Friday, June 29, 2018

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time adapted by Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon.  National Theatre of Great Britain at Canberra Theatre Centre, June 27 – July 1, 2018. 

Reviewed by Frank McKone
June 27

If I describe this highly energised show as “children’s theatre for adults” I may upset most of the very large and equally highly appreciative audience on opening night.  I might perhaps ameliorate their response a little if I called the show “adult theatre-in-education”. 

I would probably make things worse for myself if I objected to the gratingly commercialised approach to the publicity, including the business of selling “official merchandise” derived from telling an ultimately heart-warming story of a child savant who as an impossible child splits his parents apart but equally impossibly brings them back to working together on his behalf.  Here’s what you can buy in the foyer:

But let me explain.  The drama is plot-centred, based upon setting up anticipation, points of potential achievement, episodes of likely disaster, climaxing in a major success and leaving us with a grand sense of hope for the future. This is the story of Christopher Boone, who can only tell the literal truth, succeeds in discovering who killed his neighbour’s dog, and scores 100% in a matriculation-level advanced maths test and expects to become a scientist – in other words, essentially a children’s story. 

Joshua Jenkins, on stage throughout each hour-long act – and even after curtain call to demonstrate the algebraic equation which describes Pythagoras’ square on the hypotenuse theorem – maintains an exhausting pace in physical movement, let alone in the abrupt changes in Christopher’s responses to a world which overloads his senses.  He does an admirable job, as indeed do the whole cast, but in truth (like Christopher I can only tell the truth) the plot is the thing, not any complexity of character. 

The style, appropriate to the task, presents us with a quite amazing picture book: we want to turn the pages.  We feel for Christopher and his Mum (Emma Beattie) and Dad (Stuart Laing), and even for the dead dog with the garden fork stuck in it.  We want to cheer Christopher on. We laugh and are happy for him when the train leaves Swindon before the policeman can get Christopher off (which would have been to face his father at the police station). We are afraid for his life when he jumps into the underground train track to rescue his pet rat.  We are amazed he manages to navigate the London Tube as chance voices give him incomprehensible clues.  And I was stunned when his mother and her current partner happen entirely by chance upon Christopher in a street presumably not too far from the address he has memorised – from the letters he secretly found in his father’s room, which proved his mother was not dead from a heart attack, as his father had told him, but alive in London.

So the acting is physical and close to cartoon in style – and very well done at that – while the set design is visually, audibly and technically dramatic, including especially Christopher’s putting together, bit by bit throughout the performance, a toy electric train set covering the whole stage.  It lights up and starts the train running as the play ends – highly symbolic of Christopher’s journey.

There is plenty to think about from an adult point of view, even though the design, in technique, is what the best of theatre-in-education teams would do – if they had the money.  A good comparison would be with Australia’s Shake & Stir Company, for example in their stage interpretation of  Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (reviewed on this blog March 9, 2016). 

The inability of Christopher’s mother to cope with a son who cannot recognise ordinary emotional clues, let alone respond to them except by extraordinary but purely literal logical comment, and her finding solace in a neighbour’s husband, is sad.  The response of Christopher’s father in violently rejecting his wife, killing the neighbour’s dog, telling his son that his wife has died (including a lengthy fiction about her time in hospital and her death), and hiding her letters addressed to Christopher from London, is an awful indictment of human vindictiveness.  This is an adult tale of the human condition.

Yet, because the core of the play is the plot and the characters cannot be fully developed, I found it hard to believe how Christopher’s mother could return to Swindon so easily – though it was true that she continued to live apart from her husband and, I suppose, kept herself at a distance from married intimacy just enough to support her son’s continuing need for help.  The play did show his father’s attempt to regain his son’s acceptance – this was a symbolic gentle hand-touching – and Christopher’s rejection of the contact.  I haven’t read the novel and at this point I’m therefore only considering Simon Stephens’ play. 

There are certainly adult concerns and issues here, but the happy ending as Christopher receives his result – which he accepts without excitement since he had no doubts about his having completed the exam perfectly – leaves me unsatisfied.  His teacher (Julie Hale), a great example of compassionate professionalism, is overcome by Christopher’s success, as is his mother, and even his father sincerely tells Christopher how proud he is.  But the play fails the adult education question I have: what chance does this extreme Asperger Syndrome character really have of coping when he is frantic under the normal bombardment of noise and movement which is part of other peoples’ ordinary lives; when he is obsessive to the extreme that his mother has to clean his toilet before he can use it after any stranger; and when he quickly turns to aggressive acts like hitting and even trying to stab someone – admittedly his mother’s London manfriend who is clearly obnoxious.

This play doesn’t offer any hope to us adults, except for the everlasting patience of the teacher – who, of course, even so, must remain at a professional distance and refuse Christopher’s request to live with her in her house.

