Delilah decades

The Sweet Delilah Swim Club (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre

March 4 – 19

Friendship is the one sure thing to hold on to in life, Venadette (Liz Hull) reflects in thanks for the entertainment she is experiencing as her long-time friends bicker around her. The quote comes during our second insight into the group’s annual time away at a beachside cottage in Georgia (the Sweet Delilah of the play’s title) when revelations are made, secrets are shared and confidences are betrayed as part of the usual ups and downs after 27 years of friendship.

The five friends are members of a College swim team who now meet for one weekend each year free from husbands, kids and jobs. No-nonsense Sheree (Jane Binstead), the group’s former swim captain, childless career-driver lawyer Dinah (Megan Lawson), pampered and flirtatious (Vivian Broadbent), accepting-of-her-lot-in-life Venadette (Hull) and eager-to-please Jeri Neal (Director Jacqueline Kerr) make for a group of familiar character types that are also presented as very real characters in whose stories we easily become invested. And so, with personalities and dynamics already well established in their first scene introduction in 1983 (their 22nd reunion), we sit back and watch as their lives play out with scenes across four of their weekends as they reminisce about old times and touch base about the changes that happened in their lives over the past year… because a lot can happen over 33 years of friendship through the ebbs and flows of life. 

The cast of performers work well together, soon settling into their required southern belle accents. They each easily take their characters from being aged 44 to 77 as the women individually journey through divorce, demanding children, career disappointments, disease and death. Indeed, performances are particularly impressive in the final 2018 scene, when the characters being played are in their late 70s, complete with the unsteady movement of failing health as much as the cosmetics of grey hair. Of particular note, Lawson never misses a beat as the successful but still sometimes vulnerable Dinah and Hull offers perfectly timed comedy as the contrasting Vernadette, often in self-deprecation of her country song of a life as much as her blunt observations of the others.

A narrative that journeys a tale across three decades allows opportunity for much narrative coverage and, accordingly, a lot of story is told through the ladies’ catch-ups about men, marriages and the realisations of middle age and beyond. The insight of the work’s clever script, however, comes from not just grand, sweeping statements, but little lines of dialogue around the terrifying reality of aging, such as still thinking you are 20-years-old, yet looking down upon a middle-aged woman’s hands. Lucy Moxon’s set design creates a realistic depiction of a cozy beach cottage, and careful costuming and staging changes reflect the different eras being conveyed, beyond just the obviousness of updated technology.

The drama escalates after interval as a hurricane hits, the increasing sounds of which make it difficult to hear some less strongly projected dialogue. It is in this second act, however, that the real beauty of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, Jamie Wooten’s writing shines, and in the hands of these performers every character is filled with dimension which makes its final scenes particularly poignant.  

Like a comforting old-school midday movie, sans ads, “The Sweet Delilah Swim Club” is a wonderful way to spend a couple of hours. The dramedy is both hilarious and ultimately touching and there is now denying its commentary on the enduring nature of the special of friendships, for while the five ladies may be at different stages in life, having made an assortment of choices with which the others might not agree, they have a bond that pulls them back to the Sweet Delilah cottage every year, no matter what… Now just don’t miss your chance to join them.

Mistaken identity mayhem

The Venetian Twins (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre

November 26 – December 11

1979’s “The Venetian Twins” actually opens in the home of the Judge of Verona (Barry Haworth) where his shrill daughter Rosina (Lillian Dowdell in a strong performance) decries that her heir-to-a-fortune fiancé Zanetto (Nikolai Stewart) is a shameless fool. Ocker boy-from-the-bush Zanetto, meanwhile, is confused as to how to woo a woman. He is one of orphaned twins, the other being the dashing Tonino (also played by Stewart), who lives in Venice, from where Beatrice (Amelia Burton) is running away to be with him, despite Tonino’s friend, Florindo (Daniel Buckley), who is secretly in love with her, telling her not to go.

Italian settings aside, there is a very Shakespearean feel to things through the story’s confusion arising from mistaken identities, accidental poisoning, a multi-coupled day-of-judgment conclusion and even a balcony scene….. all with an Australian flavour. The fast-paced two-act musical version of a classic Italian comedy features lyrics by Nick Enright and music composition and arrangement by Terence Clark in its adaption from an 18th century commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Goldoni. With both separated-at-birth twins preposterously turning up in Verona, one for an arranged marriage and the other to meet a girl who has run away from her family to find him, there ensues many instances in which they are mistaken for each other. The resulting chaos includes duels, betrayals, spats, arrests, a casket of stolen jewels, singing, dancing and more, meaning that there is a lot going on in Villanova Players’ boisterous season closer, which necessitates a large cast, helmed by Stewart as Tonino/Zanetto.

