Saturday, March 30, 2019


Adapted by Christopher Sergel from the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by Anne Somes
Canberra REP at Theatre 3 to 13 April

Reviewed by Len Power 29 March 2019

The novel, ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, by Harper Lee was published in 1960 and has never been out of print since that time.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for literature and had a very successful film adaptation in 1962.

Christopher Sergel’s dramatization of the novel was first performed in 1990.  It runs every year in May on the county courthouse grounds of Monroe, Alabama – Harper Lee’s hometown - and townspeople make up the cast.  A new play, adapted by Aaron Sorkin, opened on Broadway in 2018 and is still running.

Set in 1935, the play focuses on the trial of a black man accused of rape at a time of racial tensions and bigotry in a southern state of the USA.  Young white brother and sister, Scout and Jem, learn some strong lessons about life as they watch their lawyer father, Atticus Finch, defend the accused man.

On a stark setting by Cate Clelland that suits the themes of the play, the director of the play, Anne Somes, keeps the play moving at a good pace and has obtained strongly detailed performances from her large cast of actors.

Particularly notable were Michael Sparks as the children’s father, Atticus Finch, Antonia Kitzel as the narrator, Maudie Atkinson, Jade Breen as Scout, Jamie Boyd as Jem, Jake Keen as Dill Harris, David Bennett as Judge Taylor, Stephanie Wilson as Mayella Ewell, Tim Stiles as Bob Ewell, Peter Holland as Horace Gilmer and Ian Russell as Heck Tate.

The high pitch of the children’s voices and their Southern accents made it difficult at times to hear everything they were saying.  Speaking a little slower might help overcome that problem.  The negro spirituals sung by the cast for atmosphere during scene changes were rather too downbeat and it’s doubtful whether white people in that era and locality would have been singing those songs.

Costumes by Fiona Leach nicely evoked the period and fashions of the time in a Depression-era small town.  Stephen Still’s atmospheric lighting design worked well and was particularly effective when focussed on the smaller playing areas.

This is a good production of an important story that is electrifying if it’s a first exposure to it and a moving and powerful reminder for the rest of us that we still have a long way to go to obtain peace and harmony in this world.

Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.

The Gospel According to Paul

 The Gospel According to Paul, written and performed by Jonathan Biggins.  Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, March 26-31, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
March 26

Jonathan Biggins as Paul Keating, determined schemer.

According to the gospel according to Jonathan Biggins, Paul Keating said of recently-ejected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull that he was “the only man who could make a real leather jacket look like vinyl”.  For me this one line ecapsulated both the perspicacity of Biggins and the subtle contumely of the real Keating.  It does not matter whether Keating actually ever said it: if he didn’t, we have no doubt he could have.

The Gospel According to Paul places Biggins one step above the other significant playwright of Australian Labor tradition – the late Bob Ellis who, with historian Robin McLachlan, showed us the Light on the Hill in A Local Man, his study of Ben Chifley.  (My review of its first performance in August 2004 and a later feature article in February 2007 were published in The Canberra Times; my original text can be accessed at )

The ending of A Local Man might show Ben Chifley as a match for Paul Keating:

Just three days before his death:    (The lights begin to flicker.)  BEN: Hang on, the lights are going off ....  Bloody Liberal government.  Bunnerong and Bungeroff.  (The lights go out.)

Ellis successfully created the character of Ben Chifley in a script which is a major achievement, welding art and accurate history, revealing what were Ben’s personal devils, clawing away at his sense of self-worth.  In 2004, Bob Ellis said to me, as we discussed the then current Prime Minister’s understanding of history, “John Howard’s motto is ‘Ignorance is strength’ while Chifley took the opposite view that ‘Knowledge is power’ and should be made available to everyone.”

Ellis also told me “Bob Hawke wept on my shoulder” and “Bob Carr cried, perhaps the only time since his father’s funeral” after seeing A Local Man in its season at Sydney’s Ensemble Theatre.

Keating, in a setting representing his interests in art, music
and the 18th Century, at a self-analytical moment.

Yet Jonathan Biggins has done more.  Not only has he done the research, acknowledging “the three authors who I leant on most: Troy Bramston, Kerry O’Brien and Don Watson” and written the script, but then performs in the character he has created, directly in conversation with his audience – in a manner so true in word, intonation and physical action that we could feel without a shadow of doubt that this was Paul Keating himself on stage – even when his microphone played up and he had to duck into the wings to have it fixed.

Keating's slide show includes defeating Bob Hawke as Prime Minister
20 December 1991

As Ellis and McLachlan did for Ben Chifley, though the weeping for Paul Keating is more likely to be through laughing, so Biggins has thoroughly fulfilled his hope – in his Creator’s Note – to “shed the occasional light on the contradictions and complexities of a great leader whose vision, courage and determination are sadly missing in what passes for our contemporary political class.  Do better, ya mugs!”

