Friday, November 30, 2018

Revolt. She Said. Revolt.

Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt. by Alice Birch (UK).  The Street Company at The Street Theatre, Canberra, November 28 – December 1, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 29

Director – Karla Conway; Assistant to the Director – Daniel Berthon; Lighting Design – Jed Buchanan; Set Concept – Karla Conway, Sam Pickering; Set Realisation – Imogen Keen; Sound Design – Kimmo Vennonen

Anneka van der Velde; Ash Hamilton-Smith; Bronte Forrester; Damon Baudin; Hayden Splitt; Hiyab Kerr

To one side there is a representation of a wall, with a central door, except that it consists of netting.  What seem like windblown scraps are suspended in the net like caught birds.  The image seems to me what the play is about.  Modern city life as young lovers, office workers, and as family members is fundamentally disjointed – meaninglessly flung; flattened against some reality which is itself insubstantial.

In this production, the three men – different from each other but somehow the same – represent all men, imagine themselves to be in charge of their lives and therefore in control of women.  Their delusion makes life even more impossible for the three women, who find some sort of solace in a group together by the end – but saying “revolt” and “revolt again” makes no real difference.  Words, literally in this production, are no more than projections on the wall opposite the bird-catching net.

The performance style is something that I can define only as “metrosexual”, belonging to a generation way ahead of my style of living.  Yet, as theatre goes, this production satisfies my requirement for truth in performance – sincerity of motivation. 

The weird thing is that the newly formed The Street Company, nurtured through a year of work to reach its first professional production by Karla Conway (previously artistic director of Canberra Youth Theatre and currently Education Program manager at the Canberra Theatre Centre) demonstrates in its strength of ensemble playing the exact opposite of Alice Birch’s theme.  In their working together so well, there is a sense of purpose and direction in their lives as actors, while the characters they play are but mere bagatelles tossed about with no end except talk of revolt.

So how odd it is to see a such a successful production of something I might call “anti-theatre”.  I have found a useful explanation of Birch’s playwriting on a page (with no acknowledgement of the author) titled Biography of Alice Birch at :

“The plays can be called post-dramatic in that they always question the dramatic form itself. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. is loud and dialogues overlap, and yet we hear; the notions of narrative and characters are deconstructed, sometimes two scenes are played at exactly the same time, and yet something happens on stage; sex and body fluids and strong language exude from the actors' bodies, and yet they all crave for peace and quiet and connexion. But for all the noise the plays make, when language happens, it is hesitantly assertive, or assertively hesitant. Not so much in a state of infancy as in a state of urgency, when you want to say so much and yet the words won't come easily, when even silence is potent.”

The program states “The Street Company is the next generation of Canberra talent”, in, as I see it, the long tradition perhaps beginning with Elbow Theatre’s Elbow Room, about which I wrote in July 2000, Elbow's program offers "live music, stand up comedy, sock puppetry, serious dwama, new writing, skits, faux rudeness, talent, 'art' etc", and the only thing I missed were the socks. And whose director, Iain Sinclair, went on to a highly successful professional career. 

Karla Conway writes “Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt Again. represents the professional debut of The Street Company.  It has been a gift to be given the responsibility of Alice Birch’s words, which make tangible the collective experiences of women through time, to the here and now.  I look forward to seeing the careers of our artists soar in years to come.”

And indeed, so do I.

Photos: Shelly Higgs

Bronte Forrester and Anneke van der Velde
in Revolt.  She Said.  Revolt. by Alice Birch

Bronte Forrester and Damon Baudin
in Revolt. She Said. Revolt. by Alice Birch

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

MADIBA - The Musical

Written and composed by Jean-Pierre Hadida - Book by Jean-Pierre Hadida & Alicia Sebrien English adaptation by Dylan Hadida and Dennis Watkins
Directed by Pierre-Yves Duchesne and Dennis Watkins
Musical Direction by Michael Tyack - Choreographed by Johan Nus
Canberra Theatre Centre 22nd – 24th November 2018
Performance on 24th November reviewed by Bill Stephens

Perci Moeketsi as Nelson Mandela (c) and some of the ensemble in
"Madiba - The Musical"

Although it’s called “Madiba The Musical”, this production aimed at celebrating the life of Nelson Mandela, is more like an interesting hybrid. Certainly musical theatre, but not really a conventional Broadway musical, not really a musical documentary and not really a concert, it has elements of all three, as it alternates between staged scenes and tableau.

