Monday, August 27, 2012


Book by Mark O'Donnell, Thomas Meehan, Music by Marc Shaiman, Lyrics by Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman

Presented by Canberra Philharmonic Society

Reviewed by Len Power

One of the most appealing aspects of the musical, ‘Hairspray’, is how well the composers have captured the sound of the early 60s.  It’s almost hard to believe that the songs for the show were written in the 21st Century.

‘Hairspray’, based originally on a 1988 cult movie by John Waters, opened as a musical on Broadway in 2002 and became a smash hit.  Set in Baltimore in the early 1960s, it’s all about a young, overweight girl called Tracy Turnblad and the impact she has when she manages to get into a Bandstand-like TV show, even though she isn’t the current American ideal in the looks department.  The show is light and funny on the surface, but it makes a plea for acceptance of people who are different as well as an anti-discrimination statement against black people.  Add the infectious music by Marc Shaiman and you have a show that is a real audience-pleaser.

Jarrad West, the director, has assembled a mostly excellent cast with Krystle Innes a standout as Tracy Turnblad, singing and dancing to perfection.  Amy Dunham, as Tracy’s best friend, Amber, is wonderfully funny with excellent comic timing and fine singing.  Will Huang, Zack Drury, Vanessa De Jager and Steven Bardwell all give top performances.  Max Gambale, last seen as Captain Smith in ‘Titanic’, shows his versatility by playing Tracy’s mother, Edna Turnblad.  Max plays Edna as a real person and is both funny and touching in a well-rounded performance.  In the black roles, Jenny Lu galvanises the audience with her song, ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’ and Nyasha Nyakuengama is a delight as Seaweed.

This is a heavy dance show and the choreography by Amy Fitzpatrick and Nikole Sklavos captured the era perfectly with great imagination, especially in the ‘I Can Hear The Bells’ number.  There was no simple choreography in this show.  The cast had to be able to dance and they met the challenge superbly.

The large musical score was performed strongly by the orchestra under the baton of Rose Shorney who brought out every aspect of the 60s sound brilliantly.  The simple stage settings by Peter Karmel were appropriate but not very interesting and the kitchen set seemed a bit cramped for the actors.  Costumes by Christine Pawlicki were colourful and right for the period but some cast members need to be a bit more vigilant before going onstage.  Crooked petticoats and needlessly creased costumes spoil the look the designer is striving for.

Jarrad West has done an excellent job with this show, making it bright, funny and lively as well as bringing out the anti-discrimination messages.  Many people will have seen the movie, but ‘Hairspray’ is one of those musicals that works better on the stage than as a movie.  Give yourself a fun night out and see this delightful show.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 26 August 2012

Saturday, August 25, 2012

David Page Talks- at Canberra Theatre Centre

David Page Talks- at Canberra Theatre Centre in the series Take Part: Artist Talk, August 25, 2012, 12:30pm

by Frank McKone

Bangarra Dance Theatre are touring their new work, Terrain – the timeless wonder and spiritual resonance of Lake Eyre to Canberra Theatre, September 13-15, with a pre-show forum at 6:30pm on the 13th.

Artistic director Stephen Page commissioned Frances Rings to choreograph work representing her mother’s country where Lake Eyre, Kati Thanda, has a powerful story of a giant kangaroo being hunted and injured in the area to the south around Maree, where Frances was brought up by her mother and German father.  The kangaroo escaped the hunters but died and turned to salt where the lake is now.

Canberra Theatre Centre are to be congratulated for establishing a new tradition, Take Part: Artist Talk.   In July, Scott Rankin talked about Ngapartji Ngapartji one, Trevor Jamieson’s Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara story.  Today Stephen Page’s elder brother, David, in keeping with his tradition, gave a talk in the form of a story – of the formation and growth of Bangarra and his role as composer.

When I went to a talk and demonstration of dance given by Yolgnu man Wandjuk Marika and a young nephew in Melbourne back in the late 1970s, it was difficult to believe that Marika’s desire to bring his culture to the non-Indigenous world would succeed.  He explained then why his nephew was so nervous when asked to dance stories when Marika had been given a hard time by other elders who wanted to keep their culture inviolate. He was a brave young man indeed. And, of course, how could people from the mainstream commercial culture ever learn to appreciate Aboriginal culture, so different from their own, especially concerning our relationship to the land?  But Marika was determined to try because, as he said that day, Aboriginal culture will die unless it is taken out to the rest of the world.

I thought of all this as David Page spoke, not just of the tradition that it is the land that owns us, not we who own and can buy and sell the land, but because the Marika family had been an important part of Stephen Page’s learning traditional dance when he first went from Sydney's National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) to Arnhem Land early in the 1980s.

In Bangarra, Wandjuk Marika’s hope has been fulfilled.  The Page family boys, as David explained, came to fill the traditional roles, despite their urban childhood in Mt Gravatt in Brisbane, of storyteller – Stephen, the choreographer; dancer – Russell; and song man – David himself, Bangarra’s resident composer.  Founded in 1989 by Carole Johnson, founding director of NAISDA, Bangarra has achieved what Marika desired – keeping the integrity of their traditional culture while creating connections between those stories, with the proper permissions from the owners of those stories, with the feelings and ideas of people beyond traditional boundaries through the mediums of dance and music.

