Reviewed by Frank Barnes

Kill The Messenger

By Nakkiah Lui
Directed by Anthea Williams
Belvoir Upstairs

Nakkiah Lui is a Gamilaroi and Torres Strait Islander playwright who last year had a stunning impact with her play about the Mt Druitt riots This Heaven.

It was a wonderful in-your-face look at the difficult position that suburban Aboriginal people find themselves in. Her new play is a compelling story, again set in western Sydney, of five lives, including her own. It again raises the question of why we allow the bad treatment of our indigenous peoples to continue.

This short play punches a real impact on its audience as Nakkiah, playing herself, tells the intersecting stories of the five characters while occasionally breaking out of the play to tell us about herself. In an early scene while having sex with boyfriend Peter (Sam O’Sullivan) she stops and tells us she was hoping the role would be played by Miranda Tapsell.

The play opens with Paul (Lasarus Ratuere) in a drunken state of grief, carrying a rope. He and his sister Harley (Katie Beckett) argue about money and a ring he can hock to purchase drugs and alcohol. He is obviously in utter despair and we find that his is the story that Nakkiah has been trying to tell but it has been interrupted by her own story.

Paul has died by hanging himself in the park and Nakkiah’s beloved grandmother has died after a fall through the termite-infested floorboards of her house despite the family’s almost daily complaints to the Aboriginal Housing Office (one of its names) for more than a year.

Nakkiah’s grandmother dies three months after the fall. In the meantime Harley goes to the hospital in a rage to pick up Paul’s things and takes out her anger on the nurse who was on duty Alex (Mathew Backer). Nakkiah also has an encounter with Paul (or did she invent it?) and thus the play continues as a look at institutionalised racism. Despite the subject matter the play is very funny: once, relating an argument she had had with her mother, she tells Peter they had a Mexican standoff and asks, “Is that racist?”. This was a wonderful production with good performances and has left me still thinking about it. Here is a new playwright to keep an eye on.

Blood Brothers

Helen Dallimore as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers.

Book, music and lyrics by Willy Russell
Directed by Andrew Pole, musical direction by Michael Tyack
Enda Markey Productions
Hayes Theatre

Willy Russell is best known for his superb working-class comedies about women, Educating Rita and Shirley Valentine, and in this musical he sticks to the theme. In this case, the woman at the centre of the story is Mrs John Stone (Helen Dallimore), the very fertile mother of seven children whose husband leaves her when she is pregnant with twins.

She gets a job as a housekeeper with Mrs and Mr Lyons (Bronwyn Mulcahy and Phillip Lowe) and signs a contract with Mrs Lyons to give her one of the twins.

She keeps Mickey (Bobby Fox) while Edward (Blake Bowden) is raised in middle-class splendour by the Lyons family. They meet by accident when they are seven and become not only friends but blood brothers and grow up with their best friend, Linda (Christy Sullivan).

This is a Greek tragedy and never pretends to be anything but. You know the twins are going to be killed at the same time as that is in the opening scene; it is also telegraphed by the Narrator (Michael Cormick) who slides in and out of the scenes reminding the characters that “The Devil’s Got Your Number”.

Also in the cast is Erin James as Mickey’s sister Donna Marie and Jamie Kristian as her troubled brother who becomes the catalyst to the tragic ending caused by the rift between the twins and the girlfriend, Linda.

I first saw Blood Brothers in 1988 at the Seymour Centre starring Chrissie Amphlett with Peter Cousens and Russell Crowe as the twins.

I also saw it in London’s West End with Sue Johnson as Mrs Johnstone. It became an institution there, with big-name actresses playing the leading role and only finished in 2012 after 24 years and 10,013 performances; it is still touring around the United Kingdom.

It is the story of the divide between rich and poor in Thatcher’s England and has resonances in today’s Australia as the effects of an ultra-rightwing conservative government start taking hold.

I really enjoyed this production but was unhappy with the direction and design. The performances were outstanding and the musicians, led by Michael Tyack, were brilliant. It is not an easy play but this cast captured the accents superbly and while all the performances are great the standouts are Helen Dallimore, Bobby Fox and Christy Sullivan.

Willy Russell has again captured the effect of governments on the working class and created yet another excellent female role. The final scene with Mrs Johnstone lamenting “Tell Me It’s Not True” leaves the audience in tears.

The work displays the depth of talent in our theatre scene and firmly establishes the Hayes Theatre as a major player.

Hats Off! To The Hits

Directed by Edward Grey, produced by Bali Padda
Musical direction by Michael Dench
Oz Showbiz Cares/Equity Fights AIDS
York Theatre, Seymour Centre Monday February 23

On a Monday night and on their day off, as part of The Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras some of our top musical theatre performers and others gave us a night to remember in Hats Off! to raise funds for Oz Showbiz Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS.

It has been a function of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival since 1997 when Jonathan Mill (a good friend of Federation) with a number of others decided that Actors Equity needed to do the same as its British cousins and establish a fundraiser (and awareness raiser) for HIV/AIDS. This year it raised more than $45,000, and since the inception has raised more than a million dollars. It has become my must-go-to feature of the festival. Any show that opens with the cast of the forthcoming Hayes Theatre musical Dogfight singing the Queen medley from the jukebox musical We Will Rock You, and finishes with a rousing number from the cast of Man of La Mancha is going to be a crowd-pleaser.

Add to this Paulini (wow, she has come a long way from the Schools Spectacular) who raises the roof, Chloe Dallimore, Katrina Retallick and Margi De Ferranti rocking a medley of Abba songs from Mamma Mia, Tom Sharrah doing “It’s Raining Men” followed by “I Will Survive” and Lucy Maunder rocking “Leave Your Hat On” and you have an idea of the best of the hits.

Songs by The Spice Girls, Whitney Houston’s “I will Always Love You” and Michael Jackson’s “Man In The Mirror” are among the numbers delivered by Catherine Alcorn, Hilary Cole, Lesley Hancock, Mark Trevorrow (a.k.a. Bob Downe), Shauna Jensen, Josie Lane and brilliant backing singers and dancers.

There was also a terrific turn by Dawn Service (what a voice), and Olympic Gold medallist and cabaret performer Matthew Mitcham coming on stage in his Aussie cossies to do a reverse strip and the edgy sketch featuring Rose and Gina from The House of Hancock. Add to this great lighting and a terrific band led by MD Michael Dench, and it was one of the best nights on the Sydney theatre calendar.

But wait — there was more!

The hosts of the show, Federation member Gary Scale and Hats Off! Ambassador Jan van de Stool (an expert on colonic irrigation) had the audience in stitches and Ms van de Stool developed a running gag with a couple of Germans in the audience. She is quick-witted and wicked and funny while he plays the bumbler. They even made the all-important drawing of the raffle amusing with Matthew Mitcham as the barrel boy. And then, as the icing on the cake, she appears as Queenie van de Zandt to sing the highlight of the evening.

The finale to the first half, the Beatles’ “Let It Be” started by 12-year-old Ruhi Lavaki joined by Queenie and the choir, Café of The Gate of Salvation, brought me and the audience to our feet. It was spine-chilling gospel.

As I stated earlier, this is my favourite part of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, a great night while raising much-needed funds when HIV/AIDS has disappeared from most radars. Thank you, thank you, thank you to Jonathan and Laurence and all their helpers, I am in awe of your work.

Because of time constraints I am unable to talk about Cock which I am seeing tonight, Suddenly Last Summer tomorrow and Squabbologic’s Man of La Mancha in a few weeks, but they all come with good reviews.

Frank Barnes is very happily retired and lives on the beach in Paradise between visits to Sydney for theatre.