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Tag: The Owl and the Pussycat

Theatre review: Kiss Them All Soundly

Dear Dad

Whether nursery rhymes had been written for pure entertainment — or whether they contain hidden meanings or origins — has been a matter of much debate for several centuries. And has remained rather indeterminate up to the present day.

Jason Cavanagh, of 5pound Theatre, has nonetheless clearly chosen to be on the more sinister side of this contention. In Kiss Them All Soundly, he subjects three nursery rhymes —  Simple Simon, Mary Had A Little Lamb, Georgie Porgie — to his creative re-imaginings, and presents his version of the possible narratives behind those innocuous rhyming lines.

First, his Simon begins as anything but simple. In fact, Cavanagh’s Simon is aggressive, he is impatient, dismissive and irascible. We know he has a wife and a baby son. We think he is an overworked marketing executive hoping to hire imminent help.

Next, Kiss’ Mary, too, is not remotely like the carefree Mary of the children’s rhyme. Here, Mary is outwardly cheerful, yet intensely subdued. She seems to live in a world of her own, oblivious to her husband’s pleas for variety in the food she prepares for him, insistent on feeding their baby after he leaves.

And if these have not subverted your expectations yet, Cavanagh’s George is not quite the shady Georgie Porgie who kissed the girls and made them cry — or, not what we had imagined of him, anyway. Here, he is an elderly tottering kindly gentleman, with a shy affinity for a 16-year-old schoolgirl with whom he has struck up an acquaintance at the local bus-stop.

Still, not only does each tale develop to eventually substantiate the nursery rhymes we know so well (or, should, anyhow), they are woven together to form one single story, creating an evocative evening of pathos and pain.

The play, directed by Cavanagh himself, rolls forward in a circular, iterative style, as each vignette progressively intensifies, and reveals, and resolves, before leading to the final epiphany.

With effective use of lighting and the space, the writer-director deftly switches between the scenes of home, of office-turned-hospital, of the grassy roadside lane. The opening scene in which Susannah Frith, as narrator, stands before the closed curtain, that catches her looming shadow behind her, as she takes us beyond the point after Mary’s lamb has been turned away from school, is especially haunting, and serves as a precursor for what is to follow.

Frith, as Mary, vividly (if subtly) illustrates the ominous metaphor in the household rhyme: she carries with her apparitions of her dead baby everywhere she goes, just as Mary did her lamb wherever she went. Adam Willson, on the other hand, gives his character Simon a volcanic, explosive performance in which we see him mistaking a healthcare worker for a potential employee as he grapples with memories of his unfortunate encounter with the pieman(‘s truck) that has left him penniless, homeless — and, yes, simple.

More memorable, however, are Peter Rowley’s Georgie, and Brooke Smith-Harris who plays the 16-year-old opposite him. Although he starts out as a suspicious figure, leery of an easy prey, Rowley’s character turns out to be a poignant tale of accident and of loss — tragic enough, perhaps, to make girls cry. And while Rowley’s talent is indisputable, reminiscent in parts of Robin Williams, Smith Harris confidently holds her own, with her flawless expressions of unease, of fear, then friendship, and compassion.

Mostly, nevertheless, we are here to savour Cavanagh’s dark humour, his taste for the macabre, and uncanny ability to home in on the darker reaches of human ingenuity. The way he plays with theatrical unities, to fuse past and present, dreams and reality, in particular, hints at the psychological hinterland of his creative writing.

So, while there are admittedly areas of (what we think are, unintended) confusion — e.g. the all too nuanced changeovers by Frith between Mary and Simon’s wife, by Willson between Simon and Mary’s husband — and the curious use of canned responses (those you’d find in American sitcoms), this is a theatrically daring and  disarmingly innovative piece of work.

And yes, Cavanagh has certainly done his mother proud, for it was she who modified the nursery rhyme — There Was An Old Woman Who Lived In A Shoe/She had so many children, she didn’t know what to do/She gave them some broth without any bread/
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed — to a version where the old woman Kiss(ed) Them All Soundly instead.


Theatre review: Third Reich Mommie

Dear Dad

An American writer once said, “The job of the novelist is to invent: to embroider, to colour, to embellish, to make things up.”

Christopher Bryant’s latest play certainly suggests the job of the playwright is no doubt also to do just that.

The writer of Rigor Mortis, that was played to critical acclaim early in the year, takes the downfall of Hitler in April 1945 to weave together a fictitious tale of espionage and family secrets, creating an evening of sadistic joy and juicy revenge.

