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Category Archives: Sydney Theatre

Member

memberpresspixI grew up in Sydney. I recall studying World War II in the western suburbs like it was a distant memory. I recall hearing about the Holocaust as if it was a side note to the war at school and at home as if it were an isolated and unrepeatable atrocity. I don’t recall ever contemplating whether such inhumanity could be perpetrated in the Sydney I lived in: it was simply beyond my conception.
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And yet, on so many nights when my parents tucked me safely into bed, men were beaten or murdered on the other side of the city because they were gay. The proximity of the horror is sobering. And it’s proximity that makes Member such a deeply moving piece of theatre.
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The protagonist is Corey, and we encounter him in an emergency ward, by the side of his adult son, who has been severely beaten. Encouraged by a pretty nurse to talk to his son, Corey describes a moment in his childhood that shaped his understanding of gay men, and determined his response to his son’s coming out.
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Ben Noble, who plays Corey in this one man show, delivers a brilliant, raw performance with his gut-wrenching script. He evokes a broad range of characters, many of them recognisable as archetypes and deftly held back from becoming stereotypes.
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Fairly Lucid Productions have failed, in this intstance, to live down to the standard their name describes. Indeed, the clarity with which this performance delivers its punch is amazing. I found it particularly difficult to walk out into the merriment of the bar, where everyone seemed oblivious to the horror that was just brought to life for us. I’ve long thought Sydney an ugly city with a heart of gold, but the Sydney I stumbled back into after seeing Member felt every bit as nasty as her neglected streetscapes have always looked.
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For me, the proximity of this story to my childhood home is deeply troubling. It further upsets my memory of what I perceived as a relatively tolerant and diverse society. But it also reminds us, and I think this is the intention of the title, that we are members of this society, and the responsibility for change rests with us.
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Plays like this are why theatre matters.
 
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Posted by on Saturday, 25 February 2017 in Blood Moon Theatre, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Glass Menagerie

the glass menagerieIt’s truly inspiring when a design just breathes new life into an old script. Michael Hankin’s design for this production has as much to do with its success as the brilliant performers who embody Tennessee Williams’ dark and soulful characters.

Like Shakespeare did so many times, Williams has landed on some truly universal human themes. No matter how far removed from the American south we might be, we recognise the mother whose concern for her children and whose disappointment in her own life leads her to place unreasonable pressure on her son and fail to recognise when her daughter is overwhelmed. We recognise the futility of an existence that provides just enough comfort to persist with, but doesn’t offer enough hope to spur us to action.

Pamela Rabe’s portrayal of Amanda Wingfield, the faded southern belle, is energetic and ugly. She truly manages to balance portraying the caring mother with the desperately incompetent. This balance is in turn critical for Luke Mullins’ deeply moving portrayal of the hapless Tom.

Even at the point when Tom drags his mother to the floor and confronts her with her ugliness, it’s hard to criticise him. He bears her histrionics with patience until he no longer can, and we can only watch as their fate unfolds. All of these characters are worthy of both compassion and criticism. Victims of circumstance, their pursuit of their dreams is as valiant as it is futile.

This futility is beautifully presented by a truly exceptional cast, and demonstrated by the use of a set that isolates the action into an apartment that sits on the stage like a rigid box, then lets us inside with the use of cameras and screens, presenting images unmistakably reminiscent of Hollywood’s golden age. The melodrama, ironically undermined by drawing the audience’s attention to film techniques, holds a grain of truth that justifies the emotive excesses of the dialogue.

Perhaps it is simply the case that Laura’s life, spent obsessing over her long-gone father’s records and her collection of glass animals, is the most complete of them all, the interruptions of her family merely pointless intrusions on the only thing that brings her peace.

