Tag: Caroline Lee

Review: ‘Night, Mother

A balanced of light, shade and reams of texture

By Ross Larkin

One could be forgiven for hesitating at the prospect of a two-hander, set in real time, staged in one act, and all about suicide. It sounds gruelling for the audience and more gruelling for the actors. And it is – intensely so. However, it’s also not to be missed.

Marsha Norman’s daring and brutal piece makes no apologies for its subject matter. Right off the bat, middle-aged divorcee, Jessie, reveals, quite calmly to her ageing mother Thelma, with whom she resides, that she’s decided to take her own life, and plans to do so later the same evening. 

What ensues is an emotional minefield of denial, fear, rage, nostalgia and revelation as the pair unpack Jessie’s reasoning and Thelma tries every approach she can muster to talk her daughter out of it. 

Aside from desperate and harrowing, ‘Night, Mother is a fascinating character study, enhanced by the fact that Jessie is level-headed and contented with her decision. This is offset by Thelma’s spiral into despair as she tackles every stage of grief in the space of 90 minutes.

It’s a tall order for the most capable of creatives to undertake, and thankfully, Iron Lung Theatre succeeds in dealing with the content intelligently and thoroughly. 

Imperative that such a dialogue heavy piece set in one location find all the right emotional beat changes, subtext and layers, director Briony Dunn fleshes these out for the most part, particularly in the final third of the piece when the tension really starts to wreak havoc. 

As the troubled Jessie, Esther van Doornum brings a beautiful subtlety to a role, which, in the wrong hands, might risk an overly depressive portrayal, but van Doornum hits the mark with her matter-of-fact, often peaceful resolution, only letting tinges of sadness emerge at the most poignant moments.

Caroline Lee as Thelma has her work cut out for her in a heavily demanding role that requires a plethora of intense emotional states, and she does a fine job where many an actor might struggle.

‘Night, Mother may not be for the faint hearted, but it’s every bit engrossing and rewarding in a rare instance where extremely heavy content is balanced with light, shade and reams of texture. Iron Lung’s version of it is definitely worth seeking out.

‘Night, Mother is playing now at Chapel off Chapel in Prahran until August 17. Tickets are available online at www.chapeloffchapel.com.au or by calling the box office on 03 8290 7000.

Photography by Pia Johnson

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Red Stitch Presents RULES FOR LIVING

Uproariously funny

By Caitlin McGrane

As the audience walked into the theatre on the opening night of Red Stitch’s new production Rules for Living, I was feeling slightly apprehensive. There’s something about the idea of a play about families at Christmas that can make even the most hardy feel slightly uneasy, like it all the potential to go horrifically, horribly wrong. And, indeed, it does; but I have honestly never laughed so much at a piece of theatre in all my life.

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The script for Rules for Living is sharp in a way that sometimes beggars belief – the cast and crew are so tight, they have their finger held so firmly on the pulse of playwright Sam Holcroft’s wonderful script that at times I thought they might be ad-libbing. The story is of a British family at Christmas: they’re dysfunctional in a recognisably empathetic way, oozing with pathos, and steering pretty well clear of the ‘wacky family does Christmas’ tropes we’ve all seen 8000 times before.

There’s brothers Matthew, (the always wonderful Rory Kelly) a charming/horrific liar and Adam (Mark Dickinson) who’s almost pathologically unable or unwilling to show weakness. Then there’s their mother the neurotic pill-popping matriarch, Edith (Caroline Lee), and Adam’s deeply tragic alcoholic wife Sheena (Jessica Clarke); but for my money the standout performer was Jem Nicholas as Matthew’s actress-cum-comedienne girlfriend, Carrie. Nicholas carries so many of the scenes, she’s truly the life and soul of the ensemble; there are times when I longed for her to return to the stage so I could see what this magnificent incarnation of the ‘Essex girl’ would do next. Ella Newton has a minor role as Adam and Sheena’s daughter Emma, and Ian Rooney makes an appearance as Matthew and Adam’s wheelchair-bound father Francis, an utterly detestable man who leers over women, and shouts ‘fuck off’ at his wife Edith; confused he may be, but without sense he is not.

