Saturday, May 28, 2016

Motherland by Katherine Lyall-Watson

Motherland by Katherine Lyall-Watson.  An Ellen Belloo and Critical Stages Production at The Q, Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre, May 25-28, 2016.

Directed by Caroline Dunphy; Set and Costume Designer – Penny Challen; Lighting Designer – David Walters; Composer and Sound Designer – Dane Alexander; Dramaturg – Kathryn Kelly.

Kerith Atkinson – Nell Triton; Peter Cossar – Chris & Kerensky; Barbara Lowing – Nina; Daniel Murphy – Khodasevich & Sasha; Rebecca Riggs – Alyona.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 27

My first encounter with Russians in Australia was a friend whose parents had escaped Stalin via the well-worked route through Harbin and China, settling in the western outskirts of Sydney in the 1940s.  My second encounter was in Elena Govor’s book My Dark Brother: The Story Of The Illins, A Russian-Aboriginal Family (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2000).  Her family were members of the Little Siberia community on the Atherton Tablelands around the beginning of the 20th Century.  What fascinating stories were these!

So Motherland turns out to be my third encounter of a very surprising kind.  In a single envelope in 90-year-old Nina’s cardboard box in Brisbane are two letters.  One is in Russian; the other in English.  The letter from Alexander Kerensky explains that Nell has died, but just managed to write her last letter to Nina.  Kerensky apologises to Nina for past misunderstandings.  The letters were posted in Brisbane.

And what an amazing story has Katherine Lyall-Watson created – not only of Nina Berberova’s life but also of the lives of Nell Tritton and Alyona in Moscow, Paris and Brisbane, and the men in their lives, from the time of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II in March 1917.  

Alexander Kerensky had been Prime Minister in the short-lived government that declared the Russian Republic, before the Bolshevik revolution of October 1917.  The young radical poets Nina Berberova and her husband Vladislav Khodasevich left Russia in 1922 and finally settled in Paris.  The Australian Nell Tritton was secretary to the exiled Kerensky in Paris, returning with him to Brisbane during WWII to escape the likelihood of Stalin using the Nazi occupation as cover to assassinate him.  The Australian white-shoe brigade businessman, Chris, met Alyona in Moscow.  During the Fitzgerald Inquiry 1987-89 he bought for her and her son Sasha the house in Brisbane that Kerensky and Nell had previously owned.  Then he was bankrupted and jailed, leaving Alyona to fend for herself while Sasha insisted on returning to Russia – the Motherland.

The full story of the real life people on which the play is based is even more complicated: though the real Nell Tritton did return to Brisbane where she died, she and Kerensky had married and escaped to America in 1940; while Nina Berberova became a professor at Yale, and later Princeton in America, where she died aged 92 in 1993.

It’s the devil of a story to put on stage in 90 minutes, and I must say that I had to listen especially carefully for the first 15 minutes just to have some idea of how the five actors and seven characters were connected to each other. 

The first aha! moment came when the Paris exiles –the poets and the very much ex-Prime Minister – had to endure a performance by the typically artistically unsophisticated Australian, Nell, of her poem about the beauty of Queensland.  This was not just funny in its own right (however embarrassing to recognise its crass rhymes and rhythms as genuinely Australian), but was the point when the interpersonal relationships began to be established, including the unexpected feeling between Nina and Nell – which Kerensky referred to in the letters in the envelope at the end.

Apart from the fact that all the actors were excellent, the credit for the success of the production goes to Caroline Dunphy as director and I guess to the dramaturg Kathryn Kelly, and certainly to the adept use of sound and music by Dane Alexander.  Despite the complications of a history over many decades in real time, there was a neat sense of how those complications played out to make each woman’s personal story into a sticky web needing a spider’s skill to negotiate.

The special value of the play and its presentation around the country is that it makes you alert to the people living next door and down the street in this multicultural country.  You might pass Nina, Nell and Alyona in the local supermarket.  It’s stories like theirs which make up modern Australian culture.  And I thank Stephen Pike, director of The Q, for bringing this play to our attention.


Book and Lyrics by Howard Ashman.
Music by Alan Menken.
Directed by Dean Bryant.
Choreographed by Andrew Hallsworth.
Musical Direction by Andrew Worboys.
Presented by Luckiest Productions and Tinderbox Productions.
Canberra Theatre Centre until 29th May 2016.

