Review: Snoopy!!! The Musical

This review appears in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader.

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Snoopy, The Musical opened at the Sutherland Memorial School of the Arts, June 15. Starring Nathan Farrow as Snoopy, Louis Vinciguerra as Charlie Brown and Lexi Hutchinson as Lucy

Peanuts! Get your peanuts! Peanuts and Hot Dogs, er, Hot Dog, er – make that Cool Beagle, the coolest beagle, Snoopy!!! Miranda Musical Society are reaching out to Peanuts fans with their latest musical. The Sunday comic strip comes to life with larger than life performances from its all-singing, all-dancing cast.

It’s been awhile since the beloved gang have featured in weekly print. And long gone are the years where a major holiday didn’t go unmarked by a Snoopy movie on TV . Remember the Great Pumpkin and the Easter Beagle? It didn’t matter your age, it seemed that there was always something to engage every member of the family. But that was a while ago. How does Snoopy!!! stack up today?

Leaving aside preconceptions and treating the plot – or more correctly series of comic strip stories – as that of a loosely strung together overview of the lives of a group of primary school kids, what do we have?

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Paul Tuohy as the blanket carrying, thumb sucking peanut, Linus.

Portrayed by a cast too young to have been inundated with Snoopy comics, cartoons and plush toys, the talented cast do an admirable job. If something of nuance is lacking it’s made up for in vitality and energy. The pace of the show skips along. There is never a quiet moment yet Louis Vinciguerra’s poignant portrayal of Charlie Brown comes across through all the clamber of the Peanut’s troupe’s emotions. If Charlie Brown’s losing to Snoopy and  his life situations has been taken for granted for generations, it isn’t in this production.

Snoopy!!! has a talented cast of singer-dancer-actors. Nathan Farrow as Snoopy oozes cool with his affected nonchalance. Alexis Hutchison as Lucy and Tamana Rita as Sally Brown are bounding bubbles of exuberance. Paul Tuohy’s lovable Linus engages the audience. Jess Punch lays out Peppermint Patty’s sensitivity and offers it to you as she looks you and Charlie Brown in the eye. But if there is anyone to fear who may steal the show, it has to be Blake Bennett as Woodstock. His portrayal is part clown, part mime, all joy.

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Jess punch as Peppermint Patty minus the iconic auburn hair and baseball cap

Filling the orchestra pit is an ensemble of percussionists, keyboards and guitars. This is a live show. Musical Director, Adam Foster and Choreographer, Madison Larsen have helped create a rich offering. Erin Macbeth’s costumes help distinguish the characters immediately, despite their head styling. Bob Peet’s set design is a mash-up of comic art, Charles Schulz’s iconic dog-house and those generic Playschool cubes. Comic images light up the backcloth and the whitewashed wings cleverly reset a scene with a new flood of bright colour in Loki McCorquordale’s complementing lighting design.

Will today’s kids like it? They may not recognise the characters. Punning, Snoopy in-jokes and 20th Century references may go over their heads. What will appeal to tweens and up is the song, dance and humour. Essentially what kids (and adults) need doesn’t change. What made Snoopy popular in the first place was the ability of the Peanuts gang to reach out with their stories. Tim Dennis’ production does this with panache.

Snoopy!!! is playing at the Sutherland Memorial School of Arts, just across the road from Sutherland train station and commuter carpark, until June 24. Tickets are available online

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Cranky Ladies of History

Cranky Ladies of History! read, Cathartic Ladies of History. Fablecroft Publishing, you’ve got my attention. Short stories, little windows into the living rooms of history; whose sill should I perch on first? Eleanor of Aquitaine? Elizabeth I? Hildegard of Bingen? Mary Wollstonecraft? Empress Theodora… Hatshepsut!

Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled Egypt as a man. The glorious queen until her newphew/step-son obliterated her memory. Damnatio memoriae! That’s something to be cranky about… after she was dead. Will the story focus on her relationship with her newphew – or her brother whose rule she gave legitimacy to? Or something else entirely? I’m too familiar with her life, what if the story disappoints?

I fan across the edges of the near-shut book. There’s Lady Godiva, Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Tudor and exotic names I haven’t heard of before; women from the Middle East, Asia and Scandinavia that are equally intriguing for being made peers in this anthology.