Definitely not to be missed.

Photos by Brett Boardman

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Bin Laden: The One Man Show - Knaive Theatre

Review by John Lombard

Osama Bin Laden delivers an affable TED talk on his life and struggle in this provocative one man show.

Actor and co-writer Sam Redway strips Bin Laden of Islamic trappings and plays him as an adorkable wellness guru. Tyrrell Jones directs and co-writes this tumble through the looking glass.

Redway makes tea, dresses like an extra in The Book of Mormon, and drops frequent pop culture references such as Harry Potter and Batman. Bin Laden even invites us to call him Abu after the monkey in Aladdin.

Redway's telling of Bin Laden’s life is moving, relatable, and laced with disarming humour. By flipping the perspective on events such as the downing of American helicopter gunships in Somalia he forces us to reconsider our biases.

But while Bin Laden's veneer is friendly and likeable, Redway uses ruthless influence tactics to charm the audience into complicity.

At the start of the show, Redway offers anyone in the audience who would like it tea and biscuits - building reciprocity. He then gets the audience to admit by raising their hand that they are not happy with their government - fostering consistency. The house lights are up, so we can see how everyone else in the room is voting - establishing consensus. He paints in lavish terms how much his system can help us - coaxing liking.

This onslaught made me skeptical of Bin Laden, the way we become wary of the friendliness of a snake oil salesman. I could understand how charismatic and manipulative cult leaders can use these tactics to seduce acolytes.

This retelling also omits awkward contrary facts, such as ruthless oppression of women by the Taliban. Bin Laden may have had anguished fights with this family over his beliefs, but pestering over Coca Cola and a fridge doesn't balance against an atrocity like 9/11. Why should we care more about Bin Laden than his victims?

Bin Laden The One Man Show is clever, well-performed, and a perfect prompt for debate and conversation. It is gripping, but needs to be viewed critically.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019


The Jets in Opera Australia's production of "West Side Story"

Photo: Prudence Upton 
Book by Arthur Laurents - Music by Leonard Bernstein – Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Francesca Zambello – Musical Direction by Guy Simpson

Associate Direction and Choreograph by Julio Monge

Set Designed by Brian Thomson – Costumes Designed by Jennifer Irwin
Lighting designed by John Rayment

Presented by Handa Opera on Sydney Harbor until 21st April, 2019

Opening night performance on 22nd March reviewed by Bill Stephens

Shark girls in "West Side Story"

Photo: Prudence Upton
Though it might have been a controversial choice to stage West Side Story as the first musical in the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series, this brilliant production, under the inspired direction of International opera director, Francesca Zambello, reveals why this show is being embraced by opera companies around the world, and offers such a thrilling theatrical experience that it will become a yardstick for judging future HOSH productions.

The brainchild of choreographer, Jerome Robbins who harnessed the formidable talents of Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics) and Arthur Laurents (book) to create a Romeo and Juliet musical, West Side Story broke away from the conventions of the time, tackling New York’s contemporary immigration issues by focusing on warring street gangs.   

The show was recognised as a masterpiece from the beginning and over the years has lost none of its power. Its characters and situations remain as vivid as ever, and this relatively straight- forward production, devised by Francesca Zambello and her creatives, is a persuasive demonstration of why.

By avoiding the temptation to embellish the actual work, but embracing the opportunities offered by the unique outdoor Sydney Harbour location, every element serves the original concept.

Brian Thomson has devised a striking, atmospheric setting which includes rail carriages covered in graffiti, New York fire-escapes and part of a huge overpass through which glimpses of the Sydney skyline, Harbour Bridge and Opera House form part of the vista. Most of the action takes place on a huge raked stage painted to resemble a basketball court. Large scenic elements move seamlessly into place as required.
The Shark Girls

Photo: Prudence Upton

The ensemble of talented triple-threat performers ignored the daunting rake of the stage, as well as the driving rain which persisted during the first hour of the performance on opening night, attacking Robbins’ still remarkable choreography with thrilling energy and attention to detail.

Indeed, it was a huge pleasure to see this choreography, an essential part of the production, reproduced with such authenticity by choreographer, Julio Monge, who had previously worked with Jerome Robbins and is now entrusted with recreating his West Side Story choreography in opera houses around the world. Utilising the same number of dancers as in the original 1957 production, Monge has taken advantage of the huge stage area to add speed and spectacle, without sacrificing any of the meticulous attention to line and phrasing which characterises the Robbins style.