To see how what we like to call ‘modern dance’ and the styles that are true to the ancient Australian heritage, can creatively become one, and to do the same with musical expression, is to appreciate that the work of Stephen and David Page is unique.  And David even began to talk today of retirement!  Never, I hope – or at least there must be a new Bangarra, a continuing ‘making of fire’, long into the future.

Frances Rings, among others encouraged to take on this responsibility by today’s elders, will surely continue to make Aboriginal – and everybody else’s – culture live on.

Sleeping Beauty
The Imperial Russian Ballet Company
Canberra Theatre
22-23 August 2012
Reviewed by Samara Purnell

The scene begins with the Master of Ceremonies of the Royal Court sporting surely the worst wig to have ever graced a stage. Thankfully (as it was becoming hard to stifle giggles), it is explained when great clumps of it are ripped off later in the scene.

The Imperial Russian Ballet Company, whose dancers are drawn from top ballet schools around Russia, performed Swan Lake in Canberra in 2009 and similar gripes surface with this performance of Sleeping Beauty as with Swan Lake: The corps, incorporating the widest range of physiques and statures I can recall seeing in a company of late, were sometimes out of sync with each other and the music, perhaps strange for a country known for its ballet dancers and its precision in the arts, as demonstrated lately in gym and synchronized swimming. And attention to detail let the production down in small part - slightly ill-fitting/made costumes, less than fantastic audio editing, split leaps that could have been higher.

This mostly traditional rendition of Sleeping Beauty does require decent stage space and at times it appeared the dancers were pulling up slightly to fit into the space available. There was some very strange acting especially from the King, Queen and Master of Ceremonies, and some odd costuming choices - at one point during the Second Act, it felt as though we had been transported to the bottom of an Irish rainbow, with leprechaun-looking lads clad in green jackets, tights and green flat topped hats.

Lina Seveliova is blessed with the biggest, prettiest blue eyes imaginable and her pretty face and vulnerability make her a very endearing Princess Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). She danced the lead role charmingly and proficiently. Radamara Nazarenko-Duminica was also a stand-out and executed her roles as Audacity and Princess Florine with maturity and confidence.

The prophesised spindle here has been replaced by a knitting needle, which means a hell of a to-do over anyone found knitting (stifles another giggle, having never seen such passion, enjoyment or fear over knitting before), but the actual pricking of the finger is over in a second and perhaps a missed opportunity for suitably placed drama.

Anna Pashkova was regal and graceful, making an alluring Lilac fairy. Having saved the Princess from death by casting a spell so she would fall into a deep sleep for 100 years, the First Act ended beautifully, with the Lilac fairy spinning en pointe, between the castle walls and the forest, as the curtain fell. Unfortunately, the spell was broken when out came some cast members, including the apparently not-so-sleeping Beauty herself, to take a bow – a little strange as the characters all appear in the next act. Perhaps this was to reassure any youngsters in the audience that all was well, should they not stay awake for the rest of the longish performance.

Act Two opened with the girls in pretty orange tutus and lovely lighting. During this Act, Prince Desire, fated to awaken the sleeping Princess, comes across the Lilac fairy, who puts him in a dream, where he sees Aurora. In the space of about five seconds, (the time it took to glance at the programme), Aurora had vanished, the Prince had stormed the castle, fought off the evil witch holding Sleeping Beauty captive, and Sleeping Beauty was awake, and dancing around the stage again! I whispered to my fellow reviewers “Did he even kiss her???” “Not that we saw” was the reply, “But then again, I did blink…”. A bit of a shame that again one of the highlights in the story was glossed over so quickly.

Nariman Bekzhanov danced Prince Desire and gave the strongest performance, with vigorous and confident solos. Most of the men, however, need to work on partnering as they looked tense and awkward. There was almost a sense of relief when turns and holds were completed. Perhaps the benefit of good seats means one is privy to any shaking or tension of the dancers in this case, as well as getting the feeling that at times the dancing seemed intellectualised, rather than natural, with obvious preparation before executing leaps, turns or lifts.

The girls had lovely expressive faces, connecting with the audience, but had less chemistry in their partner work. That said, the pas de trois in Act Two between Aurora, Desire and the Lilac fairy was beautifully done and quite enchanting.

The whole of the Act Three was entertaining, in particular the Fairytale characters of Puss in boots. The wedding pas de deux was truly lovely.

None of these criticisms should worry other than the most hardened of theatre goers or dancers, and definitely not the plethora of little ballerinas dolled up for a (late) night, sold-out treat at the theatre.

The performance lacked that attention to detail and excitement to take it from a nice and pretty traditional ballet to the “wow” factor. But for those who managed tickets to only two shows with a hefty ticket price, it was surely a pretty and enjoyable night out.


Nariman Bekzhanov and Lina Seveliova
The Imperial Russian Ballet Company,

Canberra Theatre 22nd  August.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

The Imperial Russian Ballet Company is a large company of classical ballet dancers drawn from top ballet schools around the Soviet Union. The company was formed in 1994 by former Bolshoi Ballet soloist Gediminas Taranda who continues to be the troupe’s Artistic Director.  The company undertakes extensive International tours presenting well-known ballet classics.  