There are so many names, so many women to choose from. Which to read first? The contents page further confuses matters. The authors – some names are familiar, most are not. Not that, that’s a deterrent.

Where’s Hatshepsut again? In the middle, Neter Nefer. Will the story talk of her possible romantic relationship with Senenmut and his fall from grace? Their alleged child together? What if nothing I can relate to is dealt with? I fan the pages again.

What of Theodora, the beloved wife of Emperor Justinian? He changed the law so that he could marry this burlesque dancer, come actress, come prostitute and make her Empress. Resplendent in pearls and jewels she remains an enigma. Was her influence really the cause of all that was bad in the Byzantine Empire? Her charitable work and religious devotion don’t add up to our modern, cliched way of seeing women. Who was she really? With the scurrilous recounts of her life by “Saint” Procopius doing her no justice, there is satisfaction in Barbara Robson’s portrayal of Theodora getting some of her own back at him.

Fitting a life into a short story is a tall order. How do you make sense of a lifetime, the journey of a soul and its many transformations in a few thousand words? Do you choose a defining moment? Or do a general sweep? And if you did the sweep how effectively could the reader be entangled? In Theodora I’ve been inspired to look for her long form biography.

I wonder if I’ll be doing the same after Hatshepsut…

In this anthology, different approaches are taken by the various contributors with varying success. When it comes to dealing with famous people whom we have a pre-existing bond to, any changes that may threaten the veracity of our investment isn’t going to be received well. Ditto for well known and loved stories. If you’re going to muck around with a legend or myth you had better improve the experience or risk disappointment. The legend of Lady Godiva, her naked ride through Coventry and the peril of Peeping Tom would seem to be in the category – you can’t touch this. But then there’s Garth Nix. Not only does he play with the story, his uplifting adaptation will stay with you long after you have finished it. It celebrates women’s strength in their solidarity, their sisterhood.

Writing speculative fiction really lends itself to the short story format. History doesn’t shackle the narrative. It’s easier to make a pithy point or shape a savvy parable when your imagination is unbounded. There are quite a few stories with speculative elements and they are enchanting but the quirkiest tale of the lot is set in the early 20th Century, in Brisbane. The charm of Sylvia Kelso’s cantankerous lady doctor Lillian and her madcap flights to the rescue will leave you smiling long after you have finished reading Due Care and Attention. I’m smiling now.

In writing a biography or historic fiction the author takes on a burden of conscience. Will their story resonate the truth? Would their interpretation be approved by their protagonist? I’d like to think that Hildegard of Bingen would have of Juliet Marillier’s Hallowed Ground. The story shows the saint’s devotion to her work, her god and living a life of humility. It shows her honesty and her strength in terms of her vocation and the society and times in which she lived.

There is a lot of variety in this anthology. It has an international feel. There are many different women to meet and diverse cultures to experience as a strong female. It’s been a thoroughly enjoyable read. If there were to be a Crankier Ladies of History, I’d be looking forward to reading that one too.

And Hatshepsut…well, you’ll have to buy the book!

What’s in a good review?

When I was younger I’d get all excited about a new movie or show opening. I’d open the papers to look for the reviews with bated breath. I wanted the show to be well reviewed but I was anxious that I wouldn’t enjoy it if it was. I was aware of a gap between what the reviewers appreciated and what I did. If they liked it too much would it be hard work, you know, slow and atmospheric, or bizarre and inexplicable? Would a good review make me feel uncultured or ignorant if I didn’t get it? Conversely, if they didn’t like it and I did, I was made to feel the same way. What’s wrong with melodrama anyway?

Proedria, reserved seating for officials and priests

Ancient audience

 

After doing a few reviews more than usual this year, I’ve come to believe that a good reviewer needs to talk to the prospective audience of the show. Who are they? Will they like it? Is it appropriate to all members of a target group or family or non-targeted audience member?

Where and by who the production has been staged should influence how the performance is judged. An inner-city boutique theatre will have nuanced choices of material it stages and appeal to a particular market. Suburban, community theatre’s will select different stories with a wider appeal. Each offering should be judged on its own parameters.

If the performance is well-subsidized and offered by trained professionals then more can be expected from its production values. If the performers are drama students learning the ropes there is a different expectation – a greater responsibility is invested with the director.

The reviewer also needs to look towards the playwright. Has the director achieved the intensions of the story? Is the story relevant? If it’s a classic play, has the production touched its modern audience? Has it reached across time and given the audience an understanding of the past that resonates today?

