About last week(s) … June 6-19

A recent holiday took me entirely away from all daily cares and the internet. There was no email, no Twitter, no Facebook, nothing. I heartily recommend it. Now back to Sydney theatre …

Sydney Theatre Company’s magnificent production of All My Sons, directed with piercing clarity by Kip Williams, unfolds with dreadful inexorability and finality. You understand how it is all going to end from the moment it begins. The stage is dominated by a huge, dark house. Well, it’s not a house, it’s a cutout; a façade lacking any homely details. There’s a door that has not a skerrick of welcome in it and some mean windows picked out by artificial illumination.

You couldn’t call Alice Babidge’s design subtle but it lands its punches with savage precision. This is a place that hides things and then sucks the life out of them.

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Sydney Theatre Company’s All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

It’s not how Arthur Miller envisaged the setting. He wanted the audience to first encounter something normal and peaceful, which is what we saw in the very good Darlinghurst Theatre production that inaugurated Sydney’s Eternity Playhouse in late 2013. In Miller’s directions the fallen tree in the Keller family’s front yard would be the only visual clue to the anguish that unfolds in less than 24 hours and comes to its grim conclusion after night falls. It’s the kind of realism that reflects Miller’s debt to Ibsen’s social dramas.

But Miller was also drawing on classical Greek theatre in which personal tragedy had far-reaching implications for the whole society. Williams’s production is both of Miller’s time – the play was written in 1946 and premiered in 1947 and Babidge’s costumes reflect that – and timeless. The specific sin of Joe Keller is that he profited from selling shoddy aircraft parts that led to the deaths of young American World War II pilots and that he let another man take the blame. The broader, lasting sins are of denial of responsibility, of failure to be a decent member of his community and of a festering guilt that infects everyone. What kind of a world is made when people put their own interests before those of the group? When making money is a higher goal than being just and serving truth.

Joe and Kate Keller have – had – two sons. One, Larry, is listed as missing in action. The other, Chris, hopes to marry Larry’s fiancée Ann. If Kate accepts that, then she has to admit Larry is dead. Ann’s father is the man who took the rap for Joe and she and her brother George have shunned him ever since, believing him to be at fault. The shaky tower of lies and self-deceptions cannot survive Ann’s arrival at the Keller house to discuss her future with Chris.

Williams has gathered an exceptional cast. Every role, down to the smallest, resonates fully. Take, for instance, Bert LaBonté’s Jim Bayliss, the doctor who is neighbour to the Kellers. LaBonté puts a deceptively light underlay of irony beneath his smooth-as-silk exterior. He is a man who understands exactly what compromises he has made for a relatively easy life and what it costs to stick with them. Anita Hegh is super-luxury casting as Jim’s discontented wife Sue, as is Josh McConville as George. His whirlwind entry into the fray doesn’t come until after interval and his burning anger fuels the explosion that rips away all pretence.

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John Howard and Chris Ryan in All My Sons. Photo: Zan Wimberley

Chris Ryan (Chris) and Eryn Jean Norvill (Ann) are very fine as the young couple trying to create a future for themselves but carrying distressing emotional burdens. Chris also went to war and has inevitably been changed; Ann has heavy knowledge that must be revealed if she is to move on. Both bring memorable, affecting delicacy and lucidity to the drama.

John Howard’s Joe is a triumph of bluster and defensiveness wrapped in a body that’s succumbing to the indignities of age. Robyn Nevin’s Kate is harrowing. Her every molecule vibrates with grief and fear. She puts up a reasonable front but she knows, as we do, that the reckoning is at hand. It is almost unbearably painful to watch.

Nick Enright’s A Man with Five Children has something of the flavour of Michael Apted’s 7 Up series but adds a fascinating degree of complexity by putting the documentary maker, Gerry, at the centre. Apted’s series selected a group of seven-year-old children and returned to them at seven-year intervals. Enright moves in more closely. Gerry revisits his children every year and becomes ever more entwined in their lives. Can he be both observer and participant? Do lives change because they are observed? What do you think? A Man with Five Children started life as a student workshop in 1998, anticipating the Australian version of Big Brother by three years. The subsequent explosion of so-called reality TV has made the play appear even more prescient.

Anthony Skuse’s production for Darlinghurst Theatre Company is engrossing, despite the play’s overlong first half. Five adult actors touchingly enact their characters as young children and skittish adolescents as well as their older selves, letting us see the children – and their hopes, mistakes, anxieties and gaucheries – within the grown men and women. Because Gerry (Jeremy Waters) goes back to his subjects so frequently there is the impression of lives unfolding on fast-forward, often precariously.

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Jemwel Danao, Taylor Wiese and Jeremy Waters in A Man with Five Children at Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Photo: Helen White

And always there is the elephant in the room: does Gerry’s camera – Gerry – play a substantial role in defining how a life will be lived?

A Man with Five Children (it premiered professionally in 2002) also offers a broader snapshot of Australian society. When we first meet them Jessie (Chenoa Deemal) is an Indigenous girl with enormous promise, cheerful Roger (Jemwel Danao) was born in Australia of Asian descent, clever Susannah (Charlotte Hazzard) is a white European migrant, Zoe (Jody Kennedy) is a defensive working-class kid and Cameron (Taylor Wiese) is troubled and neglected. Through them Enright touches on national identity, multiculturalism, idealism and celebrity culture among much else.

