SYDNEY THEATRE’S BEST AND WORST OF 2014 according to SOYP

In the last dying hours of 2014 it seems opportune to reflect on some of the best outings to the theatre over the year and those on the other side of the coin that made me want to go out the stage door and have a good cry for the state of theatre in Sydney.
This year I was joined by two other very able writers to review the plethora of choices on offer and even then, we couldn’t get to all of it. However, this post will only cover the shows I saw. That means I have to omit shows I’ve heard great things about that fell off my radar due to other commitments, like Belvoir’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ or STC’s “Switzerland’, of which I heard resounding praise. It also means that my other writers, Hayley and Rhiona, might have seen brilliant or diabolical shows that they reviewed but unless I saw it, it won’t rate a mention. And without further delay, here we go.
THE BEST:
Without a doubt, the winner this year was one company- Sport for Jove. Most recently for their production of ‘The Crucible’ but across the year their versions of Shakespeare’s ‘Twelfth Night’, ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’ and the one I was most impressed with, Ibsen’s ‘A Doll’s House’ cements SFJ as Sydney’s most reliable, creative and leading independent theatre company. Whatever they program, see it.
On the back of that, when Damien Ryan joined forces with Bell Shakespeareto direct ‘Henry V’, he gave us one of Bell’s best renditions of the play we could have hoped to see. Bell’s ‘Tartuffe’ was also a winner with Kate Mulvany and Sean O’Shea stealing the show.
For cutting edge theatre, Perth Theatre Company’s ‘It’s Dark Outside’ with their use of puppetry, projection and integration of live action delivering a conceptual and metaphorical playbuilt show around Alzheimer’s was not only highly creative but also incredibly moving. STC, The Border Project and Ontroerend Goed brought us ‘Fight Night’ earlier in the year and for a piece of interactive theatre that made us realize as audience our profound influence on the outcome of events as well as how easy we are to manipulate was not only fascinating but great entertainment.
As far as musical theatre goes, Squabbalogic’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ was a force to be reckoned with. James Jay Moody’s direction and performance was thoroughly likeable and shows like this have certainly reinvigorated the new Hayes Theatre, formally known as the Darlinghurst Theatre, and made musical theatre trendy all over again to the more discerning theatre-goer. Musical Theatre got another gift at the end of the year with the New Theatre’s ‘Sweeney Todd’. Produced on the budget of a smell of an oily rag and the goodwill of all involved, it gave the New its biggest success all year and showcased some incredible talent on the scene.
THE WORST:
It has to be there. This year I made a deliberate effort to avoid it if at all possible. If it was panned by even the kindest of critics or friends, I tried to stay away. Honestly, when time is precious, three hours of wrist slashing theatre is the last thing I want, even if it makes good copy. But try as I may, I stumbled upon shows that unfortunately find themselves in this category.
David Williamson gets two mentions here and given his frequency in programming this year, he should be lucky to just get the two. But in fairness, if Bryan Brown hadn’t been in STC’s ‘Travelling North’, it probably wouldn’t have made it here. Watching Brown act is like trying to have a conversation with google maps. Robotic, wooden, clichéd and comatose is what Brown delivers and that’s in his brighter moments. The Ensemble didn’t fare much better with Williamson’s ‘Cruise Control’ but the writing was so ordinary that they were already limited in what they could do with it. But the death scene was like the icing on the cake of contrived staging to convey contrived writing.
The Genesian Theatre’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ took a sledgehammer to Jane Austen with some poor casting and direction and STC’s ‘Mojo’ found itself in trouble having to replace Sam Haft at the last minute and it never got its mojo happening on stage after that.
But it was Belvoir who managed to kick out some corkers this year, starting with the experimental ‘Oedipus Schmoedipus’. Conceptually it was a really interesting idea. As a piece of theatre it died more times than its cast. If the clean up of the stage takes ten minutes to do in a one hour show, rethink your vision. But its issues were bigger than that. It committed the crime of being extremely boring and if not for the audience stacked with friends and family of each night’s temporary cast, punters would have stayed away in their droves. I wish I had.
Controversially, I hated their downstairs production of ‘Oedipus’ almost as much, if not more. Yet it was a critic favourite, which just goes to show that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Whilst applauding the bravery of its cast, I found this cringe worthy from start to finish and I hope to never see Peter Carroll’s tackle ever again. But it was their ‘Hedda Gabler’ that seemed to unite audience everywhere to ask the same question. Why? Why make the choice to take a play with a clear message and through-line and then butcher it to have nothing to say at all? Why cast Ash Flanders and then limit everything that makes him unique? It pre-empts Oedipus plucking out his eyes because that’s how most people felt after watching this show, and that’s if they stayed till the end, which most of the audience didn’t quite manage to do.
So that’s how I’m calling it for 2014. How does it stack up with your list? And what do you think will be the must see shows of 2015 and those that already have an aura of stink surrounding them?

Bring it on 2015 and Happy New Year to you all.

