Monday, September 22, 2014


Children of the Sun by Maxim Gorky.

 Adapted by Andrew Upton. Directed by Kip Williams. Sydney Theatre Company. Drama Theatre. Sydney Opera House. September 8 - October 25 2014.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

 Toby Truslove as Protasov, Helen Thomson as Melaniya in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014


Flames flicker through the swirling ring of smoke that wafts across the stag . Rioters are storming the gates of Yelena (Justine Clarke) and Protasov’s (Toby Truslove) prestigious country residence as Andrew Upton’s new version of Maxim Gorky’s prophetic vision of the collapse of Russia’s privileged class reaches its powerful climax in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun.
Gorky wrote the play while in prison for his involvement as an activist after the failed 1905 revolution. Children of the Sun is set in 1860’s Tsarist Russia, when the seeds of discontent that would eventually see the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in 1917 were already germinating in a nation divided by the injustices of a privileged class system. Gorky’s characters reflect the intense divide between wealth and poverty, privilege and disadvantage. The preoccupation with individual concern, couched in the obsessive nature of Protasov’s scientific inventions, or the desperate nature of lovesick passion of a class unconcerned with the social issues of their time is set in stark contrast to the desperate struggles of an oppressed class. This comes to the fore with violet consequence when the copper lining of Protasov’s experimental well leaks, polluting the water and leading to the outbreak of a deadly cholera epidemic in the village. Oblivious to consequence and impervious to responsibility, Gorky’s aristocratic characters lay the foundations for their own doom. Only the depressive Liza (Jacqueline Mckenzie) subsumed by the cruel injustices of a world of war and starvation possesses the political wisdom and foresight to prophesy a vision of portending doom. Her real world, clouded over by the ignorance of those about her, remains unheeded and explained as a delusionary obsession arising from her fragile mental state.
Contrasting with Liza’s prophetic warning is the fickle absurdity of unrequited love that makes fools of Gorky’s poor mortals. The country vet, Boris (Chris Ryan) proclaims his passionate adoration of Liza. The artist Vageen (Hamish Michael) declares his love for Yelena to no avail. The widow, Melanya (Helen Thomson) is enslaved by her infatuation with the oblivious Protasov. The maid Feema (Contessa Treffone) is drawn towards the animal strength of the estate’s labourer, the rough-hewn Yegor (Yure Covich) and ignores the wimpish protestations of love by Misha (James Bell), son of the village official Nazar (Jay Laga’aia). Nanny (Valerie Bader) longs for an order that she sees crumbling about her, sliding irrevocably towards decay, while those about her inhabit their world of fanciful and farcical delusion.
Justine Clarke as Yelena in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014
Andrew Upton’s unabashedly contemporary version, initially commissioned by the National Theatre of Great Britain, maintains the conventions of the period while thrusting the language into the twenty-first century. Out of the mouths of characters of Russia in the nineteenth century comes the colourful vernacular of our time. And yet, I am unperturbed by the utterance of “bonkers” from the mouth of Boris or Liza’s four letter expletives. Upton, craftily and expertly affords our ears the power of relevance without distorting our sensitivity to the time. Gorky’s indictment of a decaying class and his observance of the foible of human nature remain preserved. His indebtedness to Chekov in the perception of his people, the incisive observance of self-indulgence and the pervading atmosphere of futile existence permeate the lives of his characters. Shades of Ibsen’s The Enemy of the People resonates with the contamination of the water supply and Liza’s eloquent and impassioned announcement of her intention to leave Protasov echoes the desperate need of Ibsen’s Nora in A Doll’s House. They are moments that anchor the profundity of Gorky’s narrative within a play that is at times hilariously farcical, ironically comical, seriously melodramatic,  poignantly prophetic and ultimately tragic.
Justine Clarke as Yelena;Julia Ohannessian as Avdotya in Children of the Sun. Sydney Theatre Company. Photograph by Brett Boardman
Upton’s adaptation combined with director Kip Williams’s inspired and volatile direction offer a fusion of the riveting forces of dramatic engagement. We are drawn irrevocably both into a time of forces of social change and historical consequence and the reverberating echoes of relevance to our own time of political, social and economic unrest. David Fleischer’s inescapably symbolic set design of theatre flats on a revolving set, which at times reveal the authentic interiors of a Russian stately home and at other times the reverse side of timber flats, supported by French legs stabilized by sandbags allows Williams and his cast the fluid and continuous traversing of the large stage. The fluidity of this production is also the pronouncement of a restless uncertainty, brimming with uneasy expectation, leading the characters and the audience towards the final conflagration. As the play advances towards its denouement, the flats are laid down as a gesture of the collapse of a class that had lost all vestige of political ideology and an awareness of the divisive nature of their blind ignorance. Children of the Sun is Gorky’s prophetic pronouncement of history’s inevitable consequence and this production’s testament to the lasting relevance of universal resistance to history’s lessons for all humanity.
Justine Clarke as Yelena, Jacqueline McKenzie as Liza, Toby Truslove as Protasov in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014
Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun is more than a revival of a classic. It is a brilliantly and sensitively staged version of Gorky’s comedy of human folly, respectful of the play’s style, its humour, its prophetic pathos and profound intent, yet cognizant of its relevance to our time and circumstance. Williams directs an impeccable cast with flair and imagination that lend the production both gravitas and piercing irony.  Children of the Sun is a must see triumph in the Sydney Theatre Company’s illustrious repertoire.  
Justine Clarke as Yelena, Jacqueline McKenzie as Liza, Helen Thomson as Melaniya in Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Children of the Sun © Brett Boardman 2014

