Love, death, politics …

Kryptonite, Sydney Theatre Company, September 16; Unholy Ghosts, Griffin Theatre Company, September 17; LoveBites, White Horse Productions with Hayes Theatre Co, September 18.

ON the face of it Kryptonite, Unholy Ghosts and LoveBites have nothing in common except taking place in a theatre, but seeing the three on consecutive evenings made me think of them as a group; as independent but connected pieces illuminating fundamental aspects of life’s journey. Love, death, politics …

Sue Smith’s beautifully named Kryptonite throws together politics, sex, international business and race. That combo would sap anyone of their strength. Lian (Ursula Mills) and Dylan (Tim Walter) meet at university. She is Chinese and scrambling to survive in a system that lets her study here but not earn enough money to keep herself. He’s a laidback Australian with a passion for surfing. They make a connection that, over the next 25 years, waxes, wanes and is buffeted by external forces. The massacre at Tiananmen Square is one of them; the rise of Australian business connections with China is another.

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Tim Walter and Ursula Mills in Kryptonite. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

It’s fertile ground for drama and highly pertinent as, in scenes played out of chronological order, we see how events in the wider world – the Asian world – affect Lian and Dylan personally and politically.

I found the role of Dylan a little underwritten, although perhaps I should see Kryptonite again to see if that’s fair – on opening night I was so swept away by the writing for Lian and Mills’s performance that it was hard to concentrate on anything else. Even at her shyest and most vulnerable Lian is strong, witty and very, very smart. No wonder she becomes a tough and successful operator, although with divided loyalties. Smith has written a mesmerising part and Mills is extraordinary. Geordie Brookman directed.

Unholy Ghosts isn’t so much a play as a group therapy session. I don’t mean this unkindly. I was absorbed by Campion Decent’s story, based on his own experience, but its power is that of personal, intimate revelation. I too have lost my parents, as people of a certain age do. It was only when my father died last year, eight years after the death of my mother, that I realised it was possible for a mature adult to feel orphaned. Decent’s story has the added pressure of parents dying within a short space of time, of them having been acrimoniously divorced, and the hovering presence of a long-dead sister. James Lugton, playing the Son, talks about his dying parents and talks to them, although some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously like people telling people they are close to things they should already know. Father (Robert Alexander) apparently terrified Son when he was a child but we must take that on faith, as the old man we meet is certainly irascible but rather a sweetie. Mother (Anna Volska) is a former actress and loads of fun.

The technical shortcomings include a rather awkward ending, but it was impossible not to be moved by the deeply felt discussion of death: how to face it, how to cope with it.

I saw LoveBites when it premiered at Sydney’s Seymour Centre in 2008. I reviewed it for The Australian and I started my piece this way:

“James Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.”

Obviously Millar is a few years older now, but I’m happy with the rest of the sentence and with the conclusion. It’s great to see a revival at the Hayes Theatre, very well cast with Kirby Burgess, Tyran Parke, Adele Parkinson and Shaun Rennie. Troy Alexander directed, there’s smart choreography by Ellen Simpson and designer Lauren Peters uses the small Hayes Theatre Co space astutely by using two revolves. Becky-Dee Trevenen does a pretty good job with the costumes, which the four performers have to change at speed to accommodate their very different characters. The band, under the musical direction of Steven Kreamer, is fine as far as it goes but the sound balance is out of whack and does a disservice to the singers.

But you know what? I’m just going to haul out my 2008 review. Change the names and the design concept and we’re all good.

From The Australian, June 23, 2008

JAMES Millar is seriously talented. Not yet 30, he’s written, with composer Peter Rutherford, songs about love that are fresh, literate, humane and insightful. The most trampled-over subject in musical theatre has come up sparkling.

Earlier this year Millar and Rutherford premiered The Hatpin, a large-scale historical musical based on a fascinating, and true, Australian story. We didn’t have to wait long for their next venture, the song cycle LoveBites. On the surface it may look like a far less ambitious project but this allusive, sophisticated and compressed art brings its own challenges.

Millar tells the story of six unrelated couples who are captured at the moment of falling in love. In the second half we see how it all turned out. There’s no scene-setting, apart from a series of beautifully chosen projections designed by Martin Kinnane, and no expository dialogue. Everything must be conveyed through song in the space of five or six minutes.

