Frank Barnes

I was wondering how I would fare with home-grown theatre after my indulgences (27 shows) in London and Dublin. London is the home of great (and not so great) theatre, and because it attracts millions of people each year the companies can spend lots of money getting their plays on stage. Shows in the West End or on Broadway cost so much that they need to run for a long time in order to return their costs and build an audience, and so they are rarely staged without trial runs elsewhere.

Trial runs are a luxury we don’t have here as our population is too small: most of our new plays are put on metropolitan stages on their first run.

One of the things I noted in London was the number of our actors and creatives working in almost every production in the West End. Some of our productions now travel to London and Broadway, mainly productions from Belvoir and The Sydney Theatre Company as well as our dance companies. The Australian Ballet’s Cinderella was playing in London just before I left.

Now, to offerings in Australia. While commercial organisations are behind the big musicals (usually supported by the governments) it is unusual for non-musicals to be presented by commercial companies. So it was a surprise to see two shows with commercial backing in Sydney at the one time.

Fawlty Towers Live

By John Cleese and Connie Booth
Adapted for the stage by John Cleese
Directed by Caroline Jay Ranger
Michael Coppel and Phil McIntyre in Association with Louise Withers
Sydney Theatre Company

When I first read that this was to be put on I was sceptical and saw it as yet another opportunity for Mr Cleese to milk his cash cow. But when I saw some of the cast he had chosen I decided to give it a go and am glad I did.

Three episodes from the iconic 12-part series have been blended to create a story, as such, and added to these are some of the special moments from the rest of the series. Basil (Stephen Hall) is as cringe-making as ever as he panders to guests he thinks might be important while being as rude as possible to everyone else, particularly the regular guests and his wife Sybil (Blazey Best).

Sybil manages to keep the hotel going despite her brassy disinterest. The maid, Polly (Aimee Horne), does all she can to bring her own level of sanity and humanity to the place while handyman Manuel (Syd Brisbane) “He’s from Barcelona” creates chaos because of his incompetence and lack of English. Add to this the Major (Paul Bertram), Mrs Richards (Deborah Kennedy), the Germans, the hotel inspector, the old ladies, the rat, and the changing sign (Flowery Twats) and you have the ingredients for two hours of mayhem and hysteria — not to mention nostalgia.

It is very risky to present on stage a series that is considered by many (myself included) to be the best ever. It is hard to believe it is 40 years since we first fell in love with these mostly dreadful characters.

It was always hard to believe there were only 12 episodes; they were perfectly written and performed, with the plotting of each, down to the last swinging door and pratfall, choreographed to perfection. "Don’t mention the war", Manuel’s hamster, Sybil’s whine, Torquay and the bet have all become part of our lives, not to mention the moose head and Basil’s silly walk.

So the question is, did they succeed? And the answer is, yes.

The casting is brilliant: while they are dressed and made up like the characters from TV each brings something of their own to their character. Basil might be slightly more likeable but not much. Sybil is not quite as arch, Polly is almost the same as the original and poor Manuel (“I know nussing”) is even more put upon.

The comedy timing is spot-on and when I saw the show in its early days the cast was still getting comfortable with the laughs. This is comedy both physical and in language and this first-class company delivers in spades. The standout performance is from Deborah Kennedy as the deaf Mrs Richards but all the cast is excellent.

Why turn an already established show from TV into a stage play? Well, it has been happening for years. Books regularly become plays and plays and books become movies and musicals.

The joy for me was sitting in an audience that was anticipating every special moment and having those moments delivered, so much so that the audience roared.

Sitting at home watching the DVD or download is one thing but to share it with a thousand others is really special.

I have no doubt it will be on the West End soon, after the tryouts in the colony, Australia.

The Beast

Heidi Arena in The Beast Photo: Ken Nakanishi

By Eddie Perfect
Directed by Simon Phillips
Ambassador Theatre Group Asia Pacific and Red Live
Drama Theatre Sydney Opera House

The Ambassador Theatre Group has just set up operations in Australia. It runs a number of theatres in London. I suspect it was thinking, and still might be, that this was a show that might break through and show on the West End.

It has a reasonable pedigree. It is written by Eddie Perfect, who also plays one of the men in the show, it was an enormous hit with five-star reviews for the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2013.

But here is the problem: I did not find this a very good play or production. It was way too long and too much of it relies on improbabilities, and while the production and the writing try to heighten these improbabilities the play comes across badly and mainly unfunny, which is not good for a show billed as a comedy.

Three friends, Simon (Rohan Nichol), Baird (Eddie Perfect) and Rob (Toby Truslove) are going back to nature on a boat trip.

They pledge to put on a dinner where they have to kill and prepare what they are to cook and eat.

So these white-collar latte-sippers gather with their wives Sue (Heidi Arena), Marge (Alison Bell) and Gen (Christie Whelan Brown) to follow through on their promise.

From here, the play takes the course of laughing, or attempting to, at these yuppie relationships.

I was disappointed as I love Eddie Perfect’s work as both a performer and a writer. I almost travelled to Melbourne to see the 2013 production. Shane Warne The Musical was a minor masterpiece although it did not work as well in Sydney as it did in Melbourne.

(On that topic, I have a theory about Melbourne v. Sydney productions: I think Sydney is more hard-edged than Melbourne. In January, while in Melbourne, I saw Ladies in Black, a new musical about the women working in David Jones. It was a Queensland Theatre Company Production also directed by Simon Phillips and had rave five-star reviews. I didn’t hate it but I did not enjoy it and I felt the same about this. Might I say, my theory does not hold up for all productions but ... .

I want to mention a few more of the shows in London. Many of you will know the book, The Curious Incident of The Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. It is a story written by a young boy on the autism spectrum and follows his life and the consequences to his family following the said incident.

This production, written by Simon Stephens and produced by The National Theatre, follows in the footsteps of War Horse, winning major awards in both London and Broadway. It is a clever, funny and moving show that I saw twice.

Its success will mean lots more money flowing into the National’s coffers. As in the case of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Matilda, this sort of success can help bring millions into the company.

I wonder if the Old Vic will have the same success with Tim Minchin’s Groundhog Day. Despite my concerns it has been getting five star reviews. Hopefully they will bring Curious Incident to us for a Festival.

I also saw a couple of small shows that dealt with refugees and homophobia. I will write about them next time. Now We Are Here was at the Young Vic and told three stories of refugees. I actually met the actors and the real characters after the show. It was moving and humbling and a privilege.

And then there was the latest play by the renowned writer, Caryl Churchill, called Pigs and Dogs: 15 minutes of first-class writing about what has happened, following colonisation by America and England, to countries in regard to laws around same-person sex. Extraordinary stuff containing quotes from people both famous and not. It was brilliant whilst being moving and scary.

Frank Barnes is retired and feels honoured to have been opened to the joys of theatre