Tragedy, Tragi-comedy and lots of Sondheim

The Glass Menagerie, Belvoir, September 30

Howie the Rookie, Red Line Productions in association with Strange Duck Productions and Sydney Independent Theatre Company, Old Fitzroy Theatre, October 2

Sondheim on Sondheim, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre, Reginald Theatre, Seymour Centre, October 3

EAMON Flack’s production of The Glass Menagerie for Belvoir is very beautiful; perhaps too much so. It is wonderful to see this great play treated so lovingly but it has a blurred outline, as if Vaseline had been smeared over a camera lens to give a more flattering, romantic image. Film is how Tom Wingfield (Luke Mullins) – the narrator and protagonist of Tennessee Williams’s first stage success – mediates his story as he delves into the past that was crushing him. Cameras capture parts of the action and relay it to screens on either side of the cramped Wingfield home and old-fashioned title cards introduce certain scenes. They are nods to Williams’s early brush with the film industry and neatly illustrate the paradoxes this play is built upon. We are entirely at the mercy of Tom’s memories regarding the truth of things, but understand that truth can sometimes be best reached through artifice. We must never forget, though, that this is Tom’s version of his early life, coloured by guilt, shame and anger. Flack’s production is persuasive in this respect, as was John Tiffany’s more spare, rather tougher version I saw on Broadway last year starring the extraordinary Cherry Jones.

So, we must accept that Tom sees Laura as not so very crippled, and not so very fragile. Newcomer Rose Riley is lovely – centered, quite composed, creating a world that suits her. She’s sheltered, of course, but she’s made her choices. We must also accept that Tom sees the Gentleman Caller, Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood), as younger than one would expect and somewhat gauche, although this wasn’t an interpretation that convinced me.

Mullins quietly and expertly gets under your skin and, not surprisingly, Pamela Rabe is an unforgettable Amanda, her rage and disappointment contained enough to allow her to survive, but heard in every garrulous outpouring. Rabe is incapable of presenting a character for whom you feel no pity, and that is the case here. I would give anything to see her in A Cheery Soul.

This Glass Menagerie flirts perhaps a little too closely with sentimentality for my taste, although, I acknowledge, perhaps Tennessee Williams would disagree with me. The play can certainly take it. What a privilege to see such fine work. A couple of technical points: the lack of synchronisation between vision and sound on the sceeens was disconcerting and not terribly useful, and the set, splendid as it is from front-on, presents sightline difficulties for those at the sides. That’s unfair to audiences.

I’d never seen Howie the Rookie; knew nothing about it; was too busy to do any research before I went. A two-hander, I was told when I got to the Old Fitz. Two monologues, each about 40 minutes long. They’re going to have to be good, I said. I may have shaken my head a little. Well … Good is a mealy-mouthed word in this context. One needs lots of syllables to get anywhere close. My head is still ringing with the intense colours, rhythms and images in playwright Mark O’Rowe’s text.

The monologues themselves are splendiferous; the performances are magic. The actors, Sean Hawkins and Andrew Henry, suck you into their orbit and make escape impossible. Henry may have gone at it a bit too pell-mell on opening night but that’s the worst – in fact the only – slight reservation I can offer.

The world into which O’Rowe thrusts us is ugly, violent and wildly alive, for as long as its denizens can stay breathing. We’re in a not so salubrious part of Dublin and the Howie, whose surname is Lee, needs to have a go at the Rookie, also name of Lee. Something about a friend’s mattress, on which friends doss, being infected with scabies, which everyone thinks must have been the fault of the Rookie. Then a larger problem looms, that of the not-to-be-messed-with Ladyboy and his fighting fish, which somehow meet a premature end.

The world is bleak beyond compare and the language that describes it intoxicating beyond description. You can see, smell, taste and feel every last moment.

Apart from the casting, the smartest move director Toby Schmitz made was to let designer Lisa Mimmocchi do almost nothing except take stuff away. The Old Fitz space is rendered almost entirely bare, except for two chairs on which Hawkins and Henry sit – both are beautifully present (in both the physical sense and the way actors use the word) for the length of the piece – and, heartbreakingly, a tiny overturned chair in the back corner. You’ll have to see the play to find out what that means. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design and Jeremy Silver’s sound design complete the picture, at once bracingly austere and pregnant with meaning.

Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre’s Sondheim on Sondheim is an entertaining, although over-long, tribute to the master. Songs you know – Children Will Listen, Send in the Clowns, Losing My Mind, Being Alive – are juxtaposed with less familiar material. Binding everything together are film clips of Sondheim talking about his life and work. This revue was created to honour Sondheim when he turned 80 in 2010 and covers familiar, much-loved territory for anyone who counts themselves a Sondheim devotee. Anyone who isn’t a devotee wouldn’t necessarily be converted, however. First, it very much helps to know the context of the songs; and second, while director Jay James-Moody has assembled a confident, experienced cast, he doesn’t have singers who can erase memories of the greatest interpreters of Sondheim’s work. And, fairly or not, they are who one thinks of when songs are performed in a cabaret context. It also didn’t help that Monique Sallé’s choreography was over-busy on too many occasions.

Sallé multitasks here, as she has for other Squabbalogic shows, by being a bright presence in the eight-member ensemble – the others are Blake Erickson, Rob Johnson, Louise Kelly, Debora Krizak, Phillip Lowe, Christy Sullivan and Dean Vince – in which everyone has a strong moment. What they can’t do is escape the pièce d’occasion nature of the work. It had its time and place in 2010 and doesn’t travel particularly well.

The Glass Menagerie runs until November 2; Howie the Rookie runs until October 25; Sondheim on Sondheim runs until October 18.

