a very positive experience. As the time went on, I just fell in love with him. He’s such a brilliant guy.”

Matilda plays at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre from July 28. Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 795 267

 A version of this story ran in the Sunday Telegraph on June 28

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.

Howie the Rookie

Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins. Photo: Kathy Luu

Irish writer Mark O’Rowe spins a gripping, blood-and-brawl yarn in the two intersecting 40-minute monologues that make up his 1999 play Howie the Rookie, which feels slightly fantastical and yet profoundly, horribly human.

Brought to brilliant life by Andrew Henry and Sean Hawkins, the production directed by Toby Schmitz packs a knockout punch.

Set in a tough, working-class suburb of Dublin in the late 1990s, the Howie Lee (Henry) begins the tale. He is, he tells us, out to bash up the Rookie Lee (same surname, but no relation) for infecting a mate’s mattress, where he sometimes sleeps, with scabies. So when his mum asks him to babysit his five-year old brother the Mouse Lee, he tells her in no uncertain terms where to get off.

When the Rookie (Hawkins) takes up the story, he reveals that he is in considerably more trouble than a bashing at the hands of the Howie and his mates. He has inadvertently killed the Siamese fighting fish belonging to the Ladyboy, a brutal gangster, and has to raise a substantial amount of cash if he wants to keep his kneecaps in tact, as a result of which an unlikely alliance forms between the Howie and the Rookie.

O’ Rowe’s use of language is exhilarating. Writing in a vibrant, robust, vital style that sings with a kind of blistering, slangy poetry (words like “slappercopper” for police woman, for example), he creates such vivid, visceral images you feel you are there.

The story is peopled with eccentric characters. The Howie is a bit of a dag and useless when it comes to chatting up girls, unlike the good-looking Rookie.

Then there’s the Avalanche, a mountainous vision in white ski pants who lusts after the Howie (who has bedded her once) and now keeps appearing at inopportune times like when he’s taking a leak.

The Howie’s friends include Flan Dingle, who has dreadful BO, Ginger Boy with blazing red hair and the Avalanche’s towering brother (“six feet tall, built like a human white puddin’), who may not be quite the full quid. As for the Ladyboy, he is rumored to have three rows of teeth like a shark.

A dark, ugly comedy full of booze, piss, blood, biff and violence, it’s very funny – until it suddenly gets all too real.

Schmitz – who is currently based in South Africa where he is playing a featured role in the pirate TV series Black Sails – returned to Australia briefly to direct Howie the Rookie.

Lisa Mimmocchi has designed him the perfect, minimal set: a black box space with nothing in it except two chairs for the storytellers, a tiny up-ended chair in the corner (the meaning of which is explained in the course of the tale) and a pile of beer bottle tops. The tracksuits she chooses for the two storytellers are also spot-on, while the shaved pattern in Hawkins’ hair is an inspired touch.

Schmitz, who performed at the Old Fitz several times early in his career, uses the space exceptionally well. His decision to have both men there throughout the two monologues is a canny one, for starters. They sit, sipping on a beer, while the other talks, occasionally reacting and making eye contact, but mostly just present. But it somehow makes it feel more real to see the other key person in the story.

Schmitz also uses the bottle tops, just twice, to send a jolt through the audience. Alexander Berlage’s lighting and Jeremy Silver’s sound complete the picture perfectly.

Henry and Hawkins are both excellent; Henry capturing the insecurity beneath the loutish Howie’s almost pathetic bravado, Hawkins also conveying the vulnerability beneath the Rookie’s far cooler façade. By the end of the piece we have come to care about both of them and the denouement is surprisingly moving.

The two actors do a pretty good job with the Oirish accent too (dialect coach, Gabrielle Rogers).

Howie the Rookie is a tough little gem, which sits perfectly in the tiny, 50-seat pub theatre at the Old Fitz. Recommended.

Howie the Rooks runs at the Old Fitzroy Theatre until October 25. Bookings: www.sitco.net.au or 1300 307 264

2013: The Year That Was

December 31, 2013

The last day of 2013 seems a good time to look back over what happened on the boards during the last 12 months. Here are some personal arts highlights from Sydney theatre predominantly: productions and people that will live on in my memory long past tonight’s Sydney Harbour midnight firework display heralding a new year.

