Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Wait Until Dark - Canberra Repertory

Review by John Lombard

A blind woman enters her home - but she's not alone.  Criminals, silent as mice, watch her from all angles.  She can sense something is wrong, and she calls out in the darkness, but they all refuse to answer her.  We should be terrified for her, but we are just as scared for the crooks who are so close to detection.

The brilliance of Frederick Knott's thriller is that it takes an excellent scenario - blind woman victimised by con artists hiding in plain sight - and inverts it, making it as much the story of crooks trying to pull a con as a helpless woman trying to resist predators.  Director Jordan Best is at home with the fast-paced and twisting plot, and the alacrity and physicality of the performers ensures that we are too busy keeping up with the action to work out the planned surprises.

 Mike Trenon (Riley Bell) and his pal Croker (Nelson Blattman) are both working class crims, struggling with parole life and looking for sharp ways to supplement their income - and to stave off threats from a loan shark.  They are working their own small time angle when they hook up with the sociopathic Harry Roat (Zach Raffan) in the search for this play's MacGuffin, a doll that conceals a fortune in heroin.

The doll is hidden in the house of freshly blind Susy Henderson (Jenna Roberts), and the three pull an elaborate con to coax its location out of her.  Roberts plays Henderson not as a helpless damsel but as a "world champion blind lady".  Although newly blind the character is not hesitant, convincingly familiar with every detail of her private space and responding to challenges with a lot of grit and moxie.

Her mettle makes her an appropriate foe for the occasionally hapless crims, and the play is better for it.  This could easily be a chiller with a helpless woman pursued by unseen forces, but the conflict between predator and prey is more exciting, with both sides forced to call on all of their wit and will to prevail.  All credit here to Best and Roberts together for a smart character choice.

Riley Bell is appropriately smarmy as Mike Trenton, unctuous but with his eye on his own self-interest.  Nelson Blattman provides comic relief as the dim Croker flails about.  Neither one is entirely plausible as a smooth con artist, feeling more like the muscle in a gang than the brains.  Zach Raffan meanwhile is extremely charming as the cool and obviously dangerous Harry Roat, and as the drama escalates he becomes genuinely scary.

Annabel Foulds also shines as the spectacularly awful little girl who exists only to frustrate Susy Henderson and complicate the plot.  While it feels like a sideshow to the main plot, a sequence where she and Susy were cruel to each other was as gripping as anything else in the play.  Roberts' scenes with hubby Sam (a lovely Euan Bowen) were also a delight: loving, tender, and very real.

One lost opportunity was in the interplay between Bell and Roberts, especially at the end of the play when they have their final exchange.  While they have a good dynamic as solid buds, they lacked any real romantic sizzle, and this hurt the climax where a more passionate connection would have made the choices of the characters more plausible.  But then again, perhaps they were just upstaged by how well Roberts and Bowen work together.

The set by Michael Sparks was genuinely brilliant, with a central entrance door highlighting key entrances and exits, and a 45 degree tilt on the apartment setting up interesting sightlines where characters could move around objects, emphasising the "hide and seek" moments in the play.  The detail in the kitchen, from the fridge to the tea towels to the string of developed photos hanging above the sink, was arrestingly authentic.

Lighting design by  Cynthia Jolley-Rogers was also very strong (and extremely important to the play), with audacious moments where visibility was played with in a way highly resonant with the themes of the story.

It is tempting to underestimate a genre play like this one, but Wait Until Dark plays with the medium in inventive ways that many plays only dream of, and even manages to do it seamlessly as part of a gripping story.  The paranoia of the concept is palpable, with a vulnerable woman's private sanctum invaded, and the energy of the play never lets up until the terrifying, boldly staged climax.  Wait until dark if you have to, but don't wait too long to see this engrossing thriller.

Monday, February 27, 2017


Cirque Alfonse
Sydney Opera House until 4th March, 2017.

Performance on 16th February reviewed by Bill Stephens.

Four beefy, bearded blokes, two apparently boneless women and three talented multi- instrumentalists make up the cast of this quirky, clever “nouveau cirque”  show. Between them, they display an extraordinary array of physical skills, including reckless roller-skating, spitting ping-pong balls at each other, bouncing on teeter boards, and balancing heavy metal beer kegs which spray beer in all directions.

