Sydney Theatre Awards 2015

AT the Sydney Theatre Awards no one need ever fear a journalist asking them “who are you wearing” or indeed have any need of a stylist. There is no red carpet at the Paddington RSL, there are no TV cameras. The proceedings could be described as low-key, or even a little bit daggy if you wish, but it is always such a happy night. Yes, theatre practitioners are in competition with one another for our awards – I’m one of the Sydney critics whose votes determine the winners – but there is great warmth and good will in the room. As Belvoir’s new artistic director Eamon Flack said on Monday night when the awards for 2015 were announced, this is the one occasion when the industry gets together.

It’s also an occasion on which the tables are turned, slightly, on the critics, as we troop onstage to introduce presenters, ask those present to remember colleagues who have died in the past year, announce special awards and pay tribute to all the theatre workers who never get awards but whose backroom toil is essential. We’re always frightfully nervous about getting up in front of a room of theatre professionals but they are very kind.

This year’s highlights included passionate state-of-the-arts speeches from Flack and from Griffin’s artistic director Lee Lewis; a fantastically funny version of My Favourite Things specially written for the occasion by Dash Kruck and performed by him; a gorgeously heartfelt acceptance speech from James Millar when he won best supporting actor in a musical for his Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; Esther Hannaford’s performance of I’ll Hold On from the Nick Enright-Max Lambert musical Miracle City that got the audience to its feet (Lambert was on piano); and the bright presence of the four little girls – Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgie Taplin and Bella Thomas – who shared the role of Matilda and received our Special Achievement Award.

The Lifetime Achievement Award was accepted by Christine Dunstan, a woman steeped in many aspects of theatre for more than 50 years since starting her working life as an assistant stage manager. She founded her production company CDP in 1993 and it has been particularly active in making high-quality theatre for children. (CDP won the 2015 Sydney Theatre Award for best production for children for The 52-Storey Treehouse.) CDP also takes productions to many regional Australian centres and tours productions internationally.

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Belvoir’s Ivanov: Ewen Leslie, centre on the sofa, with John Howard, AirlieDodds, Blazey Best, Helen Thomson and John Bell

2015 SYDNEY THEATRE AWARD WINNERS

BEST MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Ivanov (Belvoir)

BEST INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Of Mice and Men (Sport for Jove and Seymour Centre)

BEST DIRECTION OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eamon Flack (Ivanov)

BEST DIRECTION OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Iain Sinclair (Of Mice and Men)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Eryn Jean Norvill (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Hugo Weaving (Endgame)

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Kate Cole (Grounded)

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Thomas Campbell (Misterman)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Blazey Best (Ivanov)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

John Howard (Ivanov)

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Taylor Ferguson (Good Works)

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Jeremy Waters, James Bell, Ben Wood in The Aliens (c) Rupert Reid

James Bell, centre. Photo: Rupert Reid

James Bell (The Aliens)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Nick Schlieper (Endgame)

BEST STAGE DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Michael Hankin (Of Mice and Men)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Alice Babidge (Suddenly Last Summer)

BEST COSTUME DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Angela White (Heathers)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

Paul Jackson (Love and Information)

BEST LIGHTING DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Hartley TA Kemp (Misterman)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF A MAINSTAGE PRODUCTION

The Sweats (Love and Information)

BEST SCORE OR SOUND DESIGN OF AN INDEPENDENT PRODUCTION

Nate Edmondson (Misterman)

BEST NEW AUSTRALIAN WORK

The Bleeding Tree (Angus Cerini)

BEST NEWCOMER

Lauren McKenna (Heathers)

BEST ENSEMBLE CAST

After Dinner (Sydney Theatre Company)

BEST PRODUCTION OF A MAINSTREAM MUSICAL

Matilda (The Royal Shakespeare Company, Louise Withers, Michael Coppel and Michael Watt)

BEST PRODUCTION OF AN INDEPENDENT MUSICAL

Violet (Blue Saint Productions in association with Hayes Theatre Co)

BEST DIRECTION OF A MUSICAL

Mitchell Butel (Violet)

JUDITH JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A MUSICAL

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Amy Lepahmer. Photo: James Morgan

Amy Lehpamer (The Sound of Music)

JUDITH JOHNSON AWARD FOR BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A MUSICAL

Hayden Tee (Les Miserables)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

Elise McCann (Matilda)

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE IN A MUSICAL

James Millar (Matilda)