Doing double duty as both twins is a big ask and Steward delivers well, switching flawlessly between the two and defining each character clearly with help from a hat and an accent as Zanetto. He brings much humour to the dim misunderstandings of country bumpkin  Zanetto in his initial interactions with his betrothed Rosina and he confidently handles necessarily ad-libs in Tonino’s Act Two venture into the audience in search for a purse of riches. Also of particular note is Florindo (Daniel Buckley) who shows committment to the exaggerated physical comedy of his role, prancing about the place with absurdist flamingo-like movements. And stepping into the minor role as maid Colombina, Michaela Gallagher demonstrates clear, expressive vocals and some fine comic moments, especially in interaction with Peter Cattachas as Zanetto’s servant Arlecchino, who Colombina hopes to wed. Unfortunately, however, Andrew Alley is let down by distracting microphone crackles that not only continue, but increase into Act Two, meaning that we never really get to appreciate the comic villainy of his performance as the Judge’s loyal friend Pancrazio. The most compelling of all performers is Amelia Burton as Beatrice who combines on-point comedy with an operatic voice. Act One’s Spanish sounding ‘Gypsy Love’ is a lovely introduction to the calibre and range of her vocals (olé!) and when her bonnet comes off in Act Two anger at perceived rejection by Tonino who is really Zanetto and ‘his’ cruel deception of having an apparent mistress, things crescendo into a resplendent reprise of sorts.

Under the lead of attentive musical director Ben Richards, the band (of also Monique Matthews, Elliot McGuire, Mitchell Bell, Phil Kan and Abbie Chadirchi) contributes to the light-hearted flavour of themes, fancying things along though a lengthy Act One. Richards’ light and bright piano evokes the pleasantries of civilized society before its farce factors in and the score’s variety is truly showcased, along with the band’s versatility. McGuire’s clarinet adds crow flight sounds as part of Act Two’s mock ‘hometown’ song, ‘Jindyworoback’ (the one horse northern Italian town to which Zanetto wants to return when sick of Verona), and then lures us into Zanetto’s lovely below-balcony duet pledge of devotion to Rosina.

‘The Venetian Twins” is hugely irreverent in its tone. As the twins fall in and out of favour with the same two women, its script features an array of malapropisms, puns and even a tongue-twister scene (featuring a particularly vocally nimble Haworth). There are also many meta-theatre moments through acknowledgement of the orchestra and questioning to the audience as to character whereabouts, pantomime like. With a chase scenes and alike into the audience, there is no getting away from the players, particularly when gleeful servant Arlecchino attempts to entertain us with some interval magic, until full-of-himself foppish fool (Caelen Culpeper), who is also crazy about Beatrice, comes out to seek assistance with a search. The show includes some very funny, often unexpected moments, such as when Zanetto shares what throwing himself off the stage would look like. It’s a long show though, in part due to the repetition required to labour the funny of some of its jokes and sometimes humour comes across as overly forced, such as with insert of local mentions of Star Casino and the Hemsworth brothers.

“The Venetian Twins” is a paradoxical work of complicated plotting of confused identities and mistaken assumptions, but also base level comedy, meaning that it offers something for everyone. Justice may be served in the end, but along the way, the farcical roller-coaster romp rollicks into some very funny, perhaps unexpected places and Villanova Players makes the journey to them a very enjoyable one.

Photos c/o – Christopher Sharman Photography

Double bill absurdity

Comedy Double Bill (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre

October 7 – 9

It is a big name double bill for the latest offering in Villanova Players’ intermezzo series with works written by Tom Stoppard and Aaron Sorkin on show, albeit in a bite-sized one-act presentations. The evening starts with Stoppard’s “A Separate Peace”, which is provocative not in the playwright’s usual post-absurdist disruption of genre expectations, but rather in contemplation around the idea of connection. The appropriately named work tells the story of arrival of a mysterious John Brown (David Scholes) to the country Beechwood Nursing Home. Though there is no reason for his admission (apart from a sore finger), he is soon checked in with expectation of hotel-style service. Regular mealtimes and routine are all he requires. As he settles in, there is much speculation as to his identity and things progress from there as staff wonder what has he done or from whom he might be hiding.

