About last week … April 9-15

It’s 13 years since Li Cunxin published his memoir Mao’s Last Dancer and its appeal hasn’t dimmed. It’s still in print, of course, and there was a condensed version made for young adults and an illustrated children’s book The Peasant Prince. That was also featured in an Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concert in 2009 with excerpts read by an actor, projections of Anne Spudvilas’s illustrations from the book and music composed by Katy Abbott. That’s a lot of mileage.

Now there’s a new theatre piece for children based on The Peasant Prince, created by Monkey Baa Theatre Company, which I saw on April 11 at Monkey Baa’s home, LendLease Darling Quarter Theatre, Sydney.

The Peasant Prince - Jonathan Chan

Jonathan Chan and John Gomez Goodway in The Peasant Prince

In Monkey Baa’s unerring hands a worn old blanket summons a family with few material goods but rich in love. Rolled up it is a cooking bowl, unfurled it’s a bath towel and, wrapped about an embraced child, it is a potent image of a mother’s care. In just a few minutes the wordless, elegant scene gets to the heart of The Peasant Prince. This boy knows what it is like to have nothing and everything. We understand why he will never forget the source of his strength.

As Mao’s Last Dancer relates, former dancer and now ballet company director Li Cunxin was 10 when an emissary from Madame Mao came to his impoverished village in Shandong Province looking for promising children to attend the Beijing Dance Academy. By the way, if anyone doesn’t know how to pronounce Li’s given name, they will know after this. It’s Schwin Sin. (Li is his surname, but from earliest days in Australia he was called Li as if it were his given name and he is happy to answer to that.)

Li was overlooked until a teacher, not knowing why, called the man back and suggested the boy be taken. Having been offered this miraculous way out and up, which must have seemed as alien as space travel, Li could not fail his family. As one of his brothers told him when Li came home for a rare visit, he must tell his mother and father only good things. The sixth of his parents’ seven children had to find the courage, focus and discipline to make the most of his opportunity.

Monkey Baa writers Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry are dab hands at adapting books for young audiences and bring Li’s story to the stage with deceptive economy. The play moves swiftly, with David Bergman’s video designs effortlessly and vividly summoning a village schoolroom, a busy city, a ballet studio, a rural scene, a flight to the US. John Gomez Goodway is bright-eyed Li and, under McGarry’s lucid direction, Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang and Edric Hong play everyone else with admirable clarity.

Momentum falters a little once the action moves to Houston, where Li defected. The happy ballet rehearsal, which is overlong, and the Chinese attempt to send Li home don’t have the same crystalline definition as the rest of this otherwise fine dramatisation.

There is no shying away from the challenges Li faced as a child and the resilience he had to develop; they’re valuable things for children to consider. It’s also an inspirational fable, like one Li hears and loves as a child, about aspiration and achievement. In other words, perfect for its young audience.

Footnote: Monkey Baa’s blissful Pete the Sheep had a national tour in 2014 and is being revived for loads of performances at the Sydney Opera House (July 2-17) and a few shows at Arts Centre Melbourne in late July. I loved it to bits and may well have to go again.

The Peasant Prince ends in Sydney on April 20, followed by an Australian tour to 37 cities. (See monkeybaa.com.au for cities and dates.)

There’s something so enchanting about children’s uncensored reactions to theatre made for them, even if it’s not specifically interactive theatre. At the performance (April 14) I saw of CDP Productions’ Mr Stink, adapted from the popular David Walliams book (Sydney Opera House until April 24), children instantly shouted out when one character asked another a question requiring the answer no and they started clapping happily to the beat in a Bollywood dance number. They’ll find out soon enough they are supposed to sit quietly and not answer back in the theatre, but how lovely to see them thoroughly engaged. Maryam Master does a straightforward job of adapting Walliams’s story of a bullied girl who befriends a homeless man and teaches her family a valuable lesson or two and director Jonathan Biggins – he also directed Pete the Sheep – gets some welcome physical comedy into the mix. The fart jokes, of which there were several, made their mark on each occasion. Some things never grow old.

Mr Stink is for children as young as six years. Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Stunt Lounge (just finished at the Sydney Opera House) was for those aged 12 or older and features FFFC recent graduates putting on their first independent show. It didn’t entirely make clear its aim of exploring risk in the lives of young people and defining boundaries but the performers (I saw them on April 14) were delightful, with Jess Mews’s magical hoops solo a standout. Director Darcy Grant was a founding member of Circa and that company’s interest in using circus skills in the service of complex dramatic situations was clearly an influence. Circa is now a big deal internationally and has broadened the idea of what circus can achieve so it’s not a bad model.

