Thursday, 25 November 1999

The Book Club by Roger Hall, Nov 25 1999

at Playhouse: 13 shows only from November 25, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Amanda Muggleton is good on stage- very good. She was compelling,
early this year, as Callas in Masterclass and many years earlier as Shirley Valentine which toured the country for eons.

Deb, the character in Roger Hall's The Book Club, is a milder but no less skilful performance because the central character, Deb, does not have the complexity of Callas or Shirley.

Deb, an avid reader and buyer of books, joins a suburban women's book club. The women, all created by Muggleton, discuss books, compare families and compete over desserts. They invite a novelist (who looks uncannily like the playwright with a big beard) to speak.

Deb begins and continues an affair with him, unbeknown to any of the women or to her menopausal husband who is busy training for a marathon and ignoring his wife.

Muggleton is alone on Shaun Gurton's sleek design and she commands attention for over two hours, despite the script's lack of dramatic tension or plot development.

Muggleton's energy and spark enliven the various women she creates although, strangely, they are all Brits living in Canterbury, Melbourne. Meredith is the Canterbury snob, Millie is warm and Welsh, Suzie a mad PR tart. 

If she can generate throughout, the hilarious warmth and looseness she had when she lost a line, the piece will really fly.

Hall, evidently, well-know in New Zealand, is unknown here so the play must be assessed in isolation. He seems to target a particular well-heeled, theatre-going audience rather than concentrating on writing a dramatic piece.

His story fizzles into a tepid happy ending but seems to appeal. The audience laughs at jokes about authors, people being defined by their reading habits ("Caroline: Vogue and Harpers"), dull husbands, clandestine sex, rowing daughters, flash cars and clothes.

One challenging theme that is not addressed fully, is the notion of a woman seeking refuge in sex when grief heightens her need and emotions.

What the story lacks is any high points or twists. What appears to be a risky love affair with a self-absorbed, small-time novelist, peters out into a completely undamaging, slightly risque little diversion with no surprises. Perhaps it is just too long since I lived in Canterbury.

by Kate Herbert

Wednesday, 17 November 1999

Nightfall, Nov 17, 1999

by Joanna Murray-Smith by Playbox
at Beckett Theatre until December 11, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Repressed emotion, repressed memory, repressed sexuality – all that repression would drive one wild. In Jenny Kemp's evocative production of Joanna Murray-Smith's play, Nightfall, everything is latent. Everyone has trouble revealing emotion or even speaking. It is maddeningly difficult for them to describe the world as it is.

A middle-class, middle-aged couple (Margaret Cameron, Ian Scott) pace like caged animals awaiting nightfall and the imminent arrival of their daughter, Cora. She disappeared, for no apparent reason, seven years earlier at the age of sixteen. While they wait, they make up stories just as Cora did when she was a beautiful gifted child.

Instead, a stranger arrives; (Victoria Longley) Cora's friend, mentor, counsellor. She interrogates, harasses and confuses them. Until they admit their past faults, Cora will not come. The temptation to confess in order to see their darling daughter is almost irresistible. But, is there really a sin to confess?

The truth is never clear. Half the audience may leave with a completely different truth at the end of the play. The text is clever and often poetic. All three characters resist exposure to the point where they cannot complete sentences, words, even syllables. It is enough to make one scream in frustration. Why won't they just finish a sentence and be done with it?

This dialogue device is employed to heighten the chaos and the intensity in the situation, the shattered relationships and the resistance to the truth. Occasional glib or self-conscious lines are intrusive but Jenny Kemp has stylised the piece, creating an otherworldly atmosphere.

Kemp's production is simple and confined within Dale Ferguson's eerie design within which the bodies and language are made purposely uncomfortable. Lighting (Rachel Burke) and music (Elizabeth Drake) are subtle and atmospheric.

Cameron is compelling as the fraught Emily. Painful shadows and subtle, potent emotions flicker across the tragic mask of her face. She captures the shimmering desolation of a wife emotionally abandoned in marriage.

As Edward, Scott is the dogged, superior but evidently loving patriarch. He portrays with great sensitivity, the journey from dignity to a mere shell. The couple choose to call their marriage "love", rather than what it is: "the companionship of despair".

Longley's is a strong presence as the pushy, intrusive and annoying Kate. Her style is more naturalistic which jars a little but may represent the outside world that intrudes on their tiny life.

by Kate Herbert

Fred, Nov 11, 1999

By Beatrix Christian, by Melbourne Theatre Company
at Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne Nov 10 until December 18, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

If only Beatrix Christian had quit while she was ahead at the interval, Fred would be a great black comedy. But she mistakenly carried on for a further 90 minutes.

The first half really is hilarious. It is stuffed full of cleverly written gags, left-field plot points and insane characters. Christian uses Pamela (Sarah Kants) as a contemporary film noir narrator and surrounds her with death and chaos.

The detective thriller form is turned on its head when, after Pamela finds a corpse under her Hill's hoist, her entire circle of friends and family coincidentally find corpses in their houses too. There is a gambling suicide in the laundry, a dero in the garage, a fat boss in the office. Coincidence?

Death obsesses first Pam, then the others. Grief besieges them then upturns their lives, values and relationships. But the gags keep coming thick and fast. Fred is filled with belly laughs in the first half that is like a good early episode of the sit-com, Friends, with a twist.