Reviewed by Bill Stephens.

A production design that looked dwarfed in the Canberra Theatre, together with a sound design which rendered most of the lyrics unintelligible combined to take the gloss off the highly anticipated opening night performance of the Canberra Season of “Little Shop of Horrors”.

Set in 1960’s, “Little Shop of Horrors” satirises B grade schlock-horror movies as it tells the story of down-trodden shop assistant, Seymour (Brent Hill) who’s in love with his colleague, the mysterious Audrey (remarkably portrayed by Esther Hannaford, as a timid, whippet-thin, jumping-at-her-own-shadow creature). They both work in Mr. Mushnik’s (Tyler Coppin) failing flower shop on Skid Row. Seymour is given a strange plant, which he soon discovers has a taste for blood. The plant flourishes as Seymour feeds it with his own blood. So does Mr Mushnik’s flower shop as word of the plant spreads. However, as the plant’s appetite become more and more voracious, Seymour has trouble keeping up the supply of blood, and is forced to make some bizarre decisions.

Dean Bryant’s witty production commences with a flickering black and white television news broadcast narrated by Lee Lin Chin. The lights come up to reveal the same black and white, film noir world, in which all the characters are costumed in variations of black and white. Brilliant colour is added for the second half of the show reflecting the change in the character’s fortunes.
Esther Hannaford (Audrey)  Brent Hill (Seymour) 
 Alan Menken’s catchy score for the show is written in the style of 1969’s rock ‘n roll, doo wop and early mow town, and the lyrics, especially those sung by the tightly choreographed trio, (Josie Lane, Chloe Lane and Angelique Cassimatis) propel the story.

Unfortunately on opening night, not only could these lyrics not be understood, but the voices of the trio and other cast members often sounded harsh, and were frequently overwhelmed by the muddy sound coming from the band. This proved particularly distracting during Esther Hannaford’s singing of the hit song “Somewhere That’s Green”. 
Brent Hill’s clever out-of-kilter set was designed for the tiny Hayes Theatre. Even though some modifications appear to have been made to expand it for larger theatres, all the action still takes place in the tiny shop, giving the production an unfortunate cramped appearance. There were also sight-line issues whenever the characters moved up-stage.

Even Audrey 11, the flesh-eating plant was less impressive than expected, contained as it was, in the tiny acting area. As well, the idea of having Seymour also provide the voice for the plant proved confusing, especially in Seymour’s confrontation scene with Mr. Mushnik.

Hopefully the sound issues will be sorted out by the time you read this review, because there is much to enjoy in this production; and perhaps Luckiest Productions may need to reflect on the effects caused to the integrity of their productions by presenting them in theatres that are simply too large;  because on opening night this production of “Little Shop of Horrors” certainly did not live up to the promises of its pre-publicity.

Esther Hannaford (Audrey)  Brent Hill (Seymour)

This review first published in the digital edition of CITY NEWS on 27th May 2016.


Book by Terrance McNally
Music by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
Lyrics by Marc Shaiman
Directed by Richard Block
Dramatic Productions at Gungahlin College Theatre to 11 June

Review by Len Power 27 May 2016

With a music score by the ‘Hairspray’ team, Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, you’d expect ‘Catch Me If You Can’ to be a winner of a musical.

Both the 2011 musical and the 2002 film are derived from the 1980 autobiography of Frank Abignale Junior, a young confidence man who obtained millions of dollars in forged checks, posed as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer and attracted the attention of FBI agent, Carl Hanratty, who pursued Abignale across the country to bring him to justice.

Alexander Clubb is perfectly cast as Frank Abignale, singing and acting the role superbly.  Gerard Ninnes as Agent Carl Hanratty couldn’t seem to make his mind up whether he was playing his character straight or for laughs, but sang his numbers very well, especially ‘Don’t Break The Rules’, the best song in the show.  Jonathan Garland gave one of his most appealing performances ever as Frank’s father and his duet with Alexander Clubb, ‘Butter Outta Cream’, was very well sung.  There was terrific character and vocal work from others in the large cast, especially Janelle McMenamin, Debra Byrne, Josie Dunham, Michael Miller, Hayden Crosweller, Pierce Jackson and Andrew Howes.

