Frank Barnes

Black Is The New White

Writer: Nakkiah Lui
Director: Paige Ratray
Wharf 2
Sydney Theatre Company

I really enjoyed this show at the Sydney Theatre Company, which has had mixed responses from critics and audiences. I can understand why, as it’s primarily a romantic comedy and turns the usual tropes of race discussion on its head.

Instead of the usual theatre looking at rural Aborigines, it’s set in middle-class Australia and is the story of a white musician Francis, who lives on a stipend from his rich family, his father Dennison (Geoff Morrell) and mother Marie (Vanessa Dowling).

His fiancée, Charlotte (Shari Sebbens), is Aboriginal and a lawyer who’s not sure where her life is heading. Her parents are also very rich, with her father Ray (Tony Briggs) an ex-politician and mother Joan (Melodie Reynolds-Diarra) who has the real power and basically writes all his speeches.

Add to this mix Charlotte’s sister Rose (Kylie Bracknell Kaarljilba Kaardn), a successful international designer and her ex-footy player husband Sunny (Anthony Taufa). The play also has a narrator (Luke Carroll).

They all come together at Christmas and fall into conflict. It’s discovered that the two fathers were both politicians, but from different sides. We also learn Marie is looking to explore her fluid sexuality, and Charlotte plans to move to New York with Francis and Sunny, who’s discovered religion.

This is all played out very broadly on a great set designed by Renee Mulder and is genuinely funny. But it’s the inversion of the racial politics that makes the play so wonderful.

Some of the audience misread this and thought the play was racist while others thought it was just wrong. I thought it was clever and covered many, many issues. It was great fun while traversing race-related issues.

The playwright, Nakkiah Lui, is certainly developing into a major force in theatre, as well as being a major force in racial politics.

I cannot finish without mentioning Orb at The Sydney Dance Company. Another triumph of strength and beauty from Artistic Director Rafael Bonachela. And Big Fish at The Hayes Theatre was a good production of a show that had previously flopped on Broadway.

Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Jude Hernshall in Mr Burns, a Post-Electric Play

Script and lyrics by Anne Washburn
Score by Michael Friedman
Directed by Imara Savage
Belvoir Upstairs

I’ve always liked The Simpsons and love that it’s still being produced. It presents its clever, biting satire to each generation while appealing to youngsters with its simple trope on the family. It’s one of those shows that everyone recognises.

With this in mind, I went to see this wonderful new play at Belvoir Upstairs after it had already played in Adelaide to great acclaim. I was thrilled as it’s one of the most original and clever plays I’ve seen.

It opens at a dystopian time after a holocaust event, which turns out to be an explosion of nuclear plants. We don’t know this immediately as a group of friends who camp out first remember an episode of The Simpsons called Cape Feare, which satirises a film starring Robert DeNiro. It’s not until members of the group think they hear something and reach for their guns that we realise this is not a friendly camp. They are then joined by an intruder played by the wonderful Mitchell Butel, who helps them in their Simpsons memories.

Act Two takes us seven years forward, where the group has moved on and presents scenes from the show, with The Simpsons being the common thread starting to hold society together. Then by the third act, 75 years into the future, we see the company present a full-blown musical version with the evil Mr Burns (Butel) at its centre.

While Butel is brilliant, he’s well-matched by other cast members, particularly Brent Hill. But Esther Hannaford, Paula Arundel, Jude Henshall, Ezra Juanta and Jacqy Phillips all round off a top-class cast in a thought-provoking production that supports my theory that Belvoir has its mojo back.

Guru of Chai

Jacob Rajan in Guru of Chai

Director, writer: Justin Lewis
Writer and actor: Jacob Rajan
Musician: Adam Ogle
Produced by Indian Ink
Belvoir Downstairs

This is a beautiful and highly enjoyable show. The Indian Ink Company are from across the ditch and present shows and stories from India. I knew nothing about this production and joined with most of the full house in giving the performers a standing ovation.

At first, I thought we were in for 90 minutes of stand-up comedy as actor Jacob Rajan does a very funny introduction where he tells us we need to forget all our worries. He then slips into the role of storyteller with a mythical story of an Indian hawker who sells chai at a railway station, and his relationship with seven young girls who live by singing (they have been dumped by their father). We learn of criminal gangs who want to control all the groups at the station, and the policeman who gives them protection.

From then he engages the audience with a few tricks and I really wanted to find out where all these characters were taking us. The show had all of us engrossed from beginning to end. The set puts us firmly in India and the musical accompaniment from Adam Ogle is perfect. He also produces sound effects which support the magic created by Jacob Rajan, who plays 17 characters. This was wonderfully satisfying and charming theatre.

The Popular Mechanicals

Written by Keith Robinson, Tony Taylor and William Shakespeare
Directed by Sarah Giles
Produced by State Theatre Co. South Australia
Wharf 2

I was really looking forward to this production at the Sydney Theatre Company as I’d seen the original at Belvoir 20 years ago and remember it fondly. (Then it was directed by our best clown, Geoffrey Rush, and starred some of our best comic performers, including writer Keith Robinson.) Based on a sequence from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the new play extends the whole story of the group of Mechanicals staging the tale of The Most Lamentable Comedy and Most Cruel Death of Pyramus & Thisbe.

It is bawdy, it is silly, it is full of slapstick and it has the longest fart I’ve seen in theatre since I saw the show before. At Belvoir, I laughed like a drain with tears running down my face. The rest of the audience was with me. However, at the performance at the Sydney Theatre Company, only about a quarter of the audience seemed to get it. The rest of the audience sat on their hands stony-faced. I’ve also heard this from friends who were at other performances.

Frank Barnes is retired and looking forward to Only Heaven Knows at The Hayes Theatre