About last week … April 23-29

I could be wrong but I think the only Jonathan Dove opera to have made it to a professional stage so far in Australia is Flight, which I saw in 2006 when the Adelaide Festival presented the Glyndebourne production. The prolific Dove is something of a rarity, being a living opera composer whose more than two dozen works in the genre are much in demand around the world (except, it would seem, Australia). He told The Times of London last year that during 2015 there would be “17 new stagings of 11 of my operas in eight different countries”.

So it was a huge pleasure to be able to see Dove’s Mansfield Park (2011) staged by Operantics, the Sydney-based company founded last year to create performance opportunities for young singers. Home base is North Sydney’s Independent Theatre. It has a comfortable 300-seat auditorium and judging by the very good house at the April 24 matinee Operantics is already hitting the spot with just its third production.

Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton hit the spot too with their adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1814 novel of goodness rewarded. Gentle Fanny Price lives at Mansfield Park with well-off relatives and is secretly in love with her cousin Edmund. She might be considered the most insignificant member of the household but only she understands the dangers posed when vivacious, worldly Mary and Henry Crawford enter their lives and create emotional mayhem.

Mansfield Park - John Kilkeary DSC_8614LR

A scene from Operantics’ Mansfield Park. Photo: John Kilkeary

The action is wittily presented in two “volumes” and 18 “chapters”, each announced by the singers. Dove’s score, written for piano duo, flows freely and melodically, alert to the comedy and self-serving dramatics of most of the characters while giving Fanny some gentle, heartfelt music. A burbling undercurrent suits the rural setting and provides a very busy workout indeed for the accompanying pianists, in this case the heroic Nathaniel Kong and Geena Cheung. Only some very high-lying music for Mary Crawford and a couple of the more complex ensembles created real difficulties to understanding the text without surtitles; otherwise the Operantics cast of 10 sang with admirable clarity and, in the modest but effective production, were engaging actors.

It’s a real ensemble work, most winningly presented, so I won’t single out anyone other than Katie Miller-Crispe: she sang the role of Maria, is Operantics’ artistic director and was production manager for Mansfield Park. Brava. And in late September Operantics plans to stage Bellini’s La sonnambula. The company certainly doesn’t want for ambition.

The Detective’s Handbook, at Hayes Theatre Co, isn’t much more than an extended skit on an inconsequential subject but it does announce impressive new music-theatre talent in writer Ian Ferrington and composer Olga Solar (the latter is just 22). The musical is a spoofy murder mystery set in 1950s Chicago with the familiar tropes of mismatched detectives, femmes fatale and puns galore. Many people really enjoyed its helium-balloon lightness but for me the affectionate homage to the classic noir detective novel didn’t have enough to maintain interest for 80 minutes.

Detectives_Pic Clare Hawley

Justin Smith and Rob Johnson in The Detective’s Handbook. Photo: Clare Hawley

What it does have is Ferrington’s sophisticated, rhythmically complex wordplay and Solar’s lovely, nostalgic jazz score. I particularly liked the song for world-weary detective Frank Thompson (delivered beautifully by Justin Smith) early on in the piece and had there been stronger character development along those lines The Detective’s Handbook could have been both funny and more complex.

The Detective’s Handbook came out of New Musicals Australia’s development program and has had input from the best in the business. The great cast is directed by Jonathan Biggins, music direction is by veteran Michael Tyack, James Browne designed and choreography is by Christopher Horsey. As I wrote in The Australian this week, the loving production gives The Detective’s Handbook more than it warrants but let’s call it an investment in the future. It would be good to think Ferrington and Solar are already working on something else.

I managed to catch Patricia Cornelius’s tough, gut-wrenchingly powerful Savages at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse a few days before the end of its season. I went to the Wednesday matinee when the house was pretty much sold out to students, all of them young men. They were clearly listening closely and I imagine won’t forget it quickly. I do hope not. Savages sticks like glue to four close mates as they take a holiday on a cruise ship. They owe it to themselves to have a great time, and to have it together. To leave all the crap behind, to rewrite history, to drink, to bond, to root. What could possibly go wrong with pack mentality rampant?

Cornelius’s play has a dark poetry and is both all too understandable and deeply confronting. Under Tim Roseman’s direction, Josef Ber, Thomas Campbell, Yure Covich and Troy Harrison were frighteningly good. Frighteningly.

The late-night Old Fitz Theatre show on Wednesday brought more violence in the shape of Orphans, from Seeker Productions. In Savages mateship and misogny are the toxic ingredients; in British playwright Dennis Kelly’s Orphans they are family, a broken society and racism. While Kelly’s concerns are abundantly clear I ultimately found Orphans unpersuasive (and overlong) despite intensely involved performances from Liam Nunan, Jacki Mison (who also produced the play) and Christopher Morris.

Friday night brought a complete change of pace with The Australian Ballet’s Symphony in C, a staging of George Balanchine’s mighty homage to classical style paired with a clutch of divertissements.

My review appears in The Australian tomorrow (May 2). I’ll put up a more detailed analysis later in the week.

The Detective’s Handbook ends on May 7.

