Sparkling sisters

The Sapphires (HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

March 19 – 20

Inspired by a true story of four young Aboriginal country-singing women from regional Australia, “The Sapphires” is one of our country’s best-loved stories, thanks largely to the popular 2012 musical comedy-drama film based on the 2004 stage play of the same name. This is clear both from the capacity crowd at QUT’s Garden’s Theatre for opening night of the Brisbane leg of the Hit Productions’ tour of the gem of a story and the immediate audience response to the titular divas. Introduced as Australia’s deadliest entertainers who have gone on from performing on the back of trucks and at debutante balls to become a slick international musical act, the group’s four members Kay (Matilda Brown), Cynthia (Mindy Kwanten), Julie (Lorina May Merrypor) and Gail (Ngaire Pigram) certainly sparkle, making the show an overall entertaining experience.

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Even though it takes a while for the production to settle into itself, the soul divas immediately display their vocal talents with ‘Heatwave’. And together, the ladies can certainly sing. The melody of their a cappella ‘Yellow Bird’ warm up for competition at the St Kilda Tiki Club makes this clear. It is at the club’s 1968 Search for Star talent quest where the sisters meet talent scout Dave Lovelace (Mike Smith) who forms them into the group, The Sapphires, to tour army bases in Vietnam to sing for troops during the war. Once there, individual stories unfold against the tumultuous backdrop. Things lag a little in Act Two though, especially with some drawn-out scenes of distracting load and unload of suitcases from a cumbersome truck and the performers do well to keep things bouncy even when the script loses its own energy.

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The leading ladies, in particular, are all engaging performers. There is a familiarity to their between-sister comic banter of teasing and threats and when they do this in argument about whether Julie should join her older sisters in performance, it comes across as one of the most natural and comfortable scenes of the show.

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It is easy to appreciate the family dynamics given the diversity of personalities of the sisters. As their leader of sorts, forthright and not-easily-managed Gail, Ngaire Pigram not only conveys the right amount of feistiness, but effectively manages her transition from scepticism to affection for Dave as a natural progression. Mindy Kwanten makes the ego-ed Cynthia appropriately larger than life in personality, however, as such, the character often dominates proceedings at the expense of the delicacy of her sister’s narratives. The supporting cast (Aljin Abella, Don Battee and Calen Tassone), meanwhile, add interest in a variety of roles to flesh out subplots as much as possible.

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United in song the group generally comes together well, although ‘My Boyfriend’s Back’, highlights that not all voices are as powerful. They certainly look the part though, with careful consuming establishing a sense of time and place in daywear contrast to the sequined-up razzle dazzle of the ladies’ concert attire. Lighting also works well both for function and to allude to the story’s changing thematic moods.

The small backing band (Mitchell Kwanten, Joel Macintyre and Jack Hickey) may be somewhat hidden away towards the back of the stage, however, they make their presence known, adding immeasurably to the enjoyment of the evening. And it is great to see them given their own musical moments to shine. However, the show is billed as a story with songs, so that the sudden addition of individual character musical-type numbers in Act Two unsettles things in terms of overall cohesion.

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By its time and place setting alone, “The Sapphires” is in some way political. While this production touches on these themes, its essence is about more than just this and it feels like anything beyond what we see, would not be a good fit with the show’s essentially light-weight sensibility. After all, the appeal of “The Sapphires” comes mostly from its classic soul pieces and easy-listening music of The Temptations and The Supremes sort, which is sure to hit the spot for many audience members as this production tours to over 140 locations in Australia in 2019/2020, in theatres and ‘off the road’ on a special ‘Pop-Up’ stage for remote Aboriginal communities, hopefully improving in its consistency as it does.

Playhouse provocation

Playhouse Creatures (HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

August 28 – 29

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It was a case of women of the stage meeting Queens of the Stone Age at Brisbane’s Garden’s Theatre on Tuesday night as Hit Production’s “Playhouse Creatures” delivered against a doof doof background underlay. The result was quite the juxtaposition as the sepia toned staging and solo cello sounds (courtesy of Director Jordan Best) charted audience travel back to the Restoration period of 1669 England, when women were first allowed to appear on stage, upon decree from King Charles II, recently returned from exile in France.