 

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The Pride

the prideContrasting the closeted lives of gay men in the twentieth century with the more open lives of gay men in the twenty-first has become something of a sport. There’s a lot to celebrate, more to change, and of course, plenty we can learn. But I think we need to be careful about the sensitivities involved. The Pride is not insensitive, but it does come a little too close to preaching for my liking. A symptom, perhaps, of biting off more than can be chewed in a single play.
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Two stories, one about a pair of gay men who have an affair in the 1950s, and the other about a gay couple who break up because of infidelity in the present day, are interwoven to present the contrast. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play is at once a celebration of the liberation of sexual identities, and a polemic against the cultural relics of the closeted past.
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Though possibly a little on the static side (events are often described rather than enacted), the dialogue is thoughtful and engaging. There is enough left to subtext to give the play’s five main characters some real depth, and to let Matt Minto, Simon London and Alexi Kaye Campbell show us their considerable talents. Unfortunately, Kyle Kazmarzik isn’t given the same opportunity, as his three characters are little more than caricatures.
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Minto in particular shows marvellous sensitivity in transitioning between his discreet 1950s character Oliver, and his rather more raging queen, also called Oliver, in the present day. The use of the same name is, I think, a clever device to remind us that the way we live our lives is largely determined by our cultural millieux. Minto certainly carries this well.
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Against Simon London as Philip, his closest friend and possibly even his conscience in the present day, he is brilliantly vulnerable and empowered. The 1950s Oliver also finds Geraldine Hakewill’s Sylvia, as the wife of his lover, a surprising ally in his weakness. Her weakness in this context as a straight woman is likewise measured and exuding wisdom. It is a well-balanced nuance to give her the final voice in the play.
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Despite some brilliantly nuanced characters, in building a picture of the damage caused by centuries of community denial of gay identities, I fear The Pride has become overly negative. It lacks, to some degree, sensitivity to the positive lives that the queer community have eeked out for themselves since they were sent into the closets. It does explore with both sensitivity and cynicism the lingering cultural relics of the closeted centuries, such as cruising and cottaging, but it walks a fine line between preaching and remonstrating, which I think labours the point somewhat.
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Overall, The Pride is an engaging story, and it has enjoyed a very sensitive and thoughtful production at the hands of Shane Bosher.
 
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Posted by on Sunday, 6 March 2016 in Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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Ladies Day

Matthew Backer and Lucia Mastrantone in Ladies DaySome Australians reject rural and remote Australia as irrelevant to modern life, while others seem to hold onto a nostalgic view of the country as a rough and rugged pastoral wonderland no matter how urbane the populace becomes. The truth, as usual, is somewhere between the opposing perceptions.

It’s surprising, in this context, that a 1990s film focused on a group of drag queens bridged the gap between outback Australia and urban Australia, busting outback mythology while also humanising and endearing the queer community to the rest of the country.

By contrasting the glitz of drag with the rugged beauty of the continent’s interior, Priscilla positioned the urbane and somewhat vacuous queens of Sydbourne and Melney as quintessentially Australian. As Australian, if you like, as pubs, red sandy deserts and big red rocks.

Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day builds on Priscilla‘s success in bringing these diverse experiences of Australia together. The plot centres on the experience of Mike, who is invited to shake things up on Ladies Day at the Broome Races by gracing the catwalk in drag. And grace it he does. Wade Briggs, as Mike, is spectacular in pink, with precarious gold stilettos and a fascinator that lives up to its name. The motive behind this unusual invitation is his friend’s mission to build Broome’s economy through queer tourism by uniting businesses in a fledgling organisation called Pink Broome. Liam, complete with a broom he painted pink, is really the driving force behind the entire plot, and Matthew Backer, who plays him, is the core energy on stage. He makes it easy to suspend disbelief, and along with the rest of the cast he delivers Valentine’s impeccable dialogue with the sophistication of a seasoned performer.

It’s not only Valentine’s dialogue that positions this play well. The interspersing of acapella vocals and direct address monologues, all of which are integral to the developing narrative, weave a complex picture of Australia’s political and cultural millieux at this point in history. Valentine doesn’t shy away from presenting the horror of sexual abuse, and I found myself so deeply engaged in the story at one point that I almost found myself shouting from the auditorium. I did have my wits sufficiently about me to remember that I was in a theatre, and that these were actors and that I should stay in my seat and keep my mouth shut (though I’m not entirely sure these customs are universally appropriate in the theatre: Shakespeare would probably have felt a sense of failure if he saw how modern audiences respond (or fail to respond) to his work).

I am impressed, more than anything else, with Valentine’s positioning of her characters’ experiences. No experience has a higher value than any other. Straight characters can be as damaged by assault as queer. Melney and Sydbourne are as risky and as endearing as Broome. But what matters is how we grow, either from our experiences, or in spite of them.

