Friday, May 30, 2014



Adam Cook
ANU School of Music

29th May 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens


It was a charming gesture by pianist Adam Cook to honour the 80th birthday of his teacher and mentor, Larry Sitsky, with this recital. Although Sitsky’s actual birthday doesn’t occur until September, Cook took advantage of a short window of opportunity between Sitsky’s return to Canberra from overseas and his own departure for further studies in Paris to present the concert.

The program commenced with an assured performance of a suite of six Romanian folk dances, composed by Bella Bartok in 1915. Prior to playing them, Cook provided some background to each of the dances and their adaptation by Bartok. The explanation actually took more time than the dances themselves, as the suite, which ends with a dazzling “fast dance”, took only around five minutes to perform.  

Three of the notoriously difficult Debussy preludes, also composed in 1915, provided Cook with the perfect vehicles to further demonstrate his virtuosity and command of technique. His performance of them was as impressive as it was incisive.   The final work was Larry Sitsky’s astonishing “Sonata No. 2 for Piano” composed in 2010 especially for Adam Cook.  A big, muscular, demanding and entertaining work, it provides a perfect showcase for Cooks prodigious talent, and was given a virtuosic performance by him, at times pounding the keyboard with closed fists, or the heels of his hands, to satisfy the demands of the music and extract the affects required. This stunning work will no doubt serve Cook well as a signature work for his repertoire, as he competes for attention on the world stage.

Responding to the recital, the guest of honour, Larry Sitsky, made some erudite remarks about the difficulties facing young musicians transitioning from student to professional musician. Hopefully, Cook will take the hint and give some attention to polishing his presentation skills, because in this regard, his performance was disappointing.

At one stage he mentioned that he intended this recital to be informal. However “ informal” doesn’t preclude polish, particularly when his audience are paying for the privilege of attending.  Such details as ensuring that the stage is properly set, instead of cluttered with unused instruments, as it was on this occasion; checking you know how to use the  microphone properly so that your remarks can be understood, and  avoiding such discourtesies as delaying the start time of the recital considerably , to accommodate late arriving friends,  when the rest of your large audience, including the guest of honour, have made the effort to be seated by the advertised start time, may prove as important to an emerging  artist as technical brilliance in ensuring career success.
                   This review appears in the May 30th digital edition of  CITY NEWS 


The Government Inspector, inspired by Nikolai Gogol

The Government Inspector by Simon Stone with Emily Barclay; devised by the cast featuring a short musical by Stefan Gregory; inspired by Nikolai Gogol.  At The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre, May 28-31, 2014.

Dear Mr Stone and Company,

Thank you for your invitation to the National Commission of Audit to inspect your operation. 

To place our conclusions in an appropriate context, we refer you to those of our Terms of Reference relevant to your situation, as follows:


In relation to activities performed, the Commission is asked to identify:

–whether there remains a compelling case for the activity to continue to be
undertaken; and
–if so, whether there is a strong case for continued direct involvement of
government, or whether the activity could be undertaken more efficiently by the
private sector, the not for profit sector, the States, or local government.


Efficiency and effectiveness of expenditure

The Commission is asked to report on efficiencies and savings to improve the
effectiveness of, and value for money from, all expenditure, including:

–options for greater efficiencies such as:
:increasing contestability of services;
:adoption of new technologies in service delivery;
:consolidation of agencies and boards;
:rationalising the service delivery footprint to ensure better, more productive
and efficient services for stakeholders;
:flattening organisational structures and streamlining lines of responsibility
and accountability;
:consolidating support functions into a single agency; and
:privatisation of assets.
–potential improvements to productivity, service quality, and value for money
across the public sector, including better delivery of services to the regions; and
–anything that is reasonably necessary or desirable to improve the efficiency and effectiveness generally.

To save the Commission's time and expense, following is a brief Executive Summary of our Conclusions.

We recommend a revolving door structure and note that your operation in this regard is highly efficient.  We note that only on rare occasions have you flattened organisational structures, and consideration could be given to furthering this objective, in comparison, for example, to the complete flattening achieved in the Perplex operation (audited 10 April 2014).  We were suitably impressed by the almost continous contestability of services in your operation, to the point of saving on staffing via departures and death.  More productive and efficient services were evident in the high degree of multitasking in your staff.  The public sector has expressed its satisfaction with your operational service quality, including effective delivery of services, and the strategic planning of touring to regions including Uzbekistan.