BEST MUSICAL DIRECTION

Lucy Bermingham (Violet)

BEST CABARET PRODUCTION

Josie Lane (Asian Provocateur)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR CHILDREN

The 52-Storey Treehouse (CDP)

BEST PRODUCTION FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

War Crimes (ATYP)

SPECIAL ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin, Bella Thomas (Matilda)

MOLLY_BARWICK_AND_ELISE_MCCANN_PIC_BY_JAMES_MORGAN

Molly Barwick with Elise McCann in Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT AWARD

Christine Dunstan

Theatre artists of the year (and my inaugural Artist of the Year)

One person’s best is another person’s “I can’t believe we saw the same show”. Which if course we never do or can. We each bring to the theatre our history, our personality, our experiences, our experience, our tastes and our bête noirs.

So why these lists at year’s end? Well, they serve as reminders of ephemeral arts, they pay tribute to artists and they bring together things we saw through the year as individual events. Their power accumulates when seen collectively. They are proof of the richness of our cultural life.

Unlike my 2015 year in dance, which I posted on Tuesday, most of the theatre I saw this year – including musical theatre of all kinds – was in Sydney. There were also a couple of forays to New York, where much enjoyment was had.

Therefore, like my dance list, the following things are simply those productions and people I was really, really glad I saw.

By the way, for the first time ever I have decided to nominate an Artist of the Year. Scroll down to the bottom if you’d like to know right now.

2015 AT HOME

This year in Sydney the independent sector kept bobbing up with little gems. How producers and performers keep doing it with such limited resources is one of the great mysteries of life. Bless them one and all for their commitment. I hesitate to say poverty appears to be good for them but they are super-resourceful and awe-inspiringly creative. It was an honour to have seen Sport for Jove’s Of Mice and Men, Siren Theatre Co’s Misterman, Outhouse Theatre Company and Red Line Productions’ The Aliens, Oriel Group with Red Line Productions’ I Am My Own Wife, and Apocalyse Theatre Company’s The Dapto Chaser, seen at Griffin.

It was, you may have noticed, a pretty blokey time in the indie world (although Kate Gaul directed the wonderful Misterman). This became a subject of much discussion in 2015 and there are serious, sensible, inclusive plans to increase diversity right across the board in the live performance and screen arts.

Thomas Campbell - MISTERMAN 1

Thomas Campbell in Misterman, directed by Kate Gaul

That said, I was incredibly heartened to see standout contributions from some the small number of women writers and directors in this year’s theatre. Kate Gaul, as mentioned; Mary Rachel Brown, who wrote one of my year’s great favourites, The Dapto Chaser; Imara Savage at the helm of Sydney Theatre Company’s gloriously funny-sad After Dinner, by Andrew Bovell; playwright Lally Katz’s The Cat, half of the silly and sweet Belvoir Downstairs double bill The Dog/The Cat (Brendan Cowell wrote The Dog); and the miraculous American playwright Annie Baker (The Aliens).

I saw more than 200 shows this year in dance, theatre, musical theatre, opera, cabaret and circus and as I pondered the non-dance list it became clear that for me, it was the Year of the Woman as far as performance was concerned. Yes, I loved Ewen Leslie in Belvoir’s all-round engrossing Ivanov; Josh McConville in After Dinner – god that man is good; American tenor and rapidly rising superstar Michael Fabiano in Faust for Opera Australia; Simon Gleeson in Les Misérables; James Millar as Miss Trunchbull in Matilda; and, without exception, all the men in the indie shows I listed above (they had very, very strong casts).

Ivanov3

Zahra Newman and Ewen Leslie in Ivanov. Photo: Brett Boardman

Nevertheless, my memories glow just that bit more brightly when I think about the following …

I had just the best time at Matilda. Four times, in fact, as I went to see each of the girls in the title role. My admiration for Molly Barwick, Sasha Rose, Georgia Taplin and Bella Thomas knows no bounds. Each carries the show on very young shoulders. I had tears in my eyes at the end each time of this life-affirming show and may well pop down to Melbourne to do it all over again. Matilda starts there in March at the lovely Princess, which will suit it very well indeed. And there will be four new Matildas. A duty to go, really.

Also in Matilda, the heart-rendingly beautiful Elise McCann as Miss Honey.

