Wednesday, February 29, 2012


Canberra Theatre Playhouse
28th February to 4th March 2012.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens

More than just a brilliant ventriloquist, David Strassman is also a superb showman who pushes to art of ventriloquy in extraordinary directions, until it appears his dolls no long depend on him to make them move and talk, and even challenge his reason for being there.

His latest show “Careful What You Wish For” is a long way from simply being a Muppet show for grown-ups. The lavish setting features three giant hi-tech television screens which provide a constantly changing, brightly coloured background to the onstage performance.

Strassman’s script is fresh, thought-provoking and hilariously funny. His puppet characters get away with murder with their outrageous, politically incorrect comments, which would be offensive if uttered by anyone else, but which seem hilarious, and even endearing, when uttered by cheeky dolls.

All the favourite characters are there. Chuck Wood, constantly subverting and goading Strassman, who, surprisingly demonstrates how he can move and talk without the assistance of Strassman, until, at one point, Chuck appeared to suffer a technical breakdown, requiring Strassman to repair him onstage, in full view of the audience. This was done with such panache that when the audience left the theatre, they left wondering whether Chuck really had broken down or whether it was just part of the show.

Ted. E. Bear is there of course, as is Sid the smart-arsed beaver, and Grandpa Fred. After interval we even meet Kevin, the intergalactic space traveller, and finally a trio of singing baby dinosaurs, all of whom inhabit an extraordinary and delightful world in this imaginatively conceived, fast moving show full of surprises, laughter...and rude words.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012


16th February 2012

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

                         Georgina Haggerty, Jessica Ausserlechner, Jennifer Provis,
                                 Allessandra D'Arbe, Victoria Maughn, Anna Ishii
                                                 (Photo by Jon Green)

A quick trip to Perth provided the opportunity for my second look at the West Australian Ballet in just a few months. The West Australian Ballet, currently celebrating its 60th Anniversary, was seen in Canberra last November, when it presented a season of its excellent production of “Cinderella”.
I was lucky enough to catch a performance of “Ballet at the Quarry” which is the W.A. Ballet’s contribution to the 2012 Perth Festival.
The program consisted of four short ballets, the first of which, “Strings 32”, was given its premiere in this program and proved the perfect opener and a delightful showcase for the company,

Choreographed by Artistic Director, Ivan Cavallari, and danced to the string music of Paganini, Bartok, Bach and Kreisler, “Strings 32” opened dramatically with all the dancers lying on stage, feet to audience. One by one the dancers sat up and introduced themselves, each with a single sentence into a microphone.

A lone violinist (Madeleine Antoine) dressed in a flowing white ball gown, entered, initiating a series of energetic solos, duos, trios and groups, for most of which the dancers were dressed in variety of figure-hugging unitards. They were also tethered to long white strings which formed patterns as they danced. 
 Highlights included an intricate, reflective trio, danced by Fiona Evans, Matthew Lehman and Daryl Brandwood, and a superbly realised duo danced by Jayne Smeulders and Milos Mutavdzic. The ballet ended gently with all the dancers carrying floating white balloons as the violinist, her gown now completely covered in white balloons, strolled among them, creating a memorable finale.
I was particularly looking forward with re-acquainting myself with Balanchine’s “Serenade”, and it’s difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting in which to watch this signature Balanchine ballet than under the stars at Perth’s lovely Quarry Amphitheatre, fanned, as I was, by a balmy breeze and sipping on a glass of sparkling champagne.

Augmented by students of the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts, the dancers, dressed in flowing pale blue costumes, were a breathtaking sight during the stirring opening, and completely mesmerising during the lush waltz movement. Even though this ballet was created in 1934, when danced as well as it was at this performance, with its pure classical lines and lyricism, it still retains the capacity to enchant, and this performance completely lived up to my expectations.
                                        Jayne Smeulders and David Mack
                                                   THE SIXTH BOROUGH
                                                     (Photo by Jon Green)

“The Sixth Borough” offered a complete change of pace. Created by Reed Luplau, to a funky score which included pieces by Maroon 5, Daft Punk, and Scanner, and danced in a pseudo-nightclub setting, the movement was athletic, daring, cheeky and sexy and the dancers obviously revelled in its challenges. Although diminutive Andre Santos had the best opportunities, and made the most of them, all the dancers impressed with their ability to dance the complex contemporary choreography with style and panache.

