Raise the roof

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, October 22

GLORY hallelujah! Miracle City has been resurrected. It is alive and it is well, if a little in need of fine-tuning.

An explanation for those not steeped in music-theatre lore: in 1996 Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s show had a short season at Sydney, Theatre Company and it was good. But for various reasons it wasn’t revived and soon acquired quasi-religious status. But to every thing there is a season and Miracle City has found a natural home at Hayes Theatre Co, with its 110 seats and committed music-theatre audience. The small, bare-bones space is perfect for Miracle City’s setting, a regional Tennessee television station from which the Truswell family conducts its evangelical Christian ministry and tries to raise money for an ill-considered theme park.

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Josie Lane, Marika Aubrey and Esther Hannaford. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Michael Hankin’s rudimentary set of a sparkly curtain, a few monitors and some backstage bits and bobs strikes exactly the right note. The Truswells have a long-standing ministry but they are nowhere near the league of the Reverend Millard Sizemore, a bully with a private jet, oily authority and vast sense of entitlement. Rick Truswell doesn’t lack for ambition, however, and has grandiose plans, advertised regularly during the family’s Sunday program. Naturally funds are required. From their unprepossessing studio the family intersperses its home-spun homilies and rousing songs with calls for donations that will enable the completion of the theme park they have called Miracle City. “First you pray, then you play,” say the ads, but before that can happen someone has to pay. Rick Truswell needs money, he needs it badly, and, as it transpires, will do anything to get it.

In real time – just under 90 minutes – the veneer of good cheer and good works shatters. Idolised men are shown not only to have feet of clay but to be viciously corrupt and a woman married at 16 finds the strength to be her own person. (The echoes of A Doll’s House are pleasing as the woman is played by Blazey Best, who recently starred in an updated version of Ibsen’s play for Belvoir.)

With their exercise of iron-clad patriarchial control, Rick Truswell (Mike McLeish) and his mentor Sizemore (Peter Kowitz) could be old-school Stalinists, except with way, way better music. Which is where Miracle City really nails it. Lambert and Enright’s songs are heaven, absolutely crucial to the show’s tightrope-walk between satire and seduction. There are up-tempo exhortations to raise the roof, share the load and to take up arms until the war is won, and there is a strong temptation to leap to one’s feet and join right in.

The country-and-gospel score hits bull’s-eyes again and again. Marika Aubrey, Hilary Cole, Esther Hannaford and Josie Lane are all in knockout vocal form as they deliver the effortless mix of shiny-eyed faith and glossy showbiz. Hannaford, who plays the troubled Bonnie-Mae, is magnificent in the show’s standout number I’ll Hold On, and Aubrey leads a storming Raise the Roof, but really everyone gets a strong vocal moment. Who knew Best (Lora-Lee Truswell) could sing like that? She’s a revelation, as is young Cameron Holmes as baby of the family Ricky-Bob. Keep him on your radar. Jason Kos as floor manager of the Truswells’ show rounds out this highly appealing cast.

The difficulty is in managing the shift from clean-living serenity to ugly reality in such a short time. Director Darren Yap has allowed McLeish and Kowitz, both charismatic, to become too obviously villainous and therefore less chilling than they might be. But to be fair, the piece probably needed a few more drafts to enrich overly emblematic characters. Rick Truswell has the usual reclamation story (he was a no-account wrong-doer until he met Lora-Lee when she was just a girl), Aubrey is the tough, astringent gal who can look after herself, Hannaford the woman with a painful past and Lane the adoring disciple who sees nothing. Cole has a little more to play with as Loretta, the teenager with a combustible mix of rebellion and naivety, and Best has the most complex path to tread as she touchingly shows the illusions of 20 years being stripped away in moments.

Best is an intensely sympathetic actor who negotiates the swift transition from subservience to vulnerability to defiance with appealing dignity, willing us to believe in a situation that doesn’t entirely ring true.

The dramaturgy isn’t perfect, but this is nevertheless an absorbing evening created by a lavishly talented group of people. Apart from designer Hankin, the composer leads a terrific five-piece band, Kelley Abbey choreographed, Roger Kirk did the costumes and Hugh Hamilton the lights. These are people normally seen on far bigger projects. But then this is Miracle City. Back at last.