Taking its name from the French word meaning bearded, “Barbu” originated in Quebec, and harkens back to the origins of circus in Montreal when bearded locals would show off their circus skills in fairgrounds. Indeed for much of the first half of the show, the men’s costumes and demeanour suggest lumberjacks, and the physical skills like handkerchief and hat juggling, hint at their origins.

However when the men strip to their speedos (and occasionally beyond) the show really heats up, and their acrobatic skills and feats of strength are pushed to extraordinary lengths which seem even scarier when performed in such close proximity to their audience.

Strikingly original in concept, “Barbu” is slickly choreographed and performed dead-pan, except for an occasional wink here and there. It’s punctuated with dance and vocal sequences performed by the whole ensemble, on a small circular stage at the end of a catwalk. The audience surrounds the action on three sides, while large television screens positioned above their heads, display abstract scenes with which the performers sometimes interact. The three-piece band pumps out evocative Klezmer-style music to accompany the action as show becomes ever more surreal.

Integral parts of the ensemble, the two women perform an erotic contortionist duet, join in the action on various apparatus, including trapeze and poles, or are tossed nonchalantly between the men. A beefy guy clad in a mirror-ball spins around the stage in a huge hula hoop.  A fakir performs magic tricks involving a live guinea pig, and a two-headed sword-swallower. At one point he’s encased in a large punching bag to become the target for cream pies hurled by an audience member.

Expect the unexpected from this show. It offers a wild ride through contemporary electro trad cabaret which is brilliantly performed, continuously entertaining, often sexy and always surprising.  

This review also appears in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW.  www.artsreview.com.au


Christina Wilson, Mezzo-Soprano
Alan Hicks, Piano
Art Song Canberra
Wesley Music Centre, Forrest Sunday 26 February

Reviewed by Len Power

With the ‘House Full’ sign up for ‘Dangerous Romantics’, Art Song Canberra’s first concert for 2017, husband and wife duo, mezzo-soprano, Christina Wilson, and pianist, Alan Hicks, were greeted by the large audience with a huge round of applause and cheers as they came onstage.  As the audience settled down, Christina Wilson acknowledged the extraordinary greeting but pointed out with great humour, ‘We haven’t done anything yet!’  They went on to give a well thought out concert that was melodic, emotionally moving and very entertaining.

‘Dangerous Romantics’ presented a set of songs based on poems by Lord Byron, Paul Verlaine and Percy Bysshe Shelley, all of whom left a trail of broken hearts and worse in their romantic lives.  The poems were set to music by classic and contemporary composers.  Christina Wilson set the scene for each set of songs with clear and very interesting information about the poets and the composers.

The concert opened with a melancholy set of poems by Shelley with music by Australia’s Frederick Septimus Kelly and was sensitively sung by Christina Wilson with a fine accompaniment by Alan Hicks.

This was followed with three poems by Byron with music by Australia’s Graeme Koehne.  The highlight of this set was the third song – ‘She Walks In Beauty’ – which Wilson sang with great feeling.  All three pieces were notable for their fine and unusual piano arrangements which were played exceptionally well by Alan Hicks.

A major part of the program featured songs by Faure, DuBoscq, Hahn, Debussy and Vaughn Williams based on the poems of France’s Paul Verlaine.  It was particularly interesting to be able to hear some of the same poems set to music by different composers.  Highlights were Faure’s ‘Muted’ with Wilson’s voice floating gloriously above the accompaniment and ‘Exquisite Hour’ by Reynaldo Hahn which was hauntingly beautiful and very well sung and played.

‘Love’s Philosophy’, a poem by Shelley with music by Roger Quilter was a perfect choice for the concert’s finale, summing up the strong feelings of romance - the joy, the hopes and fears.  It was movingly sung by Christina Wilson.

This was a fine concert by two very accomplished and, judging by the audience reaction, much admired performers.

Photos by Peter Hislop
Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM’s ‘Artcetera’ and ‘Dress Circle’ programs.


Written By Frederick Knott
Directed by Jordan Best
Canberra REP at Theatre 3 to 11 March.

Reviewed by Len Power 24 February 2017

Frederick Knott’s play, ‘Wait Until Dark’, which premiered on Broadway in 1966, is a sinister and entertaining thriller and Jordan Best’s production at Canberra REP delivers the goods.

Originally set in New York, this production has moved the locale to London.  Three crooks try to trick a blind woman into handing over a doll filled with drugs accidentally brought back from Amsterdam by her husband.  They soon discover she’s no pushover.