And what about Amy Lehpamer? She’s unimprovable in The Sound of Music as she was earlier in the year for a much smaller audience as Tracy Lord in High Society at the Hayes in Sydney. Speaking of High Society, I was bowled over by Virginia Gay as Liz. She gave one of the most accomplished, nuanced and touching performances of the year and gave a master class in how to sing Cole Porter. Also at the Hayes, actor Mitchell Butel’s impressive debut directorial outing – the musical Violet – was crowned by Samantha Dodemaide’s blazingly passionate performance in the title role.

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Amy Lehpamer as Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo: James Morgan

It’s not an easy business getting a new musical off the ground but Queensland Theatre Company did it with Ladies in Black, with music and lyrics by Tim Finn and a book by Carolyn Burns. Based on Madeleine St John’s novel The Women in Black, it is packed with deliciously memorable songs and is unstoppably optimistic as it follows the dreams and aspirations of a young woman coming of age at the turn of the 1960s. It’s set in a women’s department store among the frocks, and thus is dominated by a big (and top-notch) female cast, headed as we speak for a season at Melbourne Theatre Company from January 16. Sarah Morrison plays young heroine Lisa Miles with a lovely mixture of determination and vulnerability.

Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary

Sarah Morrison as Lisa and Christen O’Leary as Magda in Ladies in Black

I pity anyone who missed Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura’s return visit to Opera Australia with Madama Butterfly (Sydney and Melbourne, after last year’s mind-blowing performance in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Butterfly and an earlier visit to Sydney). Australian soprano Nicole Car is getting a fantastic – richly deserved – reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for her Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; luckily we saw her in Onegin and Faust this year and she will appear in OA’s Luisa Miller in Sydney very soon. It’s likely overseas houses will start snapping her up regularly. In the contemporary opera sphere, Jane Sheldon was unforgettable in Sydney Chamber Opera’s searing An Index of Metals.

NOTES FROM ABROAD:

I saw Annie Baker’s The Flick in New York with the original cast (Melbourne was fortunate enough to see a production directed in 2014 by Nadia Tass for Red Stitch and revived this year). It is the play – indeed the production among all art forms – I keep coming back to. The three-hander is set in a down-at-heel cinema where hope flickers as forlornly as the out-of-date film equipment the unseen owner insists on keeping. For close to three hours two men and a woman engage in desultory conversation while sweeping up popcorn, changing reels and jockeying for position. Brilliant.

I also had a fun experience with Theatre for One, which is exactly what it says. You pop into a booth and an actor performs a short play just for you. Sitting practically knee-to-knee, you have nowhere to look but into each other’s eyes. Interesting. I saw two works and wish I’d been able to stay to complete the set of six.

On the musicals front Christopher Wheeldon’s direction and choreography of An American in Paris were blissful and what a treat to be able to see the pint-sized powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth in Cy Coleman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s rarely seen On the Twentieth Century.

A detour into celebrity casting:

Call me shallow but I love it. Bill Nighy and Carey Mulligan in Skylight; Helen Mirren in The Audience; Darren Criss in Hedwig and the Angry Inch; New York City Ballet star Robert Fairchild in An American in Paris. Criss, best known for the TV series Glee, was the surprise package: a knockout.

ARTIST OF THE YEAR:

Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia's Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour - Aida. Photo Hamilton Lund

Jacqueline Dark in the eye of the storm as Amneris in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Okay folks, I’m calling it. My Artist of the Year is Jacqueline Dark, thrilling and versatile mezzo frequently seen with Opera Australia; kick-arse cabaret artist who can write her own material, as we saw in Strange Bedfellows, her cheerfully outrageous show with partner in crime Kanen Breen; and now music-theatre sensation with her Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Obviously she can get to the summit and back with ease in Climb Ev’ry Mountain, but she gets the acting part of it so right too. That said, Dark could have won this title just on the basis of her courageous performances as Amneris in Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida early this year. Apart from the challenge of having to sing from on high – you can just see Dark in Nefertiti’s eye – the weather was appalling, costumes became waterlogged and thus as heavy as a hod of bricks, and yet the show had to go on. Dark sounded fabulous, of course. She is a trouper of the highest order.

Jacqui Dark, Kanen Breen. Pic- Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

 

Matilda the Musical and memories of childhood

Matilda the Musical, Lyric Theatre, Sydney

I’M sorry. I make no apology for the following revelation because it’s relevant. I was the intellectual of the Kindergarten class at St Columba’s, Ballarat North. I could read before I started school and thus, when the teacher – not a sympathetic one, I fear – took us endlessly through a huge alphabet chart on the wall (A apple, B bat, C cat and so on) I thought I would go mad. I can still see it, and shall we say this was some small time ago, when we all sat in rows at wooden desks with inkwells. I also had a lazy eye and zero coordination. Being chosen last for rounders was a given, and in the foot races we were forced to take part in I always came last. Unless Helen Sherry was in my group, and then I came second last.