As is often the case with community theatre productions, characters are represented with variable levels of conviction. In the case of “A Separate Peace”, we are able to settle into a convincing performance from Scholes, especially in interaction with a strong Samara Louise as Nurse Maggie, torn between her feelings of genuine friendship and instruction to spy in search of evidence as to the mystery patient’s identity and purpose. Scholes is charming in his carry of the bulk of the play’s dialogue, including the script’s many wistfully enigmatic statements for audience contemplation. These are emphasised by some interspersed songs featuring guitar and a hearty harmonica (musicians Marty Silec and Noel Langton) and there are some lovely sentiments conveyed, even if their lyrics not always able to be heard.

Although a simple play, originally written for television in 1964, Stoppard’s first work shows the start of his to-come trademark themes. John Brown is determined to live by his own philosophy in defiance of those around him, which prompts consideration of society’s conventions and preconceptions, leaving us without conclusion so much as our own contemplation, in classic Stoppard style.

Props (#punintended) to the stage crew for their efficient resetting at interval to then take things to Act Two’s fenced off farm setting in the wide open spaces of upstate New York where two chairs face us, hay bale in between. The characters of Emmy Award-winning playwright Aaron Sorkin’s “Hidden in This Picture” are not farmers though, but filmmakers and nobody ever really sits in the chairs, instead pacing about fretting over what should have been the simplest of shots, especially after the hours of rehearsal that have preceded the perfect sunset.

This is the first time that old friends writer Jeff (Oscar Kennedy-Smith) and director Robert (Troy Bullock) are taking their theatre partnership to the big screen and they’ve been saving filming of the final and most important scene of their movie for last. It’s a complicated outdoor sequence involving hundreds of extras portraying disenchanted marines returning to their military base right on sunset. All is going seemingly well, until three cows walk directly into the shot.

Can they forget the cows or incorporate them in some way? Even Jeff’s drama sensibilities can’t seem to overcome obstacle of their apparent appearance on a military base in Guam, where the film’s story is set and the result is very entertaining. Indeed, the silly single-scene satire is right up there as one of the best Villanova Players shows I have reviewed, thanks to Vivien Broadbent’s well-timed first direction and the on-point everything from Bullock as first-time director Robert, intent on obtaining an Oscar-winning shot.

The show is essentially a duologue between Robert and Jeff, inset with simple interjections from slow moving Production Assistant Craig (Ian Hodgson) and topping and tailing appearance from hard-nosed manager Reuben (Barry Haworth), and Bullock and Kennedy-Smith play off each other well as emotions escalate. Their timing and tone are key is creating the hilarity of the story’s increasing hyperbole that comes from Robert’s frustrations and Jeff’s statements of the obvious that ignite them.

“Hidden in This Picture” is full of over and over again laugh-out-loud moments, making for very entertaining theatre experience in and of itself, but also one that is elevated by combination of all of its on-point aspects such as how soundscape and Rod Thompson’s lighting design guide us easily through the sunset into the aesthetic of early night.

As theatre outings go, the repertory theatre group’s double comedy bill of “A Separate Peace” and “Hidden in This Picture” is all absurdist entertainment, in its offer of reflection and laughs in equal measure. The only misfortune is that its one weekend run is all too short.  

Modern manners resonance

The School for Scandal (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre 

June 18 – July 3

Villanova Players’ production of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1777 play, “The School for Scandal” is introduced by the sounds of “English Country Dances”, which, along with its of-the-era fashionable London staging, plants in firmly in time and place. Yet, it does not take long for its audience to realise that the delightful comedy of manners is actually quite modern in sensibilities, as things begin with a gossip scene.

Wealthy widow, Lady Sneerwell (an impressive Helen Ekundayo) and her hireling discuss her various scandal-spreading plots. When the topic is raised of the brothers Joseph (Michael McNish) and Charles (Gabriel King) Surface, the mischievous Lady Sneerwell explains her complex strategy. She socialises often with Joseph, the conventional and apparently more upright brother, however, she is really in love with the extravagant Charles, whose penchants for drinking, gambling, and womanising cause him to be perpetually in-debt.  Charles, in turn, is enamoured of the young ward of Sir Peter Tezle (John Evans), who Joseph has also decided to woo.

