Thursday, August 31, 2017

My Fair Lady

My Fair Lady adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play and Gabriel Pascal’s motion picture Pygmalion.  Book and Lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; Music by Frederick Loewe

Presented by Opera Australia and John Frost with Elizabeth Williams, Benjamin Lowy and Adrian Salpeter, Jean Arnold, Beckett Swede, Just for Laughs Theatricals and Glass Half Full Productions at Capitol Theatre, Sydney August 24 – October 14, 2017,

Director – Julie Andrews; Set Design – Oliver Smith; Lighting Design – Richard Pilbrow; Costume Design – Cecil Beaton, and Recreation – John David Ridge; Sound Design – Michael Waters; Make-Up Design – Rick Sharp, and Wig and Hair Design – John Isaacs.

Musical Supervisor – Guy Simpson and Musical Director – Laura Tipoki with 23-piece orchestra: Associate Concertmaster, Leader – Huy Nguyen Bui; Deputy Concertmaster, Leader – Katherine Lukey.

Anna O'Byrne as Eliza Doolittle and Reg Livermore as Alfred P Doolittle


Professor Higgins – Charles Edwards; Eliza Doolittle – Anna O’Byrne;
Alfred P Doolittle – Reg Livermore; Mrs Higgins – Robyn Nevin;
Colonel Pickering – Tony Llewellyn-Jones; Mrs Pearce – Deirdre Rubenstein
Freddy Eynsford-Hill – Joel Parnis; Mrs Eynsford-Hill – Julia McRae
Zoltan Kaparthy – Glen Hogstrom; Mrs Hopkins – Octavia Barron Martin

Butler – Michael Hart; Servants – Josh Gates, Kate Maree Hoolihan, Vanessa Rosewarne, Greta Sherriff, Sophie Viskich

‘Loverly’ Cockneys – Daniel Belle, Mark Doggett, Mat Heyward, Glen Hogstrom

Others in Ensemble: Justin Anderson, Deborah Caddy, Elisa Colla, Rodney Dobson,Tom Handley, Georgina Hopson, Erin James, Hollie James, James Lee, Allyce Martins, Holly Meegan, Scott Morris, Meredith O’Reilly, Joshua Robson, David Sirianni, Paul Whiteley, Katherine Wiles, Don Winsor
Photos by Jeff Busby
Above L: Deirdre Rubenstein as Mrs Pearce
Above R: Tony Llewellyn-Jones as Colonel Pickering
Below: Anna O'Byrne as Eliza and Charles Edwards as Prof Higgins

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 30

First things first: Opera Australia’s Capitol Theatre production of My Fair Lady is brilliantly well done. 

Credit, of course, first goes to George Bernard Shaw for refusing to allow his 1914 play Pygmalion to be turned into a ‘light opera’. As Shaw told Austro-Hungarian composer Franz Lehar, “A Pygmalion operetta is quite out of the question … Pygmalion is my most steady source of income: it saved me from ruin during the war, and still brings in a substantial penny every week.” Having been burned before, Shaw swore he’d never “allow a comic opera to supplant it.”  [ 15 Loverly Facts About My Fair Lady by Mark Mancini at ]  The burning referred to Oscar Strauss’s 1908 too popular operetta The Chocolate Soldier adapted from Shaw’s 1894 play Arms and the Man.

Second, you have to admire Alan Jay Lerner for finding the right musician, Frederick Loewe, and both of them for not being afraid of Shaw’s dialogue-based in-depth characterisation, and for writing lyrics and music that strengthened especially Eliza, Professor Higgins and Alfred P Doolittle.

Anna O’Byrne, Charles Edwards and Reg Livermore were supernovas among all the other stars, including a wonderful Mrs Higgins from Robyn Nevin.  For some audiences, opera is more about sumptuous sets, costumes and singing than thoroughly good acting.  The standing ovation at Wednesday’s largely seniors matinee happened because it all came together: busloads of oldies were as excited as perhaps we (I’m one of them) are rather less often than we used to be, as the beautiful star-filled ceiling of the old Capitol Theatre faded before the stars on stage.