Within that tight timeframe Millar has created a set of persuasive individuals whose fate you want to know: Daniel and James from the poorly attended reading group; Madeleine and Poppy, whose courtship starts with the buying of a single flower; Annie and Kevin, whom disaster strikes in the form of a non-working loo.

At almost every point the detail feels vivid and truthful. It’s fun that Georgine has to pretend she’s an ace rock-climber when Peter first asks her out and that the heavenly Kevin works with deaf children. Obviously taken from life is the tryst between a famous film star and a flight attendant in an aircraft toilet, and yes, Ralph Fiennes is name-checked. Rutherford turns this into a breathy, torchy number, called The Captain’s Turned Off the Seatbelt Sign.

The composer gracefully lets the lyrics take centre stage but is sensitive to the needs and moods of each character. There’s wistful delicacy for Poppy in Give It to the Breeze and a buoyant, confident anthem for James and Daniel, Setting the Date. I was less convinced by the poo song that ends the show. It has an impeccable message but feels a bit try-hard compared with the rest of LoveBites.

On piano, Rutherford accompanies a hard-working cast of four, including Millar. The odd little Downstairs Theatre at the Seymour Centre has a hard, dead acoustic and even though they are miked there are times when Octavia Barron-Martin and Sarah Croser in particular sound under-powered. Millar and Tyler Burness fare much better but I hesitate to be definitive about the vocal qualities of any of them in these conditions. They play the show very well under Kim Hardwick’s nicely unobtrusive direction.

Sound quibbles aside, LoveBites is a very significant achievement. Music theatre aficionados take note: a team that can write Bob and Louise is one to treasure. The song captures a lifetime of longing, pain and quiet, ordinary desperation in just a few minutes, and I wasn’t the only one crying by the end.

Kryptonite, Wharf 1, ends October 18; Unholy Ghosts, The Stables, Sydney, ends September 20; LoveBites, Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney, ends October 5.

An indie theatre mini-festival

Delectable Shelter, The Reginald, Seymour Centre, August 13. Fireface, ATYP Under the Wharf, Sydney, August 14. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Factory Floor, Marrickville, August 15

I HAD the interesting – and unique – experience this week of having an invitation to the theatre withdrawn. I was to have reviewed, for The Australian, visiting US music-comedy show Blue Man Group, now playing at Sydney’s Lyric Theatre. Its producer, Rodney Rigby, decided he didn’t wish to provide me with a complimentary ticket. I go into this in a little more detail on my DJ’s Diary page on this blog, but mention it here because I rearranged my week in light of this event. Instead of seeing Blue Man Group on Wednesday I decided to see independent company Stories Like These’s Fireface, by Marius Von Mayenburg. The night before I’d gone to the tiny Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre to see The Hayloft Project’s Delectable Shelter; the following night  – last night – I was at Marrickville’s The Factory Floor for the Australian premiere of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson from Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre. BBAJ is a deliciously dishevelled musical about, yes, the seventh president of the US.

So: three nights, three independent companies, three small and endearing theatre spaces and three reminders of the imaginative reach of theatre made outside the mainstream. It was like having my own little indie theatre festival – an event that could be replicated by Sydneysiders this weekend, and indeed would have to be replicated this weekend, as Delectable Shelter and Fireface end tomorrow. You could start off tomorrow at 2pm with Fireface, see Delectable Shelter at 8pm tomorrow, and then Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson at 5pm Sunday. The latter does run until September 1, but two shows don’t stack up as a mini-festival, do they?

Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong

Ryan Bennett and Darcie Irwin-Simpson in Fireface. Photo: Phyllis Wong

You may even divine some (very broad) connections between the three pieces, part of the joy of seeing them in close proximity. In Fireface a family is destroyed; in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson there is wholesale slaughter of a continent’s original inhabitants (sound familiar?); in Delectable Shelter the entire world is imperilled. And further joy: the productions could not be more dissimilar.