Perhaps it was the sudden dip in temperature, but the final ballet on the program “Rhetoric”, also a premiere, choreographed by Terence Kohler to music by Carl Vine, seemed out of sync with the rest of the program, and certainly to me, a strange choice with which to end the evening.

Apparently inspired by an online role-playing game, the work features dancers manhandling large prism-shaped objects around the stage,  each with a word such as “escapist”, “hyper”, “script”, “cyber” and “modernism” written on it.

The dancers mostly wore brown unitards, some with medieval helmets, breastplates with splashes of red cloth. At times a battle appeared to be taking place, about what, I could not work out.  The ballet felt and looked curiously old-fashioned, and despite some interesting choreographic moments, I found myself distracted trying to work out the significance of the words on the prisms, and if there was an obvious solution I did'nt get it, nor in fact to many of the audience who seemed slightly bemused as they moved towards their cars. Perhaps I should bone up on online role play.
Maybe the idea for “Rhetoric” seemed better on paper than in realisation, and anyway, three hits out of four is a good score, especially given that the rest of the evening had been so delightful.
However many of the audience attending these outdoor events may be experiencing ballet for the first time, so perhaps a more sure-fire crowd pleaser to end the program may have been a better strategy.  Also I'd like to suggest that consideration be given to offering some pas de deux or solos to entertain audiences between the longer, rather than those long dark pauses which allowed so much of the atmosphere to drain away.  
These whinges aside, it was a pleasure to see the West Australian Ballet on their home turf and looking and dancing so impressively, and to experience, at last, "Ballet at the Quarry".  

Dancers of the West Australian Ballet warming up at the Quarry prior
to the performance.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Babyteeth by Rita Kalnejais

Babyteeth by Rita Kalnejais.  Directed by Eamon Flack for Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, February 11 – March 8, 2012

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 25

It scares the life out of me to see a play that can so emotionally shake me, written by such a young person.  Then I look back in history and realise that William Shakespeare was about the same age as Rita Kalnejais when his first plays began to be noticed.  Babyteeth is her second.

I remembered that Shakespeare died when he was 20 years younger than I am now and ten years older than I was when I made my only serious attempt to write a play (which got no further than a professional reading).  But, looking back again, I did try to persuade Broken Hill Repertory to put on the legendary beginning of kitchen sink drama: John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956).  They thought it was too radical and risqué for 1964 (Alison wears her petticoat while she does the ironing), so I directed Arthur Miller’s All My Sons instead.

Why all this reminiscing?  Because Babyteeth is literally a kitchen sink play, and because it is so good to see a new play with all the strengths of the best of its tradition.

In fact I reckon Rita has done better than William did in plays like Two Gentlemen of Verona.  There’s more guts here (I’ll explain later) as well as a similar wild sense of humour.  Babyteeth is, in a modern way, even more succinct than The Taming of the Shrew concerning falling in love and maintaining a marriage, and deals with these matters with more depth than Look Back in Anger.  Kalnejais’ parents (Anna played by Helen Buday, and Henry played by Greg Stone) show more complexity in response to the death of their daughter (Milla, played by Sara West) than Miller’s parents do to the death of their son.  And where Shakespeare could have written about the Black Death but never did, she dares to write about the inevitability of death – a teenager dying of cancer.

That’s where guts and vomiting come into the picture.  It took all of the 40 minutes in first gear crawling from Belvoir Street along Cleveland Street and South Dowling Street before my palpitations slowed as the traffic at last sped up.

The structure of the play is a twist on a fairly common device.  The end is played at the beginning, which morphs into the past and leads to the end we thought we had already seen.  Except that only then do we learn what really happened.  Then there is a coda – a quite lengthy positive musical note, which is a surprise at first but completes the narrative and eases us out of the harsh reality of sex and death.  Yet, as I found out while driving home, even this resolution cannot assuage the hidden feelings.

To the production: it’s clear from the author’s and director’s notes that the play on stage is a cooperative creation of writer, director, actors and designers – just as good plays have always been.  Not only is the play good, but all the work of these practitioners is top quality.  Kathryn Beck – you’ll remember her eyes and a fascinating going-in-all-directions quality on tv in East of Everything – makes pregnant Toby and her dog the lively comic foil exactly as needed for the tragedy besetting Milla, her unlikely boyfriend Moses (archly played by Eamon Farren), her psychologist father and distraught mother, whose relationship with Milla’s violin teacher (Gidon, played extravagantly by Russel Dykstra) and his small boy student (Thuong – David Carreon or Sean Chu according to the day) is unexpected, quite remarkable, and finally crucial to her coming to grips with death.

