Friday, 10 March 2017

Faith Healer, March 9, 2017 ****

By Brian Friel, a Belvoir production, presented by Melbourne Theatre Company
Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, until April 8, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: ****
Coin Friels as Frank Hardy in Faith Healer Belvoir/ MTC 

Memory may be unreliable, but the troubled characters in Irish playwright Brian Friel’s challenging and moving play, Faith Healer, reframe their memories of a shared past to suit their own needs.

In this enthralling production, with its captivating performances and assured, unobtrusive direction by the inimitable Judy Davis, Colin Friels is compelling as Francis (Frank) Hardy, an itinerant, Irish faith healer with erratic – but sometimes formidable and miraculous – healing powers.

For decades, Frank toured his ‘show’ in a ramshackle van to small, UK towns, accompanied by his loyal support team: Grace (Alison Whyte), his beleaguered, long-term mistress, and Teddy (Paul Blackwell), his relentlessly cheery and tenacious, cockney manager.

Friel’s language-driven play comprises four monologues – the first and last delivered by Frank – each of which conjures narrative, characters, emotion and landscape through Friel’s evocative, lyrical and often hilarious, word pictures.

The story of the trio’s shared past leaks out as each fills in his or her recollections and perspectives.
Whose version of their story is true? What really happened to Grace’s baby and what transpired in the pub in the tiny Irish town of Ballybeg that night a year ago?

The sparse stage design (Brian Thomson) resembles a shabby, local hall littered with pitiful chairs and overlooked by a tattered banner that declares brazenly, ‘Fantastic Francis Hardy – Faith Healer’.

Frank is both miracle-worker and conman who describes his life as ‘balanced somewhere between the absurd and the momentous.’

Friels effortlessly captures Frank’s almost irresistible charm and whimsical storytelling that is tainted by his irascible and obstinate temperament, unremitting boozing, unreliability and total self-absorption.

With his green socks peeping out below his threadbare, ill-fitting suit, Friels prowls the dusty stage with a booze-addled fervour, recounting and reliving the remarkable night when, in a Welsh village years earlier, he genuinely healed ten people of major ailments, including blindness.

Whyte superbly embodies Grace’s aching grief and desperation as she perches alone in her London bedsit, gulping glasses of booze as she rifles her memory for moments of love and loss, colouring the same tales we have heard from Frank with her jaded, perhaps more realistic, view of her selfish lover.

Blackwell plays the lovable Teddy with warmth, sympathy and impeccable comic timing as he recounts his version of the fraught relationships and alarming events that occurred in his years with Frank and Grace.
Alison Whyte as Grace in Faith Healer Belvoir/ MTC

Friel’s audacious storytelling is both whimsical and poignant, tinged with bold, Irish comedy and a potent philosophical commentary on the human condition.

Friel deserves his reputation as one of the greatest, Irish playwrights and this production of Faith Healer, with its accomplished direction and performances, does justice to his legacy.

By Kate Herbert   
Paul Blackwell as Teddy in Faith Healer Belvoir/ MTC

Colin Friels - Francis Hardy

Alison Whyte - Grace
Paul Blackwell - Teddy

Creative Team
Judy Davis - Director
Brian Thomson - Set
Tess Schofield   - Costume
Verity Hampson  - Lighting
Paul Charlier - Composer/ Sound

Monday, 6 March 2017

The Full Monty, March 4, 2017 ***

Book by Terrence McNally, music by David Yazbek, produced by StageArt with The National Theatre, Melbourne 
National Theatre, St. Kilda, until March 19, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Sat March 4, 2017 

Review also published on Mon March 6, 2017, in Herald Sun Arts online and later in print. KH

You’re a bunch of blokes who suddenly find yourselves unemployed, so why not try making a buck as male strippers – even if you don’t have a six-pack and a fake tan?

The Full Monty is back but, this time, it’s not the 1997 UK film set in the economically depressed city of Sheffield in the North of England, but the American musical adaptation (book by Terrence McNally, music by David Yazbek) that transports the six, unemployed steelworkers to Buffalo, New York.

Divorced dad, Jerry (Scott Mackenzie), is desperate to earn fast cash in order to provide for his son, Nathan (Alexander Glenk).

So, when Jerry and his mate, Dave (Giancarlo Salamanca), sneak a peek at their wives cheering and drooling over the glossy, but very camp, Chippendale male strippers, Jerry dreams up a one-night-only strip show featuring his lovable but talentless mates.