The budget of the performance will dictate set, sound and costume design. How these challenges are met can influence the telling of the story. The decision to have a bare set because the actors, a pretty costume, a prop or two and a good script should stand on their own doesn’t always work. Really good actors, well practised in their craft can make this look easy, but it’s not. Sometimes borrowing lavish costumes that set a particular time or reality but restrict movement – so that they remain pristine – isn’t a good choice. A bare set highlights the oft asked question – what should I do with my hands? and where to stand without devolving into a tableau of talking heads.

The aim of the performance is to immerse the audience in the reality of the story. All of the elements of staging  – performers, the stage, set, costumes, props, sound design and lighting should support that reality.

The actor is crucial. Every performer no matter how big or small their role is, is crucial to creating and maintaining the theatrical illusion. How they all interact with each other – listen to each other before reacting or responding, reinforces the world of the play. If they get up from one side of the stage and walk to the other mid speech – what are they responding to? what is their motivation? Can we see what’s going on in their head? Do we as audience members feel their agitation? Or are we wondering what the actor forgot? A big pitfall, oft stated is putting on an accent or a disability. Nothing breaks the illusion than an accent that is dropped and picked up and dropped throughout the play. Maintaining an altered state over the course of a performance is really difficult.

As a reviewer it can be difficult knowing how far to delve into criticism. A play is a good one if its target audience enjoyed it. It’s a really good one if it realises the intent of the playwright as well. It’s a great one if it does this and ticks all of the production value boxes.

So what is a good review? Like a good play, a good review will talk to the play’s audience. One that can predict the enjoyment and/or edification of the target audience.

 

 

 

Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Guild Theatre Limited, Walz St, Rockdale
www.guildtheatre.com.au
Director: Susan Stapleton
18 May-9 June
Didn’t get an invite to the royal wedding? Couldn’t hobnob it with English aristocrats? Lost the chance to eavesdrop in the forest of their hidden desires? Missed coochie-cooing at fairy imps in floral finery? No fear, King Theseus & Hippolyta will be repeating their nuptials over and again at the Guild Theatre, Rockdale, until June 9. And you’re most welcome.

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Oberon and Puck conspire to humiliate Titania with Bottom in his ass-ears – centre Oberon (Haki Pepo Olu Crisden) and from left to right, Puck (Rosemary Ghazi), Titania (Donna Randall) and Bottom (Russell Godwin) Photo courtesy: Susan Stapleton

 

Shakespeare’s best known comedy is about love found, love lost, love fought for, and love renewed. With his own wedding looming, King Theseus is called upon to arbitrate a dispute between Hermia and her father over her refusal to marry Demetrius: for she loves Lysander and he, her. But Demetrius won’t give her up. Helena, only recently cast off by Demetrius, will betray her childhood friend to get him back. Faced with an impossible choice Hermia and Lysander run away to an Athenian wood. Demetrius follows hotly on their heels and Helena on his.

Under cover of night the fairy realm awakes and watches. Elven King Oberon charges his mischievous imp, Puck, with administering a love potion to Demetrius to re-invigorate his love for Helena. While he’s at it, they even a score with Oberon’s fairy queen, Titania. She is made to faun over the first dolt she sees – Bottom, the would-be actor. Over-eager Puck mistakes Lysander for Demetrius and midsummer mayhem ensues.

Shakespeare challenges directors and designers of AMSND by mixing up mythical realms of England, Medieval Europe, Greece and Rome. Theseus and Hippolyta are clearly Ancient Greek while Roman gods Cupid and Venus step back for the real love brokers, the medieval elf, Oberon, and English folklore’s, Robin Goodfellow, aka Puck. Which world is it? As the supernatural world is shown through an Elizabethan lens, Director Sue Stapleton sets it in Tudor England.

It’s a beautiful production. Stapleton makes good use of the creative talents of Costume Designer Leone Sharp, Set Designers Jim Searle and David Pointon, and Lighting Designers Roger Hind and Ruth Lowry. Tall trunks rise from dense low foliage lending depth to the stage and projected shadows of branches and camouflage extend the world of the stage into the aisles of the auditorium. Costumes are lavish. Elaborate headpieces of bone, feather and foliage created by Jodi Burns give a nod to popular images of Celtic goddesses and the Green Man.