As the children grow some of them find partners whose lives also become part of the texture and a complicating factor. There are some joys but many sorrows, not all of which are Gerry’s fault but a lot that are. Enright nevertheless doesn’t present Gerry as a monster; he is perhaps as much a victim as anyone. The play is beautifully performed by all and exceptionally moving.

After all that sturm und drang, a good laugh. Bell Shakespeare and Griffin joined forces to present Justin Fleming’s Molière adaptation The Literati (based on Les Femmes Savantes). I confess to having found it a touch too long and the text perhaps not entirely as sparkling as some have found it, but the performances are top-notch and Sophie Fletcher’s set is a miracle. Anyone who knows The Stables theatre is aware of its space restrictions. Fletcher has managed to give the impression of a very fancy house and thrown in a revolve to boot. That in itself is hilarious, gives rise to delicious comic business and facilitates one of the show’s finest gags, in which Jamie Oxenbould negotiates a conversation between the two characters he plays, young lover Clinton and Christopher, the father of Clinton’s beloved Juliette. Comedy gold.

Lee Lewis’s tremendously good production thriftily makes do with just five actors and doubles the fun. Gareth Davies has only to impersonate the vile, oleaginous poet Tristan Tosser but along with Oxenbould the others have two roles. The incomparable Kate Mulvany is Juliette’s uptight, bookish sister Amanda – her tussle with a chair is a particular highlight – and a minor functionary; divine Caroline Brazier is Juliette’s hideous mother Philomena and wise scholar Vadius; and Miranda Tapsell is as radiant as ever – she really does have the most eloquent face to be seen anywhere on the Sydney stage these days – as Juliette and seen-it-all housemaid Martina.

The piece is a send-up of literary pretension with a side serve of thwarted romance and can be greatly enjoyed if you don’t think about it too much. Aspects of it aren’t as sharply relevant to modern eyes and ears as Fleming’s earlier, fabulous Tartuffe was, but it does send the audience wafting out on a cloud of ineffable silliness. And that’s not a bad thing at all. No, not to be sneezed at these days.

A Man with Five Children, Eternity Playhouse, until June 26

All My Sons, Roslyn Packer Theatre, until July 9

The Literati, The Stables, until July 16

About last week … April 23-29

I could be wrong but I think the only Jonathan Dove opera to have made it to a professional stage so far in Australia is Flight, which I saw in 2006 when the Adelaide Festival presented the Glyndebourne production. The prolific Dove is something of a rarity, being a living opera composer whose more than two dozen works in the genre are much in demand around the world (except, it would seem, Australia). He told The Times of London last year that during 2015 there would be “17 new stagings of 11 of my operas in eight different countries”.

So it was a huge pleasure to be able to see Dove’s Mansfield Park (2011) staged by Operantics, the Sydney-based company founded last year to create performance opportunities for young singers. Home base is North Sydney’s Independent Theatre. It has a comfortable 300-seat auditorium and judging by the very good house at the April 24 matinee Operantics is already hitting the spot with just its third production.

Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton hit the spot too with their adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel of goodness rewarded. Gentle Fanny Price lives at Mansfield Park with well-off relatives and is secretly in love with her cousin Edmund. She might be considered the most insignificant member of the household but only she understands the dangers posed when vivacious, worldly Mary and Henry Crawford enter their lives and create emotional mayhem.

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A scene from Operantics’ Mansfield Park. Photo: John Kilkeary

The action is wittily presented in two “volumes” and 18 “chapters”, each announced by the singers. Dove’s score, written for piano duo, flows freely and melodically, alert to the comedy and self-serving dramatics of most of the characters while giving Fanny some gentle, heartfelt music. A burbling undercurrent suits the rural setting and provides a very busy workout indeed for the accompanying pianists, in this case the heroic Nathaniel Kong and Geena Cheung. Only some very high-lying music for Mary Crawford and a couple of the more complex ensembles created real difficulties to understanding the text without surtitles; otherwise the Operantics cast of 10 sang with admirable clarity and, in the modest but effective production, were engaging actors.

It’s a real ensemble work, most winningly presented, so I won’t single out anyone other than Katie Miller-Crispe: she sang the role of Maria, is Operantics’ artistic director and was production manager for Mansfield Park. Brava. And in late September Operantics plans to stage Bellini’s La sonnambula. The company certainly doesn’t want for ambition.

The Detective’s Handbook, at Hayes Theatre Co, isn’t much more than an extended skit on an inconsequential subject but it does announce impressive new music-theatre talent in writer Ian Ferrington and composer Olga Solar (the latter is just 22). The musical is a spoofy murder mystery set in 1950s Chicago with the familiar tropes of mismatched detectives, femmes fatale and puns galore. Many people really enjoyed its helium-balloon lightness but for me the affectionate homage to the classic noir detective novel didn’t have enough to maintain interest for 80 minutes.

