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Four theatrical outings
Feelings, fate and finding your way
Last week, I went on a mid-semester holiday to visit Canberra and Sydney. I had a great time catching up with friends, soaking up the sunshine and admiring the first cherry blossoms of spring and browsing my favourite bookstores.
I also visited the theatre four times across the five days of my trip. I love going to the theatre and managed to achieve an excellent run of shows! By the time I reluctantly boarded my flight back to Melbourne, I felt freshly creatively fulfilled and inspired.
Miss Peony (Belvoir St Theatre/Canberra Theatre Centre)
The first show that I saw was Miss Peony at the Canberra Theatre Centre. Currently on tour from Belvoir St Theatre, Michelle Law’s latest play follows 26-year-old Lily who is in denial about having an existential crisis as her life takes an unexpected turn when she loses her grandmother. What Lily doesn’t realise when she promises her dying grandmother that she will enter and win the Miss Peony pageant is that her grandmother is going to come back and haunt her to make sure it happens.
Miss Peony is a funny and energetic play about Chinese Australian identity with several entertaining musical interludes and dance numbers. The premise made for a great story brought to life by a strong ensemble of actors. Mabel Li stole the show as the Western Sydney born-and-bred gap year taker turned pageant contestant Sabrina and Gabrielle Chan was spectacular as harsh but loving grandmother Adeline.
While the writing was occasionally clunky in the expositional moments of the first act, it found its way by the emotional peak of the second act. Lily also faded into the background at times given the much more interesting stories being put forward by the supporting characters.
I loved that the story was told in English, Cantonese and Mandarin and included surtitles throughout in English, Simplified and Traditional Chinese thanks to translation from Samantha Kwan, Dr Jing Han and Sylvia Xu.
Constellations (Sydney Theatre Company)
Confession: I timed this trip deliberately so that I could see Constellations at Sydney Theatre Company.
Constellations is a multi-universe story following Marianne and Roland as they fall in love and fall apart in different ways. We watch how the same scene could end in so many different ways if only one different thing is said.
As soon as I finished reading Constellations by Nick Payne in November last year, I immediately grabbed my phone to google if there was any way I could see it. The script is beautiful and I fell in love immediately, but reading a play script only feels like getting half the story.
I quickly discovered that not only had Sydney Theatre Company just announced a production for the following year, their version would star one of my favourite actors Catherine Văn-Davies as Marianne. I resolved to get to Sydney to see it.
Constellations was magnificent. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was an absolute masterclass in exquisite simplicity. Payne’s story shone through brilliantly. I laughed. I cried.
As I read the script, I wondered how certain things would be staged. As I watched Sydney Theatre Company’s production, it felt obvious. Of course they’d do it like that! How could you do it any other way? It felt inevitable.
Catherine Văn-Davies as Marianne and Johnny Carr as Roland both gave incredible performances under Ian Michael’s unbelievably brilliant Sydney Theatre Company directorial debut. All the design elements came together to tell the best possible version of the story: Isabel Hudson’s phenomenal set design, James Brown’s translucently beautiful compositions and sound design and Benjamin Brockman’s dazzling lighting design.
I’d see it again in a heartbeat. Hopefully in this universe.
Murder for Two (Hayes Theatre Co)
After Constellations, I was convinced that I’d never get that lucky with brilliant theatre ever again but somehow I immediately backed it up the following night with Murder for Two at Hayes Theatre Co.
Murder for Two is a one-act two-actor murder mystery musical comedy from Kellen Blair and Joe Kinosian where one actor (Gabbi Bolt) plays the detective, the other (Maverick Newman) plays all the suspects and they both play the piano to accompany their songs. I was also excited to see understudy Sam Marques (who learnt both parts!) get recognition on the triple bill.
This show is such an overwhelming joy. I laughed so much. It is an intricately woven and clever story. Agatha would be proud (and I don’t say that lightly). I can’t even decide which part of the show was the most impressive: Newman’s ability to switch between characters mid-sentence, Bolt and Newman’s ability to sing and play the piano (often switching back and forth seamlessly during the same song) or Blair and Kinosian’s clever writing which managed to make all of that not only impressive but funny as well.
As a long-suffering alto, it was also such a joy to see a female performer shine by singing in her lower register. Performing in a role originally written for a man, Bolt didn’t need an earth-shattering high note to mark a brilliant performance. Her impressive comedic timing, killer piano skills and charismatic performance made for an amazing professional theatre debut.
Beauty and the Beast (Disney Theatrical Productions)
Disney classic Beauty and the Beast was the big show-stopping finale to my brilliant week of theatre.
A tale as old as time, Beauty and the Beast follows Belle as she dreams of a life beyond her small and boring village before being swept up into a cursed and enchanted castle.
Shubshri Kandiah must be Australia’s resident princess, having played Jasmine in Aladdin, Cinderella in Into the Woods and Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella and now starring as Belle in Beauty and the Beast. She was fantastic as Belle and gave a brilliant vocal performance.
There is so much incredible music in Beauty and the Beast, such as the upbeat ensemble opening number “Belle”, gigantically dramatic number “Be Our Guest” and of course the titular “Beauty and the Beast”. It was so great to hear all these classic songs performed live with a fantastic orchestra.
The set design had its highlights and misses. The projections of the wolves and the set pieces which reformed to make different parts of the castle were great. However, the reliance on an electronic background felt disappointing at times as it made the stage feel flat.
After the show, I realised that I had seen understudies perform as Gaston and Le Fou. Jackson Head and Anthony Garcia gave fantastic performances as the villainous and bumbling duo. I continue to be so impressed by swings and understudies and couldn’t believe that these two actors had slotted into the massive “Gaston” dance number so easily.