The tone of the performance is set early by Kim Jones’ feisty Hermia. Her energy and passion are carried on in Rachael Howard’s Helena. Neither are biddable Elizabethan gentlewomen. Rather they’re rebellious, shrewish, smart and strong, modern women. It works. Rosemary Ghazi delights as the incorrigible mischief-maker, Puck. Despite the crowd-pleasing, ham acting in the play within the play, Calib James’ big but disciplined interpretation of Thisbe shone through. He’s an actor to look out for. Overall, AMSND can boast good performances from its ensemble cast.

A comedy with plenty of colour, fairies, romance, clear annunciation, and the crowd-pleasing play within the play, make this a very easy introduction to Shakespeare for young theatre goers. This is the Guild Theatre of Rockdale’s first offering of Shakespeare since 1979. It’s charming. Hopefully they will revisit the Bard a lot more regularly. Tickets are $25/$20. Bookings ph: 9521 6358.

This blogpost was first published as an article in the St George and Sutherland Shire Leader

 

Theatre Review: Coup de Grace

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James Phipps (Jimmy), Bill Ayres (Boniface), William Jordan (Oscar), Indianna Dimmer (Hailey), Margareta Moir (Grace) and Luke Austin(Adam). Photo: Port Hacking Camera Club

Arts Theatre Cronulla, May 11 – June 16
Director: Tom Richards
Cast: Margareta Moir, James Phipps, Luke Austin, William Jordan, Indianna Dimmer and Bill Ayres

You can depend on Arts Theatre Cronulla to deliver a good night out. You can expect Tom Richard’s seasoned direction to bring a comedy off the page. And from internationally successful British playwright, Robin Hawdon, you can demand laughter. They have all delivered in the Australian premiere of Hawdon’s latest offering, Coup de Grace.

Coup de Grace is a comfortable situation comedy in the vein of 70’s produced British TV sitcoms. It’s not biting satire. It doesn’t set out to change the world, your morals or set you on a path to revolution. It’s a farce, a delightful farce. It’s comedy as the means and the end in itself.

Poor unsuspecting cat burglar, Jimmy, steals into the hotel room of movie star Grace Gervais (Margareta Moir). Her lifeless body lies partially covered on the sofa. Her lover, Adam, enters and mistakes Jimmy for her cuckolded husband. In Adam’s mind that makes him guilty. Jimmy tries to exonerate himself when her real husband, Oscar, walks in on them both. Oscar is quite happy to be misconstrued as her manager. Suddenly, Grace makes a miraculous recovery and then . . . proceeds to play along with her husband’s ruse. Sound chaotic? Set it at the Cannes Film Festival, add a stolen diamond necklace, Oscar’s ditsy, French secretary, gunshots, poison and a hotel manager who thinks he’s Hercule Poirot and you have a riotous night at the theatre.

With so much happening, so quickly, the story is set up in the first half with a hasty pace. Bill Ayers’ measured portrayal of the Hotel manager helps to ground the characters and anchor the plot. His comic timing is spot on. He spoofs Agatha Christie’s iconic detective’s accent, manner and pronunciation to hilarious effect. Margareta Moir’s portrayal of the histrionic diva fittingly fills the stage. Her investment in the improbable reality she projects on the other characters and their easy acceptance of it buoys the plot.

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The Hollywood diva, Grace Gervais (Margareta Moir) the victim, victimising. Photo: Port Hacking Camera Club

 

Hawdon’s convoluted plot lines are all deceptions. Like an episode of Seinfeld, very little actually happens. The story is built on the perceptions and assumptions the characters make of each other. Accusations move the plot along. Grace thrives on drama both on and off the screen. She would live the life of the tabloids and holds them all in thrall as she works through her suspicions. Her husband knows it and plays along. The plot works because they all want to believe the illusion that keeps their secrets safe. The only ones that can see the truth are the audience and we laugh at the lot of them.
Hawdon’s latest play is sure to be another winner. His cleverly constructed plot weaves its magic without resort to crude language nor lewd staging. Word play and innuendo are peppered throughout a performance that raises chuckles and not eyebrows. It’s a show that the whole family will enjoy.

