Tag Archives: Seymour Centre


11 Apr

Can a person change?

If so, is it done by denying your past or by accepting it?

And who determines how you should change? You or others? Are we creatures of our culture or autonomous individuals?

Charles Dickens funded a home for ‘fallen’ women. This play by Seanna van Helten explores the state of five of these women as they prepare for a new life in the colonies.


Image by Marnya Rothe

Historical fiction always serves a contemporary fantasy. The Victorian world fascinates us because we can posit it as a cautionary tale: this is repression. There’s the danger we can be smug or complacent in our comparison, but used appropriately, it’s a yardstick to hold up to our own society and judge if we’re doing much better.

The rule in this home for ‘fallen’ woman is that your past is not to be discussed. It’s a perfect metaphor for the silencing of women’s voices.

Dickens doesn’t appear, so we never hear his take. And, intriguingly, we don’t hear too much from the women themselves. The characters silence each other, and the playwright chooses to tell us little about their backgrounds, or about the outcome of the whole experiment.  The plot becomes the relationships between the women in that place, that time. It’s a fascinating miniature.

The play could be read by a misogynist as an indictment of bullying, manipulation and emotional immaturity. That’s not the intention, of course – no more than Hamlet (say) is meant as a criticism of men. The play acknowledges that we are, to a huge degree, products of our environment. If this small contained world of women is less than perfect it reflects only a larger, more deeply flawed, world.

Now, let’s change it.

Paul Gilchrist


Fallen by Seanna van Helten

directed by Penny Harpham

at the Reginald at Seymour til 22nd April

Tix and more info here

The Trouble With Harry

23 Feb

An Australian play! And by a living writer! Thank you Siren. Thank you Seymour.

But The Trouble With Harry is set in the past. Designers Alice Morgan, Matt Cox and Nate Edmondson effectively create a forlorn, sepia, early twentieth century Sydney.

The trouble with Harry is one of identity. Lachlan Philpott’s play is rich in motif: Little boys wanting to leave short trousers behind. Roosters called Lena. Bearded ladies at freak shows. Returned soldiers, in uniform still, but no longer whole. And the ceaseless suburban drone of ‘decency’.

“You think I chose this?” asks Harry, in a rare moment of vulnerability.

Elsewhere, “We’re doing fine,” he tells his wife.

“You act like a man,” she replies. “Do you also have to think like one?”*


Photo by Ben Rushton

With a fine cast, director Kate Gaul creates a captivating night of theatre. As always, her visual imagery is extraordinary.

Philpott’s script is both beautifully poetic and powerfully narrative driven. It’s a thought-provoking mix of direct address to the audience and firm-fourth-wall naturalism. Jodie Le Vesconte and Jane Phegan create the couple at the heart of the story, and present a moving portrayal of genuine affection under threat. Jonas Thomson and Bobbie-Jean Henning play their children, and it is in them we see the contrast between innocence and the pain of knowledge.  Niki Owen and Thomas Campbell linger and lurk, giving voice to the gossipy neighbour, the constant observer, the perpetual gaze. They are the hegemonic narrative, and their performance is suitably unsettling.

The great tension in the concept of identity is this: Identity is our own, but it must be lived socially. (You can have your own private language, but it’s difficult to remain fluent, and only too easy to slip into a soulless silence.) Identity is both personal and political. This fault line is the cause of much pain.

A play set in the past always provokes. It asks are we doing any better.

Paul Gilchrist


The Trouble With Harry by Lachlan Philpott

Produced by Siren Theatre Company

Seymour Centre til 3 March

Tix and info here

* Apologies to Lachlan Philpott if I have misquoted his beautiful words.

The Screwtape Letters

23 Nov

When I read The Screwtape Letters years ago I loved it. C.S. Lewis is a first-rate Christian apologist and an incomparable stylist.

What is an apologist? Apologists defend the claims of Christianity, but not by a call to faith, but rather by historical evidence, philosophical arguments and the like.

Apologists attempt to make the magical appear possible, the absurd seem reasonable.

What Lewis does in The Screwtape Letters is save the Devil.

What I mean is that he saves the concept of the Devil from contemporary cultural forces that would have us view temptation as exciting and evil as transgressive.