On their last visit to Canberra, The Imperial Russian Ballet Company presented “Swan Lake”. This time, as the first city visited on an extensive three-month Australian tour, Canberra had the privilege the Australian premiere performance of their production of "Sleeping Beauty" , and attracted by the opportunity of seeing a large troupe of Russian dancers perform this classic, the company was greeted with a full house. 

In many ways it’s an impressive production. The elegant painted backdrops are very grand, and the pretty fairy tale costumes (despite some unfortunate wigs) are befitting the familiar story of the Princess Aurora, who at her 16th Birthday party, pricks her finger and falls into a sleep which lasts 100 years until she is awoken by a kiss from a handsome prince.
Lina Seveliova and members of The Imperial Russian Ballet Company

The choreography is attributed to Petipa (revised by G.Taranda). One can only guess at how much of the original Petipa remains. However it looks authentic enough, particularly in the set-pieces such as the graceful Garland Dance in Act 1 and the various fairy-tale character pas de deux in Act 11, even though much of it appears very simple by today’s standards. In any event it was beautifully and respectfully danced by the company with all the hallmarks of the Russian style, careful foot placement, graceful arms and well-arched backs, much in evidence.

The story-telling is fairly perfunctory so a program is necessary to follow the action. There’s little attempt by the dancers at characterisation, with much walking around and meaningless gesticulating, particularly from the men.

Anna Pashkova (Lilac Fairy) and members of The Imperial Russian Ballet
With her sparkling smile, long limbed Lina Seveliova, is a lovely Princess Aurora.  Anna Pashkova is  appropriately regal as the Lilac Fairy and the rest of the soloists dance pleasingly, but only Nariman Bekzhanov as Prince Desire, manages to bring any real sizzle or excitement to the proceedings.

Perhaps it was because it was the first performance of the tour. Perhaps the dancers had yet to become accustomed to the recorded music, which seemed to catch some flat-footed, or perhaps they were just under-rehearsed. Whatever the reason, this opening night performance seemed curiously muted and lacking in confidence.  

However, for some, watching this distinctly old-fashioned production was very much akin to a pleasant visit to a museum, strongly reminiscent of a Borovansky Ballet performance more than 50 years ago, or even watching archival film of the Ballet Russes, and perhaps the more precious for that.  But, a lot has happened in the presentation of ballet in the last 50 years and on the evidence of this production, Russia seems to have been passed by.


Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Boy Girl Wall by Matthew Ryan and Lucas Stibbard

Boy Girl Wall by Matthew Ryan and Lucas Stibbard.  The Escapists in association with Critical Stages, at The Street Theatre August 22 – September 1.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

It’s just wonderful to see theatre pure and simple, in the ancient story-telling tradition from the bush camp, the jongleurs and jesters, through commedia to today’s stand up comedians.  Boy Girl Wall can only be called larrikin theatre, turning conventions upside down, spoofing everything including itself, laughing with us at ourselves.

It is, of course, a love story – of Thom and Alitha – and the Wall between them that just wants to bring them together, surely a theme that begins for most of us with the Midsummer Night’s Dream story of Pyramus and Thisbe and the Wall with its chink (Shakespeare).  But, in our workaday world, they are not rude mechanicals but an IT worker who should have been a supernova astronomer and a writer and illustrator of children’s books, whose monsters make the children cry.

No matter that the Narrator, played by Lucas Stibbard (he plays all the other characters too), will tell you that “This is not a love story...This is a story about love”, don’t you worry about that (these are Queenslanders, so I thought I should put a bit of dear old Jo Bjelke-Petersen in here) – Love Conquers All (Chaucer) in the end even though neither Thom or Alitha have any idea it’s going to happen.  Nor does the Wall.

The script comes and goes in between improvised back-chatting with the audience, but Stibbard remarkably never loses track of the non-sequiturs.  With high quality mime, split-second transformations from character to character, including all sorts of inanimate objects, giving swooping magpies their well-deserved come-uppance, and all done with nothing more than a swish of his hair, Stibbard tells us the history of the universe via the ruminations of an electricity swtichboard – and shows us how it all leads to a kiss in the dark.

He doesn’t quite do it all on his own.  Visibly on the side is Nerida Waters, doing what used to be done in the BBC radio studios for the live audience of the Goon Show – sound effects and music (which she also composed) as required.  And in the bio-box were Matthew Ryan and Sarah Winter, working lighting designed by Keith Clark.

In the best of those ancient traditions, satire rules, as it should.  Fun is fun, and never the twain shall meet (Rabbie Burns?), but that kiss was greeted with a satisfied sigh, and very enthusiastic applause in appreciation of enjoyable, skilful, intelligent theatre – pure and simple.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Flood by Jackie Smith

The Flood by Jackie Smith, directed by Laurence Strangio.  Critical Stages and Finucane and Smith at The Street, August 15-25, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 21

Because this play is sincere in its intention, genuine in its conception, directed and acted with clarity, and its subject is of great importance, I almost feel that I have no right to criticise.

Yet something about the play points me at a word that I shudder to use, perhaps even more so when I read the write-up about the author and director in the program.  It is “unsophisticated”.