Coup de Grace is playing at the newly refurbished Arts Theatre Cronulla from 11th May – 16th June. Bookings ph: 9523 2779 www.artstheatrecronulla.com.au

 

 

Review: Mamma Mia! The Musical

A Michael Coppel, Louise Withers & Linda Bewick Production

Director: Gary Young

Starring: Natalie O’Donnell, Sarah Morrison, Alicia Gardner, Jayde Westaby, Ian Stenlake, Phillip Lowe, Josef Bar, Stephen Mahy

Capitol Theatre, Sydney, closing May 6. Opens Perth May 12

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Mammia Mia!?! Why review Mamma Mia? Haven’t we all seen it before or at the very least the Meryl Streep, Amanda Seyfried screen adaption? What more is there to say? If you like ABBA, you’ll like it. If you don’t, you won’t. Right? Hey, it’s closing, why bother?

I didn’t particularly want to go. I know the songs. They were indelibly tattooed on my memory way before the tapes in their cassettes wore through. I saw the movie – a feel good family treat that informed my expectations of the Musical. I just couldn’t get excited, not about going to a live covers show. But Mum was thrilled. My sister suggested we take her out as an early Mother’s Day treat. Seeing Mum so eager was reason enough.

I didn’t regret it. Live theatre is an altogether different animal than film. It’s a feel good romantic fantasy. Energetic, colourful, funny and, very simply, wonderful escapism.  The songs are so well suited to the storyline that at no point did it feel like a covers show with a plot stringing them together. If anything, the production highlighted how the songs have retained their relevance over the years by tweaking their presentation. Back in the seventies and early eighties when they were first released, all of the songs had a forthright appeal. Ballads aside, in the twenty years or so since they were reimagined for the Musical, they have evolved. Or perhaps we’ve changed – matured? become a little jaded? Those direct, danceable but robust lyrics of the first half, were delivered tongue-in-cheek which was very much the tone of the first half to the intermission. Carried away by its joie de vivre it was a little too pacey at times. Those self conscious lyrics can still have emotional weight, given just a moment more to settle.

The truth in the delivery of the ballads in the second half was poignant. That the audience was moved was heard in their applause-which followed each solo. Wonderful performances were given by the entire cast. There were sight gags and hilarious stage business seamlessly woven through the choreography of Danielle Bilios, the realisation of which was deftly handled by the chorus. The dream sequence opening the second half was a visual treat in its choreography, costumes (Suzy Strout), staging and lighting. Visually stunning, Linda Bewick’s set is postcard perfect. The lighting design of Gavan Swift reinforced the Aegean island feel, then danced along with the exuberant choreography before calling the auditorium into an extended disco. It’s really a lot of fun.

Any negatives? A little off putting was the volume of the overture played before each half. It was too loud. The explosion of sound bringing in the second half could have come with an OH&S warning. Too loud and sudden. I had to check how Mum (in her 70s) took it. In the first half there were times during the full company numbers that the voices were engulfed by the music, the lyric at intervals difficult to make out. It didn’t detract from the overall telling of the story and the feeling was still conveyed in the music. Was it a technical oversight? Or are all of the bigger numbers supposed to get a rock concert treatment? Like the pacing of the first half – were the music queues called in too quickly or was it supposed to be fast? But I’m nit-picking.

Mamma Mia! The Musical is a lot of fun. Much more so than the movie. Wonderful escapism, lau and big smiles abide. Sadly leaving Sydney but opening in Perth soon.

 

 

 

 

Review: Brushstrokes of Life

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The Hellenic Art Theatre is a long running community theatre group that has entertained and edified Greek-Australians of Sydney for decades. Running acting courses, promoting performances in the Greek tongue and nurturing young performers and local playwrights, Stavros Economides and his troupe are integral to the local theatre scene. It isn’t any wonder that they’ve been tasked with educating the Greek Community about the benefits of the new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

The NDIS aims to provide services to families living with disability in their midst. What will the scheme provide? Services to alleviate the support network of the sufferer e.g., home visits by physios, access to support groups and respite carers. All well and good but why approach a theatre company to spread the word? Isn’t the internet faster and a whole lot cheaper? And what about another stack of leaflets in the medical centre or outpatients ward at the local hospital?

The problem is barriers. Yes, you can tell people the services are available but will that mean that they’ll take up the offer and use them. The stigma of having disability continues to be felt in a community still running to catch up with the greater community in its openness and acceptance of otherness. There is stigma in having someone with a disability in the family, stigma in having to accept help from friends and social services, stigma in not behaving like the rest of the group and in a very tragic Greek way, stigma in not suffering.