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3 comments

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Anonymous January 6, 2015 at 8:44 pm

Though I appreciate your well wishes for me in your original review, I'd like to say something about your mention of STC's Mojo here. Of course my opinion may appear biased, given my original involvement with the production, but if I can take off one hat and put on another, that of a slightly discerning theatregoer, I'm not quite sure how you can place the production anywhere in the vicinity of 'worst of the year'.
The night I attended, a little later in the season than yourself, I can say without reservation that I saw an extremely well mounted, thoroughly engaging production of a fine play. I'm sure some, like yourself, would disagree, but I have no doubt that a majority of the audience around me felt the same as I did. If their respective laughs and stunned silences were anything to go by, then they were having quite the opposite response to the production that you did. And let's face it, if a play is genuinely bad, respective laughs and stunned silences have a habit of occuring in precisley the wrong order.
From memory, your original dislike of the production had a fair bit to do with feeling culturally alienated by the subject matter, as well as the fact that you saw it in a preview.
Surely, especially given the circumstances, it's opening night onward when one can gauge if the cake's been fully baked? This is not a stab, or criticism of your choice to attend a preview. I'm genuinely curious to see if you agree?
Also, if you had personal reservations about the play itself, or at least it's cultural setting and genre, were you not sufficiently convinced that it may be to the taste of other punters. It certainly was, according to word of mouth and the general response to the play's season, from my memory.
I think it was Michael Billington, and I'm certainly paraphrasing if it was, who wrote a review in London saying 'I've never liked Chekhov. but, judging by the response of fellow theatregoers yesterday evening, more fool you if you don't go and see this production of The Three Sisters'
This all said, I also think a BEST OF 2014 would suffice. What purpose does running a WORST category alongside it serve to achieve, unless lampooning a creative endeavour twice in two sittings is one's cup of tea?
Though I disagree with this concept, however, I don't question your right to continue with it. As long as you feel you are serving to enhance a lively and thriving theatre landscape, then more power to you.
With all respect and kind regards,
Sam Haft

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Jane Simmons January 7, 2015 at 4:44 am

Hi Sam,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments. This blog does welcome the conversation and I acknowledge that not everyone has to agree with me (although it's heartwarming when they do but I did get some serious blow-back re Mojo and Oedipus Rex and am happy that it appealed to others) and nor do they have to always appreciate my approach or style.

So here's my attempt to answer some of your questions. Firstly, Mojo. Agreed that I saw it when it was running rough-shot and had not picked up steam. Agreed that actors were working hard. Agreed that for some, this play was a much more enjoyable experience than for others (my friends included, who found themselves divided one way or the other about it, regardless of when they saw it in the season). But my issue was its lack of tension and how bored I was in a show that should have delivered its stakes, as it seems to be in the text, and the audience I was sitting with seemed to feel the same way, as many didn't return for the second half. This was verified by people I spoke to over the few weeks after I saw it who felt the same way as me.
Now of course, that could have been particular to my experience, as theatre offers a different experience each time you see it and yes, I admit, perhaps I've been unkind to place it here in the worst list because compared to some of the others on the list, it at least had some integrity and, as you say, was not a universal experience of revulsion and confusion that some of the others were. I mean you could argue that Williamson's 'Cruise Control' was thoroughly enjoyed by the older demographic of The Ensemble too. It's a taste thing. And sometimes that's a tricky thing.

In regards to your second point, about the WORST category- I think if I just stick to what worked and what we (or I) loved, it feels like I'm avoiding acknowledging the other side of the coin. If this blog doesn't offer the chance to argue or illuminate (even controversially) both areas, then really, what's the point? You can get that from almost every other site, those that wrap up theatre like a present to all and we've all been burnt from that. I'll admit, the scene has become flooded with voices (which is good), mostly positive (also good), some extremely literary and dramaturgical (great), and some more readily able to talk about the not so good aspects of a production- and everyone probably has their one go-to-blog or site that they feel will tell them what they want to hear. Mine is but one choice and not everyone's flavour but I think its choice to not be afraid to say what others often don't is its most attractive quality, apart from my flattering profile picture…

Apart from all that, thank you for engaging in the discussion and I'm glad you are up and about and kicking goals (I hope) theatrically and I look forward to seeing more of your work soon.

All the best,

Jane

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Anonymous January 12, 2015 at 11:26 am

Is it time?
Obviously anyone can write a blog, we now live in an age where anyone can share an opinion to countless audience via the internet.
I read you blog. I think you have great insights (at times) and certainly have a passion for theatre.
But is it time to change the name of your site?
You made waves, you said you would call it like it is, and wanted to ruffle feathers where you felt others were too scared to go.
But here is the reality. Suzy Goes See, Augusta, KJ all those folk that have blogs have reviews that I can put on a poster and they will be given credibility and are infinitely useable.
Shit on your play- will never grow unless you decide to, and you make the site what it is- Janes blog. Janes Theatre reviews, Janes theatre diary….whatever it is…your reviews will never be used by an actor wishing to share reviews overseas, any marketing company, any theatre company as solid marketing value because you have set the name up to fail.
Benedict is not directing in OZ, Simon isn't either this year….so why don't you grow up and change the name so that at the very least the indie artists are represented by you…..and by that I simply mean that your opinions have the opportunity for further reach that actors wanting to read their own reviews.
Change the name….it's time to grow up.

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