Musical direction by Damien Slingsby was very strong and the orchestra played the music well.  However, sound balance was a problem with the orchestra too loud overall, making song lyrics hard to hear.  It was especially troublesome when dialogue had to be spoken over the music.

Costumes by Kitty McGarry worked generally well.  Women’s skirts would not have been that short in those days, of course, but it’s forgivable here in a sexy song when there is the danger of the girls looking dowdy these days with correct length dresses.  However, we saw far too much of the nurses’ underwear in the number, ‘Doctor’s Orders’.  What should have been fun became somewhat sleazy instead.  Apart from that particular dance, Rachel Thornton’s choreography was simple but effective and matched the era of the show very well.  The minimal set worked very well, giving the cast a large playing area with the orchestra placed behind them on a higher level.

Richard Block directed the show strongly, keeping the pace and scene changes moving swiftly.  He has obtained strong performances from his whole cast and produced an entertaining show.  However, the show’s creators didn’t come up with anything special to make you prefer it to the 2002 non-musical film on which it is based.  The second act isn’t as strong as the first act with too many unnecessary songs slowing the show down.  Nevertheless, it’s great to have an opportunity to see a musical which hasn’t played Canberra before.

Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on Artsound 92.7 FM’s ‘Artcetera’ program from 9am on Saturdays.

Friday, May 27, 2016


Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse 24th May 2016

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Judging by the crowd which packed the Playhouse Theatre for Bianca Del Rio’s single Canberra performance, the television show, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has a lot of viewers in Canberra.
Bianca Del Rio was the winner of season 6 of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” and describes herself as a “Clown in a gown”. 

The alter ego of seasoned comic, Roy Haylock, a well-known costume designer, Bianca Del Rio is described as an “insult comic”, and is known for her foul mouth and unapologetic humour. She was described in the New York Times as “The Joan Rivers of Drag”.

Bianca Del Rio in Canberra 

She certainly lived up to her reputation during her single Canberra performance, and the packed house loved her for it. A model of inclusiveness, she managed to insult, gays, straights, lesbians, the disabled, RuPaul, Courtney Act, her fans and anyone else who crossed her mind. Hilariously hateful, her barbs were so sharp that her victims hardly had time to feel the sting before she zipped on to her next topic. In any case, as she quickly pointed out, she’s the biggest joke of all.

But don’t underestimate Del Rio because behind the potty mouth is a very accomplished stand-up. For the full hour she was on stage her act never flagged for a second. The final section in which she answers questions submitted by the audience was a masterful demonstration of her skill at the quick come-back, so that even her frequent heart-felt references to Cranberry, instead of Canberra, had her audience in stitches.

In addition, her outrageous costume, wig and make-up were all works of art in themselves, so it was a pity that the act did not allow for a costume change.   

Though this was her first visit to Canberra, one feels that it will not be the last we see of Bianca Del Rio, as she hinted during her show that the success of her whirl-wind Australian tour, may herald an invasion of refugees from “RuPaul’s Drag Race”. 

Bianca Del Rio in the Canberra Centre Playhouse 

Thursday, May 26, 2016


Motherland by Katherine Lyall Watson.

Directed by Caroline Dunphy. Composer and sound designer Dane Alexander. Set and costume designer Penny Challen. Lighting designer David Walters.  A Critical Stages and Ellen Belloo Production. The Q Theatre. Queanbeyan Performing Arts Centre. May 25-28 2016

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Playwright Katherine Lyall Watson

For many years now Critical Stages productions have confronted important issues, taken risks and maintained a professional and innovative standard of excellence. Motherland, currently being performed at The Q Theatre in Queanbeyan maintains Critical Stages’ excellent reputation, a reputation shared with Ellen Boo, whose mission is “to bring people and stories out of the shadows”

Barbara Lowing as Nina in
Motherland does just this. Epic in its scope, the play spans the twentieth century, three continents, World War ll, the Russian revolution and Queensland’s Fitzgerald inquiry into corruption. In merely ninety minutes of uninterrupted drama, the play examines the lives of three remarkable women and their relationships during times of momentous struggle and conflict. It is a play of survival, of the indomitable human spirit and of the consequence of love’s fortune. Central to the drama is the story of Nina, played with powerful conviction by Barbara Lowing. Nina is the survivor. She has lived through the Russian Revolution, the two World Wars and the oppressive Stalinist regime.  Forced to live with a secret, she must conceal her love for Brisbane woman, Nell Tritton (Kerith Atkinson), a passionate devotee of Russia and its culture, and eventually the wife of exiled Russian Prime Minister, Alex Kerensky (Peter Cossar). The stories of Nina and Nell are based on real life characters, whose fascinating and meaningful lives have been lost in the shadows of time. They are brought to life in Motherland with passion, poignancy and respect for the dramatic and life changing experiences of the victims of history’s tidal force and relentless swathes through humanity.