And indeed the sets on that grand revolve were stunning, like the costumes, make-up and props – while the orchestra under Guy Simpson played all the ‘highs and lows’ just right.  Christopher Gatelli’s choreography ranged from tremendous athleticism to the wonderfully ironic statue-like imagery of the Ascot horse race, accompanied by 3-dimensional sound.  Julie Andrews’ directing never missed a beat both in the musical and acting sense.

I could have danced all night, except that I wasn’t on a bus.  I was driving, stuck near the airport, as reported by Keely McDonough, The Daily Telegraph, August 30, 2017 7:06 pm: ... Traffic remains very sluggish on the M5 East in Sydney’s south west after an earlier crash [at 4.30pm just after the My Fair Lady matinee finished] involving a car, a truck and a motorcycle...caused a monster traffic jam with all westbound lanes blocked and traffic backed up for 10km.

So, after thinking about why I prefer not to live in Sydney, I had time to wonder about the ending of My Fair Lady.  I’ve reviewed productions of Pygmalion three times in the past twenty years, and never had doubts about Eliza’s future at the end of the play. 

MRS HIGGINS.  The carriage is waiting, Eliza.  Are you ready?
LIZA.  Quite.  Is the Professor coming?
MRS HIGGINS.  Certainly not.  He cant behave himself in church.  He makes remarks out loud all the time on the clergyman’s pronunciation.
LIZA.  Then I shall not see you again,  Professor.  Goodbye.

Does she mean what she says? Higgins orders “by the way, Eliza, order a ham and a Stilton cheese, will you?” and “a pair of reindeer gloves number eights” and a tie.  “You can choose the colour.”

Shaw’s stage instruction is [His cheerful, careless, vigorous voice shews that he is incorrigible].

LIZA. [disdainfully] bluntly tells Higgins “Number eights are too small for you....You have three new ties....Colonel Pickering prefers double Gloucester to Stilton; and you don’t notice the difference.  I telephoned Mrs Pearce this morning not to forget the ham.  What you are to do without me I cannot imagine.  [She sweeps out].

When his mother suggests Eliza is fond of Colonel Pickering, Higgins ends the play:
“Pickering!  Nonsense: she’s going to marry Freddy.  Ha ha!  Freddy!!  Ha ha ha ha ha!!!!!  [He roars with laughter as the play ends].

So why, in My Fair Lady, does Eliza reappear, standing quietly watching until Higgins turns and realises she is there?  This is definitely not Shaw’s ending.

I think there must have been considerable discussion for this Australian Opera production because Charles Edwards played the Higgins character exactly, maybe even more forcefully true to Shaw’s characterisation of this impossibly insensitive self-centred man. 

Just before the lights dimmed on that final image, Edwards turned his face away, towards the audience, and put his head down – to do what?  Hide Higgins' embarrassment, when he had never been embarrassed before?  Hide his tears, as he realised he has lost her forever?  As a kind of joke, pretending to be a little boy?

According to one of the many things written about the making of My Fair Lady, Rogers and Hammerstein gave up on the project when asked by Gabriel Pascal (with whom Shaw had collaborated for the 1938 Pygmalion film), because there was no obvious love interest.  I suspect Lerner and Loewe were pressured to have Eliza come back to Higgins to satisfy that sentimental demand – the exact opposite of Shaw’s view of such a relationship, as he explains in great and often humorous detail in a postscript following the text of the film version (published by Penguin in 1941):

“Eliza has no use for the foolish romantic tradition that all women love to be mastered, if not actually bullied and beaten....  No doubt there are slavish women as well as slavish men; and women, like men, [who] admire those that are stronger than themselves.  But to admire a strong person and to live under that strong person’s thumb are two different things....”

Though Higgins has said, when Eliza says “Yes, you turn round and make up to me now that I’m not afraid of you, and can do without you”, that “I like you like youre a tower of strength: a consort battleship”, we must recognise Shaw’s perceptiveness.  This Higgins is the example of the despot Shaw quotes in the postscript: ‘When you go to women,’ says Nietzsche ‘take your whip with you.’

Considering Anna O’Byrne’s terrific feisty Eliza and Charles Edward’s completely intransigent Higgins, his head down at the end can mean no more than her reappearing will make his life hell if she stays.  Just read the rest of the postscript to Pygmalion, and you’ll see what I mean.

