Friday, June 30, 2017

Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, translated and adapted by Damien Ryan.

Sport for Jove Theatre Company at Canberra Theatre Centre, The Playhouse, June 28 – July 1, 2017.

Director: Damien Ryan; Assistant Director and Fight Choreography – Scott Witt; Set Design, Costumes, Props – Barry French (2013) and Anna Gardiner (2017); Lighting – Daniel Barber; Sound – David Stalley.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 29

Incroyable!  Who would have thought you could turn a sentimental 19th Century Ugly Duckling story about a bloke with a big nose and an amazing turn of words into a significant highly relevant play.  And design the setting, sound and lights with a style of acting that is brilliantly sophisticated, humorous and ultimately sad, even tragic.

Instead of La salle de l’Hotel de Bourgogne, en 1640 we find ourselves at the same Hotel in Paris but It is late in 1913.  Fortunately perhaps, I had never seen a production of Cyrano de Bergerac nor read the script, so I had no concerns about the translation in time, nor about Ryan’s adaptation not just into English but including references in the sound track as well as in Cyrano’s witty remarks to events and technical devices from well into the future from 1913. But how did it all seem to hang together so well?

Neither the characters nor the plot as written by Edmond Rostand are in any sense realistic or believable.  If we were to play them straight, the sentimentality of Roxane realising as Cyrano is dying “La voix dans la nuit, c’├ętait vous!” and finally exclaiming “Vous m’aimiez!” as he ‘read’ Christian’s last letter without having to read it – since he, Cyrano, actually wrote it – would be laughable rather than truly sad.

The trick which Damien Ryan has pulled off is to take on the character of Cyrano – literally in this revival of Sport for Jove’s 2013 production, since Yalin Ozucelik was no longer available to play the role – and imagine how he, the cynical, satirical wit Cyrano, would have staged and performed the whole play.  The first half (1 hour 20 mins) is continuously laughable because of the deliberately exaggerated way each character is performed, from the poor man with his pocket-thieving son through all the lower, middle and military classes to Roxane in the theatre box-seat, and including the actors in the play within this play, even unto Ryan playing Cyrano himself.

Weirdly, then, in contrast, the battle scene with Roxane’s improbable arrival as the Gascon soldiers are about to be sacrificed to win the war, through to Christian’s death, edges us towards a sense of the reality of senseless warfare. 

Then we are taken just far enough back into humour again for the nunnery, into Roxane’s 14 years’ mourning for Christian, at enough distance emotionally to watch Cyrano’s death and Roxanne’s realisation that it was he who had written Christian’s love letters with a new recognition that this is just a play – a statement in the end about the nature of discrimination against those who look ‘different’ and the fact that the victims internalise the feeling of guilt for being different.  So Cyrano believes himself to be ‘ugly’ and therefore unlovable.

It is at this point that we see the story of Cyrano de Bergerac as a tragedy, representing as he does all the people who others see as ‘different’.  Damien Ryan’s approach has made the play relevant, by revealing a purpose – a social commentary – beyond, I think, Rostand’s intention.  Rather than experiencing mere emotional identification with Roxane and Cyrano, in a sentimental ending, we are set back a pace or two to understand the message.  If you want to be academic, you might say Ryan has successfully created a Brechtian ‘alienation effect’.

And good on him for doing so, for it made a great piece of modern theatre.


Written by Edmond Rostand
Adapted and directed by Damien Ryan
Sport For Jove Theatre Company
Canberra Theatre Centre at the Playhouse to 1 July

Reviewed by Len Power 29 June 2017

‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ by Edmond Rostand premiered in France in December 1897.  It’s now considered one of the greatest plays the world has ever known.  Its irresistible story explores the love-triangle between Cyrano, a poet and soldier with an impossibly gigantic nose, who loves the beautiful Roxane but lacks the courage to tell her, wooing her instead through the good looks of a young hero, Christian.  It’s funny and it’s tragic and it’s very, very moving.

In 2013, Damien Ryan won the Sydney Theatre Award for Best Direction and Best Production with this show which was first performed outdoors.  Ryan also adapted the play and is now performing as Cyrano in the current touring production.

Damien Ryan as Cyrano

 The stage setting by Anna Gardiner for this production no doubt owes a lot to the 2013 design by Barry French.  It still suggests an outdoor atmosphere with low lighting in the auditorium as the audience is seated and the set is enhanced by Daniel Barber’s clever light and shadow design.  Anna Gardiner’s costume design is excellent and the level of detail in the set pieces and properties onstage is constantly interesting.

