THEATRE

Reviewed by Frank Barnes

The last week I have been in a Gonski Van travelling from the Queensland border to Wollongong and Kiama with more to come. It seems a lifetime from the previous week when I saw eight shows. I decided to come to Sydney to take advantage of the theatre offerings of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. Most people think of the Mardi Gras in terms of “the parade”; the parade is the culmination of a three-week festival which includes a feast of great theatre. Of the five Mardi Gras shows I saw, four were great and one was a real disappointing dud.

Thank You for Being a Friend

Directed by Neil Gooding and Luke Joslin
The Reginald Theatre,
Seymour Centre

So I will start with the dud, Thank you for Being a Friend. You might recognise the title as the song from the great TV series The Golden Girls. It was a great idea and could be very funny if the right combination of people got hold of it. Taking the idea from Avenue Q, the show is a series of sketches which uses the characters from the show and one other, and uses actors carrying Muppet-style puppets. Some of the material is very funny but did not work as only one of the actors (playing Blanche) had the timing necessary to carry off the required style. In comedy timing is everything but here there was none. You know you’re in trouble when the ads inserted into the show are funnier than the show. It was particularly disappointing as the show has great potential.

Hats Off! To The Legends

Directed by Peter Silver
Presented by Oz Showbiz Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Inc.
York Theatre, Seymour
Centre

Hats Off! To The Legends carries on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras tradition of a major concert presented by Oz Showbiz Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. This year was one of the best, with hosting duties performed by the wonderful and talented Chloe Dallimore and Tom Sharah. It would take a full article to list the highlights as there were two hours of them and no low moments at all from the high-power opening of “Macarthur Park” by Danielle Barnes to superb numbers from some of the cast of The Lion King. The cast of New Theatre’s Privates on Parade knocked the audience out of their seats. My favourites were Margi de Ferranti, Michael Cormick, Matt Hetherington and Queenie van de Zandt who sang a number from Into The Woods. More than $60,000 was raised and the whole audience was wowed by some of the best of our musical theatre performers.

Nancye Hayes was honoured by being named a Legend at Hats Off! so it is fitting that the new Hayes Theatre which is named after her should be playing as its first show Sweet Charity, which was the show that featured Ms Hayes and swept her from the chorus line to the status of “leading lady”. Until then, all leads in our big musical productions were imported. Sweet Charity is also one of my favourite musicals. It is typical of the big shows from the Sixties, with a great story (it is based on a film by Federico Fellini) adapted by Neil Simon, and with music from the legendary Cy Coleman and lyrics by the great Dorothy Field. “Big Spender”, “If They Could See Me Now” and “Rhythm of Life” are just a few of the numbers from the show.

This production is a wonderful achievement as it is presented in a tiny space in a theatre with only 125 seats. With great design which makes it all seem much bigger, fun costumes and a band that sounds much bigger than it is, it never feels that we are seeing a cut-back production. Verity Hunt-Ballard captures all of Charity’s naiveté without ever making us feel she is stupid. Martin Crewes is perfect as her three boyfriends and Debora Krizak is a knockout as the cynical friend Nickie and then doubling as Ursula (the girlfriend of one of the boyfriends). Director Dean Bryant has assembled and outstanding cast and creative team. The show was booked out from word of mouth. I am going back to see it again and am definitely going to see the next production at the theatre — The Drowsy Chaperone — which I saw and loved on Broadway and missed in the Melbourne Theatre Company production with Geoffrey Rush.

Falsettos

Directed by Stephen Colyer
Presented by the Darlinghurst Theatre Company
Eternity Playhouse,
Darlinghurst

Another of my favourite musicals, Falsettos (pictured above) is about to finish a successful run at Eternity Playhouse in Darlinghurst. Like the Hayes Theatre, this is another new city theatre and will be the home for The Darlinghurst Theatre Company. Whoever pushed for these two new theatres in the city must be thanked and praised and must now push for another lyric theatre to stage big shows in our international city. But let’s be thankful for these two beautiful spaces, and if the standards of their opening shows (Arthur Miller’s All My Sons was the very popular opening show at Eternity) is any indication there’s a bright future for theatre in Sydney. There is also a need for at least one more lyric theatre.