The point about what Smith describes in her Playwright’s Notes as “a terrible reality that faces too many people, city folk and country folk” comes through strongly as the younger sister Catherine (Caroline Lee) pushes her elder sister Dorothy (Maude Davey) to explain why their mother Janet (Shirley Cattunar), whom Dorothy lives with, won’t accept her visit after twenty two years away from the family.

The truth about their father’s abuse of his daughters and his “death” and the role Dorothy played in protecting Catherine becomes apparent bit by bit, but I think the structure of the play is the source of my feeling that theatrically things didn’t quite ring true.

Reading again from her Notes, Smith says “The play explores the interface between the monstrous and the mundane – a hallmark of the vast internal world of Gothic literature – and the genuine horror when we realise that the monstrous can be part of our every day, imbedded deep within our society”.  This heavy-weight thinking has led her into the play’s step by step revelation of the mystery at its core becoming too close to a Gothic melodrama. 

Fortunately the performances by all three actors, and direction which made sure that characters’ intentions (in the Stanislavsky sense) were clearly established, covered up the ‘mystery melodrama’ underlay, and strong performances were achieved – most especially, I thought, by Davey in reacting to Dorothy’s memories of what her father had done, and finally telling Catherine that he was not dead. 

This was in the second last scene, and produced a powerful moment as Lee said simply “He’s dead!”

I would have been satisfied if the play had ended at that point, instead of bringing back the mother for a messy ending about her going to a nursing home.  Or maybe just the magpies carolling the morning, the mother going back to her decoupage as if nothing had changed and the two sisters silently watching her.  We would have understood what they would be thinking about what they would have to do with her.  Fade to blackout and curtain call.

Though I can see (even though I wonder a little about the language) why Cattunar, “in 2009 ... won universal acclaim for her role as the mother ... and since that time has scarcely had a day off” and I can agree that Smith may have “turned heads from the very beginning” of her writing, “so particularly Australian – with language often so sparse, dry, humorous and disturbing”, because these were two strong points in this production, yet I must conclude that The Flood is not a great play, but is certainly worthwhile seeing for its theme.


Presented by Opera Australia
Sydney Opera House performance 15th August 2012
Opera house season continues until September 9, 2012.
Lisa McCune as Nellie Forbush
Jeff Busby photo
Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Having sat through quite a few stage productions of Rogers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” over the years, and several viewings of the movie, the announcement of a new production by Opera Australia was hardly heart-stopping, even if the casting was intriguing.  However, from the moment Andrew Greene’s superb orchestra struck up the lush strains of the familiar overture, it was impossible not to succumb to the magic of this theatrical masterpiece, set on an island in the South Pacific during the Second World War. 

Michael Yeargan’s settings are certainly not lavish when compared with such recent blockbusters as “Wicked”, “Mary Poppins” or “Love Never Dies”, but they’re evocative and attractive and neatly allow quick clever transitions between scenes while transporting the audience into the milieu of a war-time service base.

Bartlett Sher’s direction isn’t flamboyant.   In fact it’s almost invisible, as good direction should be.  He’s resisted the temptation to include flashy directorial touches, opting instead to allow the show to weave its own special magic. And what a magical show “South Pacific” is still, even after more than 60 years. Its storyline remains involving, you care about the characters, and the songs have something to say and allow the characters to express their inner feelings clearly.  

Sher has the actors move and act naturalistically, without any obvious artifice, but every move and action is carefully designed to serve the story. Without realising it, the audience’s attention is almost surreptitiously drawn into the core of the story from the moment the curtain rises on the two small children playing on a plantation patio.

Teddy Tahoe Rhodes and Lisa McCune
Photo: Jeff Busby

Teddy Tahoe Rhodes and Lisa McCune are superb as Emile De Becque and Nellie Forbush.   Lisa McCune is a clear-eyed and lovable Nellie, totally convinced she’s that “Cockeyed Optimist”. Her sweet, light soprano voice is reminiscent of Mary Martin who originated the role.  Her singing, acting and dancing, naturalistic and unforced.  Her embarrassed confusion when she realises she can’t control her revulsion at the idea that the man with whom she’s falling in love has fathered two Polynesian children is particularly moving.
As Emile De Becque, Teddy Tahoe Rhodes dominates the stage, both physically and vocally. When he unleashes his velvety bass-baritone voice in “Some enchanted Evening” and “This Nearly Was Mine” there’s pure magic that’s worth the price of admission alone. His speaking voice is just as impressive and it’s no surprise to discover he is also an accomplished actor. In his scenes with Nellie, he is warm and romantic.  They generate real chemistry together. But he is also forceful and persuasive with Captain Brackett (a fine performance from John O’May).
Kate Ceberano as Bloody Mary
Photo:Jeff Busby
Kate Ceberano’s “Bloody Mary” is no cute island mamma. This “Bloody Mary” is a wily lioness, intent on finding the right husband for her daughter, Liat. She tolerates the taunts of the sailors because she’s wants their money), but once she decides that Cable is the man for her daughter, she will not be deflected from her goal.