The podium-style staging, with changerooms downstairs was once a bear pit we are told by rough-as-guts, cockney attendant Doll Common (Liz Bradley), until it became to Playhouse upon whose stage the female troupe appears as the best thing to happen to theatre. They are a group of playhouse creatures of all sorts, passionate off stage and on, as they act with raised arms in woe (following a ‘hands of the clock’ emotive acting technique) as much as breast bared in fervour, playing out some instantly recognisable key scenes. (The witches’ ‘double double toil and trouble’ introduction from Shakespeare’s Scottish play towards the end of Act One is a particular treat).

On-stage the women play not Thane nor Moor or Prince, but have found roles just as substantial, only in legacy of when female roles were both written and played by men, as we see as Mrs Betterton (Karen Vickery) tries to rid herself of that damn’d spot as Lady Macbeth. Too often, they are rather relegated to the roles of unfaithful wife, whore and mistress.

After meeting Mrs Farley (Yanina Clifton), 16-year-old barmaid Nell Gywnn (Zoe Priest) talks her way into the theatre company of Mr Thomas Betterton through his wife and the leading actress, much to the annoyance of the essentially angry Mrs Marshall (Emma Wood). Nell just wants to be on stage so quests to overcome her performance anxiety to stand alongside the others, and in doing so catches the eye of the King. Regardless of their individual stories, however, the troubles of the women are clear as they work under constant personal threats while doing what they can to draw a crowd.

There is an enormous authenticity that adds to the appeal of this show. The characters have been enlivened from the inspiration of some of the most prominent actresses of the era, including Nell Gwynn and Mary Betterton, who performed on stage at a time when no ‘respectable’ woman pursued an acting career. Swearing and crass mannerisms capture the bawdy and troublesome time and two level staging adds interest when  the podium that serves as the era’s stage is not providing distraction of creaking sounds as they move about. Costuming is authentic, but also interest in seeing how the garments are put-upon the body, while all-the-time presenting a notable emphasis of the constraints of women.

There is a clear feminist theme throughout the show’s talk of female freedoms and the celebration of women working together rather than tearing each other down. But there are dark tones too as we are graphically presented with the reality of the sacrifices some had to make to be on stage. And as the self-described ‘old and eccentric’ at the end of her career veteran Mrs Betterton, retiring due to failing audience interest while her husband continues to act opposite her younger successor, Vickery gives a masterclass monologue about the allure and addition of acting.

In its at-once moving and comic account of the women’s precarious on-and-off-stage lives, “Playhouse Creatures” is a show of decent duration, however, its story is so fascinating and its performances so engaging that its experience seems to fly by. Generally speaking, it shows the role of initial provocation in provision of an ultimate lasting legacy. More resolutely though it reminds us of the courage of pioneering women upon whose shoulders we humbly hold our modern selves.

Crazy for Cline

Always…Patsy Cline (HIT Productions)

QUT Gardens Theatre

September 14 – 15

Despite her tragic death in a 1963 plane crash at only 30 years of age, American country singer Patsy Cline released over 100 songs in her career, so as tribute to the iconic star, “Always … Patsy Cline”, has many numbers from which to construct its soundtrack. Accordingly, songs occupy a substantial part of the show, in support of what is a relatively flimsy narrative; based on a true story, Patsy’s personal life is revealed though her unexpected friendship with a devoted Houston fan, Louise Seger (a story taken and expanded from a section of the Cline biography “Honky Tonk Angel” by Ellis Nassour).

