Audrey Journal’s reviewers managed to see 180-odd productions this year. Picking the best of such a large and diverse crop isn’t something you do for fun.
But you have to get into the seasonal listicle spirit somehow, so here, in no particular order at all, are the Australian-made shows we think have been the most significant or just plain pleasurable of the year. If you saw some, any, or many of them, you did good.
Thanks to everyone who invited us along to see their work, to the photographers whose images graced our reviews, and to Kate Prendergast, Cassie Tongue, Oliver Wakelin, Fiona McGregor, Debbie Zhou and Gabriel Faatau’uu for their wise words in 2019.
A Little Piece of Ash (Kings Cross Theatre)
Stephanie Somerville in A Little Piece of Ash (pic by Clare Hawley)
Megan Wilding described her first full-length play as her “trauma baby”. It was one of the most memorable playwriting debuts we saw this year.
In A Little Piece of Ash, Wilding explored the ways in which First Nations people have been deprived of family, community and the right to sorry business and the woeful state of Indigenous health. As well as writing and directing, Wilding was on stage for the whole show playing Lilly, the recently deceased mother of Jedda (the excellent Stephanie Somerville), a first-year uni student unable to process her grief.
It was a rightly angry piece at times, but Wilding’s matter-of-fact humour and vivid characters made this a touching and surprisingly buoyant experience, too.
Counting and Cracking (Belvoir / Sydney Festival)
Prakash Belawadi and Gandhi MacIntyre in Counting and Cracking (pic by Brett Boardman)
Belvoir’s first production outside of its own theatre in years was a highlight of the Sydney Festival and of 2019 generally.
S. Shakthidharan’s epic moved its audience between suburban Australia, circa 2004, and tumultuous periods in the post-colonial history of Sri Lanka, with an emphasis on the schism that led to that country’s long and bloody civil war.
The play’s drama, humour and eye-opening historical perspectives were finely balanced across three hours of stage time and director Eamon Flack’s marshalling of the show’s elements on a huge set constructed within Sydney Town Hall created many stunning moments. And the live music was sublime.
Anatomy of a Suicide (Sugary Rum Productions / Old Fitzroy Theatre)
Guy O’Grady and Kate Skinner in Anatomy of a Suicide (pic by Kate Williams)
Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide is a hard play to produce. Its intricate cross-referencing requires actors to weave a complex tapestry of words and images. It demands finesse and range from its performers.
But director Shane Anthony and his design team had the measure of it completely and his acting ensemble was exceptional. Natalie Saleeba, Guy O’Grady, Charles Mayer, Teale Howie, Jack Crumlin and Danielle Catanzariti, Andrea Demetriades, Anna Samson and Contessa Treffone hit their emotional marks perfectly and Kate Skinner’s performance was as good as any we’ve seen in this theatre.
White Pearl (Sydney Theatre Company & National Theatre of Parramatta / Riverside Theatres, Parramatta)
Mayu Iwasaki in White Pearl (pic by Phil Erbacher)
Tough one this, because Slaughterhouse, also by Anchuli Felicia King, was the stand-out show of Belvoir’s 25A season. But White Pearl, we think, has it by a nose.
White Pearl told the stingingly funny story of an advertising campaign that goes viral and the attempts to hose down a scandal by a fractious pan-Asian team of young women bringing a unique perspective to an evolving PR firestorm. Cassie Tongue praised it for “wonderfully sharp writing, velocity and wit … you could be left breathless or left behind.”
Scintillating writing got the staging it deserved in a production directed by Priscilla Jackman and featuring King’s slickly evocative videography. What a talent.
Fangirls (Queensland Theatre Company / Belvoir)
Chika Ikogwe in Fangirls (pic by Brett Boardman)
Yve Blake’s fantastically funny story of Edna, a boy band-obsessed teenager made you want to be 16 again (just for a little while). Blake’s script never stooped to making Edna’s teenaged obsessions and actions pathetic or pitiable. Instead, Fangirls celebrated her passion, ingenuity and creativity.
Seriously, how could you not root for someone who learns to drive a getaway car from YouTube videos?
The most fun we had in a theatre all year.
City of Gold (Griffin Theatre Company / SBW Stables Theatre)
Mathew Cooper in City of Gold (pic by Brett Boardman)
Eight years after actor Meyne Wyatt grabbed Griffin audiences by the collar with his performance in Lachlan Philpott’s Silent Disco, he returned with his first play as an actor and grabbed us even harder.
Set in Kalgoorlie and centred on a young actor struggling to come to terms with the untimely death of his father, City of Gold offered up a complex depiction of a young man caught between the contrasting expectations of his community and the profession he loves and hates.
