Review: Signs of Life

Tim Winton has over the last twenty years engraved himself into our culture. He arose out of the waves of Western Australia and has risen all the way to Living National Treasure. A superb and unique author.

It is only recently that he has turned his pen to playwriting, “Signs of Life” is his second play after last years “Rising Water”. It is a co-production of the Sydney Theatre Company and the Black Swan State Theatre Company from Perth.

“Signs of Life” is unmistakably a Winton work, it’s concerned with place, identity and belonging. It reminded me strongly of the English “kitchen sink” dramas of the sixties, it felt as if you came into an ongoing story at some random moment and left it the same way while in between you saw lives unfolding with all the difficulties and pasts that life holds. It is a somewhat sequel to his novel “Dirt Music” which I must admit to never having read. That may have to change.

Heather Mitchell, Pauline Whyman and Aaron Pederson do a marvellous job supported by George Shevstov. The men have a difficult job in this play as neither character feels really central and well developed, it is the two women who carry the play forward while the men have roles that are more explanatory and narrative. Pederson, in particular, has a difficult job as he and Mitchell have most of the dialogue while he shows only a little of himself and little variation in character. When his character shows it is important, large to him and so subtle. He is, in a word, superb. Shevstov looks right, an ageing hippy, but somehow never seemed right to me.

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The Pirates of Penzance Review

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at the Sydney Theatre Company.

This is a production imported from the UK and directed by Sasha Regan with an all-male cast.

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of Gilbert & Sullivan, I suspect it’s one too many poor productions in a suburban theatre and I’ve never been a fan of opera in any of its forms.

On the other hand when it is done well it is marvellous theatre with hummable tunes, a nice plot and good comedy and make no mistake this is G & S done well.

It starts with the simple set that allows the production to move swiftly from scene to scene. The costumes are equally simple, which means that the chorus can quickly change from pirates to daughters to police and back again as required.

The all-male cast is refreshing in the the way that it is not men in full drag with wigs and false bosoms but merely men wearing dresses and singing in a high register, in fact with faces fairly devoid of makeup and hairstyles that could only be described as short back and sides it is their singing, plain white dresses and movement that define them as female characters. It is an all-male cast without being overly camp. The first appearance of the daughters gets a laugh but personally I mostly forgot they were men when the chorus were playing daughters. There were moments with Mabel and Frederic however where it was impossible to deny that you were watching two men romantically involved.

The major characters are well performed and well sung. Alan Richardson’s Mabel is an amazing performance with his ability to sing up to a high D flat. The Act I finale is a just amazing with Richardson demonstrating a brilliant voice at such a high register for a man.

Musically it is just a single piano played by the Musical Supervisor Michael England and it fits the simplicity of the rest of the production like a glove. All the simplicity and paring back work wonderfully to leave the musical and its songs and humour to stand out.

My other stand out performance was Joseph Houston as Ruth. It was a performance with humour and style. Vocally my ear is not good enough to split Richardson from his co-star Mathew Gent as Frederic, Gent has a slightly easier task since he sings an octave or two lower but his voice is warm, rich and clear. He is, I am told, also “incredibly easy one the eye”. Some of the actual acting from the chorus was a little stiff or a little overdone but it is a fine line to tread in a comic opera.

The choreography was good with several moments of style and some of genuine humour. It was an excellent mix of a slightly modern style and the classic plonking G & S style, it certainly added to the humour of songs such as “Modern Major General” and “A Policeman’s Lot”.

Taken as a whole this was an enjoyable, watchable and fresh production – G & S for the 21st century and a modern audience.