The role of the blind woman is a tour de force for an actress and Jenna Roberts, totally believable as a blind woman, gives a terrific performance of real depth in the role.  As the main crook, Harry Roat, Zach Raffan gives a strong performance as a charmer who soon shows his true colours as a vicious and determined killer.  Riley Bell nicely captures the character of another crook, Mike Trenton, who has a fatal human streak and Annabel Foulds is delightful as the feisty schoolgirl neighbour, Gloria.

Thrillers like this with their intricate plotting need a very specific set design and Michael Sparks has designed a beauty.  You could move in and live comfortably in this basement flat with its attention to detail.  Properties by Imogen Thomas blend in beautifully with the set design.  Anna Senior’s costumes are perfectly in period and suit characters going about their everyday business.

Darkness is just as important as light in this play and Cynthia Jolley-Rogers’ lighting design for this play is superb.  At first the sound design by Matthew Webster worked quite well as a type of cinema underscoring but became too obtrusive as the play went on.

Jordan Best has achieved a high standard in direction once again with ‘Wait Until Dark’.  If you enjoy sitting in the dark feeling deliciously scared, this production will certainly give you that experience.

This review was first published in Canberra City News digital edition on Saturday 25 February.  Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM’s ‘Artcetera’ and ‘Dress Circle’ programs.

Sunday, February 26, 2017


Ainhoa Arteta (Tosca) - Lucio Galli (Scarpia)
in Opera Australia's production of "Tosca" 

Opera by Giacomo Puccini - Conductor: Christian Badea 
Director: John Bell - Set Design: Michael Scott-Mitchell 
Costume Design: Teresa Negroponte - Lighting Design: Nick Schlieper 
Presented by Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre.  Sydney Opera House until March 31, 2017.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Judging by the packed house on opening night, Opera Australia Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini’s strategy of presenting revivals of the company’s most popular productions with interesting international singers cast in the leading roles  for the initial performances,  then replaced with the company’s own principals for the rest of the season, has again paid off.

Along with Elijah Moshinsky’s  La Traviata,  Gale Edwards La Boheme and Moffatt Oxenbould’s Madam Butterfly, John Bells acclaimed 2013 production of Tosca,  with Michael Scott-Mitchell’s act 1, soaring white marble cathedral setting, and Teresa Negroponte’s period-correct costumes, has deservedly become an audience favourite. The storyline in Bell’s staging is clear and unambiguous in its depiction of the creeping horror of the Nazi occupation of Rome in 1943, particularly at the end of act one when Nazi flags are spectacularly unfurled in the cathedral.

Lucio Gallo (Scarpia) Opera Australia Children's Chorus, Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia's production of "Tosca"" 

For this 2017 revival, three exceptional International singers are cast in the key roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia, none of whom have been seen on stage in Australia previously.

Ainhoa Arteta - Tosca 

Spanish soprano, Ainhoa Arteta brings a believably glamourous presence to her role as the flighty opera singer, Tosca, eliciting chuckles from the audience as she insists Cavaradossi change the colour of the eyes in his painting because she suspects he is having an affair with the model. 

The flexibility of her dark, sultry soprano, partly revealed in her first act duet with Cavaradossi, is  given full reign in the dramatic second act as she engages in a battle of wits with the unscrupulous Scarpia, in an unsuccessful attempt to save Cavaradossi’s life. 

Handsome Romanian tenor, Teodor Ilincai, also revealed dramatic flair and a glorious tenor voice as the doomed Cavaradossi. His duets with Arteta in the first and third acts were beautifully sung and dramatically convincing. 

But it is the staging of vocal and mental duel between Tosca and Scarpia in the second act which provides the highpoint of this production. In this scene Arteta proved a worthy adversary for the frightening Scarpia, superbly sung and portrayed with unnerving malevolence by Italian baritone, Lucio Gallo.  And while agreeing with Puccini that his famous aria, Vissi d’arte tended to slow up this scene, Arteta’s impeccably phrased, heart rending performance provided a convincing argument as to why this aria has become such an indispensable audience favourite.

Adrian Tamburini (Sciarrone), Graham Macfarlane (Spoletta), Lucio Gallo (Scarpia) , Teodoe Ilincai (Cararadossi)
in Opera Australia's production of "Tosca"

Surrounding the three guest artists, there were excellent performances from Richard Anderson, in fine voice, as the escapee, Angelotti, Luke Gabbedy, providing an amusingly idiosyncratic cameo as the Sacristan, and Graeme Macfarlane and Adrian Tamburini, both scaringly oozing malice as Spoletta and Sciarrone respectively.