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Justin Smith and Rob Johnson in The Detective’s Handbook. Photo: Clare Hawley

What it does have is Ferrington’s sophisticated, rhythmically complex wordplay and Solar’s lovely, nostalgic jazz score. I particularly liked the song for world-weary detective Frank Thompson (delivered beautifully by Justin Smith) early on in the piece and had there been stronger character development along those lines The Detective’s Handbook could have been both funny and more complex.

The Detective’s Handbook came out of New Musicals Australia’s development program and has had input from the best in the business. The great cast is directed by Jonathan Biggins, music direction is by veteran Michael Tyack, James Browne designed and choreography is by Christopher Horsey. As I wrote in The Australian this week, the loving production gives The Detective’s Handbook more than it warrants but let’s call it an investment in the future. It would be good to think Ferrington and Solar are already working on something else.

I managed to catch Patricia Cornelius’s tough, gut-wrenchingly powerful Savages at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse a few days before the end of its season. I went to the Wednesday matinee when the house was pretty much sold out to students, all of them young men. They were clearly listening closely and I imagine won’t forget it quickly. I do hope not. Savages sticks like glue to four close mates as they take a holiday on a cruise ship. They owe it to themselves to have a great time, and to have it together. To leave all the crap behind, to rewrite history, to drink, to bond, to root. What could possibly go wrong with pack mentality rampant?

Cornelius’s play has a dark poetry and is both all too understandable and deeply confronting. Under Tim Roseman’s direction, Josef Ber, Thomas Campbell, Yure Covich and Troy Harrison were frighteningly good. Frighteningly.

The late-night Old Fitz Theatre show on Wednesday brought more violence in the shape of Orphans, from Seeker Productions. In Savages mateship and misogny are the toxic ingredients; in British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Orphans they are family, a broken society and racism. While Kelly’s concerns are abundantly clear I ultimately found Orphans unpersuasive (and overlong) despite intensely involved performances from Liam Nunan, Jacki Mison (who also produced the play) and Christopher Morris.

Friday night brought a complete change of pace with The Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C, a staging of George Balanchine’s mighty homage to classical style paired with a clutch of divertissements.

My review appears in The Australian tomorrow (May 2). I’ll put up a more detailed analysis later in the week.

The Detective’s Handbook ends on May 7.

About last week … April 16-22

Last week’s theatre was all about men in extremis, or at least it turned out that way for me. Not an uncommon situation in our theatres, you might say, although now there is increasing awareness that we need to see a wider range of experience on Australian stages. (Hello lobby group Women in Theatre and Screen! More power to your elbow.) King Charles III (the Almeida Theatre production presented by Sydney Theatre Company) fell into last week simply because I hadn’t had the chance to see it earlier in the season but it made an interesting companion to STC’s Disgraced and the new one-man chamber piece Lake Disappointment.

King Charles III begins with mourning for Queen Elizabeth II. At long last Charles is king, although not yet crowned. From his many decades as king in waiting he knows exactly what the role entails, and yet from the first moments of his rule he is troubled by the implications. Is he to have no real authority at all? And if that is so, what meaning does his life have?

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Robert Powell as Charles, Ben Righton as William and Jennifer Bryden as Kate. Photo: Richard Hubert Smith

Mike Bartlett’s audacious play overlays this contemporary dilemma with Shakespearean structure, style and themes in a way that is both illuminating and often very funny. As the constitutional crisis unfolds there are shades of Macbeth, Hamlet, Henry IV and King Lear and an appropriately Shakespearean mix of tragedy and comedy. Bartlett explores an intriguing political conflict with potentially explosive fallout as well as giving a trenchant view of family dynamics of a particularly complicated kind.

I first saw the play in London in 2014 from a bench seat in the small, vertiginous upper level at the Almeida, which has a cosy 325 seats and an enticingly intimate atmosphere. That was a substantially different experience from seeing it at Sydney’s Roslyn Packer Theatre, which has nearly 900 seats and a different layout and character. Obviously a very different audience too, although at the matinee I attended it was a highly engaged one. There was undoubtedly more laughter in Sydney, although Bartlett’s text frequently encourages it and this audience’s response was rarely gratuitous. (There were grumblings after opening night of much inappropriate hilarity.)

It was always going to be hard for Robert Powell, the Charles in this excellent touring cast, to erase memories of Tim Piggott-Smith, who originated the role. Powell’s Charles was less comprehending of what his actions presaged; Piggott-Smith’s struggle was titanic. Even so, Powell’s downfall was deeply moving. I was thrilled to be able to see his extraordinary play again.

That was Wednesday afternoon; in the evening Luke Mullins and Lachlan Philpott’s Lake Disappointment received its premiere at Carriageworks. Mullins is the sole performer, an unnamed man with a precarious grip on reality. When we first see him he is talking to us as he performs the menial but necessary tasks that fall to the body double of a big movie star – the second-unit stuff like holding a cup, picking up a briefcase, hands on a car wheel, that sort of thing. Or perhaps he’s telling us after the event, as he remembers it. It doesn’t matter. The man is an empty shell who happens to have a similar shape to the actor he serves, Kane, and to whom he has attached his identity, such as it is.

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Luke Mullins in Lake Disappointment. Photo: James Brown

Mullins is exceptional in his ability to make blankness and banality intriguing and the man’s disintegration moving. Even so, the elegant production, with direction by Janice Muller and design by Michael Hankin, ultimately feels almost too fragile. The play, like the man, evaporates.

