The One

10 Aug

The One by Vanessa Bates is a bit of crazy fun with a beating heart.

Focussing on a Chinese Malaysian Australian family, the title of the play throws out a couple of questions. Has Mel found in Cal her romantic “one”? Or, of the two adult siblings Mel and Eric, which is their mother’s favourite “one”?

Director Darren Yap elicits wonderful comic performances from his cast. Shan-Ree Tan’s Eric, the meek librarian with a hidden side, is terrific, and powerfully affective when required. Angie Diaz’s Mel evokes the precocious child who (with her brother) once was a ballroom dancing star – albeit at the Asian-Australian Regional competition. Damien Strouthos’ Cal is gloriously hapless. Gabrielle Chan’s matriarch is a playful presentation of a woman intent on enjoying herself. Aileen Huynh’s waitress from hell is comic gold.

But, beyond all this, are issues of identity. The play asks where do the siblings belong? She remembers her childhood in Malaysia, but because of her appearance passes as non-Asian. (She’s a PPOC; a partial person of colour.) He remembers very little of Malaysia, but because of his appearance cops racist abuse.   

Belonging is an odd concept. A constant tension between belonging and not belonging is part of the human condition; an inevitable aspect of being individuals who live in communities. In one scene, Mel recalls an incident of racism from her childhood, a group of men at a restaurant hurling abuse. It’s the moment she knew she didn’t belong. But who would want to belong to a group that treats people that way? Forget the belonging, it’s the mistreatment. Belonging is a fantasy; a phantom hope born of pain. (It’s as though, stranded alone on a raft, surrounded by an ice cold sea, we tell ourselves that if we survive this horror, we’ll find a place where we’ll live forever. We won’t.) However, despite its fantastical elements, perhaps the concept of belonging functions like a legal fiction: imaginative nonsense, but useful in identifying something very real, injustice.

For all its fun, the play is a moving reminder that we must do better.

Paul Gilchrist

The One by Vanessa Bates

Ensemble Theatre until Aug 27

www.ensemble.com.au

Image by Prudence Upton

Albion

7 Aug

Mike Bartlett’s Albion is a piece of theatre on a grand scale: nearly three hours of stage time and a plethora of well-drawn characters.

This level of ambition is thrilling.

No prize for guessing where a play called Albion is set. It’s a foreign play; a state-of-the-nation play where the nation portrayed is not ours. This is Britain post-Brexit: a wealthy woman buys a rural property with the intention of redeveloping it’s once famous garden. (In the first draft, were they raising a bulldog?) The villagers (yes, that’s what they’re called) are disappointed that the new owner won’t fulfil her customary role; she won’t host their festivals in her garden. The woman’s family are divided about the London they’ve left behind: has it become a temple of mammon, or is it a life-giving alternative to a country grave?

And it’s all a very conscious homage to Chekhov. Yes, it’s a garden, not a cherry orchard – but there is a Firs, the old servant lost amongst the flux ( This Firs is called Matthew, and is played with moving poignancy by Mark Langham.) And, like The Seagull, those on the rural estate are visited by a famous writer who causes mayhem among those with artistic ambitions but less success.

State-of-the-nation plays are an odd genre; though grounded in realism, they reach to the symbolic. And what odd things symbols are: invested with meaning by who, for who, for how long? Once, I asked a young person what a lion might symbolise – and was told paddle pops.

So, what about the performances? Excellent. Director Lucy Clements gives us inspiring depth and breadth. Joanna Briant as Audrey, the matriarch, is a masterclass in glib superiority; a thought-provoking posing of the tragic question at the core of materialist societies: must success murder empathy? The visiting writer ….. and there are a lot of writers in these sort of plays: three in this one, out of a cast of eleven; a rather inflated sample, considering writers usually fill the same percentile of the population as serial killers ….. the visiting writer is played by Deborah Jones with a gorgeously warm charisma, providing her with ample space to growl when the going gets tough. Rhiaan Marquez as Zara, Audrey’s daughter, beautifully balances youthful exuberance with youthful naivete.  Jane Angharad’s Anna grieves for her lover, Audrey’s son, with powerful truthfulness. (The dead son, too, becomes a sort of symbol: a lost England to dispute over, under a very English heaven.) James Smithers as Gabriel offers a superb character arc, like a piece of lost space junk that ultimately burns with a searing white heat when it drifts into the orbit of a more imposing body. Charles Mayer as Paul, Audrey’s husband, gives a performance of gentle intelligence. Paul maintains his safe orbit, as all things do, by allowing change to be dictated by that more imposing body.

