Monday, April 21, 2014


The Pan Pacific Grand Prix
Thomas Lacey (Scott) - Phoebe Panaretos (Fran)
Photo: Jeff Busby
 Book:  Baz Luhmann and Craig Pearce
 Original Score and arrangements: Elliott Wheeler
Director: Baz Luhrmann
Set and Costume Designer: Catherine Martin
Choreographer: John O’Connell
Musical Supervisor: Max Lambert

Global Premiere reviewed by Bill Stephens

Following an unprecedented publicity blitz, the first night audience was expecting “Strictly Ballroom” to be spectacular.  They were not disappointed. From the moment you entered the theatre you knew you were in for a memorable theatrical experience.

Strictly Ballroom - Global Premiere
Photo: James Morgan
The auditorium of the Lyric Theatre has been transformed into a huge dance-hall with multi-colour lame seats and huge posters decorating the walls. It looks terrific. Smarmy JJ Silvers, (Mark Owen-Taylor) warms up the audience for the forthcoming dance competition, dividing them into sections which are given contestants to barrack for. Then the glittering curtains part to reveal a stunning riot of spangles, sequins, feathers and swirling ball-gowns.

Drew Forsythe ( Doug Hastings) and ensemble
Photo: Douglas Kirkland
Catherine Martin’s costumes, topped with sky-high hairdos, are gorgeous and gaudy. So are her wonderfully detailed settings which magically break apart, dance with the action, and regroup in endless combinations.

Song follows song as we meet the various players and begin the familiar story of ballroom dance champion Scott Hastings (Thomas Lacey), who wants to change the dance rules, and ugly-duckling, Fran (Phoebe Panaretos) who’s just the girl to help him do it. Most of the audience seemed to be familiar with the movie, and as the musical follows the movie fairly closely, there were times where the audience were ahead of the plot, particularly when the plot was interrupted by an unfamiliar song.

“Love is in the Air”, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps, “Time after Time” and “Happy Feet” are all there, so is the “Blue Danube Waltz” and Bizet’s familiar  “Habanera”  (now with new lyrics about “A Life Lived in Fear”). There are also many new songs in various styles by a phalanx of composers, among them Eddie Perfect, Sia Furler, Dianne Warren,  Elliott Wheeler, Baz Luhrmann and Craig Pearce. These songs were presumably intended to advance the plot, but the lyrics were most often unintelligible, because of excessive amplification and brassy orchestrations. Hopefully a cast recording will reveal their lyrics.

"Time After Time"
Thomas Lacey (Scott Hastings) - Phoebe Panaretos (Fran) - Top
Drew Forsythe (Doug Hastings) - Bottom
Photo: Jeff Busby
There are many highlights in the show. Personal favourites include the lovely staging of “Time after Time” where Fran and Scott dance on the rooftop against a backdrop of a Hills Hoist clothes-line with Baz Luhrmann’s  ubiquitous Coca Cola neon sign trade-mark twinkling in the background, while below them, Scott’s father, Doug Hastings (a memorable characterisation by Drew Forsythe) dances alone with his own memories.  It’s a powerful and touching image.

Then there’s the truly exciting first act finale when Rico (Fernando Mira) with the support of Abuela (Natalie Gamsu, who steals every scene she is in) teach Scott the Paso Doble. 

Act One Finale
Phoebe Panaretos - Natalie Gamsu - Fernando Mira - Thomas Lacey
Photo: Douglas Kirkland
The low points include the time-wasting audience-participation scenes where audience members are brought up on stage.  

Strong performances abound, including those of Robert Grubb as the lugubrious Barry Fife, Heather Mitchell as Scott’s loud and over-wrought mother, Nadia Coyote drop-dead-gorgeous as Tina Sparkle, and Sophia Kato deliciously spiteful as Liz Holt.

