Windermere wit

Lady Windermere’s Fan (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

July 14 – August 5

dance.jpgOscar Wilde’s ‘play about a good woman’, “Lady Windermere’s Fan” is the perfect piece for a Sunday afternoon on-stage comedy… as perfect as the pink roses that the titular Mrs Windermere (Corinne Fixter) is pruning pre-show as the audience enters. It is all very gentile in manners and manner, even down to Brenda White’s well-chosen costumes, as the lady of the house entertains visitors ahead of her birthday ball that evening, proudly showing the fan that her husband (Chris Robinson) has bought her as gift.

As the plot progresses, Mrs Windamere’s friend Lord Darlington (Scott West) compliments her in poor attempt to (at least initially) disguise his romantic feelings and Mrs Duchess Carlisle (Phillipa Bowe) shares some close-to-home gossip. Unbelieving of the claim that her husband has been making repeated visits (and monetary payments) the complex Mrs Erlynne (Sally Jenkins), Mrs Windamere dismisses the claims, but sets upon investigating and ultimately confronting her husband. The story develops with revelation to the audience regarding Mrs Erlynne’s identity and a consequential reminder of how appearances can be deceptive.

As Mrs Windamere and her husband, Fixter and Robinson anchor the show with both their wonderful rapport and fiery conflict. Bowe makes for a memorable Duchess Carlisle too, animated in her Lady Bracknell type judgment, passive aggression and the gossipy suggestions which set off a chain of events. Still, as is usually the case with Wilde’s aristocratic satires, everything becomes secondary to the script and it is easy to appreciate the play’s role as the initiator of Wilde’s huge popularity as a playwright. The themes are adult in their social ridicule and intellectually explored through the contrasting symbolism of the fan of its title, which becomes as much a sign of deception as one of decorum. And the writing allows characters to engage in the most delightfully witty banter about relationships and marriage.

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“Lady Windermere’s Fan” was first performed in London in 1892 as a satire on Victorian morality and gender double-standards. Yet, it is remains relevant in its juxtaposition of high society and popular culture and human desire for scandal at the expense of others. To relocate it to a Brisbane setting seems, therefore, unnecessary and ultimately serves only to jar the work from its bubble of English manners, so maintained throughout all other aspects.

The four act play breezes through in an easy two hours with just the right amount of character and charisma, never taking itself too seriously (because ‘life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about’). Indeed, its charm serves not only to remind audiences of the masterful wit and imagination of Oscar Wilde, but also gives chance to enjoy a humour-filled couple of hours as part of New Farm Nash Theatre’s ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine’ 2017 season.

Shrew anew

The Taming of the Shrew (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

May 13 – June 3

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Nash Theatre’s production of “The Taming of the Shrew” is far from the controversial 16th century comedy of its source material. In this imagining, it is set in the Black Widows biker bar, still in Padua Italy (despite all the Bundaberg Rum bottles). Its initial scene gives nod to its setting though, through a musical introduction of the ‘Sicilian Heart’ sort, before Cutting Crew’s ‘I Just Died in Your Arms’ establishes a great story arch before taking audiences forward 20 years to the tale of bar-owner Baptista (Jennifer Morgan) and her very-different daughters, perfect Bianca (Kristina Nisova) and the older, flawed Katherina (Hannah Martin). The surplus of suitors for Bianca makes Baptista impose the condition that Katherina must be married before Bianca can be. And so begins a series of secret deals, assumed identities and unconventional courtship by the brash Petruchio as, following decision to marry based on his self-proclaimed desire for fortune, he attempts to tame the headstrong Katherine (the shrew of the title) into transformation through torment.

The cast is a large one, with 14 members, many assuming multiple roles. As the brash Petruchio of Verona, Isaac Barnes is an absolute standout; Shakespearean dialogue sits comfortably in his mouth and his spot-on interpretation engenders the show with bawdy humour and alike, befitting one of the most comprehensive of Shakespearean comedies. However the quality of his performance also serves to showcase the contrast with those whose delivery of laden lines is comparatively overworked and, as such, less engaging.

Although initially, Hannah Martin’s cursed Katherina is more moody teenager than feisty feminist, as in the Zeffirelli’s seminal 1967 film adaptation, the best scenes are those of Petruchio in interaction with the tempestuous Katherina after their first introduction. Kristina Nisova is solid as the unassuming Bianca, conveying a still-spirited character through flawless delivery of the Shakespearean dialogue and bringing a vitality to scenes with her courtly, romantic lover Lucentio (Matthew Steenson). And Chris Robins more than holds his own as Trainio, Lucentio’s loyal servant and mentor.

