Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart / Da Ponte

The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart / Da Ponte.  Co-Opera directed by Tessa Bremner,  Musical Director Brian Chatterton at The Street Theatre, Canberra, March 29-30, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 29

“Co-Opera was formed in 1990 with the express purpose of presenting opera in new and imaginative ways….”  Their aim is admirably achieved in this production of Figaro, passing through Canberra on its east coast 30 performance tour from Adelaide to Port Douglas.

The singing and acting was excellent throughout, though I make no bones about being home-town biassed in praising the performance of Karen Fitz-Gibbon.  She has just last year completed her Honours year at the Australian National University School of Music, and her Susanna was close to perfect.  Hers is the central role in Bremner’s approach to Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto: Fitz-Gibbon’s timing and characterisation made the whole play work dramatically.

Now, of course, I’m forced to admit that Tessa Bremner is a one-time Canberra Critics’ Circle Award winner – for a production of Amadeus.  All I can say is that it is good to see that our award predicted continuing success, especially since the value of critics is being questioned in the blogosphere.  (Follow this up in the current Currency House Platform Papers No. 27, April 2011: HELLO WORLD! Promoting the Arts on the Web by Robert Reid, and Alison Croggon’s blog ‘The return of the amateur critic’ at,au/unleashed/20038.html)

My reason for mentioning Bremner is that she was a successful stage play director who clearly sees this opera production not as a series of platforms for singers but as a drama of plot, thinking characters and emotion.  She has integrated all these elements into the wonderful effects that Mozart’s music creates, and presented the work on a smallish scale so that her audience can all feel personally part of the theatrical illusion.  The result is that all the social criticism inherent in the original libretto is made apparent.

And, it is important to say, Bremner is served very well by a small band, in this case spread across the auditorium floor in front of Row A, conducted in the traditional way by Chatterton at the continuo.

My only thought about the originality of the show concerns the following WikiLeak – sorry, Wikipedia entry: “It was Mozart who originally selected Beaumarchais' play and brought it to Da Ponte, who turned it into a libretto in six weeks, rewriting it in poetic Italian and removing all of the original's political references. In particular, Da Ponte replaced Figaro's climactic speech against inherited nobility with an equally angry aria against unfaithful wives. Contrary to the popular myth, the libretto was approved by the Emperor, Joseph II, before any music was written by Mozart.”

Watching the performance it is obvious that Joseph II didn’t realise that the satire was too subtle for all the political references to be removed, fortunately for us for it is indeed the way that the servants Figaro and Susanna treat their ‘noble’ bosses that makes the show relevant today (as of course it was especially when Beaumarchais’ original play was banned in France in the mid-1770s).  What Co-Opera might have done is to reinstate Beaumarchais’ ‘climactic speech against inherited nobility’, which could be done especially because Da Ponte’s Italian has already been translated into English for most of this production.

For me, Figaro’s tirade against unfaithful wives seemed very much out of place against the self-confidence and sensibility of the women, who take such a modern approach to the practicalities of dealing with rampant males.  Though it is true that at this point Figaro has misunderstood what Susanna has done, the good humour and loving nature of their relationship from the beginning is far too easily blighted in his attack.  It would make much more sense for him to take the nobility to task as they deserve at this point, and as Beaumarchais intended.

Otherwise originality was to the fore.  The use of Germanic English for all of the skulduggery and Romance Italian for the love songs was a beautiful way to make even more of the music than Mozart’s Austrian audience would have heard. The costumes, with beehive head-dresses, exaggerated commedia make-up and a dress sense appropriate for each class of character made for the intelligent comedy that this opera is.  At the same time the use of clear plastic costume overlays, dressing room walls and ‘mirrors’ was an exciting modern touch which worked very well to make the meaning of the play transparent.

I wish this production well on its journey travelling north.

An operatic gem

Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro'.
Co-Opera Inc, at The Street Theatre, March 29 and 30.

I describe this performance as a gem because it's small, but brilliant and glittering. Forget huge and lavish performances of 'grand opera' in world famous opera houses; Co-Opera is a touring company which has proved able to bring the best in opera to smaller stages and to country venues.