Disgraced is excellently staged, beautifully performed and terrifically well-directed theatre that had the first-night audience happily discussing its incendiary themes. It’s also one of those highly conventional plays of serious intent that wins prizes (the Pulitzer) and gets a run on Broadway. Disgraced’s climactic arguments are explored at a dinner party and have exactly the well-rehearsed, incredibly articulate quality inherent in this set-up.

Still. The issues canvassed by playwright Ayad Akhtar are pertinent. Amir’s parents were born in India, he says, just before it became Pakistan. Not that that’s going to reassure anyone in these troublous times. Amir is a high-flying lawyer who is far from being attached to his Muslim heritage. His artist wife Emily, however, finds beauty and grace in Islamic art. Emily’s dealer, Isaac is Jewish and his wife, Jory, is African-American and an incredibly pragmatic and ambitious lawyer who works at the same firm as Amir. Starting positions everyone. A favour for his wife and his nephew, reluctantly entered into, throws Amir into a head-on collision with his heritage and the way he lives and feels. Yes, you can see the points being crossed off in the script but Disgraced does have legitimate points to make.

Clearly there was a lot of male angst in the theatre last week, but it was cheering to see excellent women directors at work in Sarah Goodes (Disgraced) and Lake Disappointment’s Muller. The week before Noel Coward’s Hay Fever, for STC, not only featured one of comedy’s cracking leading roles for a woman, delivered sensationally well by Heather Mitchell (see my review below), but was directed in rollicking fashion by Imara Savage. See, you only have to ask them …

Looking at another aspect of diversity in the theatre, it was salutary to read the biography of the exceptionally fine Sachin Joab, who has the leading role in Disgraced. The Melbourne-born actor’s theatre credits before this? None, or at least none that he lists here or on his website, although he mentions Stanley Kowalski and Richard III. From his training days perhaps. Why haven’t we seen him before?

Joab’s background includes a stint in Neighbours, which has proved one of Australia’s greatest acting nurseries (I give you Russell Crowe, Guy Pearce, the Hemsworth brothers, Margo Robbie and so on and so forth) so his credentials are impeccable. Let me put it this way: some Sydney casting directors seem to fish in an unfairly small pool.

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Mongrel Mouth’s The Bee and the Tree with Dianne Kay as Queen B and Moreblessing Maturure as Bette

Finally to another kind of extremis – environmental degradation – and a theatre company with a strong commitment to diversity. The Bee and the Tree is the first children’s show from Sydney company Mongrel Mouth, founded in 2014 to present site-specific, socio-political theatre. The Bee and the Tree asked its audience of very young children to help save a dying tree, the last one in existence. A difficult-to-understand song made for a slightly puzzling start but once the action got underway the children took part willingly and, by the end, with much gusto, showering the grey, drooping tree with coloured petals to bring it back to life. Director Duncan Maurice’s costume designs – Mongrel Mouth champions recycling – were all winners and included a gold-encased Sun, large drooping tree, metamorphosing Grub and, best of all, Bette the Bee, played with much charm by co-writer Moreblessing Matarure.

Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15.

“I never realise how dead I am until I meet people like you,” says the rather correct “diplomatist” Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes) to the chatelaine of the unorthodox country house to which he’s been invited for the weekend. Call it the Bliss factor, a tornado-like life force that sweeps up everyone in its path. At least it does in Sydney Theatre Company’s exhilarating new production of Hay Fever, which director Imara Savage gives an intense, sexy energy that blows away the cobwebs so often clinging to Coward and his 1925 comedy of bad manners.

At the centre of the whirlwind is Judith Bliss (sublime Heather Mitchell), an actress who is nominally retired but has simply transferred her theatrics to a more intimate setting. As we soon discover, each member of the Bliss family has asked a friend to stay without telling the others. They are not natural hosts and are wildly self-dramatising. There will be complications, not the least of which is who will get to stay in the Japanese room.

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Heather Mitchell as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard’s confession to Judith is the key to this work. Hay Fever celebrates those people in the world who burn more brightly than others because they have fewer limits. They are the sun and we are bits of space junk caught gratefully in their orbit, at least for a while.

When Coward wrote Hay Fever, World War I just a handful of years in the past and the Edwardian era was over. Time to have some fun. Coward was only 24 at the time but had been moving in artistic circles for more than a decade – he was a professional actor from the age of 11 and wrote his first West End play at 20. His family was not well off and Coward was entirely self-made. It’s tempting to think that the get-the-guest antics of the Blisses were inspired not only by Coward’s acquaintance with American actress Laurette Taylor and her games-playing family, but were also a reaction to the days in which his mother had to take in lodgers to make some money.

Coward claimed to have written Hay Fever in three days without revision and there’s no reason to doubt him. That’s not a criticism – he wrote Private Lives in “roughly” four days, by his account – but it does remind us not to get too profound about the piece. Indeed, the superficiality is the point of it and Savage – with one caveat – astutely finds the right tone for today’s audience. Her production is invigoratingly untethered from the 1920s, picking up on the contemporary adoration of self while being not in the slightest bit condemnatory.