Lewis presents Satan as hell bent, not on some metaphysical concept of damnation, but rather on human misery. As one human soul says, as he finds himself in Hell, I have arrived here by doing neither what I ought nor what I enjoyed.

Screwtape is a senior devil dispensing advice to a junior devil on how to best make the human soul in his charge damnable – that is miserable.


Photo by John Leung

It’s a cute conceit, and one of Lewis’ neat tricks is to make Hell a bureaucracy. Sharp letters go back and forth between the departments, and it’s all great fun, but the result is that we’re given some wonderful insights into how we can potentially waste our lives: in sleepwalking habit, in obsession with trivia, in petty vanities. (A simple example: Encourage your human charge to read, suggests Screwtape, though not for enjoyment, but that he may say clever things to his friends.)

There have been several stage adaptations of the book, and this version by director Hailey McQueen works well. This is an achievement; the original source material is not fundamentally dramatic, nor even a dramatic monologue, but rather a set of essays framed in Lewis’ ironic epistolary form.

To make it work, you need a top notch cast, and Yannick Lawry and George Zhao provide the goods. As Screwtape, Lawry is suitably dapper and articulate, classically and coldly reasonable…until provoked. Zhao as Toadpipe gives a wonderful physical performance, his clowning providing the necessary texture which allows us to appreciate Lewis’ rich, beautiful prose.

Do you have to be Christian to enjoy this?

I’m not and I did.

Paul Gilchrist


The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (adaptation by Hailey McQueen)

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, Tuesday 22 November- Saturday 10 December, then Melbourne and Canberra.

Tix and info here

Grey Gardens

23 Nov

American royalty. That phrase says it all: the paradox of the great democracy obsessing over the privileged minority.

With book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie, Grey Gardens tells the story of a troubled mother and daughter relationship. This particular pair just happen to be Jackie Kennedy’s relations. But, as Noel Coward would say, even duchesses have problems.

The story is presented in two acts. In the first of these, set in 1941, mother and daughter battle out the younger woman’s right to a suitor. Beth Daly and Caitlin Berry do excellent work. And so does Simon McLachlan, who plays the suitor – Joe Kennedy.

Grey Gardens

Photo by Michael Francis, Francis Photography 

The next act is set thirty years on. We’re still in Grey Gardens, the family home, but things have changed. I’m not really sure how. It’s still the same mother and daughter and they’re still fighting, but they’ve become cat ladies, living in squalor. Standard music theatre fare this is not. The two roles are now played respectively (and powerfully) by Maggie Blinco and Beth Daly.

Directed by Jay James-Moody, the show is technically and musically tight. Squabbalogic have a reputation for quality and it’s well deserved. The show’s all class (though considering my earlier comments this might sound like a cheap pun.)

It was pointed out to the audience that the true cost of the production might be much more than will be recouped by ticket sales. Theatre’s a tough business and money must be saved where ever possible. For example, it appears Squabbalogic has purchased the rights for only two of the acts of this three act musical.

Of course, it’s not a three act musical – but the greatest challenge of Grey Gardens, or perhaps its most intriguing element, is that missing thirty years.

Veronica Kaye

Grey Gardens (Book Doug Wright, Music Scott Frankel, Lyrics Michael Korie)

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, til Dec 12

tix and info  here


7 May

Make ‘em laugh. Make ‘em cry. Make ‘em wait. Which is what Grounded does. And it’s absolutely brilliant theatre.

Penned by George Brant, there’s not a single word wasted. The narrative is straight forward, but seemingly innocent phrases and events are revisited, and on each return take on a greater sense of foreboding. It’s magnificent writing. (And director Kirsten Von Bibra gives it the uncluttered simplicity it deserves.)


Grounded is for a single actor. It tells the story of a female officer of the United States Air Force. After becoming pregnant, she’s no longer permitted to fly fighter jets. But she is retrained – and deployed in what is currently the most controversial field of combat. (As Simone Weil would say, it’s only imaginary good that’s simple. The real thing, out in the world, is so hard, and so very, very complex. The glory that is the gender revolution has given birth to a monster: women now share the privilege of being active perpetrators of the horrors of war.)