Due to popular demand, this season has been extended. (Gardens have a way of growing.)

Paul Gilchrist

Albion by Mike Bartlett

Seymour Centre until Aug 20 https://www.seymourcentre.com/

Image by Clare Hawley

Ugly Love

19 Jul

Writer director Lucy Matthews’ musical Ugly Love consists of a fine collection of songs, performed by a very tight band and some wonderful vocalists.

And it’s original. And it’s about sex.

But, for all its newness and sexiness, Ugly Love is deliberately grounded in middle-class ordinary. Jess is a teacher. Sam is a lawyer. They are married. They live in Newtown. They are not happy.

They decide to try an open relationship: an entirely rational option considering their exclusive relationship is based on bickering about who should put out the garbage. Intimacy has become him flossing in front of her – so looking elsewhere has an obvious appeal…..

… as long as it remains only physical – which raises the first of the play’s tantalising questions about sex.

What is the difference between physical involvement and emotional involvement? For many of us, the default assumption is that the two are different, and that it is possible to separate them – but then we’re not surprised, at all, if something that begins as only physical morphs into the emotional. This is what happens for Jess; she becomes emotionally involved with another woman. Why do we assume the categories physical and emotional are meaningful when the boundary between them is so very permeable? And what emotions do we expect to be excluded from encounters supposedly exclusively physical? Perhaps sex that is only physical is simply bad sex. And, if so, the persistence of the category suggests there’s a hell of a lot of bad sex out there.

(And before I’m drawn back inevitably to sex, I best talk about the cast and creatives. Performances are rich and satisfying. LJ Wilson and Lincoln Elliott present a poignant portrait of a conventional couple, simultaneously attracted and repelled by the world they’ve accepted. Cypriana Singh as Lola offers an invigorating vivacity, tempered by a sorrowful awareness that verve is not always enough. Likewise, Madelaine Osborn’s portrait of the wisecracking Maddi is movingly shaded with hints of darkness. The design by Kate Beere appears to effortlessly lift a black box theatre into an arena in which suburbia battles fantasia – what is versus what could be – and the lighting by James Wallis, in its contrast between the simple and the shimmering, magnificently evokes small lives imagining more.)

Now, that other question about sex. Is it possible, in the full knowledge of all concerned, to have sexual or romantic relationships with several people at the same time? (The corollary, of course, is why would you want to?) Though characters in the play attempt to have polyamorous relationships, no one is represented as doing this entirely happily. But that creative choice, far from dismissing the possibility of polyamory, represents the experience truthfully (warts and all: ugly love).

Which brings me back to ordinariness. At the heart of Matthews’ thought-provoking musical is a thrilling rejection of the ordinary, the predictable, the socially expected, the socially accepted. In making her characters inhabit a world so very ordinary, Matthews invites us to dream a world beyond.

Paul Gilchrist

Ugly Love by Lucy Matthews

Flight Path Theatre until July 23

https://www.flightpaththeatre.org/

Image by Katje Ford

Golden Blood

4 Jul

Plays like this make you want to shout that Australian theatre is finally growing up – and if such partisan, attention-seeking hyperbole belongs anywhere, surely it belongs in the writings of a drama critic.

Said more plainly, Golden Blood by Merlynn Tong, set in Singapore and presenting only Singaporean characters, is glorious Australian theatre.

She is orphaned at fourteen. Her estranged brother, seven years older and a petty criminal, becomes her guardian.

The developing relationship between the siblings is beautiful to watch; bewilderment and uncertainty vie with affection and a need to belong, creating scenes both comic and moving.

Director Tessa Leong elicits terrific performances from a super cast. Merlynn Tong takes innocence and intelligence and makes a lovable dreamer. Charles Wu takes amiability and bravado and makes a charming schemer. (And schemes and dreams might be as immiscible as oil and water – but out of such those roadside rainbows…..)