The daughter of the family, Sorel (Harriet Dyer), indulges in one or two little shows of conscience, voicing the belief that everyone in the family should behave rather better, but her desire to be a nicer, finer person is more pleasing concept than possibility. Nor should it be. Sorel, played by Dyer with a mixture of whiny childishness and acute perceptiveness, is clever enough to know that “the people we like put up with it because they like us”. It’s an unvirtuous circle. When this lot of guests have gone there will be other willing victims.

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Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sorel’s brother Simon (Tom Conroy) and she have no visible occupation and still live at home with Judith and their father, David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), who writes very bad novels and is not dead, as Judith’s slightly dim young guest and admirer Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville) had surmised. David is, in fact, in the house and has invited the naive Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke) to the country so he might study her as “a useful type”. That Sorel’s guest is the very Richard who is enchanted by Judith hints at the roundelay that develops, one in which Simon’s sophisticated guest Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson) will be discovered by Judith in a compromising position with David. He is lying on top of Myra on the floor.

The teasing Is endless and wickedly manipulative and the guests don’t stand a chance. Nor does the audience really. As Savage showed with last year’s After Dinner, an early comedy by Andrew Bovell (also at STC), she has a great eye for physical comedy and a superb cast to enact it. Richard, for example, gets two of the best sight gags in the show – beautifully played by Dukes – and they give the mature diplomat warmth and colour. Conroy’s Simon plays up his bohemian credentials by drinking wine at breakfast and professing violent love for women despite exuding an air of being not particularly interested in them. Judith is one of the great comic roles in 20th century theatre and Mitchell makes her every whim, tic and idiosyncracy adorable (bar one, but that’s the caveat I’m coming to and it’s not her fault). Mitchell’s pre-Raphaelite beauty is intoxicating, as is her way with a seductive phrase. “I’ve been pruning the calceolarias,” she throatily purrs to Sandy. It’s an invitation to unimagined delights that seduce us all.

In what is perhaps the trickiest role to pull off in this updating, Genevieve Lemon plays Judith’s housekeeper (and former dresser) Clara in the manner of a beloved, eccentric retainer in a conventional British farce. It’s wacky, no doubt about it, but fits in with the idea of theatricality not only as an attribute of the Bliss family but as a style of performance.

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Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The idea of life as an act is gorgeously reinforced by designer Alicia Clements’s divinely ramshackle conservatory, the centrepiece of which is a claw-foot bath that doubles as a sofa, and the lurid curtains that frame the stage and close at a majestic pace. The boldest example is the inclusion of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, lip-synched by Judith in lieu of a lovely little song at the piano. It is a surreal, provocative choice although not necessarily out of keeping with Judith’s mercurial temperament. Less successful – this is the caveat – is Savage’s decision to replace the names of British newspapers with those of Sydney ones. Judith is proposing a return to the stage and speaks of the thrill of a first night, the critics “all leaning forward with flowing faces, receptive and exultant …” Savage has Mitchell address the audience directly here and, just for a moment, the bubble that encloses these characters bursts. The Winehouse song – just – stays inside that bubble.

That seemed to me a misstep in a production where artificiality is so prized. Savage’s brilliant ending says it all. The climactic touch is a halo of light that envelops the Bliss family, accompanied by a lush, golden-days-of-Hollywood swelling of strings. (Trent Suidgeest is responsible for the lighting; Max Lyandvert for sound design and music.) The guests have slipped away and the Blisses are now at their most relaxed and content, a family very much at peace, albeit noisily, with one another in their own little world.

Hay Fever ends on May 21.

About last week … April 9-15

It’s 13 years since Li Cunxin published his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer and its appeal hasn’t dimmed. It’s still in print, of course, and there was a condensed version made for young adults and an illustrated children’s book The Peasant Prince. That was also featured in an Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concert in 2009 with excerpts read by an actor, projections of Anne Spudvilas’s illustrations from the book and music composed by Katy Abbott. That’s a lot of mileage.

Now there’s a new theatre piece for children based on The Peasant Prince, created by Monkey Baa Theatre Company, which I saw on April 11 at Monkey Baa’s home, LendLease Darling Quarter Theatre, Sydney.

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Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway in The Peasant Prince

In Monkey Baa’s unerring hands a worn old blanket summons a family with few material goods but rich in love. Rolled up it is a cooking bowl, unfurled it’s a bath towel and, wrapped about an embraced child, it is a potent image of a mother’s care. In just a few minutes the wordless, elegant scene gets to the heart of The Peasant Prince. This boy knows what it is like to have nothing and everything. We understand why he will never forget the source of his strength.

As Mao’s Last Dancer relates, former dancer and now ballet company director Li Cunxin was 10 when an emissary from Madame Mao came to his impoverished village in Shandong Province looking for promising children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. By the way, if anyone doesn’t know how to pronounce Li’s given name, they will know after this. It’s Schwin Sin. (Li is his surname, but from earliest days in Australia he was called Li as if it were his given name and he is happy to answer to that.)