It is still funny after interval but it loses its focus, the characters disintegrate, there are diversions, meaningless sub-plots and too much padding. The original premise is obscured and silliness takes over. There's nothing wrong with silliness especially in a comedy but it becomes tiresome without a context or framework.

The performers have a hoot. Brian Lipson is quirky as the gay surgeon
and Neil Pigot as the "root-rat" Porsche car salesman, is simultaneously sleazy, sexy and ridiculous. Brett Climo's deadpan, repressed policeman is very funny. Kants, Stephen Curry, Victoria Eagger and Anita Hegh complete the fine comic ensemble.

Michael Gow sets a rollicking pace assisted by a pumping soundtrack by Peter Farnan. Gow uses the doors in Anna Borghesi's design as if this were a French a farce. Scenes bleed into each other and actors stroll through each other's scenes. The design is purposely like a trashy 70's motel room, with cheap Hawaiian prints and tacky wallpaper.

If only someone had taken to the script with a big red editor's pen, this would be a great short comedy.

by Kate Herbert

Saturday, 6 November 1999

Debrief, Nov 6 1999

by Angus Cerini and James Cerini, by Noodle Theatre
 at Theatreworks until November 20, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

"Peace-keeping" sounds like a comfortable, peaceable way to be a soldier - a picnic compared with active duty. Well Debrief, a play about Australian Humanitarian aid providers in Rwanda in 1994, tells a different story.

James Cerini, a veteran of this mission, wrote this award-winning play with his brother, Angus Cerini. It is an episodic, gritty and emotional investigation of the young men and women who nobly and perhaps naively, went to Rwanda, The characters are based on James' and other soldiers' experience in Africa and their subsequent suffering of the physical and emotional consequences.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) used to be called "shell shock" or "battle fatigue". Whatever we call it, it is the permanently damaging effect of seeing such horrors as decapitations, machete wounds, lost limbs, starvation and orphaned children.

It must be worsened when, as humanitarians aid workers, they cannot lift a weapon to save the lives of those being slaughtered before their eyes. If they do, they risk being tried for murder. It is an horrific notion.

Have we learned nothing about caring for the members of our defence forces? We know that veterans of both World Wars and Vietnam have suffered terribly. We are now sending more troops to East Timor.

The Cerini brothers have written a well-crafted and moving play that does not prey on the emotions with long, emotive scenes. Instead, it uses a stylised structure and fragmented dialogue that juxtapose Rwanda with the post-war experience. Characters' worlds and voices collide and syncopate.

Slides and film appear and dissolve on one of two enormous fabric hospital screens designed by design. Angela Pamic. The empty space allows director, Ben Ellis, to fill the stage with characters and voices and to shift scenes seamlessly.

The ensemble of ten is compelling. As the men whose lives turn to chaos after Rwanda, Jim Shaw, Scott Gooding, Simon Kearney and Matt Norman find truth in their journey from boyish bravado to despair. Kim Denman is powerful as the only woman on the tour of duty. Kurt Geyer provides numerous comic and dramatic characters with aplomb.

This is a play that we should all see. It has the endorsement of the Surgeon General of the Australian Defence Forces and the National Centre of War related PTSD. War and peace are facts of our world. We need to fully understand their impact.

by Kate Herbert

Tuesday, 2 November 1999

A Passionate Woman, 2 Nov 1999

 by Kay Mellor
at Comedy Theatre from November 2, 1999  for one week only
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

British domestic farce has been very popular in its day and it seems it can still pull a crowd here. Kay Mellor's play, A Passionate Woman, is a clever blend of gags and pathos.

Her script is definitely the star of this Brisbane remount of a British production. Mellor wrote the funny and moving Girls' Night (starring Julie Walters) and is an expert in creating Northern English working -class women and their domestic troubles, humour, dreams and desires.

One hour before her precious only son's wedding, Betty (Linda Robson) removes to the attic to muse on her lost youth. Her husband, Donald, (Geoffrey Hughes) bangs around downstairs while sonny, Mark, (Jason Gann) climbs the ladder to sweet-talk her into coming down.

Mark has some competition, however.  The ghost of Betty's long-dead lover, Craze (Paul Mercurio) is seducing her all over again up in the attic. Mellor uses this as the cornerstone of Betty's menopausal, empty-nest crisis. She is caught between three demanding and self-interested men.

Mellor sets up poignant moments then whips the rug out from under them with a snappy punch-line. The audience seemed relieved not to be taken to deeply into her anguish. "Marriage is not all sex, ovaltine and roses," says Donald. There was an audible sigh of recognition with the giggle from the crowd.

This production is at its best in the second half when director, Dan Crawford allows it to be more physically and visually interesting as they all perch on the rickety tiles roof of the tenement. Act One is uncomfortably static in the confined space of the attic.

This is personality casting at its most obvious and least Australian. Linda Robson has a strong following from the TV comedy, Butterflies Are Free and she is charming as Betty. Hughes, known to us as Onslow in Keeping up Appearances, raises the comic stakes in Act Two with an energetic and funny Donald.  

Gann is more comfortable on the roof after a shaky start but Mercurio is badly miscast as the 60's British Wide Boy.

This is a play in the style of Run for Your Wife that also owes a great deal to Shirley Valentine. It would benefit from direction that finds a more effective balance between pathos and comedy.

by Kate Herbert