Your operation began well in the matter of rationalisation of the service footprint, represented by a single pair of shoes, though there was some concern that the footprint became somewhat out-of-hand in an all-singing all-dancing finale.  Propriety and approbrium were issues at several points of the progression of the operation, leading some stakeholders to question whether there had been sufficient privatisation of some of the staff’s assets.

On the whole, the Commission has concluded that there remains a compelling case for the activity to continue to be undertaken, and that there is a strong case for continued direct involvement of the Australian Government, in partnership with the private sector, the not for profit sector, the States, and local government.


Frank McKone
Critically certified
29 May 2014

Operational staff in operation
Not necessarily Left to Right
In alphabetical order:
Fayssal Bazzi, Mitchell Butel, Gareth Davies, Robert Menzies, Zahra Newman, Eryn-Jean Norvill, Greg Stone

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mojo by Jez Butterworth

Photo: Brett Boardman

Mojo by Jez Butterworth.  Sydney Theatre Company directed by Iain Sinclair, designed by Pip Runciman (set), David Fleischer (costume), Nicholas Rayment (lighting) and Steve Francis (sound).  At Wharf 1, May 17 – July 5, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 28

For many decades since the 1950s we have seen a bowdlerised and often quite sentimental view of British small-time criminal life on our tv screens.  Even the picture on the program cover, in a kind-of modern 'mod' style, makes the characters in Mojo seem rather attractive.

Over those same decades, the British stage has had Harold Pinter’s plays to take us into something more like the reality of the culture of menace in the lives of a certain stream of the lower class for whom graft and trickery provided what they saw as the only way up in the world.

Yet I had not been aware of the next generation of writers like Pinter, represented here by Butterworth in his first play, from 1995.  It was picked up immediately for the Royal Court’s main stage, making Butterworth the only first-time playwright to have this honour since John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956.  It’s no wonder that the younger Butterworth ended up a close friend of the older Pinter.  Mojo is as perceptive and subtle in reproducing the relationships between those controlling  (or wanting to control) a cheap ‘night club’ as, say, the story behind The Birthday Party.

But, perhaps beyond Pinter’s achievement, Butterworth takes us back to John Osborne’s time, and shows us the contrast between Osborne’s intellectuals messing up their middle-class lives and the seriously dangerous lives of the lower classes at the time of new possibilities of rock’n’roll.  Black humour and the rhythms of Cockney language make us laugh in the midst of social and personal tragedy.  There is no sentimentality here.

For Butterworth to write this, looking back 40 years, was remarkable, but for Iain Sinclair to create such an accurate sense of that 1950s period another 20 years later is even more so, in my eyes.  I can say this because as a young teenager in London I was brought up to be conscious of those parts of the city which were no go for our kind of family.  I knew about the Teddy Boys and was well aware of the danger.  Fortunately I had arrived in Australia by the time rock around the clock had chimed, and only had to learn about avoiding the sly grog merchants of Sydney’s Kings Cross, rather than  the extension of the violence of the early 50s Teddy Boys into the amphetamine trade and the night club music scene.

In the program there are a series of photos of 1950s street scenes, from the Mary Evans Picture Library, which I cannot reproduce here for copyright reasons, showing both the poverty of the parts of London where the Teddy Boys were active and the attitude they displayed.  For this production, not all the costumes are accurate copies of those of the day but are designed to give us the feel of characters using a kind of natty formality of dress and hair style to make themselves seem further up the social scale than they really were.  The 'duck's arse' or duck's tail hair style was a special feature  - very nicely done.

Josh McConville, Lindsay Farris, Ben O'Toole

Eamon Farren, Josh McConville

Alon Ilsar, Lindsay Farris

Lindsay Farris

Photos © Brett Boardman 2014

Stills cannot show perhaps the most remarkable feature of the acting.  The style of movement and the tonalities of voice took me straight back to my teenage days.

I had wondered before seeing the show whether the past would be a different country, perhaps not really relevant for 2014 – but the story in the news this very week of the murder of a methamphetamine carrier, perhaps by previously corrupt coppers, in the Sydney suburb of Padstow gives Mojo all the significance it needs.

Technically and acting-wise, this is another highly successful Sydney Theatre Company production, well worth the trip since it’s unlikely to come to Iain Sinclair’s one time home town, Canberra.