The behaviour of all three men on stage gets to the very heart of what I loved so much about this play – the women. All the characters all abide by ‘rules’ for how they live their lives but the women have to constantly put up with so much deplorable behaviour from their partners that it’s no wonder they retreat into alcohol, drugs, and playing the clown. The male characters in this play are deeply funny, but they’re also awful, recognisably awful in a way that’s almost frighteningly realistic. The women on the other hand are by no means flawless, sometimes almost cruel, but it seemed to me they’d been conditioned into it, their actions a way of coping with the men in their lives.

Director Kim Farrant has done a magnificent job with this work, and the play hangs together like a carefully-placed bauble on a Christmas tree – balancing just the right amounts of humour and tragedy across the two acts. The only thing I think that could have really improved it was a reduction in length – the 2.5 hour running time was probably too much, and there were scenes that could have been cut down slightly just to keep the pace up.

Sets and costumes (Sophie Woodward) worked wonderfully: almost too well, as there were moments when it was like being at my nan’s for Christmas; lighting (Clare Springett) and sound design (Daniel Nixon) really enhanced the play’s mood, and created just the right slightly tense atmosphere round the kitchen table.

Overall I don’t think I could speak highly enough of this production, it is another Red Stitch triumph where a clear, clever, well-constructed script together with a strong, dynamic cast brings so much joy, good cheer and a huge dose of fun. Go and see this play.

Rules for Living is now on at Red Stitch until 16 April as a part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. For more information and tickets visit: http://redstitch.net/gallery/rules-for-living

Image by Teresa Noble

Red Stitch Presents SUNSHINE

Dawning potential as four lives interweave

By Caitlin McGrane

There’s something about Red Stitch that always keeps me coming back. It might be the way their plays seem to be selected deliberately and with precision, or the very, very fine performances that they nearly always seem to produce. Sunshine by Tom Holloway opens with four performers lying on the ground on stage where they seem to come to life one-by-one and speak their lines lyrically and with intense musicality.

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Each player moves in their own world; even when it becomes apparent later that they’re interacting with one another, it’s like they’re in layered alternate universes. I was reminded of the ‘real’ world compared to the ‘Upside Down’ in Stranger Things in the way the characters moved around each other, near and almost touching but never quite. Direction from Kirsten von Bibra was superb and sublime – the delicate and precarious way the actors spoke and moved around each other was masterful. The four-hander cast, Ella Caldwell, Philip Hayden, Caroline Lee and George Lingard, are all tremendous, very much each making the most of their character’s individual trajectory.

For me, however, the writing was disappointing. The dialogue was highly stylised, and for a time it was really interesting and beautiful, but after about half an hour my head began to ache and I found I was having to do a lot of work to remember what was happening with each character. As my head whipped back and forth trying to keep up, I started to lose interest in the onstage goings on.

The dialogue would have been easy enough to let go if the individual stories amounted to more than the sum of their parts, but for my money the playwright missed an opportunity to look at a really interesting relationship between Man 2 (Philip Hayden) and Woman 2 (Caroline Lee). Hayden and Lee had far and away the most nuanced and interesting characters, and their limited interaction showed the kind of writing of which Holloway is capable.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention that embedded within the writing is the character of a homeless man who ostensibly lives in the same universe in which the play takes place. He has no lines, no face and is referred to only as a plot device (to do what exactly, I’m not sure). Homelessness is an increasing problem in Melbourne, and it was extremely disappointing to see yet another misrepresentation of homelessness as male, drug-affected and living in a park. People who are homeless deserve better and fairer representation, and it smacks of lazy writing to use people who are already socially invisible in this manner.

All that said, there was a lot to enjoy. The set and lighting were expertly crafted by Matthew Adey – the staging in particular showed real ingenuity. Elizabeth Drake made some interesting choices for the play’s composition and sound design; her dreamy ethereal sounds were reminiscent of Blade Runner. Costumes (Matilda Woodroofe) were simple, fitting the minimalist theme of the play, and didn’t distract from the drama. Overall Sunshine shows great potential, not least from Holloway who I hope will continue to grow and experiment as a writer.

Sunshine is now showing at Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre until 5 November 2016. Tickets and more information: http://redstitch.net/gallery/sunshine/

Zoey Dawson’s CONVICTION

Unsettling and outstanding

By Leeor Adar

Welcome to the prolonged anxiety attack.