Li was overlooked until a teacher, not knowing why, called the man back and suggested the boy be taken. Having been offered this miraculous way out and up, which must have seemed as alien as space travel, Li could not fail his family. As one of his brothers told him when Li came home for a rare visit, he must tell his mother and father only good things. The sixth of his parents’ seven children had to find the courage, focus and discipline to make the most of his opportunity.

Monkey Baa writers Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry are dab hands at adapting books for young audiences and bring Li’s story to the stage with deceptive economy. The play moves swiftly, with David Bergman’s video designs effortlessly and vividly summoning a village schoolroom, a busy city, a ballet studio, a rural scene, a flight to the US. John Gomez Goodway is bright-eyed Li and, under McGarry’s lucid direction, Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong play everyone else with admirable clarity.

Momentum falters a little once the action moves to Houston, where Li defected. The happy ballet rehearsal, which is overlong, and the Chinese attempt to send Li home don’t have the same crystalline definition as the rest of this otherwise fine dramatisation.

There is no shying away from the challenges Li faced as a child and the resilience he had to develop; they’re valuable things for children to consider. It’s also an inspirational fable, like one Li hears and loves as a child, about aspiration and achievement. In other words, perfect for its young audience.

Footnote: Monkey Baa’s blissful Pete the Sheep had a national tour in 2014 and is being revived for loads of performances at the Sydney Opera House (July 2-17) and a few shows at Arts Centre Melbourne in late July. I loved it to bits and may well have to go again.

The Peasant Prince ends in Sydney on April 20, followed by an Australian tour to 37 cities. (See monkeybaa.com.au for cities and dates.)

There’s something so enchanting about children’s uncensored reactions to theatre made for them, even if it’s not specifically interactive theatre. At the performance (April 14) I saw of CDP Productions’ Mr Stink, adapted from the popular David Walliams book (Sydney Opera House until April 24), children instantly shouted out when one character asked another a question requiring the answer no and they started clapping happily to the beat in a Bollywood dance number. They’ll find out soon enough they are supposed to sit quietly and not answer back in the theatre, but how lovely to see them thoroughly engaged. Maryam Master does a straightforward job of adapting Walliams’s story of a bullied girl who befriends a homeless man and teaches her family a valuable lesson or two and director Jonathan Biggins – he also directed Pete the Sheep – gets some welcome physical comedy into the mix. The fart jokes, of which there were several, made their mark on each occasion. Some things never grow old.

Mr Stink is for children as young as six years. Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Stunt Lounge (just finished at the Sydney Opera House) was for those aged 12 or older and features FFFC recent graduates putting on their first independent show. It didn’t entirely make clear its aim of exploring risk in the lives of young people and defining boundaries but the performers (I saw them on April 14) were delightful, with Jess Mews’s magical hoops solo a standout. Director Darcy Grant was a founding member of Circa and that company’s interest in using circus skills in the service of complex dramatic situations was clearly an influence. Circa is now a big deal internationally and has broadened the idea of what circus can achieve so it’s not a bad model.

The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney’s Kirribilli does what it does entirely without government support and has continuously for nearly 60 years – longer than any other professional theatre company in Australia. Obviously the company has to have an eye to repertoire that will fill the auditorium but it makes some extremely astute choices in the pursuit of fulfilling founder Hayes Gordon’s belief that theatre should be a civilising influence.

It was at The Ensemble in 2012, for instance, that I was able to see Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which Melbourne Theatre Company had staged the year before. The Ensemble also programmed, in 2014, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park (also seen at MTC). In late May the Kirribilli theatre stages Nina Raines’s Tribes, a much-garlanded play I saw Off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Right now it’s offering David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, a play (it opened on April 13) that tests assumptions about social mobility.

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in GOOD PEOPLE, photos by Clare Hawley-26

Gael Ballantyne, Tara Morice and Jane Phegan in Good People. Photo: Clare Hawley

Under Mark Kilmurry’s direction and with a tremendously good cast led by Tara Morice, Good People takes us to South Boston – Southie – where Margaret (Morice) is being laid off from her shitty job at the Dollar Store. She’s been late once too often. Well, many times too often, but the last straw has been reached. She has her reasons, what with having a disabled adult daughter, but she’s also not perhaps the most reliable of employees.

She gets involved in a long-shot scheme to get a job via an old boyfriend Mike (Christopher Stollery), a man who got educated, became a doctor and lives in a very good part of town with his accomplished wife Kate (Zindzi Okenyo). Things don’t turn out too well, in large part because Margaret doesn’t know how to operate in this world. Despite being what she and her friends call “good people”, in this situation she is out of her depth – too angry, needy, calculating and devious.

Lindsay-Abaire’s evocation of Margaret’s world and that of her friends Dottie (Gale Ballantyne) and Jean (Jane Phegan) and her former boss Stevie (Drew Livingston) is vivid and compassionate. Sometimes circumstances just conspire against people, and some other people have all the luck.

Good People runs at The Ensemble until May 21 and if there is any justice will have full houses for every performance.

Last week (April 15) also brought the premiere of Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever, the 1925 Noel Coward comedy. My review is in the April 18 edition of The Australian and I’ll expand on that in a few days on the blog. Let’s just say for now that Heather Mitchell, playing Judith Bliss, is a goddess and director Imara Savage has two for two after her triumph of last year with Andrew Bovell’s After Dinner.

