My 2016 Artists of the Year …

Last year I decided to institute my personal Artist of the Year award. There’s no money attached, of course, and I think we’d have to say it confers only a modest amount of fame. I was rather thrilled , however, to see that my inaugural winner, the multi-faceted mezzo Jacqui Dark, was subsequently featured in her home town newspaper, the Courier in Ballarat, Victoria, so that was nice. I was a little dismayed that the Courier didn’t realise that I, too, am Ballarat-born – this played no part in the AOTY decision-making, I hasten to say – and my father was once editor of that newspaper. But it was a long time ago.

This year’s recipients – and yes, it’s a group I honour in 2016 – will be used to getting little or no money. They also mostly escape the glare of widespread publicity and can walk the streets unmolested by fans keen for a selfie. They are, however, heroes to me. They are the independent artists who simply will not go away and shut up, despite bearing the brunt of our Federal Government’s unforgiveable raid on the Australia Council in 2015. They put on new work, take creative risks, nurture talent, and their ticket prices are often astonishingly low. And they might be doing this in a profit-share arrangement.

It is not a good time for the arts in Australia. There were, of course, plenty of pieces of theatre, dance, opera and musical theatre I was very happy to see in 2016. A small number were exceptional, as were a good handful of performances. We can still manage that. What we don’t have is any true, deeply engrained reverence for culture as a necessity of life. That’s why some of our brightest and most interesting artists are working for tuppence ha’penny.

In this context I’d like to give a special shout-out to the Red Line Productions team who run Sydney’s Old Fitz Theatre; to Sport for Jove, which consistently punches way above its weight; to Hayes Theatre Co for giving a dedicated home to musical theatre; and to the wonderful Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS) group. WITS has been indefatigable in giving encouragement to and increasing visibility and opportunities for women in the arts.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

So, best shows of the year?

Starting with the indies, Sport for Jove’s tremendously affecting Antigone; the absorbing revival of Louis Nowra’s Inner Voices from Don’t Look Away in association with Red Line Productions; and – this one surprised me – a deeply, deeply touching production of the 1928 R. C. Sheriff classic Journey’s End, from Cross Pollinate Productions in association with Norton Crumlin and Associates. I was very keen to see the play as it’s a name I keep coming across in reading about early 20th century drama, but I thought it might be drearily musty by now. Not in Samantha Young’s production, seen at Australian Theatre for Young People’s Walsh Bay base.

Also seen at ATYP was a marvellous production of the musical Spring Awakening, sensitively directed by Mitchell Butel. He might soon find he is in more demand as a director than he is as an actor, which would be a lot. The other huge musical theatre highlight was Little Shop of Horrors at Hayes Theatre Co. This was a mainstream production (Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co) that toured after its debut but it was born at the indie Hayes. Also on the music front, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra gave a glorious trio of concerts, conducted by David Robertson, featuring Stravinsky dance scores The Rite of Spring, The Firebird and Petrushka. Absolute heaven for this balletomane.

Two of Sydney’s smaller mainstream theatre companies, the Ensemble and Darlinghurst Theatre Company, provided some of this year’s most memorable productions. At the Ensemble, Tara Morice led a terrific cast in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People; and I can’t tell you how riveting it was to see Patricia Cornelius’s gut-punching Savages at the Darlinghurst with a matinee audience comprised almost entirely of teenaged boys. I bet their post-show discussion was interesting – and one could feel just how forcefully this brilliant piece of writing about masculinity and pack behaviour struck them. Also at the Darlinghurst, Mary Anne Butler’s Broken was eloquently realised.

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

The invaluable Griffin Theatre Company is unfortunately struggling with pressing funding issues but soldiers on stoutly to provide a platform for new Australian work. And who would have thunk it? After the, ahem, disappointment of his playwriting debut Every Breath (Belvoir, 2012), Benedict Andrews came up with a fascinating portrait of a woman’s disintegration in Gloria.

Mainstream theatre wasn’t overflowing with riches. However, at Sydney Theatre Company I did love Hay Fever, directed by Imara Savage, who has a great feel for comedy; and the devastating production of All My Sons, directed by Kip Williams.

I won’t write about dance again (my post yesterday gave a round-up in that area) but will mention a few dance performances in my baker’s dozen list of stand-outs – Kevin Jackson as Nijinsky in John Neumeier’s ballet of that name for The Australian Ballet, Elma Kris of Bangarra Dance Theatre in the title role in Stephen Page’s Nyapanyapa, and Kristina Chan in her own work A Faint Existence for Force Majeure (one of the small-to-medium companies that has to reinvent itself after funding cuts). In theatre and musical theatre, in no particular order I was entranced by Robyn Nevin (All My Sons), Anthony Warlow (Fiddler on the Roof), Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill (Little Shop of Horrors), Alex Jennings (My Fair Lady), Heather Mitchell (Hay Fever), Sam O’Sullivan (Journey’s End), Marta Dusseldorp (Gloria), and Andrea Demetriades and William Zappa (Antigone).

STC Hay Fever3

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

Opera Australia’s revival in Melbourne of the Neil Armfield Ring Cycle was extraordinary, and splendidly cast from top to bottom. The themes of greed and lust for power resonated particularly strongly. Earlier in the year the rarely performed Verdi opera Luisa Miller was given a striking production and had a dream cast; and My Fair Lady was deservedly wildly successful. Also from OA, the al fresco version of The Eighth Wonder – we sat in front of the sublime building that is the subject of Alan John and Dennis Watkins’s opera – was a sensational idea, superbly executed. One couldn’t help but think of Joe Cahill when, as premier of NSW, he convened a conference in 1954 to discuss the establishment of an opera house in Sydney. He said then: “This State cannot go on without proper facilities for the expression of talent and the staging of the highest forms of artistic entertainment which add grace and charm to living and which help to develop and mould a better, more enlightened community …”

We could probably do with a Joe Cahill or two right now.