Regardless of its politics, this energetic production is highly entertaining and vitally inventive. As complement to the excellent design choices, music features to particular effect, with a soundtrack of rock chick icons like Suzi Quatro, Pat Benatar, and Blondie contributing much to the overall experience. Even the play’s lute player is transformed into a punk rocker of Ozzy Osbourne type. And gender blind casting works well in making a challenging play that serves as celebration of female subordination through the heroine’s submission to her husband’s tyranny, more palatable to modern audience tastes. Female characters are more active participants than passive victims and the choice to make the story just as much Baptista’s is ingenious once, fully appreciated after the twist in the tail of the final act.

As deliberate offset to the problematic gender politics, boisterous comedy abounds thoroughly, crescendoing in Petruchio and Katherina’s shambolic wedding (and not just because of its drunken horse as best man) shown on screen, making the production an equal treat for both those familiar to the ado of the story and those uninitiated to recognition of its Shakespearean motifs of mistaken identity and alike.

It is a long show that could perhaps have benefited from some abridgement, yet, still, Director Jason Nash should be commended for his insight into and engagement with the work and choice not to rely solely on physical comedy to realise the play’s humour. Rather than presenting patriarchy at its worst, this “The Taming of the Shrew” serves not only as a tribute to Shakespeare’s storytelling skills but also a homage to the wit of his words and proof that given the right context, his themes can continue to provide a relevant take on the world around us and the relationships within it.

High society hijinks

The Philadelphia Story (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

February 24 – March 18

In 1942, Philip Barry’s “The Philadelphia Story” was the inaugural program of the short-run series titled “Victory Theatre”, which saw CBS relinquish the Monday night time normally occupied by “Lux Radio Theatre”, in dedication to the American war effort. All actors as well as directors, producers, and sponsors donated their talents and resources to the effort, including the play’s producer Cecil B DeMilne and its stars Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn, James Stewart, and Virginia Weidler, all of whom also appeared in the 1940 hit movie. It is appropriate, therefore, that in New Farm Nash Theatre’s production of the radio play, 20% of the box office takings are being donated to Mate4Mates in support of current and ex-serving Australian Defence force members suffering as a result of their service.

Also, appropriate is the authenticity of the stage setup, complete with a row of microphone stands across the stage front, ‘on air’ and ‘applause’ signs and a government bond advertisement to punctuate its acts. Approaching the microphones in turn from the seated positions, the performers, dressed in the finery of bowties, tuxes and evening gowns, deliver the play from in-hand scripts in a dramatised, acoustic performance, unusually before audience eyes.

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The use of manual sound effects from a station towards the back of stage adds interest in its preservation of this aspect of the art of the golden age of radio drama. Although the sound effects are initially distracting, things soon settle into the action at the stage front allowing them to ultimately work well in provision of the background ambience to the script’s privileged Philadelphia parties. A live piano accompaniment from Stuart Crisp also adds atmosphere of the big band/swing sort to these social scenes.

Everything about the production is suited to its comedy of manners approach to high society hijinks. The witty script is filled with a clever comedy of stereotypes and innuendo even about the word innuendo as heiress Tracy Lord (Jane Hamer) prepares to marry nouveau riche George Kittredge (James Bacskay), admiring his success despite his lack of privilege. The local society rag wants to cover the ‘wedding of the year’ and two tabloid journalists, poet/reporter Mike Connor (Nathaniel Young) who has the bad fortune to fall in love with Tracy the night before her wedding, and photographer Liz Embrie (Alexia Ashby) appear as guests to get the scoop in exchange for not exposing Tracy’s father, Seth Lord’s (Steve Tonks) philandering. Enter Tracy’s ex-husband, fellow socialite C.K. Dexter Haven (Brendan James) and amiable chaos ensues in a witty script jam-packed with jibes between, for example, Tracy and her sister Dinah (Elleith Houlihan) that are perhaps more easily appreciated when presented in this predominantly verbal radio play format with just scant physical cues from those at the microphone.

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All of the main players make their mark, however, it is Jane Hamer, new to Nash Theatre, who anchors the production with her poised and polished vocal performance of the haughty, formal speech of wealthy Philadelphia society. Showing shades of Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan, Tracy is her own favourite person, yet entirely loveable in her champagne tipsiness, married maiden sensibilities in conversation with her first husband and hyperbolic emotion in initial reaction to the appearance of Mike, the reporter. And in the hands of this vivid actress it is easy to see why men are falling at the character’s feet.

Nash Theatre’s “The Philadelphia Story” is a fast-paced yet sophisticated work. Its stylish romanticism is utterly charming, offering a light-hearted appeal to those audience members looking to step back in time for a while. And best of all, you don’t have to have familiar with its famous film or its musical remake “High Society” to appreciate the humour of its screwball comedy of remarriage.