Written by William Finn and James Lapine with music and lyrics by William Finn, Falsettos came from two one-act off-Broadway musicals. The first was March of The Falsettos, set in 1979, in the days of sexual liberation and gay liberation. The second show, Falsettoland, was written 10 years later and set just two years later. In the first act we meet Marvin, who has left his wife for another man but wants it all, his wife, his son and his lover and for them all to live happily together. Into this mix we throw the wife falling for their psychiatrist. In the second act we add the lesbians from next door, one of whom is a doctor who is starting to notice an insidious illness that seems to be affecting gay men. The story and songs are wonderful. Performances are great, with a few problems with hand-acting in the choreography which was otherwise excellent and a simple set which was occasionally cumbersome. If I had the time I would see it again.

Privates On Parade

Directed by Alice Livingstone
New Theatre, Newtown

Privates On Parade was a perfect show for the Mardi Gras. It is also a perfect match for the New Theatre (of which I am a life member). Written in 1977 by Peter Nichols with music by Denis King, this is a show with heart that deals with difference and diversity as experienced in the occupying British troops in Malaya post-World War II. It is the story of the British performance troop at the time and looks at their sexuality and racism in a time when being gay was a crime and being racist was basically acceptable, particularly when just by being Asian you could be “the enemy”.

Rather than being a musical, this is a play with music. The musical numbers in this brilliantly directed production start in the foyer with an Andrews Sisters-style trio and then blends into the show naturally because of the character setup. In the show we have a gay couple, a mixed race couple, a few stereotyped army personnel and a drag queen performer/impersonator. The show is in turn funny, moving and sometimes tragic. Musical direction by John Short is great and choreography by Trent Kidd is excellent. I found the set wonderful but it created some clunky scene changes. That is a minor quibble.

The last three plays I saw were not part of the festival but are all new Australian plays and productions and all three are as good as they get. One was at the Sydney Theatre Company, The Long Way Home; Once in Royal David’s City is at Belvoir; and Jump for Jordan is at Griffin. With new shows like these our theatre is in great hands.

The STC’s The Long Way Home is a collaboration with the Australian Defence Force. Writer Daniel Keene spent a year listening and talking with returned service people from the conflict in Afghanistan who had suffered injuries. They also selected some of these people to perform with professional actors in this remarkable play. It is difficult to describe the show but it was moving, spectacular and occasionally very funny. Having returned service non-actors in the roles made the show even more extraordinary. Congratulations to the STC and the ADF. All politicians should be made to see this show any time they are considering sending our troops to any war. They should see it now and they should see it again. I hope the show will return sometime for a longer season.

Writer Michael Gow will probably be most remembered for his play Away, but I would not be surprised if this play lives on as well as it deals with big themes. The theatre and Marxism and the state of Australia are dealt with in this great short night in the theatre which is a companion piece to the author’s previous play, Toy Symphony. The play is set in a theatre with the director, Will Drummond (Brendon Cowell in a masterful performance), placing us in an airport at Christmas (thus the title). He is rehearsing The Importance of Being Earnest when his Lady Bracknell keeps forgetting her lines as old age creeps up on her, while his mother is ill and probably terminal. Without going far we are taken on a long journey with some superb performances and wonderful discussions.

A teacher friend who works in a church school asks Drummond to give her senior class an hour’s lesson on Brecht. My favourite lines include: “Studying political theatre? That should include the study of politics, don’t you think?” and: “We’d pay well. Our drama program is better funded than a lot of professional theatre. And politics would not be an issue. Our headmaster is a history teacher. He knows Marxism is dead; he jokes about it”; and finally, “How can you have a class war if there’s no longer a class system?”. And the play finishes with that lesson. Intelligent and thought-provoking, the play is superbly directed by Eamon Flack with a cast of good actors who link the scenes with carols led by Tara Morice.

Finally, a terrific new play written by my friend Donna Abela — Jump for Jordan covers much in its story about the problems faced by second-generation children of migrant parents. Into the mix of the family from Jordan she cleverly adds a same-sex couple and a father who is dead along with an aunt who is visiting from Jordan. The result is a dense and complex play that is funny and moving. It is great to see a new Australian play that grapples with real issues and is enjoyable as well. I felt proud to know the author, Donna.

Frank Barnes is retired.