"Love is in the Air"
Thomas Lacey (Scott Hastings) - Phoebe Panaretos (Fran)
Photo:Jeff Busby
Undeniably handsome, a terrific dancer and possessing a serviceable voice, Thomas Lacey surprisingly lacked the charisma necessary carry off the central role in a show of this size. Scott Hastings is a hugely demanding on-stage role. Hopefully Lacey will develop more presence as the season progresses.  
Phoebe Panaretos fared better as Fran. Following some unconvincing opening scenes and some unexpectedly dodgy notes in her songs, she quickly settled into a charming stage presence, although her dancing in the finale would certainly not have won her the competition.
Given that whole impetus of the story is to have Scott and Fran win the climactic Pan Pacific Grand Prix dance championship, the staging of this event proved a rather disappointing anti-climax, especially after all the razzle dazzle that had gone before. The show seemed to run out of new ideas at this point and despite the best efforts of the large cast, the ending seemed to fizzle into endless bows.

Doubtless over the next few months, Baz Luhrmann, clever director that he is, will continue to finesse this production, tweak some details, and maybe eliminate a song or two to expose the heart which is currently beating below the feathers and sequins.  
Meanwhile, despite the quibbles, “Strictly Ballroom”, is a must-see party show, spectacular to look at and delightfully entertaining.

Christina D'Agostino (Emily Waters)- Ryan Gonzales (Jonathan Drench)
Photo: Jeff Busby



Sunday, April 20, 2014

Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris - Review


Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris.  Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, directed by Tanya Goldberg, March 19 – April 19, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 19

An excellent production of an excellent play.  The website says it all:


Is the popularity justified by quality?  I think it is.

The Ensemble has a long tradition, going back to its American founder, Hayes Gordon, of presenting successful up-to-date plays from the USA.  Clybourne Park fits the bill since its first production in 2010, having already won a Tony, a Pultizer, Olivier and Evening Standard awards. 

The basis of its success is the witty, often excruciatingly funny, exposé of the worst kind of NIMBYism which has property values and race in the mix.

Norris has skilfully put together, all in the same house, the story of social change in this fictional suburb of Chicago which has been true of central city areas across the US through the post-World War 2 to the present time.

Each of the seven actors has two roles – one in the mid-1950s, following the end of the Korean War in 1953, as ‘coloured’ people began to buy into middle-class white areas; the other in the late 20 noughties, by which time the house had a historical heritage value as the vanguard of the change to Afro-American middle-class ownership.

But there is also the ghostly presence in that house of the son of the earlier white owners, who had hanged himself in his upstairs bedroom because of guilt, apparently for having shot civilians during a clearing operation in Korea.

None of this sounds like material for a comedy.  Just imagine shifting the scene from Chicago to the more upmarket part of Moree, say, if the people from Toomelah had had the chance to buy in 1968, when they were still refused access to the swimming pool, and while the part played by Aboriginal men in Australia’s wars went not only unrecognised but officially denied.

In this play, Chicago has gone through and out the other side to the point where the now racially mixed community tries to decide what should be done to preserve, refurbish or update the house.  These people are two generations away from those in Act 1.  The measure of Norris’ success is that the funniest – and most excruciating scene – is when his characters in 2010 fire off racist jokes at each other.

This is the point at which, through comedy which satirises each character’s stance, we in the audience are forced, as we laugh, to recognise our own hypocritical attitudes – and it doesn’t take much thought to see the wider range of issues to which the laughter can be applied.

Of course, though, the sublety of Norris’ writing could be a disastrous and embarrassing flop on stage, if it were not directed and acted with detailed care to match.  Not only has Tanya Goldberg placed the characters precisely in their American setting – recognising that the drama must be played true to its locality to have global effect – but she and all the actors have understood the style needed.   Comedy requires a degree of exaggeration and pointed timing.  This makes the first act work.  Satire requires an extra fine control to turn comedy into inescapable self-recognition on our part.  This was achieved to a very high degree in the second act.