What balm, then, Matilda the Musical is for little girls and boys like me, and for me too these many decades later. Those memories are forever green, unfortunately.

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Bella Thomas as Matilda. Photo: James Morgan

Tim Minchin so gets that. Take one of his early songs in Matilda, School Song, in which the alphabet is trawled to build up to a climactic: “Just you wait for Phys Ed”. That not only gets Z done and dusted in sensational style, it speaks to the monumental terror so many of us felt when forced to get our heads out of a book and our puny bodies on to the sports field. The humiliation was intense and complete.

The staging of this song piles Pelion on Ossa (classical reference!) by having the senior students played by adults. Remember how big the big kids looked when you started school. It’s that, magnified. All this happens shortly after a rousing opening number in which Matilda’s youngsters boast of just how marvelous their parents’ think they are. They are in for a shock.

Minchin, Dennis Kelly (book), Peter Darling (choreography), Rob Howell (sets and costumes) and Matthew Warchus (original direction of this Royal Shakespeare Company production) create wonders from Roald Dahl’s story. Matilda is exhilarating fun while being very, very brainy. Books, language, courage, resilience and imagination are celebrated as weapons of rebellion against the philistine and the mean-spirited. There’s an inescapable darkness in Matilda but a beautiful spirit of optimism prevails. It’s magical and it has something to say to everyone.

Molly Barwich as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Molly Barwick as Matilda with Elise McCann as Miss Honey. Photo: James Morgan

Given the subject matter, Matilda the Musical has to rest its case on small shoulders. There are superb performances from James Millar (silken-voiced, despotic headmistress Miss Trunchbull), Elise McCann (divine Miss Honey) and Marika Aubrey and Daniel Frederiksen (Matilda’s ghastly parents, the Wormwoods). The kids are all a delight too, but Matilda has to be the shining centre.

There are four girls playing our heroine in rotation, obviously not five-year-olds but several years short of teenagehood. I have seen two of them, Molly Barwick (10) at a preview and Bella Thomas (11) at last week’s opening night. They were very different and both enchanting. I very much want to see Sasha Rose and Georgia Taplin, obviously out of professional interest, and also because it means I get to see Matilda again.

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.

Noel and Gertie, The Removalists

Noel and Gertie, a CDP production, Glen St Theatre, Sydney, May 25.

The Removalists, Tamarama Rock Surfers, Bondi Pavilion, Sydney, May 29

NOEL Coward and Gertrude Lawrence met as child actors and immediately and lastingly took to one another. Sheridan Morley’s evocation of their bond, Noel and Gertie, was created in 1981 to be performed at a benefit, although its careful construction meant it had a later life in several theatre seasons in the 1980s in London. It’s a wisp of a piece: amusing, charming and deftly avoiding anything too personal – not that Morley was unacquainted with this subjects as he had written biographies of both. He chose, however, to concentrate on the glamour, wit and style of the pair as refracted through the theatah.

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Lucy Maunder and James Millar in Noel and Gertie. Photo: Nicholas Higgins

Naturally this means lots of lovely songs, sensitively accompanied on grand piano by music director Vincent Colagiuri, and happy reminders of Coward’s stage works. Scenes from plays – Private Lives, of course; Blithe Spirit; Tonight at 8.30 – are stitched together neatly with the music and material from diaries and letters to paint a fond and rosy picture with just a tinge of melancholy. Coward and Lawrence’s youth when they started in the business is the excuse for a rollicking Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs Worthington, and Has Anybody Seen Our Ship? from Red Peppers, one of the 10 short plays that make up Tonight at 8.30, is cheerful, uplifting nonsense.

The show, however, leans more towards reflection. Parisian Pierrot, from the revue London Calling!, was written for Lawrence and is beautifully sung by Lucy Maunder, as are Sail Away and If Love Were All, which contains the phrase so often associated with Coward, “a talent to amuse”. It was much more than that, of course, although not necessarily recognised right away by the critical establishment. James Millar, as Coward, is given the lovely line that in the early days he was forced to accept “the bitter palliative of commercial success”. What a Noel-y thing to say.

