Current Sydney theatre

Blue/Orange, Ensemble, October 29; Emerald City, Griffin, November 10; A Christmas Carol, Belvoir, November 12; Daylight Saving, Eternity Playhouse, November 13; Cyrano de Bergerac, Sydney Theatre, November 18.

WHY did quite a few commentators, myself included, feel we had to advertise our reservations about the prospect of A Christmas Carol? Or to liken ourselves to Scrooge when it comes to a Christmas cheer? I know I didn’t entirely trust that Belvoir wouldn’t do one of its out-there makeovers; perhaps others didn’t want to seem sentimental or – even worse – just a teensy bit unsophisticated.

Well, we learned our lesson. Don’t pre-judge. Don’t be mean. Don’t be cynical. A Christmas Carol is generous and open-hearted and asks the same of us. The adaptation by Benedict Hardie and Anne-Louise Sarks, who also directs, is faithful to the Charles Dickens story and told clearly and honestly. It’s often very funny but doesn’t shy away from the darkness that threatens to overwhelm Scrooge and its staging is strong and simple – well, let’s say deceptively simple. The ideas are precise and powerful. There is an empty space in which Scrooge’s arid life is lived and recounted and changes are rung with a handful of props and a few trapdoors. And there is fabulously fake snow, dusting every seat in the house. Michael Hankin (set), Mel Page (costumes), Benjamin Cisterne (lighting) and Stefan Gregory (composition and sound design) can be very proud of this one.

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ursula Yovich and Steve Rodgers. Photo: Brett Boardman

Above all there is a cast of cherishable actors whose collective radiance could warm Vladivostok in winter. Kate Box as the spirit of Christ Present is done up like a Christmas present wrapped by an excitable three-year-old, carolers sing sweetly from the stairs dressed in gaudy seasonal pullovers it would have taken Gran all year to knit, Steve Rodgers appears at one point as a Christmas tree, finished off with a major star on top, and Miranda Tapsell as Tiny Tim – well, the woman’s smile could power the national grid. Peter Carroll, Ivan Donato and Eden Falk are splendid in a range of roles and it goes without saying that Robert Menzies, so often seen as a man of much severity, is Scrooge to the life. As for Rodgers and Ursula Yovich as Bob and Mrs Cratchit, it’s the kind of casting that elevates roles that could be a touch dull into something profoundly moving.

The other absolute must in Sydney theatre is Sydney Theatre Company’s Cyrano de Bergerac – not for the staging, which has some problems, but for a clutch of indispensible performances. Top of the list, not surprisingly, is Richard Roxburgh in the title role. He gives Cyrano the kind of bone-deep melancholy that comes from a lifetime of deflecting jibes about his looks and disguising the pain with superior swordsmanship, wit and, above all, panache. Andrew Upton, who adapted and directed (from Marion Potts’s original translation), keeps Cyrano in the 17th century but oh, how it speaks to the 21st century’s obsession with appearance.

All in the large supporting cast are very good, particularly Eryn Jean Norvill as the luminous Roxane; the touching Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano’s friend Le Bret; the astonishingly versatile and charismatic Josh McConville as over-bearing nobleman De Guiche; and Chris Ryan as the guileless, luxuriantly follicled, not-quite-as-stupid-as-he-looks Christian, through whose shiny good looks Cyrano expresses his love for Roxane.

Electronic sound enhancement – amplification is too strong a word – is needed to combat the difficult Sydney Theatre acoustic. Even so, when Cyrano gets hectic it is not always easy to comprehend all the dialogue. Alice Babidge’s design (with Renee Mulder) has a handsome and effective theatre-within-a-theatre motif which makes a lot of sense but loses some of its power when actors are sent scampering up ladders to use a high, narrow balcony. But it’s Roxburgh’s night, and anyone who loves great acting will want to add this to memories of his Hamlet, Vanya and Estragon. (Not to mention rake Cleaver Greene, of course, a man who would have been entirely at home in certain 17th-century circles.)

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Richard Roxburgh as Cyrano. Photo: Brett Boardman

Also worth a look, if you can get in, is Lee Lewis’s revival of David Williamson’s Emerald City at Griffin. The play, which premiered in 1987, stands up very well. Scriptwriter Colin and his publisher wife Kate move from Melbourne to Sydney; he most eagerly, she most reluctantly. Melbourne is where ideas and values matter; in Sydney it’s all about money and the view. As time goes on, both find their ground shifting under them rather more alarmingly than they expected.