Barbara Lowing as Nina and Kerith Atkinson as
Nell Tritton in Motherhood
Playwright Katherine Lyall Watson introduces another woman, Alyona,( Rebecca Riggs) a Russian refugee from Moscow, who with her son, Khodasevich,(  a difficult and undeveloped role,given only a cursory characterization by Daniel Murphy) escapes with the help of Australian Chris, also played by Cossar, to Australia, in an attempt to create a free and safe life in a foreign land. Pervading the fate of all three women and the men in their lives is the omnipotent nature of the Motherland.  Nina struggles with her male intellectual lover, Sasha,in a more effective and engaging performance by Murphy, through her writings and advocacy to battle oppression and survive the corruption and brutality of a motherland battered and bruised by historical events and political power struggles. Nell must flee her adopted motherland to be with Kerensky, only to eventually return to die in her Australian motherland. Alyona desperately strives to discover herself in her adopted Australia, while her son longs to return to his motherland.  Longing tears the characters apart. “Do you regret the choices you made” Alyona asks of Nina. “What we seek is redemption” is Nina’s cryptic reply. This is the tragedy all characters are compelled to confront in this gripping account of displacement, fractured dreams and confused identity.

Barbara Lowing as Nina in Motherhood
Director, Caroline Murphy seamlessly directs her actors to keep the action fluid as actors change characters and switch swiftly from scene to scene, emotion to emotion and Moscow to France to Brisbane.  This ambitious attempt to embrace the sweep of time with the experience of the people caught up in history’s turmoil is not without its challenges. Each story, and especially the true stories of Nina and Nell, their relationships and their illicit love is food enough for a far more expansive drama. An excellent cast, highlighted by the dynamism of Lowing’s mature and powerful performance, strive to engage an audience in a story across countries and time that is too fleeting in its account and disempowers a more intense engagement with theme and character. I would have preferred Lyall Watson to have focused on the real life drama of the lives of Nina and Nell.  From the stirring Russian Workers’ chorus that opens the play to the deafening blasts of wartime artillery and the poignant reading of Nell’s letters to Nina towards the end of the performance, Motherland never ceases to involve. As a touring production, easily transportable, finely directed and expertly performed by a fine cast, with a sensitivity for the many issues and the lives of real characters, Motherland will fascinate and provoke thoughtfulness and empathy.

Daniel Murphy as Sasha. Rebecca Riggs as Alyona and
Peter Cossar as Chris in Motherhood
This production of Motherland from Critical Stages and Ellen  Belloo has left me intrigued, grateful for  the powerful and true stories that deserve to be told, and yet feeling  that so much more of this tale still remains hidden in the shadows.


MARIO - The story and music of Mario Lanza

Conceived and performed by Phil Scott and Blake Bowden
Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre 19-21st May 2016

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Mario Lanza 

Mario Lanza’s film career lasted barely 10 years. Yet by the time he died at the age of 38, Lanza had achieved enormous fame as a film star and opera singer. This despite the fact that his film output had been relatively small and his actual appearances in opera remarkably few  

But Lanza possessed a charismatic personality, and a remarkably beautiful tenor voice, which was often compared with that of Caruso. At the time of his death, his movie career had already started to wan as a result of problems caused by his fluctuating weight, and tempestuous personality, and even though there was a perfectly plausible explanation for the cause of his death, at the time, conspiracy theories as to the real cause, continue to fascinate more than 50 years after the event.  

Phil Scott and Blake Bowden in "Mario - The Story and music of Mario Lanza" 

Phil Scott and Blake Bowden have plugged in the Lanza legend to create a captivating theatrical cabaret in which they sketch, almost as a mini-musical documentary, the broad details of Lanza’s life.