Fury, Stories I Want to Tell You in Person

Fury

Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, April 19

JOANNA Murray-Smith recently spoke on radio of the seductive power of argument, of recalling the sound of her parents and their friends talking passionately long into the night. Those long-evaporated murmurs are the wellspring of Fury, Murray-Smith’s absorbing new play.

Alice (Sarah Peirse) is a neuroscientist at the top of her game and about to receive a huge honour when her 16-year-old son Joe (Harry Greenwood) does something incendiary. Alice is as aghast as you’d expect of any intelligent, socially committed, left-leaning woman and mother, but Joe’s act of rebellion, assertion, independence, whatever, opens up family fault lines at the very moment Alice’s life is up for public scrutiny.

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse in Fury. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Harry Greenwood and Sarah Peirse in Fury. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

“You’re not who you said you were,” her novelist husband Patrick is driven to say as Alice must finally acknowledge an intellectually messy and morally grubby truth.

Under Andrew Upton’s direction the play’s concerns unfold crisply in a series of set-piece conversations and confrontations. Murray-Smith’s familiar style of whip-smart dialogue and ever-so-slightly heightened realism is matched perfectly by designer David Fleischer’s setting of monolithic grey walls and a desirable tiled floor. It’s a cool, cerebral space in which outbursts of emotion look surprising, as if rare here.

Alice says in the play’s opening scene that there’s “always something to hide” but it doesn’t appear to occur to her that this is more than a clever quip to a journalist.  Ah, yes, the journalist. Murray-Smith gives a writer from a student rag a key role but despite Geraldine Hakewill’s creditable efforts to animate the part it never rings true. Rebecca is a device, not a character, and it’s scarcely credible she would get this degree of access to Alice and Patrick, played with rumpled defensiveness by Robert Menzies.

That jarring note aside, Fury proceeds at a compelling pace for its 100 minutes or so. The many themes emerge with great clarity, among them the porous line between idealism and self-centredness, the clash of generations, the centrality of family, the secret and changing self, the animating power of rage. Murray-Smith hones her lines to a high sheen that can introduce a whiff of the lecture room but the pay-off is in her acutely aware observations. There’s the occasional zinger too: vegans beware.

Peirse has a cracker of a role in Alice and gets the fragility not far beneath the witty, ultra-capable surface. Greenwood, making his Sydney Theatre Company debut, is extraordinarily good as the truculent, initially monosyllabic youth, making him brightly alive and engaging. And Fury is possibly at its most challenging and fascinating through the articulate pragmatism of Annie and Bob (Claire Jones and Yure Covich, both wonderful), the rock-solid working-class parents of Joe’s sidekick in crime, the unseen Trevor.

When I returned home from Fury’s opening the news was dominated by the two young men believed to have been responsible for the Boston bombings. Parallels with Fury aren’t exact but there’s enough for the play to feel very timely.

Ends June 8.

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person

Belvoir Downstairs, April 18

IF LALLY Katz has a slow spell in her increasingly impressive playwriting career she could always turn to stand-up comedy. Which she’s essentially done with Stories I Want to Tell You in Person, an exuberant whirl through her life in which she touches on matters of love, theatre, obsession and the supernatural.

Katz claims an appearance as a rabbit is her only previous onstage experience but she’s a natural performer: funny, super-likeable, vibrant and with a fund of fabulous anecdotes and a willingness to use anything to get a laugh, no matter how personal or humiliating. My favourite bit concerns a hostile transvestite karaoke bar and the massacre of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina but the show is pretty much a hoot from start to finish.

Lally Katz in Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Lally Katz in Stories I Want to Tell You in Person. Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Stories I Want to Tell You in Person came about after an earlier Belvoir commission fell into a heap. With Katz’s gift for creating intimate, magical and emotionally rich worlds (Neighbourhood Watch, Smashed) she was perhaps a courageous choice for a piece about the global financial crisis, but that was the gig. The play is yet to be produced, possibly because it was written so quickly. Katz had her mind on other things, chief among them how to be successful in love as well as in work. She turned to psychics for help, a quest that was extremely expensive and, as it turns out, ripe for theatrical exploitation.

And herein lies the enjoyable slipperiness of Stories I Want to Tell You. Was Katz truly seeking enlightenment in tarot, palm and crystal ball readings on 14th and 25th streets in New York? Or was she gathering material? She says several times she has to live what she writes, but how calculated that equation is remains unknown and probably unknowable. Whatever the truth – and after all, what is truth? – this particular instance of it ended with Katz alone on the Belvoir Downstairs stage, standing in front of a glittering gold curtain, poured into tight black jeans and pouring out her stories with juicy frankness.

Although it raised knowing laughs, a tacked-on ending is slightly awkward. It refers to the last-minute postponement of Katz’s original opening night due to illness and at this point the polish slipped and Katz the person rather than Katz the performer appeared. The epilogue points up two things: that those who really know their theatre will get most enjoyment from the show, and that one should never forget the amount of artifice there is in the onstage presentation of a life.

Ends May 26. Then Malthouse, Melbourne, August 9-25

These reviews first appeared in The Australian on April 22