 During the “Happy Talk” scene, in which Mary reveals her dreams for Liat and Cable, Mary rarely takes her eyes off Cable as if trying to will his favourable response.  “Bali Ha’i”, surprisingly, is not nearly as effective. Perhaps because  of the direction, or lack of confidence in the material, Ceberano moves around the stage too much.  Once she finds the courage to remain still and let the song weave its own spell, “Bali Ha’I” will become the showstopper it’s meant to be.
Lisa McCune (Nellie Forbush) Eddie Perfect (Luther Billis)
Photo: Jeff Busby

Not previously known for the clarity of his diction, Eddie Perfect has happily discovered a marvellous gravelly voice for his Luther Billis, which allows a memorable and unique characterisation in which every word is loud and clear. His Billis is a convincingly warm and funny scally-wag, rather than a clown.

 Daniel Koeke as Lt. Joseph Cable also has a strong presence and a lovely voice. He’s equally at home with the warmly romantic “Younger Than Springtime” or the angry bitterness of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, but it’s his scenes with the graceful Celina Yuen as Liat, which stay in the memory.

Add to all of this the energetic, virile, ensemble each of whom offers an individual characterisation, who dance strongly and punch out the chorus numbers as though they really mean what they are singing and you have a production which is not only does justice to this musical masterpiece, but one which is also a powerful reminder of what a memorable theatrical experience a great musical can be.

South Pacific Ensemble
Photo: Jeff Busby 

Monday, August 20, 2012


By Jackie Smith

The Street Theatre until 25 August.

Reviewed by Len Power

Playwright, Jackie Smith, certainly set herself a challenge to write an Australian Gothic play which chills an audience with monstrous circumstances arising out of a mundane situation.

‘The Flood’ is set on a sheep farm in rural NSW in 1999.  After twenty two years absence, an estranged sister arrives during heavy rain to visit her older sister and elderly mother.  Her visit appears to be unwelcome but she is unable to leave when the rising river cuts off the road.  The stage is set for a night of unpredictable and worrying revelations.

On an atmospheric set credited to ‘The Sisters Hayes’ and designer Kathryn Sproul and with excellent and, at times disturbing, sound effects by Natasha Anderson, we are drawn into this isolated world from which there is no immediate escape.

As the mother, Shirley Cattunar gives a great performance as a woman who may or may not be suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease.  Her unexpected recitation of a few lines from Tennyson’s poem, ‘The Kraken’, creates a strong feeling of dread early in the play.  As the estranged daughter, Catherine, Caroline Lee is initially nervous and fluttery but shows she is made of sterner stuff as the play progresses.  Maude Davey as the older sister, Dorothy, portrays a bitter woman who is not as tough as she wants the world to believe.  All three performances are very real and draw you completely into the play.

Laurence Strangio, the director, ensures that the tension never lets up.  He builds on the atmosphere slowly and carefully, keeping the pace of the play at the right level to make sure that every moment rings true.  The danger with a chiller like this is pushing just a bit too much and tipping it over into melodrama.  Laurence Strangio has made sure that this doesn’t happen.

This is only Jackie Smith’s second full length play.  She has captured the voices of the characters perfectly and constructed a plot that is original, thought-provoking and entertaining, as well as being quite nerve-wracking.  It’s different to other Australian plays and it’s good to see such original writing, particularly in a genre that’s difficult to bring off successfully.  This play works superbly.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 19 August 2012

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Splinter by Hilary Bell

The Splinter by Hilary Bell.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Sarah Goodes at Wharf 1, August 10 – September 15, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 18

Helen Thomson as Mother       Erik Thomson as Father

The title has a symbolic meaning, though not made explicit as far as I could see in this piece of imagist theatre.  I take it to mean that if a splinter is lost from a finished piece of timber, and it is later recovered, the original piece can never be made good again.

The plot is simple.  A four year-old girl disappears from her bedroom.  Nothing can be found to explain what has happened to her.  Nine months later, now aged 5, she returns, alone.  She will not talk.  There is no information about what has happened, except that a doctor says she has not been injured or violated.

But the original family of three can never be made good again.  Laura’s mother (Helen Thomson) and father (Erik Thomson) have irrevocably changed because of having to survive their daughter’s loss, and change again as they try to cope with her re-appearance.

The drama is an exploration of ghostly imagery derived from the doubts the parents imagine – about the new Laura, whom they are not sure they recognise, and about each other as they find themselves telling each other truths that they had previously kept to themselves to protect the other’s feelings, and as they blame each other for what happened and how they behaved during the nine months’ of loss, how they are behaving now and into the future.

Rather than attempting any kind of naturalism, the designer Renee Mulder working with puppetry and movement director Alice Osborne, uses a kind of Gothic mystery format, with a Banraku style puppet to represent the silent Laura, operated by Kate Worsley and Julia Ohanessian, who each also play Laura in live form.  Gusts of wind, swirling curtains and rustling dry leaves emphasise the fears of the frightened parents as they speak to each other and Laura in apparently ‘normal’ dialogue.

Mulder has written The setting begins as interior, it’s minimal and changeable, a space where absence has a presence.  Eventually the interior is invaded and overpowered by external forces that turn the space inside out.  For this kind of effect, the play went through three stages of development. 

Hilary Bell was commissioned to present an idea, originally for a ‘spooky’ story for young people, but came up with a study of adult fears which suited the mainstage rather than STC’s education program.  Next came a ‘Rough Draft’ workshop stage with the puppeteer Alice Osborne finding ways with performers to put Bell’s ideas into physical form.  Then Bell wrote the dialogue, with the space for visual action and further interpretation and expansion of her ideas in the rehearsal process directed by Sarah Goodes.

