Posts Tagged ‘simon phillips

05
Dec
18

North By Northwest

 

North By Northwest

QPAC & Kay McLean Productions

QPAC Lyric Theatre

November 29 – December 9 2018

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

 

The world’s first slick stage adaptation of Hitchcock’s famous action suspense thriller is not my favourite show this year. I love the sensational design, and I totally get the sense of it; I get the style, I get the humour, I get the cleverness of it, but I don’t love it. BUT EVERYONE ELSE LOVES IT.

 

 

How to meticulously recreate a classic film on stage, anyway? With an eye for detail, a mega-budget and main stage venues from Melbourne to London, that’s how, and Simon Phillips (Director) and Carolyn Burns (Writer) have succeeded in doing so since 2015 with Hitchcock’s North By Northwest. But if you want to read the rave reviews READ EVERY OTHER REVIEW. On the same weekend, I was more engaged and entertained by a 60-minute, low-budget, cute, corny indie comedy that successfully strings together excerpts on stage from Tarantino’s cult films. It was charming, clever, ridiculous and hilarious. Whether or not its next incarnation is intended to more accurately represent the films to which it pays homage (there’s no need!), or simply continue to evolve as an irreverent, riotous tribute (there’s potential!), if that production had even half of a Kay Mclean (Andrew Kay & Liza McLean) or mainstage company budget, you might also have had the chance to consider its merits. But without the marketing slice of a bigger pie, you probably didn’t even know it was on.

 

 

 

 

If it’s what makes you happy, North By Northwest lives up to the hype in so many ways, but it lacks soul. Unlike Ladies In Black, which was so surprising and delightful, the play’s performers don’t dare venture beyond the most obvious role requirements, or make us feel anything. This is a shame for those wanting to be swept up in the romance and the espionage without the distraction of how things are achieved technically. And in saying that, in terms of style and in the interests of experimentation, not much heart or soul is needed to convince us that the substance of the 1959 film has been replicated on stage, and as it is, it’s a fun little ride, a real “comedy of suspense”. Just don’t expect actual suspense, you know, the type you don’t need to leave home for because Netflix.

 

 

 

 

North By Northwest is a smash hit; it’s enjoyed sold-out seasons all over the world and will continue to do so, so don’t believe a word I say, but look instead for the opportunity to find out for yourself, as to whether or not this production exceeds expectations. It’s certainly not just for the film’s fans, although it’s a faithful adaptation, losing none of its light, kitsch, cheekily melodramatic, suit-and-scotch-and-cigarettes Mad Men tone, which is attributed to the original writer, Ernie Lehman. It’s ingeniously designed and deliberately stylised, using the most deceptively simple theatrical devices and cinematic elements to cleverly and playfully reveal the landscape, the auction items and the cropduster in the most contemporary-classic way, on either side of the stage. It’s true. Oui. Tres amusement. The most commonly asked question in the foyer on opening night was, but how will they do the plane? 

 

Well, no spoilers here. It’s the same trick, a neat trick each time, involving the actors as stagehands/film crew and it takes most of Act 1 to accept it. Whether or not you accept Matt Day as George Kaplan darting and diving around on stage beneath it is another matter entirely. And as for the highly anticipated chase sequence across Mount Rushmore? You’ll either love it and laugh hysterically or…not. This is Phillips taking the ridiculous – due to restrictions around the use of actual Mount Rushmore imagery – to new heights. Pun intended.

 

 

 

 

So, despite the cinematic score and dark lighting throughout, the most famous scenes of the film have more a sense of utter silliness than any sort of suspense or fear of imminent death by cropduster. Each stylised sequence relies heavily on the carefully incorporated AV elements that are supposed to help us suspend disbelief…or are they? The distance we feel from the action is also intentional, and this is why I get the impression that Phillips has had some fun with this, without necessarily considering what this show is. And just like anything newish – the surge in the development of new musicals/song cycles is a good example – we’re reminded that perhaps a show does’t need to be any one thing. But it does need to be consistent in its delivery.