While I have some reservations about plot decisions late in the play that risk confusing the core narrative, this is truly one of the most vital and engaging works I have seen on stage this century.

 

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Short+Sweet Sydney 2013 (Week 4)

The fourth week of Short+Sweet’s Sydney festival opened tonight, and it was an opening I could hardly wait for. My play, The Commuter, is in this week’s line up, so it was always going to be an exciting night.

It surprises me how deep the emotion runs of seeing my vision for a play realised on stage. The cast Luke Berman pulled together for The Commuter gave me one of the greatest buzzes I’ve experienced in a long time, and I think Adam O’Brien captures beautifully the nervous white guilt phenomenon I was exploring in this play. It doesn’t wear off, that cathartic feeling of seeing something you imagined into existence come to life on stage, and I feel truly indebted to these performers for the work they’ve put into the play.

I knew Geoff Sirmai from his performances in Canberra of Joanna Weinberg’s Every Single Saturday, and was very pleased to see him deliver the American Tourist in The Commuter with such great energy. Charlotte Connor admirably balances the manic and focused nature of the mother, and Nik Nikitenko is amazing as the eight-year-old boy whose instincts spark the commuter’s catharsis.

I have something of a bias perhaps, but I think The Commuter is a great way to end this week’s Short+Sweet offering. It is preceded by some excellent plays, particularly Jilted, which starts the second act. Kerrie Spicer’s script is hilarious and it is delivered with great timing by its cast. Sarah Knowles in particular should be commended for the difficult task of delivering her character’s pathos honestly enough for Sam Smith’s humour to shine.

I was also particularly taken with Hide, a very dark comedy that blurs notions of shelter and protection, in which Laura Holmes and Chris Miller keep the audience on edge for just the right amount of time (which in a ten-minute play festival is probably about nine minutes). Josh Hartwell’s script for A Different Client is both raw and heart-warming, which is a rare and challenging combination, and Greg Wilken and Roberto Zenca have drawn Hartwell’s characters out wonderfully.

But nothing outshines the joy of seeing my script come to life again, and its position at the end of the evening just adds to the pleasure of seeing the thing realised.

This week’s offering from Short+Sweet runs til Sunday, and there are four more weeks of short plays before the Gala Finals in March. Bookings and more info from Short+Sweet.

 
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Posted by on Wednesday, 30 January 2013 in Festivals, Pure Theatre, short plays, Short+Sweet, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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Short+Sweet Sydney 2013 (Week 1)

So my first venture into a theatre in 2013 ended better than it began. Have you ever tried to find King Street Theatre in Newtown? Talk about hidden away; it’s not even on King Street! But I made it, on time (which is more than can be said for some), and the hunt for the theatre turned out to be a real treasure hunt.

So this first week of Short+Sweet Sydney for 2013 started with a lot of energy. Pete Malicki’s Checkout is a little preachy perhaps, but nonetheless engaging and its four performers delivered Malicki’s strong characters with integrity, making for a strong start to the evening. I was impressed by Kerry Bowden’s monologue Handyman, which has forever given me a new (and improved) association for the Bunnings jingle. Emily Kivilcin hit just the right note between ditzy and cunning, which I’m not sure is a note I’ve ever heard before.

Miranda Drake delivered an impressive monologue also, and though its focus was a distinctly female experience, I was impressed with the manner in which it engaged male audients in the female perspective of the experience.

Though there was a lot to like, the two greatest moments came immediately before and after interval. The last play before interval was My Name is Cine-Ma, which was devised by Stray Factory and has been awarded in the Mumbai, Chennai and Kuala Lumpur Festivals. Taking the Bollywood tradition as its inspiration, this energetic piece focused on the story of a girl who was a little too obsessed with film. Somewhat reminiscent of the Chooky Dancers in flavour if not style, the exotic and prosaic sit hilariously side by side, which always tickles my fancy.

The Fox and the Hunter, though, is a truly inspired piece of theatre. Taking the mickey out of English sacred cows always gets me laughing (see what I did there?), but I think Simon Godfrey’s script is a work of pure genius, taking the moment when a clever fox meets the hunter who has pursued him for an eternity, and exploring just what happens when gentlemen and foxes engage in a truly meaningful dialogue. It rides splendidly on the talents of James Hartley as the pompous hunter and Tom Green, whose fox genuinely inspired the willing suspension of disbelief.

