Blithe Spirit (Black Swan State Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre, 2015)

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

The party prepare for the seance. Image: Gary Marsh

In Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, Ruth and Charles Condomine invite their friends, along with local kook Madame Arcati to an all-in-good-fun seance. But the fun soon fades for the couple when the seance leads to the mistaken calling-forth of the spirit of Charles’ dead first wife, Elvira, much to his and Ruth’s horror.

I have loved this supremely funny farce since first performing monologues from it as a teenager doing Trinity College Speech exams.

Later I saw it in the fabulous movie version starring the indomitable Margaret Rutherford as scatty but enthusiastic medium Madame Arcati, and loved that too, so much so that I made the Ministry watch it a few years ago.

Most recently I saw a stage version Roleystone community theatre performed perhaps just two years ago, to which I dragged the Ministry in an effort to show him both why I like community theatre (not just for the free cream sherry starters) and enjoyed myself immensely.

While I have liked previous contemporary works by Black Swan – last year’s Gasp! for example – I do think the company shines brightest when it goes traditional. So when I heard it was doing my old favourite I knew that, given my recent viewing history of the play it was complete overkill to attend, but nevertheless absolutely necessary.

I got the news on the day of the preview that the actress playing Madame Arcati – not the biggest role of the play but arguably the show-stealer – Roz Hammond, had fallen ill and had had to withdraw from the season, I greeted the news with mingled worry that my guest, The Tutor, who I had been sure would share my enthusiasm for this play, might not see it at its best.

Director Jeffrey Jay Fowler appeared before curtain-up to tell her replacement Alison van Reeken, who had played to acclaim in the recent season of Dinner, had been called upon just that day to play the role and would do so bravely, script in hand, on the strength of a single run-through that morning.

Despite my trepidation I was very much inclined, as I’m sure the rest of the audience was, to show goodwill to anyone with the balls to get up and star in a production at the drop of a hat and joined in the warm applause at her appearance.

Well, by golly. As I told the Ministry that night when I appeared at home deliriously sleepy after staying up two hours past my regular bedtime (I know, it’s pathetic) anyone who thinks acting is a bit of a Mickey Mouse profession should have seen what van Reeken stumped up.

She used the script as she had to, but she did so fluidly and with amazingly little reliance on it. She made it part of her movement (and Madame Arcati is a very physical role, so this was no small achievement.) She used the stage space without a single stumble that I could see, and of course we were all looking for one.

Physically she was about as far as you could get from the Madame Arcati of my imagination, who behaves firmly like a stout middle-aged crazy auntie (we’ve all got one) so it was a shock to the system to see her played by a slender young blonde. But this fine-boned woman had a big stage presence and my suspicions faded quickly.

I was honestly so impressed by van Reeken’s self-possession, professionalism and general aplomb that it was an inspiration to see her in action.

Her performance was all the more impressive in such a dialogue-heavy play. This play has a relatively basic set and as Coward fans will understand, the rapid-fire comedic dialogue is everything. If that fails you got Buckley’s. And it didn’t fail.

With this in mind, credit must also go to the other actors who supported van Reeken so strongly in her every scene, particularly the roguish Charles (Adam Booth) who loves both his wives (but perhaps not quite as devotedly as all that, as he himself confesses) and snappish but pitiable Ruth (Adriane Daff) as well as peevish and excitable Elvira (Jo Morris), who wreaks such merry havoc upon their once-contented marriage.

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth. Image: Gary Marsh

Charles and Ruth, onstage for virtually the entire 2.5-hour play, never miss a beat despite the phenomenal amount of dialogue they have. The speed and skill and timing of their repartee is flawless. Despite the entire cast looking rather younger than I would generally expect (it is traditionally a middle-aged sort of crowd whereas none of these characters, apart from one, looked much over thirty) they were all so on-beat that I eventually forgot the characters I imagined and started appreciating the ones in front of me.

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

Ruth tries to keep it together. Image: Gary Marsh

My favourite was probably Ruth, whose keyed-up speeches (screeches?) made me laugh, but simultaneously grimace in solidarity with her. The Tutor loved Charles and a special nod must go the maid Edith (Ella Hetherington), whose exaggerated mincing about the stage had perfect comic timing.

I made particular note of the beautiful use of lighting, which managed to produce the effects of all times of night and day with uncanny authenticity. At one stage I could have sworn I was myself sitting at a sunlit breakfast table on a crisp English morning.

Don’t let the change of cast put you off. If you love a good English comedy of manners then it would be a sin not to take yourself off to this one. Alison van Reeken will probably have learned her lines and written a novel and baked a cake by the time you’ve booked your ticket if what she managed in one day is anything to go by.

But do watch Margaret Rutherford in the movie as well – afterwards, of course.

I got review tickets for this, I should mention, but my appreciation is genuine.

Blithe Spirit runs until August 9.

 

Gasp! (Black Swan State Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre)

Everyone owns the air, don’t they? We don’t have the right to sell it…?

Phillip (Damon Lockwood), Lockheart (Greg McNeill) and Sandy (Steven Rooke) in Gasp! Image by Gary Marsh Photography.

