Sydney Theatre Company’s Hay Fever

Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, April 15.

“I never realise how dead I am until I meet people like you,” says the rather correct “diplomatist” Richard Greatham (Alan Dukes) to the chatelaine of the unorthodox country house to which he’s been invited for the weekend. Call it the Bliss factor, a tornado-like life force that sweeps up everyone in its path. At least it does in Sydney Theatre Company’s exhilarating new production of Hay Fever, which director Imara Savage gives an intense, sexy energy that blows away the cobwebs so often clinging to Coward and his 1925 comedy of bad manners.

At the centre of the whirlwind is Judith Bliss (sublime Heather Mitchell), an actress who is nominally retired but has simply transferred her theatrics to a more intimate setting. As we soon discover, each member of the Bliss family has asked a friend to stay without telling the others. They are not natural hosts and are wildly self-dramatising. There will be complications, not the least of which is who will get to stay in the Japanese room.

STC Hay Fever Heather Mitchell. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell as Judith Bliss in Hay Fever. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Richard’s confession to Judith is the key to this work. Hay Fever celebrates those people in the world who burn more brightly than others because they have fewer limits. They are the sun and we are bits of space junk caught gratefully in their orbit, at least for a while.

When Coward wrote Hay Fever, World War I just a handful of years in the past and the Edwardian era was over. Time to have some fun. Coward was only 24 at the time but had been moving in artistic circles for more than a decade – he was a professional actor from the age of 11 and wrote his first West End play at 20. His family was not well off and Coward was entirely self-made. It’s tempting to think that the get-the-guest antics of the Blisses were inspired not only by Coward’s acquaintance with American actress Laurette Taylor and her games-playing family, but were also a reaction to the days in which his mother had to take in lodgers to make some money.

Coward claimed to have written Hay Fever in three days without revision and there’s no reason to doubt him. That’s not a criticism – he wrote Private Lives in “roughly” four days, by his account – but it does remind us not to get too profound about the piece. Indeed, the superficiality is the point of it and Savage – with one caveat – astutely finds the right tone for today’s audience. Her production is invigoratingly untethered from the 1920s, picking up on the contemporary adoration of self while being not in the slightest bit condemnatory.

The daughter of the family, Sorel (Harriet Dyer), indulges in one or two little shows of conscience, voicing the belief that everyone in the family should behave rather better, but her desire to be a nicer, finer person is more pleasing concept than possibility. Nor should it be. Sorel, played by Dyer with a mixture of whiny childishness and acute perceptiveness, is clever enough to know that “the people we like put up with it because they like us”. It’s an unvirtuous circle. When this lot of guests have gone there will be other willing victims.

STC Hay Fever. Lisa Tomasetti

Heather Mitchell, Briallen Clarke, Tom Conroy and Harriet Dyer. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Sorel’s brother Simon (Tom Conroy) and she have no visible occupation and still live at home with Judith and their father, David (Tony Llewellyn-Jones), who writes very bad novels and is not dead, as Judith’s slightly dim young guest and admirer Sandy Tyrell (Josh McConville) had surmised. David is, in fact, in the house and has invited the naive Jackie Coryton (Briallen Clarke) to the country so he might study her as “a useful type”. That Sorel’s guest is the very Richard who is enchanted by Judith hints at the roundelay that develops, one in which Simon’s sophisticated guest Myra Arundel (Helen Thomson) will be discovered by Judith in a compromising position with David. He is lying on top of Myra on the floor.

The teasing Is endless and wickedly manipulative and the guests don’t stand a chance. Nor does the audience really. As Savage showed with last year’s After Dinner, an early comedy by Andrew Bovell (also at STC), she has a great eye for physical comedy and a superb cast to enact it. Richard, for example, gets two of the best sight gags in the show – beautifully played by Dukes – and they give the mature diplomat warmth and colour. Conroy’s Simon plays up his bohemian credentials by drinking wine at breakfast and professing violent love for women despite exuding an air of being not particularly interested in them. Judith is one of the great comic roles in 20th century theatre and Mitchell makes her every whim, tic and idiosyncracy adorable (bar one, but that’s the caveat I’m coming to and it’s not her fault). Mitchell’s pre-Raphaelite beauty is intoxicating, as is her way with a seductive phrase. “I’ve been pruning the calceolarias,” she throatily purrs to Sandy. It’s an invitation to unimagined delights that seduce us all.

In what is perhaps the trickiest role to pull off in this updating, Genevieve Lemon plays Judith’s housekeeper (and former dresser) Clara in the manner of a beloved, eccentric retainer in a conventional British farce. It’s wacky, no doubt about it, but fits in with the idea of theatricality not only as an attribute of the Bliss family but as a style of performance.

STC Hay Fever3

Heather Mitchell, Josh McConville and Helen Thomson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The idea of life as an act is gorgeously reinforced by designer Alicia Clements’s divinely ramshackle conservatory, the centrepiece of which is a claw-foot bath that doubles as a sofa, and the lurid curtains that frame the stage and close at a majestic pace. The boldest example is the inclusion of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black, lip-synched by Judith in lieu of a lovely little song at the piano. It is a surreal, provocative choice although not necessarily out of keeping with Judith’s mercurial temperament. Less successful – this is the caveat – is Savage’s decision to replace the names of British newspapers with those of Sydney ones. Judith is proposing a return to the stage and speaks of the thrill of a first night, the critics “all leaning forward with flowing faces, receptive and exultant …” Savage has Mitchell address the audience directly here and, just for a moment, the bubble that encloses these characters bursts. The Winehouse song – just – stays inside that bubble.

That seemed to me a misstep in a production where artificiality is so prized. Savage’s brilliant ending says it all. The climactic touch is a halo of light that envelops the Bliss family, accompanied by a lush, golden-days-of-Hollywood swelling of strings. (Trent Suidgeest is responsible for the lighting; Max Lyandvert for sound design and music.) The guests have slipped away and the Blisses are now at their most relaxed and content, a family very much at peace, albeit noisily, with one another in their own little world.

Hay Fever ends on May 21.

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.

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.