So my praise goes to all the cast: Paula Arundell (1950s Francine / 2010 Lena); Cleave Williams (Albert / Kevin); Richard Sydenham (Russ / Dan); Wendy Strehlow (Bev / Kathy); Briallen Clarke (Betsy / Lindsey; Nathan Lovejoy (Karl / Steve); and Thomas Campbell who played three roles – Jim / Tom, and Russ and Bev’s son Kenneth, in a kind of reprise which ends the play as he writes his suicide note.

This was a genuine Ensemble production.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


John Bell
 In DRESS CIRCLE this Sunday, John Bell reveals the Bell Shakespeare Company’s exciting collaboration to celebrate Shakespeare’s 450th Birthday.  Actor Michael Lindner discusses his role as a mummy in “Horrible Histories – Awful Egyptians” coming to the Canberra Theatre Centre, and author/actor Helen Hopkins reveals the stories behind “The Girls in Grey” which opens next week at The Q.

Helen Hopkins

Michael Lindner
Jazz legend and piano virtuoso, Julian Lee, together with double bassist Craig Scott, explores some jazz classics with former Canberra vocalist, Gabrielle Birmingham, in this weeks “Red Velvet and Wild Boronia” segment. Our guest reviewer, Timothy Stephens reviews “Strictly Ballroom” and  Blue the“Mysterious Queanbeyan by Moonlight”, Isobel Griffin presents “Arts Diary” and Blue The Shearer comments on “albeit”.

Julian Lee - Gabrielle Birmingham 

90 minutes of interviews, reviews, music and news about the performing arts in Canberra and beyond, produced and presented by Bill Stephens, DRESS CIRCLE is broadcast by Artsound FM 92.7 every Sunday evening from 5.00pm until 6.30pm, repeated on Tuesday nights from 11.30pm and streamed live on the internet at

Monday, April 14, 2014


Charmene Yap - Andrew Crawford

Canberra Theatre Centre  10 - 12 April 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

To celebrate their 45th Anniversary the Sydney Dance Company, under the artistic direction of Rafael Bonachella, has created “Interplay”, a program of three works by three different choreographers. The result is a stunning demonstration of the range and diversity of the prodigious skills of the 17 superb dancers who make up the present company.

The first work 2 in D Minor is Rafael Bonachella’s contribution. A lyrical abstract work which utilises the entire company to further explore choreographic ideas encountered while choreographing his acclaimed work Project Rameau. This time Bonachella draws his inspirations from Bach’s Partita 2 in D Minor, played live on stage by violinist Veronique Serret, who interacts with the dancers as they perform a series of complex, fluid duos and trios based on a motif established by Charmene Yap in a gorgeous solo which commences the work. Although Bonachella utilises the entire company, they are never all on stage at the same time. One particularly lovely section involves several trios of dancers moving in unison as each trio replaces the other.

The various sections of the Partita are punctuated by striking solos danced to a series of stringent electronic samplings, entitled 2inD Miniatures and composed by Nick Wales.

Benjamin Cisterne’s setting for 2 in d Minor is spare but dramatic, consisting of a slanting white rectangle hanging over the stage on which a square of white light marks out the dance area. The lighting moods change subtly to reflect those of the dancers, clad in soft black trousers with flowing jackets and vests designed by Bonachella. Skilfully they perform endless mesmerising variations perfectly attuned and inspired by the music. 2 in D Minor is a masterful creation and a superb demonstration of Bonachella’s choreographic gifts.

First premiered by the Sydney Dance Company in 2011, and revived for this season, Jocopo Gordani’s work Raw Moves is aggressive, visceral and exciting. It’s danced to an overwhelmingly powerful score by 48nord which reverberates around the theatre as the seven dancers, clad in sleek black costumes designed by Gordani; perform his sweeping spiderlike choreography which according to his program note represents “the prototype of a micro-social structure functioning on communication, empathy and complicity”.