But dont (that’s Shaw’s spelling) refuse to see My Fair Lady on the grounds of some feminist principles.  Opera Australia have got it right as near as right can be.

Anna O'Byrne as Eliza Doolittle
Charles Edwards as Professor Higgins

Anna O'Byrne as Eliza Doolittle and Robyn Nevin as Mrs Higgins

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

ARCHE - Melbourne Ballet Company

Concept and Direction by Simon Hoy
Choreographed by Simon Hoy and Timothy Podesta
Presented by Melbourne Ballet Company
The Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre 25th and 26th August 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

With their production of “Arche’”,  Melbourne Ballet Company have come up with a delightfully quirky antidote for those dance devotees who feel that maybe  they’ve seen enough versions of “Swan Lake” to last a lifetime, as well as a tantalising evening of captivating dance for those who’ve not yet experienced  “Swan Lake”.

Choosing the Greek word relating to the beginning or source of the action, to provide the title and the key, and working with a cast of just nine superb dancers, choreographers Simon Hoy and Timothy Podesta have followed the basic storyline of “Swan Lake”, while refocussing the familiar story.

Alexander Baden Bryce (Von Rothbart) - Kristy Lee Denovan (Odette/Odile) 

The central figure is now Von Rothbart, danced with commanding malevolence by Alexander Baden Bryce, and among his bevy of swan maidens is Odette/Odile, (Kristy Lee Denovan) who captures the heart of the handsome Prince Siegfried (Michael Braun) and provides him with his Specsaver moment at the end of the ballet.

Those familiar with  “Swan Lake” will enjoy the many references to the original, especially the re-invented dance for the four cygnets, and the entrance of the swans in Act 11. But the choreographers have not confined themselves to “Swan Lake”, cheekily including references to “The Dying Swan”, and even the Greek myth, “Leda and the Swan”, to create imaginative sequences danced to interpolations of music from a variety of composers in addition to the familiar Tchaikovsky.

The broad, sweeping choreography is idiosyncratic, constantly surprising, and often very beautiful, with lovely long lines interrupted unexpectedly with bent knees, feet and wrists.  Especially memorable are the Grecian-inspired dance for the ballroom guests and the sequence in which four swans create remarkable shapes while preening themselves on the lake. The spectacular lifts and inventive floor-work was impeccably executed by all the dancers, who perform in an uncluttered setting of evocative projections, wearing provocative, whimsical costumes which perfectly suited the mood of the piece. 

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 26th August 2017 

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Darlinghurst Theatre Company

Posted - with permission - by Frank McKone

In the spirit of our Canberra Critics' Circle Conversations, here is a mission statement from Glen Terry, Executive Producer, Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Eternity Playhouse, Sydney:

From: Glenn Terry
Date: Tue, 15 Aug 2017
Subject: Darlinghurst Theatre Company

Dear people on our Media Invitation list,

I have had the opportunity to meet some of you and avail you of our company’s work. Darlinghurst Theatre Company has evolved and developed so much over the last few years and the following will give you more of an understanding of our company and the context of our work.

As you are no doubt aware, independent artists including many established artists often work for little or no pay and often fund their own production costs. It’s an investment that many professional artists make in their own work but it puts significant pressure on artists’ practice and their lives.

MEEA Award for performers
Darlinghurst Theatre Company is committed and passionate about contributing to the sustainability of the theatre sector and has worked tirelessly towards this goal. At the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst Theatre Company (DTC) has developed a unique and exemplary model for supporting independent artists’ work, whereby artists’ productions are fully funded and produced by DTC; including artists paid at award wages and industry rates.

A performer would commonly make somewhere between $0 to $1,000 for 8 weeks work in an independent profit share production for rehearsal and performances. With DTC a performer is paid the MEEA award and receives $10,323 including annual leave plus super for 8 weeks work. A production represents a significant investment in independent artists’ work by DTC.

Artistic Direction
Each production Director and their creative team become our artistic leaders.  At DTC my role as Executive Producer is to ensure the artistic integrity of our work and that each production’s thesis and vision is embraced and thoroughly explored.