Fireface is apprehended as if by flickering light. In the space of 100 minutes a multitude of short scenes burst into life and are quickly snuffed out. But we get the picture clearly enough. Kurt (Darcy Brown) is an unexploded bomb, ever more unstable as he rejects his parents (played by James Lugton and Lucy Miller) and gets inappropriately close to his sister Olga (Darcie Irwin-Simpson), who understands too late the extent to which she is playing with fire by aligning herself with Kurt. Except for a scene in which Kurt and Olga poeticise an adventure they have in a factory, Fireface is claustrophically enclosed within the family. The apparently ordinary, middle-class home is posited as a place of torment and disgust, and one is reminded with a shiver of the horrors that such places can hide. Brown is extraordinarily good but Irwin-Simpson is one-dimensional and unconvincing, which diminishes the horror of Luke Rogers’s production. But certainly worth seeing.

Delectable Shelter is a slightly over-extended apocalyptic fable but so much fun that writer/director Benedict Hardie is forgiven. The world has been so badly damaged that the only hope for human survival is for a lucky few to take refuge in underground shelters, wait for, oh, three and a half centuries, work hard at repopulating, and try again up on the surface. We soon realise that the chosen are very few in number indeed – five, to be exact – and obviously they are rich and white. Except for a group of Chinese people on a space station.

With this tiny gene pool responsible for humanity’s future the omens are not auspicious. It’s clear it would take more than a nuclear winter to rid the world of privilege, xenophobia, religious fervour, sexual politics and the apparently unquenchable desire for power. Yesse Spence, Simone Page Jones, Jolyon James, Brendan Hawke and Andrew Broadbent are all wonderful and as a bonus intersperse the action with 1980s pop songs performed a cappella in the manner of sacred music. A further treat is Claude Marcos’s dazzling design, brilliantly lit by Lucy Birkinshaw.

It’s hard to understand why Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson should ever have been considered a sensible choice to take to a Broadway theatre, where it appeared relatively briefly after being performed Off-Broadway in 2010. It is no Once, the gentle love story that won a Tony Award for best musical last year. BBAJ is a raucous grunge musical that presents Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States and founder of the Democratic Party, as a deeply flawed but super charismatic rock star; the guy who put the “man” into manifest destiny. Did I saw deeply flawed? Jackson ruthlessly drove Indian nations from their lands and if they wouldn’t go, they were slaughtered. “We totally know you were here first. We don’t give a shit,” he says exuberantly. Was he a great president or a genocidal murderer – you decide, dude!

Writers Alex Timbers (book) and Michael Friedman (music and lyrics) manically elide early 19th century American politics with those of the present day (the show is performed in modern slacker dress). Taxes, big government, election stealing, conservative thinking – “It’s morning in America” – and a host of other references are slyly inserted into the roiling mix of comedy, political satire and song. Attention has to be paid to a piece that throws in Alexis de Toqueville, a funny song about metaphor, a bitter version of Ten Little Indians and a whole load of early American presidents (Martin Van Buren, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams) with zero explication.

The cult of personality in politics is depicted with the kind of vim and zest that apparently got Jackson elected way back then and which persists to this day and not only in the US. Australian political parallels will be noted. All of this is very good indeed and happens at breakneck speed under Craig Stewart’s direction. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson is over in a bouncy 90 minutes, although it would be an even stronger piece with a few excisions. Jackson is seen in Injun-killing or betraying mode rather too many times.

Squabbalogic’s no-frills show (set Sean Minahan, lighting Mikey Rice) is just right for the piece. The excellent band is up the back and the hard-working actors up the front, there are some fairy lights on the ceiling, a generally brothel-red glow throughout, some bits and bobs around the place and that’s that. Peter Meredith (Andrew Jackson) anchors the show forcefully and Jay James-Moody stands out in an array of characters. The singing, by and large, is pretty ordinary, and the use of microphones erratic and therefore puzzling. Nevertheless, Squabbalogic has come up trumps by giving the Australian premiere of this work. Fascinatingly the company is going to follow up with another premiere, the revised version of Carrie the Musical.  It’s impressive programming.

If you were to see these three shows, you would have to spend no more than $120 for the lot. Just as a point of comparison, top price for Blue Man Group on a Saturday night is $150.

Fireface, final performances tomorrow (Saturday August 17) at 2pm and 7.30pm. Delectable Shelter, final performances tomorrow at 2pm and 8pm. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, ends September 1.