Under Nancye Hayes’s light-touch direction Maunder is an enchanting Gertie, poised and soignee to just the right degree. Millar could find just a little more gloss for the Master but he has time, given the lengthy tour Noel and Gertie is about to embark on.

And just a few words on The Removalists …

THERE could be no greater contrast to Noel and Gertie than David Williamson’s The Removalists (1971), written in the playwright’s gritty early years (it was written in the same year as Don’s Party and the year after The Coming of Stork).

The Tamarama Rock Surfers production, directed by Leland Kean, is a beauty: tough, lean, as shocking today as it was four decades ago. Constable Ross (Sam O’Sullivan), fresh out of the academy, turns up for his first day of work to find he’s in a little suburban police outpost where if things are big, they need the attention of a bigger station, and if they are small, they’re probably too small to worry about.

Justin Stewart Cotta

Justin Stewart Cotta in The Removalists

The sergeant (Laurence Coy) is one of those incredibly passive-aggressive types who has the art of manipulation so well-honed it’s as natural as breathing. Or, in his case, as sitting down and deflecting work. Except when there might be a bit of advantage to be taken.

The Removalists is a NSW HSC drama text and the performance I attended was an early evening one for students. It was fascinating and heartening to see the group of mainly young men so attentive to the piece, and also taken aback by the casual sexism Williamson so deftly illuminates. I assume the students had already read the play so knew where it was all heading, but the way the Sarge patronised the women who had come for his help, made vile insinuations and put his hands everywhere had some in the audience literally gasping.

Terrific performances all round, by the way, with a special mention to Justin Stewart Cotta as Kenny, the over-bearing, boorish husband who knocks around his wife a bit and gets rather more back than anyone intended.

Noel and Gertie ends at Sydney’s Glen St Theatre on June 1. Then Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith, June 5-6; Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 11-15; Frankston Arts Centre, Frankston, June 20; Whitehorse Centre, Nunawading, June 21-22; The Concourse, Chatswood, June 26-29; Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, Queanbeyan, July 2-7; Dubbo Regional Theatre, Dubbo, July 10; Orange Civic Theatre, Orange, July 12-13; Laycock Street Theatre, Gosford, July 16-18; Manning Entertainment Centre, Taree, July 20; The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide, July 23-27.

The Removalists ends June 15.

Catherine Alcorn and the art of cabaret

This is the second in an occasional series of in-depth conversations with people in the arts

CABARET is Kurt Weill and it’s the Moulin Rouge, it’s Barbara Cook at Café Carlyle, it’s the glamorous Ute Lemper, it’s the kamikaze stylings of Meow Meow and it’s Michael Feinstein at the piano singing from the great American songbook.

Cabaret is a dimly lit, insufficiently ventilated room crammed with too many people drunk on cheap wine and it’s a grand salon featuring a grande dame with a nifty backing band and a hefty minimum. It’s a chanteuse in a corner and it’s lines and lines of scantily clad dancers. It’s German, it’s French, it’s American, it can be anywhere and can be pretty much anything. It’s life, old chum.

The names coming to this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival illustrate nicely just how widely cabaret’s welcoming arms extend. The international contingent is headed by stars of Wicked on Broadway Kristen Chenoweth and Idina Menzel, one opening the festival and the other closing it. Former teen movie star Molly Ringwald (yes, she’s an accomplished jazz singer) will be there, as will American composer Adam Guettel, who happens to be the grandson of Richard Rodgers. The home team includes Paul Capsis, Phil Scott, Robyn Archer, Eddie Perfect with a new production of Shane Warne the Musical, Bernadette Robinson and the incomparable Meow Meow.

The festival’s artistic director Kate Ceberano has given herself a slot on the program too, teaming up with bass baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes of opera fame. This unlikely pair met and bonded when cast in Opera Australia’s South Pacific last year. They’ve astutely called their show called Meet Me in the Middle.

And also on the bill is Catherine Alcorn, a Sydneysider whose career is kind of just beginning but has been in the making for nearly three decades. She has wanted this moment so very badly, and for a long, long time.

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Catherine Alcorn. Photo: Luke Stambouliah

Her story is an inspiring one. On the personal level it’s a snapshot of what it can take to get traction as a performer. There’s also a bigger picture. Alcorn is creative director for a venue, Slide Lounge, which is one of the few places in Sydney where cabaret has a regular foothold. Alcorn – intense, voluble, insanely determined, warm and spirited – is particularly well placed, then, to discuss the joys and pitfalls of this unruly art form.