Feisty family drama, scalding observations and Isaac Drandic’s expert direction made for a gripping, no-holds-barred portrait of Australia as experienced by its Indigenous people.
We didn’t know at the time that this was to be Lee Lewis’s final season at the helm of Griffin Theatre Company. City of Gold will be recalled as one of many highlights of her tenure.
Angels in America (Apocalypse Theatre Company / Old Fitzroy Theatre)
Jude Gibson and Maggie Dence in Angels in America (pic by Robert Catto)
Directed by Dino Dimitriadis, this production took playwright Tony Kushner’s published notes to producers as gospel: The plays benefit from a pared-down style of presentation, with scenery kept to an evocative and informative minimum … This must be an actor-driven event …”
And so it was, with Ben Gerrard’s Prior Walter brimming with the terror of death and dying alone, and Tim Wardell excellent as Walter’s unreliable lover, Louis. Catherine Van Davies and Gus Murray partnered perfectly as closeted Mormon lawyer Joe, and Harper, his Valium-popping wife.
Ashley Lyons chilled the room as Roy Cohn while recent NIDA graduate Joseph Althouse effortlessly stole every scene he appeared in. Jude Gibson and Maggie Dence were outstanding.
A remarkable seven hours of theatre in a space where 90 minutes is the norm.
American Psycho the Musical (Hayes Theatre Company)
Shannon Dooley and Ben Gerrard in American Psycho the Musical (pic by Clare Hawley)
Ben Gerrard again, this time as Patrick Bateman, the murderous antihero of Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, as translated into a musical by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Duncan Sheik.
Gerrard was ideally cast and not just for his looks. His way of draining Bateman’s eyes of feeling and his precisely calibrated descent into narrative unreliability were essential to the success of the production.
Staged on a mirror-coated revolve, director Alexander Berlage created the impression that Bateman was marching through an endless loop of power lunches, aerobics classes, cocaine binges and weekends in the Hamptons. Enough, in short, to drive anyone crazy.
American Psycho’s critique of Regan-era consumerism and commodification could have seemed long in the tooth but this production’s sharp edges and slashing wit left a lasting impression.
It’ll be back in 2020. Don’t miss.
Titus Andronicus (Bell Shakespeare / Sydney Opera House)
Jane Montgomery Griffiths in Titus Andronicus (pic by Brett Boardman)
Arguably the most experimental production Bell Shakespeare has mounted in its three decades and one of the genuinely divisive theatre experiences of the year. I’ve had conversations with people who loathed it.
Maybe cinema screen-sized endoscope footage isn’t everyone’s idea of a good night out.
Directed by Adena Jacobs, designed by Eugyeene Teh, and with the remarkable Jane Montgomery Griffiths in the title role, this bold staging distilled an unwieldy text to a sequence of nightmares in which Shakespeare’s gory shocks were manipulated into cryptic – though no less unsettling – images. Watching it unfold was like being immersed in a warm bath of horror.
This Bitter Earth (New Theatre)
Michael Cameron in This Bitter Earth (pic by Bob Seary)
Chris Edwards’ scabrous depiction of modern queer life was the highlight of the New Theatre’s year, a play that felt completely fresh.
Director Riley Spadaro’s brisk production and the acting ensemble – Matthew Predny, Michael Cameron, Mitchell Bourke, Elle Mickel, Sasah Simon and Ariadne Sgouros – was razor-sharp. The tone shifted from serious to superficial, heartfelt to ironic in a blink.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (Little Eggs Collective / KXT)
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (pic by Brett Boardman)
A highlight of JackRabbit Theatre’s three-month takeover of the Kings Cross Theatre, this highly imaginative and physical rendering of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic verse drama made the poet’s evocation of blustery seas and a doomed voyage really sing.
Given the tragic nature of the story, it’s was a surprisingly funny production too, not least when the ill-fated albatross was conjured up with a kazoo, or when the crew whipped out their ukuleles for a sing-song. The idea that we visit destruction on Nature at our peril – resounded clearly.
A short piece – around 45 minutes – but completely satisfying and an impressive next step in an emerging company’s journey.
First Love is the Revolution (Griffin Theatre Company)
Bardiya McKinnon and Sarah Meacham in First Love is the Revolution (pic by Brett Boardman)
Rita Kalnejais’ joyfully heated portrayal of first love and the irreversible changes it brings about, ended Griffin’s 2019 on a giddy high.
Lee Lewis’ ebullient and vividly performed production was physically dynamic, completely charming and had you buying into an interspecies love affair between a boy and a fox effortlessly.
In their Griffin debuts, Sarah Meacham and Bardiya McKinnon were brilliant as teens who can’t keep hands and paws off each other. We loved it to bits.
