Thursday, June 23, 2011

Turns by Reg Livermore, with Nancye Hayes

Turns by Reg Livermore, with Nancye Hayes and piano accompaniment by Vincent Colagiuri.  Christine Dunstan Productions directed by Tom Healey at Canberra Playhouse, June 21-25 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

The story of Turns – a pantomime with a twist – is entirely fictional.  Gladys Moncrieff, Australia’s ‘Queen of Song’ is claimed to be the mother of Nancye Hayes’ character, Marjorie Joy.  Marjorie’s son, Alistair Moncrieff, claims his mother shot Gladys on stage as she opened wide to sing high C.  In case you want to know, the real Gladys Moncrieff had no children and died in hospital in 1976 at the age of 83, having retired from the stage with her husband Tom Moore to the Isle of Capri in 1968.

Livermore’s author’s note says ‘Turns is a broad reflection on show business, matters of identity, of family and dependency, of the memory, and the commonality of an experience that lies ahead for most of us.’  This refers, presumably, not to death, since that lies ahead for all of us, but to dementia – although European studies show incident rates of 2.5 per 1000 at age 65, growing to 85.6 per 1000 at age 90.  In other words most of us will not suffer from dementia, but 95 year old Marjorie Joy certainly does, and I begin to suspect that her son Alistair (who I suppose is about the same age as me and Reg Livermore) is headed in the same direction. 

I should calm any fears by noting that on stage and at the pre-show talk hosted by Helen Musa on June 21, neither Reg (72) nor Nancye (67) showed the slightest signs of any forms of dementia that I could detect – but of course that may merely reflect my own shortcomings now I am 70.  What I do know is that there is no way I could hoof, sing, mime, speak, shout, and hold an audience with anything like the verve and discipline of these two.  Or remember my lines.  So I’ll stick to criticism, thank you very much.

I guess what Livermore, as author, has shown is that not only is theatre all a matter of illusion, but that life itself is largely illusory.  When we see Alistair attempting to cope with caring for his impossible mother, he appears to be normal.  He feels duty bound even while her behaviour is frustrating.  We find her funny even as we sympathise with him. 

When Alistair speaks to us after his mother’s death, we begin by assuming that he is normal, but the twist is that he reveals to us his own need for illusion to sustain a sense of personal integrity.  Like his mother, he must use dress-ups as a way to create a life for himself.  We are back in the world of theatre, where fiction can be made to seem real, even including a story about the death of Gladys Moncrieff.

What does it all mean?  Well, I suggest that Hayes and Livermore, who have both been named among Australia’s Top 100 Entertainers of the 20th Century, in the musical theatre tradition, can be seen as the children of Gladys Moncrieff.  Hayes’ career began as a dancer in the JC Williamson 1961 production of My Fair Lady, while Livermore’s got under way at the Phillip Street Theatre in 1957.  I had arrived in Australia in 1955 and was certainly made well aware of the Queen of Song – though I have to admit that my 1957 highlight was Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, sitting up in the Gods at the Elizabethan Theatre in Newtown.  Gladys Moncrieff was a pleasant radio voice for me, but one who didn’t often make it among AE Floyd’s Music Lovers’ Hour on the ABC each week.  Maybe even then I was too pretentious for my own good.

So I guess I have to conclude that although Turns and Reg Livermore as a writer can’t match O’Neill and Long Day’s Journey, this is an entertainment with something more than mere enjoyment – a ‘broad reflection on show business’ as the author has claimed.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl

In the Next Room or the vibrator play by Sarah Ruhl.  Sydney Theatre Company at Canberra Playhouse, directed by Pamela Rabe.  June 8-11, 2011

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 8

Only two years after its first production at Berkeley Rep, it’s good to see Sydney put on a play described by one of its first commentators (Rachel Swan in the East Bay Express) as ‘a pretty progressive play, even by 2009 standards’.  I am sure that most of the Canberra audience last night was much more sophisticated than I am, and their delight in this rare kind of comedy suggests they are pretty progressive too.  At interval a friend asked if I had “learnt anything new”.  It was a trap question, of course, so I mumbled vaguely rather than reveal my ignorance.

I’ll return later to the play and its writer, because there’s lots there to think about. 

But I want to begin by praising Pamela Rabe, and her cast Jacqueline McKenzie (Catherine Givings – the vibrator’s wife), David Roberts (Dr Givings – the vibrator), Helen Thomson (Sabrina Daldry – the first to be vibrated), Marshall Napier (Mr Daldry – her non-vibrant husband), Mandy McElhinney (Annie – the vibrator’s assistant and a vibrator in her own right), Sara Zwangobani (Elizabeth – the wet nurse who understands) and Josh McConville (Leo Irving – the artist and the second to be vibrated).

