Truth, beauty and a picture of you

Neil Gooding Productions with Hayes Theatre Co

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, May 14

STEWIE was a mid-level musician in a low-level band, according to Anton. Anton was also in the band, which means he’s paying Stewie a compliment of sorts: the guy was an okay musician. Stewie is dead now, Anton is going to seed, the other band member, Charlie, is going to hell via the pokies and Stewie’s now-adult son has turned up from Taree trying to fill a gap in his life.

Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis and Scott Irwin. Photo: Noni Carroll

Ian Stenlake, Toby Francis and Scott Irwin. Photo: Noni Carroll

You couldn’t call it an original idea but Truth, beauty and a picture of you dangles possibilities. Male friendship, disappointment and loss will be explored in the pungent context of a pub band of limited success and there’s a huge plus: Truth, beauty is based around exceptionally beautiful songs written by Tim Freedman, he of The Whitlams.

So what went wrong?

As so often with a new musical we must look to the book, the spine of narrative that gives a show shape, texture, direction and purpose. Truth, beauty’s book, credited to Alex Broun and Freedman, is a mighty thin affair that skitters from song to song via cliché and dialogue of often painful obviousness.

It fails to establish what was supposedly a deep connection between the three band mates – there are a couple of flashbacks to the early 1990s – while noodling around rather tiresomely with young newcomer Tom and a girl who picks him up in Sydney’s Newtown. Ross Chisari and Erica Lovell do their best to animate stale material and are terrific singers but this thread isn’t interesting. Tom is a device, the catalyst for an unsurprising revelation.

Toby Francis emerges every now and again as Stewie, plays a few other characters and is not well used but Ian Stenlake (Anton) and Scott Irwin (Charlie) do heroic work to transcend the plot’s limitations. They are very fine, as is designer James Browne’s evocation of a grungy pub in a raffish place.

The big drawcard of course is the songs Freedman wrote or co-wrote. To hear, among others, Been Away Too Long, Beauty in Me, I will Not Go Quietly and No Aphrodisiac performed so passionately by the cast and Andrew Worboys’s terrific band is to understand perfectly why Broun wanted to build a musical around them. Unfortunately there’s still a long way to go.

February wrap

A quick look at what February brought in the theatre in Sydney, and beyond …

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

Travis Cardona in This Heaven, Belvoir Downstairs. Photo: Brett Boardman

AT this year’s Perth International Arts Festival I was able to see, in one evening, the festival’s biggest and smallest pieces of theatre – The Threepenny Opera from the Berliner Ensemble, weighing in at about three hours and filling His Majesty’s Theatre, and Remor, an 11-minute piece for two performers, an audience of about 10 and taking place in a space smaller than many a garden shed. Fittingly, the Remor shed was indeed inside the Festival Gardens.

I don’t think it’s a festival unless I can see at least two performances in one day – I’d prefer to see three or four; just a personal quirk – so the Threepenny Opera/Remor day was a satisfying one. Remor was a wordless physical theatre in which a man and a woman, oblivious to one another, enacted the terrifying restlessness of someone locked away with no hope of release. It was rough, sweaty theatre.

The Threepenny Opera was the exact reverse: urbane, sophisticated, knowing, visually exquisite and performed with immense poise, clarity and wit. I loved that the actors weren’t much chop as singers but put their songs across as if they were; I loved that Macheath looked like a perverse version of matinee idol Leslie Howard, Peachum as if he were wearing a Noh mask and Tiger Brown as a ringer for Conrad Veidt in his Cabinet of Dr Caligari days; I adored the band playing that tremendous Kurt Weill music … Well, you get the picture. It was a brilliant piece of programming from Jonathan Holloway.

Back in Sydney, February offered theatre productions as diverse as Harvey Fierstein’s Torch Song Trilogy (Gaiety Theatre in association with Mardi Gras), George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession (Sydney Theatre Company), Great Falls by Lee Blessing (The Ensemble) and This Heaven by Nakkiah Lui, at Belvoir Downstairs.

Torch Song Trilogy suffered from feeling and looking like a museum piece. Director Stephen Colyer didn’t find a way of bringing the politics and emotional tangles into the here and now, where they certainly still exist. Great Falls isn’t such a great play – too contrived in so many places – but under director Anna Crawford, Erica Lovell and Christopher Stollery give cracking performances which almost persuade you the play has more merit than it does.

Mrs Warren’s Profession is a play Sydney Theatre Company subscribers appear to have been hanging out for. An extension was announced before it even opened. The question of how one is to survive in an unequal world is evergreen, as is the question of who gets to judge whom. Sarah Giles’s production is a little too cool for my taste, with Lizzie Schebesta getting the rectitude of Vivie but not enough else. Helen Thomson is seen to great advantage as Mrs Warren, her ripeness a welcome contrast to the brittleness of the rest, but I don’t think I was supposed to side with her as strongly as I did.

Lui’s This Heaven is the work of a young writer with a supple voice and something to say. Under Lee Lewis’s direction it has emerged as a shattering piece of theatre. In its essentials the story is far from unique. There’s an Aboriginal man from out west in Sydney, an arrest, a death, the attempt to get justice, the failure to get it, the inevitable anger, and a chilling aftermath. The characters are engrossing and the action unfolds as precisely as in an ancient Greek tragedy.

Lui has the ability to see the reality of individuals – how their circumstances, their nature, their ambitions, their limitations shape them – and to show them as flawed and changeable without losing focus or seeming forced. Equally important is how resonant This Heaven is. It’s rooted firmly in a very specific story, but is not limited by it. The play isn’t perfect – there’s a somewhat uneasy start and one or two clunky moments – but it’s been given a superb production that deserves all the praise that’s been heaped on it. The performances from Jada Alberts, Joshua Anderson, Travis Cardona, Eden Falk and Tessa Rose are tremendously strong, with Cardona and Anderson just heartbreaking.

Great Falls continues at The Ensemble until March 9. This Heaven continues at Belvoir Downstairs until March 18. Mrs Warren’s Profession, until April 6 and July 4-20.