In addition to his plump pal, Dave, Jerry recruits four more amateurs including ‘big, black man’ Horse (Wem Etuknwa), nerdy mummy’s boy, Malcolm (Montgomery Wilson), their former, factory foreman Harold (Darren Mort) and Ethan (Adam Perryman), a newcomer who provides the ‘glitter’ when he takes off his strides.

Drew Downing’s production, with musical direction by Nathan Firmin and choreography by Rhys Velasquez, is a cheerful romp, although the pace is uneven with some slow cueing and scene changes and a few poorly timed sight gags.

Mackenzie is feisty and driven as Jerry, his bold singing doing justice to both the rock numbers and Jerry’s lament, Breeze Off The River, and he capably leads the men in the despairing but rocking chorus, Scrap, when they voice their anger at being scrapped by the steel mill.

The six are a bunch of misfits looking for meaning, respect and employment in their lives and they garner our sympathy as they face their fears and support each other through their journey to ‘the full monty’, when they strip to the skin.

The production really takes off when Etuknawa belts out the sassy Big Black Man, and Act One ends with the men dancing and singing to Michael Jordan’s Ball as their confidence grows.

Another highlight is Wilson and Perryman’s charming and soulful duet, You Walk With Me, and Barbara Hughes as the lads’ brassy, ageing piano accompanist, Jeanette, as she steals the stage singing Jeannette’s Showbiz Number.

The wives take subsidiary roles but their chorus of It’s A Woman’s World, led by Dave’s loving wife, Georgie (Sophie Weiss), characterises their feistiness.

Tazbek’s spirited music ranges from rocking choruses to ballads and laments but, despite Tazbek’s accomplished score, the show misses the recognition factor and pizazz of the movie’s musical selections that included hits such as Tom Jones’ You Can Leave Your Hat On, Hot Chocolate’s You Sexy Thing, and Donna Summer’s Hot Stuff.

This production may have its flaws but it is an entertaining and uplifting night in the theatre – although it may leave you with pangs of nostalgia for the original movie.

By Kate Herbert 

Creative Team
Drew Downing director
Nathan Firmin musical direction
Rhys Velasquez choreography

Jerry  - Scott Mackenzie
Dave - Giancarlo Salamanca
Noah Horse - Wem Etuknawa
Malcolm - Montgomery Wilson
Ethan - Adam Perryman
Harold - Darren Mort
Nathan - Alexander Glenk
Pam- Lauren Edwards
Vicki - Ana Mitsikas
Georgie - Sophie Weiss
Jeanette - Barbara Hughes
Estelle - Courtney Glass
Susan - Ashley Noble
Joanie - Anne Gasko

It’s a Woman’s World
Big-Ass Rock
Life With Harold
Big Black Man
You Rule My World
Michael Jordan’s Ball
Jeannette's Showbiz Number
Breeze Off the Rover
The Goods You Walk With Me
You Rule My World
Let it Go

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Ladies in Black, Feb 28, 2017 ***1/2

Book adapted by Carolyn Burns from a novel by Madeleine St John, music and lyrics by Tim Finn
Produced by Queensland Theatre 
Regent Theatre, until March 18, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Stars: 3& 1/2
 Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Wed March 1, 2017, then in print. KH.
Cast of Ladies in Black
The cocktail frock section of a 1950s, Sydney department store sounds an unlikely place for a coming-of-age story but, surrounded by taffeta, silk and a diverse group of women, hopeful ingénue, Lisa (Sarah Morrison), learns to be a woman.

Ladies in Black may not be the new, Australian musical that sets the world on fire, but it charms the audience with its simple, engaging stories of the saleswomen who work in F.G. Goodes – a store that resembles Myer and Georges – in 1959, just before the conservative 50s become the unconventional 60s.

Writer, Carolyn Burns, skilfully transforms prose into pert dialogue peppered with funny Australianisms in her adaptation of Madeleine St John’s 1993 novel, The Women in Black.

Director, Simon Phillips, fills the stage with loveable characters in intimate vignettes while Andrew Hallsworth provides stage action with his vibrant choreography on Gabriela Tylesova’s elegant, black and silver set design that is offset by a parade of vivaciously coloured frocks.

Tim Finn’s original songs, numbering more than 20, range in style from bold, musical theatre choruses, to sombre laments, romantic ballads, jazz- or blues-influenced tunes and patter songs, all played by a tight, on-stage orchestra led by David Young.

