Our South Australian co-ordinators Mick Searles and Hayley Horton share their top 5 theatrical experiences for 2012…
2012 has been an eclectic year of change for theatre in South Australia. The Adelaide Festival is no longer bi-annual; Kate Ceberano branded the Adelaide Cabaret Festival with her unique sense of style; The Feast Queer Cultural Festival obtained its first ever principal sponsor (the ANZ bank) and the dad and son team of Rob and Geordie Brookman took control of the State Theatre Company.
The many productions were just as eclectic in our festival state as big musicals came back to Adelaide after 2011’s Wicked was plastered on every street corner. A Chorus Line opened here before beginning its national tour and the boys from Jersey kept us grinning, renewing a love for 60s music. Adelaide’s independent theatre was also a big winner, with the more creative and challenging pieces being meticulously staged in small venues around the state – they might have been small but their impact wasn’t and that will hopefully buoy the companies so that they’re able to continue their wonderful contribution to the dynamism of performing arts in 2013 and beyond.
Despite the standout successes there was also a spread of disappointing shows, from the big budget to the tiny co-ops and there was a definitive choice to err on the side of caution and “bums on seats” rather than take risks today with an eye on the future. One significant exception being Pamela Munt’s Bakehouse Theatre, in particular, her Black Box @ The Bakehouse programme is a prime example of an established company actively supporting nascent talent in the local industry. However, the trend towards orthodoxy is a national issue, with the theatre-going public being more discerning, more time and cash-poor and more responsive to the most prominent advertising, which naturally does cut through a multitude of offerings.
Based on attendance alone, South Australians clearly love their nationally and internationally flavoured festivals, but now that the Adelaide Festival, Feast, Fringe and Cabaret Festivals et al. are annual events we need to ensure that those in charge foster quality over quantity and the various funding bodies continue to support those companies pushing local talent in their creative endeavours.
The Drama Centres, Universities and Acting Courses of the world show a strong tendency to churn out professional blandness – interchangeable actors who have mastered simple techniques yet who are almost completely devoid of character and/or believable substance. Adelaide is no different. However, there are always those exceptions that display a glimmer of hope to a weary audience and two actors from Adelaide to keep an eye on in the future are Kate Cheel and Matt Crook.
Crook won the 2010 Adelaide Critics Circle emerging artist award. This year he appeared in the STCSA’s production of Simon Stephens Pornography and while he was out-played on the night by veteran Carmel Johnson, he did put on a turn worthy of his previous accolades. Crook is skinny with rubbery features and a sensual manner; his presence is not unlike a young Mick Jagger in nice-guy mode. Crook wrapped a locally made film this year (One Eyed Girl) due for release next year and he might just prove to be better suited to film than the stage so if all goes well 2013 could be his lucky year.
Cheel won the 2012 ACC Performing Arts Emerging Artist award for her performance in STCSA’s The Glass Menagerie. Cheel first came to prominence in 2011, on the STCSA’s stage, in Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, playing the youngest sister Irina (while still a student at the Adelaide College of the Arts). Cheel took that stage by storm and hasn’t looked back. What she did in Three Sisters she did in The Glass Menagerie, that is; an astonishing ability to radiate and cool her emotional content like a gas-fired lamp in a dark alley. It’s a talent like none other and what makes it all the more terrific is if you passed Cheel in the street you wouldn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, in fact, she disappears in a crowd – but her stage presence is magnetic. Moving from fiery passion to emptiness as cold as charity with a clarity beyond anything an Advanced Diploma of Acting could possibly teach her. Cheel is bigger than Adelaide and it won’t be long before the rest of the country cottons on.
Finally, the blend of international, national and local shows proved to excite, challenge and invigorate Adelaide audiences and the Adelaide team at AussieTheatre.com has indeed enjoyed a busy and eclectic year.
