Frank Barnes

The Play That Goes Wrong

At the Sydney Theatre The Play That Goes Wrong finished its run but came back for another week in mid-May. This hysterical slapstick farce, which has just opened on Broadway, has been a big hit in the West End. It started as a small show and has had audiences raving now for more than three years.

The show commences as you settle into your seats and the cast and crew are searching the auditorium for the cast dog, Winston. This sets up the atmosphere for the evening’s first performance from The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society “Murder at Haversham Manor”.

Needless to say, the next two hours and five minutes are filled with pratfalls, missed lines, actors being knocked out and, eventually, the entire set collapsing. It is non-stop laughter at times reaching hysteria, and great fun for the audience. As someone who was involved in amateur dramatics in my early teaching years in rural areas and later in Sydney I can attest to the veracity of the different situations but thankfully never within the one show.

The Play That Goes Wrong has an excellent Australian cast, with one member from the original London cast, James Marlowe, who is outstanding. The same company that originated the show, The Mischief Theatre Company, has already developed two more hits in London, The Comedy About a Bank Robbery which I saw and loved, and Peter Pan Goes Wrong which adds the pantomime element.

The Dog/The Cat

At the Belvoir, there is comedy as a romantic comedy (rom com). The Dog/The Cat was a big success Downstairs at Belvoir in 2015. It comprises two 40-minute plays, each about two people sharing a pet. In The Dog, written by Brendan Cowell, two friends share a dog, Jerry Seinfeld, which they alternately walk in the park where they meet Miracle, who is a lecturer at Sydney University. They both fall in love with her at the expense of their friendship.

This is a very amusing and clever look at friendship and marriage in modern Sydney and is terrific fun with Sheridan Harbridge, Benedict Hardie and Xavier Samuel delivering the characters well. But it is Lally Katz’s The Cat that has the audience crying from laughter.

Hardie and Harbridge are divorcing and all is amicable apart from looking after the cat, brilliantly played by Xavier Samuel (currently in Seven Types of Ambiguity). As they move on to new relationships, Cat intervenes and somehow talks with them to bring them back together — or did he? A great move by Belvoir to bring this back to the Upstairs Theatre.

Mark Colvin’s Kidney

It was preceded Upstairs by a comedy/drama from Tommy Murphy, writer of Holding The Man and working with his usual director David Berthold. Mark Colvin’s Kidney is the strange but true story of the now deceased ABC PM presenter Mark Colvin and his relationship with Mary-Ellen Field, the woman who gave him her kidney.

While I knew about Colvin I knew little about Field, and what a story it is! With the amazing Sarah Pierce as Field and John Howard as Colvin we are in good hands.

They are supported by Kit Esuruoso, Christopher Stollery and Helen Thomson and the usual great production team the Belvoir provides.


At the end of Jonathan Biggins’ latest satire, Talk, at The Drama Theatre presented by The Sydney Theatre Company, the woman sitting beside me said she did not know how everyone could laugh so much as the play was only giving us 100 minutes of the media as it is today and we should all be crying. Of course she is right, but that is what satire is.

This very fast 100 minutes is centred around shock jock John Behan (John Waters) after he is about to be arrested a la Derryn Hinch for statements made on air. He locks himself in his broadcasting studio and goes into a filibuster to avoid arrest.

Meantime, the new editor at the Daily Telegraph is having trouble deciding which sensational headline to run with, and at the ABC the head reporter in the newsroom is on his last day, having spent the past weeks attempting to train a young new social media-savvy reporter who is not only young and confident but knows almost nothing of history.

And so we have three media outlets all working on how to handle the story in the current media environment.

While it is not the greatest play, it is one hundred minutes of deep-cutting satire and had the audience in stitches.

Calamity Jane

Calamity Jane has a top-line cast led by Virginia Gay

Calamity Jane was originally a musical starring Doris Day and Howard Keel as Calamity and Bill Hickock. It was a big hit with songs such as “My Secret Love”, “The Deadwood Stage”, “Windy City” and “The Black Hills of Dakota” all making it to the hit parades of the day.

While on the surface the story was of a tough cowgirl (not as tough as the character depicted in the television series, Deadwood), who gets softened up to wear fancy clothes there was always a subtext of sexual innuendo with a man playing a showgirl due to mixed-up circumstances and an implication of a romance between Calamity and Katie.

"Secret Love" and the movie have taken on cult status in the GLBTI community. This very clever and funny production takes that as one of its cues, then plays with the story. They never take the show seriously and let the audience in on the joke from the beginning. A top-line cast led by the redoubtable Virginia Gay as Calamity start the fun when they greet you in the bar as you enter the Hayes Theatre through the stage door. The audience is included (gently) in the fun.

Hopefully the producers will find further life for this show, if only to give a broader audience a chance to see a top performance by Virginia Gay.

The Bleeding Tree

The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini and directed by Lee Lew — a Griffin Theatre Production from The Sydney Theatre Company at The Wharf — is drama (with laughs).

It stars Paula Arundell, Airlie Dodds and Shari Sebbens as a mother and two daughters who bash their husband/father to death after he commits one more act of domestic violence.

They are visited by an unseen neighbour who selectively chooses not to see the body, after which they hang the body from a tree that begins to show a drip of blood from the corpse. Like the neighbour, other townsfolk also turn their eyes away from the reality.

This is a beautiful if unsettling hour of top-class writing and performances. It is beautifully written, and it is what is not said that is most important. A great new Australian play.


Chimerica, by Lucy Kirkwood, is a big-cast epic play presented at The Sydney Theatre by The Sydney Theatre Company and directed by the STC’s Artistic Director, Kip Williams, who so far always directs great shows.

The title is an amalgam of China and America and sets up the story from the image the day after the Tienanmen Square massacre in Beijing in 1989, during which a lone person carrying two plastic shopping bags stood in front of a tank. It is one of those images that lives on in our memories.

The play opens with that scene presented in theatrical form using students from NIDA, who play extras right throughout this very big show. The conceit is an American photographer who took one of the immortal shots and gets a tip about the identity of the man. In reality, the man has never been found but this story plays out the different theories that have flown around since. In his quest, he undermines the lives of Chinese friends and American/Chinese relations and much more than I can say here.

I was bowled over by this three hours of superb theatre and thought about it for weeks afterwards. I have no doubt it will be recognised in the “best of” lists for this year, and if you ever get a chance do see it.

Frank Barnes is retired and encourages you to see the Late Great Dorothy Hewett’s autobiographical The Chapel Perilous at New Theatre