Grounded is a masterpiece of dramatic irony. She’s after the ‘bad guys’. Combing the deserts of the Middle East, she will find ‘the guilty’. We know she has a dreadful lesson to learn, that she’s painfully naïve, but we like her anyway.

Actor Kate Cole is extraordinary. She creates a character that is tough, almost a ladette, but it’s not all bravado. The character is grounded.  Like Macduff in Macbeth, her emotions aren’t the opposite of her strength; they derive from the very same source. It’s an incredibly moving performance.

I don’t think there’s a spoiler in anything I have written so far, but perhaps there is in what follows. I’m going to briefly discuss the final moments of the play.

After Cole’s character has been inevitably shattered, and we’re busy congratulating ourselves on both our moral superiority and our generosity of spirit for warming to her despite her faults, we’re in for a shock.  She rises from the ashes, more powerful than before, and delivers the most confronting of accusations. It’s not for the complacent. It’s life changing theatre.

Veronica Kaye

Grounded by George Brant

Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre til 16 May


The Legend of King O’Malley

1 Dec

The Faust myth is oddly enduring.

It’s fascinating how we’ll repeat stories in which people sell their soul to the devil for earthly rewards; fascinating because who actually believes in the devil? Or, indeed, the soul?

So what’s its meaning? That if you achieve anything (knowledge, influence, sexual allure) you must pay an enormous cost? A cost so disproportionate that you’d have to be mad with self importance to agree to it in the first place?

Nietzsche might call it a slave philosophy. It seems to suggest that anyone who succeeds in this world is inherently evil, and evil will inevitably come to them. A philosophy like that can only be of comfort to the powerless. (Or those wishing to pretend they are more powerless than they actually are – which I usually argue is pretty much anyone who has the time and money to attend theatre in Australia. Myself included.)

In The Legend of King O’Malley the titular character sells his soul for wealth and power. It’s a particularly strange take on the myth because O’Malley was a real person, an American preacher who migrated to Australia and was elected to our fledgling federal parliament.

As O’Malley was a real person, I think it’s safe to assume that the writers, Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis, have invented the whole ‘deal with the devil’ bit. I’m not sure why. (I’m also not sure why the first act, which deals with O’Malley’s time as a preacher, is as long as it is.)

Photo by Afshar Hodar

Photo by Afshar Hodar

Director Phil Rouse’s production is a relentlessly raucous ragtag rat bag revue. (OK, despite being wonderfully high energy, it’s not actually relentlessly raucous. I just got on a roll with the alliteration.) There are beautifully vibrant performances from the entire cast, but there are also some moments of stillness and emotional impact.

James Cook as King O’Malley and Matt Hickey as Billy Hughes do terrific work in the playful scenes, but they change gear magnificently to provide the dramatic heart of the piece.  (Spoiler Alert) It’s during World War One. Prime Minister Hughes supports conscription, but O’Malley does not. O’Malley resigns from Hughes’ cabinet, and then fails to win his seat at the next election. Or indeed any election after that. (O’Malley lived till 1953, and at the time of his death was the last surviving member of our first national parliament.)

When the play was written, in 1970, conscription was Australian policy. We were sending our young men to fight in Vietnam. I suspect this is what led Boddy and Ellis to choose O’Malley’s story. As a piece of political propaganda, arguing that the state exists for the individual and not the opposite, it’s effective and intensely moving.

And perhaps, despite my earlier questioning, the play’s form serves a purpose. Boddy and Ellis’ O’Malley is a shyster and raconteur – so much so that only an appropriation of a grand myth could make sense of him. But he still put us “lazy, dumb” Australians to shame.

Or at least shook us up.

Of course, the Australian people never did vote ‘Yes’ to conscription in the First War. And in 1972, two years after this play was originally presented, we finally voted in a government that ended conscription’s most recent incarnation.

This production is a timely reminder of the power of our elected representatives, and how it’s our responsibility to continue to push them to create a more just society.

Veronica Kaye

The Legend Of King O’Malley by Michael Boddy and Bob Ellis

Seymour Centre til 13 Dec



Sondheim on Sondheim

7 Oct

A rare night of theatre. I mean in the sense of being uncommon.