It’s a busy plot that only starts towards clarity upon arrival from abroad of jolly Sir Oliver Surface (Leo Bradley) the brothers’ wealthy and generous uncle, a businessman who has never lost faith in Charles’s worth.Indeed, withwordy dialogue and plotting from the 18th century, it is initially difficult to follow who is who. Some hesitations also disrupt the pacey rhythm of the play’s script. When it is patterned its delivery, however, the work’s Oscar Wilde-like wit sings loudly, especially in its commentaries around marriage.

There are plenty of one-liners and also humour in the competing hyperbole of passive-aggressive, tongue-in-cheek pettiness that characterises the quarrels of the appropriately-named Teazles. Indeed, as Sir Peter and his Lady wife, Evans and Hannah Martin enliven their shared scenes of not-even-veiled hostilities as the couple jostle for one-up-manship in their mis-matched union. Martin, in particular gives an appropriately high camp screechy and pouty performance, especially in flippant response to her petulant husband. Physical humour also contributes to the mayhem of the play’s comedy; Shakespearean-style eavesdropping is heightened to double effect and there is a pantomimish disagreement as to the identity of the moneylender Mr. Premium, as part of a plan for Sir Oliver to visit each of the brothers incognito to test their characters.

With lavish, detailed costumes, aristocratic painted faces, huge hair and fluttering fans, there is a definite “Dangerous Liasons” feel to things… “Dangerous Liasons” with a “Gossip Girl” twist as one of Lady Sneerwell’s blatantly hypocritical gossipmongers, the ironically-named Mrs Candour(Karen Neale) moralistically decries she dares not repeat such things as those she has just noted. Not only is what was written as a 1777 lampoon of the gossiping aristocrats within Sheridan’s social circle still of resonance today, but amidst its tangle of plots, subplots, deception and rapid comings and goings, there is a pleasant reconciliation of virtue over vice. And while it is length is a challenge, “The School for Scandal” serves as a good vehicle for performers to hone their skills.

Stoppard spirals

The Real Inspector Hound (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre

May 20 – 22

Before there was “Inception”, there was Tom Stoppard, the Czech-born British playwright and screenwriter, best known for his absurdist, existential tragicomedy “Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead”, whose work uses comic wit while addressing philosophical concepts. His 1968’s “The Real Inspector Hound” may be a lesser-known comedy, but it is just as funny, primarily through the paradoxical spirals created by its reframing.

From the initial scene of Villanova Players’ production as part of the group’s Intermezzo series, the Stoppard sensibility is evident. Two self-important London theatre critics, Moon (Luke Monsour) and Birdbook (Pat Leo), are in attendance at an amateurish murder mystery play, a typical British parlour mystery of “The Mousetrap” sort. As they proceed to pontificate about their sacred profession, it become apparent that Moon is frustrated by his status as ‘second-string’ critic to his loathed superior Higgs, while the philandering Birdboot seems to be more interested in propositioning the female members of the cast.

The play they are watching is then simultaneously enacted in on stage…. in a way, as a murder mystery direct parody of Agatha Christie’s closed settings in which no one can enter or leave, so the characters know that the murderer must be one of them. The location is the stately but mysterious and strangely inaccessible Muldoon Manor. Housekeeper Mrs Drudge (Desley Nichols) hears a radio report about a savage madman believed to be nearby. In the meantime, Simon Gascoigne (Oscar Kennedy Smith) appears. Having courted houseguest Felicity (Lillian Dowdell), he is now turning his attention to the lady of the house manor, Cynthia (Steff King), despite her pining for long-missing husband Albert. Romantic tension aside, the trio decide to play an indecipherable card game for four, including Albert’s wheelchair-bound Canadian brother, Magnus (Blaise Ahern). Then a shot rings out at Inspector Hound (John Evans) appears to solve the crime at its source… the body (played by Nikolai Stewart).  

As the action plays out in front of them, the critics share a selection of chocolates and continue their own critical-jargon-filled conversation of suspicion and insinuation, pontificating during its interval about the need to reserve judgement until the final confrontation even when it is clear where things are heading (in some of the script’s most obvious non-spoilery foreshadowing). As things progress, the critics’ own stories appear to increasingly parallel the onstage action, to the point where they become entwined in it. The self-proclaimed scrupulous family man Birdboot may maintain that he has nothing to hide, however, his philandering sees him become involved in on-stage events. This is the absurdly chaotic world of Tom Stoppard and all audiences can do is hang on for the ride.