MUSICAL THEATRE

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Tony Sheldon, Katrina Retallick and Matt Hetherington in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

It was a pretty patchy year in musicals. My two out-and-out highlights were The Production Company’s Gypsy in Melbourne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in Sydney.

Gypsy

Caroline O’Connor was phenomenal as Rose, giving us everything we’d hoped for and so much more: a stellar, unforgettable performance that was both monstrous and heartbreaking. For me, it was the musical theatre performance of the year.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Matt Hetherington was impressive as Herbie in Gypsy but really came into his own with a superb performance as the vulgar Freddy Benson in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Co-starring with Tony Sheldon – who made a welcome homecoming from the US as the suave Lawrence Jameson, a part tailor-made for him – Scoundrels was a delightful, perfectly cast, stylish, laugh-out-loud production. Amy Lehpamer shone as Christine Colgate and Katrina Retallick was riotously funny in a scene-stealing performance as Jolene Oakes (after another scene-stealing turn in The Addams Family earlier in the year). Scoundrels was a real feather in the cap for up-and-coming producer George Youakim. The show deserved to sell out but despite reviews your mother might write, it struggled at the box office. Instead Sydney audiences opted for the familiar, even when reviews were much less favourable.

Squabbalogic

Confirming its growing value to the Sydney musical theatre scene, indie musical theatre company Squabbalogic led by Jay James-Moody enlivened things immeasurably with terrific productions of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Carrie with Hilary Cole making an impressive debut as Carrie.

Jesus Christ Superstar

The British arena production starring Tim Minchin, Mel C and Ben Forster really rocked with Tim Minchin in commanding form as Judas – giving a superstar performance, in fact.

ELSEWHERE IN MUSICALS….

The Lion King proved just as stunning visually a second time around but the first act felt flat with the dialogue scenes slowing the action, not helped by some underpowered performances. However, Nick Afoa made a promising debut as Simba.

Premiering in Melbourne, King Kong was an ambitious production and the puppetry used to create Kong himself was breathtaking. In fact, Kong the creature was awesome, the musical’s book less so. Esther Hannaford was lovely as Ann Darrow.

Lucy Maunder was the standout in Grease, owning the role of Rizzo. Her moving rendition of “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” was the emotional and musical highlight of the production.

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon as Leo Szilard. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photograph

Michael Falzon was in superb voice as physicist Leo Szilard in new musical Atomic, giving a beautifully wrought performance. In fact, the entire ensemble was terrific. Written by Australian Danny Ginges and American Gregory Bonsignore (book and lyrics) and Australian Philip Foxman (music and lyrics), the structure of the musical could do with some honing but the show has great potential.

I also enjoyed Jaz Flowers and Bobby Fox in the 21st anniversary production of Hot Shoe Shuffle. And what a treat to be able to see Kristin Chenoweth and Idina Menzel in concert at the Sydney Opera House within 10 days of each other.

THEATRE

It was an impressive year in Sydney theatre both in the mainstream and independent sectors with a large number of excellent productions and performances. Never has the discussion among the Sydney Theatre Critics in the lead-up to the Sydney Theatre Awards (to be presented on January 20 at Paddington RSL) been so protracted, agonised and, at times, heated.

Among my own personal highlights were:

Waiting for Godot, Sydney Theatre Company. Directed by Andrew Upton after an injured Tamas Ascher was unable to fly to Australia, this was a mesmerising production full of tenderness, humanity, pathos and humour to match the bleakness. Richard Roxburgh, Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast and Luke Mullins were all exceptional. Wow to the power of four.

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast,  Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Hugo Weaving, Philip Quast, Richard Roxburgh and Luke Mullins in Waiting for Godot. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The Secret River, Sydney Theatre Company. Eloquently staged by director Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell’s stage adaptation of Kate Grenville’s novel used both English and the Dharug language to tell the story movingly from both sides.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Sydney Theatre Company. Another fabulous STC production starring Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, directed by Simon Phillips on a brilliant set by Gabriela Tylesova that played with optical illusion.

Angels in America, Belvoir. Staging Parts One and Two, this marvellous production directed by Eamon Flack confirmed that Tony Kushner’s play is a truly sensational piece of writing that sweeps you up in its epic vision. The fine cast included Luke Mullins, Amber McMahon, Marcus Graham and Mitchell Butel – all superb. (Mullins also gave a fine performance in Kit Brookman’s Small and Tired Downstairs at Belvoir. What a year he’s had).