Like this reviewer, you don’t need to understand what that means to be thrilled by the sheer originality of the choreography and the brilliance and  bravery of the dancers as they recklessly drop to the floor, or seductively prowl the stage in a series of fascinating vignettes each separated by a sharp blackout.  Godani has just been appointed Artistic Director of William Forsythe Ballet in Frankfurt, so it is particularly interesting to see this example of his work included in this program.

For the final work in the program, L’Chaim! (To Life), Gideon Obarzanek has drawn his inspiration from his own life in a Kibbutz to produce a charming work which utilises the full company. The curtain rises to reveal the dancers, clad in non-descript rehearsal clothes, studiously rehearsing a routine. Reminiscent of A Chorus Line, a disembodied voice (in Canberra, Gideon Obarzanek himself) interrupts the dancing, by calling out from behind the audience, questions about how they feel about their lives as dancers. “Are you Grumpy? “Is that why you tend to dance with your face?  How old are you? How long do you have left?”

The rest of the dancers attempt to ignore the questioning and maintain the routine, but as those being questioned become rattled by the questioner’s persistence, the dance slowly grinds to a halt. The questioner eventually joins the dancers on stage and they resume their rehearsing.

Dis-arming in its apparent simplicity, and surprisingly revealing, L”Chaim! Is a succinct reminder that dancers are people too, as well as providing a satisfying and thoughtful conclusion to a superb program of exceptional dance.
                                                     Image: Wendell Teodoro



Saturday, April 12, 2014

Warts & All

Warts & All written and directed by Bruce Hoogendoorn at the Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, April 2 – 12, Wed-Sat, 2014-04-12

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 11

The title, I guess, imposes on me a duty to reveal all about this new play by perhaps the most indie of independent operators in the Canberra theatre scene.  Hoogendoorn calls it a comedy, but though there were some laughs from the small and sympathetic audience, there were not enough for me to think ‘comedy’.

Why not?  After all, the central device is the ghost of an athletics coach, Ken, played with exactly the right Australian manner by Rob de Fries, who is mistaken for the ghost of his father, Ted.  Though ghosts can’t be real – can they? – this one’s piercing whistle and sudden appearance from Simon’s wardrobe was certainly quite frightening.  I had a bit of a nervous laugh until my willingness to suspend my disbelief got the better of me, and he turned into a nice bloke.

Then there was Oliver Baudert playing the elderly Alice.  He did it very well, but I have to say that I could not find a reason for this casting, except perhaps that if Alice had been played by a woman, the role of bitter division between her and her contemporary Margaret would not have been funny at all.  Helen Vaughan-Roberts played Margaret straight as a realistic character who engendered much empathy.

Playing realistically, as the two just-finished Year 12 grandchildren were played by Will Huang (Margaret’s Simon) and Adellene Fitzsimmons (Alice’s Kirsty), also meant occasions when comedy was not appropriate.  On the other hand the role of Dotty, counsellor and family historian, gave the best chance for the laughs you get from the people who put their foot in it – and Elaine Noon did this well.

So what’s my problem?  Bit by bit the mystery of Ted, on one side of the family, who had patriotically volunteered in World War 2 and died in Syria, and Alan, on the other side, who had stayed in the small black soil town somewhere not far from Toowoomba to keep the family shop running, began to be revealed.

When it came to connecting the dots about Alan feeling so guilty after Ted’s death that he smoked himself to a cancerous death at 50, and Alan and Margaret’s daughter drowning – in fact committing suicide – shortly after Ted’s death, and then the discovery that she had borne Ted’s son – that is, Ken – who had been adopted out and knew nothing of his real parents (and had recently died in a car smash), I realised that this story was not the proper material for a ghostly romantic comedy.  In fact I was glad that the lack of one-liner jokes meant there was not much laughter.

To have succeeded in making a comedy out of this story would have been bizarre, when the issues of patriotism and cowardice, out-of-wedlock birth and forced adoption, and decades-long internecine family bitterness are hardly laughing matters.