The Ensemble Theatre in Sydney’s Kirribilli does what it does entirely without government support and has continuously for nearly 60 years – longer than any other professional theatre company in Australia. Obviously the company has to have an eye to repertoire that will fill the auditorium but it makes some extremely astute choices in the pursuit of fulfilling founder Hayes Gordon’s belief that theatre should be a civilising influence.

It was at The Ensemble in 2012, for instance, that I was able to see Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, which Melbourne Theatre Company had staged the year before. The Ensemble also programmed, in 2014, Bruce Norris’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park (also seen at MTC). In late May the Kirribilli theatre stages Nina Raines’s Tribes, a much-garlanded play I saw Off-Broadway a couple of years ago. Right now it’s offering David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, a play (it opened on April 13) that tests assumptions about social mobility.

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

Under Mark Kilmurry’s direction and with a tremendously good cast led by Tara Morice, Good People takes us to South Boston – Southie – where Margaret (Morice) is being laid off from her shitty job at the Dollar Store. She’s been late once too often. Well, many times too often, but the last straw has been reached. She has her reasons, what with having a disabled adult daughter, but she’s also not perhaps the most reliable of employees.

She gets involved in a long-shot scheme to get a job via an old boyfriend Mike (Christopher Stollery), a man who got educated, became a doctor and lives in a very good part of town with his accomplished wife Kate (Zindzi Okenyo). Things don’t turn out too well, in large part because Margaret doesn’t know how to operate in this world. Despite being what she and her friends call “good people”, in this situation she is out of her depth – too angry, needy, calculating and devious.

Lindsay-Abaire’s evocation of Margaret’s world and that of her friends Dottie (Gale Ballantyne) and Jean (Jane Phegan) and her former boss Stevie (Drew Livingston) is vivid and compassionate. Sometimes circumstances just conspire against people, and some other people have all the luck.

Good People runs at The Ensemble until May 21 and if there is any justice will have full houses for every performance.

Last week (April 15) also brought the premiere of Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever, the 1925 Noel Coward comedy. My review is in the April 18 edition of The Australian and I’ll expand on that in a few days on the blog. Let’s just say for now that Heather Mitchell, playing Judith Bliss, is a goddess and director Imara Savage has two for two after her triumph of last year with Andrew Bovell’s After Dinner.

Circus in Sydney

WHATEVER you call it – circus, burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville, physical theatre, variety, magic – Sydney apparently can’t get enough of it. In January more than a dozen shows falling somewhere within these porous borders have fetched up, most as part of a mini-festival within the Sydney Festival or from other presenters keen to mine this rich vein of entertainment.

Festival director Lieven Bertels sensibly embraced the reality that Sydney in summer isn’t the most cerebral time of year and directed a lot of attention towards the enlarged Festival Village in Hyde Park. He put the Stonehenge-inspired bouncy castle Sacrilege just outside the village perimeter and inside put not one but two tents.

There is, of course, a Spiegeltent, without which it seems no Australian festival is complete. That venue is complemented by the smaller Circus Ronaldo Tent, allowing an impressive flow of circus and music events. (There’s a second Spiegeltent in town at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park, housing the circus show Empire, a non-festival event.)

Tents are a pragmatic solution to the need for extra venues but they also add a frisson to proceedings. Amanda Palmer’s cabaret show would always have been immaculate, but it didn’t hurt to have a bit of Spiegeltent magic to top things. There was something very right about seeing her very intimate, confessional, conversational show here. Palmer’s diatribe against Vegemite and song about, ahem, maps of Tasmania, were right at home.

LIMBO"s swaingpoles routine. Photo: Prudence Upton

Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine in LIMBO. Photo: Prudence Upton

It’s a different world inside the tent walls as performers defy normal physical limits, frequently show lots of flesh and encourage patrons to drop their inhibitions – up to a point. Patrons have to understand who is in charge and performers have to be very good at handling the over-excited or over-refreshed. Even if there isn’t audience participation in the strict sense, the atmosphere of shared experience between performer and paying customer is exceptionally strong. This type of theatre celebrates crossed boundaries and thrilling, fleeting intimacy. Then the circus moves on and we all go back to our daily lives.

It’s fascinating to see how avidly people put themselves forward to be part of the show. Some have a yen to shine a little too brightly, as Tom Flanagan discovered in his lovely show Kaput one afternoon. A woman selected to join him on stage got a bit over-theatrical so Flanagan fireman-lifted her back to her seat and moved on to another volunteer. All part of the risk.

In Kaput, Flanagan channelled silent-movie clowns as he fought a losing battle with inanimate objects. Everything that could go wrong would go wrong, and indeed even more mishaps than were in the script assailed him in the performance I saw, a situation he handled with enormous skill and charm. Also at the family end of things, Circus Ronaldo, gave a masterclass in classic physical comedy in La Cucina dell’Arte.