While its lengthy Grand Ole Opry opening medley gets things off to a somewhat slow start, the audience soon learns more about the acclaimed vocalist through snippets of information about the hardworking and successful musical pioneer, including how she worked at a drugstore in her youth to help her mother provide for the family, while playing clubs at night in home-made cowgirl outfits. As Cline, award winning country music artist Courtney Conway tells us how she’s travelling soon to Vegas to do four shows a day seven days a week. It’s 1961 and she’s in Houston for a performance at the Esquire Ballroom, where, before the show, she meets Louise (popular stage star Mandi Lodge) in an encounter that turns into a correspondence that lasted until the singer’s tragic death. In their interaction, Cline reveals to Louise about her worries about attendance at the show and then, over late night bacon and eggs back at Louise’s house, the fading love of her troublesome second marriage. It is a close look into Cline’s daily life that continues as Louise reflects upon and rereads some of the later letters, always signed off with ‘Love Always…Patsy Cline’.

Even so, the show is not so much about the singer’s honky tonk merry-go-round life as its insight also into a fan’s genuine love. As the larger-than-life Louise, Lodge is engaging both on-stage and off, in enticement of audience members to dance along, and sections that see her tell of her excitement and planning to see Patsy on stage make for among the most entertaining moments, thanks to her effervescent characterisation. And her Texan accent is bang on with it y’alls and drawl. It is unfortunately that she is sometimes let down by lighting, which creates mood around the on-stage musicians but falls short in following as she mimes journeying in her ‘sexy dude’ Pontiac to arrive at the venue hours ahead of Patsy’s show.

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Technical lapses can, however, be forgiven as this is a show all about its music. And with over two dozen of her hits, you don’t even have to be crazy for Cline to enjoy the classics like ‘I Fall to Pieces’, ‘Walkin’ After Midnight’ and her signature song and biggest pop hit ‘Crazy’. Upbeat numbers are peppered in between the rawly-emotive works with ‘Stupid Cupid’ and ‘Gotta Lotta Rhythm’ also featuring as highlights. As anticipated, Conway is vocally strong as Patsy, nuanced in her share of the early 1960s Nashville sound; every number is rich in tone and emotional expression, and authentic in experience thanks to the live ‘Band of Bobs’ that provide musical accompaniment.

Directed by AFI award winning Denny Lawrence, “Always…Patsy Cline” is a wonderful showcase of the beautiful, classic songs of a musical icon. And it comes of little surprise to read in its program of its great success all over the United States, including a successful run off-Broadway. (It has been one of the most produced musicals in America according to American Theatre Magazine.) For feature of its marvellous music, charming comedy and some fabulous frocks as costume, country music fans, in particular, should do-si-do themselves a favour and make sure to catch this tribute to an industry pioneer.

The love of literary lives

All My Love (HIT Productions)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

September 16 – 19

Like that of most nations, Australia’s history is filled with interesting stories. Our literary history has its heroes and right up there at the apex is the larger-than-life writer and poet, Henry Lawson. But what of his love radical socialist and literary icon Mary Gilmore, who ironically replaced him when our ten dollar note moved from paper to polymer. Surely theirs must have been fascinating relationship. This is the assumption realised in the sensitive new Australian work “All My Love”, which brings to life their little known passionate love affair on the professional stage for the first time.

From the outset it is clear the work is intent on preserving the original sensibilities of its subject matter, with period furniture setting the scene in the intimate space. Tanned in tone and warmed by dim and cozy lighting, it languishes in a Tennessee Williams type way, as well a memory play should. More sentimental than realistic, it takes audiences along an evocative journey of the duo’s relationship, through Mary’s narration inset with action and correspondence, in a “Love Letters” type way (including excerpts from the couple’s surviving letters).

Memorable days sometimes occur during miserable weather, she observes in introduction. And for Henry and Mary, their memorable day of meeting comes as arranged by their journalist mothers. As they walk and talk through a courtship, their topics of politics and feminism are illustrated by use of projection of the images of their observations. More equal than muse, she reads his work, correcting his spelling and commending his writing and he transitions from poetry to prose and soon solidifies a voice beyond just the anti-bush sentiment for which he is remembered in contrast to our other literary greats. But as circumstances conspire against them, most obviously as consequence of the motherly interference of the unseen but ever-domineering formidable feminist Louisa Lawson, Henry descends into drunkenness and the two, although they remain as friends, never see their secret engagement realised.