Jennifer Irwin’s stylish costumes, vibrant red and yellows for the Puerto Rican Sharks, cool blues and greens for the West Side Jets, also complimented the choreography while differentiating the dueling factions.

Alexander Lewis (Tony) - Julie Lea Goodwin (Maria) 

Photo: Keith Saunders

Julie Lea Goodwin played Maria in a 2010 production of West Side Story, and in the intervening years has established herself in opera. Her Maria in this production has grown in stature and confidence and is now totally captivating. Her radiant voice soars in “Tonight”; she’s frivolous and silly in “I feel Pretty”, and deeply moving in “Somewhere”.

Matching her performance, Alexander Lewis as Tony is intense and passionate. In great voice he brings operatic heft to his ecstatic, swooning renditions of “Tonight” and “Maria”. His scenes with Goodwin have real chemistry and their duets together are sheer joy.
Karli Dinardo (Anita) - Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva (Bernardo)

Photo: Prudence Upton

Returning from New York, Melbourne-born Karli Dinardo is making her Australian debut as the feisty, Anita. Dinardo is a firecracker performer who dances up a storm in the Gym scene, blazes through “A Boy like That”, while managing to imbue her relationship with Maria with an unexpected softness and depth that is very appealing.
Handsome and virile,  Puerto Rican ballet dancer, Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva scores as Anita’s fiery boyfriend, Bernardo, and Mark Hill makes a strong impression as the unfortunate Riff. Among other fine performances, David Whitney brings depth to his role as Doc, and an almost unrecognizable Scott Irwin raises hackles as the bullying Lt. Shrank.
Scott Irwin (Lt. Shrank) - David Whitney (Doc) - The Jets

Photo: Prudence Upton

Excellent sound design which ensured that the lyrics and dialogue were crystal clear, and that the nuances of orchestration in Bernstein’s stunning score, given an exciting  performance by the large orchestra conducted by Guy Simpson, added icing to the cake.

Don’t be deterred by the possibility of rain. Plastic ponchos can be purchased at the venue, and curiously, a shower of rain seems to add to the uniqueness of the outdoor experience. But whatever you do don’t miss this production of West Side Story. You’re unlikely to see a better one.

                This review also appears in Australian Arts Review.



Written and performed by Jonathan Biggins
Directed by Aarne Neeme
Produced by Soft Tread
The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre to 31 March

Reviewed by Len Power 26 March 2019

Anyone who attends the annual productions of ‘The Wharf Revue’ will be familiar with Jonathan Biggins’ hilarious performances as Paul Keating.  Those were only short monologues and the big question with ‘The Gospel According To Paul’ is whether Biggins can pull off playing Keating in a one-man show for the whole evening.  The answer is a resounding ‘yes’!

Hollywood producer, Samuel Goldwyn, was reputed to have said, ‘No-one should write their autobiography until they are dead’.  Jonathan Biggins’ play – a trawl through Keating’s early life and political career - becomes autobiography with Biggins’ startlingly clever impression of the man himself in a constantly sustained marathon 90 minute non-stop performance.

Nicely designed by Mark Thompson, the living room set is filled with the art, photographs and tasteful objects that we like to imagine the educated and worldly Paul Keating would surround himself with.  We find Keating in a reflective mood but there’s an edge to his personality that warns us to be ready for anything.

His story is a fascinating one, starting with his formative years in Bankstown with his family and his early career as a music group manager.  When he moved into politics, he became part of an era of great change which many of us remember very well.  He reminds us of the many personalities who were part of that change with his devastating assessments of these people’s strengths and weaknesses and his relations with them.  His opinions on each of the Prime Ministers with whom he was associated and on those who came after him are particularly amusing.  Keating’s political life is the focus in this play, not his personal life.

Nicely directed by Aarne Neeme, the one man show is carefully paced and staged with some vaudeville-like musical moments that work very well.  Although played for 90 minutes without a break, it was constantly entertaining.

Jonathan Biggins has triumphed in both writing and performance with this play.  It’s funny, informative and, for many of us, highly nostalgic.  We are left with a picture of Keating with all the contradictions and complexities that he displayed during his political life and he remains a fascinating and enigmatic character.  I wonder what the real Paul Keating would make of it?

Photos by Brett Boardman
Len Power’s reviews are also broadcast on the Artsound FM 92.7 ‘In the Foyer’ program on Mondays and Wednesdays at 3.30pm.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Gospel According To Paul - Canberra Theatre Centre

Review by John Lombard

Writer and performer Jonathan Biggins describes The Gospel According To Paul as “the first three-dimensional, unauthorised biography written by someone else”.

With direction by Aarne Neeme, this one man show fleshes out Biggins’ caricature of former Prime Minister Paul Keating from long-running political satire The Wharf Revue.