I found it totally delightful, from my first glimpse of the lighted set, a series of linked platforms with built-in lighting, to the performances of the singers, whose voice, costumes, movement, and acting came together to make a visual and aural experience to remember.

Since I am not a music critic but simply a lover of good theatre, I will leave detailed reviews to others. Suffice it to say that praise is due to the Director, the Musical Director, the Designer (not credited in the program) and the Lighting Director.
Malcolm Miller

Monday, March 28, 2011

A little glimpse of Chinese theatre...

No chance to catch more than a few glimpses of Chinese performance on an Asia Education Foundation tour this January (since not all teachers on such a tour have performing arts as their main focus) but they were fascinating glimpses.

You would not want to do any outdoor theatre in Beijing in winter. Luckily, unless you want to join outdoor dancing or singing groups in China (which, like swimming in holes cut in the ice of the canals, do happen…), theatre seems to take place indoors.

In order to get inside any public building like a theatre or a shop you have to fight your way past a couple of blanket-like panels in the doorway, ‘fight’ sometimes feeling a rather appropriate word in a country where the queue is not a custom and elbowing your way through crowds is the norm. The ‘blankets’ are there to keep the heat in; a very welcome thought in minus temperatures.

Lao She Tearoom is the place to see variety, although they also do Beijing opera. Upstairs inside the theatre revealed itself to be long and narrow, with lots of painted decoration and the audience at tables and a conventional stage at one end. We were up on a raised platform toward the back and visibility was a bit difficult what with waiters coming and going but that didn’t matter once the show got under way. While drinking copious amounts of tea we watched a succession of variety acts, ranging from some very delicate shadow puppets to long humorous songs, an adroit magician, some Chinese ‘stand up’, acrobatics and the ‘face changing’ act.

This last is quite puzzling. A performer in colourful robes and head dress changes opera ‘mask’ makeup in a flash, not revealing the secret even when coming right up to the tables. We could not figure it out. Quick silk mask changes? Face contortions to reveal a different makeup? Hugely skilled stuff.

Another night we went off to the acrobats. This time the theatre was a large conventional barn with an end on stage and pretty sensitive combinations of moving and fixed lighting (The real masters of this kind of lighting are probably the designers of the Siam Nirimit show in Bangkok but that’s another story.) Cheerfully skilful stuff, with all the usual routines including chair stacks and spinning plates and bicycles with multiple riders as well as large performing birds alarming the audience by flying across the auditorium. Unlike the Lao She show there seemed to be a much higher proportion of foreigners and expats in this audience.

The best of all, however, was the Beijing opera episode at the Huguang Guild Hall. Built in 1807, this exquisitely decorated theatre was where the Kuomintang was founded by Dr Sun Yat Sen in 1912. 

(A couple of years ago I found another thread of this story in the form of a Chinese cemetery up on the Thai-Lao border where some KMT soldiers settled after China became Communist)

The Huguang Guild Hall has an Elizabethan feeling to it, with balconies running round on three sides and a large canopied square stage thrusting out into the audience.  Once again it was tea and snacks as Monkey took the stage, the episode being the one where he steals from Heaven the peaches that grant immortality. Lively, full of fights and comedy and, despite our lack of Chinese, very understandable to people who had once watched a certain TV series…

And here he is…

Alanna Maclean

Saturday, March 26, 2011

'Auntie Mame' - a brief review by Malcolm Miller

I write in tribute to Andrea Close, who has, over some years, brought me a great deal of with her acting in a number of notable performances. 

'Auntie Mame' , from Free Rain Theatre Company, is at the Courtyard Studio from Friday March 25 to Sunday April 10.  Andrea, one of a cast of sixteen, gave a star performance as Mame in a show that's perhaps more familiar as the musical, "Mame'. 

This is a 'feel-good' show, and there are laughs and humour which contrast nicely with the hard times of the Depression which cast down many of the characters.  It's quite lengthy, and the necessity for frequent, clunky, scene changes is a little disturbing, and probably a bit hard on the patience of the audience.  I found it so.