About last week … April 2-8

In the week just gone I went again to The Australian Ballet’s Swan Lake, this time to see Lana Jones as O/O. I’ll wait until I’ve seen Natasha Kusch – coming up at the Saturday matinee – before I embark on a full discussion of Stephen Baynes’s production and the key exponents. In the meantime I’d like to start a petition to free Rudy Hawkes. The AB senior artist has been fronting up night after night as either Prince Siegfried’s mate Benno or the wicked Baron von Rothbart. In fact, he is listed as dancing one or other of these roles at 18 of the 21 performances (they end on April 20 in Sydney). I do think that’s cruel and unusual punishment for such a senior dancer.

But thanks to the AB for putting up on its website and leaving up casting for the key roles for the whole season. It’s helpful. Queensland Ballet doesn’t do it, nor does West Australian Ballet.

Speaking of websites, the AB has given its site a big, big makeover. It was needed, although I feel it’s going to take some time to work out how to navigate its many tendrils. Some first thoughts: I’m not sure it’s terribly accurate to label the senior artists “rising stars”: several have been at that rank for quite a while and may stay there; in addition they dance principal roles regularly. And the soloists are rather unnecessarily dubbed “singular talents” and the coryphées “dancers to watch”. I do, however, direct you to the section Music at the Ballet. Therein (keep scrolling) you will find notes on “Iconic scores of The Australian Ballet”, written by yours truly.

And some more idle website thoughts. Having just been to Brisbane to see Queensland Ballet’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the cast for which is studded with artistic director Li Cunxin’s recent Cuban hires, I thought I’d take a look at Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s website to see just who was left in Alicia Alonso’s company, so frequently denuded of talent as successive waves of dancers seek better conditions elsewhere. Ages ago BNC was still listing Yanela Piñera as a premier dancer (equivalent to a principal here) and Camilo Ramos as a principal (equivalent to a senior artist). And they are even still listed as being in Havana despite joining QB last year. Victor Estévez is also listed as a BNC premier dancer. The 22-year-old joined QB this year as a principal.

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Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish, Pippa Grandison, Glaston Toft as The Seekers. Photo: Jeff Busby

The Seekers bio-musical Georgy Girl arrived in Sydney last week with a thud. It features pretty much all The Seekers’ folk-pop hits, gorgeously sung by Pippa Grandison (playing Judith Durham) and Phillip Lowe, Mike McLeish and Glaston Toft as, respectively, Keith Potger, Bruce Woodley and Athol Guy. The problem, as so many have said, is with the book by Patrick Edgeworth, Durham’s brother-in-law. It doesn’t so much craft a story as endlessly drop facts – plop, plop, plop – each with the same weight as the one before or after. Let’s put it this way, a book that spends as much time on Durham’s attack of appendicitis as on The Seekers’ extraordinary Sidney Myer Music Bowl homecoming concert in Melbourne in 1967 (crowd: 200,000) is not an effective one. The dialogue is laboured, the jokes cheesy, the choreography clichéd … why go on? Those songs, though. They are smashing and Grandison is special.

On Thursday night it was off to Belvoir to see Kit Brookman’s new play The Great Fire. The state-of-the-world family drama with lots of revelations and fingerpointing doesn’t break any new ground unfortunately. There are, however, several pluses. It’s directed by the ever-excellent Eamon Flack and has a tiny role for Peter Carroll to which he brings devastating truth.

On Friday Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre opened The Original Grease on Friday in the bijou Reginald Theatre in the Seymour Centre, where Squabbalogic is a resident company. Squabbalogic’s artistic director Jay James-Moody is a talented director and can do a lot with very little but in this instance he was over-stretched (and puzzlingly introduced a brief flash of nudity into proceedings, which seemed a sign of panic). It probably seemed an excellent idea to have performers close to the age of the characters but it was always going to be a big call to find 17 suitable triple-threat performers (for that is the size of The Original Grease cast) in the one place at the one time. Those onstage were mostly not long out of training and it showed, although it was worth giving it a go.

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The cast of Squabbalogic’s The Original Grease. Photo: Michael Francis

As I wrote in my review in The Australian on Monday, “The Original Grease is a piece of music-theatre archaeology that gives an insight into how something little became something big, sacrificed a lot of its rough-and-tumble energy and made a fortune.” And yes, you can see why the show would have been so embraced by Chicago in 1971 when it was made and in 2010 when the reconstruction appeared. I liked its scrappiness and sense of community, even though it’s messy and over-long. But with the best will in the world one couldn’t call this production evenly cast. I do, however, look forward to seeing Coral Mercer-Jones in something else. She was a knockout Rizzo.

Georgy Girl, State Theatre, Sydney, until May 27. Perth from July 8.

The Original Grease, Seymour Centre, Sydney, until May 7.

About last week … March 18-25

British director Matthew Warchus had two musicals open within about four months of one another. One was Matilda the Musical, the Royal Shakespeare Company production that premiered in Stratford-upon-Avon in November 2010 before opening in the West End in October the following year; and Ghost the Musical, based on the popular 1990 film, which started life in Manchester, England, in March 2011. Ah well. Not everything can be one for the ages.