Tong has chosen her material well; obviously drama does conflict (do the two siblings want the same thing?) and obviously drama does duplicity (has the brother really reformed?) but, at its most humane, drama reminds us that conflict and duplicity exist, not only in relationships, but within individuals. Essentialists everywhere assert there is a real self, but Tong’s characterisation of the gangster brother is an empathy-evoking reminder that cynicism is far easier to criticise than to do. We tell stories to be believed, and one person, at least, is always listening: I say I’m doing this for your good, and I find myself very convincing.  

Such portraits of the human experience engender forgiveness – and we could all do with a little more of that.

Paul Gilchrist

Golden Blood by Merlynn Tong

SBW Stables Theatre until 30 July griffintheatre.com.au

Image by Brett Boardman

M Rock

28 Jun

Writer Lachlan Philpott’s tale is warm-hearted and fun; a paean to understanding between the generations. Tracey heads overseas on her post-HSC rite of passage, and promptly loses herself in the club scene of Berlin. Mabel, her grandmother, goes to find her.

In the manner of tales of a physical quest, the quest also becomes internal: the finding of self. (As a digression, it’s a common assumption that there’s someone to find, as against something to understand or something to do. It’s an assumption designed, oddly enough, for safety: an assertion of identity being far less confronting than an acknowledgement of liberty. See my latter comments regarding the play’s conclusion, and it’s clear this work ultimately backs radical freedom.)

Valerie Bader as Mabel offers a beautiful portrait of that most potent of mixtures, the gentleness and strength of age. Milena Barraclough Nesic as Tracey captures exquisitely the youthful tension between wonder and thoughtlessness.

The ensemble are terrific; Bryn Chapman Parish, Masego Pitso and Darius Williams play a globe of characters with subtlety, exuberance and generous humour.

Director Fraser Corfield’s staging is delightful, building a theatrical world that makes a joyous journey through three continents.

The conclusion to the tale happens fast and is awfully large; it’s as though a gentle river that has graciously slid through picturesque scenes suddenly comes to the cataract edge. Not that the end of the story is a fall – rather, the opposite – and, like all waterfalls that plunge 100 metres upwards, unbelievable. However, this is the land of symbol, where meaning trumps likelihood, and tales such as this are not told to dully record the odds, but to envision a type of victory.

Paul Gilchrist

M Rock by Lachlan Philpott

Produced by ATYP atyp.com.au

The Rebel Theatre until 17 July

Image by Tracey Schramm

The Sweet Science of Bruising

23 Jun

I’m a huge fan of historical work. It transports you to the exotic, to another time and place. This facilitates big, bold story telling.

But the very fact you’re in a time and place other than your own inevitably forces a question: “What relevance does this have to my world?” (It’s all a neat way of eliciting a personal response from an audience without being too personal.)

First produced in 2018, Joy Wilkinson’s The Sweet Science of Bruising tells the story of female boxers in nineteenth century London. Because it’s about fighting, it’s the perfect parable for the ongoing struggle for equality. And it raises two salient questions: 1. Do women have to become like men to win? (The play asks this explicitly) and 2. Will the fight require women to fight each other? (The play obviously does ask this, but chooses not to make it the dramatic nub, settling rather for a broader promotion of sisterhood. In regard to this issue, I wish it had taken the gloves off, instead of just loosening the laces a little. But the most pointless theatre criticism of all is of the if-I-had-written-this-play variety. And, anyway, see my final comments.)

The story presents four equal protagonists, each a woman who takes to boxing for her own reasons. This makes for a longer show than average – two and a half hours of stage time – but a very engaging two and a half hours it is.

Period plays lay traps for actors; it’s easy to be blinded by our progressive prejudice and assume the past was not peopled with….well, people, but types. For the main, this production avoids this trap. The four leads (Sonya Kerr, Kian Pitman, Kitty Simpson and Esther Williams) are wonderful, creating rich, utterly captivating portraits of transgressive women. Cormac Costello as Professor Charlie Sharp, the arranger and promoter of the fights, gives a performance that crackles with gleeful possibility. The scenes between boxer Polly (Williams) and he are heart-warming magic.    

Period plays (especially the big and bold) also posit challenges for directors: How should I costume? What is my set? How real to make the physicality? Carly Fischer, with the help of a great design team, turns these challenges into fun opportunities.