The Opera Australia Chorus, the Sydney Children’s Choir and the Opera Australia Orchestra under conductor, Christian Badea, all contributed brilliantly to the drama and spectacle of this magnificent production.

Teodor Ilincai (Cavaradossi), Anthony Mackey (Jailer) 
in Opera Australia's production of "Tosca" 

From the 17th   to 31st March, Daria Masiero, Diego Torre, Shane Lowrencev will take over the roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia, while Sciarrone and the Sacristan will be played by Tom Hamilton and Samuel Dundas. Tahu Matheson will take over the conductor’s podium, providing Sydney audiences with the opportunity to experience more exciting interpretations of these pivotal roles. 

Teodor Illincai (Cavaradossi), - Ainhoa Arteta (Tosca)
in Opera Australia's production of "Tosca"
                                                        Photos by Prudence Upton

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review. www.artsreview.com.au

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Restless Giant: Changing Cultural Values in Australia. Platform Paper 50

Restless Giant: Changing Cultural Values in Regional Australia by Lindy Hume.  Platform Paper No 50, Currency House, February 2017.

Commentary by Frank McKone
February 23

“The Regional Australia Institute, the Canberra-based independent research and advocacy body for regional Australia, uses the following definition in which Darwin and Hobart would count as regional centres:

"Regional Australia includes all of the towns, small cities and areas that lie beyond the major capital cities (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra).

"This definition will not satisfy everyone it seeks to encompass”, writes Lindy Hume.

I suppose I’m pleased that Canberra is nowadays a “major” capital city rather than the “regional centre” which was how it looked to me from my acting/directing role in distant Broken Hill Repertory Theatre, with Canberra Repertory Theatre and Canberra Philharmonic Society vaguely in my sights in 1965.  So I went to Sydney for a bit of academic study, then moved out of Sydney to the Wyong Drama Group 1967 to 1973. 

Finally arriving in Canberra revealed, in 1974, Reid House from which new theatre alongside Rep and Philo (including Tertiary Accredited Drama in the secondary school system by 1976) grew into a myriad of often short-lived companies and the complex scaffolding of today, incorporating Queanbeyan’s The Q and all the participants in the annual CAT Awards from an ever-increasing region.  This year the CATs were awarded in Dubbo, some 400 kilometres away, and the company has dropped its original title – Canberra Area Theatre awards – in favour of just plain CATs.  With an 800 kilometre diameter, surely this makes Canberra and its region “major”, now.  With the blessing of T S Eliot no doubt.

But there’s still a difference between Canberra and the others: Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth.  Though our population is reaching towards 400,000, we still do not have the same kind of top quality tertiary level drama or dance training institutions here (despite many valiant attempts) – and even the School of Music has struggled, in my view ever since it was taken over by the Australian National University.  Nor do we have a long-term full-time fully professional theatre company, despite the past successes of the now-defunct theatre-in-education The Jigsaw Company (1976 – 2014) among several others with shorter lives, such as Women on a Shoestring and the recently formed Aspen Island Theatre Company.   Maybe Canberra fits somewhere between those other capitals and Hobart and Darwin.

Of course, in visual arts and literature, and even in movie-making in recent times, Canberra has been one of the giants, but our theatre is still very much in the restless stage.  Hume refers to Lyndon Terracini’s A Regional State of Mind—Making art outside Metropolitan Australia saying “it was, and ten years on is still, an inspiring and prescient read”.  Terracini “celebrated what is now widely known as the Culture of Place, and invited us to imagine a great Cultural Pyramid whose ‘summit’—Australia’s professional companies— is supported by a broad base, the grassroots community activity flourishing across regional and urban Australia. I revisit these concepts in the context of the new leadership, inspiration and innovation I see all around me, and the rise of a new, more assertive ‘regional state of mind’." 

And, in fact, we could easily say that Hobart and Darwin in some ways seem more assertive than Canberra.