 Performed with passion and commitment by a talented cast of triple-threat performers, “Madiba – The Musical” focusses on the impact of apartheid in South Africa through a group of fictional characters whose lives were impacted during Mandela’s lifetime.

Mandela (Perci Moeketsi) is presented as a beatified figure. His history is annunciated by a charismatic narrator (David Denis) who delivers the salient historical facts in rap poetry while performing intricate hip hop moves. As Mandela, Moeketsi is a well cast. He brings a quiet dignity to the role, has a more than passing physical resemblance to the man, particularly in the second half when his hair is greyed, and a commanding voice which he uses most effectively for Mandela’s  final climactic monologue. However the script never allows Mandela to be any more than a symbol, so that apart from historical dot points, the audience learns nothing about Mandela, the man. 
Ruva Ngwenya as Winnie Mandela in "Madiba - The Musical" 

 Similarly for Winnie Mandela, played by Ruva Ngwenya, who, despite her strong stage presence and excellent singing voice, is given little opportunity by the script to make much impact. What a show this might have been had the script explored the relationship between these two extraordinary characters rather than their political significance.

Instead humanity is reserved for the story of a young artist William Xulu, (played at this performance by Tarik Frimpong), who falls in love with Helena, (Madeline Perrone), the daughter of the embittered Police Chief, Peter Van Leden (Blake Erickson). William’s sister, Sandy Xulu, is in a relationship with Sam Onotou, (Tim Omaji), who, having been inspired by his imprisonment with Mandela, preaches his message. Through these characters the audience glimpse examples of apartheid, but their story is too clichéd and predictable to have much impact.
Tim Omaji (Timomatic) as Sam Onotou in "Madiba - The Musical" 

Unfortunately, the original French book and lyrics for “Madiba - The Musical” seems to have lost something in translation for this Australian production, with often trite dialogue and lyrics, and songs and scenes reminiscent of other musicals, think “Hamilton”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Les Miserables”. Indeed it comes as no surprise to learn that the composer, Jean-Pierre Hadida, had been an associate of Claude-Michel Schonberg, the composer of “Les Miserables”, because at least two of the songs, “My Civilization” and “It’s Time Now To Forgive”, bare striking similarity to songs from that musical.

Generally though the songs are attractive and tuneful, with the high points provided by the dancing in the ensemble scenes for which choreographer, Johan Nus has embraced a variety of dance styles to spectacular effect. There was also a magic moment at this performance when audience members joined in softly as the cast sang the South African National Anthem. 

Throughout the scenery and staging is direct and simple. Liberal use of images projected on to screens and scrims, and ubiquitous busy intelligent lighting, provides some spectacle. However the scenes in which actors are wheeled on and off stage on pre-set trucks often left the stage looking sparse and under dressed.  The most effective scenes are the two-level prison sequences played behind scrims. 

The prison scene in "Madiba - The Musical" 

While never quite achieving its stated ambition of providing a powerful and uplifting celebration of Nelson Mandela, “Madiba – The Musical”, at its best, offers a unique and sometimes exhilarating theatrical experience which shouldn’t be missed.

                                                                      Photos provided.

                 This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.



Monday, November 26, 2018


Art Song Canberra
Louise Page, Soprano
Phillipa Candy, Piano
Wesley Uniting Church, Forrest 25 November

Reviewed by Len Power

There was a highly charged atmosphere in the packed-to-the-rafters Wesley Uniting Church for Art Song Canberra’s concert, ‘Celebration!’  After a 25 year partnership, singer Louise Page and pianist, Phillipa Candy, were giving their final concert together.  As she is retiring from singing, it was the last opportunity to hear the beautiful soprano voice of Louise Page.  She and Phillipa Candy brought the house down with a carefully chosen set of songs that they had loved and enjoyed over the years of their partnership.