As the play opens, 17-year old Cassidy has discovered a new interest in a boy from school called Jock. She lives with her eccentric mother, Bridgette, a former actress, for whom the mouthy teenager has neither affection nor respect.

Behind her back, Cassidy ridicules her mother’s absurd refusal to leave the home; to her face, she openly mocks Bridgette’s aspirations to return to her glory past. Ada, their German-accented domestic help, tries to keep peace between mother and daughter even when she herself often becomes the hapless victim of their vitriolic abuse.

In what can only be a spoof of the Führer’s Third Reich, cruelty and perversion reverberate within the spartan American home: Bridgette subjects Jock to mindless labour — moving potting mix aimlessly back and forth — when she unexpectedly offers the earnest lad the part-time work he sought; and in a tit-for-tat vengeful spat, mother and daughter exchange dollops of animal offal for oven mitts dripping with freshly-butchered rabbit blood.

And so, the distraught Cassidy begins to question the veracity of her own heritage. After confiding in Ada about the recent hallucinations that seem to alter her mind, the bewildered young woman decides to solicit Jock’s aid to uncover the truth.

Daniel Lammin directs a young and talented cast, of which Bryant himself takes on the role of the sultry Bridgette to sizzling effect. His (no, her) confident droll, that combines with figure-hugging black columns and fake eyelashes, portray, if not the sacrificial spy turned inadvertent mother then, most definitely an aspirant star whose dreams had been ironically thwarted by a self-serving drive. This irony was unfortunately itself thwarted when Bryant succumbed to audience distraction in the final scene on attendance night; his performance flawless otherwise.

Trelawney Edgar’s Cassidy lets us see not only the angsty rebellion of the teenager, the sexual curiosities of adolescence, but the vulnerabilities of a confused little girl. Ashleigh Goodison likewise gives her character Ada a totally arresting persona: the German inflection (or her nearly authentic German articulations, for that matter), the distinctive Nazi-inspired gait, and her conspiracy-shrouded loyalty. And Max Attwood is entirely convincing as Jock, conveying the apple-pie naïveté of American youth, whose encyclopedia-regurgitating knowledge (in deference to the rigid principles of his founding father) somehow managed to trounce unstabilising forces.

Despite the apparent attempt to parody Hitler’s regime, and the putative bid to satirise the West, the play somehow falls short of its full potential. Lacking in the stealthy suspense it could have created — Ada’s fidelity is dubious from the start: her costume, her language, and her callous housekeeping behaviour belie her caring, assiduous façade — the story misses the opportunity to allow the denouement to cast a chilling spell.

That said, Third Reich Mommie is a hugly entertaining play, nontheless, with a delicious enough twist at the end, even if not twisted enough.

Theatre review: The Blue Room

Dear Dad

Sex (still) sells, despite what some might say. Just head down to The Owl and the Pussycat now, if you need any convincing.

On attendance night, the theatre was nearly full, packed with people from the young (no, not kids, of course) to the doddery old. There were homosexuals, heterosexuals; there were talkers, and watchers, the chic, and the scruffy.

And what about theatre reviews? Barely one week since the opening show, and the web is already buzzing with a flurry of enthusiastic write-ups, that mostly only high-budget, high-profile productions seem able to enjoy.

When David Hare’s play, The Blue Room, opened in London in 1998, featuring Nicole Kidman and Iain Glen, people thronged their way to glimpse at Kidman’s bare buttocks. And when Simon Phillips staged a production at the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2002, ticket sales were phenomenal. So, things have hardly changed.

Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1921 Reigen, this play is an interlocking lace of sexual rendezvous: a prostitute latches on to a taxi-driver, who coaxes his way into an au pair’s knickers, that gives exploitative pleasure to her employer’s son, who matures under the hands of a politician’s wife, her husband meanwhile wheedling a 17-year-old model, who is entranced by a playwright seeking inspiration from her and an actress, who tempts into her bosom an aristocrat, who turns out to be the first prostitute’s soul-searching client.

Yes, that was enervating to write, enervating too to watch. But that is perhaps the whole idea: through his wry social portrait, Schnitzler (a doctor) wants us to follow debauchery as it (and the diseases it carries) traverses its way through different classes of society. If the subterranean agenda is too subtle to deter, the sheer iteration of the theme itself becomes too tedious after a while.