Entering the auditorium before the play commences, the audience is surprised to hear Edith Piaf singing.  It’s a clue that this production is not going to be predictable.  Damien Ryan’s adaptation is set in 1913 but the dialogue includes modern day references and uses today’s speech patterns, making it very accessible and very funny at times.

Damien Ryan, in the marathon leading role, is superb.  His rapid fire line delivery is absolutely clear and understandable and his characterisation and emotional journey are totally believable.  As Roxane, Lizzie Schebesta is wonderful in the key role of the beautiful woman desired by three men and Scott Sheridan is hilarious and very real as Christian, the handsome young soldier struggling for words to woo Roxane.  James Lugton gives an impressive performance as De Guiche, commander of the French armies and John Turnbull is memorable as Ragueneau, the pastry chef.  The rest of the 18 member company play more than one role, giving us a multitude of realistic and entertaining characters.

Scott Sheridan as Christian and Lizzie Schebesta as Roxane

Damien Ryan has directed a production that moves at great speed and is constantly interesting and enjoyable.  It’s performed so well that the emotional impact of the end of the play is devastating even if you know what’s coming.  This show is what great theatre is all about.

Photographs by David James McCarthy
Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program (9am Saturdays) and other selected Artsound programs.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Wind in the Willows

The Wind in the Willows, adapted from Kenneth Grahame’s novel by Maxine Mellor.

Presented by La Boite, directed by Kat Henry and performed by Shaka Cook.  At The Q, Q-One Performing Arts, Queanbeyan June 28 – July 1, 2017.

Designer: Hugh O’Connor; Lighting Designer: Keith Clark; Composer and Sound Designer: Daniel Edmonds

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 29

You may wonder about why an Aboriginal actor would play the intrinsically English The Wind in the Willows story for children.  If so, you could not do better than hear Shaka Cook speak when he had just graduated from his NIDA training in 2013:

Cook has made his name in many major productions since that time, most recently in the film version of Jasper Jones.  But it is his story-telling skills, surely derived from the culture of his Pilbara Aboriginal community of Wakathuni, that makes his work in this production a valuable step towards his aim of making the world a better place. 

Here he plays the tricky character of Toad, the traditionally dangerous figure whose exaggerated sense of his own importance undermines community, telling his story of destruction and redemption.  To do this, Toad acts all the parts – of Mole, Ratty, and Badger, as well as the Magistrate, prison guard and the Washer Woman who provides Toad with her shawl to make his escape – meaning, of course that Shaka Cook takes this risk that the children can follow the complex story, and moral implications, of him playing Toad acting all these others, as well as occasionally almost being in the conventional role of actor/teacher arranging the children’s participation activities, which include finding sock puppets under their seats to be come weasels and ferrets for the very funny Battle of Toad Hall.

The advertising is for ‘children aged 4 – 12’, and as the show began I wondered if the younger ones could cotton on, yet the two nearest me – one so young she still sucked a dummy, and the other, Emma, aged 8 – were both engaged from the beginning as Toad almost fell down the auditorium stairway in his convict-arrows prison costume, so upset by the ‘injustice’ that had condemned him.  Cook’s athletic physicality and voices in one sense were in the European clown tradition, almost satirising melodrama, while deftly characterising each role in mime.

I spoke with Emma and her (I assume) grandmother at the end about how she understood the central theme.  Did Emma think Toad had really reformed?  She thought perhaps, but she couldn’t be sure.  Good realistic thinking for an 8-year-old on this moral issue. Writer Maxine Mellor and Director Kat Henry, combined with Shaka Cook’s acting skills and cultural understanding, clearly focussed the story accurately, rather than allowing the romance of the wild wood to soften the ethical edge of Kenneth Grahame’s work.

In my own more romantic experience of The Wind in the Willows, as a child in England, I identified with the self-effacing Mole while finding Toad essentially obnoxious despite his attempts at mending his particularly unacceptable driving habits.  So it was quite enlightening to spend three weeks recently driving from the north-west to the south-east of England to discover how polite the English drivers are, especially compared with the impatient French (in the following three weeks) and with Canberrans on the way to Queanbeyan this morning, several of whom drove far too fast and changed lanes in a manner entirely consistent with the worst of Toad’s exploits.

I’ve concluded that the difference is the moral injunction that all those English drivers learnt from The Wind in the Willows: not just that Toad on the road is a disaster, but that the forgiveness of Mole is what keeps us together and safe.

