Archive | August, 2022


24 Aug

We all know the photo. A lone man stands before a line of tanks. Incongruously, he holds two shopping bags.

It is immediately after the events of 15 April 1989, the day the People’s Liberation Army of China turned its guns on protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica tells the story of the American photographer who took one of the original photos and of his search for the man immortalised in the image. Did he flee to America? Is he still alive?

Kirkwood’s story is fiction, but it’s a brilliant exploration of heroism. In an age in which our vision of the hero too often reduces to someone who can deliver a cutting comeback on social media, a reminder that it might take a little more than that is invaluable.

And the power of Kirkwood’s play is that it reminds us that little more might manifest itself in many ways. We can be heroic in both what we choose to do, and what we choose not to do. The virtue of restraint, for example, might be harder to photograph, but is no less real for that.

On the night I saw this production at New Theatre, there were technical difficulties, but this didn’t hide the brilliant performances that director Louise Fischer has elicited from her cast. Oliver Burton as the American photographer powerfully portrays both the man’s charisma and his disturbing myopia. As Zhang Lin, a Chinese teacher of English in contemporary Beijing, Jon-Claire Lee is magnificent, presenting a rich emotional palette, ranging through light-hearted resilience, and seemingly infinite patience, to chronic despair. Enoch Li and Liz Lin play Zhang Lin’s younger self and his wife with engaging charm. Jasmin Certoma’s English woman abroad is a wonderful study in the challenges of genuine engagement in a world that can seem far too big for the individual to make an impact. Alice Livingstone shines in several cameos, as a prickly secretary to assured elected representative. Similarly, Katrina Chan splendidly inhabits several roles, portraying both vulnerability and an inspiring feistiness. Les Asmussen’s newspaper boss is beautifully rich, with space enough for both parody of media moguls and genuine insight into the complexities of the business of selling the truth.

Back to those technical difficulties: that they made so little difference suggests, that for theatre to be truly engaging, you simply need a great script and great cast. Easy.

Paul Gilchrist

Chimerica by Lucy Kirkwood

New Theatre until 10 Sept

image by Chris Lundy


23 Aug

This production is inspiring for its sheer energy and effort.

Beth Steel’s play, first produced in 2016, is set in the 1980’s. It’s the story of a crash: the over lending by American banks to Latin American countries, and the dreadful consequences.

It’s tempting to say this particular production is about finance and furniture removal; this epic play has many scenes, many locations and, as a result, changeovers make up a significant part of the action. Director Margaret Thanos, movement director Diana Paolo Alvarado, and a spirited cast handle these with aplomb. It all becomes a magnificent spectacle – which is thrilling to the degree to which one classes oneself as a spectator or as an audience member. But the time that must have gone into building and rehearsing these changeovers is mind blowing, and throws the gauntlet out to other theatre makers.

The tile is odd. Is it ironic? Few plays would be more obvious in their meaning: greed is bad. Some may feel it’s a story that doesn’t especially need to be heard (and judging by the soundscape that played through some of the scenes this might be a view shared by the creative team.)

Performances are truly exuberant, and generally effective. Matt Abotomey as the protagonist, John, is eminently watchable, embodying with bold physicality and emotional power the literary trope of the man seduced by power. Angus Evans and Brendan Miles both evoke the frightening obtusity of the privileged. Camila Ponte Alvarez’s Grace, a journalist who flags the wanton irresponsibility of the American lenders, is a wonderful portrait of intelligence and sanity in a small, crazy world. Tasha O’Brien and Rachael Colquhoun-Fairweather produce some comic magic.

I implied earlier that the story was an obvious one. Perhaps that’s a criticism. Or perhaps it’s not. That injustice is as familiar as dirt, as dust, simply urges on us fresh ways to shake off our complacency.

And both play and production give it a good hard shake.

Paul Gilchrist

Labyrinth by Beth Steel

Flight Path Theatre until Sept 3

Image by Clare Hawley

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

Image by Prudence Upton


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

Image by Clare Hawley