“Writers sometimes make poor pen friends,” Henry comments in response to their lapsed correspondence upon marriages to others (both outlived by their essential connection). Yet it is the writing of “All My Love” that is one of its most notable features. Its title cleverly come from the typical closing from Henry’s letters to Mary and its dialogue reflects the intellect and descriptive articulacy of the two as writers both ahead of their time, while also remaining engaging through its infusion of sly humour and, particularly, in Act Two, eloquent inclusion of Lawson’s real-life words within his declarations.

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At its core, however, this is a story about the people beyond their written words. And particularly for a country whose premier annual literary prize emerged from the bequest of Australian writer and feminist, Miles Franklin, it is sad that so little is widely known of Gilmore. Indeed, one of the production’s many strengths is it presentation of the potentially larger-than-life literary characters as real, identifiable people within a fateful relationship. And thanks to some stellar performances, it is in a way that audiences will never forget.

Dion Mills brings an essential humanity to the stern but somewhat insecure figure of Lawson, even in his brutally honest declarations about needs of a man. And he transitions from giddily in want to introspective and then intoxicated with ease. As Gilmore, Kim Denham shows an enduring strength of character befitting a good woman of that certain time. And, combined their talent engages the audience along on an emotional journey from smiles in empathy at their awkward attempts at declarations to tears of despair in realisation that there are no lessons to be learned and that this is perhaps just the story of lives that could have been written so differently had their love not be lost so tragically. This combines with simple shifts in costumes to show the passing of time and versatile staging that see set segments reimagined as, for example, a cruise ship and gaol cell, to create an outstanding theatrical experience of the type of greatness that sneaks up on you, resulting in shared post-show audience comments like “it was fabulous” and “I love it” from all around.

The rule never really changes. If you want a great show it’s: story story story. While more focussed on sentiment than historical re-enactment, “All My Love” is certainly a fascinating story of an Australia people will recognise and should want to see realised on our stages. The gentle production presents not only a remarkable tale but enduing themes that can make you only but wonder what the landscape will be like in a future world in which the permanency of heartfelt handwritten correspondence will be but a distant memory.

Compelling cannon conflict

The One Day of the Year (HIT Productions)

Logan Entertainment Centre

May 5

Sometimes you can be too familiar with a play. After studying it at university and subsequently teaching it for more years than I’d care to admit, I went in to Hit Productions’ “The One Day of the Year” almost knowing the dialogue of the three-act comedy-drama verbatim. Yet, still I was engrossed in its portrayal of the paradoxical perspectives of this country’s most revered of days.

Although written by Alan Seymour in 1958 as entry into an amateur playwriting competition, “The One Day of the Year” stands with “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll” as part of the canon of Australian theatre. Seymour’s story was inspired by an article in the University of Sydney newspaper Honi Soit criticising Anzac Day and although it premiered amid great controversy, it has always been popular with audiences. In this latest incantation, the text is cemented as worthy and nostalgic, yet presented in a way that shows the ongoing relevance of its themes of the valorisation of conflict, excessive sentimentality of Anzac Day and effects of war on returned soldiers.

The story, which is set in Menzies-era Australia, tells of working class university student, Hughie Cook, helping his new North Shore girlfriend Jan write an article criticising Anzac Day. The article’s assertion that this ‘one day of the year’ has descended from solemn and commemorative emblem of Australian military sacrifice to empty ritual of drunken celebration, is an affront to his nationalistic, ex-serviceman father, Alf . The result from this conflict of ideas (at a time before passive aggression), is explosive and fierce debate rages between the two over the significance and meaning of the day.

The story begins with Alf’s booming dialogue of “I’m a bloody Australian”. Alcohol-fuelled as he often is, he begins one of many belligerent rants against foreigners. It helps to form picture of how the war-wounded lift-driver sees both himself and ‘diggers day’. “… it’s because I’m a bloody Australian that I’m gettin’ on the grog. It’s Anzac Day this week, that’s my day.” As he rages from rant to reflective and back again over the course of the play, Peter Hardy provides a fine performance, for although there are many marvellous moments of palpable generational tension with Luke Clayson as the angsty Hughie, these are tempered with humanity. For, at its core “The One Day of the Year” is also a generational gap story of a family in crisis, which is further reason why it has endured through the years so stoically.

conflictYet, it actually the supporting characters who provide the soul of this show. Sensible, tea-loving Dot (Christine Keogh) is the heart of the family and the play, and her scenes with Hardy are particularly memorable for their nuanced portrayal of the reality of married relationship that features conversations about shoelaces and other such everyday nothingness as much as the big issues associated with raising children with the hope of them having better lives than yours.