Alcorn’s new show is called Go Your Own Way and is inspired by the life and work of former Fleetwood Mac singer-songwriter Christine McVie. After Adelaide Go Your Own Way will be seen at other festivals and, well, wherever Alcorn can get it seen.

In April Alcorn and I talked about what goes into making a career in cabaret.  It started, really, when she was 2 ½; she is now 31. This is an edited version of our conversation, which took place at Slide in Oxford St, Sydney, one afternoon.

The beginning:

MUM told me that I could always sing in tune. I used to watch The Wizard of Oz back to back. As soon as it finished I used to say, Mummy, more Wiz, more Wiz. I was 2½. She said I could sing along with all the words and I would sing in tune. At children’s birthday parties my parents would video kids in a circle singing. When it came to me, I would compose my own song. Butterflies Fly in the Springtime – that was for my 4th birthday party. I’ve still got it on tape.

It was just always there; always something I did and something I loved doing. [Schoolteacher] Mum was the choirmaster at school so it did come from my mother’s side. I know that my father can’t sing a note. He loves music, he’ll sing along, but he’s not musically adept.

I went to PLC [Pymble Ladies College] until I was in Year 5. Their productions are bigger than Ben-Hur.  I always had one of the leads because I was a good singer, always in the choir at school, took piano since I was five. I wish I had continued. I can still read music very well, but… I learned piano for about eight years but I don’t think the drive was really there. I was a really good swimmer, good at sport. I represented NSW in butterfly in trials. But I didn’t want it enough.

[After attending two other schools Alcorn completed her schooling at Barker College.] I wasn’t a problem child, but the feeling of the environment was very important to me. I was bullied at school a lot. Probably because I was loud. Or confident. I was always a very happy person, but sensitive. I think people can take advantage of that.

I’ve never shied away from having to lead. If we were ever put in group situations at school or at camp I would naturally want to instigate what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it. That was always part of my personality.

I did Voice for my school certificate. When I went to Barker I chose Voice as my instrument for the HSC. That’s when I had to begin to train properly and I took up tuition under Dallas Watts, who I still train with today. It was classical training and we used to sing arias and musical theatre. I studied jazz vocally at Barker under another teacher. I was also doing guitar lesson intermittently. That helped with the jazz. Not so much pop. Pop was never a genre of mine; it was more musical-theatre based.

Then I went to Charles Sturt University [in Wagga Wagga]. It was a straight acting course, acting for the screen and stage, but they did have a voice component. It was just a shit-fight those three years. We went through so many changes of teacher.

A friend did some work in the Leagues club in Wagga Wagga, and encouraged Alcorn to sing there with her.

[LOCAL producer] Don Hillam saw us and said, I can make some money out of you girls. That was when I was 19. We called ourselves Double Platinum and for the next four years when I was in Wagga I did three or four gigs a week. It was great. From those gigs I ended up getting gigs with Don’s writing partner Peter Cox, who put on cabaret and dinner theatre shows around town, and that’s where I learned everything that I know. It wasn’t at uni. I rarely went to voice class after that.

I’m not proud of the fact that I didn’t turn up for class but I was working with professionals … and I wanted to be where I felt good, and I felt good with those people. I played with incredible musicians who are some of Australia’s best talent, all of this in Wagga. They’re lifelong friends who see a future in the younger generations and love it and nurture them.

I did a dip. ed after my acting degree. I finished, I passed. [Laughs.] I was terribly frustrated. I never had an agent straight out of uni. We did all those showcases but I was never picked up by anyone. I just tried to engage myself in as much music as I could.

Like many young Australians, Alcorn headed for Europe soon after finishing university. She was away for four years, returning to Sydney in 2007. She taught music for a time in primary schools and then took a personal assistant position with Channel 9, working on Wide World of Sports.

I DID not know how to get where I wanted to be. I thought, if I’m around television people, who knows when I might end up on the other side of the camera. As it turns out I’m a lovely bubbly person but I’m a rubbish PA. [Big laugh.]

I had a good time. I was 27 and 28. I ended up segment producing but it got to the point where I was so internally frustrated that I was going to burst unless something big happened. That something big was quitting; saving up six months’ salary so that I could quit, produce a show and start performing.