The melodies are not memorable and some cheesy, simplistic lyrics do not always illuminate the characters or their backstories, but a few songs stand out, including the perky and hilarious Bastard Song, sung by a group of Aussie women, and Lisa’s sweet, Broadway-style refrain, Tomorrow Becomes Today.

Morrison’s voice has a bright timbre and a clear, musical theatre tone that suits the role of Lisa as she grows from dowdy, bookworm school-leaver to a stylish, young woman on her way to university to study her beloved literature, despite her father’s (Greg Stone) objections.

The narrative reveals the tales of several women, but the most compelling stories belong to the ‘reffos’, the ‘New Australians’, starting with the sassy and chic Hungarian refugee, Magda, played audaciously by Natalie Gamsu, and Magda’s adoring husband, Stefan (Stone).

But the accolades and the audience cheers belong to Bobby Fox who, whenever he appears as Rudi, the Hungarian Lothario, lights up the stage with his charisma, sensational vocal quality and control and effortless dancing.

Rudi’s final proposal scene with the vivacious and sympathetic Fay (Ellen Simpson) provides a delicious and joyful ending to that couple’s story.

Other narrative threads include those of the childless Patty (Madeleine Jones) and her husband, Frank (Tamlyn Henderson), the quiet Miss Jacobs (Trisha Noble) and the efficient Miss Cartwright (Kate Cole).

There is some unevenness in the cast’s singing ability and not all the songs or stories are as engaging as others, but Ladies in Black is a pleasant and optimistic show that will leave you smiling.

By Kate Herbert 

Sarah Morrison- Lisa
 Kate Cole- Miss Cartwright/Joy
Carita Farrer Spencer - Mrs Miles.
Bobby Fox,  Rudi /Lloyd /Fred
Natalie Gamsu – Magda
Madeleine Jones - Patty
Kathryn McIntyre – Myra /Dawn
Trisha Noble – Miss Jacobs/Mrs Brown
Ellen Simpson - Fay
Greg Stone – Mr Miles /Stefan
Tamlyn Henderson- Frank

Gabriela Tylesova Design
David Walters Lighting
Guy Simpson Orchestrations
Andrew Hallsworth choreography

Monday, 27 February 2017

The Play That Goes Wrong, Feb 27, 2017 ****

Written by Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields, Mischief Theatre Company 
Produced by Lunchbox Theatre Productions, Kenny Wax Ltd, Stage Presence, David Atkins Enterprises and ABA
Comedy Theatre, until March 27, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert 
Review also published in Herald Sun Arts online on Monday Feb 27, 2016 & later in print. KH
L-R Nick Simpson-Deeks, George Kemp, Luke Joslin, James Marlowe
(Couch) Darcy Browne, Brooke Satchwell 
An old theatre adage advises actors to ‘remember your lines and don’t fall over the furniture’, but it forgets to warn that the furniture might fall on you.

In this raucously slapstick, UK comedy, The Play That Goes Wrong, anything that can go wrong does go wrong (Murphy’s Law), including a collapsing set, missed cues, forgotten lines, missing props and truly awful, hammy acting.

In the play-within-the-play, the pitifully under-staffed and painfully untalented amateur theatre company, Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society, stages The Murder at Haversham Manor, a 1920s murder mystery in the style of The Mousetrap, the madly successful, long-running West End play by Agatha Christie.

The play-outside-the-play is often achingly funny, chaotic and silly and Mark Bell’s direction draws on the essential dynamics of physical comedy that hark back to Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton and the techniques of the Le Coq clown school in Paris.

The story is incidental to the sheer idiocy and chaos of the incompetent, am-dram actors, but suffice to say that there’s a dead body in the drawing room, a bunch of upper-class twits, their servants and a police inspector (Nick Simpson-Deeks), who take two hours to figure out who did or didn’t kill the murder victim.

The star of the production is Nigel Hook’s set design that seems possessed of an evil theatre spirit that gives the set a demonic life of its own even before the play-within-the-play begins.

Simpson-Deeks captures the escalating desperation of Chris Bean, the ambitious but beleaguered director / producer (and everything else) of the murder mystery who struggles to keep his production on track while he is also on stage playing the pernickety Inspector Carter.

The ‘actors’ stand and deliver their rote-learned lines directly to the audience, rarely looking at each other or communicating, and relentlessly persevering despite a list of disasters that includes cast members being knocked unconscious – repeatedly.

