Steinbeck superlatived

Of Mice and Men (Ad Astra)

Ad Astra

September 2 – 18

For those unfamiliar with John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men”, a strumming pre-show soundtrack accompanying the rustic bunkhouse staging (Bill Haycock, Designer) plants Ad Astra audiences firmly in its depression era California setting. Lighting also warms us into the tender take at the heart of the story as we meet is main characters, displaced migrant ranch workers, the intelligent but uneducated George Milton (Patrick Shearer) and the bulky and strong, but intellectually disabled Lennie Small (Francis McMahon).

The relationship and backstory of the cynical George and the childlike bear Lennie is soon revealed, cementing sentiment at the story’s heart; the itinerant workers, move from farm to ranch seeking opportunities to engage in casual labour, before quickly moving on when they encounter trouble. The trouble, it is soon apparent, tends to stem from Lennie’s fondness for stroking soft things (including pretty ladies’ dresses) combined with his lack of awareness of his own brute strength. So it is with a sense of foreboding that Lennie’s innocent view of the world is about to be corrupted, that we then follow the men into their new job, despite their determination to keep their noses clean.

Under Jesse Richardson’s direction, the story is well-paced, with the production allowing us to sit in the silences of its sorrow, but also in the anxiety of its fight scenes and what happens thereafter. And passages of time are cleverly crafted through the fast forward of scene stills, which, in moving things along, contribute much to the development and maintenance of dramatic tension. Those familiar with the story, know of the tragedy of its plot trajectory and as many were anticipating in pre-show discussions, those unfamiliar with how things are to unfold are walloped by the confrontation of its emotion, which is heightened by David Walters’ shadowed lighting hues and Ben Lynskey’s melancholic soundscape.

“Of Mice and Men” is an affecting show and experience of the performances in Ad Astra’s production serves as a poignant reminder of not only the heartbreak of its story and themes, but its endurance as a classic text. The talented cast take us to all edges of the character spectrum. Danny Brown steadies things as respected main mule team driver Slim, easily conveying the characters’ natural authority and essential empathy towards George and Lennie’s bond. As the boss’ bully of a son Curly, Andrew Lowe has a cocksure swagger that tells us about his character before he even speaks, so that his jealous over-protection of this wife that brings about much of the play’s antagonism comes as little surprise.

The tough-love relationship between George and Lennie is movingly drawn. McMahon’s performance as Lennie is touching in its tenderness and sensitivity, yet he also appropriately dominates the space when provoked into physical altercation. Shearer’s intuitive approach to accessing George’s character gives us the light and shade required by his both his protection towards and frustration with Lenny, and also contrasting commitment to a dream but also feeling of economic powerlessness integral to experience of the depression era. George is a complicated character whose conflicted empathy for Lennie is key to the plot’s impact and Shearer conveys this in an accomplished, understated manner through dialogue delivery that is viscerally charged with mumbles and pauses, in almost James Dean like style.

More than just being a story of its characters, however, “Of Mice and Men”, is clearly also a character study of its era. Audience members feel its pathos through the characters’ expression of simple pleasures like a comfortable chair as much as their bigger dreams of self-determination. Curly’s unnamed wife (Caitlin Hill) dreams of better things, beyond the loneliness at the heart of her flirtatious interactions with the men on the ranch and aging handyman Candy (Iain Gardiner) who, having lost his hand in an accident, fears for his future and so dreams of a life beyond the ranch.

Our protagonists’ shared dream is made clear from initial scenes of George’s wistful contemplation of aspirational independence. Their plan is to save the stake to buy a few acres and make their own farm life, with a big vegetable patch, chickens and some rabbits, Lennie keeps reminding with childlike sweetness. But harsh realities and a tragic turn of events see dreams shattered for as Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “the best laid plans of mice and men aft gang agley” (often go awry).

All things considered, this is a superb production of Steinbeck’s masterpiece, highly professional in all of its aspects and with a calibre of talent that could easily be showcased on the QPAC stage. Indeed, Ad Astra has created an accessible, engaging and powerful piece of theatre worth of all the superlatives. The fact that the limited season is being brought to Brisbane audiences by the creators of “Red” comes of little surprise given that the 2020 production similarly combined staging and performances with such excellence.

River deep

Vincent River (The Curators)

Christ Church Milton

October 13 – 31

Vincent River is not a location; it is the name of the character at the centre of Philip Ridley’s powerful 2000 one act play of the same name that addresses homophobic-based violence, which can really be extended to include violence against any form of difference. However, even with this knowledge, Vincent’s character remains elusive as, despite dominating discussions, we never see him on stage. Instead, we begin with 53-year-old London East-Ender Anita (Amanda McErlean) being visited by 17-year-old Davey (Patrick Shearer), a stranger who has been following her.

It has only been months since Anita lost her son Vincent in a brutal hate crime and although she is clearly a strong woman, she is emotionally desperate for every, even gruesome, detail from the stranger who found the corpse of her murdered son and now wants to know more details about his life. As information is guarded and then shared, the duo drink and banter through their searches for an end their pains, for Davey has also suffered loss on a scale greater than we at first realise. All is revealed as their shared story navigates its way through accusations and insults, revelations, yearning for love and a reprieving resolution of sorts.