Phillip (Damon Lockwood), Lockheart (Greg McNeill) and Sandy (Steven Rooke) in Gasp! Image by Gary Marsh Photography.

Gasp! is written by Ben Elton, stand-up comic, writer of such awesome books as High Society (read it) sitcoms including Blackadder and The Young Ones.

When big mining starts to run out of stuff to dig up, young executive Phillip (Damon Lockwood) is under pressure to perform. He comes up with the bright idea of marketing designer air, free from the unpleasant odours that of everyday life. Of course, it all goes dreadfully wrong and children in Africa begin to suffocate while the rich drink in designer air sucked in from exotic locations.

Gasp! is an update of Elton’s earlier hit Gasping. When I say updated, I mean no-kidding updated, leaving nowhere for contemporary Australia to hide from this – most unforgiving – portrayal of itself.

Apple, Palmer, Packer, Rineheart, Murdoch, PR, Labor, Liberal and the press, from The Australian to the ABC – none are safe from the glare of this most egalitarian mockery.

If you’re too busy to delegate yourself, for God’s sake get someone to do it for you.

In a fabulous scene, Phillip tries to have a serious conversation with new girlfriend Peggy (Lucy Goleby) as the audience giggles madly, watching him take girlish sips from a bucket-sized Starbonks cup. Yes, Starbonks.

Phillip, Lockheart and Sandy get down to business in the sauna. Image: Gary Marsh Photography

Phillip, Lockheart and Sandy get down to business in the sauna. Image: Gary Marsh Photography

I was eagerly awaiting the sets, which did not disappoint. Spare, simple and formed by key pieces of furniture and a screen backdrop, they roll on and off sideways, suggesting by turns an executive office, hospital room, PR-shark office-slash-playroom, cute living room – complete with that most iconic of Australian suburban symbols, the flying ducks – sauna, press briefing room and, cleverest of all, airport travelator.

Changes are rapid and made exciting with effective use of music and the actors’ silhouetted figures.

Lockwood, a hapless hero with a definite air of J. Pierrepont Finch – the whole show is very How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying – is an excellent lead, sharp and funny, with an elastic face and seemingly endless capacity to ad-lib over the odd technical difficulty, effortlessly charming the audience.

All the casting, in fact, was spot-on, with each actor fitting their role beautifully.

The Matriarch, my guest for the evening, thought the relationship between Phillip and Peggy a touch stilted, and I had to agree – there lacked a bit of the warmth their innocent courtship could have had, an opportunity to humanise the play a bit more. But this is a minor criticism of a play that proves an incisive critique of Australia’s resources-reliant economy and big businesses, albeit one that never lags or gets preachy.

It’s laugh-out-loud funny throughout, acidic satire tempered with lashings of toilet humour and a smidge of nudity, topped off by a hilariously dotty closing scene.

A great night out and a reminder of how satisfying and energetic contemporary theatre can be.

The production is on at Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA until Sunday 9 November, and then travels to Queensland.

Bookings: ticketek.com.au, 1300 795 012 or in person at venue box office.

Shrine (Black Swan State Theatre Company, Heath Ledger Theatre, September 2013)

The hole they leave is bigger than the space they took. How can that be?

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Adam (John Howard) and June (Whitney Richards) in Shrine. Image by Gary Marsh Photography

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black Swan’s new production of Tim Winton’s Shrine, now on at Heath Ledger Theatre, fits a big story into small spheres.

There are few plays, surely, that give voice to a story so typical of WA – 19-year-old Jack Mansfield (Paul Ashcroft) and his two schoolmates have a car crash on a country road while returning to Perth from a night out at his parents’ beach house. Jack’s friends survive; he is killed.

This narrow lens opens a window into the lives of people who are part of a story so common in WA: otherwise privileged teenagers drinking and killing themselves in powerful cars on treacherous country roads, so often pitiful crosses such as the one draped in an Eagles scarf on this set are commonplace: sad, but unremarkable. As Jack’s father Adam Mansfield (stage and screen stalwart John Howard) says, his son is just a number.

Despite this pinpoint on a unique place on an island’s most isolated city, Shrine hones in on a theme so universal anyone who has ever lost a loved one will recognise it: grief, and the peculiar hierarchy of who owns the right to it; love, and the different versions of a person known to their loved ones.

Winton is no stranger to human misery, and I must admit, I was a bit dismayed by the picture of abject misery Shrine leapt straight in to. The poster promised coarse language, smoking, nudity and drug use, so I could be forgiven for thinking I might have been in for something rather scintillating.

Some much-appreciated laughs break up the dirge, mostly delivered by Jack’s bereaved, alcoholic father (Howard as believable as ever). Whitney Richards does a pleasingly unaffected, guileless job of Jack’s love interest, regional IGA worker June, though my fellow theatregoer Lurgy thought her “bush pig” accent, with its dropped consonants, a little forced.

Though at times the dialogue feels very much like one should read it in a novel rather than hear it on stage, somewhat at odds with the naturalistic representations of the subject, I cannot deny it is, like all Winton’s work, very well-written.