Luke Joslin is suitably pompous as Robert, the actor who, in turn, plays the snobbish Thomas Collymore, and Joslin’s comic business as he attempts to answer a phone while sliding down a collapsing platform is a show highlight.

James Marlow is a riot as the applause-seeking Max who plays Cecil Haversham with histrionic mincing, prancing, outrageous over-acting and pandering to the audience.

One wild scene is the mounting violence of the slapstick fight between Annie, the self-effacing Stage Manager (Tammy Weller), and the egotistical Sandra (Brooke Satchwell), who plays Florence Collymore with absurdly flamboyant, balletic gestures.

Adam Dunn provides plenty of laughs as Trevor, the incompetent technician who can’t get a lighting or sound cue right and is more interested in texting his pals or finding out who nicked his Duran Duran CDs.

Darcy Brown provides plenty of sight gags as the putative dead body that must take up his bed and walk off stage, while George Kemp is nerdy and supremely stupid as Dennis who plays Perkins, the butler.

The Play That Goes Wrong is the latest in the line of British farces about am-dram that includes The Real Inspector Hound (Tom Stoppard) and Noises Off (Michael Frayn).

The broad farce and physical comedy of this show may leave you with a sore jaw from laughing out loud – unless your tastes in comedy are more cerebral and subtle.

Oh, and this reviewer strongly denies accepting – or, at least, spending – the $5 ‘bribe’ that the ‘director’ unobtrusively slipped into her hand before the show. No, really! It had ‘BRIBE’ scrawled on it in texta, anyway!

By Kate Herbert

Director- Mark Bell
Australian cast director -Sean Turner
Set - Nigel Hook
Costume -Roberto Surace
Lighting -Ric Mountjoy

Adam Dunn Tech Trevor
Nick Simpson-Deeks Chris director inspector
Darcy Brown – Jonathan Charles Haversham dead
Robert -Luke Joslin  Thomas Collymore (brother)
George Kemp - Dennis Perkins butler
Brooke Satchwell - Sandra – Florence Collymore
James Marlow – Max – Cecil Haversham and Arthur
Tammy Weller – Annie – Stage manager
Francine Cain - Maggie understudy
Jordan Prosser –William understudy
Matthew Whitty - Lincoln understudy

Friday, 17 February 2017

John, MTC, until March 25, 2017 ****

By Annie Baker, by Melbourne Theatre Company
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, until March 25, 2017 
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 16, 2017
Review also published in Herald Sun online on Friday Feb 17, 2017, and later in print. KH

 Helen Morse & Johnny Carr
In her play, John, award-winning American playwright, Annie Baker, braids the ordinary with the peculiar and the real with the otherworldly, evoking a slightly disturbing sense of dislocation and miscommunication.

In the historic town of Gettysburg, site of a horrific American Civil War massacre, troubled couple, Elias (Johnny Carr) and Jenny (Ursula Mills), arrive at a Bed and Breakfast run by the relentlessly cheerful but ever so slightly odd Mertis (Helen Morse), who prefers to be called Kitty.

Attentive hostess, Mertis, like one of her beloved birds, flutters around her guests in her kitsch B and B that is cluttered with bric-a-brac, decorated with old-fashioned, floral carpets (Design, Elizabeth Gadsby), and a pianola that has a life of its own.

Her big-city guests and their petty bickering seem banal in comparison with Mertis and her even more eccentric, much older friend, Genevieve (Melita Jurisic), who is blind and intermittently suffers delusions and audio-hallucinations.

‘Have you ever had the feeling that someone is watching you?’ asks Mertis; not only do we recognise the sensation of being watched over by a higher being, we are also intensely aware that we, the audience, are voyeurs on this tiny, intimate and strangely ordinary world.

The concept of vision is key in this story, with one character blind, one myopic, one a little bit psychic, and the fourth fascinated by spectacles and, adding to this notion, is the playfulness of light (Richard Vabre), both natural and artificial.

Perhaps even more significant are the lies, secrets, unspoken thoughts and mysterious pasts of all four characters that reveal themselves in spurts and trickles as the four struggle through several days and nights.

The entire cast is accomplished with the luminous Helen Morse central, playing Mertis with nuance and sensitivity, giving her a whimsical, vibrating quality that seems to mask a darker secret.

Jurisic gives an audacious and often hilarious performance as the acerbic but definitely bonkers Genevieve, whose delusions elicit laughs but whose mental illness is far from funny.

Carr effectively captures both Elias’s vulnerability and his volatility as he wrestles with his own insecurity about his fractious and unravelling relationship with Jenny.

