WLT Adjudicators Deborah Fabbro, Shane Ryan and Lois Collinder presented their critiques of the five productions staged in 2016, our 70th Anniversary season.
Shane Ryan thanked Ray Hare for stepping in as his substitute adjudicator for Sweet Road, in which Shane's partner had a leading role.
It was good to see an Australian play start Williamstown’s seventieth year.
Debra Oswald’s Sweet Road bittersweet drama offers us a glimpse into the lives of a collection of diverse characters as they set off on road trips into the Australia outback. They are all trying to navigate life’s journey and their stories intertwine as they search for meaning and/or answers.
Like so many Australian plays Sweet Road has multiple scenes in multiple locations and on the lovely intimate stage David Dare created a clever stylised set that evoked the Australian outback and the various locations required. The cast and crew managed the numerous changes most efficiently. The scenes were greatly complemented by Craig Pearcey’s clever lighting design and the soundscape by Patrick Slee completed the setting for each scene perfectly.
Under Peter Newling’s solid direction, each of the characters was convincingly developed. Sarah Milway was subtle in conveying the betrayed wife, Jo, who wants to drive on to a new and better life. The scenes between her and Yasmin were strong and Stephanie Morrell was most credible as the idealistic and lovestruck Yasmin. Stephanie Gonelli and Travis Handcock as Carla and Andy played their roles of the troubled young bogan couple beautifully, capturing every nuance of their characters’ anguish. Travis expressed the psyched up nervousness of his character while Steph’s miming of her interactions with her children meant we, the audience, really could ‘see’ them.
As Frank the grieving widower, Ellis Ebell was likeable in his interactions with the other characters but we could sense his sadness and loneliness in taking the ‘grey nomad’ journey without his recently deceased wife. This was a layered and sincere performance.
Div Collins played the truck driver Michael who was at the wheel when his son died in a road crash. Although it was not his fault, Michael is wracked with guilt. Div gave a well measured characterisation.
Rosalin Shafik-Eid played two roles and was suitably different in each. Her receptionist was sassy while the policewoman was the efficient cop with a compassionate side.
Also playing two roles was Gilbert Gauci. He gave a nice performance as the terse motor mechanic but really shone in the role of the terrifying Curtis.
Sweet Road had a strong ensemble effort from cast and crew and provided an entertaining evening to open the year.
The Nance is a dark comedy that delves into the life of Chauncey Miles, a gay burlesque comic working in 1937 New York. When he meets Ned, a newly arrived country boy, his hard shell begins to crack. The play offers plenty of staged fun and frolic, but it also goes behind the curtain to unveil a piece of gay history that is both heart-warming and heartbreaking.
Phil Lambert gave a fine performance as Chauncey showing both the talents of the performer on the burlesque stage and the secret life of the gay man trying to find love.
Ziv Gidron portrayed Ned, Chauncey’s lover, with a sensitivity that was both touching and real.
Kirk Alexander showed both the broad comedy of the burlesque comic onstage and also a concern for Chauncey’s wellbeing with the threat of La Guardia’s purge.
Cat Jardine (Sylvia) Kate Lewis (Joan) and Dianne Algate (Carmen) were delightful as the soubrettes, and Susanna Meijer and Reece Manning completed this fine cast.
The set designed by David Dare worked amazingly well, showing the seedy laundrette, Chauncey’s apartment, and backstage at the Irving Place Theatre. Apparently the revolve nearly killed the backstage crew but it was a remarkable achievement on such a small stage.
Janet Provan did a wonderful job as Musical Director, and Dianne Algate created entertaining choreography.
Costumes were designed by Tony Tartaro and both the onstage costumes and street wear were excellent, although we did wonder whether a different design might not have better conveyed the right feel for the risqué burlesque routine whilst still maintaining a level of modesty for the actors. A very small quibble in an excellent production but it did seem a bit aside from the thorough thought given to the rest of designs.
Thanks to Chris Baldock and everyone involved for their courage in tackling this extremely difficult play.
IF I SHOULD DIE BEFORE I WAKE
This is a play about guilt, frustration and love.
Joan, who has terminal cancer, has cared for her intellectually disabled daughter Gillie, since birth. She now faces the end of her own life and must decide Gillie’s future as she becomes no longer capable of taking care of her.
Shirley Sydenham gave a moving portrayal of a desperate mother trying to cope with her situation, showing a varying range of emotions.
Gillie who is in her 30s, has the intellectual ability of a 7 or 8 year old. She is cunning and stubborn and insists on having her own way. Rosalin Shafik-Eid’s performance captured the childlike vulnerability of Gillie. However, the constant repetition of the song became somewhat annoying.
Joan’s younger daughter Isabelle, has lived in Gillie’s shadow all her life and constantly argues about Gillie’s manipulation and dominance over her mother. Sass Pinci gave a confident performance but we felt the writing and direction didn’t allow for much variation or development of this character.
David Dare’s set was impressive with both the inside and outside area’s working extremely well.
This play was not an easy night at the theatre with such a sombre theme. The writing was sometimes repetitive and the ending was too clichéd.
Directed by Robert Harsley, Sitting Pretty focuses on art, expectations and our relationships with our own history through the relationship between two middle aged sisters who live together in their somewhat drab London flat.