Monday, May 26, 2014


Hanna Waterman and Hugh Higginson in "Love Letters

Starring Hanna Waterman and Huw Higginson.
Hanna Waterman and Huw Higginson
Director: Denny Lawrence
Designer: Jacob Battista
Lighting Design: Jason Bovaird
Producer: Christine Harris & HIT Productions
The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre - May 21 – 24th

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Ever since it was first performed by the author himself in 1988, A.R. Gurney’s celebrated play “Love Letters” has been a favourite among name actors. Exploring a relationship between two lifelong friends through their letters to each other, it requires little rehearsal and the lines don’t have to be memorised.
However this production which had its premiere performances at the Q in Queanbeyan before embarking on an extensive Australasian tour, and which stars Huw Higginson (P.C.George Garfield in “The Bill”) and Hannah Waterman (Laura Beale in “Eastenders”) shows all the signs of a meticulous rehearsal period by director Denny Lawrence and his cast.
Melissa Gardner (played by Hannah Waterman as feisty, rebellious and determined to lead her own life) and Andy Ladd ([played by Huw Higginson as compliant, thoughtful and co-operative) is childhood friends. Both born into wealthy New York families, they begin writing to each other with tentative holiday postcards, birthday invitations and ‘Thank you’ letters.
As they move on to boarding school, college and beyond, they stay in touch through a series of letters that explore their blossoming hopes for romance as well as their change in fortunes. Andy becomes a celebrated lawyer with political ambitions. Mellissa leaves a trail of controversy and school expulsions, eventually becoming an artist.

Through 50 years of laughter, pain, re-unions and estrangements, the bond between the two remains unbreakable. As his life reaches for the glory of the U.S. Senate, hers descends into trouble and rejection.

The staging is simplicity itself. Both actors stand at elegant, transparent lecterns, separated by an arched window. Images of butterflies, leaves and rain are projected on to the window, together with subtle lighting changes to denote the passage of time.
The actors avoid eye contact with each other, and their faces light up only when speaking their own lines. In lesser actors, this static staging could become boring, but despite their television fame, both Waterman and Higginson are consummate stage actors boasting substantial stage credits between them.  Their performances are lessons in superb stagecraft, skilful pacing and restraint. They allow their characters come to life through A.R.Gurney’s exquisitely discerning words. In the process they are fascinating, often frequently funny and ultimately very moving.
Should this production come your way, do make an effort to catch it. You’ll be glad you did.    
                                                       Photos by Belinda Strodden

                      This review appears in Australian Arts Review .

Sunday, May 25, 2014


Written by A.R. Gurney
Director: Denny Lawrence
Presented by Christine Harris & HIT Productions
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan, May 21 to 24, 2014

Review by Len Power 21 May 2014

‘Love Letters’, first performed in the USA in 1989, has already had an extraordinary life with just about every famous theatre performer you can imagine having a go at it.  At last we had an opportunity to see it at the Q Theatre in Queanbeyan with Huw Higginson from TV’s ‘The Bill’ and his wife, Hannah Waterman, best known for her role in ‘Eastenders’.

Written by A.R. Gurney, the play centres on two fictional well-to-do Americans, Melissa Gardner and Andrew Makepeace Ladd III.  Covering nearly 50 years, we witness their early hopes and dreams and share their disappointments, successes and failures through their correspondence with each other as they lead their separate lives.

Simply staged by director, Denny Lawrence, it’s the skill of the performers that makes this production a success.  Both actors read their letters from separate lecterns separated by a window representing the type of grand-looking houses these people would live in.  There is no other movement on stage.  Huw Higginson is especially touching as a gentle man concerned to do the right thing by everyone while Hannah Waterman shines as a waspish but emotionally needy woman unhappily locked into a life that seems to have been mapped out for her since birth.

The static nature of this work could easily work against it but this production works extremely well with careful pacing, lots of light and shade in the delivery by the actors, overlapping dialogue and flashes of humour.  The audience is drawn into the details of the lives of these people against a background of the manners and morals of these particular fifty years or so in American history.

The simple but effective set design is by Jacob Battista and the lighting plot complements the set and gives a good impression of time passing with various fades and colour changes.

The director, Denny Lawrence has done an excellent job with all aspects of this production.  The ending of the play is very moving, even though you can see it coming.  It was a play I had been curious about for a very long time and I was not disappointed.

Originally broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Dress Circle’ program with Bill Stephens Sunday 26 May 2014

Friday, May 23, 2014

Love Letters by A.R.Gurney

Hannah Waterman, Huw Higginson
Love Letters by A.R.Gurney.  Produced by Christine Harris & HIT Productions.  Directed by Denny Lawrence; designer, Jacob Battista; lighting designer, Jason Bovaird.  At The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 21 – 24, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 22

The American President Abraham Lincoln wrote: “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Love Letters is a quintessentially American play: of Americans, by an American, for Americans.