I was favourably impressed by the work of Ben Burgess as Young Pat.  He presented with style and presence, and his voice put some older members of the cast to shame, with every word heard.  Patrick as a young man later in the play was played by Lachlan Ruffy.   Veteran player Jasan Savage got smiles for his playing of, among others, the ageing Mother Burnside.  Lauren Bradley was a wonderfully catty southern belle as Sally Cato.  One hopes to see more of her.  The cast was too large for me to write something about everybody!

If you want a good night at the theatre, with some excellent acting and plenty of laughs that you can leave with a smile, I recommend 'Aunty Mame'.

Friday, March 25, 2011


Opera Australia.
Sydney Opera House until 31st March.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Staging a Handel opera seems to be a very effective way of clearing out an opera house, judging by the progressively greater number of empty seats after each interval at the performance I attended of Opera Australia's production of "Partenope".

Perhaps those audience members were remembering director Christopher Alden's last effort at the Opera House, the execrable "Tosca", and had decided that as they could'nt make head nor tail of the proceedings onstage they might as well dash home in the hope of finding something more edifying on the TV.

Actually, those of us who had attended the entertaining free pre-show talk by assistand director, Tama Matheson, were reminded that in the eighteenth century, when Handel wrote this opera, the presentation style was very much different to how opera is presented now, and that "Partenope" was not really written as a narrative opera. Therefore Christopher Alden and his co-director Peter Littlefield had devised this concept to make it more interesting. So, Voila! armed with this knowledge, I decided, after the first act, to simply stop trying to match the libretto with the shenanigans on stage and let Handel's glorious music wash over me as the cast went through their directorial hoops, and...... the results certainly were more entertaining.

While "Partenope" isn't the most accessible or sensible of the Handel operas - (Come to think of it... Is there such a thing as a sensible Handel Opera?) - it does contain some glorious music, here, beautifully played by an orchestra which achieved exactly the correct sound and balance under Christian Curnyn, and this production does have a superb ensemble of singers who do the music proud,  headed by a very game Emma Mathews, as Partenope, with Kanen Breen (Emilio), Christopher Field (Armindo), Jacqueline Dark (Rosmira), Richard Alexander (Ormonte), and Sian Pendry, who at the performance I attended, was replacing an indisposed Catherine Carby, as Partenope's lover, Arsace.

Set in the late twenties, in a decadent world of stark white apartments, Man Ray photography and sparkly cocktail dresses, the production contains many undeniably memorable moments. Indeed images of Emma Mathews, outfitted in top hat and tails, energectically seducing Christopher Field while firing of sparkling cadenzas in all directions, Sian Pendry sitting on a lavatory shredding endless rolls of toilet paper, and Kanen Breen delivering an intricate aria while performing some amazingly outrageous yoga moves, will stay with me for a long time.There are some genuinely funny bits of business, which,to their credit, the cast embraced with enthusiasm and spirit while still managing to sing beautifully, in fact, even sublimely, in the case of the meltingly lustrous solo with which Emma Mathews closed the second act.

But while I rather enjoyed the night out, please Opera Australia, next time you produce a Handel opera, can we have a production closer to what Handel intended?

(This review was broadcast in "Dress Circle" on Artsound FM 92.7)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Doctor Zhivago

Lyric Theatre, Star City, Sydney until 2nd April
Her Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, from April 12.
Lyric Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane from July 6

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

If your reason for seeing "Doctor Zhivago" is to experience Anthony Warlow playing the title role then you would be wise to confirm that he is actually performing when buying your tickets. At the performance I attended neither Warlow, nor his Lara, Lucy Maunder, were in the show. The brave understudies, Anton Berezin and Belinda Wollaston, had to overcome an intitially cool response from the disappointed audience to eventually win well-deserved cheers by their curtain calls. Bravo!

Based on the sprawling Boris Pasternak novel, "Doctor Zhivago" is a stirring musical which tells an epic story and demands concentration to absorb all the twists and turns of the plot. Regardless of who is playing the main roles however, there is much to enjoy.

Not the least being how cleverly director Des McAnuff uses Michael Scott-Mitchell's strikingly mobile set to propel the action seamlessly through scenes of lavish balls, weddings, assassinations, murders, suicides and yearning lovers to finally pull all the threads together. There's Teresa Negroponte's lavish period costumes, and the many fine performances from a cast which includes Peter Carroll, Bartholomew John, Trisha Noble, Shaun Murphy, Martin Crewes and Natalie Gamsu.