But it’s also true that Hume notes the leadership and inspiration of one-time Canberrans, such as Elizabeth Rogers who was Director of Canberra Arts Marketing for more than six years and is now CEO of Regional Arts NSW, and Lyn Wallis who was Artistic Director of The Jigsaw Company for four years, and now runs HotHouse Theatre in Wodonga.  Also quoted is someone I might call a Canberra original restless giant: “Mikel Simic, better known as the flamboyant Mikelangelo of Black Sea Gentlemen fame, recently relocated from Melbourne to the high country outside Cooma:

It’s not airy fairy to say that the natural environment changes the way you function as a human being, it has an effect on you as an artist. The river, the sky, are characters in my work, they’re more than just a background setting.”

Lindy Hume has also made the move from big city life as “one of Australia’s prolific festival and opera directors” to the far south coast near Cobargo, “where I served for several years as Chair of South East Arts”, saying “I wanted to write on this subject because I sense a moment of shimmering potential, an alignment of the great forces of Australia’s psyche—our regional and our city cultural identities. It’s a vast and challenging notion, and it’s thrilling to consider.”

It’s her enthusiasm for changing the perspective of artists (not only theatre practitioners who are her main interest) away from the conventions and expectations of artistic life in cities like Sydney or Melbourne that is the key to this Platform Paper.  The point was made by poets like Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson more than 100 years ago and the distinction between the ‘big smoke’ and ‘the bush’ is still a standard concept in Australians’ thinking, even if we do use ‘metro’ and ‘regional’ instead. 

And I still find myself remembering, as I review shows in Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre, at Belvoir, and even at the more local small theatres like Eternity Theatre in Darlinghurst or Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli, the community spirit of searching all over town for the correct Japanese sword to use in Broken Hill Rep’s The Teahouse of the August Moon, and finding the exact model of Jeep way down in an open-cut mine (with a loose gear lever and no brakes – but I still drove it up and onto the stage).  While nowadays I’m impressed not only by the acoustics and sightlines of The Q in Queanbeyan, but also by the friendly, indeed homely atmosphere there, even compared with nearby Canberra.

In the end, Lindy Hume’s essay is not just a bureaucratic plea for better funding for the arts in regional areas (though she even manages to praise ex-Arts Minister Brandis:  “One of the most highly valued initiatives is the Federal Government’s Regional Arts Fund (RAF): $12.5m over four years targeted ‘to activities that will have long-term cultural, economic and social benefits.’ RAF is delivered on behalf of the Federal Ministry for the Arts by RAA and its member state organisations. Another is Catalyst, the controversial Brandis-created funding instrument, which has proven an unexpected boon to regional artists, with 37% of $23 million ($8.5 million) of total grant monies awarded to regional projects as at May 2016. Time will determine the impact and longevity of this new funding avenue.”)

The essence of her contribution is to say, of living in the country:

“It’s where I come for nourishment and escape from the ambient noise of the world. My experience, and that of many Australian artists in my community, reflects Don Watson’s, in his book The Bush: travels in the heart of Australia:

"As much as the grime, in the city there is the din of predictable opinion, especially one’s own opinion, which week by week, year by year, becomes a sort of metronome sounding at some distance from whatever remains of a sense of actual self.

“In summary, the diversity of my experience has created a framework for reflection. I write as an artistic director, an advocate for excellence in the arts in regional Australia, but primarily from the personal perspective of an artist who chooses to live and work in regional Australia. Mine is both a passionate appeal and a challenge, in this time of cultural flux, to explore the abundant possibilities of imagining our national cultural landscape in a different way, as an integrated metro-regional ecosystem that truly reflects the adventurous and enterprising contemporary identity of ‘the heart of Australia’.”

So perhaps that’s where Canberra fits: as a metro-regional or in the latest vernacular, announced at today’s launch, ‘hyper-local’ ecosystem reflecting the adventurous and enterprising contemporary identity of the heart of Australia.

I certainly hope so.  The launch here today, with Julian Hobba (Artistic Director, Aspen Island Theatre Company); Mikelangelo (alone, without the Black Sea Gentlemen); Kate Fielding  (Director, Regional Arts Australia); Karilyn Brown (Chief Executive Officer, Performing Lines - producers of new and transformative performance) joining Lindy Hume for a panel discussion, which went 45 minutes over the allotted time, was very encouraging.

Perhaps the essential theme was that ‘hyper-local’ means that excellent work should flow around the nation beyond its local place of generation, a new structural network of artistic creation rather than the pyramid of old.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Mystery of Love & Sex

The Mystery of Love & Sex by Bathsheba Doran.  Darlinghurst Theatre Company at Eternity Theatre, Sydney, February 10 – March 12, 2017.

