Reviewed by Frank Barnes

I am just back from another long weekend in Sydney and had the joy of catching four productions, one of which is possibly the best I have seen in a long, long time.

Two shows at the Belvoir and two at the Sydney Theatre Company demonstrate just how diverse our theatre has become, from a new show about a lesbian stand-up comedian, a drag and thus very camp variation on All About Eve, to the now-classic Wharf Revue and the real classic The Glass Menagerie.

The Wharf Revue - Open For Business

Written and created by Jonathan Biggins, Drew Forsythe and Phillip Scott
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 1

I will start by saying I missed Drew Forsythe who is MIA in Strictly Ballroom. But he did make a startling entrance on film as The Speaker Bronwyn Bishop. His replacement for this year’s incarnation of The Wharf Revue, now an institution, was Douglas Hansell, who does a sterling job as he can sing, dance and play the piano and does a very accurate Christopher Pyne saying his prayers.

Amanda Bishop recreates her Julia Gillard but shows just what a fine comic she is and what a fine voice she has as Julie Bishop, Peta Credlin, Jacqui Lambie and Christine Milne. Phillip Scott adds his usual excellent contributions, displaying his amazing piano and musical skills and a range of characters.

But as usual it is Biggins who sometimes just needs to stand on stage to create laughs. Of course he does much more than that with his Bob Brown in his short shorts and his hands doing a lot of wandering in his pockets; his fat-suited Clive Palmer who finishes the meeting with the PUPs with a very fine twerk, and especially as P.J. Keating.

His form is extraordinary as he skewers each of the Abbott Ministry. Along with the rest of the audience I was in tears from the laughter.

They had the sensible good grace to treat the abuse of children in the Catholic Church in a beautiful “Miserere” that contained only one laugh.

I did not think this year as funny as in the past. The first 20 minutes were brilliant but not funny as we realised the whole thing was so awful but eventually the laughs came. There are few seats left; if you like satire this is as good as it gets.

The Glass Menagerie

Pamela Rabe in The Glass Menagerie.
Brett Boardman

By Tennessee Williams
Directed by Eamon Flack
Upstairs Theatre

I make no apology in calling this one of the best productions I have seen. It is so good it almost makes up for the disaster that was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof last year. The reason is that the director Eamon Flack has treated the play with the respect it deserves.

Williams is one of the great American dramatists of the last century and this was his first success. We now know a lot more about Mr Williams and his personal life and can approach his writing and interpret what he was saying so that knowledge informs how we view his plays.

This is a “memory play” as Tom (Luke Mullins) who acts as narrator, tells us in the opening moments of the play. He introduces us to his mother Amanda Wingfield (Pamela Rabe) and his sister Laura (Rose Riley) in their poor cottage where Tom is the breadwinner in a low-paid job. The father, who is represented by a photo on the wall, has left them some time ago.

Amanda has Southern ambitions for Laura and continually asks Tom to find gentleman callers for the girl. The problem is that Laura, who is crippled, is extremely shy. This is no barrier for Amanda and she talks about the days when she had 16 callers in an afternoon.

Tom arranges for a caller to visit. Jim O’Connor (Harry Greenwood) is a workmate of Harry and the visit opens up Laura’s life but is ultimately a disaster and becomes the catalyst for the play’s climax.

Tom copes with the swirling demands of his mother by escaping to the balcony and smoking or leaving each night and saying he is “going to the movies” which may or may not be true and could be a chance to do other things.

Watching the play with the knowledge that Williams’ sister spent most of her life in an institution after having a lobotomy and that Williams was himself gay, we are able to see what he wrote through a different prism.

I first saw most of his plays as films and had no idea that there was a gay sensibility being represented. Most of the films played down any suggestion of this. When you look at them now it is obvious and shows even more so just how clever a writer he was.

So why is this such a great production? Well, the acting is excellent, with Luke Mullins showing a nuanced subtlety in his playing of Tom. In other productions Tom seems squeaky-clean and Amanda is the villainess. In this production Tom is not a nice person at all but we can understand why. The scene where they dress up for the arrival of Jim is so embarrassing, with Amanda literally falling out of her “Southern belle” dress.

Pamela Rabe is just right as the almost harridan mother and Harry Greenwood shows his pedigree with his delightful turn as Jim. Rose Riley gives us a beautifully fragile Laura and is a young actress to watch.

But it is the decision of the director to use film as the way into memories by having some scenes filmed and shown in soft black-and-white images on two screens that catapults the production into the stratosphere of greatness. Add the set design by Michael Hankin, costumes by Mel Page and the subdued lighting by Damien Cooper with the swirling soundtrack designed by Stefan Gregory, and we have three hours of sheer theatre magic.

Is This Thing On?

By Zoe Coombs Marr
Co-directors Kit Brookman and Zoe Coombs Marr
Downstairs Theatre

I first became aware of Zoe Coombs Marr in her show Oedipus Schmoedipus where she played a very theatrical and funny murderer. She then popped up in a show with The Sydney Dance Company and now she has written this clever and interesting play for Downstairs at Belvoir.

On paper, it is a very simple idea: a stand-up comedian uses that format to tell the story of her life over a large number of years. Her early days as a comedian (not a very good one), her development in that role and then her public coming out as a lesbian.

Most of the show is held together by her very public humiliation as she breaks down one night, getting very drunk as she fills in as the headline act fails to appear and her final time as she comes back many years later.

The setting is in a pub with pokies lining the wall and carpet that is standard chunder style. But the really clever concept is that Brianna is played by five different actresses, each representing a different phase of her life.

Most of the time each is centre-stage by herself but sometimes there are more than one at the same time.

Initially the jokes are terrible and you find yourself laughing guiltily and sometimes they are intentionally shocking, particularly those when she comes out.

Throughout all this we have the Brianna played by Susan Prior; she is the lynchpin as she plays the Brianna who falls apart and breaks down.

The performances by all the performers, Madelaine Benson, Genevieve Giuffre, Nat Randall and Fiona Press, are all well measured and beautifully delivered and integrated. I found the show an absolute delight and suspect we will be seeing lots more from the very talented Zoe Coombs Marr.

Calpurnia Descending

By Sisters Grimm
Created by Ash Flanders and Declan Greene
Directed by Declan Greene
Sydney Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre
Wharf 2

I was really looking forward to this, having loved their production Little Mercy last year. Added to the pleasure of their return are the superb Paul Capsis and Sandy Gore to increase their madness. But I was disappointed. It wasn’t bad, it just didn’t go anywhere new, and despite the craft and ingenuity of the performers the show does not work.

Sisters Grimm is a company that presents drag performances and originally presented them in pop-up places and productions.

This is the story of the starlet (Ash Flanders) who comes across the ageing wheelchair-bound previous star (Paul Capsis) living and being cared for by her old agent (Sandy Gore). Naturally they decide to put on a show, Calpurnia Descending. In this case it turned into a movie that is filmed backstage. If it sounds a bit like All About Eve that is totally intentional. Some of the moments are brilliantly hysterical.

The performances are great but I found this somewhat tedious and wonder that they should go back to pop-up.

As I was leaving I heard a person say, “Well, at least it was only an hour”, and I suspect that is what most of the audience thought. I liked it more than was disappointed.

Frank Barnes is retired and thinks Jonathan Biggins is a national treasure.