But mostly there's Lucy Simon's superbly tuneful score which includes at least two lovely songs destined to become classics when the show eventually finds its way to Broadway, and you will have been among the first to have heard them.

(This review appears in the March 24-30th edition of "City News")

Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Canberra Philharmonic Society.
Erindale Theatre until 26th March

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

If tap-dancing is your thing then this is the show for you. In Jim McMullen's entertaining production of David Merrick's homage to the Broadway musical, it's the dancers who steal the show in a series of exuberant, well-staged dance numbers choreographed by Amy Fitzpatrick.

"42nd Street" is jam-packed with theatrical cliches including the over-bearing director struggling to get his show opened, the ageing star who breaks her ankle just before opening night, and the talented young chorine who steps in at the last moment and saves the show. It's also crammed with a string of Harry Warren's most  delightfully tuneful songs, enthusiastically performed by the large on-stage ensemble augmented by a team of singers in the orchestra pit and all accompanied by a taut, tight and terrific band under the direction of Colin Fischer.

Heading the strong cast, Ian Croker is compelling as the Broadway director, his performance blemished only by his overwrought rendering of the title song in the finale. Anne Timperley, glamorous and devious as the ageing star, Adrian Flor, suave and brilliantined as her leading man, and Jordan Kelly as the ever-watchful dance director, all impress with strong performances. Kate Tricks also contributes a fine comedic characterisation which will be even funnier when she overcomes her disconcerting tendency to drop her voice at the end of sentences.

Despite being miscast in the pivotal role of the young chorine who steps in to save the show, Ele Wilcher gives a plucky, appealing performance, however in the show's climax, the least successful of the production numbers, she displays neither the vocal strength nor stage presence to make the premise convincing.

However this show is all about the singing and dancing so don't miss it.

(An edited version of this review appears in the March 17-23 edition of "City News".)

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Chatroom of Critics with Mark Shenton

A Chatroom of Critics with Mark Shenton, at ACT Writers’ Centre, March 13, 2011

An Unreview by Frank McKone

Mark Shenton is a full-time theatre critic and journalist, writing a weekly review column for the Sunday Express and daily blog for The Stage. He has hosted regular platforms at the National Theatre, including an onstage interview with Stephen Sondheim. He has written liner notes for a number of original cast albums, including the West End recording of Chicago. Mark was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, came to London when he was 16 and has never looked back. He read law at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and now lives in Borough, five minutes from the South Bank (accessed 13 March 2011)

Mark is also Chair of the Drama Section of The Critics’ Circle, based in London but with members from all over the UK.  He has a special passion for cabaret, in common with Canberra’s Bill Stephens who invited him to call in for an informal chat with the Canberra Critics’ Circle en his route between Melbourne and Sydney.

Though we reviewers give awards to the best artists, which means in London that the Drama Awards are presented in a major theatre and attract “everyone” in the theatre industry, there was consensus that the best critics, whoever they are, should not receive awards.  This is why my report of a very entertaining couple of hours is not a review.

In fact it became clear that critics may not receive any rewards in the near future.  Mark commented on the decline in newspaper sales as blogging and tweeting become the new outlets for critical commentary.  Unless the Murdoch paywall approach is taken up by many other publishers, who will pay professional critics to blog?

Indeed, what is a professional critic?  To be accepted as a member of The Critics’ Circle you must have a history of paid-for reviews over at least the previous two years.  But when even a London newspaper reviewer writes, as Mark reported to us, about “blacking up” Iago in an argument against “political correctness”, I had to wonder who killed Othello?  As newspapers struggle financially who will they pay to write reviews?  Not the writers with experience and detailed knowledge of their specialist art forms, apparently.

Should reviews be mere entertainments?  And therefore short?  Of course not, but we discussed the difficult skill of writing briefly to the point, rather than boringly too long.  Which means I will cut the several dozen other topics we discussed, even though this is an Unreview, and thank Mark Shenton for giving us a sense of what it is like to be a freelance reviewer in a city where 55 new shows opened in January, a low season in London’s theatrical year.