 

I love the cars, delightful surprises. This device, used for the taxi and the earliest chase sequence, is simple and clever and precise. The train carriage is also simply and effectively achieved. A row of telephone booths and the precision lighting of this scene elicits appreciative laughter. Flying, gliding, dividing set pieces create each location without question, and the seamless transitions between each. These are the elements, along with Amber McMahon’s styling and not-so-subtle femme fatale performance, that give this production class. See?

 

IT’S JUST AS THEY SAY: A PERFECTLY SLICK, STYLISH, SENSATIONAL ETC PRODUCTION. 

 

Some of the performances are superb.

 

The “cast of thousands”, featuring Amber McMahon, whom I adore, and Matt Day, whom others adore, also includes Brisbane’s Christen O’Leary and Leon Cain, almost unrecognisable in some roles, and even as extras scurrying across the stage beyond the main action in blatant disregard of any old fashioned notion that in the theatre, movement pulls focus. 

 

North By Northwest is to live theatre what Get Smart was to television, what Dick Tracy was to film, and what Avatar was to circus when we first experienced those departures from the way it was always done. North By Northwest is bold and tricky and new and a bit exciting, but it’s not my favourite.

 

 

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. 

30
Nov
15

Ladies In Black

 

Ladies In Black

Queensland Theatre Company

QPAC Playhouse

November 16 – December 6 2015

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

Kate Cole, Christen O,Leary, Naomi Price, Lucy Maunder, Deidre Rubenstein, Carita Farrer Spencer

 

She was fifty-two when The Women In Black was published in 1993 and it is one of her four novels to be set in Australia. It is difficult not to see Madeleine herself in the clever and sensitive young heroine, Lesley Miles, though the well observed lower middle class family background she describes with such affection was certainly not her own, as she grew up in the smart suburb of Castlecrag, on Sydney’s North Shore.

 

The interplay of the saleswomen (who dressed in black in 1960, when the novel is set, just as they do now) is so convincing, so comprehensively realised, that I assumed Madeleine had a holiday job there while a student, but she insisted this was not the case, ‘although I often went shopping there with my mother’.

  

Bruce Beresford – Madeleine and Me (Foreword, The Women In Black)


Deidre Rubenstein, Naomi Price, Kathryn McIntyre, Kate Cole, Sarah Morrison, Christen O'Leary, Lucy Maunder, Carita Farrer Spencer

 

Mum had Madeleine St John’s novella on her Kindle and neglected to mention the fact until a week out from opening night of QTC’s brand new musical based upon the text…a busy week! I read it in tiny snippets between everything else happening and loved it! Without even trying to imagine how the light-hearted look at the women of Sydney’s (imagined) Goodes department store could ever be turned into a musical, I enjoyed St John’s candid writing. When Tim Finn read it, having picked up a copy one day at Brisbane Airport, he was inspired to write a musical.

 

With its catchy tunes, intriguing characters, witty lyrics and fabulous frocks, Ladies In Black is an instant classic.

 

Finn’s score is a satisfyingly contemporary mix of pop, rock, jazz and musical theatre, and the book by Carolyn Burns retains the social political thread and lovely laconic wit of the original text. Simon Phillips’ savvy direction and a stellar cast bring the sweet stories of the ladies to life.

 

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The show opens with an elegant riot of vivid colour and a catchy little tune, I Got It At Goodes, which not only reminds me of another (actual) department store’s jingle but also, for some reason, of Katie in Calamity Jane, singing Keep It Under You Hat. It’s cute, and sets the tone for something not nearly as serious as we might have expected. That’s not to say Finn hasn’t addressed a multitude of national sins, it’s just that it doesn’t delve deeply, darkly into them. Why should it? We’re merely obliged throughout to glance at the inherent misogyny and casual racism of our country and at the very least, asked to question it. With a deft hand, a full heart and a mischievous wink, Finn has neatly interwoven all the issues still relevant today.

 

Kathryn McIntyre, Deidre Rubenstein, Kate Cole, Lucy Maunder

 

Another little ditty, Bastard, is set to become an Australian classic. In the context it comes complete with precision teacup choreography and an ire that seems to have faded with the curtains, leaving a sort of 1950s secret women’s business resignation (and plenty of eye rolls) in its place. The audience is in fits of laughter. What a beauty!