The Ken Done-designed production looks good and makes its points eloquently but it is not entirely satisfying, for good reason. During rehearsal Marcus Graham, originally cast as Colin, and Mitchell Butel, originally cast as brash entrepreneur Mike, asked to switch roles. Lewis agreed. Perhaps it may have worked but we won’t know, because Graham withdrew from Emerald City shortly before opening due to illness. The lateness of all this is illustrated by the fact that Graham’s photograph adorns the cover of the playscript one can buy at the theatre (excellent value – just $10 courtesy Currency Press).

Butel continued as Colin and Ben Winspear valiantly stepped into the breach to play Mike. Well, we can all play casting director, but I think Winspear – a very fine actor – would have been a more natural Colin than he is a Mike. Even three weeks in, which is when I saw it, he was pushing the bolshie externals too strongly. Butel is extraordinarily multi-faceted but I can see why Lewis initially wanted him as Mike. Or perhaps, given what must have been a quite testing rehearsal period, there wasn’t quite enough time for Butel to get absolutely pitch-perfect with his character. He’s very good, no doubt about it – funny, charming and fizzing with energy – but I wanted a deeper sense of his inner conflicts. Lucy Bell – who, as far as I know, was originally cast as Kate and stayed that way – absolutely nails it.

Nick Enright’s Daylight Saving, written only a couple of years after Emerald City, unfortunately has not aged as well as the Williamson. I remember enjoying it back in the day and found it entertaining enough now, but it feels too slight to merit its revival – not quite funny enough, or persuasive enough about human foibles. It’s done very competently under Adam Cook’s direction and I must say I was highly entertained by Belinda Giblin’s flawless turn as the slightly daffy but steely Bunty.

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

The cast of Daylight Saving: Photo: Helen White

Finally, one for those who enjoy excellent acting wrapped in an argumentative play. Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange puts Dorian Nkono’s Christopher in the middle of a medical-philosophical turf war between aspiring resident psychiatrist Bruce (Ian Meadows) and his wily, manipulative supervisor Robert (Sean Taylor). Questions about correct diagnosis of mental illness, race and social services jostle with more personal matters for the two doctors: the exercise of power and the best way to manage career advancement. There’s a lot going on and much of it is fascinating and thought-provoking, but Penhall loses his grip in the second half, resorting to a frankly ludicrous crisis and consequently weakened conclusion. The three performances are terrific though, particularly Nkono’s depiction of a young man whose condition sends his equilibrium flying off in unpredictable directions but who nevertheless has great charm and knows how to use it.

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Ian Meadows, Sean Taylor and Dorian Nkono. Photo: Clare Hawley

Blue/Orange to November 29, Daylight Saving to November 30, Emerald City to December 6, Cyrano de Bergerac to December 20; A Christmas Carol to December 24

Two up, two down

The Motherf**ker with the Hat, Darlinghurst Theatre Company and Workhorse Theatre Company, September 23

Children of the Sun, Sydney Theatre Company, September 24 (matinee)

The Last Confession, Chichester Festival Theatre production, Theatre Royal, Sydney, September 24 (evening)

Wicked, Capitol Theatre, Sydney, September 25

LET’S start with Wicked. It’s not quite The Lion King, which last week was announced as the world’s most successful entertainment with box office of more than $6 billion, but it’s not doing too shabbily. In its 10 years (to The Lion King’s 17) Wicked has grossed about $3 billion worldwide. Normally one doesn’t like to make money the measure of success, but in the musical theatre sphere it tells the story in the simplest possible way. People – lots and lots and lots of people – love the spectacle, the rousing music, the romance and the sense of occasion that these productions so expertly combine. Some audience members will see them once, others will go literally hundreds of times.

And some of us – critics, for instance – will see such productions perhaps three or four times. We are not the swept-away first-timers, nor the intensely (worryingly?) devoted regulars. We can see that every production is the same as the one that went before it, and the one that will follow it. That there is an automatic quality that can seep into the performances unless the cast members have particularly individual gifts.

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

Lucy Durack and Jemma Rix in Wicked. Photo: Jeff Busby

In this incarnation of Wicked Reg Livermore, playing the Wizard, stands out as such an individual – but then that was always Reg. (I first saw him as Betty Blokk Buster in 1975 and it remains a cherished memory.) I salute Jemma Rix (Elphaba) for her generous, unmannered stage presence despite having performed this role more than 800 times. I found Lucy Durack (Glinda) somewhat frayed of voice and a touch too effortful in the comedy. The ensemble didn’t dance well enough, although the choreography isn’t all that much to write home about.