The program started with two works by Purcell and Handel which Page sang with great feeling and technical skill.  These were followed by ‘The Carnival of Venice’, a witty song that gave her the opportunity to let loose with some spectacular vocal fireworks.  Two romantic works by Erich Korngold followed and were sensitively sung with an excellent accompaniment by Candy.

A set of American Spirituals were next, including a quietly emotional ‘Deep River’ and the rousing ‘He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands’ brought the first half of the concert to a close.

Phillipa Candy and Louise Page

The second half of the concert commenced with seven classical Spanish folk songs which were sung passionately and colourfully.  The highlights were the hauntingly beautiful, ‘Con Amores, la mi madre’ (With love, oh mother of mine) and the very droll ‘Chiquitita la novia’ (A tiny bride).  The complex musical accompaniment to these songs was handled seemingly effortlessly by Phillipa Candy.

A set of British folk songs followed including ‘I Will Walk With My Love’ in which Louise Page showed her fine acting ability.  Three songs by Richard Strauss were next.  Her sensitive singing of ‘Morgen’ was the highlight of the concert and Candy’s accompaniment was superb, especially the long introduction.

Phillipa Candy and Louise Page

The concert finished with ‘Con te partirò’, (Time To Say Goodbye). Always a highly emotional song with its soaring melody, it had even more significance for this audience as the concert drew to a close.  Two encores followed and the audience honoured these two brilliant artists with a much-deserved standing ovation.  This was a truly thrilling celebration!

Photos by Peter Hislop

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

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Madiba the Musical

Created and Composed by Jean-Pierre Hadida
Canberra Theatre Centre
Until 24 November
Reviewed by Samara Purnell

History is punctuated with individuals who incite change, spark hope, fan the flames of passion and conviction, unite people and challenge them with a call to action - or a test of patience. It’s hard to deny that Nelson Mandela was such an individual.

“Madiba the Musical”, directed by Pierre-Yves Duchesne and Dennis Watkins, is described as a love story. Rather than tell the detailed, personal story of Nelson Mandela, affectionately known as Madiba, a name derived from his Xhosa clan, Mandela is a ubiquitous presence, a father figure, and an overseer through which to tell the story of apartheid. Nelson Mandela’s inspirational strategy, patience and unwavering determination to end racial segregation without retaliation is the backdrop of the conflicts depicted here and of the struggle of fictional individuals, depicting reality, until apartheid ended in 1994.  

“Madiba” unfolds through vignettes and tableaux, with some clunky timing between set changes and exits. Fairly generic images were projected as the backdrop in the first act, and small moveable platforms created the simple sets. The depiction of prison cells behind the cyc screen was impressive and effectively gave a ghostly presence to Mandela and his inmates, as he patiently saw out his 27-year prison sentence on Robben Island, whilst outside-world events played out on stage.

This passage of time was conveyed through a myriad of dance styles, choreographed by Johan Nus, with super-slow motion movements to freeze-frame an event and simultaneously give the feeling of years passing. Hip-hop, acrobatic tumbles and breakdance were performed by the ensemble to a lesser degree but primarily by the narrator (David Denis), whose raison d’etre was not fully revealed until the end. A small ensemble of lithe, muscular men and women perform hybrid dance styles, inspired of course by traditional African dance.

The music was a mix of rap, some reminiscent of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” and rhythmically delivered spoken word by the narrator but with the majority of the musical numbers melodic, pretty and melancholic. Some of the colour, stirring music and joie de vivre expected from the vibrancy of “the rainbow nation” felt restrained. Despite the absence of a stand-out “showstopper” number, the entire cast attacked their roles with impressive earnesty, and the singing was beautiful.

Perci Moeketsi brilliantly embodied Nelson Mandela, from his physical traits, voice and dance to his dignity and his frailty. Ruva Ngwenya as Winnie Mandela and Tarasai Vushe as the fictional character Sandy delivered their songs with passion and conviction, giving stand out performances and Tim Onaji, (ex-Canberran ‘Timomatic’) impressed with his acting, singing and dancing.