And so, I suggest, La Boite does the world an educational service in this production, as Shaka Cook would hope, by bringing out Mole, Ratty and Badger’s insistence on doing the right thing by Toad, despite his bad behaviour, in the belief that this is the best way to encourage his genuine redemption, even if, as Emma said, we can’t be entirely sure he will keep to his promise.

This successfully, as the publicity says, takes ‘badgers (small and large) on a heartfelt and humorous adventure that explores humanity, time and the value of friendship’, so I was surprised to see such a small audience there this morning.  Though a school is booked tomorrow, I understand school bookings are less than expected.

So I wonder, too, if time is bypassing The Wind in the Willows in schools, since the days (in the 1950s) when I found myself teaching and dramatising this story with Year 7 students.  Maybe Toad’s horse-drawn caravan and his excitement with new-fangled fast cars belong to a too-distant past for the internet age.  But I suggest the essential moral questions are still as valid as ever, including the nature of the greedy rich represented in the self-promotion of Toad and his aggrandisement in Toad Hall, and in the warfare engendered by unreasonable wealth, seen in the jealousy of the weasels and ferrets in this Wild Wood.

So, though I was surprised by the success of this production among 4-year-olds, I suggest it certainly should have a place in the education of 8-year-olds and even 12-year-olds to help further Shaka Cook’s aim to make the world a better place.

Sunday, June 25, 2017


Conducted by Leonard Weiss
Featuring Gabi Sultana, piano
Llewellyn Hall 24 June 2017

Reviewed by Len Power

It was a good idea for the Canberra Youth Orchestra to present a major work by Philip Glass and contrast it with another by Gustav Mahler.  The two very different styles and eras of music resulted in a very exciting concert.

The Tirol Concerto for Piano and Orchestra is one of Philip Glass’s later works.  It was premiered by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in about 2000 and was written as part of Glass’s ‘The Concerto Project’.  The Concerto is in the fourth volume of this work and employs many of the minimalist techniques that are synonymous with his composition style.

Joining the orchestra on piano was internationally-renowned Maltese soloist, Gabi Sultana.  Under the baton of Leonard Weiss, both soloist and orchestra presented an accomplished performance of the Philip Glass work that was completely enthralling.  All three movements were well played and the highlight was the melodic second movement where both orchestra and soloist produced a particularly sublime sound.

As a short encore piece, Gabi Sultana played a work by George Crumb that sounded fiendishly difficult to play but was very entertaining.  She got, and deserved, a thunderous ovation at the end.

The orchestra played Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major for the second half of the concert.  First premiered in 1889, it met with negative reviews at the time due to Mahler’s unusual methods of orchestration.  It’s an exciting work and the Canberra Youth Orchestra gave it a fine performance after a tentative start.  The second and third movements were especially well played.

This was a fine concert of great contrasts with a soloist who gave an exciting performance and an orchestra that more than met the challenges of these fascinating works.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program (9am Saturdays) and other selected Artsound programs.

Saturday, June 24, 2017


Created and directed by Chenoeh Miller

Dance choreography by Caroline Wall

Sound Design by Dane Alexander

Lighting and Set Design by
 Roni Wilkinson
Produced by the Tuggeranong Arts Centre

Presented by the Canberra Theatre Centre

Courtyard Studios until 24th June 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

The story of a young Afganistani refugee, Rohallah, who was rescued by a Perth couple and brought to Australia, where  he was educated, and who now works as an Uber driver in Canberra  while completing his University studies, provided the inspiration for this multi-discipline work combining elements of hip-hop and Butoh.

Rohallah himself was introduced prior to the performance, and charmed the audience by quietly relating his extraordinary journey to Canberra.Without a hint of malice or blame, he spoke matter-of-factly about his childhood and his life as a shepherd, and how he was persecuted and forced to flee warring factions who killed members of his family.

He told how he met an Australian couple, Margaret and John, who befriended him, sponsored him to Australia, fed, clothed and educated him. It was an affecting entre into the performance his experiences had inspired.

Performed by members of Fresh Funk and Little Dove Theatre, “Rohallah” is an abstract interpretation of the major events in Rohallah’s story. It begins with the cast filing slowly onto the stage in half-light, as Rohallah’s pre-recorded voice outlines the main events of his story. The lights come up to reveal a mother sobbing over the body of her dead child. A girl in a red dress gyrates frantically around her while a line of serious-faced performers advance over her towards the audience. One by one these performers break away and run around the auditorium, suggesting children at play.

Similar such episodes continue throughout the forty minute performance. Some are striking, others puzzling, their intention not always obvious, with each member of the audience left  to decide their individual interpretations. Costuming is patchy with the inclusion of sequined evening dresses and glitter eye-makeup questionable in the context. Two performers stand out from the ensemble, Noah Gorrell as the young Rohallah, and Nick Delatovic as the adult Rohallah.