Historical fiction poses one more question: how much is history and how much is fiction? (And, yes, there was female boxing in the nineteenth century.) Pedants love finding anachronisms, getting great delight out of pointing out that gramophones (say) weren’t invented until XXXX, or characters in XXXX were unlikely to express values not common until XXXX. In contrast, grownups appreciate the nature of fiction; you don’t find the truth in a tale by stepping on it, but by letting it wag. It’s in the joy it expresses, in its gift of hope; not in what it asserts about the past, but what it suggests for the future – and this play is a gift.

Paul Gilchrist

The Sweet Science of Bruising by Joy Wilkinson

Flight Path Theatre until July 2

https://www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/sweet-science-of-bruising

Image by Becky Matthews 

Daddy Developed a Pill

16 Jun

I have to admit, this one defeated me.

If theatre is a delivery system for meaning (albeit often a meaning built from irreconcilable tensions, and so a meaning only expressible in the dramatic form) then I have to admit I’m not sure what this one means.

(And, no, I didn’t read the program post-show; that’s the equivalent of reading Wikipedia’s article on orgasm after being left unsatisfied in the bedroom.)

Daddy has developed a pill – but Cynthia, his daughter, has developed another one. I don’t know whether these pills and their effects were literal or metaphorical. The difference between the two pills was ……. but then it was gone, and I’m not sure it was repeated. The play then became Cynthia hosting a party with myriad mad-capped guests, some of whom had clearly ingested very literal drugs.

As a writer about theatre you have to avoid the temptation of behaving like a nineteenth century amateur anthropologist, the type of supercilious old gent who dismisses other cultures as primitive because their values don’t align with his.

But the least interesting aspect of any production is whether it interests me.

This production by director LJ Wilson values energy, exuberance, audacity and speed.

Performances are dynamic, larger than life and consistently crazy. Sarah Greenwood as Cynthia anchors the play with an intriguing combination of swaggering dominance and childlike doubt. Clay Crighton and Jack Francis West play everybody else, with an inspiring, frenetic vitality.

Cassie Hamilton’s script is bouncy and cheeky, like a rivulet bubbling inexorably through the jungle (for a thick 95 minutes), cascading towards some enormous cataract, some frightening drop. I’m just not sure what that drop was – but it was deliciously dizzying.

Paul Gilchrist

Daddy Developed a Pill by Cassie Hamilton

KXT until June 18th   www.kingsxtheatre.com/daddy

Ulster American

10 Jun

Some productions are so good that any written response bubbles into the evanescence of superlatives. This is one such production. Director Shane Anthony, Riverside and Outhouse Theatre are all deserve dousing in sparkling froth.

An actor, director and writer meet the night before rehearsals begin. They discuss art and its importance. David Ireland’s script is intelligent, bold, and brilliant fun. There are more one liners than dog turds in an leash-free zone, and the characters are so beautifully drawn that sketch cartoon blooms into full blown animation.

Jeremy Water’s Jay is an Oscar winning actor, self-important and ignorant. Brian Meegan’s Leigh is a director in the time honoured tradition: excessively polite, in the manner of an attendant in a lunatic asylum; the type you ultimately realise is no attendant at all, but rather one more deluded inmate. Harriet Gordon-Anderson as Ruth the writer has that steely (self)determination that makes writers the most unwanted people in theatre. All three performances are absolutely superb.

This is a play about Thought and Honesty in theatre, and so, of course, Truth. And when Jay finally pulls out his Truth for all to see (no, it’s not THAT, but it may well as be) the triviality of that truth becomes apparent.

What do we think is important in art? Stanislavsky’s famous warning was right.

But be also warned: this is a comedy of gasps. If opera is the artform in which things too silly to say are sung, this is the artform in which things too taboo to say out loud are …. well, said out loud. Violence, sexual assault, those sort of misterdemeanours (yes, I made that word up… I think). It’s difficult to imagine a living culture without an artform that serves this purpose. If we are to set boundaries, if we’re to think boundaries are necessary at all, we must be aware of what lies on their far side. If we don’t, our boundaries are not shared decisions, but rather merely the victory of fear, or worse, the stratagems of power.

So this very funny play is important.

We need comedies this dark to let the light in.