Little Shop of Horrors

Luckiest Productions & Tinderbox Productions. Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 23.

RESISTANCE is useless Earthlings. Little Shop of Horrors is back and roaring for warm blood. Human blood. Your blood. I doubt it will be denied, at least in cult-musicals circles. The greatly cherished show has an almost mystical following and, with this production, should recruit a new generation of devotees.

To recap: after an unusual atmospheric disturbance, lovable loser Seymour Krelborn (Brent Hill) stumbles upon a weird plant and brings it back to the drooping Skid Row florist shop where he works alongside another of life’s punching bags, self-sabotaging Audrey (Esther Hannaford). Given the name Audrey II by lovesick Seymour, the plant soon reveals itself to be carnivorous. Rapaciously so. What could possibly go wrong? And what will nebbish Seymour do to hold on to his dreams once he becomes something of a celebrity thanks to Audrey II, with a concomitant boost to his previously minimal store of courage?

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1141

Brent Hill as Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors. Photo: Jeff Busby

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s musical takes its B-grade schlock-horror plot from a 1960 Roger Corman quickie film but it has much more heart and substance than that may suggest. At the Hayes, in a tightrope act pulled off with impeccable style and sophistication, director Dean Bryant expertly digs into the multiplicity of dark interpretations implicit in the text while keeping things light and fleet enough on the surface to keep the laughs coming.

Hanging over the story are those mid-20th century fears of invasion and subjugation in which aliens stood in for the enemy at the gate (think Orson Welles’s broadcast of The War of the Worlds and John Wyndham’s novel The Day of the Triffids just to name two). These fears are not entirely unknown today. Little Shop of Horrors is also a cautionary tale about the dangerous seductions of fame and money, particularly for someone as innocent as Seymour.

But it’s the central story of doomed love and impossible aspirations that Bryant and his production team really hit hard and strong, just as they did in 2014 with their thrilling reworking of Sweet Charity.

Little Shop of Horrors premiered Off-Broadway in 1982, distant enough from Corman’s film to be able to indulge in fond nostalgia for the 1960s and having it both ways by casting an arch but critical eye over the lingering 1950s social values of the time. Bryant sails audaciously close to the wind in his conceptions of Audrey and Seymour. When we first see Hannaford’s Audrey her emotional fragility is heightened dramatically by the production design, an expressionistic rendering of the dismal grey lives of the denizens of Skid Row. Hannaford looks wraith-like and her not-entirely-American accent and twitchy, fey gestures make her seem already not of this world.

LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS photo Jeff Busby_1847

Esther Hannaford and Brent Hill. Photo: Jeff Busby

Audrey’s resigned subservience to her sadistic dentist boyfriend Orin Scrivello DDS (Scott Johnson) – she’s never allowed to forget Orin’s academic credentials – is exceptionally painful and gives exceptional poignancy to her wistful fantasy of a safe, well-appointed home (Somewhere That’s Green). The song is funny and heartbreaking all at once and Hannaford is attuned to every nuance. To hear her wish for not only a washer but a dryer too is to hear an entire life story. Hannaford’s performance is exquisitely calibrated: strange, beautiful and unearthly, even when raising the roof with Hill’s Seymour in Suddenly Seymour, where tenderness and a thumping great love ballad collide magnificently.

From Hill, also in tour-de-force vocal and dramatic form, we get to understand that even someone as sweet and gentle as Seymour is liable to turn into a kind of monster if he chooses to make compact with one. Still, that might be better than what he had to start with, no? And anyway, once on that slippery slope there’s no getting off.

Bryant’s Little Shop of Horrors lets such thoughts niggle tenaciously while making whoopee with the musical’s trashy laughs, irresistible songs and grand guignol gestures. Erth Visual & Physical Inc’s series of Audrey II plants (Jamie Clennett, animator) is spectacularly successful, as are the designs by Owen Phillips (set), Tim Chappel (costumes) and Ross Graham (lights). In a brilliant coup de théâtre they transform a dismal grey world into riotous colour when success comes calling at the decrepit business run by Mr Mushnik (Tyler Coppin). Andrew Hallsworth’s pitch-perfect choreography is the cherry on top. Well, that and the darling red bias-cut coat Chappel gives Audrey in Act II. Divine.

While Hill and Hannaford are the glorious linchpin, the full cast of nine is a knockout, particularly Angelique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chloe Zuel as a sassy, sexy Greek chorus in close-harmony girl-group guise and Scott Johnson’s pure macho evil as Orin that makes you laugh and gasp in horror all at once.

As can often happen at the Hayes on opening night the sound from music director Andrew Warboys’s small band was sometimes too boomy and precious lyrics were smothered. It’s a hard space to get right it would seem, but one is grateful for the gems it produces. One more thing: Little Shop looks too big for the 110-seat Hayes, but this was always likely. There’s a national tour ahead in more capacious venues.

This is an expanded version of a review that appeared in The Australian on February 25.

Little Shop of Horrors ends in Sydney on March 19. Adelaide from April 20, Melbourne from May 4, Canberra from May 25, Brisbane from June 1, Perth from August 4.