Saturday, September 20, 2014


Rachel Beck 
In DRESS CIRCLE this week Music Theatre star, Rachel Beck, talks to Bill Stephens about the music theatre workshops she will be presenting in Canberra next weekend. 

Director, Barb Barnett, discusses Canberra Reps new production of “Equus “which opens in Theatre 3 on Friday.
Len Power has something to say about phones in theatres, Blue the Shearer tells why we should be alert but not afraid, and Isobel Griffin presents a round-up of forthcoming theatre in “Arts Diary”.

Julian Lee - Craig Scott
In the “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment, jazz pianist extraordinaire, Julian Lee, and double bassist, Craig Scott, share the spotlight to present a selection of their favourite Jazz interpretations.

Barb Barnett 
90 minutes of interviews, reviews, music and news about the performing arts in Canberra and beyond, DRESS CIRCLE is produced and presented by Bill Stephens and broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 every Sunday evening from 5.00pm until 6.30pm. It is repeated on Tuesday nights from 11.30pm and streamed live on the internet at

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pete the Sheep

PETE the Sheep based on the picture book by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley

Adapted by Eva Di Cesare, Tim McGarry and Sandra Eldridge.

Directed by Jonathan Biggins. Composer/Lyricist Phillip Scott. Set and Costumes James Browne. Lighting Design Matthew Marshall. Sound Design Kingsley Reeve.

Monkey Baa Theatre Company at The Q. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. September 15-17 2014 

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Cast of Pete the Sheep -  Todd Keys, Jeff Teale, Nat Jobe and Andrew James

It's 10 a.m. on a Tuesday morning and dozens of small children, bursting with wide-eyed excitement, file into The Q at the Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre for Monkey Baa Theatre Company's lively and utterly engaging production of Pete the Sheep. Director Jonathan Biggins and composer/lyricist Phillip Scott have created a musical adaptation of Jackie French's and Bruce Whately's highly popular, true blue Aussie story, Pete the Sheep.