So, I conclude that this production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time is an interesting example of theatre-in-education which raises questions for adult consideration – but leaves us with no easy answers or even suggestions.  That’s why I find the promotion of the production – done in much the same format as for the recent royal wedding – is superficial commercialism, which I find grating, when the issues of how we can improve the lives of people born with such differences as Asperger’s Syndrome are deeply difficult, and require great respect from the rest of us.

Joshua Jenkins and Emma Beattie
in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Director – Marianne Elliott; Designer – Bunnie Christie; Lighting Designer – Paule Constable; Video Designer – Finn Ross; Movement Directors – Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett (Frantic Assembly); Music – Adrian Sutton; Sound Designer – Ian Dickinson (Autograph)

Thursday, June 28, 2018


Written by Simon Stephens
Based on the novel by Mark Haddon
The National Theatre Of Great Britain production
Canberra Theatre to 1 July

Reviewed by Len Power 27 June 2018

The National Theatre’s production of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time’ is based on the popular novel by Mark Haddon.  Unlike the first person narrative of the novel, the theatrical adaptation is presented as a play within a play.

Christopher John Francis Boone, a 15-year-old boy who describes himself as ‘a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties’ living in Swindon, England, investigates a killing in his neighbourhood.  His unspecified autism spectrum disorder gives him a unique insight into the information he uncovers.  The complex electronic setting enables us to see his thought processes and better understand his responses to the reactions of the people and the environment around him.

At first, the play is quite demanding until you work out what’s going on in Christopher’s mind.  From that point on, you’re taken on a rollercoaster journey that is dramatic, funny, moving, very real and always visually stunning.

Marianne Elliott previously directed the highly successful ‘War Horse’ for the National Theatre and with this play provides another unique and startling theatrical experience.

Joshua Jenkins as Christopher

Joshua Jenkins gives an amazing performance as Christopher.  He is onstage throughout the show and sails through the demanding physical and vocal requirements of this difficult role, giving us a totally believable character that we grow to love as the play progresses.

Essentially an ensemble play, the other nine performers are also excellent.  Stuart Laing as Christopher’s father, Julie Hale as his mentor at school and Emma Beattie as his mother give strong performances in their individual characters while the remaining cast give sharply etched performances in multiple roles.

The set designer, Bunny Christie, the lighting designer, Paule Constable, and the video designer, Finn Ross, have produced a breathtakingly successful design that complements the production concept perfectly.  It’s fascinating to see such a fine example of the advances being made these days in theatre production design with the aid of complex computer systems.

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time’ is a creative, thought-provoking and enjoyable theatrical masterpiece.  You really must not miss it.

Photos by BrinkhoffMÓ§genburg

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on his ‘On Stage’ performing arts radio program on Mondays and Wednesdays from 3.30pm on Artsound FM 92.7.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018


Review by © Jane Freebury

A couple of chumps, their evil plan and a long ‘to do’ list with little imagination for backup are all the ingredients necessary for a crime to go wrong.

It's the substance of this new film from the Jacobson brothers, Shane and Clayton, who won our hearts twelve years ago with Kenny, ‘the toilet guy’. Brothers’ Nest makes a 180-degree turn away from those surprisingly entertaining portaloo jokes to bleak  black comedy. This is a genre that is building momentum as we speak.

It’s the simple plan that is the most seductive and once carried out the perpetrators just cannot shake themselves free.

We love to laugh from on high at the mess that mere mortals make—from the uncommonly lucky chump in Fargo on TV, to Norway's gang of crooks in Headhunters. Once they’re sucked in, like the backwoods folk in Sam Raimi’s thriller, A Simple Plan, they just can’t wriggle free.

But with a difference here. Brothers’ Nest has more ‘family stuff’, with its two middle aged siblings who seem more motivated more by grievance than by cold-hearted greed. It takes things into other territory.

The film opens on the two large men cycling through peaceful  countryside at dawn. That's a bit strange. Terry (Shane) and his brother Jeff (Clayton, who also directs) are more on the big and bearish side than lean and light, and each man carries a heavy dark backpack.

When they reach their destination, the homestead where they grew up, the place is empty, as expected. Their mother (Lynette Curran) is in hospital having treatment for terminal cancer, and their stepfather (Kim Gyngell) is out and not due back till later. There is time enough to set up for his return.

The intended victim, their stepfather, Rodger, may have spent too much time on his old radio collection than with them when they were young, but he is the beneficiary of their mother’s will. She doesn’t have much time left, and nor do the brothers, to work their way through the lengthy checklist.

The men kit up in orange suits and bumbags, with balaclavas at the ready. On hands and knees, Jeff does a spot of hoovering. It’s not clear why, but is likely a sign of his obsessive, task-oriented character.