He does himself proud with teenage vernacular – you feel Jacks’ friends’ derisive comments lash June and wince on her behalf. Will and Ben’s cruelty is something all Western Australians have heard before.

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Will (Luke McMahon) and Ben (Will McNeill) in Shrine. Image by Gary Marsh Photography

Jack’s mother Mary Mansfield was played by Sarah McNeill with fierce commitment, and she portrayed a mother falling apart while maintaining a statuesque sort of dignity. Lurgy was unimpressed, saying McNeill was far too melodramatic, and while I concede her delivery was markedly to the rest of the cast’s and this was a bit jarring (Lurgy: “infuriating”), some people are a English naturally, even in real life Perth. The way she touched her son’s body spoke to me of motherhood. Also in her favour was a powerful closing monologue that caused some distressing physical symptoms: goosebumps rose up, throat closed down and weird salty drops slid out the sides of my eyes.

When that call comes, it’s midnight wherever you are.

The set, a beach littered with fragments of vehicle carcass that also served as furniture and other props, is as good as all Black Swan’s seem to be, and used with the most uplifting effect in the middle, when you see Jack’s and June’s only love scene (of sorts). Blue, hazy spotlighting light and pitch darkness pricked by faraway electric lights create an eerie, freezing night on the water; a momentarily re-purposed half-sunken car roof serves as a surfboard; and delicate music plays, all the more noticeable because of the play’s almost complete lack of other sound effects. It saves the play from the moments of horror and ugliness it depicts.

But these moments expose the meaning beating at the heart of the big-story-within-a-small: everyone wants a piece of grief, wants a piece of that person they loved, and their opinions of who that person was can be as different as night and day. Adam Mansfield hears June’s stories of his son teaching her about wines and, bewildered, tells her he never knew his son knew anything of the sort. He and his wife revolve in their separate circles of grief, each disgusted by the other’s behaviour. She cannot visit the crash site – he cannot keep away from it. Jack’s friends put up a crude shrine there, with alcohol bottles and paraphernalia, and Adam cannot stand it and rips it down repeatedly. June is upset by this and pleads with him to leave it.

It’s better than nothing.

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June (Whitney Richards) in Shrine. Image by Gary Marsh Photography

Shrine tells its audience that people are limited, but grief and love are infinite – and there’s plenty to go around.

Shrine runs at Heath Ledger Theatre, State Theatre Centre of WA until September 15.

The production will then tour to Albany Entertainment Centre September 19 – 20 and then to Canberra Theatre Centre September 26 – 29.

Day One, A Hotel, Evening (Black Swan State Theatre Company, State Theatre Centre, June 2013)

The party supply business is rife with corporate espionage.

Stella (Roz Hammond) and Madeleine (Michelle Fornasier) in Day One, A Hotel, Evening. Photo by Gary Marsh Photography

Stella (Roz Hammond) and Madeleine (Michelle Fornasier) in Day One, A Hotel, Evening. Photo by Gary Marsh Photography

This is just a taste of the rapid-fire dialogue in Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s Day One, A Hotel, Evening, Black Swan Theatre Company’s latest show at Northbridge’s Heath Ledger Theatre.

The fast pace is echoed by the swiftness of the set changes – once again, Black Swan shows off its talent for very cool sets, this time with a set of revolving brickwork interiors setting the scene for countless murky liaisons between three married couples.

We have only two responsibilities: to be curious and promiscuous… in a cafe.

Sadly, even these responsibilities might be too much for Murray-Smith’s upper-middle-class malcontents, who can’t even seem to cheat on each other very successfully.

There’s no cure for intuition.

Incredibly fast-paced, like an HBO series crammed into an hour and a half, the show is littered with contemporary references – everything from Berlusconi to Apple, and keeps the audience in fits throughout the bewildering array of adultery it is presented with.

I’m what you’d call aggressive aggressive. It wastes less time, but some people find it a little off-putting.

The play isn’t completely devoid of higher meaning – by the end, clear themes emerge on suburbia and the discontent it can breed, where happiness is not a given, but a decision one must make.

If what you have doesn’t cost anything, what’s it worth?

All of the actors do splendidly in the repartee-heavy script, delivering flurries of razor-sharp one-liners and put-downs with clarity and excellent comic timing.

The standout, however, is Roz Hammond of the impressive resume – clearly an actress with staying power (http://www.inmycommunity.com.au/going-out/theatre-and-the-arts/The-test-of-time-/7645963/).

Her dotty Stella is fabulous and the perfect choice to deliver the play’s wistful stabs in the gut as it draws to a close.

Will it stand the test of time? Possibly it won’t become what you’d call a classic, but if classics were all we ever got, the theatre would die a swift death. We are living here and now and we want good plays, with solid – if whirlwind – plotting and plenty of laughs, and Joanna Murray-Smith is clearly a playwright who can deliver.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Black Swan for this show. But I write without fear or favour.

Hurry: Ends this Sunday, June 30. Tickets:  http://www.bsstc.com.au/whats-on/day-one-a-hotel-evening/