It consists of songs performed live by the extraordinarily talented band and cast, interspersed with projections of Sondheim talking.

He talks about his art and life. I left knowing not much about either. I suspect that was the point.

The man has a certain charm, somewhere between imp and self-obsessed genius. At least, that’s his onscreen persona. He drops one mask in order to show another. It is Sondheim on Sondheim, after all.  For a musical ignoramus like myself, another voice would be helpful, one that could begin to place Sondheim’s achievement somewhere in the vast theatrical landscape. But, of course, this is not a documentary. It’s much more playful and entertaining than that.

And it’s certainly an opportunity to hear some of Sondheim’s vast catalogue performed brilliantly. I expect fans of the American legend will absolutely love this show.

Photo by Michael Francis

Photo by Michael Francis

Sondheim doesn’t do melody. (The show jokes about it.) I sort of wish he did, but then, as I’ve said, I’m a music theatre philistine. (If that’s not a tautology.) His lyrics are very clever, and most of the time I could understand them. Presented out of the context of the individual shows for which they were originally created, and with which I’m not familiar, I did have a creeping fear that their intensity was being diluted.

But there’s certainly enough here for the music theatre novice to be intrigued and enticed. Everyone knows Send in the Clowns (performed wonderfully by Debora Krizak), but there are plenty of other gems. One example is The Gun Song, performed powerfully by Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Phillip Lowe and Monique Salle. It’s from Assassins (a Sondheim musical I do know!) Telling of the various attempts on the lives of American presidents, it’s a fascinating exploration of violence and identity, and indicative of Sondheim’s ability to take the musical into previously uncharted territory.

I never tire of pointing out that I don’t really write reviews. I write what shows make me think about. (Yes, self-obsession, but without the genius.) And this one? It made me think about the concept of work.

Sondheim has worked for over fifty years. He’s over 80. God only knows how many songs he’s written. There’s some terrific ones in this show. He’s done the work.

Completely left field biblical allusion: Adam and Eve tended the Garden of Eden even before the Fall. Work is not what you do for a reward; it is the reward.

(Not that you shouldn’t come along to this show and enjoy somebody else’s work; the work of Sondheim and the terrific team behind this very entertaining production, Squabbalogic.)

Veronica Kaye


Sondheim on Sondheim

Seymour Centre til 18 Oct



16 Sep

Old versus new. Stale versus fresh. Sophistication versus naivety. Decadence versus innocence.  Europe versus Australia.

One of these pairs is a false dichotomy: the last one.

Australia is European. (Or Europe is Australian, in case you’re tempted to think I’m making some sort of backward racist statement rather than philosophically dismantling an erroneous distinction.)

Michael Gow’s very funny and thought provoking play was written in 1987, nearly 30 years ago, and it feels like it. It harks back to the experience of an earlier generation, of the 60’s and 70’s, when every Australian intellectual fled to the Old World.

Has Australia become more European in that time? (Is that my ridiculous thesis?) Of course not, but the tyranny of distance has weakened, and we’ve grown more confident.

And that’s the value of James Beach’s very entertaining production; it explores that confidence.

Photo by Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

Photo by Kurt Sneddon, Blueprint Studios

In the play, Aussie fan Douglas chases European actress Barbara. They’ve had a brief fling when she toured Australia, and he sees no reason why it shouldn’t continue. She’s less certain. (The performances by Pippa Grandison and Andrew Henry are wonderful.)

Just as Barbara is about to go on stage she says ‘I’ll drag my body through this classic again’. (All my quotes are paraphrasing.) She wonders what would happen if she changed the end this time. But, alas, the audience has come to see that particular play. Again. A type of cultural obsessive compulsive disorder?

Barbara continues ‘We constantly redo the classics. Reinterpret them, reclaim them, reject them. And the new plays are just echoes of the old.’ (More paraphrasing.)

Why are we in love with the old? And, no, I don’t buy the whole ‘universals’ argument.