The best way to combat such entrenched inertia is with emotion. That’s where Hellenic Art Theatre come in. In three one act plays written to this purpose they speak to the disabled and their carers in a way that is didactic – sans sledgehammer – and entertaining.

The first, Rematch, written by Melba Papas and Evelyn Tsavalas, addresses chiefly the disabled. Jim, a footballer, ends up a paraplegic when his new car is collected by a semi-trailer. Where was Jim’s focus at the time? Taken by a selfie. His anger is lashed out in the family home before he meets another disabled man, Nondas, who gives him hope by his own example and tells him what the NDIS offers. The prescribed denouement precludes deep character development but that’s not the point.

In Brushstrokes of Life by Helen Papfilipou, Zogoula’s denial that her grandson has a mental disability trap both him and her in the family home. She tells herself and her friend, Katie, that the boy is not mentally challenged but lazy. Dance Me, also by Helen Papfilipou, entraps the brother of a physically and mentally disabled woman in a pattern of existence that limits his relationships growing up and is now threatening his career horizons. Angela’s, his mother’s, use of guilt to manipulate him aims to hit a chord within the Greek subculture.

Sacrifice, limitation on families’ freedoms, and deterioration of mental health and well-being are all addressed by these plays. In each case it’s made clear that talking to others openly and sharing experiences brings about resolution. Like a lot of political theatre the answers are simple and they are clearly offered. Printed slogan don’t plaster the walls of the theatre but the message fills the auditorium in voice overs during the longer scene changes. Necessarily optimistic in its outlook, Hellenic Art Theatre offer positive outcomes through involvement with the NDIS.

Solid performances were given by the veteran actors – Evelyn Tsavalas, Mimika Valaris, Angela Betti, Peter Michalopoulos and Michael Kazonis. Liana Vertzayias effervescent Angela was a joy to watch. Angela could very well have been a tragic figure but for the subtle satire of Liana Vertzayias delivery, now comic, now intense. Angela was anything but a caricature.

The greatest strength of the stories lie in the way they talk to today’s community – a selfie, a laptop, a mobile phone, references to well known localities,the theatre housing the show and Greek Australian migrant culture – the mythologizing of the Patris ship and generally its social mores. Many a gentle tear was shed then left behind by amusement.

Didactic? Sure. Entertaining, much, much more. Brushstrokes of Life is showing until May 6, 2018.

Theatre Review: Richard III

Bard On The Beach Theatre Company

Gunamatta Park, Cronulla

March 1st, 2018 – touring around Sydney until April 20

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Whether you think about Shakespeare’s Richard  III as a Revenger Tragey or History play is irrelevant when casting the chief protagonist. He (or recently, she) has to be superbly, immaculately, unabashedly conniving and manipulative and self serving and most importantly, must revel in his /her vices – exalting in them like a cool breeze through the mire of a humid day. It’s not a role for anyone with any qualms about going there – laying aside their own morality and conscience for the duration of rehearsals and performances. Nor for anyone too concerned with how they personally may be perceived after the final applause. These days audiences are savvy enough to distinguish between the performer and the role, however, it’s still daunting. Bard on the Beach‘s Christian Heath nailed it.

It was a joy to see him plot and scheme and work the fates of all through the fingers of his one good hand. We laid aside our own morality to take pleasure in his success even though we might have cringed at the blood trail. Heath’s portrayal was BIG. His presence and delivery filled the space and brought the audience closer to him. Not a mean feat when you consider the stage is an open air amphitheatre, by a community centre, in a park, by the bay. His only aid was the night. Had the performance been staged earlier in the day, the magic would have been compromised I’m sure.

His big acting style was complemented by big staging. The performers used the amphitheatre including pathways through the seating to make measured entrances throughout, encapsulating the performance and its audience as a localised event in the park. They created a spectacle in the best sense of the word – the kind of thing an Elizabethan audience hankered after, from a cleverly staged beheading to Richard’s ghostly victims popping up from all directions in their bloody tunics wreaking their revenge on a dreaming Richard. Gory and sudden in their appearance they were fearsome and shocking. All this without an Elizabethan discovery ‘closet’ or trapdoor in sight. Soldiers marched down the hillside setting and onto the battle stage, thrusting and parrying a well choreographed fight scene that saw in, the play’s climactic ending. The spectacle was ably handled and presented and necessary.