The story of new wave shearer Shaun (Jeff Teale) and his sheep sheep Pete (Nat Jobe), the shearer's mate, is given an upbeat, colourful and fun-filled spin by the Wharf Revue duo of Biggins and Scott. Their delightful, quirky sense of the humorous and the absurd lends itself perfectly to this tale of tradition versus innovation. Shaun is the new shearer in the Shaggy Gulley shed. Fresh out of tech and brimming with new ideas, and accompanied by his sheep sheep-shepherder, Pete, Shaun meets his dyed in the wool Ringer boss, Ratso (Andrew James). Ratso and mates Bungo ,played also by Jobe, and Big Bob (Todd Keys) are having none of Shaun's new-fangled shear snipping ways. Rejected and dejected, Shaun is encouraged by Pete to open his own salon and bring a brand new style to shearing sheep. The salon is an instant success and soon sheep and sheepdogs and Big Bob are happy clients. Business is brisk and even ringer Ratso, the best shearer in the land, joins to lend a hand.
Jeff Teale, Andrew James, Todd Keys, Nat Jobe
on James Browne's set for Monkey Baa Theatre Company's production of Pete the Sheep

Like every good children's story there's a moral or two or more and Monkey Baa Theatre Company has pulled out the stops to help the young audience embrace the value of new ideas, accepting differences and triumphing in the face of rejection. Too sophisticated for a three year old? Not according to Biggins in his Director's Note, and judging by the sea of rapt attention, the very young, while delighting in the colour and movement of catchy song and slick, brisk, bouncy dance, could also applaud Shaun's victorious triumph in the face of adversity, thanks to a trusty, savvy sheep.

Nat Jobe as Pete, Jeff Teale as Shaun, Todd Keys as Sheep.

Judging by the audience's reaction and their enthusiastic applause at the finale, Monkey Baa's  production was a sure-fire hit with young and old alike. For the very young, for whom fifty minutes stretched their concentration and the need to visit the loo, it might be worth reading the story to them before they come, although it was obvious from responses to the jokes that many knew the story and were thrilled to see a favourite tale come to life upon the stage in a production, superbly crafted, true to the book and imaginatively brought alive with original music and song and dance (A few bars of Memories from Cats, sung here by Pete the Sheep lent a touch of irony, and the Rocky theme raised the excitement of revealing a bright new shorn wool style)

James Browne's authentic shearing shed setting, complete with rusted galvanized iron and timber ramps and woolshed slats complemented the black singlets, kakhi shorts and akubras, giving the set a truly authentic Aussie bush look. Matthew Marshall's atmospheric lighting design heightened the moments of hilarious comedy, conflict and solitary reflection. In a tour de force of ensemble playing, the four actors adroitly switched with compete conviction from shearers to dogs to sheep and back again, with no danger of confusion under Biggins's tight direction and in the fertile minds of a young audience who understand only too well the art of pretending.

Children's theatre at its very best has the power to capture the hearts and minds of every generation. Monkey Baa's adaptation of Jackie French's and Bruce Whateley's delightful story is testament to the power of story in our lives and the perfect role of the theatre to illuminate the human condition from page to stage.

Nat Jobe as Pete the Sheep, Todd Keys and Andrew James as sheep

P.S. If you happen to have missed this excellent stage adaptation of Jackie French and illustrator Bruce Whateley's delightful story of Pete the Sheep, then you can catch it at the Street Theatre from October 7-11. Don't miss it! 

Sunday, September 14, 2014


Written, devised and directed by Alirio Zavarce
A No Strings Attached Theatre Of Disability production
The Q, Queanbeyan
Saturday September 13, 2014

Review by Len Power

Asking a mother when she first met her child seems like an odd question to ask, but you can count on some very interesting responses, as we saw in ‘Sons & Mothers’ at the Q on Saturday night.

This is a complex and unique theatrical work that is very entertaining and ultimately very moving.  Written, devised and directed by Alirio Zavarce, this No Strings Attached Theatre Of Disability production presents six men with disabilities who tell us about their relationships with their mothers.  With the use of slides and video, their real mothers give us their candid views of the relationship, too.

Venezuelan-born director, Alirio Zavarce, whose brother is disabled, has developed and fashioned this work in collaboration with his cast through workshops including improvisations and movement over a three year period.  In the program, he states that, ‘As the writer I have crafted the performance, but the words each performer speaks are his own.  The work is alive and it will change every night’.