Whilst the first act of “Madiba” was a somewhat disjointed overview, in the second act, the fictional character of Will (Barry Conrad) begins to take shape with more of a narrative love story and his sketches, appropriately drawn in “black and white” are used to animate the backdrop. His love interest Helena (Madeline Perrone), the white daughter of Afrikaans police officer Peter Van Leden, returns home to find her father a broken man, wracked with guilt over his part in the Sharpeville massacre. The song “It’s Time now to Forgive” between Helena, Will and tenor Blake Erikson as Van Leden is beautifully moving, as was Erikson’s “My Civilization”.

The description by “Madiba” creator and songwriter, Jean-Pierre Hadida is of “A hymn to love and democracy”, which explains the reverence and mood of the musical numbers - sweet and endearing but never really giving performers a chance to hit their straps. That said, the national anthem “Nkosi sikelei iAfrika” was sung with stunning harmonies.

A captivating and enjoyable production, without the dramatic dynamism, leaves the words of Mandela “I was not born with the hunger to be free, I was born free” resonating, in an endearing show, encapsulating love of a country, a nation, love between people, families and individuals and ultimately, hopefully, between races.

I Love Paris

Jane Rutter - Madame Flute
I Love Paris.  Salon at The Street, hosted by Jane Rutter (flute) accompanied by Marcello Maio (accordion and piano).  The Street Theatre, Canberra, Friday November 23, 2018.

Reviewed by Frank McKone

Jane Rutter told her story of how she came to be taught by the famous French flautist, Jean-Pierre Louis Rampal, in Paris at the age of eighteen. 

Lots of people in today’s audience nodded their heads wisely as she mentioned her enthusiasm for Rampal’s recordings – bought by her parents from the World Record Club.  I well remember those too, as I started buying them as soon as the World Record Club started up in Australia in 1958 – the year I began uni, and the very year Jane Rutter was born.  So I felt quite at home with my old vinyls – they’re still comfortably stacked, waiting for their turn on the turntable.

So it was a very pleasant fireside chat about her living in Paris for four years at that time, and how much French music, from Debussy through Sati to Charles Aznavour, from mediaeval Gregorian chant to 20th Century cabaret, became her favourite thing.

Just as she became a favourite French thing, being dubbed Madame Flute and receiving the prestigious award Chevalière de l’Ordre des Arts at Lettres (though she seemed a little bemused, or at least amused, to think of herself as a Knight).

It was a bit like a family slide night, except that the pictures were all pieces of music, performed with her signature sensitivity and emotional depth.  Marcello Maio, switching regularly between piano accordion and grand piano, was far more than mere accompanist. 

In fact, I felt that in the early stages Jane seemed a touch less confident than I expected – in telling her story; but never when expressing herself through her flute, of course; or rather several different kinds of flute.  Marcello provided a strength of musicianship and warmth of personality which brought everything together as the hour and ten progressed.

So, as we all had hoped, extra pieces and encores took the show to a good hour and a half, taking us out into the foyer for supper.  But only after we had joined in, according to the degree of our Frenchness, to the theme and variations (including even a touch of Waltzing Matilda) on La Marseillaise.

My phone couldn't cope with the lighting too well, but here's an impression of Jane and Marcello in action:
Photo: Frank McKone (with permission)

Friday, November 23, 2018

Madiba the Musical

Madiba the Musical at Canberra Theatre Centre, November 22 – 24, 2018.

Author & Composer – Jean-Pierre Hadida (French language); Book by Jean-Pierre Hadida & Alicia Sebrien; English Adaptation by Dylan Hadida & Dennis Watkins.

Director (France) – Pierre Yves-Duchesne; Director (Australia) – Dennis Watkins; Musical Director – Michael Tyack; Choreographer – Johan Nus; English Language Producer – Neil Croker.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 22

Amandla in the Nguni languages means "power". The word was a popular rallying cry in the days of resistance against apartheid, used by the African National Congress and its allies. The leader of a group would call out "Amandla!" and the crowd would respond with "Awethu" or "Ngawethu!" (to us), completing the South African version of the rallying cry "power to the people!".