In a series of short, sharp scenes, in which Bowden portrays Lanza, and with Phil Scott playing everyone else, they trace through Lanza’s career, from his early singing lessons, through the Hollywood Bowl concert which led to his meeting with Hollywood mogul, Louis B. Mayer, and his first film. They follow the rise and rise of Lanza’s remarkable career to the events which lead him to leave Hollywood and attempt to pursue his career in Italy, where he suddenly died.

Throughout the journey, Bowden, sings a generous selection of songs associated with Lanza among them  “With a Song In My Heart”, “The Loveliest Night of the Year”, and “Because You’re  Mine”, as well as operatic showpieces including Verdi’s stirring “La Donna Mobile” and the gentle Puccini aria, “Your Tiny Hand is Frozen”.  

One of the country’s fastest rising young male music theatre stars, Blake Bowden came to Canberra directly from the national tour of “Fiddler on the Roof”, in which he played Perchik, opposite Anthony Warlow’s Tevye. Prior to “Fiddler” , Bowden has played leading roles in series of high profile musicals including the Cat Stevens musical “Moon Shadow”, as well as “South Pacific” for Opera Australia,  “West Side Story”, “Blood Brothers” and “Dirty Dancing”.

“Mario” provides a superb showcase to display the many talents of the personable Bowden. Besides demonstrating  that he’s equally at home crooning a beautifully phrased version of Jerome Kern’s, “They Didn’t Believe Me” or delivering a bravura, full-throated rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma”, Bowden also proved to be a fine actor. His characterisation deftly captured Lanza’s reputed arrogance, as well as the charm and charisma which propelled Lanza into International superstardom. He also threw in a few nifty dance steps that Lanza may have envied.

Phil Scott’s contribution is no less impressive. Using a variety of wigs, scarves and hats, Scott created a succession of wickedly tongue-in-cheek characters including Louis B. Mayer, a personal trainer, a New York singing teacher, a German conductor and even a disgruntled Mario Lanza fan who loudly disputed the veracity of some of the facts mentioned in the performance.

On top of all that, Scott accompanied each of the songs superbly, utilising every inch of the Steinway keyboard to provide sparkling, florid backings to approximate the sound of a vast MGM orchestra for Romberg’s “Drink, Drink, Drink”, or with great sensitivity for Giordani's lovely “Caro mio ben”.

“Mario – The stories and music of Mario Lanza”, is presented without interval and runs a neat 60 minutes. It’s already been seen at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and in a season at the Hayes Theatre. It’s a little gem which is currently touring, so if it comes your way - don‘t miss it.  

 This review also appears in "Australian Arts Review".


Written by Katherine Lyall-Watson
Directed by Caroline Dunphy
An Ellen Belloo and Critical Stages Production
Q Theatre, Queanbeyan to May 28

Review by Len Power 25 May 2016

‘Do you ever regret the choices you made?’ asks one character towards the end of ‘Motherland’.  Never mind that those choices were made against a backdrop of political turmoil, war and corruption in Russia and Australia, the choices were made out of love for others.

Katherine Lyall-Watson’s play focusses on the relationships between several people over a long period of the twentieth century.  How these people interact with each other becomes more and more absorbing as the play progresses and you feel surprisingly moved by their stories by the end of the play.

A cast of five play several characters which is a little confusing at first as there are no costume changes when those playing multiple roles change suddenly to their other characters.  Peter Cossar and Daniel Murphy are particularly impressive switching between their two major roles and producing very believable characterizations.  The women played by Barbara Lowing, Rebecca Riggs and Kerith Atkinson give strong, performances of great emotional depth.

Director, Caroline Dunphy, has produced a first class production that takes risks in its unusual presentation but works very well.  On a simple but eye-catching set of an abstract wall of books, designed by Penny Challen, the director keeps the actors onstage throughout the show so we never forget that their destinies are tightly bound together.  The moody and intricate lighting design by David Walters complements the set and the action as does the sound design by Dane Alexander.

This is a production where all the elements come together extremely well.  It’s a good play to start with but the challenging way it’s been produced adds additional interest, making it a memorable theatrical experience.  It plays at the Q Theatre until Saturday the 28th and it’s highly recommended.

Len Power’s reviews can also be heard on Artsound FM 92.7 ‘Artcetera’ program from 9am Saturdays.