Gently guided by the director, each cast member presents his story directly to the audience.  Some of the stories are funny, some are angry and all are quite moving.  There is no manipulation of emotions here, just simple statements of truth.  The one common factor to all the stories is the love between sons and mothers.  The video comment by the mothers provides another aspect of the stories as they unfold.  The onstage presence of these men and their ability to connect with an audience is truly remarkable and not because they have a disability.  These are people who just have that indefinable something – a charisma – that draws you to them like a magnet.

All other elements of the production give a strong theatricality to the work.  The set design by Kathyrn Sproul provides an almost dreamlike atmosphere which is complemented by the excellent lighting design by David Gadsden.  Movement by Aidan Munn adds another charming dimension to the show and the music by Mario Spate is well-chosen.  The clever and thoughtful video design by Eugenia Lim, including projected quotes by famous people about mothers, was especially well done. 

Alirio Zavarce has fashioned an extraordinary work that not only showcases his cast but is also great theatre.  The standing ovation at the end of the performance was well-deserved.  Mark Twain is one of the people quoted during the performance.  He said, ‘My mother had a great deal of trouble with me, but I think she enjoyed it.’  I know I enjoyed it!

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 14 September from 5pm.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Writer: Bryce Hallett

Director: David Berthold
Musical Director: Chong Lim
Set and Costume Design: Adam Gardnir
Presented by Blake Entertainment
Canberra Theatre
September 7, 2014.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Anyone expecting “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” to be just another loud head-banging rock concert is in for a surprise. Yes there is loud rock music, but in this show it is beautifully arranged and produced so that you can hear the lyrics - and in this show the lyrics have context – and in this context some of these lyrics are very powerful and moving.

Described in the publicity as a concert drama, “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” is a remarkable production by any measure. From the very first guitar chords of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride”, the audience is hurled into an emotional rollercoaster ride through the period of history defined by the Vietnam War.

Billed as  "songs that defined a generation”,  “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” delivers much more than it promises, leaving those members of the audience who have lived through that period, as well as those who only know it from second-hand accounts,  deeply moved by the potency of the songs and their presentation.

Wes Carr - Matthew Pearce - Tom Oliver
Bryce Hallett has provided an electrifying script, drawn from actual letters and first-hand interviews, distilled into a compelling account of three young every-men, two Australians and one American, drawn into that war.  Tom Oliver, Wes Carr and Matthew Pearce play the men and address the audience directly as they recount their experiences. Kimberley Hodgson and Vanessa Krummenacher portray various women in their lives, and Will Ewing provides back-up vocals and a multitude of other characters. All sing solos, and produce brilliant harmonies in the ensemble numbers.

Their stories are interwoven with key songs from the period. These songs weave seamlessly through the narrative, informing and enhancing the text, and becoming powerful and moving declarations of love, loss and protest.

“Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy” is sung by Tom Oliver to describe the reaction of his parents and friends to the news that he has volunteered to go to war. With “Help Me Make It Through The Night”, Kimberley Hodgson describes the loneliness of separation. Kimberley Hodgson again, achieves the near-impossible by managing to turn “Killing Me Softly With His Song” into a beautifully sung, heart-wrenching response to the news of the death her fiancĂ©. Each of the six soloists is superb, equally persuasive as both actor and singer.

 The beautifully balanced sound allowed the virtuoso five-piece  band, lead from the key-boards by Musical Director, Chong Lim, to impress mightily with its ability to move effortlessly through a soundscape which embraces the head-banging anarchy of Steppenwolf’s,  “Born To Be Wild”, the Stones, “Paint it Black“ and a deeply moving arrangement of Simon and Garfunkel’s anthem, “Bridge Over Trouble Waters”. The musical arrangements allow space for the audience to appreciate scorching solos from guitarists Stuart Fraser and Brett Garsed, Craig Newman’s driving bass, and Angus Burchall’s superbly textured percussion.