Amphitheatre’s call for that, spectacle and big acting. By big acting, I don’t mean hamming it up. I mean big demonstrations of emotion that are delivered with the whole body – gestures of the hands, torso, head/neck as well as the gait of the performer. Emotions have to be conveyed across a greater distance to the audience and the audience has to be able to empathize with the performer. Communication has to be big in an open-air amphitheatre.

The stage was bare, the costumes were lavish and the Shakespearean language a no-brainer for this troupe. Yet something wasn’t gelling 100%. I found that I couldn’t connect with the female characters. I couldn’t feel for Buckingham’s fall. And the scene straight after the ghosts accost Richard where he is finally moved by his conscience-despite the wonderful work done by Heath, I couldn’t connect with the scene. I became a passive observer not Richard’s temporal accomplice. Why?

Richard III contains some of the flattest written females in the Shakespeare canon. To make them rounded so much has to be read into the role that an English teacher would cringe. But it has to be done, the words alone do not suffice. The women are the personal conscience and the public conscience of a would be nation’s ruler, the play and the audience.

While the staging was big, occasionally the realization of the text diminished to a tableau of talking heads in gorgeous costumes. On a bare stage with wordy text this is a constant hazard. The actors would have benefitted from a little more from the set – a dais, platform, freestanding buttress – something to break up the space. Something to allow movement to, up and around, something to aid relationships be established visually and help to convey the subtext.

Martin Estridge’s Buckingham was ably handled but the development arc of his character wasn’t big enough. I couldn’t feel for the loyal right-hand man being overlooked, deserting the despot and then losing his life. It’s really important that as an audience we do. If we don’t feel for Buckingham we don’t begin to disentangle our allegiances from Richard. The ghostly assassination of Richard becomes a good bit of spectacle but fails to move us. The moral of the play, if one is to be observed – unrestrained conscience/power in the hands of one man is no good, is not felt by the audience. Would the assassination of Richard by the ghosts have the cathartic effect the dramatist aimed for if we could see Richard’s face? Or if we felt more for his victims?

All in all, it was a good night out. I look forward to seeing more from this company. Bard on the Beach is touring Two Gentleman of Verona in Tandem with Richard III until April 20. Disappointed I couldn’t catch the Gentlemen this time around, I’ll be looking out for more from Bard in The Beach.

I’d love to see Christian Heath take on Iago.

 

Review: Stardust Circus

Kingsway, Miranda 22nd September – 8th October

St Marys, 13th – 29th October

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They say never work with kids or animals in the theatre, presumably because an adult can’t complete with the cuteness factor. Having seen the Stardust Circus, I have to question that. Rather, never work with an overseasoned prima donna resting on her laurels – more later. No, the animals were engaging, the young performers were abundant and abundantly talented but the clowns stole the show – particularly the adults and the way in which they interacted with both the animals and the children.

The Stardust Circus has loads of family appeal. They offer a traditional circus with acrobats and tumblers, clowns and performing animals – acts that will surprise you. Humour abounds in all of the ground routines. Mischievous rebellion on the part of the animals, like the horse who refused to be saddled and the dog who gave his trainer his comeuppance, are seamlessly realized. There was audience participation, clean humour and positive rolemodelling as the performers were of differing bodyshapes and ages.

There were ponies, pigs, monkeys, goats, dogs and lions. My younger son lapped it all up while my recalcitrant teenager who was determined not to enjoy the show left in high spirits and grudgingly admitted he enjoyed it. Which act unanimously was considered the best by my company of tweets and teens? A trio of adult tumbling clowns head over heels for the same seating, The Vixers.

Another aspect of the show that really impressed me was that it was a unified effort that you see in family run businesses or historical acting troupes (think Moliere in 17th century France or the travelling commedia dell’ arte). The aerial acrobats sold popcorn before the show, doubled as clowns and pushed and rigged as stage hands. Everyone had multiple roles it seemed. The children performing are growing up with sawdust in their veins – or should I say, Stardust. The littlest clown making a cameo appearance looked to be about 4. Captivating my young charges was the highflying duo, Cassira. The grace and strength of 12 year old Cassius and 9 year old Talira was enchanting. I’d love to know how little time they spend with their electronic devices. All of the children of the circus certainly charmed with their skilful, playful and comic delivery.