Our artistic model seeks submissions of work from professional artists. We ensure that diverse voices and stories are represented on our stage. Our major productions are created by independent artists which increases mainstage opportunities in the sector. Productions are programmed through a peer selection process comprised of experienced and respected artists and practitioners led by myself as Executive Producer.

DTC is a unique professional company
DTC is a professional theatre company that sits between flagship theatre companies (e.g. Belvoir and STC) and independent theatres that work with independent artists and remunerate them through a profit-share model. This makes us unique – we operate as a professional theatre company but from a founding ethos of an independent theatre model.

DTC grew from a profit share model when it moved into the Eternity Playhouse: determined to pay award wages and to better support artists and their work. The DTC Board of Directors strongly stands by its position to pay award rates first and foremost to support a sustainable, healthy and viable arts sector.  MEAA, the artists’ union, supports this position and its view is that DTC has a responsibility to comply with industrial relations laws at the Eternity Playhouse and a responsibility to pay professional artists correctly.

DTC actively engages in discussion on topical and current issues.
DTC is committed to community and cultural engagement. This leads us to support and host events and public forums on important issues. Organisations in 2016 that we supported included ACON, Medecins Sans Frontiere, Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, The University of NSW, City Talks/City of Sydney, Art Month, Australian Himalayan Foundation, Perspectives/Women in Design, Australian Writers Guild and Currency House. A milestone event in 2016 for DTC was our partnership with Women in Theatre and Screen to present their two-day Festival Fatale involving over 100 artists.

Here are some highlights of our company’s work at the Eternity Playhouse.

DTC milestones and achievements:
    DTC raised $690,000 for the Eternity Theatre fit-out and played an instrumental role in the development of the Eternity Playhouse, collaborating with the City of Sydney on the design of the venue.
    In 2013, DTC gifted the fit-out of our old venue at Potts Point to the City of Sydney valued at $500,000 - now the Hayes Theatre.
    In 2015, DTC became the first theatre company in Australia, working under an independent theatre model, to pay award wages and industry rates to all its artists.
    In 2016, DTC was the first theatre company in NSW to adopt a gender parity policy in the employment of artists.
    80,000 theatre patrons have attended our productions in the last 3½ years.
    In 2016, DTC launched Share the Love an access and equality initiative which provides free theatre tickets to people experiencing financial hardship.
    In 2016, to enhance our theatre going experience we opened our restaurant at the Eternity Playhouse.
    In 2017 we launched our exhibition space in the Eternity Playhouse foyer with visual art by Dr Ella Dreyfus in tandem with our production Kindertransport.
    In 2017 we will stage 211 professional theatre performances at the Eternity Playhouse which will employ 80 artists.

In 2018, DTC will celebrate its 25th birthday and the contributions it has made to the theatre sector. DTC founded and developed a number of initiatives into standalone incorporated companies which have had an impact on thousands of people.

From 2007 to 2012, DTC founded and developed Critical Stages, an initiative to tour outstanding independent theatre. During this time 120 independent artists were employed in DTC’s Critical Stages tours to over 90 towns across Australia playing to 80,000 attendees. Critical Stages continues to tour independent theatre across Australia.

From 2001 to 2010, DTC founded and developed Milk Crate Theatre, Australia’s first theatre company dedicated to homeless and disadvantaged people.

From 1992 to 2008, DTC founded and developed Darlo Drama, a community drama and performance school for adult amateurs. Now with its own premises on Oxford Street, Darlinghurst.

I feel very strongly about Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s ethos and our commitment to artists and the industry and I wanted to take this opportunity to tell you about its work and something of its history and to give you a better understanding for our work and remit.

All the best


Executive Producer

Darlinghurst Theatre Company, Eternity Playhouse
39 Burton St, Darlinghurst NSW 2010

T 02 9331 3107  E


Concept and direction by Simon Hoy
Choreography by Simon Hoy and Timothy Podesta
Melbourne Ballet Company
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to 26 August

Reviewed by Len Power 25 August 2017

Inspired by ‘Swan Lake’, ‘Archè!’ also takes inspiration from the Greek Myth – Leda and the Swan and The Dying Swan.  Archè is the Greek word that indicates the beginning, the principle from which all things arise – the force that explains their birth and death.