‘Tisn’t always the season

The Fall and Rise of Mr Scrooge (New Farm Nash Theatre)

The Brunswick Room, Merthyr Road Uniting Church

November 19 – December 10

Deck the halls with boughs of holly; it may only be November but the Christmas season has well and truly arrived! And shows don’t come much more Christmassy than Sue Sewell’s adaption of “A Christmas Carol”, “The Fall and Rise of Mr Scrooge”, the final production in Nash Theatre’ 2016 season.

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The story follows the classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge (Barry Haworth) who, through greed, has lost all that is good but undergoes redemption on Christmas Eve after being visited by the ghosts (spirits in this instance) of Christmas past, present and future  It’s a cheery but dreary spectacle that has been retold in such a variety of different ways that audience members are likely to be in attendance with previous experience against which to make comparison, making it a challenge to create a captivating encounter. Unfortunately, it this regard Nash Theatre’s take falls a little flat. With the exception of Haworth and Stuart Fisher as the Spirit of Christmas Present, cast members don’t appear to take ownership of their characters, resulting in on-stage interactions that lack conviction. The consequential loss of connection with the characters means that the show sometimes drags along, especially in Act One.

Under the co-direction of Brenda White and Jonathan Collins, this version of the classic story amplifies the materialist side of its message: Scrooge learns in the nick of time to stop hoarding and start spending, strangely sending a passing boy, without funds, to buy a turkey from a shop open on Christmas Day. Plot concerns aside, Haworth gives a pleasing performance as the grumpy Ebenezer, a scrooge in need of redemption from his ‘Christmas is humbug’ attitude. And his vocal strength serves to bolster the show in juxtaposition to others of more timid voice.  Indeed, although large ensemble numbers are melodic, smaller numbers are often spoiled by projection difficulties, leaving audience members straining to hear, especially when singers turn from facing the front before a line is complete.

The change of the visiting ghosts to Spirits of Past, Present and Yet to Come reflects this somewhat light-hearted take on the tale. The appearance of Marley (Steve Tonks), Scrooge’s deceased business partner is far from its traditionally terrifying haunt. The clunky chains that are dragged onstage as part of his ensemble don’t just distract from his dialogue but also disrupt the preceding monologue from their backstage sounds.

Although scene transitions and the movement of props could be more efficient, the use of a full-stage scrim behind which dream scenes are staged works well visually. And Fisher brings some wonderful whimsy to the role of Spirit of Christmas Present. In a different production it could be more celebrated, but in this small venue, it is overwhelming when weighed against the timidity of those around him.

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The script is complimented by a lively score, with excellent solo piano accompaniment by Stuart Crisp, yet the audience is left with few memorable numbers from the mix of Christmas carols with some simple original songs, beyond ‘Thank You Very Much’. Still, its lovely story shines through, particularly in Act Two, full of the essential themes of Christmas, even if this is not quite the cast’s season.

Death, daughters and dysfunction

The Memory of Water (New Farm Nash Theatre)

Merthyr Road Uniting Church, The Brunswick Room

October 7 – 29

Like many great tragicomedies, the action of New Farm Nash Theatre’s “The Memory of Water” revolves around dysfunctional family members reunited in a time of high emotions. In this case it is a funeral as three sisters, with little left in common, reunite in their childhood Northern-England home in mid-winter to bury their mother. As the trio attempts to confirm funeral arrangements and pack up her things, they banter and bicker, often over whose memories are the truest, which links to both the work’s title and theme of memory.

The title of the award winning play comes from the principal behind homeopathy that water can ‘remember’ the properties of a substance even after it has been diluted. While it is declared early in the play, that ‘all memory is false’, it is soon apparent that, as far as the sisters are concerned, it is perhaps preferable for some memories to stay hidden.

The eldest of the three, bossy Teresa (Carrie O’Rouke) is predominantly practical and responsible (until a few swigs of whisky loosen her lips about some family secrets). The most intellectual, educated and complex of the characters, middle sister Mary (Debra Bela) is a doctor, specialising in neurology but is haunted by spectral vision of her green-taffeta dressed mother Vi (Samantha Townsend), a ‘virtual’ character that exists only in Mary’s imagination of how she was thirty years earlier. And as the play’s central character, Mary, perhaps appropriately, has the sharpest dialogue and is very witty in her sarcasm.

Free-spirited Catherine (Anna Ibbotson) is the youngest. Her self-obsessed life is one of inhibition, drugs and alcohol but little social awareness, making her intrinsically comical, especially in her ongoing aim to attract particularly male attention. Teresa’s long-suffering second, shouty, husband also Frank (Gary Kliger) appears, as does Mary’s married lover (Renaud Jadin).