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And then there is the wonderful, wise old Wacka (Don Bridges), Alf’s much older friend and fellow veteran; unassuming but cheeky of character, although he doesn’t say a lot, he provides much of the play’s humour and is its emotional core. And the honesty of his touching monologue tribute describing his experience at Gallipoli and of the mates he had to leave behind will leave many an audience member with tears in their eyes.

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Staging is simple, with naturalistic domestic scenes all set to backdrop of soldier silhouettes, and is simply stunning in evocation of the emotion of dawn being broken by sounds of The Last Post. However, Hughie’s final moments of epiphany appear to jar in contrast to the naturalism of play. Momentum, too, seems to lapse thanks to an earlier-than-expected intermission before conflict has been fully established.

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Despite its depiction of a time of 6pm pub closing and news on the wireless, “The One Day of the Year” remains a compelling and necessary play, even if it is no longer as provocative as when it was first staged and subsequently banned for fear of offending members of the Returned Services League. In democratic society, questioning national institutions, no matter how revered, is important, for as Wacka notes to Alf about Hughie’s dissent from family tradition, “He’s got the right to say and think what he likes. Any fightin’ we ever did, you ‘n’ me, in any wars, it was to give him that right.”

Don’s drag party

Managing Carmen (HIT Productions)

Gardens Theatre

July 18 – 19

ALF is a tough game, a rough game, a fast game. And at 23, Brent Lyall (Jamieson Caldwell) is its brightest star. As a two-time Brownlow medalist, his name is known by everyone in Melbourne. But this club captain and cash cow has a secret; he likes to cross dress as Carmen (aka Carmen Getit). He likes the way he looks and he likes the way it feels. But, as the audience is repeatedly reminded, he’s not gay, isn’t transsexual and doesn’t want to be a woman.

Enter his manager-funded financially-ambitious trophy girlfriend (Annie Last) and an old-school, relentless sleazy sports journalist (Trent Baker) and the stage is set for drama, comedy and some fabulous frocks, in accordance with the long theatrical traditions of cross dressing and gender confusion. The result is a humorously predictable theatre experience that plays on the popular conventions and cultural psyche insights that make David Williamson’s works so popular.

And Williamson knows football. His hugely successful 1977 satire, “The Club” captured the macho world of Aussie Rules in its behind-the-scenes portrayal of the Collingwood Football Club. “Managing Carmen” still, unfortunately, contains two-dimensional characters. Brent’s agent Rohan (Brandon Burke) is throwback to “The Club” days and sports journalist Max is a stereotypical character of little depth. Brent, however, is somewhat refreshing in his intelligence and introspection; he likes to watch documentaries and prefers self-obsessed girlfriends who won’t always be asking what he’s thinking.

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And this is Brent’s story. A big brother style image of his face as backdrop dominates the entire production. Caldwell gives an excellent, accessible performance as Brent, even if his portrayal of alter-ego Carmen sometimes ventures into Chris Lilley, “Ja’me: Private School Girl” territory.

This is a show typical in Williamson style and tone, even if it sometimes slips into slapstick. Beyond the comic fodder of Brent’s revelation and its subsequent management, this is a story about gender and sexual politics, the cult of celebrity and the nature of addiction.

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Although transitions are smooth, the numerous short scenes, particularly during Act One, do little to aid in the development of comic momentum. At two acts of approximately 50 minutes each, it is a palatable length and a good night out courtesy of one of Australia’s most prolific and produced playwrights, even if, in many ways, it lacks the witty, sharp dialogue and keen observations that typically personify his work.