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We were submerged into a seemingly soothing world of sound design maverick, James Paul. Distant shores ebbed and flowed into the subconscious and conscious workings of playwright Zoey Dawson. Inane, witty and self-indulgent thoughts grabbed us and made us laugh, and sometimes think a little too hard about ourselves. But that was Dawson’s point. Our own private narrative is both universal and compelling, and Dawson understands this, even if it ticks some theatre-goers off.

Declan Greene’s assured direction makes its masterful entrance as our actors form a tableau from a bygone era. The stream of consciousness that we found ourselves immersed in earlier is being spoken by our now shifting tableau. It’s a gorgeous beginning, and I feel safe in this space, which will become a central feature of what the Dawson/Greene team are going to undo.

And undo it they will.

Conviction goes House on the Prairie to Lord of the Flies in a descent one does not see coming. With every unhappy scene, it is reworked again, and again, just as its playwright tears the pages of their work away. You can almost feel the playwright’s desperation as historical inconsistencies litter the work, until our convict-cum-lady, Lillian (Ruby Hughes), is smoking out of a crack pipe and unravelling both out of character and out of era. The playwright has clearly become bored with the ‘great play’ and returns to a reality more familiar.

The cast is excellent – but it is our leading ladies who really stand out. Hughes dominates in her performance as the ‘survivor’ in a world of her own making, and Caroline Lee’s timing as a performer is effortless. Greene has directed his cast with style – transitioning them with ease from one dimension to the next. It’s a testament to this creative team’s skill that as an audience we take this wild and weird journey with them.

The only concern for this work is its exclusivity. Dawson may find it difficult to reimagine this work in another city. The references to Melbourne and the very specific Melbourne condition are hard to unravel. Dawson’s story resonated with me, but I wonder, outside of the theatre-loving privilege, how will outsiders connect? Dawson has taken on a mouthful in Conviction, but she still artfully weaves historical and feminist inconsistencies into her work in a way that is charming, jarring and familiar.  She reconfigures the past, as our stock white colonialists ask a passing native Australian to tell her story. The world stops for a moment, blacked out and blank, as this story was not Dawson’s to tell. Dawson reminds us that we write stories about our own experiences because they are authentic. It’s also a brazen up-yours to our great nation’s denial of a stolen history. But this is Dawson’s experience, and she manages to intersect her private narrative with a greater narrative about our fear of not being enough, and unworthy of telling our tale.

This isn’t a story about convicts – as I expect you’ve gathered by now. It’s a story about convicting ourselves to a life of self-doubt and anxiety for failing to have the conviction to tell our story.

You can join the stream of consciousness from the 27 July to the 6 August, Wednesday – Sunday at 7:30pm, Northcote Town Hall.

Bookings: Conviction Ticketing

REVIEW: Red Stitch Presents JURASSICA

Impressive cast in family saga

By Caitlin McGrane

Jurassica is a familiar Australian family story of immigration and assimilation. Ralph (Joe Petruzzi) and Sara (Caroline Lee) came from Italy in the 1950s to begin a new life in Australia. As immigrants in a foreign land they attempted to adjust to a new way of life, while trying to maintain their familiar traditions and customs. The play is told through flashback sequences as Ralph’s son Ichlis (Jordan Fraser-Trumble), grandson Luca (Edward Orton) and daughter-in-law Penny (Devon Lang Wilton) attempt to deal with his rapidly failing health. All the performers in the ensemble cast give exceptional performances as individuals and work well together. Fraser-Trumble and Orton both do a particularly good job of playing men/boys at a variety of ages.

Jurassica

However, for me the play did not hang together exceptionally well: the script was slightly tired and took a well-trodden path that was not aided by the addition of the interpreter Kaja’s (Olga Makeeva) Serbian background story, which seemed slightly clumsily included. Director Bridget Balodis has done a terrific job in the six weeks she had to put the play together, but the story was not quite up to the standard I have come to expect from Red Stitch. However, the writing was not without merit, and the play maintained a steady and relatively engaging pace throughout.

As always at Red Stitch the staging and lighting were excellent: Romaine Harper (Set & Designer) and Amelia Lever-Davidson (Lighting Designer) have both done a wonderful job of evoking a variety of environs on stage.

In some ways this is a story of fragile masculinity within a family, and while it was certainly told with its heart in the right place, it unfortunately did not strike a chord with me. This may have been due to the heavy use of Italian, which I do not understand or speak. Luckily I attended with someone who does so she was able to translate, but this somewhat distracted from the intentions on stage. I look forward to seeing what playwright Dan Giovannoni does next.