Director – Anthony Skuse; Production Designer – Emma Vine; Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Sound Designer – Alistair Wallace.

Cast:  Contessa Treffone – Charlotte; Thuso Lekwape – Jonny; Deborah Galanos – Lucinda; Nicholas Papademetriou – Howard.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
February 19

The Mystery of Love and Sex is a romantic comedy, strictly following the traditional structure of girl meets boy, vicissitudes threaten the relationship, but love conquers all in the end.  With an interesting twist.

We see only four characters on stage. 

 New York Jew, Howard, with all the conventional mannerisms and mother fixation that Jewish men are all supposed to have.  He writes crime fiction for a living, in which the characters he creates break all the modern politically correct attitudes towards women, black people and homosexuals.  Father of Charlotte and subject of literary research by Jonny.
 Southern Belle, Lucinda, mother of Charlotte, who remembers exactly the last time – years ago – when she and Howard had sex, because he broke off part way through having forgotten a phone number to do with his writing career.  She now (Charlotte and Jonny are young adults in college) drinks and smokes, undermines Howard in public and wants to escape.
 Charlotte (white) and Jonny (black) became friends at the age of nine.  We see them at college age, and then in their mid-twenties, when the twist in their story becomes revealed and resolved behind the scenes at the marriage ceremony – in which Charlotte is marrying a woman and Jonny is in a regular relationship with a man.

So Jonny becomes Charlotte’s best man at the wedding, despite all the misunderstandings, including a physical fight between Howard and Jonny, when Jonny’s literary research is published online and reveals the nature of Howard’s fictional characters – implying that Howard is sexist, racist and homophobic.

Does it all work on stage? 

Not entirely for me, but this may be because I have just reviewed another unusual romantic comedy, the new play by David Williamson, Odd Man Out (on this blog February 9, 2017).  He, like Bathsheba Doran, has made his play about an issue of modern concern – the treatment of people with Asperger’s Syndrome – but whereas I could characterise Odd Man Out as an ‘empathetic comedy’ which brought me to tears, of both sympathy and joy in the resolution of the couple’s relationship, I didn’t have this kind of feeling at the end of The Mystery of Love & Sex.

I think Bathsheba Doran wanted me to feel this, about the mistreatment of both Charlotte and Jonny – even from when they were nine and other children rejected them as their sexual orientations became apparent (even if not to themselves until after they had time apart in their twenties).  I think the difference between the plays is in the writing of the dialogue and the intentions of the authors.

Williamson presented the surrounding family and friends of his woman character, Alice, as Doran did for Charlotte, and a stylised form of staging was used in both plays.  Both plays were also performed in small theatres – Eternity and the Ensemble – which made for direct close-up communication with the audiences, and characters in both plays on occasions spoke directly to us in telling the background story.

But Williamson kept our focus tightly on Alice and Ryan, gradually building our understanding of the issue and allowing us to identify strongly with the thoughts and feelings of both throughout the vicissitude phases of the relationship.  We wanted them to find a way to come together, even though when they finally achieved success we knew that the future would never be easy for them.

Charlotte’s and Jonny’s story became split too far into its several elements – Lucinda’s needs as a woman in a conventional heterosexual relationship; Howard’s seeing himself as a victim, being Jewish, similar in his mind to Jonny’s situation as a black man; Jonny’s understandable fear of coming out as a gay man, even to Charlotte when she wanted sex with him; Jonny’s determination to expose truth as an academic; Charlotte’s confusion about her feelings towards Jonny at the same time as feeling attraction and love for other women, as well as her need to be reconciled with her mother and father.

Though there were very funny scenes, especially centred on Howard’s Woody Allen-like constant need to explain everything, and the very cleverly performed nude scenes by Contessa Treffone and Thuso Lekwape, there were other scenes which dropped out of comedy into what we seemed to be expected to take as straight reality.  Howard’s and Jonny’s violence seemed quite outside either of their characters (even though in theory this might be explained by their internalised fears), while the bickering between Lucinda and Howard, for example, turned into a different side-story of their bitterness which also had to be resolved – at least to some degree in a sweet tickling episode between mother and daughter and by Howard's giving his daughter the perfect wedding dress – so that by the end of the play Charlotte's relationships with Lucinda and her father could both end on a positive note.