David Berthold’s direction is tight and imaginative. The performers toss dialogue between each other as they enter and exit the stage.  Each song is delineated with its own unique staging. Each performer is superbly showcased to display individual strengths and talents, and even some impressively energetic physicality.

Adam Gardnir’s splendid setting is particularly evocative, with four huge video screens displaying Toby Harding’s brilliant, ever-changing montage of brilliant archival and abstract images, in front of a textural background of beautifully-lit camouflage-material drapes. His costumes are subtle, attractive and appropriate.

Much more than a concert. Much more than a documentary. “Rolling Thunder Vietnam” is a superbly presented theatrical experience which will leave you entertained, informed and surprisingly moved.

The Cast of Rolling Thunder Vietnam 


Sunday, September 7, 2014


Opera by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Emanuel Schikaneder
English translation by Michael Gow
Directed by Michael Gow
Opera Australia
Canberra Theatre, September 4 – 6, 2014

Review by Len Power September 4, 2014

‘He looks like a film star!’  This is not a line you expect to hear in a Mozart opera written in the late 18th Century.  Michael Gow has transported Mozart’s opera to 1930s Egypt, Hollywood-style, and set it in an ancient tomb with sinister shadows on the walls, secret doorways and a hero who looks like you-know-who from a Steven Spielberg movie.  It all works very well and is a delight from start to finish.

This production is sung in English and you can actually hear and understand the words as they’re singing them.  Michael Gow’s translation is witty and clarifies a lot of the original story with careful cuts to the text.  It’s especially notable that the modern words in the arias don’t stray much in translation from the original German text.  A major change in this version concerns the Queen Of The Night who isn’t destroyed at the end of the opera.  In addition, Monostatos, usually played as a black man who must therefore be evil, is played as a foreigner who is subservient to people who think they are better than him.  These changes are a welcome improvement.  The punishment of the Queen Of The Night has always seemed a bit extreme, so this change makes the ending of the opera more human and satisfying.

The terrific set design by Robert Kemp is very much in keeping with a 1930s Hollywood movie designer’s idea of an ancient Egyptian tomb.  The lighting gantries clearly visible above the set add to the Hollywood feel of the production.  It might be a touring set but it looks quite substantial with secret doorways opening here and there.  Matt Scott’s lighting design gives it all a spooky Universal Studios horror movie atmosphere.

The music, using Andrew Greene’s excellent orchestral arrangement was quite charming.  The nine piece chamber ensemble, conducted by Paul Fitzsimon brought out the colour and vibrancy of Mozart’s score.  Sound balance between the orchestra and the un-miked singers was perfect.

Hannah Dahlenburg, as the Queen of the Night, had the most spectacular arias to sing and handled them superbly.  Tamino was sung by the handsome Jonathan Abernethy and his fine singing displayed a striking tenor voice.  Christopher Hillier as Papageno sang very well and demonstrated strong comic ability also.  Emma Castelli as Pamina, Steven Gallop as Sarastro, Benjamin Rasheed as Monostatos and Anna Dowsley as Papagena also sang very well and gave good in-depth characterisations.  The Three Ladies, played by Anna Yun, Regina Daniel and Stacey Alleaume, were great fun bickering over Tamino and their trios were beautifully sung.  The members of the Woden Valley Youth Choir, appearing in the Canberra performances only, were in fine voice and moved so confidently that they looked like they had been part of the production from its inception.

At the beginning of the opera, Tamino has to do battle with a monster, usually portrayed as a dragon or a serpent.  In this production, Tamino takes on The Mummy, dressed as expected in rotting bandages.  This costume and all of the others designed by Robert Kemp were striking and nicely in period.

Director, Michael Gow, has produced a very entertaining show with fine performances.  His decision to set it in a 1930s Hollywood-style setting was inspired and makes the opera much more accessible.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ showbiz program with Bill Stephens on Sunday 7 September from 5pm.