To top it all, I drove home towards brilliant dramatic blood-red sunset clouds against a fragile teal blue sky, a wonderful reminder of the cloud Milla sees, of her tragic death, and of a beautiful play.

When you buy the program you have the traditional Currency Press publication of this new Australian playscript.  It’s this total collaboration of author, production team, actors and publisher that makes the best of Belvoir about as good as you can get in theatre today.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

To Silence: Kabir & Maria Chekhova by Subhash Jaireth

To Silence: Kabir & Maria Chekhova  by Subhash Jaireth.  Directors: Caroline Stacey (Kabir) & Camilla Blunden (Maria Chekhova) at The Street Theatre, February 16-26, 2012.

Kabir played by Raoul Craemer and Maria by Naoné Carrel.

For information about Subhash Jaireth go to:

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 18

This presentation by The Street Theatre establishes the importance of the work of Artistic Director Caroline Stacey, and the role The Street plays within Canberra’s theatre life.  The news, published on the front page of The Canberra Times just yesterday ( that “Canberra’s professional theatre practitioners will have the city’s first custom designed rehearsal space when The Street Theatre’s new $3.18 million extension, a modern bright structure, is built” is confirmation of the support of the ACT Government and theatre community for Stacey’s efforts.

Following last year’s commissioning of Alana Valentine’s MP – a play based upon interviews with Members of Parliament and bureaucrats here in the Federal Capital city – this year has begun with a work by another successful published writer, nowadays resident in Canberra.  And, in the wake of the Canberra Multicultural Festival, if Jaireth represents anything it must be multiculturalism, writing as he does in Hindi, Russian and English.  Whatever some jaundiced sections of Australian society would like to believe, multiculturalism is alive and well and living in the centre of goverment.

However, the two historical characters we see presented by Jaireth are dead, though we see them as they approach their final silence.  The Indian mystic poet Kabir died in 1518.  Shakespearean in his poetry and significance in his society, it is fascinating to realise he died so long before Shakespeare’s own death in 1616.  Maria Chekhova was the keeper of her older brother’s spirit for the 53 years of war, revolution and dictatorship after Anton Chekhov’s death in 1904 until her own demise at the age of 94 in 1957.  We see her here on the day of the announcement of Josef Stalin’s death in 1953.

Based on extensive documentary evidence, Jaireth has written two separate monologues, each just an hour long, making a solid evening’s theatre with a 20 minute interval between.  It’s concentrated listening for the audience, but well worthwhile for the quality of the language, the story that develops in the life of each character, and the implications for our own lives today.  It is the continuity of human experience from 1500 to 1950 and beyond that we come to understand as Jabir and Maria speak their minds.

Both Craemer and Carrel speak their character’s mind with clarity and feeling.  Jaireth has given them the language they need for the storytelling, and both miss no opportunity offered them by the author.  But this production gives us a theatrical context for the storytelling which places each character emotionally in their world. 

For Maria, restricted in her wheelchair to the house in Yalta, with memories sometimes mixed up and fading, the set is a minimal representation of significant objects, like half-seen paintings on the wall, a blank high wall section which turns out to represent for her the dust-covered statue of Anton, while her writing desk is just as she might have used it in real life for her correspondence and telephone calls to Anton’s wife, the actress Olga Knipper.

Kabir, though, is a mystic poet, living in the past and the present alternately in his poems and memories of family, friends and social figures, such as the religious pundits he despises for their deliberate manipulation of ordinary people’s understanding of reality.  He, a weaver in real life, is caught in a net of feelings and experiences, sometimes inescably entwined, other times in control of the warp and the weft, sometimes fascinated by the artistry and beauty of his surroundings and his part in life.  Light and colour, even darkness, become elements in our experience as Craemer changes physically through Kabir’s feelings, criticisms and philosophical analyses at different ages and circumstances. 

The stage design and lighting – by Imogen Keen and Gillian Schwab respectively – work very well in both parts, but are more exciting, more integrated and poetically thematic in the Kabir piece than for Maria Chekhova.