The result is a great demonstration of STC’s commitment to new writing.  In previous times, now long ago,  this kind of workshop development process was done annually at the now defunct National Playwrights’ Conference.  It’s important to support this work as part of the natural function of the Sydney Theatre Company.

The ending of The Splinter remains a mystery, spooky and with the equal possibility of new life or death.  Walking to the train station, each unexpected sound – of a security guard slamming a door, of the swish of a passing car in the dark street – made me jump as if the wind which brought Laura’s ghostly figure into being would make her suddenly appear before me.

The theatrical illusion had worked its power on me. 

Face to Face adapted for the stage from the film by Ingmar Bergman, by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone

Kerry Fox as Jenny
Face to Face adapted for the stage from the film by Ingmar Bergman, by Andrew Upton and Simon Stone.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Theatre, August 7 – September 8, 2012.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 18

For this show my review must be split into two parts – the success of the adaptation and the quality of the production.

When I saw Bergman’s film some 30 years ago, I had doubts about the question of psychological truth.  I had no doubts about Liv Ullman’s capacity to act with the sense of internal intensity which Bergman’s use of close up and lengthy shots of her facial expression required. 

But I was never quite comfortable with the seemingly interminable “dream” sequence of Jenny’s fantasies, growing out of her close relationship with her father, tragically cut off at the age of 9 when he, driving home drunk from a party, crashed and killed himself and Jenny’s mother, who, Jenny believed, had never loved her.

At the time I saw too much of Freud’s unsupportable theory of the Oedipus complex in this.  Because film makes one feel that you are watching reality, these doubts left me appreciative of Liv Ullman, the actor, but not of Jenny, the character created by Bergman.

This adaptation resolves the problem for me.  Theatre is necessarily artificial, and, if done artfully, can reflect experience not as in a simple mirror but as if we, watching, can gradually identify with the character’s experience as we get to know her through her physical presence.  This requires not only an actor to appreciate, in this case Kerry Fox, but staging techniques which create symbolically a context, within the black box of a theatre, for us to accept the character’s mental life as hers and for us to respond emotionally.

Especially, Simon Stone and Andrew Upton (who, by the way, will continue as artistic director of Sydney Theatre Company for another 3 years) made the hospital scene, as Jenny recovers from her attempted suicide, absolutely entirely brilliant white as she sleeps and dreams, but just slightly warmer off-white as she wakes into normal reality.  It’s a simple theatrical device, done with delicacy, which allows us to see that Jenny believed, being the psychiatrist of her day, in the Oedipus complex, but comes through to realising that it is childhood trauma and others’ uneducated reactions to her expression of the resulting feelings that led to her adult feelings of inadequacy and her need to block out her capacity for love.

And, in addition, Upton and Stone have Jenny and her 14 year-old daughter, who not surprisingly thinks her mother doesn’t love her, play out the final scene – where Jenny tells Anna (Jessica Nash) of her attempted suicide – as a tentative game, kicking a ball to each other, unlikely in reality but symbolically representing both Jenny’s and Anna’s state of play, and Jenny’s now normal understanding of her self-harming behaviour.

So the adaptation works very well indeed.  It is not Bergman’s film on stage; it is better than Bergman’s film, because it is on stage.

Then it is not surprising that the production – acting, set design, scene changes, lighting and sound – are up to the best, as we have come to expect from the STC.  Kerry Fox was getting much praise in the foyer, as she should, but all the actors gave her the ensemble platform on which to perform.  Because most of their characters are memory/fantasy figures it could have been too easy to go over the top, but even the most extreme characters, like Queenie van de Zandt’s socialite Elizabeth and John Gaden’s demented Uncle, were played precisely within the right disciplinary bounds; while Tomas, the character we see as right on the borderline of Jenny’s reality, is played so discreetly by Mitchell Butel that we all understand why Jenny responds to him as she returns to being able to love.

The set design and lighting, starting from the traditional rule of ‘less is more’, is surprising, exciting and exactly right, supported by music nicely chosen. Everything technical went without a hitch with scene shifting (a complete restaurant setting at one point), a whole ceiling on the fly, a physical transparent fourth wall and front apron action becoming a performance in itself – yet always supporting the drama, never taking focus away.

Bookings for the rest of the season at this point are not up to the full house mark that this production deserves.  It’s more than an interesting experiment in adapting a film to the stage.  It’s a great production of a fascinating drama.  Do your best not to miss it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


By Sue Fabisch

The Q until 19th August.
Reviewed by Bill Stephens
Ziggy Clements (Brooke), Sophie Weiss (Amy), Lara Thew (Barb), Sophie Carter (Trisha)

Entertainment Alert !!! . Perhaps you’ve decided that you’ve already seen enough shows based around  women’s body parts and functions like menopause, breasts and  vaginas, and  expect “Motherhood The Musical” to be yet another show in which the characters complain about being over worked, underpaid, under-appreciated,  and how they  cope with demanding kids, boorish husbands , sagging breasts and incontinence. Then you’d be right. It is! 

But in this particular production, these all too familiar topics prove remarkably diverting with lots of funny topical references spicing up Sue Fabisch’s already witty script.