Equally praiseworthy is the designer, Tracy Grant Lord and her team led by Hartley T A Kemp (Lighting Designer), Iain Grandage (Composer/Sound Designer), Laura A. Proietti (Wigs, Hair & Make Up Supervisor), and Charmian Gradwell (Voice & Text Coach).  A large part of the particular success of this production was how the set, costumes, hair-dos, lights and sound gave the actors exactly the environment to allow their characters to spark.

And spark they certainly did, in more ways than one.  Being a bit too much like Dr Givings myself, I loved the moment when he sees that Mrs Daldry needs an extra boost, turns the vibrator up to maximum and blows every Edison light in the house.  Isn’t it great to be a technician?

Each actor had strengths with no noticeable weak points, so none can be honestly awarded more praise than any other in such a tight ensemble, but there were special moments for me. 

One was the depth of character expressed by Sara Zwangobani as Elizabeth announces her decision to leave Catherine’s employ as a wet nurse – such bitterness held in check by her maturity of understanding took this role far beyond a matter of simple racist discrimination.  Her speech opened up the whole issue of universal human rights.

At the other end of the scale was the brief exit of Marshall Napier’s Mr Daldry as he realises that he has to walk out to see Catherine’s garden and leave her and his wife alone together.  Perhaps he is mainly responding to Catherine’s vivacity, but he also recognises Sabrina’s new-found sense of authority.  Probably he can’t explain to himself why he should go, but he knows he must.

These are only two examples which show why I am so pleased to see a modern play offer the actors the opportunity for such finesse.  This brings me to the play itself.

One commentator mentioned that the set is deliberately similar to that of Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, and I found myself thinking of another playwright also influenced by Ibsen: George Bernard Shaw, still famous in the popular mind today for Pygmalion and its musical version My Fair Lady.  Shaw was a progressive playwright in his day.  He didn’t mention vibrators but he wrote about attitudes towards women’s sexuality in 1892 only a decade or so after the technically advanced Americans in Ruhl’s play were discovering how to treat hysteria with ‘paroxysms’.  In Mrs Warren’s Profession Shaw wrote a comedy about Mrs Warren’s Cambridge educated daughter being horrified to find that her mother financed her daughter’s education by running a brothel.

Mrs Warren’s Profession was banned by the Lord Chamberlain because of its ‘frank discussion and portrayal of prostitution’, getting its first production after 10 years in the members-only New Lyric Club in 1902 and waiting for its first public performance in London until 1925.  Interestingly, ‘it had a performance in New York, this time on a public stage in 1905, [which] was interrupted by the police who arrested the cast and crew, although it appears only the house manager of the theatre was actually charged.[citation needed] The play has been revived on Broadway five times since, most recently in 2010.’  [Wikipedia accessed 9 June 2011]

Well, how does Ruhl compare to Shaw?  First, however progressive she may be, it seems that the re-enactment of orgasms on stage has not caused the arrest of the cast and crew, despite present-day public concerns about pornography.  Maybe this is because Ruhl has set her play in the prudish Victorian era in the past (now 130 years ago), whereas Shaw’s play was set in his own time – the actual prudish Victorian era.  In the official 1912 Constable edition, Shaw’s preface, called The Author’s Apology, made no apology at all for refusing to write a conventional sentimental romantic comedy and having his characters speak and behave as real people would.

Ruhl, in re-creating the language of the past era, has written at least as cleverly as the famous wordsmith Shaw.  Her comedy grows from the fact that her characters avoid direct description, yet we know today exactly what they mean.  Shaw’s comedy drew on characters saying exactly what they mean in a society that wishes they didn’t.  The one quote, of course, which has come down to us from Shaw is Eliza’s innocent exclamation in Pygmalion: ‘Not bloody likely.’  

So one thing I learnt from In the Next Room or the vibrator play is that Sarah Ruhl well deserves the prizes she has been awarded (Glickman Prize and finalist for Pulizter Prize), and that she is writing in a tradition which I find thoroughly satisfying.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Ursula Yovich: Magpie Blues

Ursula Yovich: Magpie Blues at The Street Theatre, June 4 2011

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Even though, on her only Canberra performance, Ursula Yovich’s voice was badly affected by a dry throat, she began with something like a Bessie Smith quality of sound that made it clear why she calls this a Blues show.  Maybe she also felt a bit blue since this was the very last performance of Magpie Blues after some two years, culminating at the Sydney Opera House in May.

Her voice problems seemed to shake her confidence, making her forget her lines on quite a few occasions, and so I’m not in a position to confirm or deny the strongly positive reviews she has previously received. 

I found myself making comparisons and concluding that the show needs a good writer.  Other reviewers were keen on the lack of artifice in her telling of her life story, but for me her work was nowhere near the storytelling standard of David Page’s Page 8.  Page, of course, had the guidance of Louis Nowra to give the narrative structure, while Yovich relies too much on chronological anecdotes.  I felt I wanted the songs to do more of the driving along of the drama, instead of seeming to be illustrations – though the more powerful of these were generally those composed by Yovich herself, rather than the covers of songs she had picked up along the way.