It’s a clever concept because in this show we have the original ballet, Swan Lake, as the beginning and, of course, its storyline leads to death at the end.  Director, Simon Hoy, honours the original ballet but gives us a fresh and innovative take on it with a modern-looking production using video projection for the backgrounds, the familiar and expected music by Tchaikovsky but blended seamlessly with other music by Einaldi, Arnalds, Morricone, Jeanrenaud and Elgar.  Costuming by Hoy and Antonia Leonardi is also a mix of classical and modern that works very well.

The choreography by Hoy and Timothy Podesta is constantly surprising, defying our expectations and giving a wistful, dreamlike quality to the story’s progression.

Hoy and Podesta’s choreography is beautifully danced by the company’s nine dancers.  Michael Braun captured a realistic and appealing innocence in his performance as the love-struck Prince Siegfried, dancing the role very well.  Kristy Lee Denovan as Odette and Odile, gave us two very distinctive characters and her dancing as the tragic Odette was especially moving.  Alexander Baden Bryce was a dangerously attractive Rothbart, dancing with great precision and Matt Dillon danced the prince’s friend, Benno, very well.

Simon Hoy has put his own stamp on this much-loved classic ballet and it all works very enjoyably.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program (9.00am Saturdays) and on other selected Artsound programs.

The Father

John Bell

Photography by Christine Messinesi and Philip Erbacher

The Father by Florian Zeller, translated from the French by Christopher Hampton.  Sydney Theatre Company at Wharf 1, August 24 – October 21, 2017.

Director – Damien Ryan; Designer – Alicia Clements; Lighting Designer – Rachel Burke; Composer and Sound Designer – Steve Francis

Cast:  André – John Bell; Anne – Anita Hegh; Laura – Faustina Agolley; Pierre – Marco Chiappi; Man – Glenn Hazeldine; Woman – Natasha Herbert

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 25

The concept behind this play is essentially simple.  Imagine what it will be like when you, if you are unlucky, reach a late stage of dementia where memory becomes completely unreliable but your feelings in reaction to others – who are by now caring for you full-time – are just as strong as ever, even though you are misinterpreting reality.  It’s even worse when you realise that you don’t actually understand things at all.

Then, at least in The Father, you end up in tears, crying for your mother to take you home.

Of course, especially for John Bell playing Anne’s father André, the short scenes are not so simple.  As he has said “I find this text particularly tricky to learn – and I think I speak for the other actors as well – because it’s very fractured and you need to make your own links between phrases.  It’s just short grabs of text, which are hard to learn.  It’s easy to learn a slab of Shakespeare, for instance, or Chekhov.  They write these long passages that have an internal logic, that might even rhyme.”

In fact all the other actors, and especially Anita Gegh as André’s only surviving daughter needing to get on with her own life, and of course John Bell himself, succeeded admirably with the disjointed language.  The fascinating thing about watching the play is that we found ourselves caught up in this mental state, and like André found it hard to know what the true story really was.

On the way to the theatre, I saw in Martin Place that the old traditional pavement message, Eternity, has now been changed to the word Empathy.  That’s what this play is really about.  There is no eternity – all our lives will end – but at least in our kind of society there is provision for empathy…well, there was for André in the full-care nursing home Anne had to admit him to.  The play ends where the author probably began constructing André’s mental world, with a professionally empathetic nurse cradling the crying old man in her arms.

In the Conversation with the Playwright, Florian Zeller, printed in the program (translated from the French by Marie Laubie and Carl Nilsson-Polias), the question is raised, saying “Some have compared the role of André in The Father to King Lear.  Is it, in the end, a tragic role in that sense?”

Zeller replies “It’s always perilous trying to sum things up in one word.  Still, I would say, ‘Yes, I think this is a tragic role’.  The play seems to me to be animated by a destination, its end, which is a tragic destination.” 

Though I recognise the awfulness of dementia, I have also seen the worth of an empathetic caring staff who managed my mother through some 5 years of demanding behaviour (going back to her working life when she ran the office and now expected to run the dementia unit), paranoia like André’s belief that his watch was stolen because he couldn’t find it, incomprehensible but highly imaginative flights of fantasy, and a complete inability to understand what was on the television screen.