And then there is the sound.  Seth Edwards-Ellis has, for both parts, created a subtle sound environment, which fills in the background space around us in the audience (though I wasn’t quite sure on my visit whether all the thunder in Kabir’s life was recorded or real, considering the great storm unfolding outside the theatre).  In both parts, the essence of the sound design was to establish something of the social, historical and emotional context, and then allow the sound to unobtrusively fade away until the point of silence was reached – in Kabir’s case with his death and ‘sky’ burial, and in Maria’s case with her horror at her failure to save Anton’s Jewish first love from the Treblinka concentration camp.  Silence fell as we understood she saved his house, his stories, his plays, his reputation, but was not brave enough to save Dunya from Hitler.  And in the silence we are left wondering if she had received Dunya at Yalta in the 1930s whether the other great dictator Stalin might not have been as bad.

The two parts together say, ironically, as the illiterate Kabir says when his son has his poems written down, goes to read them, and finds they are not the same: writing is not the best way to record the spoken word.  But Caroline Stacey and Camilla Blunden and their design team have shown that theatre can do the trick – so long as the writer is as good as Subhash Jaireth.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Peter Evans

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, directed by Peter Evans. Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Theatre, February 4 to March 3, 2012

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 4
Photos by Brett Boardman
Andrea Demetriades
Garn!  Oh do buy a flower off me, Captain

I have so much to write about this quite startling production that I’m a bit afraid of boring you with my excitement. If this happens, you can take it that I’m rather too much like Professor Henry Higgins – so determined to push through his bet with Kim Gyngell’s genuinely sincere Colonel Pickering, and sooo bored as soon as he saw that his Eliza would pass as a duchess at the garden party. Everyone in the audience was absolutely on Andrea Demetriades’ side when she threw the precisely aimed slippers at Marco Chiappi, even including boring old farts like me. Actually I have a suspicion they were meant to miss and fly off-stage, since Chiappi had to kick one off ready for Eliza's line deadpan “Your slippers.” But we were very satisfied that Demetriades hit her target.

Andrea Demetriades and Marco Chiappi
I knew you'd strike me one day

Bernard Shaw was always a favourite playwright of mine, and now I know why. It’s just wonderful to watch a production where Shaw’s special kind of language is recognised thoroughly, showing that this most popular of his plays is not populist and certainly anything but sentimental. Sentimentality was anathema to Shaw. There is no way Eliza will go back to Higgins, and Peter Evans' direction shows why.

So I am happy that the playwright has been properly respected, because this production shows how his dialogue reveals his characters in the context of their society, and in doing so makes universal the complexities of human relationships which ring as true today as when Pygmalion was written, exactly a century ago. For me, as a long-time student of Shaw’s work, it’s great to see how Pygmalion is an important development in Shaw’s capacity to integrate character and polemics, in a direct line from previous plays like Candida, Arms and the Man and Major Barbara, leading 10 years later to his Nobel Prize winning Saint Joan.

The startling quality of Evans’ work is in using an unencumbered open black stage for a work which traditionally has required a realistic representation of the columns of Covent Garden, the bachelor pad at Wimpole Street, the sensible opulence of Mrs Higgins’ morning room, and on film scenes of a royally appointed ballroom. Instead the design here seems to me to have been strongly influenced by the cartoon-like illustrations by Feliks Topolski done for the Penguin publication of Shaw's original screenplay.

Voice over, video projection and the use of laptop and monitors to represent Higgins’ recording equipment, with furniture and props brought on and off as part of the action, bring this production into the post-modern era. By obviously exposing the fact that this is actors performing on a stage, using modern technical devices, while keeping strictly to Shaw’s original dialogue, Evans focusses our attention on the meanings, implicit and explicit, of what the characters say. The result is that the humour is funnier because the implications (for example of David Woods’ on-the-take Alfred Doolittle complaining about being thrust unwillingly into the middle class instead of retaining the freedom of being ‘undeserving poor’) become apparent on many different levels at once. The same is then true for the clashes between Eliza and Higgins, which reach tragic proportions on this stage. This is no My Fair Lady. More like Heartbreak House.