I started this response by suggesting that the obsession with Europe was a thing of the past. But I see the same thought patterns, the same conservativism, repeated every time we choose to produce another Patrick Shanley, Sam Shepherd or Neil La Bute play. (These productions, no matter how well done, often feel like cover bands; the theatrical equivalent of a Madonna Tribute show at the Rooty Hill RSL.) And it’s the same for the rewriting of the classics. Borrowed glory. (And, of course, highly effective pre-marketing. Postmodernism is not the reason why the Broadway musical is now inevitably an appropriation of an earlier text.) And there’s a similar conservatism lurking in our desire to create an Australian canon.

So maybe it’s not Europe. But it’s usually somewhere else, somewhen else. Not here. Not now.

But it could be.

And that’s what this very clever, beautifully performed production made me think about.

Veronica Kaye


Europe by Michael Gow

Seymour Centre til 27 Sept


Seven Kilometres North-East

11 Mar

What is the purpose of Art? To remind the miserable that there is happiness, and the happy that there is misery.

Kym Vercoe’s self devised piece does just that. There are moments that are charming and beautiful, and others that are confronting and disconcerting.

Vercoe narrates her multiple trips to Bosnia, and her growing understanding of the region’s very troubled history. Her stage presence is confident, strong, yet vulnerable – a mix that powerfully evokes the magnitude of the historical events and offers a truly human response.

Seven Kilometres North East is a deeply moving and thought provoking piece.

Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Photo by Heidrun Lohr


One of the most unnerving moments occurs when Vercoe realizes that the men responsible for the most shocking of war crimes are probably still living in the town she has repeatedly visited. An acquaintance attempts to calm her, “Don’t worry. They won’t rape or shoot you. It’s not the 90’s.”

In the 90’s,  safely in Australia, I lost friends to arguments about what was happening in the former Yugoslavia. One friend, of Serbian background, went from simply shaking her head and moaning “They’re all crazy” to an intense and painful partisanship. Another friend, defended the NATO air strikes on Belgrade with a fearsome logic: “But we’re the good guys.”

Has theatre the ability to deal with this sort of political and historical complexity? Does it need to? Vercoe’s focus is moral, and she does not offer analysis; she offers judgement. This is not a criticism, though many might think it is. In navigating the human experience empathy gets you further than explanation.

But the piece is far from simplistic. In fact, it’s provocatively self aware. Vercoe refers to thano-tourism; that is, the touring of sites of genocide and mass death. What is the perverse attraction? And we’re forced to ask, is this what Vercoe has succumbed to? After all, why does she need to tell this story? She wasn’t there at the time. Neither were any of her relatives. It’s not her story. (Unless, of course, you subscribe to the idea that we’re all brothers and sisters. As an idea it’s dreadfully unfashionable, and absolutely vital.)

Veronica Kaye


Seven Kilometres North-East by Kym Vercoe

Seymour Centre til 22 March



The Dead Ones

21 Feb

A woman stands at a podium. She reads from a script, softly and calmly. To her left is projected a series of family photos.  Margie Fischer shares with us her experience of clearing her family house, once the last of her family are gone.

It’s a wonderfully generous sharing.

Dead Ones Margie 2

And it’s fascinating because it encapsulates two of the fundamental features of our world; our materialism and our sense of lost time. Were anthropologists from another time and place to find this performance, it might be their Rosetta stone. (Another time and place – see how I struggle to disentangle myself?)

As Fischer decides what to keep and what to discard from the now empty family home, she’s only too aware of how objects are imbued with value through their connection with people, and that this stored value will slowly leach away. She realizes there’s little use in keeping much.

As we are shown photos of family members who have passed, I’m reminded of the strangeness of the medium. Do photos capture a moment? Or do they stop time? Stop it like a dam stops a river? Stop the flow of a river, and is it a river anymore?

Our culture is obsessed with movement, with the passing of time, with history. And the trouble with history is that, in it, people go. In every culture people die. In ours, they are gone. And photos, often our most treasured objects, can do only what objects do; they retain value for a while, and then they fade to mere history.

Fischer does not make all the philosophical and cultural generalizations I’m making. Her story is personal, honest and powerful. Powerful like the gentle flow of a river.

Veronica Kaye


The Dead Ones by Margie Fischer

Seymour Centre til 22 Feb