At a week short of 93, my mother died peacefully, thanks to carers who were never punitive, nor full of sympathy, but had what I would call a practical empathy.  This is what I saw in the final scene of The Father – not a tragic but a positive end in the acceptance of reality.

And that makes this play worthwhile being produced by the Sydney Theatre Company, justifies the effort and the quality of the actors’ and creatives’ work, and certainly says you should take time out to see it – and help prepare for that time in your life.

Illustration by Nicholas Harding:
John Bell in rehearsal

Friday, August 25, 2017


Helen Thomson

HIR by Taylor Mac at Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, August 16 – September 10, 2017.

Director – Anthea Williams; Set & Costume Designer – Michael Hankin; Composer & Sound Designer – Steve Toulmin; Lighting Designer – Sian James-Holland; Associate Artist – Lucky Price; Voice & Dialect Coach – Paige Walker; Movement Director – Scott Witt; Design Assistant – Jeremy Allen

Cast: Paige – Helen Thomson; Isaac – Michael Walley; Max – Kurt Pimblett; Arnold – Greg Stone
Photos by Brett Boardman

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 24

If I describe the household of father Arnold, mother Paige, elder son Isaac and younger trans sibling Max as dystopian, it would be true but would miss the point.  A golden veil of tinsel strips swept aside to reveal a lounge-room/kitchen in complete disarray.  The characters’ accents were absolutely definite: this is America.

As I watched a very funny but telling first act I had the weird feeling I was seeing a David Pope cartoon in action.  So often his picture (usually of the day’s Australian political news) is funny, yet always with a sense of foreboding.  If we were to see the image play out, surely funny would turn into disaster.  This is what happens in HIR.

Then I found the Pope cartoon to match:

[ ]

This is the America who elected Donald Trump, whose Whitehouse daily falls apart as each new appointment takes off in their own direction, trying to escape impending disaster.

Paige’s home is in a poverty-stricken suburb built on a garbage dump.  There is no employment for Isaac, who has joined the Marines seeking some surety of existence and now arrives home after years of collecting dismembered body parts, having been discharged for drug use, to find his mother no longer cleans the house on principle as a feminist.  His once family-violent father is demented after a stroke brought on, his mother claims, because after the last time her husband raped her, she stood up to him and took control. 

His young ‘sister’ is now in the process of transitioning with hormones to becoming male, looking forward to surgery to increase the size of hir clitoris, and insisting on the correct pronouns to be used.  Hir mother actively supports the change.  She has sold the house to raise funds and support her venture organising a non-profit to return the suburb to its original natural condition.

Isaac attempts to put everything back in ‘order’ in military fashion, and the result is an explosion of emotional conflict.

All this can be presented with cartoon-style humour, in the same way that Jewish people satirise their foibles, or Aboriginal people create blak comedy, because the writer, Taylor Mac “started plotting my escape” from Stockton, California, which “held the honour of having the highest murder rate (per capita) in America…the second I developed a feminine walk and became conscious that I wasn’t like the other boys.”  Max – played by transgender actor Kurt Pimblett – in this play seeks to “survive and find community”, while it is important to acknowledge the valuable role in this production played by Associate Artist Lucky Price who “was identified female at birth  and at the age of 34 transitioned his gender in 2014 to male.”

But – as I imagined about David Pope’s cartoon – when the funny stuff gets to an extreme stage (as I think it will for Donald Trump), the explosion in HIR is a horribly tragic end.  Though Taylor Mac can write about hirself “We continually talk about how lucky we are that our queerness and our need to survive and find community gave us the extra bit of drive that was needed to get out of those homophobic and transphobic environments”, the end of his play leaves all four characters with literally nowhere to go, not only within the family where any remnants of personal relationships have been destroyed, but with no economic support in Donald Trump’s Great Again America.

At that moment of realisation, as the final blackout was about to happen, there was a great silence in the audience. 

I would have much preferred that depth of silence to have been held for much longer before bringing lights up and the cast on for curtain call, which induced the usual claps, cheers and whistles in the audience.  The quality of the writing, performances and design in this production certainly justified that highly positive response, but I needed more time to absorb and cope with the tragedy of our times which this excellent play exposes.