In 2009 – I’d never been to Slide before – Peter Cox was here seeing a show he had written. I came and saw it, raced up to Coxy after the show, and said please write me something. And he said, of course, but what do you want? I said, well, people are always telling me I look like Kate Ceberano and he said, sweetheart, she’s still active. And the next thing I said was Bette [Midler]. And a few weeks later he had the script [for The Divine Miss Bette].

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

Catherine Alcorn in The Divine Miss Bette. Photo: Wesley Nel

We opened it in Wagga for a Christmas season in 2009. In November 2010 I opened Bette here in Sydney. It was going to be a one-off. All of my friends in Sydney who hadn’t got to Wagga wanted to see it, so I did it at Slide and it was packed to the brimful. We had 120 people downstairs and 45 upstairs. It was like everyone I knew. It was incredible.

We ended up doing a monthly show here all of 2011 which is incredible for a cabaret show. It was calculated in a sense that I wanted Bette to relaunch me – well, it wasn’t a relaunch [laughing]; to launch me – as an artist. So I picked a character that people loved, a character that I knew was going to be impactful, which she is; the music is incredible, it spans 100 different genres – musical theatre, rock, jazz, torch songs. I was just so relieved. I’ve never felt more relief. We ended up performing shows to the middle of 2012.

Freelancing is a really risky think to do, but the harder you work the more you work. You always have [to think], where’s my next pay cheque going to come from, but that’s the sacrifice you need to make if you’re moving towards a goal.

The networking and risk-taking started to pay off.

BEFORE we did the show in Wagga I was working with a friend in my building who’s a cellist, and I was talking about the show. It was still in production. And he said, well the bloke who discovered [Midler] lives just around the corner. So I contacted Steve [Ostrow, who opened New York’s Continental Baths in 1968]. I said I know you’re a teacher, I want to get training again in preparation for the show.

He said, what kind of a show is it? I said it’s a Bette Midler show. He said [Alcorn puts on an American accent], “Oh, I remember Bette. I used to pay her 25 bucks a night to sing in my club. Now she’s making 100 million. Come around and I’ll tell you all about it.” We struck up a really great friendship, but it was a slow build until he saw I was really invested in my career and started to take a bit more interest in what I was doing. He separated from his wife after the Continental Baths closed and moved out here to work with the opera company. And he’s stayed ever since. He’s 80. Still teaches.

The Divine Miss Bette also got Alcorn a manager.

I’D never had an agent; never had a manager. I really don’t fit a specific mould at all. But I’ve always believed in my talent. Michael [Montgomery, of Warehouse 16] said, I have not seen talent like you in a very long time and I would love to talk. And I just felt this excitement come up through my body. And after about five minutes he said, can I represent you. I just said, yes. I didn’t even think about it. Perhaps I should have. But my god, the relief. The show had done what I wanted it to do. Plus taken me around the country and to New Zealand.

It was a start – but I worked so hard. Those months I took off work I was learning how to build a website, building a website, making posters, all of those things. I did it all myself. That’s fine, I am proud of myself, but it was a huge amount of work. But I didn’t have any funding to do it any other way.

[Producer] Neil Gooding came to see the show too. It was very contrived. I emailed Neil and introduced myself. I saw he was auditioning for Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at Parramatta Riverside Theatre so I went to audition for that, and at my audition I invited him to the first show of Bette so he would come and see it and so then I would have a producer want to pick it up to help me. Because I wanted to be able to concentrate on the performance.

Before I could make it up to the dressing room after the first show in November 2010 I had a text message from Neil saying, I’d love to produce it any time you want. It just worked. It all fell into place. I was doing what I was supposed to be doing.

Because the show was selling so well on a repeat basis I suppose Slide wanted to bring that energy and knowledge in to help their other shows. I came on as marketing manager in June 2011. Then six months later I stepped up as creative director.

So, despite having secured a manager and with a producer interested in her show, Alcorn took a desk job.

IT’S a really hard balance. [Groans.] There’s limited work in Australia. I have to survive, and I’d prefer to be surviving by working with other artists and producing shows, and being able to perform as well and do things like cabaret festivals, rather than working as a receptionist somewhere else. I’m current, being here. Not everyone gets a drop-in from Phil Scott on a Tuesday on his way to lunch.

More often than not it is a daily struggle for me balancing one or the other but my boss supports me in everything I do. He lets all of us here at Slide play with new ideas, try things out. He’s an incredible guy. I just wish, I just wish it was easier to fill a room night after night after night after night.

Would Alcorn give up the Slide job for full-time entertaining?

