Frank Barnes

Well, dear readers, here we are again, looking forward to another year of exciting and sometimes excruciating theatre. Luckily, most of what I see is top-class but occasionally some sub-standard productions sneak in.

As I suggested in my last column for 2014, I saw a number of brilliant shows before the end of the year and then a couple of shows in the Sydney Festival. Having finished the Festival and commenced the Subscription series for the Belvoir and Sydney Theatre Company, I’m set for the Gay and Lesbian Sydney Mardi Gras which is about to start with some excellent productions.

After Dinner

Written by Andrew Bovell
Directed by Imara Savage
Sydney Theatre Company
Wharf 1

This is a great opening production for the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2015 season. It was written by Andrew Bovell in the Eighties and is firmly placed in that era. What a delight it is to get to see a show with five of my favourite actors, each of whom give consistently good or great performances.

It is important that we revisit early plays by our writers. Most often, plays rarely get seen again after their original productions. Some plays date and are not worthy of another run but many were terrific first time around; rather than languishing in a box somewhere they need to be looked at and possibly revived.

It helps that this was the writer’s first produced play and that he has gone on to great success since. Head On, Lantana and Strictly Ballroom are film scripts he has written in Australia and the recent The Most Wanted Man and Edge of Darkness are two mainstream movies for which he wrote the screenplays. I also note that his wonderful play When the Rain Stops Falling will be produced by New Theatre later this year.

After Dinner is set in a bistro/pub on a Friday night. Dympie (Rebecca Massey), a dowdy control freak and Paula (Anita Heigh), her slightly out-there ditzy friend, come every week to sit at the back and listen to the band.

This Friday night they are joined by the recently widowed Monika (Helen Thomson) on her first outing since the death of her husband. At a different table Gordon (Glenn Hazeldine) waits with a slight acquaintance Stephen (Josh McConville) for a mutual friend who never appears.

This is the set-up for a couple of hours of hilarity that ensues from the interaction of the five. There is a lot of comic dialogue and some fine physical comedy.

I would feel confident recommending anything in which any of these fine actors took part. Here, they excel. Their comic timing is perfect as is their physicality. A monologue by Helen Thomson about her ex-husband had the audience in tears of laughter.

While on the surface this is a sitcom, you leave feeling very satisfied as it is also a deeper work about people. I left feeling that I had seen a worthwhile play from almost 30 years ago and had a really satisfying night in the theatre. A great start for the year.


Leah Purcell and Miranda Tapsell in Radiance.
Photo: Brett Boardman

Written by Louis Nowra
Directed by Leah Purcell
Belvoir Upstairs

This is another play from the past. Radiance was first produced by Belvoir 22 years ago. It was written by Nowra following a request from Aboriginal actors Rhoda Roberts and Lydia Miller who wanted a play for women — not Aboriginal women but three women.

The play was a big success and went on to be made into a successful movie but I had a problem with the performances and the casting of the eldest sister, Cressy, played in the film by Rachel Maza. Leah Purcell takes the role in the current production. I quite like and admire the work done by Ms Purcell but there is no way I could believe that she was supposed to be a world-renowned opera singer. I might say this was also the problem I had in the original production and in the film.

The story is the reunion of three sisters in the house of their mother who has recently died. Apart from Cressy there is Mae (Shari Sebbens), the sister who has stayed home with the mother, and Nona (Miranda Tapsell) the youngest, who has spent her life searching for her father who she believes, is a Black Prince. Through the play she finds he is anything but.

The play is set in the tropics, on mudflats near canefields. This creates design problems that meant the First Act is played upstage — I found this disengaging.

This is a terrific play but I am yet to see a production that does it justice. It did not help to have the director also play one of the characters — it rarely does.

While this is not supposed to be an Aboriginal play there are references in some of the writing that cannot be avoided. Still, I would like to see a colour-blind production: the plot allows it; the play deserves the best production. This version was disappointing but the audience seemed to love it.

Next To Normal

Music by Tom Kitt, Book and Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Directed by Darylin Ramondo
Doorstop Arts and Hayes Theatre Co.
Hayes Theatre

The Hayes Theatre is continuing to bring us terrific shows that would otherwise rarely get a chance to be staged. They are about to present Blood Brothers, which ran almost forever in London’s West End. If they continue this policy, I believe they will become a major force in the ever-growing Sydney theatre scene.

It is also a pleasure to know that while 20 years ago we might have had to import actors big productions, we now have so many talented triple threats (actors who can also sing and dance) that there is no such problem with casting.

Next to Normal is a Tony Award-winning show and this production was first presented in Geelong. There is a superb performance by Natalie O’Donnell as Diana, the mother with bipolar disorder. She is ably supported by the rest of the cast with standout performances by Brent Trotter as the son Gabe and Clay Roberts as Henry, the boyfriend of the daughter.

The unseen musicians under the musical direction of Alistair Smith were great and carried the show along. I was not caught up in the show. While the musicians were excellent, not so the music: it didn’t grab me. I also was not too impressed with the design. But I am glad I saw it and glad the Hayes Company is willing to put these shows on.

Now a few words about each of the shows I saw since my last article.

From the Sydney Theatre Company came Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand in a new adaptation by Andrew Upton from a translation by Marion Potts: a great production with knockout performances by Richard Roxburgh and Josh McConville.

Belvoir gave us the poignant Cinderella by Matthew Whittet with terrific performances by Mandy McElhinney and Matthew Whittet in a modern take on the Cinderella story. But their attempt at A Christmas Carol left me cold.

Cirque Du Soleil’s Totem directed by Robert Lepage is my favourite show yet by this team of beautiful circus experts. I have seen all their Australian shows and a few overseas and this was the best yet.

And lastly, Rupert by David Williamson: I had read poor reviews from Melbourne I have not liked anything by Williamson since Emerald City and this did nothing to change my mind. What a missed opportunity.

Frank Barnes is looking forward to a great year of theatre-going. He hopes you will also.