The success of this evening suggests finding further visitors for future Canberra Critics’ Circle self-improvement occasions.  Please contact Helen Musa at CityNews with ideas: .

To catch up with Mark Shenton, check his blog in The Stage at

Friday, March 11, 2011

Tuesdays with Morrie by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom

Tuesdays with Morrie by Jeffrey Hatcher and Mitch Albom.  Ensemble Theatre directed by Mark Kilmurry at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, March 10-12, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 10

I have to eat humble pie tonight.  Each of us responds to what we see from our own different perspectives. 

Watching this play in my role as theatre critic, I saw a predictable moralistic sentimental story using the death of Professor Morrie Schwartz from Lou Gehrig’s disease as a contrived device, sugar-coated with carefully managed laughs.

I also saw a production highly skilfully designed, directed and acted.  Daniel Mitchell faced a difficult task to avoid over-playing the Professor, but maintained a disciplined balance between making the inevitable one-liners into cartoon jokes and playing the physical horror of the disease for the horror rather than empathy.  Glenn Hazeldine, as Mitch Albom, who wrote the original story that the play was developed from, had to switch regularly between playing Mitch as if in a realistic relationship with Morrie – every Tuesday – and playing Albom, the narrator of his story.   By using stylised posture, movement and voice, Hazeldine clearly delineated each role.  What otherwise might have been a repetitive series of question and answer in a lesser actor became a dramatic dialectic, giving the play more appearance of depth than the content of the text deserves.

However, for most of the audience – senior students from the two Canberra Grammar Schools – my perspective was well outside of the range of their radar.  Their attention was focussed in the immediate heat of the emotion, not the distant cool of criticism.  They were bubbling with excitement in the foyer beforehand anticipating seeing Sydney actors perform the play they had been working on.  The actors’ skills did not disappoint.  The young absorbed the performance as if it were music, directly responding with laughter, shock and tears, as well as a resounding standing ovation for the actors at curtain call.  For them this was great theatre, and who am I to deny their experience?

Like Mitch, who failed to “keep in touch” with his favourite professor for 16 years, I have not taught College students for 16 years and realised tonight how much I have become out of touch with the immediacy of people’s feelings at that transition from teenage to adulthood.  Tuesdays with Morrie may not be my play, but this production certainly made it this audience’s dramatic experience.  The Q is to be congratulated for including it in this year’s program, and I hope it foreshadows more Ensemble productions in future.

Friday, March 4, 2011

My Imaginary Family written and performed by Grahame Bond

My Imaginary Family written and performed by Grahame Bond.  Directed by Maurice Murphy at The Street Theatre, March 4 – 26, 2011.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 4

After he presented the eulogy at his mother’s funeral, Bond says, his doctor approached him saying, “I think you need help.”  Bond’s unspoken response, he tells us, was to reject criticism, as if the doctor were about to be a critic of his performance.  In fact, it was an offer of grief counselling, which Bond accepted and found of great value.

This story, about his real family – not the family of imaginary characters he has created as a writer-performer – makes my task as a critic of his show one of a delicate balance.  For the creator of characters, like Aunty Jack and Kev Kavanagh, to perform himself is like jumping off a real cliff and trusting that his imagination will make him fly.  It’s a risk that most actors only take in the company of a Michael Parkinson.  In this single hander, Bond plays himself, tells stories about himself, sings songs he wrote (often in company with Rory O’Donahue and Jim Burnett), moving in and out of roles he created, while also filling the Parkinson “interviewer” role of linking us watching with the person being “interviewed.”

Being Grahame Bond also inevitably meant a tendency to interact directly with his audience, so I was not surprised that keeping all these balls juggling in the intimate space of The Street 2 led him to lose his scripted lines at one point early in the show.  This was, I believe, the very first performance, and trajectories came into better unison as the 90 minute show progressed.  There were strong moments of both satire and emotion, both integrated in the horrifying highlight story of the 1980 New Year’s Eve at the Opera House.

