Posts Tagged ‘joanna murray-smith

17
May
18

Songs for Nobodies

 

Songs For Nobodies

Red Umbrella Theatre Co-operative

C-Square, Howard Street, Nambour

Sunday May 13 & Saturday May 19 2018

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

How does the pursuit of success both define and restrain us? Find out as we join five nobodies on their journey of discovery. Walk the Nambour Vintage Theatre Trail and become immersed in the highs and lows of life in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s. Along the way be enchanted by the songs of Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas.

 

Songs for Nobodies was penned by award winning playwright Joanna Murray-Smith, who has captivated audiences around the world with her sensitive and heartfelt explorations of the human condition. This play explores how connecting with others has the power to heal and change us all.

 

Sunshine Coast based performer, Candice Hill, returns home from a guest appearance on the ABC’s Harrow to star as Too Junior Jones / Billy Holiday in Joanna Murray-Smith’s Songs For Nobodies, for Red Umbrella Theatre Co-Operative during Anywhere Theatre Festival. Hill performs a series of songs within an extended monologue, sharing the story of an imagined meeting between Billy Holiday and the ambitious journalist, Too Junior Jones, a “nobody”. This captivating performance, along with those by Claire Harding (competing with Majestic Cinema foyer noise to riff on Patsy Cline’s last public appearance and singing sensationally, not unlike the woman herself) and Sharon Grimley (sharing a poignant tale about Edith Piaf and singing fragments of her most famous songs, bringing tears to the eyes of some, sitting huddled together in a tiny op shop) make this 3-hour promenade production worth braving the cold for.

 

The production takes us on Nambour’s Vintage Theatre Trail, starting at Switch Cafe in C-Square, which is an over-crowded kitsch venue, in which sight lines are hit and miss, and acoustics are a little challenged towards the back/bar area. Having pre-ordered a light meal via email before arriving at the venue, we ate prior to the first monologue, delivered by Director, Lyn Johnson (Beatrice Ethel Appleton / Judy Garland). Those pressed for time would probably appreciate a no-dinner option, and be advised to turn up at 6pm for the start of the show.

 

A far cry from Bernadette Robinson’s award-winning touring production, in which she nailed all five roles, this version, featuring its five different women, is bookended by footage of the real-life performers rather than our local performers successfully singing the songs of the stars. Johnson’s monologue ends perfunctorily before black and white footage of Garland appears on a screen behind her, and Rebekah Ferguson (Orla McDonagh / Maria Callas) delivers beautifully, the final bold monologue (she has a knack for cheeky comedy), and even sings a bit before we hear Maria Callas herself, and look up to see the original performance of the aria in black and white on a wall in the final venue, an empty space located upstairs in C-Square. The use of this space confounds me; it’s almost cavernous, but oddly shaped and we are all – including the actress and her set pieces – cramped in the front quarter inside the doors and a strange, featured, cabin-esque entrance. I guess it must have looked vaguely like the cruise ship she speaks of. Anyway, I feel that to cast the five different women is wonderful, but to have only three of the five able to sing the songs convincingly could be considered a misstep, unless you’ve never seen or heard Robinson’s performance, or heard of her at all.

 

Despite these quibbles and the 3.5 hours duration (wear layers – it’s cold out!), Songs For Nobodies is still brilliant material, and Red Umbrella’s decision to offer the profits from their sold-out season to support services for victims of sexual violence has prompted Murray-Smith to waive her performance fees, making this show not only a brave choice, but also a successful fundraiser.

 

31
May
16

Switzerland

Switzerland

Queensland Theatre Company

Bille Brown Studio

May 20 – June 26 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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“She was a mean, hard, cruel, unlovable, unloving person…”

– Otto Penzler

“Writing is a way of controlling experience.”

– Joanna Murray-Smith

“I’m going to enjoy what I’ve got as long as it lasts.”

– Patricia Highsmith, The Talented Mr. Ripley

 

Patricia Highsmith was a difficult woman.

 

In Joanna Murray-Smith’s brilliant slow-burning two-hander, renowned US crime writer and recluse, Patricia Highsmith, meets her publishing company’s earnest rep, Edward Ridgeway, in a fictional encounter that demands of her a final Ripley novel to put her back on the bestseller list. Ridgeway won’t leave until the contract is signed and the two grapple with power, perception, deception and wit, and drink beers before breakfast (Highsmith hated food) before a sly twist turns the situation on its head.

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Steve Toulmin’s creeping cinematic score and Ben Hughes’ moody lighting contribute to the feeling of isolation in Highsmith’s haven near Locarno, Switzerland, where she lived for the last thirty years of her life. The play takes place during the last three days of her life. Despite warm accents in the weapons on display, the soft furnishings and timber pieces (Highsmith had enormous hands and feet, and proudly carved some of her furniture herself), Anthony Spinaze’s design, incorporating cold whites and steely blues, complete with raked ceiling and false proscenium, creates an uncomfortable, open space for Highsmith’s unwelcome visitor, and for us too. Tension seeps into the room with the shadows that stretch across the floor, moonlight leaking in, sneaking in, from beyond authentic French doors. We’re flies on the wall, keeping a safe distance from the intricate web being woven, knowing there is something awful to come, knowing the end will be dire.

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When the French doors are thrown open to reveal the contrasting darkness outside, the mood and pace of the piece is dramatically altered. A moment suspended in time sees Highsmith here, moonstruck, moving to music (although we can’t be sure if she’s hearing what we’re hearing or something else entirely), oblivious to everything but her innermost thoughts, having dowsed the rest of her soul and her insecurities with Johnny Walker Red.