If you haven’t been to see Short+Sweet Sydney 2013 in week one, it’s too late and you’ve missed out, but don’t despair; there are several more weeks, including the presumably perfect week 4, when my play The Commuter gets another airing.

 
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Posted by on Sunday, 13 January 2013 in Festivals, King Street Theatre, Short+Sweet, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Lunch Hour

A spritely script and punchy performances made for an engaging opening night for Chris Aronsten’s The Lunch Hour.

This funny play centres on the strained relationship between a group of co-workers in a ticketing agency’s call centre and their boss Martin, a hapless victim of middle management. In the first act we see the staff doing everything they can to frustrate Martin by avoiding actually answering calls while procrastinating about their covert collective effort at writing a play lampooning their longsuffering boss for…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 
 

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The Bugalugs Bum Thief

Playing at The Street Theatre this week is Monkey Baa’s latest incarnation of one of Australia’s best-named plays, The Bugalugs Bum Thief. No, it’s not quite Shakespeare, but it’s closer than one might assume.

Its central character, Skeeter Anderson, just one young member of Bugalugs’ coastal community, wakes up one morning to find his bum is missing, which proves inconvenient for him. He soon finds that just about everyone in town has had their bum stolen, including his friend Mick Misery, for whom it is not so inconvenient, as it means his mum can’t smack him. The advantages of life without a bum, however, do not prove to outweigh the disadvantages, and Skeeter sets out to identify the bum thief and locate everyone’s bums.

The entire town is brought to life through the generous energy of just three performers who present mums, dads, teachers, police and sailors as well as their main role as a child. It may not be universally accepted as a compliment, but Gideon Cordover, Carl Batchelor and Mark Dessaix make excellent children, which is particularly helpful when…

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 

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The Sweetest Thing

Growing organically from its warm minimal set in the cozy downstairs theatre at Belvoir, The Sweetest Thing is a sad and funny story about the intersection between love and family. Playwright Verity Laughton weaves a complex tale that focuses on the emotional journey of its characters very strongly thanks to being relieved of the burden of chronology. Despite a dynamic plot arc and potentially confusing time changes, the story of Sarah, played by the wonderful Diana Glenn shines through with excellent clarity.

The rest of this post is published on Australian Stage.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 12 November 2010 in Arts Radar, Australian Stage, B Sharp, Belvoir

 

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Ruben Guthrie

I want to charge Brendan Cowell with writing a masterpiece in Ruben Guthrie, but I fear that would undermine the intense humanity of this work. This is Australian playwriting at its best, exploring Australian society with no sense of cultural cringe, and no sense of being old fashioned or quaint.
The promotional material for Ruben Guthrie repeatedly asks whether it is unAustralian to refuse a drink, but whether it is Australian or not is not really a concern for the central character, who you might have guessed is called Ruben Guthrie. His main concern is staying sober, not only within a nation that loves a drink, but within an industry where alcohol consumption is a selection criterion, and within a family with a strong love of the bottle. Brendan Cowell has dealt with his story’s heady themes with a deft hand, plenty of humour, and stoicly (and wisely) refuses to answer the marketers’ question.
What I found most remarkable about this play was the way in which Cowell has managed to show the fundamental failings of social programs that seek to address addictions or compulsions (such as AA’s famous twelve steps), while also showing their effectiveness.
I recall reading some time ago Neil Armfield saying something about theatre being “necessary”. The terminology has stuck with me, because many people see the arts as an optional extra, something to make life enjoyable, rather than a crucial building block of a healthy society. Ruben Guthrie eloquently articulates the reason why the arts, and especially the narrative arts, are necessary to a society, and in the process, it also highlights the inadequacies of the social work profession.
But that doesn’t make it any less funny. In fact, it is yet another example of that spectacular Australian creation: the play that is, at once, both drama and comedy.
 
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Posted by on Sunday, 24 May 2009 in Belvoir, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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The Seed


Iain Sinclair says in his director’s note for The Seedthat it is “one of those special pieces that help us see with fresh eyes”. I will assume he is right, but for someone who has had little contact with Vietnam veterans or the IRA, fresh eyes are a given. And in these wars, which are both in a way secreted failures, some of us still need more information.