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The result is much comedy, particularly from Teresa and Catherine’s often outrageous antics, but also some moments of pathos such as when Teresa makes mention of how mother’s memory was ravaged by Alzheimer’s and when in her final ghostly appearance, Vi longs for one last dance (even if, all things considered, her character’s appearances do not add a lot to the play). Mary’s preoccupation, however, is with finding a tin containing evidence of secrets shared with her mother even from her father, revealed to the audience as propriety unravels.

Under the direction of Sharon White, Renaud Jadin and Gary Kliger both give restrained and polished performances in their minor roles, but the play belongs to the women. As the smart-mouthed Mary, waiting for her Spring, Debra Bela is a particular standout, entirely credible in accent and inflections and giving great delivery of the clever comments that pepper her dialogue. And Carrie O’Rourke warms up to a very funny drunken scene.

Fighting one minute and laughing the next, the sisters seem to gang up on each other as much as they rally together against becoming versions of their mother, conveying a sincere family dynamic. This is especially evidenced in a glorious scene that begins with bagging up the contents of Vi’s wardrobe for charity, but ends with the three, dressed up in the vintage costumes, collapsed on the bed in collective mirth. As should be the case for a play that was named Best New Comedy at the 1996 Oliviers, the dialogue is very funny, right from Teresa’s recall of when news of Vi’s death was received.

The entire play takes place in Vi’s dated bedroom (complete with symbolic crack in its wall), where Mary is sleeping (but only with the light on and in secure knowledge that her mother did not die in the bed), with significant use of duologue scenes to develop each character’s story and only one significant time shift to allow Vi’s coffin to be brought to the house. This leads to the biggest disappointment of its staging, as, placed front of the stage, the coffin then blocks some audience member’s views of the characters in conversation and interaction in the set behind. Audience members are also alienated by the opening scene between Mary and Vi as it is not immediately clear that Vi is Mary’s recently deceased mother, despite her costume and the garish green lighting that accompanies her supernatural scenes.

Shelagh Stephenson’s “The Memory of Water” is an accessible and very entertaining work and Nash Theatre’s production more than does its excellent script justice. In its realisation of the story of the three sisters attempting to deal with the fallout of their shared, but differently remembered, family history, it presents Brisbane audiences with a theatrical experience that is both provocative and hilarious.

Beware not the barber

Sweeney Todd (New Farm Nash Theatre)

Merthyr Road Uniting Church, The Brunswick Room

July 11 – August 1

The tale of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street and his partner in crime, Mrs Lovett has be retold many times in plays, musicals and film adaptations. Beyond Stephen Sondheim’s dark and thrilling musical and Tim Burton’s sinister slasher movie, the gruesome Barber first appeared as the main protagonist of the Victorian penny dreadful The String of Pearls (1846–47). And it is this original version that forms the basis of Nash Theatre’s take on the story. The result is a dark but also comic show that offers much enjoyment to its audience.

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The narrative is one of its titular barber who enacts his general and particular revenge by slitting the throats of his clients, who are then turned into meat pies by his associate, local baker, Mrs. Lovett. Taking it on represents a daring theatrical project. The show’s length, its multiple characters, dialectic discourse and musical score make it an ambitious choice and although there are times where it perhaps gets the better of the ensemble as it becomes difficult to deconstruct meaning from some lines, overall, they do a decent job. And the inclusion of (deliberately) farcical scenes such from the increasingly drunken Doctor Lupin (Christopher Lynagh) add some lovely light relief.

As Todd’s amoral accomplice Mrs Lovett, Alison Pattinson is energetic in delivery of dialogue and song alike. Jackson Howe, is also particularly effective in his role as Todd’s apprentice, the young Tobias Ragg, capturing the nuances of accent within his speech and showcasing memorable musical prowess from the moment he begins to sing of ‘sailing away’. And his duet and tap number with sister Tilly Ragg (Chiara Axnick) is a another wonderful highlight.  However, it is Dan Lane as Sweeney Todd who controls the space with his powerful interpretation of the vengeful villain. Both malicious and menacing in intent to make his razors instruments of retaliation and almost childlike in his glee, he commands the stage in creation of a character that is more angry than broody, yet still a joy to watch. Without a chorus, he must sing of himself in ‘The Ballad of Sweeney Todd’, yet it works entirely. Indeed, the musical numbers all soar, thanks to the talent of pianist Stuart Crisp.

This is a show appropriately promoted as a melodrama with music. Nash Theatre has embraced the challenge that the big ideas and big vision of this combination provides, with a clever balance between the horrific and the comic. And the result is a feast for all those who attend the tale.