But what of the overseasoned prima donna, resting on her laurels? Yes there was one but I wouldn’t be questioning her commitment – she is a lioness. The show opened with the performing lions. They did or refused to do their jumps to the delight of the audience and returned to their stools. Every now and again one of the more experienced lioness’ would turn around and gauge audience response. I could almost sense her saying, “Well, come on, give us a bigger hand, we don’t bite!”

Well worth a trip out 😊

Theatre Review: The Rover

 


Photo credit: Zabowski via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

The Rover by Aphra Behn; Directed by Eamon Flack

Cast: Gareth Davies, Andre de Vanny, Taylor Ferguson, Leon Ford, Nathan Lovejoy, Elizabeth Nabben, Toby Schmitz, Nikki Shiels, Kiruna Stamell, Megan Wilding

Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, until August 6

I was so looking forward to seeing this play, to seeing Aphra Behn psyche on stage. I’d never seen her work brought to life. This was going to be my first time.

The show was fun, funny, exhuberent, raunchy and altogether, very, very big! It was set in a Naples carnivale-mardi gras and the look and tempo of the performance was of a circus side-show – excitement and otherness was paraded and celebrated. There was lots of physical stage business, lots of sight gags and buffoonery. Their comic timing was impeccable. It seems like every comic device was employed to get a laugh – and received it. The cast played it up to the audience on every opportunity. The way that the sight gags were unravelled- or in the case of Gareth Davies, disrobed – was luxiourously allowed to develop and grow and build mirth with each prolonging gesture. In their silence and indulgence in each mime-like, clownish nuance (or drunken slip and crawl – in the case of Toby Schmitz’s beleaguered attempt to climb his courtesan’s window) there was no holding back – no skimping on the possibility to draw out the laughter. Megan Wilding, as Lucetta and Moretta was masterful in the way she played the audience – cajoling them with unencumbered silence, coyly approaching her lover, pulling faces, hammering obscenity or drawing out laughs with each puff of her cigarette. Beholdng such a spectacle was marvelling at their talents. Yet where was Aphra Behn in all of this business?

But she was there, you may point out. Just there, at the beginning of the play, an entr’acte all her own – her own soliliquy – her defence of her playwrighting and female playwrights. You may want to point out that Aphra Behn’s work is not so well known as Shakespeare’s and that the english used is obscure at times, so that following a verbose 350 year old play is aided by horsing around and bucking off the words. The problem is that in telling a story on the stage the physical metaphor that’s presented by the actors has to be felt to be understood. This metaphor was too often laid aside to keep its momentum as an emotional thread.

So, the first act was a joy ride, perhaps too much of one, as the second act paid the price for frittering away the opportunity to build the emotional connections between the lusty and the love-lorn. The first act down-played the script and up-played the physicality. There wasn’t enough attention to the script to build the empathy needed to allow the second act to reach its denouement plausibly. Toby Schmitz’s Willmore is more a larrikin than a cad who actually needs to fall in love to presumeably mend his roving ways and marry Helena (Taylor Ferguson).

Where the playwright makes her voice heard directly – via Angellica Bianca (Nikki Shiels) the noise and colour of the carnivale is muted by the veracity of Nikki Shiels’ performance driving home her point. Exotic, sensual, pitiable, garboesque, Nikki Shiels’ gave the story heart and intellect. We can feel for Bianca but in the convolutions of the storyline involving Don Pedro, Don Antonio, Belvile, Florinda, Willmore and Hellena, the suspense and subsequent release is missing.

With the number of jaunts into carnivale mode there was always the danger of big acting becoming ham acting. Big and ham are two differnt kinds of deliveries that look identical in performace photos but deliver different results in the auditorium. Foreign accents can blur the distinction too. Clowning and miming require big acting. Interject a steady stream of laughter and minimise the script, and big could devolve into ham. Ham doesn’t matter in the style of jokes being built – it probably aided them –  but it didn’t aid empathy to be drawn on in the second act.

The use of asides to explain obscure terms was a brilliant stroke and worked well with the carnivale atmosphere and the use of the whole auditorium as a performance space. The audience connected with the show. It was a lot of fun, a really good night out. The academic in me was left a little cheated but nothing too serious.