A late-night act, Scotch and Soda, which runs until the end of the festival, offers a relaxed, down-and-dirty show distinguished by great music and exuberant routines.

The Scotch and Soda team

The Scotch and Soda team

The best of the best, though, is LIMBO, which is packing out the Spiegeltent and also runs until January 27. Director Scott Maidment has ensured there’s tight connection within the cast rather than just a series of disparate acts, the music is blood-pumpingly good and the circus skills are off the chart.

Choreographed as intensely as a dance work, LIMBO nevertheless feels spontaneous and dangerous. It doesn’t hurt that the international cast is drop-dead gorgeous and very come-hither. The exemplar is American Heather Holliday, a sword-swallower and fire-eater with the glossy glamour of a 1950s movie pin-up, but they are all divine. I particularly loved Mikael Bres’s breath-taking Chinese pole turn, which is entrancingly dance-like;  Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine; and the trio of men weaving and swooping on long swaying poles. Boy, are these blokes ripped.

LIMBO is now the gold standard, helped immeasurably by the quality of the music. Created and directed by Sxip Shirey, the score has rough energy and great sophistication. It’s a show you could see again and again.

Empire claims to have the “sexiest, most daring” artists but the show tries a bit too hard to be transgressive. LIMBO, on the other hand, has sexual energy to burn without being vulgar. There’s no shortage of skill in Empire; it’s just that it doesn’t feel particularly well integrated into a total piece of theatre and much of the music is recorded. Empire does have two particularly strong acts in the foot juggling of Black Flintstone and Big Mac Boy, and the intensely demanding Branch Balance from Memet Bilgin, who builds a huge, airy leaf-shaped sculpture from palm branches so delicately poised that a breath can dismantle it.

As part of Summer at the House, the Sydney Opera House programmed a clutch of magic, circus and cabaret shows, the first of which was The Illusionists 2.0 (it has just moved on to Brisbane). The separate nature of its constituent parts means The Illusionists could continue following the death in Sydney of hypnotist Scott Lewis, but his loss robs the show of its closest contact with the audience.

Overall the show is Las Vegas slick, with lots of loud music, pulsing lights and writhing backing dancers, although there are moments of quiet with Yu Ho-Jin’s truly magical card tricks and the old-fashioned and charming shadow puppetry from Raymond Crowe, billed as The Unusualist.

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Also at the Opera House, Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Circus Under My Bed has the country’s next generation of circus performers linking impressive acts with a warm story about having to pack up toys and move house. The gambolling, tumbling sheep are an inspired touch, and the circus skills are exciting – although at the performance I saw the biggest reaction came when a performer got a cake pushed into their face. The old ones clearly never lose their charm.

It was interesting to see a young man nail a difficult trick that eluded poor Tom Flanagan, although to be fair, Flanagan had some sore trials to contend with during his show. (A water bottle thrown in the air is impaled on the spike of an umbrella, releasing water and thus giving the impression of rain. The kid took three goes when I saw it and got it first time up when a friend was there; Flanagan gave up after about half a dozen but we loved him anyway.)

And of course it would scarcely be summer in Sydney without Ursula Martinez and her nude-with-handkerchief  turn, Hanky Panky, in La Soiree, which has returned to the Opera House for a long run.

It is cheerful, bawdy burlesque whose oddity acts give it a wacky, distinctive personality.  Asher Treleaven’s Mills & Boon reading was worth the price of admission on opening night, but he was a late substitution for another act and isn’t on every night unfortunately. He’s a real winner. The Chooky Dancers, reduced to a company of three for the tiny round stage in the Studio, do Zorba the Greek, naturally.

The acts come through in a fast and furious manner and while the physical acts are superb, La Soiree depends very much for its punch on perverse comedy. Apart from Hanky Panky there is Miss Behave doing unusual things with scissors, gloves and skewers, Martinez putting on a spangly barely-there costume and setting her bits and pieces on fire, and various acts of physical daring.  It’s all extremely good-humoured, as long as you don’t mind your humour on the rough side.

And that’s only a sample of what’s around in this genre. Circus Oz has also been around, and finishes its regular Sydney summer season weekend.Also on the festival roster are, were or will be Ockham’s Razor, Lady Rizo, Band of Magicians and Bullet Catch. The latter two have had brilliant reviews and I was sorry to miss them.

The Sydney Festival ends January 27. Flying Fruit Fly Circus ends January 25, Empire ends March 2, La Soiree ends March 14. The Illusionists 2.0, Brisbane, from Sunday to January 27.