The threadbare storyline involves three friends who call on their pregnant girlfriend to regale her with their own individual experiences of motherhood. These are presented in a series of well-crafted songs that are catchy, even occasionally moving, cleverly choreographed and superbly delivered by a quartet of accomplished actors who manage to invest their characters with warmth and humour.

The centre of attention is the heavily pregnant, Amy, and in this role, gamin-faced Sophie Weiss is a delight. Blissfully happy at the beginning as she over-plans her forthcoming pregnancy, she experiences the full gamut of emotions as she endeavours to cope with the deluge of information bestowed on her by her three friends, Barb (Lara Thew), Brooke (Ziggy Clements) and Trisha (Sophie Carter).  All of whom offer engaging performances as the stereotypical friends.

 Terrence O’Connell’s inventive  direction insures that the carefully detailed  action moves  along a fast bat on Shaun Gurton’s cheerful, colourful setting for which the sound and lighting are also excellent.  

It is a shame that printed programs were not provided for this production, as the actors and creative associated with it have excellent credentials.  Most theatre-goers like to know who they are looking at, and seek this information from their programs once they are seated; therefore it is a shame that production companies so undervalue their actors by not providing this information in a printed program.

True, there was a notice providing this information displayed in the foyer, but most patrons would have missed this, and also it is of little use for identifying actors while watching a performance.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Off With Youth Arts and Down Among the Bellbirds…

Last month Young People and the Arts Australia (YPAA) ran an engrossing symposium called Speaking in Tongues at the Casula Powerhouse in south western Sydney. This lovely venue, with its wonderfully graffiti covered towers that have scandalised some local councillors, came complete with a river, a terrifying railway crossing, Polyglot Theatre’s Paper Planet filling up the foyer for the Way Out West children’s festival and bellbirds Henry Kendalling on the river banks.
Leverage and language were the theme, with youth arts practitioners and administrators from all over Australia and beyond concentrating on questions of communicating what the arts are about for the young. And communicating not just in a vague ‘arts are good for you’sense but in ways that would have potential audiences, funders, governments, schools, parents and the young understanding how vital this area is and how it changes perspectives and lives. There’s a search on for the right language that positively communicates the worth of the arts for the young. As Jim Lawson, Director and CEO for YPAA (Vic) said when he quoted Cathy Hunt of Positive Solutions ( in the Symposium’s programme, ‘…the question arises for the arts sector: How do we articulate the value of what we do?’
Suzanne Lebeau, playwright and artistic director of Le Carrousel Theatre ( in Quebec, Canada discussed the need for toughness in youth arts, raising questions of censorship and self-censorship for a playwright yet placing against this evidence of the great capacity of children to understand difficult ethical questions. One of her recent plays (Le bruit des os qui craquent/The Sound of Cracking Bones 2006) concerns the matter of child soldiers, not the first time for Lebeau to tackle challenging subject matter.

Melbourne’s Platform Youth Theatre challenged by presenting a dark double bill called Tenderness (Ugly by Christos Tsolkias/Slut by Patricia Cornelius) drawn from the grimmer sides of life for young people in the northern suburbs of that city: self image, sexuality, love and friendship and the power of labelling.

Out in the centre of the Powerhouse dozens of younger kids were absorbed in building their Paper Planets, in a smaller space Maysa Abouhzheid performed Nest, a piece about her perceptions of the world, with her guide dog nestled quietly at her feet and in an even tinier space The Plastic Bag Ladies of the Sea introduced miniscule audiences to the knitted underwater world of Spinning a Yarn.

Outside the performances there was a sea of talk with much in the way of positive suggestions for broadening the youth arts sector’s communication of what it does coming from people like Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education’s Arnold Aprill.
(Time and time again he would drop an eminently sensible viewpoint or tactic into the discussions.)
There was also a very healthy approach to the use of media in youth arts going on. ATYP’s Fresh Ink – Writers Online Tel It Like It Isn’t showcased on film a couple of tough monologues by writers under 26, all revolving around a dire teenage driving scenario. ( There was even a rather exciting live cross to Manchester and Baba Israel, artistic director of Manchester’s CONTACT where the Contacting the World Festival involved youth companies from the UK, Trinidad/Tobago, Thailand and Nigeria. ( It’s clear from their web site that they have a strong on line presence full of powerful up to the moment work.
With national curriculum for the arts thundering down on the country’s education systems none of this is any bad thing. But there still seems to be a bit of a chasm between all this gorgeous stuff and education systems. YPAA is aware of this and ran an educators’ seminar at the Opera House on the Monday following the Symposium which might have opened a few doors. Putting arts squarely to the fore in busy and complex education systems remains, however, a challenge. Deep training for specialist performing arts teachers and a hard look at the reality of facilities in schools might be achieved if decision makers were as versed in the language of the arts as YPAA would like them to be.
Meanwhile, back in Canberra, the July break contained some good examples of theatre by children and for children. Child Players’ ACT ‘s The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, the first of C.S.Lewis’ Narnia stories was a sensibly unfussy and unsentimental version with good brisk playing and excellently clear voices, well directed by B.J.Anyos. Child Players have an intriguing set up in which the participants rotate through backstage and onstage roles, giving them a chance at a broad and realistic theatrical experience that resists the temptation to only nourish ‘stars’.
Although William Walton’s Funeral March for Olivier’s Hamlet was an odd aural choice to introduce the White Witch (who would seem to be more of an Oriental despot than a Danish royal) the rest of the show mostly hit a very satisfactory mixture of clear approaches to characters and straightforward imagery. The set changes used the ubiquitous Rock Eisteddfod rotating triangle flats that is occasionally a slow way of doing things but no bad idea if approached with style. It certainly solves the problem of a wardrobe that has to contain a whole world.