It seemed to me there were two themes.  One was about her getting into WAAPA.  Her story included just a humorous few words about swimming a croc-infested flood to get to the airport from Maningrida.  I wanted to know much more about how she got such a voice, and how this White side of her parentage and experience linked up with the Black side.  She sang in her mother’s Brada language, but the form of the music was much more like American ballad than Maningrida song.

This was the second theme – I guess the main theme from Yovich’s point of view.  It was about her parents’ breaking up when Ursula was eight and her consequent loss of proper understanding of her Aboriginal language, culture and status.  She ended Magpie Blues with Over the Rainbow, her white culture song, asking poignantly “Why can’t I?”.  And yet the success of this work, including at the Darwin Festival, the Dreaming Festival in Queensland and the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land, as well as her acting and singing successes in London, New York and Sydney, seem to say that she can. 

I guess if the performance I saw had hung together properly, the depth of emotion in her story would have been the focus as other reviewers have said.  But perhaps it is time now to bring this show to an end, and maybe work up a more substantial piece in the future using, I would hope, a song cycle of Yovich’s original compositions.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber - Lyrics by Glen Slater
Book by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton
Presented by The Really Useful Company Asia Pacific
Regent Theatre, Melbourne - Australian Premiere 28th May 2011

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.  Photos by Len Power.

Since Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera" opened on the West End in London in 1986 it has become a world-wide phenomenon both on stage and on film. Whether this sequel will capture the public's imagination in the same way remains to be seen, but if it doesn't, it will not be the fault of this sumptuous production.

Picking up the story ten years after the Phantom fled the Paris Opera House, we discover that he is now a successful entrepreneur on Coney Island at the turn of the century. He employs Madame Giry (Maria Mercedes) and her daughter, Meg (Sharon Millerchip) to run and perform in his sideshow "Phantasma". Christine Daae' (Anna O'Byrne), now a famous opera singer, has married Raoul Vicomte de Chagny (Simon Gleeson), and they have a 10 year old son Gustav (Kurtis Papadinis on opening night). Christine Daae' is engaged to perform at "Phantasma" and the Phantom and Christine rekindle their love affair and the Phantom discovers that Gustav is really his son. This revelation leads to a series of complications which ultimately result in Christine's death.

The story is deliriously melodramatic and there are some serious plausibility issues, but what the heck, with so much to watch and such glorious music to listen to, it hardly seems to matter.

Gabriella Tylesova's exquisite sets and costumes are genuinely stunning. Her vision of Coney Island involves myriads of twinkling lights, fantastic merry-go-rounds and smoke and mirror sideshows, inhabited by mysterious denizens in gorgeous costumes. Her interiors feature beautiful art noveau lights, velvet and gilt furniture and heavy mirrored doors, which constantly reconfigurate on a series of revolves, all superbly lit by Nigel Schlieper.

Perfectly at home amongst this kaleidoscopic milieu, Graeme Murphy provides choreography that is both clever and appropriate, while Simon Phillips draws on all his considerable experience to ensure that everything is focussed and compelling.

However the sets and costumes are not the only impressive aspects of this show. There is also a formidable cast headed by two new performers marked for stardom, Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne.

Although relatively unknown prior to this production, Ben Lewis is perfectly cast as the Phantom.Tall, handsome and the possessor of a rich multi-hued baritone voice, Lewis is also a fine actor. From the opening minutes of the show, when alone on the stage he performs superbly perhaps the most memorable song in the score, "Till I Hear You Sing" he has the audience's full attention. No less impressive, Anna O'Byrne is a delicately beautiful Christine Daae. Her crystal clear soprano is perfectly suited to Lloyd Webber's soaring melodies and she acts with a quiet authority this is arresting and often moving.

The role of Meg Giry has considerably more importance in this story, and revisiting the role she created in the original "Phantom of the Opera", Sharon Millerchip is thoroughly captivating in a role which requires her to sing and dance as well as pull off a shocking denouement in the finale.

Strong performances also come from Maria Mercedes, superb as the scheming Madame Giry, and Simon Gleeson, in particularly fine voice, who somehow manages to make the self-obsessed Raoul into a sympathetic character.

If all this is not enough, there is particular pleasure to be had in Guy Simpson's superb orchestra which does full justice to Andrew Lloyd Webbers lush, romantic score and glorious orchestrations.

"Love Never Dies" is an extraordinary achievement for Simon Phillips who already has one show running on Broadway with "Priscilla Queen of the Desert". It is well-known that Andrew Lloyd Webber is dissatisfied with the London production of "Love Never Dies", and speaking from the stage on opening night he made no bones about declaring this production "one of the best productions of any of my shows anywhere in the world ....the version which will go to Broadway".  He should know, and I have no doubt that it will.

(For your interest I have added some photographs of the production taken at the media call prior to opening night, and of Ben Lewis and Anna O'Byrne with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and Ben Elton taken at the lavish party which followed the Australian premiere of "Love Never Dies". B.S.)