I THINK about it a lot. Is it pulling my focus? Is it keeping me in a holding yard? I would say probably yes. It’s really hard. It’s so hard. Sydney hasn’t grown up with a cabaret culture. The closest I came to going to cabaret shows was at the Basement and they were live music shows. It’s a cabaret setting, where you’re right there at tables like a jazz club, but seriously that is the only venue in Sydney that I remember growing up going to that resembled a cabaret feeling for me. That’s part of the problem. It’s never been part of Sydney’s culture. Strangely.

We’ve got a lot of international people calling us [at Slide] the cabaret venue to go to in Sydney and I think that’s because none of us here stop talking about it. You’ve got to blow your own trumpet.

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Catherine Alcorn as her alter ego Fidel Cathro. Photo: Johan Khoury

Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie

I WAS on a plane somewhere between Santiago and Lima – my brother got married to a Colombian girl so we were over there – and I was listening to Fleetwood Mac’s greatest hits. I remember seeing Fleetwood Mac when they toured a few years ago, and I remember thinking, it’s a shame that other woman isn’t here because I loved her stuff. I remember thinking that, and then I forgot about it.

But then I was listening to that song As Long as You Follow that she wrote. I was thinking, I’ve been doing Bette for so long. I don’t want to be a one-trick pony. I was [thinking], I want to play another rock chick. I was thinking, maybe Chrissie Hynde from The Pretenders, or something like that – who would be great as well – and then I thought, my god, Christine, the woman I’m listening to. Who was a completely confusing character. She’s now a recluse living in Kent who just walks her dogs; who decided this was not the life she wanted. How could you not want this life. Who doesn’t want to be a rock star forever!

A pitch to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival was accepted.

SO I emailed [writer and actor] James Millar, who was then living in London, to ask are you interested in writing this show? My motto is, if you don’t ask you don’t get. We’re not besties or anything, but I knew him enough professionally to ask the question. And then my first choice of music director was Isaac Hayward, because he and I work together on everything, and as far as I’m concerned it’s such an important relationship with Isaac. He’s my musical soul mate. He may be only 21 but I’ll say something and he’ll just get it.

Then I asked Jason Langley if he would direct it. [Actress] Belinda Wollaston asked me if I’d ever been directed by Jason and I said no. And she said I had to be, he’s brilliant, and that stuck in my mind. He’s just a beautiful man.

I’m funding it. I’m producing it. That’s actually not true. Adelaide have commissioned it, and the fee that we have negotiated will fund the creation of the show, which is incredible. They invited me over to do the publicity week and the launch of the program with Eddie Perfect and Kate [Ceberano] and Paul Capsis and another local artist, an Adelaide girl. Out of everyone they could have chosen they asked me, and I was so grateful and thrilled and just lapped up being able to be the talent for one week instead of being the producer and organising everything. I’m so grateful. It’s the biggest cabaret festival in the world and I couldn’t be more honoured.

After Adelaide, everywhere else I take it, [including the] Melbourne Cabaret Festival, that will be at my own risk. Anything I do after Adelaide, which is only two shows, it will be self-funded and produced. That’s what you’ve got to do.

Does Christine McVie know about the show?

WE’VE tried to contact her, but I don’t think so. We’ve tried contacting Stevie Nicks’s management, because James [Millar] wanted to interview her. There’s only so much about Christine out there. We tried to contact Ken Caillat, who produced [the Fleetwood Mac hit record] Rumours and who wrote the book Making Rumours, but we never heard back from any of them. After we open the show it might be a different story, but you never know. We tried.

What is cabaret?

IN one word, intimacy. It’s about being right there with the artist and up close. Because cabaret has developed in so many different ways it’s not just about show tunes, it is seeing your favourite artist or an artist up close and personal. That’s the only real way I have come to know cabaret.  As a cabaret artist I get to say anything on stage I want to. I’m used to seeing reactions straight away and being able to feed off that. That’s what I love about an audience.

It’s the stories. Cabaret is a story. People love that and I maintain that Sydney loves cabaret. They just don’t know it yet.

 Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie, “The Other Woman” in Fleetwood Mac, Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 15, 4pm and 10pm. Slide Lounge, Sydney, June 26.  Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 27 & 28.

Alcorn performs The Divine Miss Bette at Sydney’s Glen Street Theatre, July 23-28

Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 7-22.

Slide Cabaret Festival, June 21-July 4.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival, June 26-July 7.