Jeff also has his work cut out wrangling Terry, because ‘Tezza’ is a hopeless liar and hasn’t the least idea about how to avoid leaving clues. Why can't he use the toilet or smoke his cigarette to relieve a bit of stress?

Just when it seems this murder cannot be managed, it is, almost by accident. Then worse still happens.

As Terry and Jeff duke it out among the old car wrecks and the mildly curious cattle, there is a touch of absurdity, and not a little realism, to this tale of family dysfunction.

A touch more brio and it would have been a pitiless, pitch black comedy. A touch more psychology and it would have been gothic horror. It hangs in the balance between horror and humour, and it works, in its inimitable own way.

It also looks great. Cinematography by Peter Falk, and the soundtrack with original compositions by Richard Pleasance make a great contribution to the strong atmosphere and general polish throughout.

Black comedy genre has become jet black since the Coen brothers, but Scandinavian countries have perfected it, and New Zealand does well at it too.

Out there in Australia’s back of beyond there can’t be any shortage of good warped stories left to tell.

3.5 Stars

Also published at Jane's blog

PATTI LUPONE - 'Don't Monkey With Broadway"

Conceived and Directed by Scott Wittman
Musical Direction by Joseph Thalken
Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse – 25th June, 2018

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Having experienced Patti Lupone’s unforgettable performance as a fiery Eva Peron in the original Australian production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical “Evita” at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney in 1981, the moment in her show, when she sang “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” proved particularly nostalgic. Since creating that role in the original 1979 Broadway production, Lupone has gone on to become one of Broadway’s most celebrated leading ladies, winning multiple Tony and Grammy awards along the way.

However, her show “Don’t Monkey with Broadway” is much more than a stroll through her greatest hits. In fact, many of her most famous roles are ignored in favour of songs from roles she would never be asked to play on Broadway. Hence, she includes “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” from “Guys and Dolls” and  “River City” from “The Music Man” and “Something’s Coming” from “West Side Story” over songs from “Sunset Boulevard” and “Les Miserables” in which she originated the leading roles. 

Her impeccably constructed show is packed with magic moments guaranteed to satisfy the most avid Broadway musical buff, with some lovely surprises including the little-known but beautiful, “Sleepy Man” from “The Robber Bridegroom”, the musical which garnered Lupone her first Tony Award nomination.

Lupone’s ability to completely immerse herself in a song; to hold the moment and draw the audience to her incredibly nuanced interpretation of the lyrics, is a joy to experience.   Eschewing an orchestra in favour of a grand piano, bedecked with a bowl of red roses, and the exquisite piano settings of Joseph Thalken, himself a celebrated composer, Lupone wastes not a word as she deftly set up each song. Only some related to her career, but each one displayed her remarkable technical mastery and idiosyncratic phrasing.

Lupone knows about stillness, which she demonstrated in her hilarious interpretation of  Cy Coleman’s ,“Hey Big Spender”, during which, without moving anything other than her eyes and lips, she created  the funniest taxi-dance hostess you’re ever likely to encounter. There was fire too, in her interpretation of Sondheim’s “Some People” from “Gypsy”.

Her peerless diction dazzled in her virtuosic performances of Jule Styne’s tongue-twister, “If You Hadn’t, But You Did” from “Two in the Aisle”, and Sondheim’s “Another Hundred People” from “Company”.

Her voice soared  in the glorious “Meadowlark” from the Stephen Schwartz musical “The Baker’s Wife”, the show which was meant to make her a Broadway star, but which was cancelled before its Broadway opening, and there was surprising tenderness in her gentle interpretation of “Easy to be Hard” from “Hair”.

Her admiration for Stephen Sondheim was referenced in exquisite performances of “A Place For Us” from “West Side Story”, “Anyone Can Whistle” from the show of the same name, and the dramatic “Being Alive” from “Company”. But it was her brilliant duet with herself, as both Maria and Anita singing “A Boy Like That” from “West Side Story” that had the audience in stitches.

If all these treasures were not enough, her masterstroke came after interval with the surprise inclusion of an ensemble of sixteen of Canberra’s finest young music theatre performers. Specially rehearsed by local musical director, Nicholas Griffin, the ensemble provided exquisitely sung vocal backings for several of her songs. Her pleasure in their performance  was patently obvious, and they were rewarded when she called them back on stage after her final song, to join her in a haunting acapella performance of Bernstein’s “Some Other Time”. 
This review first published in AUSTRALIAN ARTS REVIEW .

Patti Lupone and Nick Griffih (Centre) with Joseph Thalken (back) 
and the Canberra Chorus
Sammy Marceddo, Pip Murphy, Laura Dawson, Skye Butcher, Kelly Roberts,
Kirrah Amosa, Louiza Blomfield, Jo Burns, Alexander Clubb, Hayden Baum
Will Huang, Liam Jackson, Joel Hutchings , Grant Pegg, Tom White, Joel Mallett