Hayes Theatre Co continues to demonstrate its importance in the musical theatre ecosystem by staging LOVEBiTES, a song cycle by James Millar and Peter Rutherford. It’s a first for the Hayes, a revival of an Australian work that’s following on the heels of Broadway revivals, new Australian work, and Sydney premieres. The diversity in programming is encouraging, and it’s good to see LOVEBiTES having a return season in Sydney. It’s a great feeling to support Australian work.
The premise is simple but clever: it’s a four-hander, and in the first act, four actors take their turns telling the stories of relationships just beginning – of a meet-cute in a flower shop and a wedding reception tryst and a book club and more. In the second act, the other half of the couple takes up the storytelling mantle and tells the story of the end of the relationship, happy or otherwise. It’s neat, bookended song cycle: love and loss, hope and reality, infatuation and what’s left behind when the honeymoon stage wears off.
This Hayes production has minimal stage design (by Lauren Peters) that features two revolves, which immediately makes the production feel ambitious and polished in this tiny space. Props are spare (and occasionally very literal and thus a little silly), but they’re almost superfluous; the four actors cast in this show could carry it all on their own with the most basic black clothing.
That’s because the cast is exceptional. Bringing considerable experience and ease on stage are the men, Tyran Parke and Shaun Rennie, who are known for a certain smoothness, a fluidity in vocal delivery. Parke has a particular knack for affectionate nervousness and quiet, honest neurosis – his two best scenes elevate awkward to a gentle art. Rennie’s warmth comes less complicatedly; he is placid, or cocky, but always with a self-assured trace in his centre; Rennie is big picture and Parke is detail. They work well together, a good complement in the cast.
However, it’s impossible to take your eyes off the women, who light up the stage with a measure of talent and star power that is genuinely surprising, even when you have seen these two women perform several times. Kirby Burgess proves herself as an actress, balancing good-humour with genuine vulnerability; she says volumes with the quirk of her mouth, the tilt of her head; there’s a grace in her party girl, a fire in her tired mum, a sweetness in her blindsided florist.
Adèle Parkinson fills the final slot and thank goodness for Adèle Parkinson. With the comic chops that place her in the same realm as the Lucy Duracks and Katrina Retallicks of the musical theatre world, she dives into a moment, a pratfall, an exaggerated hip swing or dismayed expression with the kind of abandon, the confidence that comes from letting go of dignity to look ridiculous for the much-needed laugh. Beyond all of that is the heart she knows how to wear on her sleeve. She can be quiet, she can be real – perhaps the best thing about her is that she grounds her broadly comic characters in a sense of humanity. You don’t laugh at Adèle’s characters, you laugh with them, in sympathy for them. She’s also in fine voice, sweetness to her harmonies and surprising heft and strength – certainly the best vocal performer in the Saturday matinee performance.
Director Troy Alexander is a first-time director and there’s some shakiness to his approach – a sort of sense that he wanted to try every trick he could – and at times it makes the numbers or the stage feel cluttered when all it needs is sincerity, but it’s easily forgivable. For the most part, the cycle moves well, and the big numbers are so much fun to watch. The opening and closing numbers of the first act have an energy that’s immensely infectious.
As a show itself, LOVEBiTES isn’t perfect. The split-story approach doesn’t always work – the jumps in character and action can be a little too harsh, and some more easy character signifiers could be carried over to make the stories feel more authentic. At times, the beginnings and endings don’t feel as though they belong to the characters, but more like situations that the writers just needed to assign singers to. That lets the piece down, but there is a lot to like.
Rutherford’s music is a great fusion of theatrical influence: a little golden age Broadway classicism, a little modern pop-musical theatre. The second act opener sounds like it could and should be a gorgeous standard from the musical theatre canon: cleverly written and beautifully arranged for the four voices of the full cast.
It’s not perfect but it is in moments brilliant – Millar’s writing is especially sensitive to mental illness, social anxiety, outsiders, family – and it’s a work that we should all be glad has been able to make a couple of comebacks. So often, we lose our Australian musical theatre works: thank goodness we’re holding onto this one with both hands, a piece of our history that feels immediate, relatable, tangible.
For more information and for bookings visit hayestheatre.com.au