On paper, a 90-minute two-hander of this nature can seem like an arduous undertaking, however, incredible performances mean that experience of the engrossing tale flies by despite its narrative smoulder. Indeed, Michael Beh’s evocative direction allows McErlean and Shearer to give their all as performers meaning that the story is told magnetically, in reaction to each other as much as through their own dialogue delivery. Never off-stage, McErlean takes Anita through the full gamut of emotions during the play, convincingly conveying the grief, disorientation and guilt of a mother who has lost her only son in the most unthinkably violent of circumstances, leaving her with only contemplation of lost opportunities. Then with his slick jacket removal, things switch to Davey’s complexities and the real reason for his visit. The remainder of the show seems almost like an extended monologue from him and, in Shearer’s hands, we hang on his every moment of bravado and ultimate vulnerability. There is a natural cadence to his dialogue delivery that makes him a captivating storyteller despite the disturbance of his recall of the critical incident.

Ridley’s clever writing also serves to elevate the work. While the script of “Vincent River” is dense, it is full of natural dialogue and well-placed moments of silence. It is a tense and turbulent drama in its portrayal of its deep and confronting themes of hate crime, homophobia and grief, but this is considerately tempered by some tender moments and flashes of humour to ease the strain. Craftedness is seen in its revisited motifs that are not overdone in their inclusion. Similarly, too, this production’s dynamic soundscape, including of well-placed song snippets, is not overdone. Bethany Scott’s evocative lighting design and shadows are used to effect for emphasis, though transitions are occasionally abrupt. And the contrast of Michael Beh’s set design of a dingy apartment against a vibrant backdrop, is impressive, especially in such an intimate venue as Milton’s Christ Church.

“Vincent River” is gripping theatre. Its execution is almost claustrophobically taut, meaning that its experience is harrowingly emotional, in the way that good stories often are. The fact that it comes with important messages around marginalisation makes it another perfect choice for The Curators and an absolute treat for theatre-starved audiences.

Photos c/o – Naz Mulla

Henrik homage

Ghosts (The Curators)

The Curators Vintage Pop-Up Theatre

July 19 – August 4

The Curator’s homage to great Norwegian playwright Henrick Ibsen’s controversial “Ghosts” is innovative from even the initial moments of its experience. Smoke haze meets the audience upon entrance into the Vintage Pop-Up Theatre in Red Hill’s St Barnabas Hall. In opening, characters emerge to move forward towards us from behind a makeshift plastic scrim screen. A menacing soundtrack signals the carpenter Engstrand’s (Warwick Comber) pressure of his daughter, Regina (Lauren Roche) to become a prostitute. Their resulting course language in brash interaction appears to be as jarring within the 1881 play, however, ultimately it does detract anything from the work as a whole, which is excellent in every regard.

Regina is maid to the widowed Helene Alving (Lisa Hickey) who is horrified to overhear Regina flirting with her beloved bohemian artist son Oswald (Patrick Shearer) who has recently returned from years of exile in Paris, where his mother sent him to avoid him being corrupted by his father. The layered story from there is of Helene who is in the final stages of opening an orphanage with her charitable partner, and the story’s moral compass, Pastor Manders (Tom Coyle) in memory of her husband Captain Alving. Regretful of staying with the debauched Captain out of social obligation, she thinks that opening the facility in his name will put to rest rumours, but also guarantee that none of his money will go to their son, whom Helene wants to inherit from her alone. It is a slow build to almost Oedipus territory as Helene determines to liberate her son from the ghosts of their past until things take a sudden turn in a tumultuous Act Two as the extent of Oswald’s suffering from the syphilis he ‘inherited’ from his father is fully revealed.

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The tragic story of Helene and her son Osworld is a mythic one, especially as the two descend into the darkness of Act Two. As great works so often are, the play is full of contemplative themes and quotable dialogue about each of us being the ghosts of our past, and in The Curator’s hands this realisation stands strong as not just a tribute to Ibsen but to being human, through its highlight of the themes of duty, reputation and deception. The playwright’s advocacy and sympathy for women through inclusion of strong female characters is not diminished either.

The heavy material of “Ghosts” demands much from its actors and all members of the cast deliver in this regard. Act Two is swift but packs a big punch as hinted-at devastating revelations are unravelled, making the agonising ending quite affecting thanks in particular to Shearer’s powerful and precise performance in the show’s climatic scene. He is an expressive performer down to every possible nuance, especially when in wide-eyed defence of his hyperbolical La Boheme lifestyle. Indeed, his textured performance as the petulant painter is as polished as any I have seen in professional productions of Isben’s works. Also of particular note is Hickey who displays a commanding stage presence as the desperate secret-keeper Helene, possessed in the defence of her own child.

Dynamic make-up and detailed costumes serve as similar stand-out aspects of the polished production; the authentically-ostentatious but constrictive costuming is immediately noteworthy. And Bethany Scott’s lighting design serves as a frame for each of the show’s acts. Director Michael Beh’s set design is such that we see the play rip through the plastic wrapping of society not just metaphorically but literally, thanks to the initial plastic-wrap of furniture items which are repositioned in ‘reboot’ during blackout scene changes which provkes further interest.

Like many of Ibsen’s plays, “Ghosts” is a scathing commentary on 19th-century morality. Because of its subject matter, which includes religion, venereal disease, incest and euthanasia, it is an ambitious theatrical undertaking, especially from an independent theatre company, which makes The Curator’s production particularly outstanding. The show is not only exciting, but difficult to fault. The company brings the classic to life in a creative way, but does so in a manner that fosters refreshed audience interest in its playwright. While it may not be a mainstream manifestation of a work of realism and, therefore, is perhaps an acquired taste, its design elements are impressive and its performances are captivating, meaning that we can only await with anticipation what the company tackles for its next production.