This switch in its story also represents a wonderful opportunity to elevate the work’s melodramatic possibilities, allowing the ensemble cast opportunity to shine, both individually and collectively. With exaggerated physicality, caricatured mannerisms and clichéd dialogue delivery, the performers contribute much to the play’s essential mockery of the stereotypes of its genre (helped also by Dan Buckley’s sound and lighting that sees music swelling over the top of romantic tryst and punctuating plot revelations). While all they all gloriously embrace the camp and slapstick comedy inherent in the material, Oscar Kennedy Smith gives an early, noteworthy, appropriately-over-the-top performance. And Steff King’s tizzied execution of Stoppard’s rapid-fire dialogue does much to emphasise the escalating chaos. It is Desley Nichols, as the housemaid Mrs Drudge, however, who provides the drollest delivery. With expert comic timing, she drops dialogue hints about it all leading up to something, orienting us with a deadpan commentary that serves as substitute for stage directions.

Finding the balance between the text’s realism and melodrama, and sustaining its satirical pace represents a challenge, and Trevor Bond keeps the pace powering along, which adds to its absurdity, without glossing over its witty examination of the reviewer’s craft. This is a taut one act production that is intelligent, engaging and very entertaining. The classic comedy farce is signature Stoppard, uniquely both profound and silly. Indeed, the hilarious parody of parlour style who-dunnits, is very clever in its feature of metatheatre devices such a play-within-a-play, character switches and many twists and turns, meaning that its audience is kept guessing until the very end. More than just a funny play, however, Villanova Players have given us a quality production that, very appropriately, does not take itself too seriously.

Anecdotes from an earlier time

Snapshots from Home (Villanova Players)

Ron Hurley Theatre

March 5 – 20

If unclear from its program information, the premise of Villanova Players’ “Snapshots from Home” is clear from the setup of the Ron Hurley Theatre stage. Its 11 chairs spread in line across the back of the stage emphasises that Margery Forde’s work is one of verbatim theatre, based on the spoken words of real people, inset, as it is, with a number of short, sometimes musical, vignettes. From initial dialogue delivery in accompaniment of text projections, performers words soon overlap each other into the first scene of a young girl’s bad dreams of what war might mean for her family. So unfolds the show’s share of memories of 24 ordinary men and women from Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast who lived through the extraordinary times of World War II.  

Honest emotion from the home front is at the core while we are reminded of the human stories and humour behind the war’s big moments as we are taken from Menzies’ announcement of the conflict’s outbreak and excited enlistments, through the bombing of Darwin, sinking of the Cenataur and anti-Japanese sentiment to dropping of the atomic bombs and the ultimate armistice.

The ensemble cast members are clearly comfortable together on stage and they all look the part courtesy of Mary Woodall’s era-evocative costumes. Though all performers work well with each other, there are some notable standouts. Elizabeth Morris delivers perfectly-pitched comic moments, from Act One’s character revelation of never having heard a woman swearing before joining the air force to later larger-than-life radio play announcer invitation to the show’s audience to join in to experience of its 400+ episode’s romantic confusion. Josephine Stockdale jumps in and out of multiple roles, including with an authentic Irish accent and Beth Allen dominates the stage with her animated storytelling. Together with Stockdale and Tainika Kane-Potaka, she creates some lovely harmonies in Andrews Sisters classics like ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo’ and ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’.  

Meanwhile Nikolai Stewart and Patrick Eavens play off each wonderfully as an ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’ American GI and less-mannerly Aussie digger. And when they are joined by the ladies for showcase of the jitterbug and jive dances introduced by the yanks, it is a lively late-show highlight.

Music is integral to the realisation of the entertainment of “Snapshots from Home”. As if ripples of recognition spreading through the audience at play of the radio news report’s introductory tune are not enough, there are many opportunities to be reminded of familiar of-era songs. Indeed, Act Two features a lovely inclusive-of-the-audience singalong around the piano (pianist and performer Rosemary Murray) of the ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ sort. And then novelty nonsense song ‘Mairzy Doats’ raises the stakes with accompanying actions (choreographer and movement co-ordinator Lynette Wockner).

After tour through the honest, heartbreaking, and hilariously funny glimpses at the realities of life on the home front during World War II, things settle with reflection on the horrors of war with resonance in relation to the current state of the world. But there is also an overriding sense of hope and celebration of the comradery and female empowerment that its experience enabled, making it a thoroughly rewarding audience undertaking.