Although neither of the forms of hip hop or butoh would seem obvious choices of expression for narrative storytelling, Chenoeh Miller and Caroline Wall have embraced both disciplines to create a unique and thought-provoking response to the plight of refugees.

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 23 June 2017 

Friday, June 23, 2017


Written by Stephen Sachs
Directed by Lucy Freeman
Tasmania Theatre Company and Straightjacket Productions in association with Karralyka
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to 24 June

Reviewed by Len Power 22 June 2017

‘No-one would fake a Jackson Pollock.  Why would anyone else paint shit like that?’

Stephen Sachs’ play, ‘Bakersfield Mist’ has some memorably funny lines and equally memorable characters in art expert, Lionel Percy - played by John Wood - and trailer park resident, Maude Gutman – played by Julie Nihill.

Maude is a down on her luck trailer park resident in Bakersfield, California who has found a painting in a pile of junk that just might be an original Jackson Pollock.  When renowned art expert, Lionel, visits to check the authenticity of the painting, their very different worlds and personalities clash strongly.

Both performers present very detailed and realistic characters.  John Wood is impressively pompous as the art expert who is sad and vulnerable under the surface.  Julie Nihill is wonderfully alive and abrasive as the bitter woman beaten up by life and stuck in a trailer park.

Writer, Stephen Sachs, explores the differences between people from contrasting worlds as well as showing how an obsession can impact negatively on a person’s life.  He also points out the difficulties involved in the art world where greed and forgery go hand in hand with idealism and beauty.  It’s a good play but the script does wander into subplots that seem redundant, especially towards the end.

The set designed by Jill Munro is impressive in its detail and direction by Lucy Freeman is tight and moves at a good pace.

This is a play that covers very interesting issues about life and art and the performances of the two cast members make it a very entertaining night in the theatre.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program (9am Saturdays) and other selected programs on Artsound.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Written by Courtney Act, Brad Loekle & Jackie Beat.
Musical Direction and Piano by Daniel Edmonds.
Costumes by Marco Marco
Hair by Wigs By Vanity
Magic Mirrors Spiegeltent. 16th June 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens OAM.

Courtney Act is the creation of clever female-impersonator, Shane Jenek, who attracted attention as the world’ first gender diverse contestant on a reality television talent show competing successfully in “Australian Idol” in 2003.
As Courtney Act, Jenek harkens back to the 1960’s when Carlotta was Queen of the Cross at Les Girls and female impersonators strove to be the most beautiful woman in the room. The difference with Courtney Act however is that she has a fine singing voice, whereas the drag queens of the Les Girls era relied on often-brilliant lip-syncing to recordings of the reigning pop divas of the day especially Shirley Bassey.

Courtney Act’s success on “Australian Idol” led to recording contracts. Capitalising on her success in Australia, she moved to America, where she again achieved television success as runner-up in the 6th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Show”. This led to a string of impressive engagements across the US and Europe.

Returning to Australia with her stylish new show, “The Girl From Oz”, Act pays tribute to her Australian background, cleverly re-interpreting a repertoire of Australia songs in a polished, professional performance which would be the envy of any contemporary pop princess.

Featuring excellent costumes, an intelligent script and inventive musical arrangements superbly played by a trio of top-line musicians led from the piano by Daniel Edmonds, Act   makes her entrance on ruby-red sequinned roller skates singing not “Over the Rainbow” but “Xanadu”. After establishing that the Oz in the title of her show refers to Australia, she doffed the roller skates for glamorous ruby-red sequinned high heels.

Clever versions of Men at Work’s “Down Under”, and  Peter Allen’s  “Arthur’s Theme” preceded a moving arrangement of the Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive”, which revealed a surprisingly different resonance in the familiar lyrics.

Surprise continued to be the defining ingredient of Act’s performance with unexpected repertoire choices including superbly sung interpretations Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn”, Air Supply’s “Without You”, Peter Allen’s “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and Sia’s “Diamonds in the Sky”.

Courtney Act
Photo by Jason Matz

Her connecting dialogue was tightly scripted interesting and funny. Several film clips, used to cover costume changes, revealed her more serious side, particularly the excerpts of her work as the Australian correspondent of the Australian news website, capturing her undertaking risky live interviews as she toured the U.S. including one in which she interviews Trump supporters at a Donald Trump rally.