At interval I talked with Bob Ellis who was doubtful, in his characteristic ennui-style manner, about what seemed to be an unnecessary anachronism of laptop and monitors being referred to by Higgins as a phonograph. By the end of the play, however, as Higgins/Marco pursued Eliza/Andrea backstage with a live video camera, catching just a brief shot of her reflection in her dressing room mirror, I saw the purpose of the modern technology. The mirror image was a symbol built up on screen from the early scene at Wimpole Street when Deborah Kennedy’s incisive Mrs Pearce had reported how Eliza was too embarrassed to see herself naked in the bathroom mirror. The use of video established this as a play of symbols, issues and relationships, creating much more meaning in the drama than I have seen before, but which I have always felt needed to be revealed when reading the script.

With casting – Wendy Hughes as the redoubtable Mrs Higgins, Vanessa Downing as terribly conventional Mrs Eynsford Hill, Harriet Dyer as her daffy daughter Clara, Tom Stokes as love-struck Freddy, as well as Deborah Kennedy, David Woods, Kim Gyngell, Marco Chiappi and especially (remember her in Crownies) Andrea Demetriades – being spot-on, costumes exactly right (with modern styles reflecting the intentions of the 1912 originals), lighting, sound and video highly effective, and the visual effects of movement and use of space all working together, I must conclude by saying that I was never even faintly bored – not bloody likely.

The enthusiastic continuing applause supported my feelings, but I didn’t stay for the after-first-night drinks, and didn’t see Bob Ellis again. It would be interesting to know his final thoughts in the dark night.

 I want to know what I may take away with me.
I dont want to be accused of stealing.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Choreography: Antony Dowson
Set Design: Al Riches
Costume Design: Wizzy Shawyer
Music Arranger: Gavin Sutherland
Lighting: David Richardson
Presented by: Royal New Zealand Ballet

Canberra Theatre 1 – 4 February 2012

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

She’s an eight-year old mouse with a passion for ballet, and already she has a huge following among the littlies who rocked up to the Canberra Theatre in their hundreds, resplendent in all manner of sparkling tutu’s and tiaras.

The children of course know Angelina from her books and especially from her television series, and some of them had met her when she was at the Canberra Theatre a couple of years ago, in the English National Ballet’s charming production of “Angelina’s Star Performance”.

Of course, they also know her friends Alice and Charlotte, Naomi and the naughty Henry, all of whom attend Miss Lilly’s dance school with Angelina, and followed their every move with rapt attention, or gurgles of delight, even though not a word was spoken by the dancers throughout the entire performance.

This time round, the Royal New Zealand Ballet is touring a no-less- charming sequel, “Angelina Ballerina’s Big Audition” with Monica Lepisto quite delightful as Angelina. Designed to introduce children from 3 to 10 to the dance, this production tells of Angelina’s experiences when she is accepted to audition for a place in the prestigious Camembert Academy of Performing Arts.

The production is beautifully mounted with a pretty storybook setting which adheres to the look of Helen Craig’s original illustrations, cleverly designed and artfully lit so that it can quickly and magically morph from exteriors to interiors in the blink of an eye.

The costumes also are colourful and pretty, with each of the characters clearly delineated, so that the young audience know exactly which character they are looking at, even if they all wear very similar mouse heads.

Likewise the choreography, which is beautifully danced, includes many of the steps which would be familiar to those in the audience already attending dance classes, but with enough virtuoso passages to allow the dancers to impress more knowledgeable students.

For those not especially attracted to classical ballet, the audition sequence in the second act features several other dance styles including an hilarious interpretive dance with a large piece of cheese (Lily Cartwright), a dazzling tap dance with magic tricks and flags (Emma Findlay), an Irish jig (Jenny Nixon), some fiery flamenco (Nicholas Peak), some hot disco (Bridgett Letters-Peak), and an energetic hip-hop (Edward Fallon) which was clearly the audience favourite.

Happily Angelina danced her Sugar Plum Fairy solo beautifully which insured that she was accepted into the Camembert Academy.
As enchanting as it was for the target audience there were also many delightful surprises tucked in for the delectation of parents and grandparents in the audience, who would have noted, among them, the music from Tchkaivovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, cutely disguised for the audition sequences, and the cheeky costume references to “A Chorus Line” in the finale.

Judging from the many budding ballerina’s practicing their dance steps in front of the stage during interval, and as they left the theatre after the show, “Angelina Ballerina’s Big Audition” certainly provided plenty of inspiration for its target audience and older dance students as well as some charming entertainment for their dutiful parents and grandparents.

Photos by Patrick Baldwin