Miracle City ends November 16

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on October 2

A Murder is Announced

Sydney Theatre, October 9

THERE was a time when I thought Agatha Christie the last word in reading entertainment. I devoured her books hungrily, and decided that The Murder of Roger Ackroyd was about the cleverest thing written. I still think it’s pretty nifty actually, and it was rather influential in the crime genre, a genre I adore to this day.

Christie’s writing perhaps hasn’t stood the test of time particularly well but she did give us two of the great detectives in the canon, Hercule Poirot – the sleuth in the matter of Roger Ackroyd – and the even more imperishable Jane Marple, spinster of St Mary Mead and incomparable amateur detective.

Miss Marple made her first appearance in a 1926 short story, the year of Roger Ackroyd as it happens, and appeared in a dozen novels, the last one (Sleeping Murder) published in 1976. Not a bad innings, and one that would be extended until the present day via film and television.  The most recent series of Miss Marple mysteries, those produced by ITV, have been notable for two splendid leading ladies – Geraldine McEwan and then Julia McKenzie – and for the almost comical number of well-known British actors happy to appear in them. Fiona Shaw, Richard E. Grant, Tom Baker, Julie Sawahla and Richard Briers are just the tip of the iceberg. For heaven’s sake, even the splendiferous Carey Mulligan, she lately of The Great Gatsby, has featured.

All of which is a really long way of saying that wherever Miss Marple goes, I will follow.

Judi Farr as Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced. Photo: James Morgan

Judi Farr as Miss Marple in A Murder is Announced. Photo: James Morgan

Naturally I didn’t come to the current Australian production of A Murder in Announced completely fresh. I saw the ITV version (McEwan as Miss Marple, Zoe Wanamaker as Leticia Blacklock, Elaine Page as Doris Bunner) some years ago and while I had initially forgotten who done it, the mists dissolved fairly quickly. But never mind. The pleasure of these things is noting how the bits and pieces interweave and interlock to lead to a satisfying and, one hopes for those who are still in the dark, a surprising conclusion.

The Sydney Theatre, while comfortable, isn’t entirely the most atmospheric place for an unrepentantly old-fashioned piece such as A Murder is Announced. Melbourne’s Comedy should be somewhat more suitable. Still, I was enchanted with Linda Bewick’s set (Bewick is also one of the producers). One enters the auditorium to see a rather good facsimile of an English drawing room, complete with chandeliers, sconces, standard lamps, chintzy coverings for the sofa and chairs, a tray set for tea.

Dead centre – and dead is indeed le mot juste – there are two doors close together. These will be crucial.

The play opens, as did The Mousetrap – the producers of which are responsible for this commercial tour – with news delivered over the radio, something about a billionaire and an inheritance at stake. There is plinkety plunkety music (the estimable Max Lambert composer), the lights go down, and we’re off. A notice has been placed in the local Chipping Cleghorn paper to say a murder will take place that very evening in that very house. In those days people believed what they read in the papers, or at least the rather excitable Doris Bunner (Deidre Rubenstein) does. And you know what? She’s absolutely spot on.

Quite a few people happen to be staying in the house – the play has a cast of 11, which is good and rare news for actors – and it becomes clear that not everyone may be as advertised. There are meaningful exchanges, speaking glances and other necessary mystery trappings, mostly handled smoothly by director Darren Yap, although I felt Rubenstein chewed the scenery perhaps a little too frantically.

There are also, in Leslie Darbon’s script, some incredibly complicated pieces of exposition. One does have to be most attentive to keep up, and even the actors seem to find the going tough. I saw A Murder is Announced a couple of weeks in and there were still glitches. Debra Lawrence, as Leticia Blacklock, got herself in a right old pickle during a very long speech that is rather vital to one’s understanding of just who fits in where in the old inheritance imbroglio so that one was not a great deal the wiser at the end of it. Just grateful to move on really. Perhaps a more recent adaptation than this 1977 one would have had a lighter, more flexible touch and a more tripping use of language while retaining the enjoyable period feel.

I did have fun though, and very much appreciated Victoria Haralabidou’s calculatedly hysterical maid Mitzi. Above all, one is in exceptionally safe hands with Judi Farr’s sensibly shod, cardie-wearing Miss Marple. All the intelligence and quiet wit one could wish for are present and correct, and the twinkly relish with which Farr delivers her blackout line for Act I, Sc ii is perfection itself.

Sydney Theatre, until October 27. Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, from October 30. Playhouse, QPAC, Brisbane, from December 27. Canberra Theatre Centre from February 22.