For my generation whose adult lives have run alongside Grahame Bond’s, the stories behind the creation of Aunty Jack et al are of genuine interest.  I was always aware of the satire, but the characters and style seemed to appear out of thin air with Thin Arthur around 1970.  There was nothing quite like them in the Australian tradition, yet Aunty Jack, Flash Nick from Jindavick and Wollongong the Brave were as Australian as all get out.  Perhaps they were parallel to the British Not the Nine O’Clock News, Monty Python, and The Goodies, and indeed Bond did take his work to London Weekend Television in Not the Aunty Jack Show

I’m not sure what young people today will make of My Imaginary Family but it runs through the Canberra Festival and bookings are already going well.  It will be a good test for “The stories of a ‘Jack of all Trades’ and the backing songs of his life.”

Nixon in China . Reviewed by Malcolm Miller


Three performances at the Dendy Cinema, February 26 and 27 and March 3, 2011.

Reviewed by Malcolm Miller

As part of the New York Metropolitan Opera’s  “Live in HD” series of operas for cinemas  with  appropriate facilities, this relatively unknown  (in Australia) but well–developed performance brought a notable modern opera to Canberra cinemagoers.  Based on the historic visit of President Richard Nixon, played by James Maddelena, in 1972, it presents a partly newsreel view and a partly fantasy one of a China in the throes of enormous change.  Janis Kelly as Pat Nixon was frighteningly realistic, especially in the aria where she tells us that she is a poor  girl  who never looks back.  Her intense commitment to her husband, and her compassion for others shine through.
Henry Kissinger  as Secretary of State accompanied Nixon.  His role in the opera  is a low key one which does not flatter the cunning statesman.  In contrast, the actor Richard Paul Fink who plays him also plays a part in a fantastic version of the real ballet, ‘The Red Detachment of Women’, in the second act.  As a singer he admits that this was ‘hard work’!
The strongest role was that of Chou En–Lai, depicted by Russell Braun as a cultivated and politically sagacious leader.  In contrast to him was the role of Madame Mao, played with passion by coloratura soprano Kathleen Kim. 
The part of the ageing, almost dying Chairman Mao taken by Robert Brubaker, showed us a once great man, now finding  consolation in philosophy. 
To me as one who lived through these events, the depiction of Nixon , eager for his re–election and excited about the news value of his daring trip, was very true to life.
  We owe a great deal to the ‘Met’ and its generous sponsors, and to the Dendy, for making it possible for us to see this and other magnificent productions  without  having the enormous expense of a trip to New York plus the cost of a Met Opera ticket!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Little GEM reviewed by Malcolm Miller

Little GEM  by Elaine Murphy, reviewed 
by Malcolm Miller.

Showing 1 – 5 March 2011 at The Playhouse

This play has received many awards since it appeared at the Dublin Fringe Festival  in 2008, and we are fortunate that it has been brought here for us to see by Arts Projects Australia and Guna Nua Theatre. 
On a deceptively simple set, three women sit in chairs.  Each in turn is lighted and gives us part of her story as a monologue of about ten minutes.  It took me about five minutes before I could attune my ears to the Irish accents; after that I was delighted  by the sound. 
The women are three  generations  of  the family of James, known as ‘Gem’; his wife Kay, daughter Lorraine, and granddaughter Amber.  Birth and death, life and love are the ingredients  which combine into a rich domestic portrait of a family with its dramas and frustrations.  Former footballer Gem is dying, and his wife Kay is physically discomforted by the absence of sex in her life, but tempted to acquire a fancy vibrator recommended by a friend.  Although she can never bring herself to use it, it figures in the story.  Lorraine has trouble with a harassing customer at work, and is sent by her boss for psychiatric treatment.  Amber is adventurous and inclined to recklessness with  drink, drugs and sex. 
Amber’s pregnancy coincides with  her lover’s sudden  departure for Australia, but the result, the Little Gem of the title, arrives in time to delight his grandfather before he dies.   Lorraine finds an admirer who takes her to Paris, and Kay has comic misadventure with her sex aid called Kermit.
A night of humour, strength, courage  and  honesty ends bravely with an ‘HEA’ or happy ever after when the errant lover returns from Australia, and the family of three women and the Little Gem affirm their unity.