Oddly enough, in his ‘Playwright’s Notes’, writing about conflict in families, Hoogendoorn says: “no wonder playwrights have mined it in such beloved plays as The Glass Menagerie, Death of a Salesman, and more recently August: Osage County and Other Desert Cities.  And funnily enough, no one gets on very well in them.  If they did, they wouldn’t be such fascinating plays.”

Just so!  There may be humour in these works, but they are not comedies.  There are ironies (like in the title Other Desert Cities reviewed in the Guardian as “a tense family portrait ...Jon Robin Baitz's Christmas-set drama uses fractured nuclear families to examine the broken American psyche”) which Hoogendoorn hardly glimpses in this script.

Maybe it’s time for his next play (he’s up to 15 according to his website to put genre and content appropriately together: on the topic of families, a truly absurdist take would be good (see my recent review of Perplex), or may be a realistic tragedy of misunderstanding and bitter division on the black soil plains as the younger generation feel the need, encouraged by a conservative government, to go to the Dawn Ceremony at Gallipoli in 2015.

Art is about finding the right form for what the artist needs to express.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


Will Huang and Rob De Fries.
Written, Produced and Directed by Bruce Hoogendoorn
Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, until 19th April 2014

Reviewed by Bill Stephens

Bruce Hoogendoorn is probably Canberra’s most prolific playwright, having written and produced six of his own plays in as many years. His latest play, Warts & All, which Hoogendoorn directs himself, is his most accomplished and entertaining work to date.
Warts & All follows the story of a young man, Simon, whose promising athletic career is jeopardised by the onset of osteoarthritis. Simon is sent to live with his grandmother, Margaret, who, in an effort to shake him out of his depression, encourages him to join her in preparing a family history. Though reluctant at first, Simon’s interest is piqued when the ghost of a long-dead relative appears to him. In his enthusiasm to unravel an intriguing family secret, he unwittingly ignites a feud between his grandmother and some long-estranged relatives.

Heading a strong cast, as the boy, Simon, Will Huang gives a satisfyingly well-rounded and committed performance. Convincingly portraying his affection for his grandmother, evident in constant barrage of good-natured and often hilarious banter, Huang’s re-actions to the events unfolding around him are a constant joy to watch.  Equally as engaging is Helen Vaughn-Roberts as Simon’s acerbic but loving grandmother, Margaret, and their scenes together are delightful.
Hoogendoorn’s decision to cast veteran actor, Oliver Baudert, as Margaret’s adversary, Alice, is surprisingly effective. But despite Baudert’s beautifully detailed and interesting performance, with not a hint of campiness, the idea ultimately works against the play, because as the play contains so many unexpected twists and turns, the expectation is that  this cross-gender casting will be revealed as yet another plot device. 

Will Huang (Simon) Oliver Baudert (Alice) Adellene Fitzsimmons (Kirsty)

Rob De Fries adds great strength to the production with a charming performance as the somewhat confused ghost, Barry, whose surprising revelation provides the key to solving the family mystery. Adellene Fitzsimmons and Elaine Noon as Alice’s grand-daughter Kirsty, and the town-historian, Dotty, both provide interesting characterisations, but both would be more effective if they followed the examples of their more experienced colleagues and slowed down their delivery to let Hoogendoorn’s excellent lines do the work for them.
The play works so well that one longs to see it presented with a little more production than the minimalist setting of tables, chairs, bed and a double-sided cupboard. But a good lighting design by Kelly McGannon and some well-chosen costumes by Miriam Miley-Read do much to overcome this deficiency, and it says much for Hoogendoon’s initiative, tenacity and growing confidence in his directorial and producing talents, that Warts and All emerges as both an excellent showcase for his maturing writing skills and an intriguing and entertaining night of theatre.