Rather than waiting for Keating to literally "get taken out in a box", Biggins delivers Keating’s eulogy while Keating is still alive, and makes a better case for Keating than Keating could make for himself.

This is unabashedly history told by the victor: Keating the economic saviour, Keating the visionary defender of Australia’s place in Asia, and Keating the prescient champion of Indigenous rights.

Biggins acknowledges and takes defiant ownership of the well-known Keating quirks: the clocks, the love of Mahler, the pig farm, and the luxury suits, as if challenging us to use these foibles to dismiss Keating's achievements.

But Biggins also humanises Keating by showing vulnerability, a far cry from the brass of the character when Biggins plays him in The Wharf Revue.

Biggins shows Keating remembering his beloved grandmother, recounting his father's death and twisting with regret over his ousting of Hawke.

The sober format restrains Biggins' anarchic energy, but at times it bursts out and shatters the character he has patiently drawn: not only does Keating belt out a Tom Jones number, in one vaudeville number he performs a nimble tap routine.

In one cheeky moment, Biggins shows us a slide of Norman Gunston at a Gough Whitlam speech, winking at his own blur of comedy and commentary.

Ultimately Biggins is using the persona of Keating to call for courage and leadership in politics.  Pointedly, this Keating reflects that on the campaign trail he not only rode in his own bus, but even drove it.

The Gospel According For Paul does not reach the satirical height of the subtly damning Keating the Musical, opting for a restrained, sincere and hagiographical approach, sustained by Biggins' excellent joke-writing.

Even if the Keating of The Wharf Revue is a little thin for a 90 minute one man show, Biggins packs in enough charm and humour to keep the audience entertained right up to curtain call.

Monday, March 18, 2019


Penelope Cruz (Laura) and Ricardo Darin (Alejandro)

M, 2 hr 13 mins
Capitol Cinemas Manuka, Dendy Canberra Centre
3.5 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

In the ambience of the Spanish countryside, star couple Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem, look so completely at home it is easy to forget that in Everybody Knows they are being directed by a filmmaker from a very different part of the world. Though he says that he felt very much at home in Spain when on a family holiday some years ago, the acclaimed writer-director Asghar Farhadi hails of course from Iran.

Now who wouldn’t feel at home in Spain? Spanish people can be so warm, expressive and direct, and what’s not to love about a country so in touch with its past and with so much zest for life in the present.

Be that as it may, it’s wonderful that this celebrated filmmaker is able to work outside Iran. He has done so before. He worked with French actors on his film The Past set partly in Paris—though it may be a while before he works in the US. Despite his green card he will not be visiting the land of Trump.

In Everybody Knows, Farhadi remains in familiar genre territory, that is, exploring the tensions within couples and within families, but on this occasion his characters are not Iranian, but Spanish, and they are free to express. To audiences in the West at least, Farhadi’s finely wrought, unsettling Iranian melodramas have a restraint and an ambiguity that resists easy interpretation and provokes questions.

Not so, Everybody Knows. The psychological and covert here take second place to the overt, the expressive, and mystery pertains to characters out-of-frame.

Events revolve around the character of Laura (Cruz), who is visiting from Argentina with her two children to attend her sister’s wedding, though not with husband Alejandro (Ricardo Darin) for the time being. It is joyful reunion that culminates in a big dance party, captured on a hovering drone, in the village square. Farhadi, although from a country where singing and dancing in public are banned, handles these scenes with ease and confidence.

One by one the characters reveal their foibles. Family patriarch is a rather grumpy old man. Laura’s teenage daughter, Irene (an exuberant Carla Campra), has a wild streak. Other associates of the family, like Paco (Bardem) and his wife Bea (Barbara Lennie) who run a successful vineyard, we get to know more slowly.

When Irene disappears during the wedding celebrations and her kidnappers begin to send threatening messages, the family relationships are stripped bare. It’s when Cruz comes into her own as the distraught mother.

Initially, it is outsiders who come under suspicion. There are multiple possible suspects working among the migrant grape pickers in Paco’s vineyards. For some time, the film entertains this possibility, and it makes for tense kidnap drama, though the film falls short of the appellation of thriller.

If some family were apprehensive about Laura’s return, others were delighted to see her, while there were also those who, in their way, were prepared. There is a backstory that would have made Everybody Knows that much more interesting.

With its gorgeous leads and rural backdrop, it has convincing performances with tense moments. Only this film doesn’t have that finely wrought complexity so distinctive of Farhadi, in which much is actually left unsaid. That’s what is missing. Finely wrought, high intensity drama that unwinds like a coiled spring, leaving matters unresolved and leaving us high and dry.

Jane's reviews are also published at her blog, and broadcast on ArtSound FM 92.7