In ascending order our top 5 picks for 2012 are:
Adelaide is rife with independent theatre companies and it’s tough to stand out from the crowd but this production was so steeped in professionalism everything about it from the stage design and build quality to the actors and director could have been transported whole onto the State Theatre Company stage and nothing would have seemed out-of-place. Roger Newcombe and Ruth Fallon gave outstanding performances with truly expert support from Director Peter Green. A long season for a small company was rewarded with strong attendances and critical acclaim. The Bakehouse Theatre’s dramatic strength often lies in its ability to combine the best of international art with local artists. That said, a number of other worthy shows from The Bakehouse’s 2012 season could easily have slotted in here – not least it’s production of NowYesNow’s The City (directed by Geordie Brookman with set design by Victoria lamb) but Educating Rita gets the thumbs up as it concentrated a perfect storm of skill and experience equal to anything at the high-end of the South Australian market.
The musical that took Broadway by surprise (and won the Pulitzer Prize along the way) finally debuted in South Australia. It’s a challenging piece examining mental illness and the effect it can have on loved ones . . . not to mention a kick-arse rock score that’s a challenge for even the best performers to sing. Director and designer, David Lampard found such a cast and brought audiences to tears every night at the Opera Studio. The impact of this visually electric production coupled with realistic, heart-felt performances was evident from the reaction of audience members after the production. Many people retold stories of their own life experiences or those of family members dealing with mental illness. It’s often the case that art compels people to want to talk about issues too often stigmatised or brushed under the carpet. This was absolutely one of those occasions.
All of Australia has had the pleasure of seeing Bernadette Robinson in this powerhouse show… if they didn’t; well they missed out big time. This one-woman-show was written by Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith and showcased a series of vignettes from the titular “nobodies” who met famous people like Judy Garland, Patsy Cline, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and Maria Callas. Robinson’s performance alone is burnt into the memory of everyone who sees it. With her versatility, her amazing vocals and her beautiful characterisations Robinson can take an audience from tears of laughter to tears of despair in an instant. Coupled with the intelligent script, this production should make every Aussie proud as it continues its successful journey around the world. This really is new Australian work at its very best.
The boys from Jersey slip into the number two spot by the pure fact that “anything the Yanks can do, we can do just as well”. AussieTheatre’s Rowan James described the Adelaide premiere as “faultless” and our own Hayley Horton was lucky enough to see the Tony award-winning production of Jersey Boys on Broadway in 2009 and despite her staunch Gen X status, fell in love with Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (and their triumphant story, peppered with tragedy). Newtheatrical’s Australian version is one of Australia’s highest selling musicals. The performances were tight and perfectly cast with an attention to detail that allowed the audience to immerse themselves in the more innocent and joyful characteristics of 1960s America. Despite being a story from the other side of the world with a back culture foreign to most Australians, the heart and uniqueness of this production brought a genuine happiness to the Festival Theatre that had audiences bopping in their seats and cheering for more.
Caryl Churchill’s humorous and moving Top Girls takes top place in Adelaide for 2012. In a year that bonded Australians around a single yet complex issue. From the national revulsion at the news of Jill Meagher’s murder in Melbourne what followed was a vast, yet highly dignified and emotionally restrained reaction – an out-pouring of sympathy and sadness for the Meagher family, through to the favourable response at Julia Gillard’s parliamentary reply concerning political misogyny – the STCSA’s production was downright prescient in it’s intricate reflection on the role of women in society, both historically and in a contemporary context. This production was a comprehensive success and the all-women ensemble cast was an exceptional part of it. The style of this play can fall apart in lesser hands but Catherine Fitzgerald was in top form on Top Girls and distinguished herself as an expert director. Top Girls also featured the talents of composer Catherine Oates (who showed an utterly sublime ability, working again with Fitzgerald, on some wonderfully affecting compositions for the STCSA’s comedy IN THE NEXT ROOM or the vibrator play). It’s a genuine loss that they won’t be working together on South Australia’s premier stage in 2013. If nothing else Top Girls proved how relevant theatre is to the intellectual, emotional and cultural life of a society in the 21st century. Anyone who saw it and wasn’t impressed missed its concepts and its art altogether while anyone who missed it, missed something very special indeed.