Veronica Kaye

Ulster American by David Ireland

at Riverside until 11 June riversideparramatta.com.au

then Seymour Centre until 18 June seymourcentre.com

Image by Richard Farland

Before the Meeting

28 May

All addicts are liars. Or so says one of the characters in Adam Bock’s Before the Meeting.

A play about “lying” needs as its basis truthfulness – and finds it in this beautiful production by director Kim Hardwick.

We’re in the basement of a church, waiting for an A.A meeting. Is this truth? It’s certainly what truth feels like. The truth is the cleaning of cups, the filling up of the coffee urn, the putting out of chairs. Truth is how we treat each other.

We gently meet the characters as they prepare for meetings. We learn about the challenges each faces, a little of their backstory – and there’s a sense of foreboding, that all might come undone. And, by now, we deeply care about these people.

The performances are terrific. Jane Phegan as Gail is superb, and her monologue, a sharing of the gift she has found in AA, is a magnificent mix of positivity and hesitancy. Tim Walker as Tim offers a poignant portrait of an uncertain young man whose potential is so painfully obvious that you yearn for its fulfilment. Tim McGarry as Ronny delivers a delightful mix of the curmudgeonly and the good humoured. Alex Malone’s Nicole is a wonderful portrayal of youthful hope battling present realities. Her response to the play’s one violent moment is performance gold. Ariadne Sgouros’ cameo powerfully encapsulates the rage we feel at our own powerlessness in the face of the failings of others.

The play doesn’t try to give many reasons why people become addicts. It just shows us what it is to be one. As Gail says (and I’m paraphrasing) people who drink get it wrong. I drink because I have problems? No. I have problems because I drink.

There’s a beautiful sense of an empowerment in feeling it’s best not to focus too much on what has happened to us. There’s something nice about hearing the stories of people who were arseholes. The stories of victims make us long for change, but the stories of arseholes –  because they’re being shared honestly – make us realise change is possible.

Gail says several times she doesn’t know why AA works for her. But it does. So she keeps coming. It’s a blessed victory of pragmatism over any theory.

These people are here for each other, and ultimately, the play is a deeply moving paean to what community can do.

Paul Gilchrist

Before the Meeting by Adam Bock

Seymour Centre until 11 June

www.seymourcentre.com

Image by Danielle Lyonne

Hercule Poirot’s First Case

26 May

When considering who is the culprit responsible for the crime that is detective fiction, Agatha Christie is a prime suspect.

Not that she originated the fraud; Wilkie Collins and Conan Doyle were guilty long before her.

But she’s probably the most notorious perpetrator of detective fiction.

However, I’m more of the blame-society-rather-than-the-felon school of analysis. Why are these tales (in which the most important event, a murder, is relegated to backstory) so enormously popular?

This humble investigator proposes that the rising rate of detective fiction in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century was the direct consequence of three social developments:

1. Increased violence in rapidly growing urban populations;

2. Increased reportage of this violence by an expanding popular press;

3. And, most crucially, the desire to counter the above disturbing developments with the best tool at hand: logical and scientific reasoning (which had, ironically, ignited the Industrial Revolution and its attendant population explosion in the first place.)   

Detective fiction says the world is crazily chaotic and frighteningly violent – but here’s an extraordinarily rational individual who will restore order.

In comedy, order is often restored by a marriage (or something dreadfully like it). In crime, order is restored by an arrest. So, as it’s been quipped previously, it’s either “Dear Reader, I married him” or “The butler did it.” (Though, in this play, I should point out, he doesn’t.)

I expected this production to be a comedy, which is simply indicative of my inability to draw a logical conclusion from the available (marketing) evidence.

Hercule Poirot’s First Case is detective fiction, though the script’s fast pace, brought to the fore by some deft work by director Tom Massey, makes it an even closer cousin to comedy than such plays usually are. Giggles and guesswork make this an engaging show.

The title is a misnomer. It’s not Poirot’s first case. Played by Peter Gizariotis with charm, Poirot arrives in the story fully formed. It’s Poirot’s first case in that the script by Jon Jory is based on Agatha Christie’s first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. For aficionados of detective fiction, this might be a rare treat.

Veronica Kaye

Hercule Poirot’s First Case by Jon Jory, based on an Agatha Christie novel.

Genesian Theatre until July 2

www.genesiantheatre.com.au

Image by Tom Massey