The Floating World, Griffin Theatre. A devastatingly powerful production of John Romeril’s classic Australian play directed by Sam Strong. Peter Kowitz’s performance left you utterly gutted. Valerie Bader was also excellent.

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Workhorse Theatre Company. The independent scene was unusually strong in Sydney in 2013 and this was one of the real stunners. Directed by Adam Cook in the intimate space at the TAP Gallery, the tough play kept you on the edge of your seat. Troy Harrison and Zoe Trilsbach gave riveting, grittily truthful performances. If you missed it, the production has a return season at the new Eternity Playhouse in September.

Cyrano de Bergerac, Sport for Jove. Sport for Jove’s outdoor Shakespeare productions are now a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar. Damien Ryan’s production of Edmond Rostand’s sweeping, romantic comedy Cyrano de Bergerac was gloriously uplifting with an inspiring, verbal tornado of a performance by Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano.

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Jerusalem, New Theatre. A wonderful production of Jez Butterworth’s brilliant play directed by Helen Tonkin that has justly snared a large number of nominations at the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Penelope, Siren Theatre Company. Kate Gaul directed a tough, challenging, indie production of Enda Walsh’s play, set in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, which riffs on the ancient myth. Another clever use of the small TAP Gallery, here playing in traverse.

Sisters Grimm. It was great to see the acclaimed, “queer, DIY” Melbourne company in Sydney with two of their trashy, gender-bending, outrageously funny productions: Little Mercy presented by STC and Summertime in the Garden of Eden as part of Griffin Independent. A hoot, both of them. (How drop dead beautiful was Agent Cleave in Summertime in drag and beard?). Can’t wait to see their production of Calpurnia Descending at STC in October.

All My Sons, Eternity Playhouse. The beautiful new Eternity Playhouse, a gorgeous 200-seat venue now home to the Darlinghurst Theatre Company, opened its doors with a fine, traditional production of All My Sons directed by Iain Sinclair with great performances all round, among them Toni Scanlan and Andrew Henry.

OTHER OUTSTANDING PERFORMANCES….

Besides those mentioned above I loved Sharon Millerchip in Bombshells at the Ensemble, Lee Jones in Frankenstein also at the Ensemble, Cate Blanchett in The Maids for STC, Paul Blackwell in Vere for STC, Ewen Leslie in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and in Hamlet at Belvoir (where he took over from Toby Schmitz whose performance I also liked very much), John Bell as Falstaff in Bell Shakespeare’s Henry 4 and Damien Ryan as Iago in Sport for Jove’s Othello.

OPERA AND BALLET

The Ring Cycle, Opera Australia. I was lucky enough to see The Ring Cycle in Melbourne. It was my first Ring and I was utterly thrilled by it. Numerous visual images will stay with me forever as will performances by Terje Stensvold, Stefan Vinke, Susan Bullock, Warwick Fyfe and Jud Arthur among others. As is his forte, director Neil Armfield brought the relationships to the fore and found enormous emotion and humanity. Conductor Pietari Inkinen, who took over at short notice, harnessed the musical forces superbly. A very special experience.

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

David Hansen and Celeste Lazarenko. Photo: Keith Saunders

Giasone, Pinchgut Opera. At the other end of the spectrum, small-scale, indie company Pinchgut delivered a sparkling production of Francesco Cavalli’s baroque opera with countertenor David Hansen dazzling in the title role.

Cinderella, Australian Ballet. Alexei Ratmansky’s beautiful, witty Cinderella was a joy with some meltingly lovely pas de deux for Cinderella and her Prince, divinely performed by Leanne Stojmenov and Daniel Gaudiello. Jerome Kaplan designed the gorgeous costumes and some clever surrealist staging effects.

VISITING PRODUCTIONS AND ARTISTS

How lucky we were to see Angela Lansbury and James Earl Jones in Driving Miss Daisy, the National Theatre’s brilliantly bonkers production of One Man, Two Guvnors, Kneehigh Theatre’s Brief Encounter, the Paris Opera Ballet’s exquisite Giselle, Semele Walk at the Sydney Festival, which gave Handel’s oratorio a wacky twist in a catwalk production with costumes by Vivienne Westwood, and firebrand soprano Simone Kermes singing with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra.

There was much, much more. Barry Humphries‘ Weimar cabaret concert for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, for example. In the end, too much good stuff to mention it all.

And now, bring on 2014….