They are a study of contrasts. Nancy, played by Margie Bainbridge, is self-effacing, and seemingly with little imagination or ambition, is at peace with her pedestrian life. Nina, played by Marianne Collopy, is at peace with nothing; a woman convinced that she is meant for better things and that her talent, her devotion to art confirm that her life matters. Their domestic life is regularly interrupted by Max, played by David Efron, the family friend and handyman who vainly hopes Nina will deign to return his affections.
The contrast between the sisters diminishes when Nancy almost literally, stumbles on to the opportunity to be a nude model for a local art class. There we meet Philip, played by Mark Monroe. Philip is a callow moderately talented artist and teacher, yet to come to terms with the limit of his ability, who assuages his ego through bedding many of the female students who attend his art classes. The latest of these is Zelda played by Dasana Smyth, a young woman struggling to outgrow her attraction to Philip.
The rest of the art class is filled with eccentric oddballs, the young, near mute Luka (Angus Turner-Summerton); the scheming, married to money Josie (Roberta Szekeres); Sylvia (Marilyn Davies) the regal retiree with possible pretensions of grandeur; the seemingly calm but tightly wound Bridget (Andrea Tappe) and her bemused husband Martin (Ian Tweeddale) who can’t believe he has to sit through this.
Robert’s production was most rewarding in its quieter moments and duologues. Margie and Marianne had lovely stage chemistry. We come to feel for Nina, mired in mediocrity, despite her highhandedness and it was impossible not to root for the blossoming big-hearted Nancy. Their sibling relationship, warts and all, felt real.
Although the scene changes were a little long, the technical aspects of the production were done well. A personal favourite was the tight spot used when we first meet Philip and Zelda, huddled in their unhappiness, creating a claustrophobic mood that contrasted with the Zelda we last see setting off on her trip to go exploring.
The art class scenes often had many of the laughs, and the ensemble used the opportunity to show their skills and comic timing. One discordant note was the costuming for Nancy when she was modelling. Despite the themes of the play it was clear that always wearing at least a night gown and this may have required further thought.
To finish, I’d like thank Bob and the play selection committee for choosing a play with female leads over 50. Playwrights largely don’t write about women over 50 and it was pleasing to see this part of our community that has so much talent and experience, have an opportunity to showcase their wares.
London Suite, the last of Neil Simon’s trilogy, was directed by Gaetano Santo and follows the expected format. Several unrelated short plays take place in a hotel suite, room 402. Some scenes are laced with a little absurdity, some with a little pathos, all with Simon’s legendary humour and wit.
In the first scene ‘Settling Accounts’, Brian (Xavier Ryan) is an accomplished but somewhat gormless Welsh author who comes to confront his conniving manager Billie (Peter Hathaway) with a gun. It becomes clear that despite their long friendship Billie has swindled Brian of all his money, mostly because Brian trusts him so much he never asks any questions. In what is the possibly the play’s weakest scene, Brian was played with enough energy and mania, and Billie with sufficient evasiveness and manoeuvring that the scene provided a strong start to the show.
The second scene is ‘Going home’ American mother and daughter duo, Sheryl (Shirley Sydenham) and Lauren (Kylie Ryan) are in London on a shopping holiday. We see through their banter and teasing that there is a strong bond between them and Sheryl agrees to go on an ultimately disastrous date. The scene largely focuses on Sheryl regaling Lauren with a blow by blow description of the date that started promisingly but went downhill from there. It was played with comic timing and great affection between the cast and they wormed their way into our hearts with their moments of honesty with each other in the denouement.
‘Diana and Sidney’ is the third play and has the greatest mix of light and shade as the eponymous divorcees meet again. Diana (Janine Evans) is a successful American soap actress who is still a little in love with Sidney and worries that she has sold out. Sidney (Peter Hathaway) has come out, dropped out and lives with his lover on the Greek island of Mykonos. Completing the cast is still closeted Grace (Stephanie Gonelli) forbearing, loyal and possibly also a little in love. The witticisms, reminiscing and massaging of actorly egos eventually lead to the revelation that Sidney is dying of lung cancer. The cast showed their versatility in skilfully playing the lighter and darker moments, delivering some of the biggest laughs amongst the sadness.
The final play is ‘The Man on The Floor’ opens with a couple, Anne (Kylie Ryan) and Mark (Xavier Ryan) arguing about lost Wimbledon tickets. Xavier once again plays a victim, this time to his own temper tantrum. With his back out, Mark is stuck on the floor where, unfortunately, many of the audience couldn’t see him. The hi jinks ensue. Judi Clark plays Mrs Sitgood, the bustling, efficient problem solver and avid fan of Kevin Costner. Janine Evans returns as the dodgy Doctor McMerlin and Jake Privett makes his stage debut as the Bellman. The scene is staged with the exuberance once can expect from a Gaetano Santo production and ends the night on a high note.
Across all four plays, the cast, often performing multiple roles, worked well together to deliver the wit, physical humour and moments of tenderness in the play. The set was typical of Williamstown Little Theatre, well-constructed and dressed. The plays had their own distinct mood and pacing. The choice to pre-record the opening lines to the scene was creative but seemed to lead to a disjointed start to each play but WLT ended 2016 on a funny and moving night at the theatre.