To create a musical in which the central character is isolated in jail for 27 years in the prime of his life, from the age of 44 to 71, has to be a daunting challenge.  But the spirit of Nelson Mandela is built into Madiba the Musical.  Amandla!  Though some reviewers criticise the quality of the song writing and music, in the end it is the spirit which shines through.

The story can be told in just a few pictures (selected from the most attractive and highly informative program), and audiences here can feel justifiably proud that the original director, Pierre-Yves Duchesne, could write:

“[Seeking] a cast to deliver this story on my first trip to Melbourne and Sydney earlier this year for auditions, I discovered the giant artistic talent pool of this country.  We were able to work with the most talented artists, artists with strength in the three disciplines of musical theatre: singing, dancing and acting.  I am sure you will enjoy seeing your cast, a cast that would honour any stage in the world.”

The front cover above shows the hidden figure of Mandela as a spirit of the landscape of South Africa (so much of which is reminiscent of Australia since we were once joined together in Gondwana-land).

Here we see Mandela, the young lawyer in 1962 - the first black African to establish his own law firm.

In 1964 Mandela was charged with treason, found guilty because he could not say that if an armed rebellion against the apartheid regime took place, he would not support it.  This is the image of him in jail on Robben Island, off the coast of Capetown, where supporters had almost no access – one letter and one visitor per six months – because he was graded a Class D prisoner.

Here we see Nelson Mandela as a traditional figure of reknown, and his wife Winnie who stood by him throughout his incarceration.  At this point in 1982, after graduating to Class A prisoner in 1975, Mandela was transferred from the maximum security prison on Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison in Tokai, Cape Town. From there, Mandela was moved to the then Victor Verster Prison on 9 December 1988, where he was able to communicate secretly with the exiled leader of the African National Congress, Oliver Tambo – and gained his LLB degree in law.

Though still in prison but steadfast in his belief that “freedom is our right”, and therefore can never be granted with conditions by anyone else,  here we see Mandela in his strength with his principles supporting the young couple establishing their love across the colour boundary.  Their story becomes central to our emotional engagement in Madiba the Musical.

And here is the image representing the practical purpose of Mandela’s position: all the people, whether “black”, “coloured” or “white” show their votes – one person, one vote – in the first truly democratic election in South Africa, in which Mandela (freed in 1990) was elected President on May 10, 1994.  We heard his speech, in silence, between the singing and dancing:

“We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of millions of our people.  We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

The audience last night, filling the Canberra Theatre Centre, themselves represented all those rainbow colours and felt the power of Amandla! continuing in more dancing and singing of the South African National Anthem, and extended applause and cheering – finally ending after the most exciting curtain call I can remember in any theatre.

Perhaps the greatest cheer was for the amazing physical acrobatic display as the modern rapper, singer and songwriter he is, David Denis, the narrator who linked this huge story together with humour, wit and understanding.  Here he is:

Madiba the Musical is very good musical theatre about a great man who must never be forgotten – in South Africa, Australia, or the whole world.  The creation and world-wide presentation of Madiba, here in its first English language production (after its original success in France) will surely play its part in the betterment of society everywhere.


Author and Composer: Jean-Pierre Hadida
Book by Jean-Pierre Hadida and Alicia Sebrien
Original director: Pierre-Yves Duchesne
Current director: Dennis Watkins
Musical director: Michael Tyack
Produced by Neil Croker
Canberra Theatre to 24 November

Reviewed by Len Power 22 November 2018

Madiba: The Musical is a colourful, energetic show with good acting and fine singing and dancing.

Originally produced in France in 2016, the show has been adapted into English by Dylan Hadida and Dennis Watkins, who also directed this production.  It plays at a good pace with some excellent set pieces and artistic back projection, some of which is well-animated.