                                                         Images by Kelly McGannon





Perplex by Marius von Mayenburg

Perplex by Marius von Mayenburg, translated by Maja Zade.  Sydney Theatre Company, directed by Sarah Giles at Wharf 1,  April 4 – May 3, 2014.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
April 9

The theatrical form of Perplex is metacognitive farce.  The philosophical form is farcical metacognition.  If it had been written by Shakespeare, Hamlet would have been named Piglet, and his question would have been “To be, or not to be.  What is the question?”

If you feel perplexed so far, that’s great.  It’s also very funny – not what I’ve written, but what Marius von Mayenburg wrote, as translated wonderfully by Maja Zade.  If you thought philosophy was beyond your comprehension (that’s the meta-cognitive bit), you need never worry again.  Just Give Yourself to the Elk physically (you’ll be laughing with all your might) and intellectually, as you begin to understand that the universe really is absolutely unpredictable.  Not only does God, or any god, not exist, but – since everything we know consists of no more than a bunch of electrical pulses in our brains – even we don’t really exist.  Nor does the ‘fourth wall’ of stage performance.  Nor even the play itself, whose director has never shown up to rehearsal “since the beginning”.

It’s at this point, of course, that I go into analysis mode.  That’s what a critic has to do, otherwise I wouldn’t be a critic.

Should you see this play?  Absolutely, categorically and metacognitively.  To see the whole audience making their exit from the auditorium bubbling with excitement, laughing and babbling away (even at afternoon teatime on Wednesday) is proof Sarah Giles is still on top of the form she showed when directing Bernard Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession last year.

As for the cast, well, they come up to the mark brilliantly: Andrea Demetriades as Andrea, Glenn Hazeldine as Glenn, Rebecca Massey as Rebecca, and the occasionally nude Tim Walter as Tim.  As do the essential ‘creatives’: designer Renée  Mulder, lighting designer Benjamin Cisterne, and composer & sound designer Max Lyandvert.  If you ever dare to invite people to a ‘Come as...’ party, you could not do better than ask Mulder to design the costumes – the funniest I’ve seen on stage for many a long year.

It is true (I think, therefore I...) that some education in European theatrical tradition will make you more cognisant of some of ‘meta’ aspects of this work from Berlin. In his 30s, von Mayenburg, already with a lucky 13 plays behind him, wrote Perplex in 2010.  In only his second year of writing, according to Wikipedia, his Feuergesicht (1997) won him the Kleistförderpreis für junge Dramatiker and Preis der Frankfurter Autorenstiftung. (

By his 14th year, in play number 14, Perplex shows his confidence as he plays with the elements of absurdism, with semi-oblique references at least to Pirandello (1921), whose Six Characters are in Search of an Author, to Ionesco’s couple of strangers (Mr and Mrs Martin in The Bald Soprano 1948) who discover they not only know each other, but are actually married, to Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildernstern (1966) trying to fathom out what’s going on in Hamlet and, according to Sydney Theatre Company’s blurb, to Nietzsche and Beckett.  The extra level beyond the ordinary is that von Mayenburg satirises his own place in the absurdist tradition, of which his characters are aware.  Even Pirandello’s characters knew they were in a play by Pirandello, but for von Mayenburg’s characters acting in his play is disastrous emotionally, as they realise that modern avant-garde German playwrights traditionally have to have the whole set collapse and cleared from the stage – I suppose for a neat and precisely tidy ending.

In fact, this isn’t what happens.  The stage is a mess at the end – another final twist in the logic of absurdism.  Funny though it is to watch, there really is a sense of sadness at humanity’s incapacity not only to understand our place in the universe, but even just to organise ourselves enough to maintain a little bit of equanimity in our lives.  I saw a touch of Brecht’s The Chalk Circle and The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, after the laughter had faded away.

L to R: Andrea Demetriades, Tim Walter, Rebecca Massey, Tim Walter, Glenn Hazeldine, Andrea Demetriades, Rebecca Massey, Glenn Hazeldine
Photos: Lisa Tomasetti