The thing is that while a little more exposition would have helped, it would also meddle with a well-balanced plot. You can tell a story about one of the World Wars of the twentieth century and assume reasonable knowledge, but these conflicts are a mystery to most Australians, even those who continue to feel their impact on their lives. Of course, that’s why this story is so necessary.
The Seed, ultimately, is not so much about these conflicts as it is about how politics impacts individual lives and families. I find this fascinating, because we in Australia, and, ironically, especially those of us who live in Canberra, are largely unaffected by the goings on in Parliament House, and there are many Australians who never even consider that in some countries a change of government can turn people’s lives upside-down.
While I found it somewhat difficult to relate to the solid and resonant performances of this impeccable cast of three, I felt that this was more to do with my own ignorance of Vietnam and the Irish struggle. I hope in time that we will experience many more stories of the wars that have been fought and lost.
 
 

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Floating

The Welsh are a strange people; not strange in an unpleasant sort of a way, just odd. Different. Unusual. And so it makes a kind of cosmic sense that Wales should be the first country to have one of their islands float off on a tour of the North Atlantic.

Tonight’s performance of Floating at the Sydney Opera House has been one of the most profound experiences I have ever undergone. It was theatre in a most pure and hallowed sense; unique, fleeting, and momentary.

Hugh Hughes, the protagonist, foretells this, referring repeatedly to connection, and highlighting our disconnection from the world by running around the auditorium, touching the three walls and pointing out how they disconnect us from the outside world. The interaction with the audience continues as he and Sioned encourage the audience to say hello to someone they haven’t met before and explain the structure of the show to come, handing around some objects relevant to the story. This introduction was said to usually last 20 minutes, but in our case, took 45. During this time, three groups of latecomers entered, the first of which was welcomed gently. When the second group entered, we were encouraged to applaud, but by the time the third couple entered, 25 minutes late, the audience needed no encouragement to give them a standing ovation, and Hugh generousy praised their courage at entering so late.

The humour was light and easy, not at all forced, and by the time Hugh and Sioned were able to begin their story, we were asked if we needed to go to the toilet. As an audience, we had formed a bond. Sioned passed around an inflatable globe, to illustrate how far from Sydney Anglesey was, and upon realising that it was a beach ball, the gentleman in the front row threw it into the auditorium and we tossed it around for some time. There came one point in the story when a woman in the row behind me was laughing uncontrollably, and an infection of laughter took over the entire audience for several minutes. Hugh engaged her in conversation and it became apparent that it was her birthday, so under Hugh and Sioned’s encouragement, we all sang happy birthday to Sue. There also came a time when someone needed to go to the toilet, and Sioned said she needed to go too, so we arranged an impromptu interval and Hugh stayed and chatted to those of us in the front row and a gentleman who had come from somewhere deeper in the auditorium.

The connections made were so natural and simple and honest that you didn’t realise what was happening until Hugh reminded us of the theme of connection that was at the core of this ‘show’. The story, while well-structured and relevant, was almost incidental to the entire nature of the evening, and when the show was over, and the audience offered an unequivocal standing ovation to the performers, who remained on stage, there was a sense in the audience that we wanted to stay. I know I sat back down after the ovation, and felt that I could remain here, as part of this audience, forever.

I don’t know whether it is the same at every performance, but since the Opera House’s documentation for the show says it lasts 75 minutes, and since our performance with its interruptions from late arrivals and an impromptu toilet break lasted no less than 120 minutes, I doubt it. Each performance is completely unique, and I could happily return and see another if the Opera House wasn’t so far from home. The hubbub from the receding crowd was much more enlivened than any theatre audience I’ve ever been part of, and the ease with which members of the audience, who had been strangers at first, chatted and engaged was remarkable.

Floating is theatre at its best. It engages, connects and responds in just the way that film doesn’t. And in doing this, it achieves something remarkable: it highlights the disconnectedness of our societies and worlds without judgement or reproach, but by simply presenting an alternative way to be.

I could not bring my dear wife to see Floating, and ringing her afterwards, I couldn’t explain what was so wonderful about it. I don’t think I’ve done it justice here, but this is a fleeting moment that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Unless, of course, I suffer amnesia.

 
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Posted by on Friday, 6 March 2009 in Sydney Opera House, Sydney Theatre, Theatre

 

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