Even her “naughty section” surprised, as she took the stage in a costume featuring thigh-high red boots to belt out terrific versions of Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”, Chrissie Amphlett’s “I Touch Myself”, and ACDC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long”, before, looking more Kylie than Kylie, rounding out her show with Minogue’s “Can’t Get You Out Of My Head” and “Locomotion”.
Courtney Act is a star on her own terms, with the looks and talent to reach audiences beyond the drag show genre.

 “The Girl From Oz” provides her with an excellent vehicle to reach that audience. If you get the opportunity to catch this show, don’t miss it.

This review first published in Australian Arts Review.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The 39 Steps - Canberra Rep

Review by John Lombard

Dangling from the edge of a train as it passes over a bridge might be a tense situation for anyone to find themselves in, but sometimes glossed over is how much these threats to life and limb are also an assault on the dignity of a gentleman.

Patrick Barlow's  play "The 39 Steps" is a send-up of the Hitchcock film of the same name, with wrongly accused Richard Hannay (Patrick Galen-Mules) encountering bizarre situations in a picaresque campaign to clear his name, catch the spies, and woo the girl.

Starting life as a John Buchan thriller before being shaped by Hitchcock into a memorable film, this theatrical revision is a flamboyant parody of the genre, down to the dramatic "duh duh duh duh" every time someone utters that fateful, enigmatic MacGuffin - "The 39 steps!"

Jarred West was a strong choice to direct this kind of play, but compared to, for example, his manic treatment of Rep's production of Casanova, The 39 Steps is oddly restrained, if that can be said of a play where Helen McFarlane hops around playing more than a dozen different characters.

This may be because the decision here was for Patrick Galen-Mules to play the lead fairly straight, leaving him an oasis of calm in a universe that is completely indifferent to his needs for order or sanity.

In Hitchcock the humour always has a dark tinge, that even an innocent person can be the topic of an absurd cosmic joke - whether it is death by crop duster in North by Northwest, or the heroine of Psycho dying only a third into the movie. 

So in the film of The 39 Steps, the political rally scene is still humorous (Hannay misreads the name of the candidate and dubs him "Mr. Crocodile" to jeers from the crowd), but it has an underlying tension - if Hannay fails here, he faces not just embarrassment, but certain and plausible death.

Here, the same scene is played entirely for laughs, with Hannay's desperate improvisations becoming more and more inspired, until the audience is on the verge of electing this dashing, passionate speaker to parliament.  Rather than a swimmer frantically trying not to sink, he is often a surfer riding effortlessly on whatever madness the story throws at him.

But playing Hannay fairly straight does work, because as Krusty the Clown says, "the pie gag's only funny when the sap's got dignity."  Being accused of murder is one thing, but between dealing with obnoxious underwear salesman, folding and unfolding an impossibly large map of Scotland, or the sexual possibilities inherent to the humble rustic stile - well, personally, I'd rather face the spies. 

Much like Inspector Clouseau in the early Pink Panther films, the more Hannay fights to preserve  his dignity, the more it slips away.  Galen-Mules gives an impressive and polished performance, his main weakness a tendency to get quiet and weaken the potential energy of a scene.

As always, Steph Roberts is solid in her roles and generous with the other actors, but her primary character not as much fun because it is mainly there to disapprove of Hannay and then fall in love with him.  The stockings scene from the film is retained, with perfect absurdity, but not much sizzle.  Overall, I found the romance plot a bit unconvincing - their best moment was when they were screaming at each other.

Helen McFarlane almost steals the show just by playing more characters than there are in a standard production of a Shakespeare history play, and playing these broad parodies with a great deal of finesse and beautifully adroit physicality.  Nelson Blattman is also comfortable with his clowning, stronger here than he was in Wait Until Dark, his best moment when as vaudeville performer Mr. Memory he delivers an impressive, daunting-to-remember monologue.

The set was I thought a disappointment, however.  The idea that there would be doors that essentially led to other doors was good, but it felt basic and awkwardly flimsy rather than strikingly minimalist.  At points, the director makes a joke of creating a car out of simple objects, and it might have been better if this device was used consistently.  The parts of the play that were set among the audience were quite well done, however, with one heart-stopping leap of faith that perfectly uses the Theatre 3 space.

Despite some sags and lulls - parts could have been tightened during rehearsals, especially some tedious transitions - opening night was delightfully silly, and the show promises to firm up over its run.  West's interpretation is a madcap send-up of Hitchcock, not as outright zany as other productions, but driven by the choices of talented performers to create a vivid, hilarious night I will always remember for... the 39 characters played by Helen McFarlane! (duh duh duh duh)