Percy Moeketsi gives a fine performance as Mandela and is particularly moving in his final solo song.  David Denis is a charismatic personality as the Narrator, effortlessly singing complex rap songs while performing amazing feats of athletic choreography.  Ruva Ngwenya is a strong Winnie Mandela and has some arresting songs in the first act but unfortunately has less to do in the second act.

Tim Omaji is very appealing as the young activist, Sam, and Blake Erickson gives a strong vocal and acting performance as Peter Van Leden.  Tarisai Vushe is especially fine as Sandy and Barry Conrad and Madeline Perrone are touching as the inter-racial young lovers, William and Helena.  The ensemble sing and dance with great energy and skill.

The choreography by Johan Nus was nicely staged and danced by the cast.  Musical director, Michael Tyack, ensured the score was played very well and the sound balance between musicians and performers was fine.

A musical about South African icon, Nelson Mandela, has to deal with the fact that Mandela was a quietly charismatic figure.  He was not a colourful and dramatic personality that would be easy to musicalize.

The musical moves too quickly through his early life and focusses on incidents from about 1960 when Mandela was 44 years old.  He spends a major part of the musical’s timeline in jail so other characters dominate much of the action of the show.  Many of the book’s scenes seem like padding and some characters change their outlook on racial issues too suddenly to be believable.

The musical score is uneven.  The songs with African rhythms are the most successful and enjoyable.  Other songs are written in a conventional Broadway style that seems at odds with the subject matter.  Some of the lyrics are quite banal.

The production values and skilled cast are Madiba's strong points and it’s quite enjoyable but the book and musical score still need fine tuning before it will really soar.

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

Thursday, November 22, 2018

A Cheery Soul

A Cheery Soul by Patrick White.  Sydney Theatre Company at Sydney Opera House Drama Theatre, November 5 – December 15, 2018.

Directed by Kip Williams.  Starring Sarah Peirse as Miss Docker.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
November 20

I hardly know what I can write that will do full justice to this impressive production of A Cheery Soul.  Anything I might say would be like the school teacher analysing the poetry out of the poem.

Yet not to write is to fail in my duty.  So I must write, just as Miss Docker is compelled to speak her ‘truth’, and beg your forgiveness.

Much drama most people see today, mainly on screen, is written to a formula.  True drama is a mystery, created in the imagination – original because it is never formulaic.

Patrick White was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1973 “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature”.  There’s a mystery in this citation which portends another PhD, but A Cheery Soul was first staged in 1963 and must surely have played its part in that award.

Nobel Prizes are not given for formulaic work, and Kip Williams surely understands that White’s imagination in creating the do-gooder from hell, Miss Docker, must be respected by an imaginative presentation to match White’s invention.
 Photos by Daniel Boud

There will be people who dislike the result – like the couple next to me who did not reappear after interval.  But I, and all who stayed, became fascinated by the disturbing mix of realism and expressionism, culminating in an entirely unexpected empathy with the loneliness of Miss Docker’s ending.

Sarah Peirse, working so bravely on a two-ring revolve with live video in a remarkable stage design, showed us that behind her insistent domineering goodness which inexplicably set normal people against her, Miss Docker finally understood that she, like all of us, is alone in the universe – when the blue heeler dog, or god, she tried to befriend, pee’d on her skirt.

Peirse thoroughly deserved her extra applause when she stepped forward at curtain call – but then as she brought the whole cast forward, all were equally recognised.  The sense of a living organism with Peirse / Miss Docker at the nucleus was palpable.

So there was the mystery of true drama.  To show that, though at our core we are alone and ultimately insignificant, as is White’s philosophy, it is ironic that everyone – director and designers, performers and operators, backstage and on stage – must be (and certainly were) a complex cooperative group in which no-one is alone.

I could, of course, write screeds about the significance of the play and how STC has presented it, but the excellent program will do this for you.

Only please read the program only after seeing the show.  Predetermined expectations, however correct, will cut back on the surprise element which makes this show dramatically exciting.

To conclude, this production of A Cheery Soul – with its terribly ironic title – is an outstanding achievement by the Sydney Theatre Company.