Dates: Until Nov 9th 2015

Red Stitch Actors Theatre
Rear 2 Chapel Street
St Kilda East, Vic 3183, Australia

Bookings: http://redstitch.net/gallery/jurassica/

Image by Jodie Hutchinson

REVIEW: Red Stitch presents WET HOUSE

An emotional and essential experience

By Myron My

A wet house is a hostel for alcoholic homeless men and women, where they can drink and sleep as much as they want with no expectations for them to be rehabilitated. They are more or less, the people that society has given up on. In Red Stitch’s production of Paddy Campbell’s Wet House, we get an insight into the lives of three residents and three workers of a wet house, each one struggling with their own redemption and reason for being.

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Wet House is based on Campbell’s first-hand experience of working in a wet house and you can see how effective a story can be when the writer well and truly knows what he is writing about. Not a single scene is wasted, no dialogue is filler, no movement is pointless. Everything that happens in Wet House has a purpose, and with six different stories being told, the pacing is controlled well and is never difficult to follow.

The performance opens with colleagues Helen (Caroline Lee) and Mike (David Whiteley) going through the handover of their shift. The dark humour used throughout is disturbingly funny and highlights even more the issues that the script is raising. The arrival of new recruit Andy (Paul Ashcroft), with his idealistic and simplistic views on helping these people comes into great conflict with the realities of the job as well as his relationship with Helen and Mike.

Wet house residents, Dinger, Spencer and Kerry (Nicholas Bell, Dion Mills and Anna Sampson), each have their own unique story to tell, but at the same time, their story is universal. Mills in particular is exceptional as Spencer, bringing a vulnerability and sympathy to a character we should revile against and disgusted by. The scenes between him and Whiteley are extremely intense to watch which is due to the strong performances and fearless directing by Brett Cousins.

Sophie Woodward’s set design captures the bleak environment of despair that these people face day in day out. There is a creative use of the space in the theatre that I have not seen before which draws you further into this world and story. Costumes have been used to give more life to the characters and build on their personalities.

Red Stitch’s production of Wet House opens discussion on alcoholism and how we support those who are seen as beyond help and how the intention to do good is ultimately never going to be better than action. It is an emotionally draining show but it is a show that needs to be seen.

Venue: Red Stitch Actors Theatre, 2 Chapel St, St. Kilda.

Season: Until 18 April | Wed- Sat 8:00pm, Sat 3:00pm, Sun 6:30pm

Tickets: $37 Full | $20-27 Conc

REVIEW: Stripped at LA MAMA

Laying a story bare…

By Adam Tonking

Stripped is the story of two sisters, Lillian and Sophie, estranged by the various circumstances of their vastly different lives, and brought back together through tragedy.

Lillian is a lawyer, married to Daniel, good friends with Louise and Jack: she is also dying. Sophie is a stripper, and there are more characters in this story; but what is important is that all of these are played by the one amazing actress.

Caroline Lee, creator of the original text, is the actress at the helm of all these characters in this overwhelming story about the repercussions of death on relationships. While the different characterisations took a while to sink in for the audience, Lee was in complete control the entire time.

She obviously understood each character down to the bone, and presented their individual identities clearly for the audience, managing the different ages, genders, and motivations with grace and apparent ease; in fact, one of the most provocative moments was told from the perspective of Lillian’s husband, Daniel. All this, while allowing the compelling story to unfold before us.

In spite of the subject matter, the script never became manipulative, melodramatic, or clichéd. Rather, it remained conversational and deeply personal throughout. I did feel at times that this conversational tone clashed with Lee’s often declamatory style of speech, and with Laurence Strangio’s restrained direction which occasionally seemed too stylised.

I suspect that these choices were made to clear any extraneous clutter for an audience required to keep up with the complexity of shifting narrative perspectives, however I felt that it created a barrier between the audience and the characters, forcing the audience to sympathise rather than empathise.

But that is ultimately a small detraction, in what is otherwise a masterful performance of a challenging and powerful piece.

Stripped is on at La Mama Theatre, 205 Faraday Street, Carlton, from Wednesday 7th March till Sunday 18th March. Bookings at www.lamama.com.au or by calling 03 9347 6142.