Mills is sympathetic as Jenny, balancing her barely masked despair and overt neediness with secretive behaviour, but leaving us with the sense that Jenny is eminently faithless and untrustworthy.

Sarah Goodes’ unobtrusive direction focuses on character and relationship, and on the spaces between the words that are a signature element of Baker’s writing.

Although the play has a weird, spooky quality, it seems to occur in real time with characters frequently pausing, musing, considering or gazing during long silences.

This realistic ordinariness is more successful than the hints of the supernatural that seem tacked on and do not quite gel.

So who is John? By the end of this three-hour production with two intervals, all will be revealed and you may leave with an uneasy sense that you missed something that occurred off-stage or upstairs in this peculiar little B and B.

By Kate Herbert

Helen Morse - Mertis
Melita Jurisic - Genevieve
Johnny Carr - Elias
Ursula Mills - Jenny

Director Sarah Goodes
Set Elizabeth Gadsby
Lighting Richard Vabre
Sound – Russell Goldsmith

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Little Emperors, Feb 14, 2017 ***

By Lachlan Philpott, Malthouse Theatre, Asia TOPA 
Beckett Theatre, Malthouse, until Feb 26, 2017  
Reviewer: Kate Herbert on Feb 14, 2017 
Stars: ***
 Review also published in Herald Sun online on Wed Feb 15, 2017, and later in print. KH
 Alice Qin & Diana [Xiaojie] Lin
The actors in Lachlan Philpott’s Little Emperors perform ankle-deep in a murky pool of water that heightens the physical and personal struggles of their characters.

Wading through this emotional soup, the four Chinese and Australian characters shift through myriad moods as they splash each other playfully, stumble or drag themselves with laboured movements through the resistant water, or fall face first into the shallow pool like drowned souls.

Little Emperors, a play that deals with the repercussions of China’s One Child Policy that ended in 2016, is the result of a Malthouse Theatre collaboration between Philpott and Wang Chong, a young director from Beijing.

Philpott’s script, set in Melbourne and Beijing and performed in English and Mandarin by Chinese and Australian actors, explores the personal experiences, memories and stories of some of those affected by China’s social experiment that aimed to control population.

In Beijing, Huishan (Alice Qin), a single, 31-year old woman, wrestles with her fraught relationship with her fragile but demanding and emotionally manipulative mother (Diana [Xiaojie] Lin).

Meanwhile, across the world in Melbourne, Huishan’s ‘illegal’ brother, Kaiwen (Yuchen Wang), struggles to direct and devise an experimental play for the ChuFest, a Chinese university theatre festival; a play-within-a-play that echoes the theme of the One Child Policy.

 Yuchen Wang (R) Alice Qin (on screen)
On both sides of the world chaos ensues as characters reveal dark secrets, unleash personal attacks, challenge each other’s world views and face the repressed emotions arising from the consequences of the One Child Policy.

Diana Lin is compelling as the Mandarin-speaking mother, creating a poignant and complex character who agonises over her unmarried daughter’s circumstances, avoids her own serious illness and pines for her absent son, Kaiwen.

Lin brings a depth and range of feeling to the mother’s wrenching stories about her childhood during the Cultural Revolution, her husband’s iron-fisted control, and her grief over her past, enforced separation from her ‘illegal’, second child.

The scenes performed in Mandarin by Lin with Qin as her daughter, are the strongest as the two grapple with their love that is tainted by miscommunication, the opposing aspirations of two generations of Chinese women, and a mother’s desire to live vicariously through her daughter.

The English language scenes are less successful when Kaiwen, known as Kevin in Melbourne, tries to direct his muddled play but is left with only the sound technician (Liam Maguire) when all the actors abandon the project and Kevin reveals his arrogance.

The dialogue and action between Yuchen Wang and Maguire is awkward, laboured and not credible, particularly in their seduction scene, but Yuchen Wang’s final scene in Mandarin is his most believable and moving when Kevin/Kaiwen finally lets down his guard and reveals his anguish.

Wang Chong’s direction uses a non-naturalistic style that is a counterpoint to the generally naturalistic dialogue, and he heightens the abstraction with live video of the mother and daughter projected on a huge, curtain of Chinese newsprint suspended behind the pool (design by Romanie Harper).

Despite the unevenness in the performances, Little Emperors provides us with some intimate insights into the repercussions of the Chinese One Child experiment.

By Kate Herbert