Friday, September 5, 2014

THE MAGIC FLUTE - Touring Production

Presented by Opera Australia
Sam Roberts-Smith as Tamino

Director: Michael Gow

Conductor: Paul Fitzsimon

Designer: Robert Kemp

Lighting design: Matt Scott

Canberra Theatre: September 4th, 5th, 6th.

September 4th performance reviewed by Bill Stephens

On the front page of the original score of “The Magic Flute”, Mozart noted that the setting was Egypt. This was all the encouragement director, Michael Gow, needed to come up with this deliciously silly adaptation, which moves the action into the 1930’s, when the world was still besotted by the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb, and all things Egyptian.

Robert Kemp’s design takes us into a rather substantial-looking Egyptian tomb, complete with a mummy, secret chambers, mysterious hieroglyphics and a cast who look as though they have just stepped out of the latest Indiana Jones movie. It all works a treat.

Some clever tweaking of the libretto by Gow, has Tamino as a young explorer. Pamina is now a rather modern young miss whose love for Tamino ultimately manages to re-unite her parents, the glamorous Queen of the Night and the mysterious, if slightly dotty professor, Sarastro.  They are aided and abetted through a series of adventures, along the path to true love, by a bumbling bird-catcher, Papageno and three of the Queen’s hand-maidens.

This rather wonderful nonsense serves Mozart’s idiosyncratic opera very well indeed and is particularly beautifully sung as by this ensemble cast of young emerging Opera Australia soloists, most of who, alternate between the soloist and ensemble roles.  This version is sung in English, and for the most part, admirably well-articulated by the singers, and accompanied by an excellent small ensemble orchestra, conducted by Paul Fitzsimon, who ensures an excellent balance between orchestra and singer, making the lyrics easy to hear and the action easy to follow. 
Christopher Hillier (Papageno) - EmmaCastelli (Pamina)
Photo Albert Comper

 Jonathan Abernathy cuts an impressively heroic figure as Tamino, and though his acting was rather tentative, his warm, lyrical tenor voice was unforced and expressive.  As Pamina, the object of Tamino’s affection, Emma Castelli also impressed with the clarity and beauty of her voice.   

Usually seen in more serious roles, Christopher Hillier as Papageno, proved a dab hand at knock-about comedy, nailing all his laughs, and tossing off his tongue- twisting arias with admirable aplomb. He was well teamed with Anna Dowsley, quite irresistible as the mischievous Papagena.
Hannah Dahlenburg (Queen of the Night)
Photo: Albert Comper

As dazzling as she appeared as the epitome of Hollywood glamour, in a glittering silver dress, white fur and platinum blonde wig, Hannah Dahlenburg also dazzled vocally with her thrilling performance as the Queen of the Night, nailing every note of the famous aria with startling accuracy and clarity, whilst striding the stage with confidence and flair. 

Steven Gallop (Sarastro)
Photo: Albert Comper

Equally thrilling, but at the other end of the scale, was Steven Gallop’s towering Sarastro.  His voice as rich as warm treacle, Gallop commanded the stage on every appearance, bringing a quiet dignity and subtle air of mystery to the unexpected denouement of his re-union with The Queen of the Night...

At this performance, Anna Yun, Stacey Alleaume and Regina Daniel brought admirable vocal clarity and vivaciousness to the three ladies. Benjamin Rasheed was a wonderfully loathsome Monostatos, and Andrew Moran and Nicholas Jones provided enthusiastic support as the guards.
Anna Yun -Stacey Alleaume - Regina Daniel
Photo Albert Comper

A notable feature of this production is the interpolation of a children’s choir, and for the Canberra performance, members of The Woden Valley Youth Choir contributed to the fun, singing accurately and beautifully while acting with enthusiasm.  

Following on last year’s Opera Australia touring production of his excellent “Don Giovanni”, this imaginative, entertaining production,  by Michael Gow,  of another Mozart masterpiece, stamps Gow as one of our most interesting contemporary opera directors. One looks forward to his next production.
Anna Dowsley (Papagena) - Christopher Hillier (Papageno)
Photo: Albert Comper

                                        This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.