That said, Wicked has important themes in the acceptance of difference and the need to question oppressive authority (and how relevant are those right now!), and it has two strong women at its centre. Anyone seeing it for the first time should have a terrific night out.

Not such a terrific night out is The Last Confession, a too-wordy exploration of Vatican politics at a most intriguing time in modern Catholic Church history. It deals with the making of popes, the machinations of the Vatican Bank, the exercise of power within the Vatican and the sensationally short reign of Pope John Paul I, who died after only 33 days as pontiff. Was he murdered because he wanted to curb the ambitions of some senior and rather secular men of the cloth?

It’s a brilliant idea for a drama but first-time (and as far as I can tell, only-time) playwright Roger Crane has made dull work of it. The Last Confession is long, clunky and only occasionally gripping.

It does boast some fine acting, most especially from Richard O’Callaghan as Cardinal Albino Luciani, the man who reluctantly accepts the office of pope and immediately makes powerful enemies. The drawcard is David Suchet, the late Hercule Poiret, who perhaps chews the scenery a little too vigorously at times but is a resonant, commanding stage presence. The multinational cast is a very good one but the play and production feel very, very old-fashioned indeed.

There are, however, two unmissable productions in Sydney at present: Sydney Theatre Company’s Children of the Sun and Workhorse Theatre Company’s revival of its 2013 hit The Motherf**cker with the Hat. (I don’t quite get the use of asterisks in a word a seven-year-old could decipher, but at least it’s better than the American version, in which the key word in the title was expressed with a very long dash. Not one letter betrayed what the word might be.)

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Troy Harrison in The Motherf**ker with the Hat. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Workhorse’s premiere of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s scintillating tragi-comedy took place at the tiny TAP Gallery last year and in truth suited that space better than it does the larger Eternity Playhouse stage. Virtually sitting on the bed and couch with the cast really worked for this sexy, passionate, tempestuous piece, but more people can fit into the Eternity, and Workhorse greatly deserves that audience. Jackie (Troy Harrison) is just out of the Big House, is trying to stay off the booze and drugs and has got himself a job; his adored Veronica (Zoe Trilsbach) has waited for him, but has she stayed faithful? Jackie sees a man’s hat on the table in her apartment and it’s on for young and old. Drawn into the force-10 emotional hurricane are Jackie’s AA sponsor Ralph and his spectacularly discontented wife Victoria (John Atkinson and Megan O’Connell) and Jackie’s cousin Julio (Nigel Turner-Carroll).

Guirgis’s language is a blast – inventive, highly coloured and hilariously profane – but his heart is tender. Trust, hope and love are his themes, explored in a setting that just may make it impossible for them to prosper.

The cast is fabulous and Adam Cook’s direction crackles with energy. And if you haven’t yet visited the Eternity Playhouse, you’re missing a wonderful addition to Sydney theatre.

At the end of the matinee performance of Children of the Sun that I attended, the audience was stunned into silence for quite a few moments. Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Gorky’s play is wondrous. It enlivens the language with modern touches that bring the characters closer but never feels as if it’s trampling on the original spirit of the piece.

Jacqueline McKenzie and Hamish Michael in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

Jacqueline McKenzie and Chris Ryan in Children of the Sun. Photo: Brett Boardman

It’s the mid-19th century and we can see that the comfortable bourgeois life enjoyed by the family Gorky puts before us will not last (Gorky was writing in 1905, in jail). These are essentially good people, but not all of them are paying quite enough attention. There’s a scientist who can see into the future but not what is right in front of him; there’s a woman whose sensitivity to impending disaster is debilitating; there are people trying to love and people – the poor – finding it hard to survive.

Director Kip Williams has assembled a superb cast, with none better than Jacqueline McKenzie’s seer-like Liza. Justine Clarke is very fine as the percipient, neglected wife of chemist Protasov (Toby Truslove) and Helen Thomson manages to make the needy Melaniya less ridiculous than she could easily be. Presiding over the household is Nanny (Valerie Bader in top form), the kind of servant who holds everything together but still has to do the family’s bidding.

David Fleischer’s revolving set, with a detailed family room but otherwise vestigial corners of other spaces, marvelously shows a world in the process of disintegration. We know how it all ended for Russia. Children of the Sun shows it in the process of happening within one family. The ending is devastating, which is why we all sat silent in the darkness, scarcely breathing.

The Last Confession, ends October 4; The Motherf**ker with the Hat ends October 19; Children of the Sun ends October 25; Wicked, no closing date announced for Sydney. Brisbane season opens February 15.