Michael Walley as Isaac, Greg Stone as Arnold, Helen Thomson as Paige
in HIR by Taylor Mac

Kurt Pimblett as Max
in HIR by Taylor Mac

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Inheritance - Budding Theatre

Review by John Lombard

If only King Lear had been a little nicer to his children.  Greg Gould's new play The Inheritance has a dead patriarch splitting his empire between three daughters - one unquestionably noble, the other two substantially more dodgy.

The King here is property mogul Lesley Archibald Essington (John Kelly), and the daughters are a motley crew.  Eldest Amanda (Alexandra Howard) is determined to follow in daddy's footsteps and run his company - despite a catastrophic track record in business.  Middle daughter Emily (Jess Waterhouse) has adopted the Paris Hilton model and translated her family's notoriety into a lucrative career as a tabloid sensation.

The youngest daughter is of course the good one: noble Gina (Linda Chen), a self-made doctor who waited tables at uni so she could pay her own way to a career helping the needy.

The personalities of the three daughters are set-up by a flashback opening scene, a parable where the three daughters - here played by child actors Martha Russell, Vivien Murray, and Erin Stiles - each try to wheedle a purchase out of their father.

Amanda of course wants to buy something she thinks she can flip for a quick profit.  Emily meanwhile uses her charm to twist a ludicrously expensive mirror out of dad.  Only Gina goes home with nothing, with her father rejecting the doll she wants as too old and ragged.  And just to ensure there is no doubt of Gina's overwhelming moral superiority, we even get to see her conquer the temptation to filch some cash from dad's wallet.

This is the set-up for a comedy where the craven heirs grovel and debase themselves for a slice of the fortune.  But the stakes are oddly low for the characters, with the will reading treated as a tedious formality.  Amanda already has her career, Emily is self-financing, and Gina is completely indifferent to it all.  Sure, $500 mil would be nice, but nobody faces poverty or imprisonment without a quick cash infusion.

Instead the bulk of the conflict in the play concerns Lesley's histrionic widow Dianna (Victoria Hopkins), who holds up the will reading by locking herself in the bathroom and refusing to come out.  The daughters then each take their turn using a different strategy to coax her out - a monumental event waiting patiently on a petty problem.

While the family do snipe, for a family that should be squabbling over an inheritance they are unusually loving.  In particular their affection is notably physical with frequent hugs and embracing, particularly from party girl Emily, who also has a good line in mothering.    The elder sisters do seem a bit blasé about their father's recent demise, but Gould is not about to let a few moral foibles disqualify any of his characters from getting a happy ending - he loves them too much.

The play is exceptionally well cast, with actors playing to their strengths in the different parts.  The main discord is in the clash of acting styles in the legal team, with lawyer John Layder (Rob DeFries) and his flunky Paul (Vivek Sharma) seemingly performing in different plays.  At points, the play does struggle to find just the right tone: a monologue by Victoria Hopkins tries to shock the audience with raw intensity, and when she does so she loses the comedy that comes from delivering this speech while perched on a toilet.

At times, the play tilts towards farce, but always stops short of complete madness in favour of character comedy.  In a farce, a secret would normally lead to a series of increasingly complex lies, but in this play secrets exist only to be revealed: party poppers that burst with cheer rather than deadly landmines the characters have to tiptoe around.  The plotting can also meander, especially in the opening scenes, but Gould's excellent dialogue and clever jokes get us through the lean sequences.

Direction by Cate Clelland brings out the characters, but the blocking felt stale: in comedy so driven by relationships, it was distracting to see actors so frequently turn away from their conversations in favour of direct address to the audience.  The set design also jarred with the content of the play, with the broken picture frames and dour colours not reflecting the robust shamelessness of the family.

The big reveal of the play is so obvious that it will surprise no-one, but Gould's love for his characters won the day, with the result that a night of vibrant comedy was capped by a tender and moving finale.  Vanity, lust, greed - to Gould these are mere peccadillos, and completely forgivable when the company has been this entertaining.

In this play Gould stretches his wings and shifts from the short form to the family saga, and while sparkling dialogue does paper over some soggy plotting, perfectly cast actors and excellent jokes provide a truly delightful night of entertainment.