Fortunately, director Jason Cavanagh has given his revival a decidedly light and engaging flourish, making the 120-minute production enjoyable to sit through, without compromising on the hollowness of those lives it conveys.

As with most of Hare’s writings, the script is woven with probing political questions: has the liberty our society craves for become too libertine for our own good, for example. And do the wealthy have more entitlement to freedom than the poor?

We do not get answers, as you’d expect, but what we get is an insight into how carnal desires have no respect for class, or any other boundary. It drives us, (often) defines us, and contrary to received wisdom, offers as much sensory gratification no matter who the co-participant, what the reasons for participation, or where.

Kaitlyn Clare and Zak Zavod play the woman and the man, each one taking on five roles, over 10 separate scenes.

Clare is a consummate performer who segues between characters, accents, and personas with flawless ease. She is scorching as the raunchy hooker, demure as the au pair, manipulative as the actress. Her angelic innocence as the young model enraptured by the playwright’s musical rendition is especially memorable. And her crisp English inflection, delicious French intonation are altogether pretty impressive. Most will agree she is one of the most talented, most exciting actresses to watch today.

While Zavod may not display as much versatility and flair as Clare, consistently pushy or aggressive in most of his personalities, he gives his final character a moving introspective journey. And, as his piano sequence demonstrates, his talent is nothing less than multi-faceted.

The shopfront venue in darkly trendy Richmond is ideal for The Blue Room, and the set is something of a portmanteau affair, with all the scenes folded more or less into the same intimate space. The grand finale, however, must count as the most unexpected, the lights, the street, the motion all conspiring to jolt us firmly back into reality.

There is more nudity here than in other productions, but far from hastening the activity of complex proteins, it seems to have the opposite effect. Although Clare’s body is as beautiful as a white marble sculpture, and Zavod’s trim physique just as enviable, I cannot help but feel how the first glance at the prostitute’s covered crotch was more prurient.

And is that not Schnitzler’s point: sex still sells, but sexual excesses are as counterproductive as always.

Theatre review: Vanitas

Dear Dad

A family portrait hangs on the wall of Vestige Manor. Reginald Vestige is seen beaming from behind his dancing moustache; his wife, Valerie, is straining to show her well-toned calves. And while son Alistair sulks with aura and attitude, and daughter Elizabeth oozes with scholarly aptitude, Grandma Edith peers coquettishly from her sitting pose.

Attic Erratic’s Vanitas is a modern-day theatrical version of the 17th century Dutch genre. Set in country Australia, this scorchingly funny play is not only a satire on society’s excessive preoccupation with looks, abilities and achievements but a salutary warning that the relentless pursuit of vanity and impression is the surefire way to self-destruction.

The production opens with a preface which, albeit incurring audience laughter, depicts vanity as something hideous, omnipresent and unstoppable — a dark obsessive force feeding off societal perception and social values.

Like the manor that has lost its grandeur — the hotel has not seen a guest in three decades — members of the Vestige household are each wallowing in their twilight years. Resisting it, however, Reginald trains his moustache and grooms his guns to hide his want of marksmanship while his sexually-frustrated wife invests as much in her spirituality as in her legs for all to see. As school drop-out Alistair indulges in fashion brands and poetic depths, unemployed Elizabeth busies herself with Sudoku and re-writing books. Then, there is Grandma Edith who demands as much attention as the advertising model she was in her yesteryears. And, weaving amongst them, in faithful service, is their loyal and compliant butler Help.

So, when a Guest arrives to stay, the manor erupts into a preening frenzy. But as she threatens to leave, weary of their narcissistic self-exultation at her hapless expense and disgusted by their callous disregard of her basic welfare, the Vestiges try to do everything in the opposite.

As Attic Erratic takes a mischievious and light-hearted approach to a serious matter, Danny Delahunty employs a multitude of topspins that culminate in an enormously entertaining tragicomedy, incisive in its commentary that vanity is not what you wear or do, but who you really are.

Whether it is Reginald’s wonderfully held facial expression, Valerie’s hilarious moves, Alistair’s convincing character, Elizabeth’s stylised poise or Edith’s studied and well-maintained voice, the cast certainly has their audience transfixed and doubling over in helpless stitches. Not forgetting, of course, the Guest’s highly deceptive actorly ease and Help’s marvellously seamless transitions — between narrator, butler, table and cat.

In the end, as we come to see, the family’s only Vestige of their life-long and earthly pursuits may well be the still-life portrait, Vanitas — if that.

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