Gloria (Outhouse Theatre Co / Seymour Centre)
Reza Momenzada in Gloria (pic by Clare Hawley)
Outhouse presented two very ambitious productions of recent American plays this year in Gloria and John. We loved both of them, but on reflection, it was writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ black-comic drama that was the most completely gripping.
Painstakingly designed by Jeremy Allen and directed by Alexander Berlage, this production delivered pinpoint-accurate performances and stunned its audience with a workplace tragedy that came out of nowhere, leaving everyone – characters and audience – scrambling to pick up the pieces.
H.M.S. Pinafore (Hayes Theatre Company)
H.M.S Pinafore (pic by Phil Erbacher)
Delightful on every level, the only thing creaking in this Kate Gaul-directed staging of the venerable G&S operetta were the groaning ropes in Nate Edmondson’s evocative sound design.
Reworked for a skeleton crew of 11 and an onstage band anchored by pianist-singer Zara Stanton, there wasn’t a bum note in the show. Katherine Allen (Josephine), Billie Palin (Ralph) and Rory O’Keeffe (a buff and boisterous Sir Joseph Porter) were outstanding.
And we came to it thinking Sideshow Bob’s one-man version was definitive.
Cyprus Avenue (Empress Theatre / Old Fitzroy Theatre)
Roy Barker in Cyprus Avenue (pic by Yure Covich)
Brilliantly and brutally, playwright David Ireland condensed four centuries of sectarian conflict into a story of blackest absurdity, that of Eric Miller (brilliantly played by Roy Barker), a hardline Ulster Protestant convinced his infant granddaughter is the Irish republican politician Gerry Adams.
Directed by Anna Houston, Cyprus Avenue’s blending of off-kilter comedy, hallucinatory weirdness and moments of blunt verbal and physical violence made for a thrillingly unpredictable ride. It all felt very timely too as the play’s Troubles-specific issues collided in the mind with universal considerations of patriarchy, control and entitlement.
Krapp’s Last Tape (Red Line Productions / Old Fitzroy Theatre)
Jonathan Biggins in Krapp’s Last Tape (pic by John Marmaras)
When you have artists of the calibre of Gale Edwards, Jonathan Biggins and Brian Thomson working on a stone cold classic in a tiny room, it’s hardly surprising that what emerges is a masterclass in miniature. Every square inch of the stage and every second of Samuel Beckett’s play looked to have been weighed for its effectiveness and Biggins seemed to relish the opportunity to play something other than for laughs.
Mary Stuart (Sydney Theatre Company / Roslyn Packer Theatre)
Mary Stuart (pic by Brett Boardman)
Kate Mulvany’s retelling of the story (“after” Schiller) dispensed with the original play’s five-act structure and long-windedness to present a compelling diptych of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, and her cousin Elizabeth I, rivals for power and icons of their faiths.
You didn’t have to be a history wonk to find the story absorbing. Mulvany’s portraiture was warm and revealing and her irreverent tone regularly found laughs among the affairs of state and throne.
Under Lee Lewis’s direction, Helen Thomson and Caroline Brazier shone: Thomson was sometimes hilarious, lighting up a ribald side to Elizabeth. Brazier’s Mary was devout and brave, but also funny, and wise.
The Happy Prince (Little Ones Theatre / SBW Stables Theatre)
Janine Watson and Catherine Van Davies in The Happy Prince (pic by Robert Catto)
In three and a half thousand of the most perfectly arranged words in Victorian literature, Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince tells the story of impossible love and sacrifice against a panorama of a city whose burnished surface belies poverty and misery.
In one hour of achingly lovely theatre, this production brought it to quivering life.
In Stephen Nicolazzo’s adaptation, Prince and swallow are old and young souls in a relationship fuelled by good deeds and rewarded with destruction and a broken heart. Watching The Happy Prince unfold was like being held in a tight embrace. You were sad to leave it.
John (Outhouse Theatre Co / Seymour Centre)
If We Got Some More Cocaine I Could Show You How I Love You (Green Door Theatre Co/KXT)
Caroline, or Change (Hayes Theatre Company)
Things I Know to Be True (Belvoir)
Slaughterhouse (25A / Belvoir)
Trevor (Outhouse Theatre Co / KXT)
Herringbone (Squabbalogic / KXT)
Te Molimau (25A / Belvoir)
The Moors (Siren Theatre / Seymour Centre)
The Dismissal (Squabbalogic / Seymour Centre)
Skyduck: A Chinese Spy Comedy (25A / Belvoir)
Omar and Dawn (Green Door Theatre/Apocalypse Theatre/bAKEHOUSE Theatre)