Ghost hasn’t been a disaster, although it didn’t win over Broadway. It had a respectable West End run, been on tours of the US and UK and has been seen in a dozen countries. But unlike Matilda, it has no particular distinction. The music and lyrics by Dave Stewart (of the Eurythmics, although it’s not easy to tell) and Glen Ballard are efficient at best and some of the lyrics, to which book writer Bruce Joel Rubin also contributed, are best forgotten, or at least easily forgotten.

After opening in Adelaide in January, the Australian production is now in Sydney until mid-May, after which it heads to Perth. Well, I say Australian production. Most of the cast are locals; the production itself is a replica, as is the way of international musicals.

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Wendy Mae Brown and Rob Mills in Ghost the Musical

When I saw it on March 19 I thought it conventional entertainment with a decent heart, engaging performances (from Jemma Rix as Molly in particular), too much reliance on projections that looked oddly old-fashioned and really naff choreography. Full marks to the creative team for not overplaying that pottery scene, although one suspects many in the audience are there for exactly that moment. There are few truly first-rate stage musicals made from a non-musical film: Dirty Dancing, no. Doctor Zhivago, no, although Lucy Simon’s score is attractive. An Officer and a Gentleman, no, no, no. (Incidentally, that trio all started life in Sydney in out-of-hemisphere tryouts.) It’s hard to live up to the audience’s expectations when a film has been extraordinarily successful. Perhaps that why Little Shop of Horrors, based on a Roger Corman quickie filmed in just two days, is a winner. By the way, the brilliant new production of Little Shop that finished recently at Hayes Theatre Co in Sydney opens in Adelaide on April 20, Melbourne and Canberra next month, then to Brisbane in July and back to Sydney.

On March 22 I went to the Sydney Opera House to see choreographers Lloyd Newson (on hiatus from the company he founded, DV8 Physical Theatre), Kate Champion (founder of Force Majeure) and Rafael Bonachela (artistic director of Sydney Dance Company) take part in a Culture Club talk. The title was Everyone Can Dance but fortunately moderator Caroline Baum said she didn’t know where that was meant to go and neither did anyone else. So they spoke about a lot of other stuff. The conversation ranged widely over issues such as the employment of diverse kinds of bodies in dance (disabled, larger than the norm, from different cultures and traditions), recent conversations in the UK about the quality of contemporary dance training and opportunities for female choreographers, and how each of the three speakers approaches dance-making.

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Baum, Newton, Champion and Bonachela in conversation. Photo: Prudence Upton

Newson addressed a particularly thorny issue when he said that a dancer such as David Toole, who has no legs, made him question what it meant to be able-bodied. Nevertheless, Newson still needed any dancer with whom he worked to have a certain level of expertise. “Do you make concessions?” (He doesn’t want to.) Bonachela talked a little about the difficulty of coming into Sydney Dance Company after the death of artistic director-designate Tanja Liedtke. If he was going to put his stamp on the company there would have to be changes. He said of himself: “I am optimistic by choice.”

Champion spoke of the differences between actors and dancers. “Dancers are very willing. They will do anything, go anywhere. Actors are sometimes not so willing,” she said, although she added that sometimes she wished dancers “would express their feelings a bit more and actors a bit less”. Her most intriguing comments were on opera. Champion was associate director on Neil Armfield’s production of the Ring Cycle for Opera Australia in 2013 and is again listed as that on OA’s website for the revival late this year in Melbourne. Opera is “not my favourite thing”, she said. She’d been told everyone should do one Ring Cycle in their life but having done it she says “opera is not my natural fit”. But she wanted to be out of her comfort zone, and did it because of her respect for Armfield.

The week’s three theatre productions could not have been more different. Brisbane outfit Shake & Stir Theatre Co’s Wuthering Heights (Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 22) was disappointing – too reliant on a narrator to tell the story and acted in blustery fashion. I very much enjoyed British company 1927’s Golem (Roslyn Packer Theatre Walsh Bay, March 23), a surreal cautionary tale about the surrender of free will. And later that day I saw Bell Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a full house that enjoyed it immensely. Some of the mainstream reviews were very sniffy indeed about Peter Evans’s production, which goes to show that so often the reviews really don’t matter. The energy of the young men in particular was charming and invigorating. It may not be an interpretation for the ages but it speaks to an audience, that much is clear. Romeo and Juliet is in Canberra until Saturday and opens in Melbourne on April 14.

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Turandot – this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photo: Prudence Upton

This year’s opening performance of Opera on Sydney Harbour – Turandot – was blessed with perfect weather (March 24). Same thing for each of the four previous openings. OA’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini must have special powers. My review in the London-based Opera magazine is yet to appear so I’ll confine myself to saying that the key singers in the first cast are first-rate – Dragana Radakovic (Turandot), Riccardo Massi (Calaf) and Hyeseoung Kwon (Liù) – and Chinese director Chen Shi-Zheng gives the opera welcome ceremonial grandeur in place of ersatz exoticism. Dan Potra’s design is a beauty, dominated by a spiky tower and a fire-breathing dragon. The fireworks are placed rather strangely after Nessun dorma! but people cheered anyway. Turandot, which is double cast, runs until April 24 is a good’un.