This production of Love Letters, directed by an Australian, acted by Britons (recently settled in Australia), and presented for Australians, seems to me to miss a key element of American culture: the sentimental nature of the American dream.

A. R. Gurney knew the weakness of his culture, as have all the great American playwrights from Eugene O’Neill onwards.  That’s why his story of the born-rich Melissa Gardner and the self-made ironically-named Andrew Makepeace Lad III turns out to be a tragedy.

Let me make it clear that Hannah Waterman and Huw Higginson understood and created the characters’ deep sense of failure, to the point of still being tearful even as they acknowledged our applause in recognition of their quality acting.

But Denny Lawrence’s approach to directing the play left us feeling that there was something missing.  It began, I think, with the set and lighting design.

Hannah Waterman & Huw Higginson in Love Letters by A.R.Gurney (Photo: Belinda Strodder)

The shiny see-through brightly lit lecterns at which the actors stood, facing front until the very end, with the backdrop of an upright backlit screen in the centre behind them, produced a sense of formality which was at odds with the nature of the letters being written and received by Melissa and Andy throughout their lives from primary school in 1937 to Melissa’s suicide some 50 years later.

Despite the fences and finally the insurmountable barriers – like a thicket of thorns which grows continually wider and higher between them, from their childhood social class division and then the requirements of her life as an artist (whose function is to buck convention) and his as a rising star through Yale, service in the navy, prominence as a lawyer and election as a liberal Republican Senator (whose function is to build on conventions) – in their letters they are their real selves.

Perhaps the most telling, and amusing, episode occurs when Andy’s secretary sends out the standard overblown self-congratulatory Christmas letter from his family (on this occasion written by Andrew, though usually written by his wife Jane), with glowing stories about their three sons’ successes.  Melissa tears into Andy in reply, and he is remorseful in response, telling her the truth about his sons’ bad behaviour.  Maybe we, not just Americans, have received – and perhaps even written – such awful Christmas letters.

Hannah Waterman as Melissa Gardner

Huw Higginson as Andrew Makepeace Lad III
Photos: Belinda Strodder

However the clue to what I think was wrong about the directing is in the letters Andy writes from very early on, even while they were still teenagers, worrying about whether Melissa is OK.  “Are you in trouble?” he writes much later as he realises that her marriage to Darwin, of Wall Street, is just not right for her.  Then there are the intermittent lengthy periods with no communication from her, when his letters become panicky about what’s happening to her.  To me this says that the formal setting of hard, sharp, angular, well-lit edges has to go.  And even more so when she manages to persuade him, and he succeeds in consummating the relationship – unfortunately in the lead-up to his crucial re-election.

Andy may be writing from the office of Andrew Makepeace Lad III, but only his absolutely trustworthy confidential personal secretary is in the know and protects his privacy.  He is not writing while standing at a public lectern.  Melissa is writing in darker and darker places as time goes along, even when she has an exhibition of her paintings – a complete disaster in her eyes.  Andy might be capable of presenting himself at a public event – even speaking at a lectern – despite what’s really happening in his personal life; but not Melissa.

Only after reaching this conclusion did I have a look at YouTube.  It would have been cheating otherwise, since I have never seen a production of Love Letters before. 

At  I found Cleo Holladay and Rex Partington in an excerpt “from A.R. Gurney's Pulitzer Prize winning play.”  You can’t trust YouTube, of course.  Gurney was a finalist for a Pulitzer, but never won.  However the setting and the stage relationship between the actors demonstrates my concern about Lawrence’s production.

Cleo Holladay & Rex Partington (YouTube screenshot)

Partington has Melissa and Andy seated at the same table, side by side and visibly close.  The letters are an animated conversation between the two, as if there is no physical or time separation.  There is no sense of formality or distance.  In Lawrence’s setting I quite liked the backlit screen changing as the seasons changed, and even becoming a stained glass window for Melissa’s funeral, but a softer and more intimate setting would have allowed his actors much more freedom of expression, as they ‘wrote’ and as they ‘read’ each other's letters.

Then the innocent comedy of their young selves would have felt insecure – to us watching, as well as to the actors playing the roles – and the dark shadows would gradually overwhelm Melissa and Andy, and be felt by the audience, until the inevitability of her death could take on the same kind of significance as in Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra

Then we would have seen a truly American play – emotionally sentimental, but through the playwright’s eyes, a damnation of the American Dream.