CYT, who were ably represented at the YPAA Symposium by artistic director Karla Conway, put on Insomniac Attack, a lovely dark piece about the terrors of the night complete with Genty style illusions supported by neatly selective lighting by Michael Foley and lots of IPods floating around in the dark with little films of eyes running on them in a delicious visual pun. Director Cathy Petocz had the CYT Junior Ensemble deeply immersed in a world of bedclothes that come to life and the faint lights of the IPads and IPods that shine underneath them just as years ago the late night readers would use their torches. Only now it might be technology that’s evoking the nightmares. Which the young insomniacs in this piece overcome in a brusquely practical manner.
Does the draft National Arts Curriculum (high on rhetoric but low as yet on vital matters like teacher training and school facilities) have the capacity to ensure that students in schools can be actively part of similar good performing arts experiences?

Monday, August 13, 2012


Part of the ‘Capital Jazz Project’ at The Street Theatre, Gian Slater’s Invenio presented ‘Gone Without Saying’, the winner of the MIFF APRA Composer’s Commission.  It’s a musical presentation by fourteen singers advertised as ‘exploring the notion of communication between and without words for those that love voice’.

It’s certainly a unique presentation.  All fourteen singers are excellent musicians able to harmonise accurately with each other in what may have started as improvising around a set piece of music in rehearsal and then has been highly polished for performance.  I may be completely wrong about that, but in the absence of a program, it’s my best guess.

Most of the items were performed by the whole group without individuals taking the lead.  Sound variations were achieved with changing placement on the stage of the various voices and with the imaginative use of some props that added a unique sound into the mix.  In a couple of items with lyrics, Gian Slater’s clear and appealing voice led the group.  It was certainly unusual and I admire the musicianship of the singers.

How much you enjoy the performance will, however, depend on personal taste.  While acknowledging the cleverness of the concept and the ability of the singers, I found the musical items were not varied enough to sustain my interest.  I would have liked to know what to look for in each item.  This could have been announced from the stage or included in a program.  As a presentation, more variation is needed visually, maybe in costumes and movement on the stage.

Part of the fun of attending performances at the ‘Capital Jazz Project’ is to see something new and stimulating, even if the music doesn’t always match your personal taste.  I’m looking forward to next year’s program!

Len Power
As broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Dress Circle’ program on Sunday 12 August 2012

Sunday, August 12, 2012


The Street Theatre. Saturday 4th August

Continuing until 12th August 2012.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Canberra’s hot-house of creativity, The Street Theatre, was alive with adventurous and bemused music lovers on Saturday night eager to sample some of the one-off performances included in this year’s ten-day feast of contemporary jazz that is the Capital Jazz Project. As expected of The Street these days, the presentation of this event is superb, with excellent sound and atmospheric lighting to enhance the performances

More than ninety players are participating in this year’s event, with the emphasis on reed instruments and composition,   and although such trend-setters as Paul Capsis, Christa Hughes and Gian Slater will perform during the festival, there was not a vocalist to be heard on Saturday night. Instead contrasting programs by three world-class ensembles were on offer in the two theatres.

 Internationally renowned saxophonist, Sandy Evans commenced the evening in Street Two, transformed into a glamorous, cosy jazz club for the festival, with table candles, gold wall frames and chandeliers. Working with long time collaborators, bassist Brett Hirst and drummer Toby Hall, Evans also included charismatic Indian tabla player, Bobby Singh, to present a series of new compositions that latest of which, she announced, had been completed “twenty minutes ago”, and which commenced with Evans on clarinet setting the theme and mood for a series of exotic, mesmerising improvisations.

Uber-cool combo, Albare, was the attraction in Street One. Fronted by Moroccan-born jazz guitarist and composer, Albert Dadon and including Cuban drummer Ignacio Berroa, pianist Phil Torcio, bassist Evri Evripedou, and German harmonica virtuoso Hendrik Meurkens who, in the words of Dadon, was a “German who played like a Brazilian”, Albare presented a series of silky smooth, Latin-American-inspired compositions. Lost in their music-making, the musicians played with eyes downcast, studiously ignoring their audience, who, nevertheless, dutifully clapped every improvisation, the experience of luscious music at this level, reward enough.

Back to Street Two for a performance by tenor saxophonist and composer, John Mackey who premiered an eleven- section suite which he confided was “only completed today”. With titles including “Insurrection” and “Emotional Valour” the music had a very New York jazz club feel, dense, atmospheric, and emotionally involving with its complex progressions and improvisations, providing a satisfying conclusion to a fascinating evening.

An edited version of this review appears in the August 9 - 15 edition of CITY NEWS and in the CITY NEWS digital edition.