Sweet Charity

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, February 13

HAYES Theatre Co came into being when Darlinghurst Theatre Company vacated its tiny 19 Greenknowe Ave premises in Potts Point, having become the resident company at the spiffy new Eternity Playhouse. Sydney City Council, which spent about $8 million on the transformation of the former Baptist church into a beautiful 200-seat theatre, then asked for expressions of interest in Greenknowe Ave.

A group of savvy but itinerant music-theatre presenters seized the moment and formed a consortium with the very pragmatic name of Independent Music Theatre and a most laudable goal: to provide Sydney with a permanent home for regular productions of musicals and cabaret. IMT won the bid, had a successful Pozible fundraiser to give the theatre a bit of a facelift – petite chandeliers in the foyer! – and gave itself a more user-friendly name to use in public: Hayes Theatre Co. The name pays tribute to Nancye Hayes, who was cheered to the echo on the opening night of Hayes Theatre Co’s first show, Sweet Charity.

Girls on chairs

It was a rather glamorous evening, actually, although I suspect there will be less glamour behind the scenes as producers work to big-city standards on low budgets. Tickets to Sweet Charity are a measly $49; the producers may have to rethink the pricing strategy when – and we must hope it’s when – you can’t get one of the 110 available seats for any money.

Sweet Charity set the bar high for what is to follow. It was produced by David Campbell, Lisa Campbell, Richard Carroll and Neil Gooding, all highly experienced in the field. The cast was headed by Verity Hunt-Ballard (Mary Poppins) and Martin Crewes (loads of large-scale musicals here and on the West End) and the creative team featured the almost ubiquitous Dean Bryant as director (worldwide associate director of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert etc etc et al), Andrew Hallsworth as choreographer (Priscilla, loads of Production Company and Melbourne Theatre Company shows) and, get this, Oscar, BAFTA and AFI winner Tim Chappel on costumes.

With this kind of commitment it’s hard not to be reminded that the small Menier Chocolate Factory (180 seats) has become a big player on London’s theatrical landscape. Limited means don’t have to equate to limited results. In fact, it can be revelatory to see on an intimate scale work that was premiered splashily. Australia lacks London’s depth, it is true, but it’s pleasing to think that work developed at Hayes Theatre Co could have a life elsewhere.

And now to Sweet Charity, which has been downsized and dirtied up in a way that not only suits the theatre but also is very much to the benefit of the piece. I was somewhat reminded of the extraordinary John Doyle production of Sweeney Todd I saw on Broadway some years ago. Todd is frequently done by opera companies in the grandest manner; here there was scarcely any set, the re-orchestrated score was played by actor-singers who never left the stage (Patti LuPone’s Mrs Lovett on tuba, if you can imagine that) and the effect was shattering. Similarly, Chicago is still running on Broadway 17 years after its stripped-down appearance as part of New York’s Encores series.

Sweet Charity, of course, is no Sweeney Todd (or Chicago). Some of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’s songs and lyrics still have a little currency – who doesn’t recognise the tough six-note statement that introduces Big Spender? – but Charity is very much of its time. Within moments of the start Charity’s boyfriend steals her bag and throws her in a lake; later a film star hides her in a cupboard while he entertains his girlfriend; later still she is dumped because her new man can’t get over her “past”. Sex and sentimentality collide, and all this is supposed to be really rather amusing and Charity a good sport.

Nevertheless, Bryant’s conception of Sweet Charity shows how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it’s less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

On a dark, almost bare stage (set design Owen Phillips, lighting Ross Graham) with a hard-edged band up the back, Bryant eliminates most of the dubious sentimentality that can make Sweet Charity a decidedly icky affair. These days, who wants to chuckle indulgently at a poor, barely educated young woman working at the fringes of the sex industry? To counter that the design team creates the mood of a seedy nightspot, with just a few screens and some basic chairs; performers hang around the edges to get changed and Bryant and choreographer Hallsworth have men circling women like hyenas in search of a feed. After all, Nickie (Debora Krizak) does describe the Fandango Ballroom work this way: “We defend ourselves to music.”

There is a downside, though. In many ways Bryant’s muscular, stripped-down approach makes Sweet Charity’s flaws even more obvious (Neil Simon was responsible for the flabby book), and he doesn’t find a way of making sense of one of Sweet Charity’s biggest musical hits, Rhythm of Life. It’s rather rushed through, presumably because it is an odd fit in this crepuscular world.

Big Spender, always an ironic number, works a treat and Rich Man’s Frug is a Surrealist delight thanks to Chappel’s costumes and Hallsworth’s splendid choreography.

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Verity Hunt-Ballard as Charity Hope Valentine

Leaving her long stint as Mary Poppins well behind her, Hunt-Ballard is a shiny-eyed, exceedingly likeable Charity who carries the show with tremendous verve. Touchingly, this Charity is much more intelligent and resourceful than she gives herself credit for, although Hunt-Ballard could usefully find a little more vulnerability. You don’t really sense the extent of her damage, although the ending shows she has it in her. All the women (and one man) of the Fandango Ballroom are wonderful, with Krizak outstanding in two roles.

Crewes, playing all Charity’s men friends, is a super-sexy Vittorio, an over-nerdy Oscar and could with profit turn the dial down – he’s a man used to commanding 2000-seat auditoriums; here the audience is practically sitting on his knee.

Speaking of which, there is little to match the thrill of theatre seen right up close. Sweet Charity may be a problematic piece but the work done on it by this small, highly expert team is exceptional. Next up from March 14: The Drowsy Chaperone, produced by Squabbalogic. Can’t wait.

Ends March 9.

A version of this review appeared in The Australian on February 17.