 

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I Just Kissed A Continental is a favourite on opening night too, and one of the show’s highlights; a gorgeous, giggle inducing ensemble number that showcases the delectable voice and style of Naomi Price.

 

If you’ve seen her before you know she’s a standout and it’s this role that reaffirms what Brisbane has known for some time now – she’s a shining star with a very bright future. Price positively glows, and despite the number of amazing women on stage my eyes are drawn to her. She’s completely bewitching.

 

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Kate Cole has a similar magical presence on stage, relishing the role of the Buyer, Miss Cartridge, her uber confidence and staunch support of the sisterhood at once formidable and awe-inspiring. I can see now the basis for the rave reviews and Green Room nom for her performance in Grounded (Red Stitch) and I wish I’d seen it too.

 

Carita Farrar Spencer succeeds in making memorable and very moving, the most unrewarding role in the show. Lesley’s Lisa’s mother is a quiet champion of women’s rights, or at least of her daughter’s rights if not her own, and so beautifully and delicately captures the qualities of every ordinary housewife and mother of the fifties, I feel it’s her story that could be afforded more time and care. Think Pleasantville…or the quieter moments of Mad Men. The tone is exactly right. Let’s see more of her story in future developments.

 

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Christen O’Leary is Magda, the Slovene who cares for the Model Gowns of Goodes and the women who can afford to take the best dresses out on the town. She’s the uptown Rizzo of the “reffos”, with snazzy style and the sassy attitude to match. She’s intimidating until you get to know her (few are bold enough to do so), and in the most efficiently fairytale godmotherly way, she takes Lisa under her wing to groom her for the real world. O’Leary brings the gowns to life, endowing them with individual personalities as she introduces them to us by name. They become characters themselves and we grow so fond of “Lisette” – the gown that Lisa has her eye on – that, surprisingly, the stakes are raised sufficiently to set up a truly happy ending.

 

As far as the story goes, it really is Lisa’s show though, and Sarah Morrison, in her QTC debut, is glorious as she grows up and into the perfect cocktail frock to conquer the world AND remain the apple of her daddy’s eye.

 

The men play pivotal roles, each responsible for filling in some of the gaps, because has there ever been a shop girl who tells the whole truth to the friends on the floor? Certainly not Patty, whose husband takes off for a little while to leave her to “cope” Lucy Maunder brings grace and gorgeousness to this simpering role. As her husband, Andrew Broadbent enjoys as much as the audience does, an extended moment in the mens’ room, lamenting and singing whilst pissing, as you do.

 

Greg Stone is the delightful foil to O’Leary’s Magda. They have some wonderful moments together, their easy humour and teamwork refreshing. Bobby Fox is Fay’s swoon worthy “sweet Hungarian”, Rudi, perfectly fitting the bill as the intelligent, bold as brass newcomer to the country, on the hunt for an Australian wife. Fox is a dancer and doesn’t miss an opportunity to step nimbly through a couple of outstanding musical numbers.

 

Under MD Isaac Heyward, playing orchestrations by Guy Simpson, the band is present on stage and could perhaps become a more integral part of the mirrored pillared design, which is beautifully, stylishly conceived by Gabriela Tylesova (also responsible for the frocks, with Costume Superviser, Nathalie Ryner), and lit elegantly by David Walters, as opposed to simply sitting upstage, out of the way. This makes perfect sense only for the party scene, which consists of the company providing silhouettes behind a scrim as O’Leary delivers the monologue from the original text, greeting and observing her guests in a civilised flurry of hostess-with-the-mostess excitement and charm. I have to admit, I had expected a big song and dance number at this point!

 

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The fabulous frocks, the detailed score, the beautifully drawn characters and witty scenes, even the funny forced rhymes support a charming tale, insightfully, carefully shaped by Director, Simon Phillips. Set to become part of the lexicon, this is a show that genuinely delights and entertains. See this talented cast bring to life Tim Finn’s Ladies In Black in Brisbane before December 6 and in Melbourne in January 2016.