Composed by Erik Griswold
Directed by Tamara Saulwick
Australian Art Orchestra and musicians of the Sichuan province.
Ainslie Arts Centre, Canberra, 23rd August 2017

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Composer Erik Griswold has had a long association with Sichuan. Together with percussionist, Vanessa Tomlinson, he has visited the province many times to study Sichuan percussion, folk music and street songs. Water Pushes Sand is his attempt to distil their feelings of discovery, confusion and wonder into a single musical experience, incorporating eastern and western instruments, songs, film and Chinese performance skills.

The performance was introduced by the sounds of two cymbalists who focussed attention before a raucous parade of musicians, led by a chanting Chinese tenor, entered the room in a cacophony of sound. The musicians settled themselves onstage where, conducting from the piano, the composer guided them through a series of musical impressions, some of which were accompanied by filmed sequences, and over-dubbed with traffic noises and water effects. A section commenting on urban renewal and the destruction of Wide Alley was performed to a spoken narration.

The music itself ranged intriguingly through tightly scored sections of aggressive dissonance, cool jazz infused brass sections, shimmering Chinese zither, minimalist piano variations and mind-bendingly complex percussion sequences. At one point cymbals were thrown across the stage, creating a moment which vied with the ear-splitting duel between saxophonists Tim O’Dwyer and Scott McConnachie, who challenged each other with virtuosic improvisations, for the most memorable section of the work.
Sheng Li Zheng performing his face-changing dance. 

It was a shame that space limitation on the small stage, which was attractively decorated on either side with Chinese lanterns, hampered the staging. The orchestra appeared uncomfortably cramped, and the low stage ceiling, together with the placement of the bass player centre-stage, severely compromised the effectiveness of the filmed sequences. As well in the final sequence, the gorgeously costumed, Sheng Li Zheng, who had throughout provided a series of impressive vocal interpolations, was forced to perform his amazing face-changing routine at floor-level, resulting in a restricted view for many in the audience.

These quibbles apart, Water Pushes Sand proved to be a challenging and satisfying experience, and a fascinating insight into the Australian Art Orchestra’s quest to explore the jazz of tomorrow. 

                                            Photos: Guy Grabowsky

This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.


Erik Griswold, Composer
Tamara Saulwick, Director
Australian Art Orchestra with Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centres
Ainslie Arts Centre 23 August

Reviewed by Len Power 23 August 2017

According to the program notes, ‘Water Pushes Sand’ features China’s Sichuan music combining rustic country folk music, street songs and ear-splitting cacophonies of gongs and cymbals.  A collaboration between composer Erik Griswold and musicians and performers from Sichuan and the Australian Arts Orchestra, with an emphasis on improvisation, it is certainly different, at times exciting and entertaining but often puzzling as well.

A well-produced show with good lighting choices, fine video accompaniment and fascinating singing and dancing by Sheng Li Zheng, there was much here to enjoy.  Of course, it’s easier for us to relate to the western-style music woven around the more challenging Sichuan elements but it all comes together in a generally satisfying and enjoyable way.

I would have enjoyed it even more if the individual musical items were explained either by the composer, who occasionally commented during the performance, or in the program.  Being told by the composer, ‘that’s a song about tofu’ didn’t really enlighten me much.  I enjoyed the fine singing of Sheng Li Zheng but I had no sense of what he was singing about and I wanted to know more about the background to his spectacular changing faces dance.

Australian Art Orchestra - Photo by Claude Raschella
The music was mostly very loud and the amplification of the music in this reasonably small venue was often at an uncomfortable level.  I saw some audience members around me with hands over their ears.  Ninety minutes of sound at this level was a bit wearing.  Maybe an interval would have helped a bit.

The piano playing by composer, Erik Griswold, was a highlight of the performance.  There was also fine playing in featured passages by Peter Knight on trumpet, Scott McConnachie and Tim O’Dwyer on the saxophones, Min Dong, the bamboo flute player, Mindy Meng Wang on the Guzheng, Sam Pankhurst on Contra Bass and Kai Zhi Zhong and Vanessa Tomlinson on percussion.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on Artsound FM 92.7’s ‘Artcetera’ program (9.00am Saturdays) and on other selected Artsound programs.