Andrea Moor has stepped into Highsmith’s loafers and into this difficult woman’s head, embodying the imagined real-life character and all her complexities. She’s witty and impatient and caustic, rising like a snake in the face of her antagonist, ready to strike, but often taking her time to do so while she sizes up the opposition, considering perhaps, with which weapon she’ll finish him off. Highsmith meets her intellectual match in Ridgeway and Moor meets her on-stage equal in Matthew Backer. In every aspect of his communication Backer encapsulates the initial timidity and gradually gained prowess of a ruthlessly ambitious admirer. He needs few words to make his position known.

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It’s thrilling to see two accomplished actors simply acting. Having said that, the greatest compliment we can pay the actors is to not have seen their acting; to know that the work has been done and not see them doing it, only the effects of it, and that is the case here. Murray-Smith’s complex characters are perfectly realised by Moor and Backer, under the watchful eye of Director, Paige Rattray. Deftly fashioned suspense, created by Rattray’s superb manipulation of the text, timing, design features and plot twists, builds a little like the dark, lilting, recurring Norma Desmond theme of Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard. Toulmin’s score balances this mysterious and sombre mood with interludes of Hitchcock style high stakes, and to further elevate the mood in that weirdly comically nightmarish horror movie way, we hear the innocent, joyful, slightly absurd strains of South Pacific’s Happy Talk.

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The end is not altogether unpredictable but it comes as a shock nevertheless. We’re drawn toward unimaginable horror; the writer’s reality, the inevitable, the loss of control. The actual end.

Switzerland is compelling and richly rewarding. It’s darkly funny, provocative and ultimately terrifying. It’s highly accomplished humble theatre; the strongest we’ve seen from within QTC’s walls this year.

Production pics by Rob Maccoll

Want to learn more about Patricia Highsmith?

Read THE TALENTED MISS HIGHSMITH: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith by Joan Schenkar.

06
Mar
16

Pennsylvania Avenue

 

Pennsylvania Avenue

QPAC & Duet Productions

QPAC Cremorne

March 3 – 19 2016

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

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Bernadette Robinson tells the story of Harper Clements, assistant to the assistant to the assistant of the First Lady. Penned by Joanna Murray-Smith, the story starts at its end, on Harper’s last day at the Whitehouse. After forty years of service, she reflects on the joys and sorrows of a life well lived. She dips into her memories, which fit neatly into the last packing box, as she prepares to leave the only life she knows. But her personal story comes off second best, because the life of the Presidents.

Simon Phillips‘ direction is precise. And Robinson’s performance is astonishing. The show is perfect – too perfect – and without the heart and guts and grit of the hugely successful Songs For Nobodies. Perfectly conceived, perfectly crafted and perfectly delivered, Pennsylvania Avenue is well received by the target demographic. The pace is languid and lovely; I also enjoy it immensely, but I crave the energy of the original inspired work, which showcased across Australia and the USA, Robinson’s uncanny ability for mimicry. 

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Robinson’s outstanding characters include Marilyn Monroe, Maria Callas, Eartha Kitt, Sarah Vaughn, Bob Dylan and Tammy Wynette, the latter complete with perfectly placed twang. Robinson’s knack of channelling the essence of these performers – the vocal tone, vibrato, facial expressions, gait and gesture – is rare, seen only in the likes of artists such as Catherine Alcorn (The Divine Miss Bette, Go Your Own Way) and Naomi Price (Rumour Has It, Wrecking Ball). Each character is an exact study and Robinson barely takes a breath or turns her head before transforming, and embodying each. She lacks the pure vocal power of Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin but we don’t miss their famous belt quality for more than an instant. The celebrity characters ring true; Harper’s anecdotes bring attention to the humanity and humour of each entertainer as she sees them at their most vulnerable. The songs, performed for the Presidents, mark pivotal points in the history of the world and quietly remind us that our celebrations and lamentations are most eloquently expressed and shared through art.

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A brilliant live band led by Ian McDonald remains unseen behind a curtain within a simple static set replicating the famous Blue Room (Shaun Gurton), complemented by warm lighting, and the clever incorporation of Chris More‘s AV. The American presidents peer down on Harper from their gilded picture frames and then disappear, making way for tabloid photos of subsequent presidents, their First Ladies, and the popular singers of each era, invited to visit the Whitehouse. Harper was there when Marilyn had a moment over unsightly knicker lines, when Babs asked for JFK’s autograph, and when Sarah Vaughn cried backstage… There are some wonderful tender moments in these stories but there’s some heart missing. It’s as if this production has been so carefully shaped and rehearsed that the original impulse has been left out, or left behind. Perhaps at this stage of the tour, everyone is simply going through the motions, much like a blockbuster musical that we might leave thinking we need to see done again with feeling.

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I love Robinson’s ‘Harper’ voice. Some of the most stirring moments are contained sweetly, sentimentally, within the hymns from her younger years in Thunderbolt, Georgia. Robinson’s Amazing Grace for example, is unassuming, just superb. Like Happy Birthday, this is one of the most often sung songs in the world and one of the most difficult to sing convincingly. In order for us to care more though, the detail of Harper’s story needs to be revealed earlier. Having said that, surprisingly, even though we see it coming, it’s a genuine shock to learn that the great (“liberal”) love of her life abandons Harper when he learns the truth about her past, which from my perspective at least, is no big deal. Bastard! So on many levels, despite its lack of…spark, the show works. The Brisbane audience loves it, leaping to their feet to offer a generous standing ovation. I applaud warmly, because despite the production not meeting my expectations, Robinson is a gifted performer. I’m in awe of her talent and I appreciate the premise, the musical arrangements, and the completeness of this production; everything is so nice and precise and quite perfect. But I’m unmoved and I’d like to see Robinson really challenged now in terms of storytelling.