So the play ends up being too ‘bitty’, and the dialogue too often a kind of display – whereas Williamson kept to a single thread which allowed the dialogue to be felt more deeply.  Doran’s play kept me at a distance, while Williamson’s drew me in.

The symbolism of the off-level set and an upside down tree was right for this out-of-kilter play, and so was the choreographed style of acting.  Though Eternity is a great little theatre, reminiscent of The Q in Queanbeyan, its acoustics struggled a bit with the women’s high-pitched loud Southern accents bouncing around, while at the other end of the scale the soft rounded tones of the self-deprecating gay descendant of slaves – Jonny in much of the first act – could often be hard to follow.

So though I enjoyed the performance and certainly recommend this production and the play for presenting a different take on some of the mysteries of love and sex, perhaps because I am not an American I missed a quieter approach with more depth of humour that could bring out the emotions more fully.  Of course, Bathsheba Doran is not herself American, having grown up and been educated in Britain, but is now based in New York.  So for a different point of view than mine, please read the New York Times review by Charles Isherwood at


Friday, February 17, 2017

Manchester by the Sea


 Review by © Jane Freebury

It is no small irony that the main character in Manchester by the Sea is a dependable handyman who can fix anything and everything. The problems that daily life present him with, like blocked drains and snowbound porches, are relatively simple and straightforward, requiring a bit of brawn and stoicism. 

It’s when it comes to dealing face-to-face with clients that Lee (Casey Affleck) has difficulties. A blocked cistern or a leaky tap may be nothing compared with a testy female client looking for offence, or another one trying to flirt with him. Clients can be rude and demanding, or charming and welcoming but whatever they do, they get the same stony response. Over a series of interactions, we see that Lee has a bit of a problem. It comes into sharp focus when he throws a punch at strangers at a bar, for little apparent reason, a chilling reminder of the one-punch phenomenon that has emerged in recent years.

Life suddenly becomes complicated for Lee when his older brother dies prematurely. Joe (Kyle Chandler) succumbs to heart failure, leaving behind his teenage son, his only child, in Lee’s care. Sixteen-year-old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) is a bolshy pain in the neck, if ever there was one, who believes he has all rights and no responsibilities. It’s hard to feel much sympathy for Patrick. Is he obnoxious because he can’t grieve properly for his dad? Maybe. Either way, it turns out that both he and Lee have trouble managing their emotions in dealing with pain and loss.

I’ve read that the idea for this film was taken to Kenneth Lonergan, the screenwriter and director, by some high-profile friends of his in the business, including Matt Damon, with the request that he work on it and make it his own. Giving an emotionally traumatized young man the guardianship of a nephew who needs him is a great idea. When Patrick comes to understand that he can’t be close again with the mother (Gretchen Mol) who left the family years before, he sees that his Uncle Lee is all he has. Lee is it.

As the circumstances behind Lee’s withdrawal from the world are revealed, it is heart rending. He is broken and he can’t fix himself. Every now and then you hear about a trauma like this, and you wonder how the survivors could ever get over it. When Lee meets his former wife Randi (Michelle Williams) again, she has begun to rebuild. His own predicament is etched in stone.
Around ten years have passed since the family tragedy, and Lee still cannot move on. Will he heal eventually, the film asks? Lonergan, who has said he wanted to explore the limits to healing, hasn’t put a creative foot wrong.

Manchester by the Sea is a fine film that has been garlanded with awards and critical acclaim. As it didn’t speak to me as strongly as I expected it to, I’ve come to think that I needed to hear more from Lee, some of the inarticulate speech of his troubled heart. Even though the obvious point is that he cannot express or reach out, more of his inner life would have served the film well, with less of the reactive violence and more of Lee the person from screenwriter Lonergan. The filmmaker has the language—he is the son of psychiatrists—and co-wrote Analyze This, incidentally, the hilarious comedy with Robert de Niro and Billy Crystal as the mafioso and his psychiatrist. Lonergan had wonderful actors in Affleck and Williams. It would have worked.

The Massachusetts fishing village that serves as the landscape of a young man’s inner life, seems to be in a state of permafrost. I wonder how the community of Manchester by the Sea feels about this bleak tale of grief and loss that has brought it to everyone’s attention. It’s too bad that we never get to see the place in summer, but that would not have been true to the emotional arc of Lee’s journey. 

4 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog