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The Best of 2017

"Unmissable!" "A triumph!" "laugh-out-loud!"

What were the best shows of the year? Audrey has a couple of dozen in mind.

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It’s a wrap: The Best of Sydney in 2017

Date: 18 Dec 2017

‘Tis the time of year to dole out the critical mince pies to the best productions (in Audrey’s ‘umble opinion) of 2017.

Here, in no particular order, are the shows that had something new to say, or found new ways to speak old truths, that cut through the noise, left us reeling, feeling exhilarated, laughing like drains or sucking back tears.

Ghosts (Belvoir)

Ibsen’s drama was regarded as scandalous in its day for invoking the twin spectres of incest and syphilis. Those elements make it seem wheezy now. But Eamon Flack’s adaptation for Belvoir made Ghosts speak clearly to the here and now. Its depiction of church and patriarchy in cahoots seemed utterly topical.

Cassie Tongue (writing in Time Out) praised Flack for his “fresh economy of language” and his marshalling of fine acting talent. “The performances are strong across the board but it’s the supporting players who really shine.”

The Encounter (Sydney Festival/Sydney Opera House)

A blend of microphone magic and brilliant storytelling, Simon McBurney’s riveting real-life tale of a man lost in the Amazon rainforest made for deliciously discombobulating theatre. No one who felt performer Richard Katz blow into their ear will forget that moment.

A View from the Bridge (Redline Productions/Old Fitzroy)

The morning after opening night, I wrote, “I haven’t experienced a more gripping night in a theatre this year.” It still holds true. Iain Sinclair’s bare-bones, boiling-hot production of Arthur Miller’s tragedy was a triumph and crowded with fine acting from an ensemble including Ivan Donato as Eddie Carbone, Janine Watson as Beatrice, and newcomer Zoe Terakes as the guileless Catherine.

Missed it? A View from the Bridge is being revived at Glen Street Theatre from January 30, this time with Anthony Gooley (Of Mice and Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) as Eddie.

Puntila/Matti (MKA/Doppelgangster/Kings Cross Theatre)

A chaotically funny exploration of capitalist and theatrical value systems, this mash-up of Bertholt Brecht’s Mr Puntila and lots of other stuff was, hands down, the most unpredictable, scary-fun show of the year. Tobias Manderson-Galvin, Grace Lauer and Antoinette Barbouttis take a bow.

Writing for The Daily Review, Ben Neutze gave it the four-star treatment: “It’s quite unlike anything else seen in Sydney … this play requires you to find joy and humour in its surprises, novelties, and sheer life-force. If you can do that, its rewards are immense.”

Diving for Pearls (Griffin Theatre)

A monster second half of 2017 for actor Ursula Yovich began with Katherine Thomson’s bitterly funny portrait of working class life in a steel town, expertly staged at Griffin.

Director Darren Yap’s production brought Thomson’s gritty, complex characters to life and Yovich was magnificent as Barbara, effortlessly dominating the stage and audible a mile away.

Writing on Stage Noise, Diana Simmonds was likewise impressed: “Yap honours the text and his actors in this beautifully calibrated production … The playwright’s characteristic and irrepressible droll humour is there along with compassion for these people and rage at their predicament.”

Hir (Belvoir)

Writer-performance artist Taylor Mac’s subversive domestic comedy went down a storm with Belvoir audiences with Helen Thomson delivering one of her finest performances to date as Paige, an oppressed housewife on a thrilling journey toward liberation.

“Dominating the production effortlessly, Thomson’s Paige is giddy with newfound power,” I wrote. “She makes Paige’s autodidact righteousness slightly terrifying. She is both goddess and tyrant.”

Cassie Tongue five-starred it for Time Out: “Hir is an unstoppable, overwhelming, genuinely exciting play … It’s a family story for the 21st century, a riot of ideas, a socio-political tragicomedy. It’s unmissable.”

Shit (Sydney Festival/Seymour Centre)

Patricia Cornelius’ scorching three-hander was the standout Australian-made show of the 2017 Sydney Festival. Susie Dee’s production, which came to Sydney after a season in Melbourne’s Neon Festival in 2015, matched the tautness of Cornelius’ writing. Marg Horwell’s stark design, Rachel Burke’s lighting and Anna Liebzeit’s sound mesh tightly around the text. The show grabbed you by the throat from the get-go and didn’t relax its grip for a second.

Jatinga (bAKEHOUSE Theatre/Kings Cross Theatre)

Indian writer Purva Naresh’s weaving together of the destinies of five young women in modern day India with the portentous image of birds flocking to their doom has stayed with me. Bakehouse Theatre’s forging of international links, Suzanne Millar’s vision, Nate Edmondson’s sound design and a fine ensemble of new and too infrequently seen faces (Suz Mawer and newcomer Trishala Sharma among them) made this a bit special.

The Night Alive (O’Punksky’s/Old Fitzroy Theatre)

I’m a sucker for Conor McPherson’s storytelling and indie veterans O’Punksky’s did a beautiful job on his tale of a middle-aged divorcee, Tommy, whose life is turned upside down when he encounters a young sex worker.

Maeliosa Stafford’s meticulous production and some fine acting from John O’Hare and Sarah Jane Kelly in the lead roles and from Laurence Coy as Tommy’s pal Doc, made for an absorbing night.

Time Out’s Nick Dent fell for it as well: “a bittersweet portrayal of lost souls looking for a way out. Its two hours go by in a flash.”

Barbara and the Camp Dogs (Vicki Gordon Music Productions/Belvoir)

Ursula Yovich again, and wow, she blew the roof off this time. “Barbara and the Camp Dogs rocks you to your core – as a human, as an Australian,” I wrote in what was my first mainstage review for Audrey. “[It] is a rare piece, one that dares to slap you in the face then brings you to your feet.”

You have until Christmas Eve to see it.

Calamity Jane (One Eyed Man Productions/Hayes Theatre Company)

Was there a more fun night out in 2017 than one spent with Virginia Gay’s wonderful Calamity Jane? Director Richard Carroll took a dated script and turned it into a witty, immersive, very funny and frequently touching show. Gay swaggered like a young John Wayne one minute, glowed like a shy debutante the next. She was perfect.

Ben Neutze loved her too: “Gay is astonishing in the title role, finding a consistent internal life for Calamity, whose journey of self discovery becomes an unusual sexual awakening … But on top of that nuanced and intelligent central performance is an irresistible sense of irreverent raucousness that drives the whole production.”

If you missed it, don’t despair. The Deadwood Stage will be pulling into Riverside Theatres, Parramatta (February 21 – 25), Merrigong Theatre (March 7 – 11) and Belvoir (August 23 – September 30).

Assassins (Hayes Theatre Company)

My favourite Sondheim and Dean Bryant and company did a bang up job on it. Designer Alicia Clements turned the stage into a sideshow alley. The performances were fantastic, led by David Campbell as John Wilkes-Booth, Justin Smith as serial pest and would-be hijacker Samuel Byck, and Bobby Fox as the manic Charles Guiteau, whose Going to the Lordy (with LED skipping rope) was a showstopper.

“Stunningly inventive,” wrote Jo Litson in Limelight. “Yet one more example of why the Hayes is such an invaluable addition to Sydney’s musical theatre scene.”

4:48 Psychosis (Workhorse Theatre Company/Old Fitzroy Theatre)

British playwright Sarah Kane left no instructions as to the performance of her text. This intelligent, involving production directed by Anthony Skuse split the text between three performers: Zoe Trilsbach, Lucy Heffernan and Ella Prince, each of whom brought specific emotion and colour to Kane’s words. Lighting designer Alexander Berlage and composer Benjamin Freeman did fine work.

I doubt 4:48 Psychosis will ever be free from the tragedy of its author, or from Guardian critic Michael Billington’s famous “suicide note” assessment of it. But this staging made Kane’s lacerating poetry come alive.

Birdfoxmonster (Studio A/Carriageworks)

A beautifully made multi-sensory experience, Birdfoxmonster brought 30 people at a time to a banquet of performance, pop songs, a fairytale story and a menu curated by co-devisors Thom Roberts, Meagan Pelham and Skye Saxon.

Cloud Nine (Sydney Theatre Company)

Staged in STC’s Wharf 1, Kip Williams’ production of Caryl Churchill’s play was incisive, clever in all aspects and beautifully performed.

“Heather Mitchell is exquisite as the young Edward in Act I and the older Betty in Act II, playing with our heart strings in both roles,” wrote Jo Litson in Limelight.

In Time Out, Cassie Tongue wrote: “It’s an exceptional ensemble. [Kate] Box, [Harry] Greenwood, [Anita] Hegh and Mitchell deliver blazing-bright performances … this complicated, important story feels safe in their hands.”

The Village Bike (Redline Productions/Old Fitzroy Theatre)

There have been so many brilliant performances by women this year. But right up there was that of Gabrielle Scawthorn as Becky, a newly pregnant schoolteacher going out of her mind with boredom and sexual frustration in an English village. “Scawthorn has terrific instincts and an ability to hoist deep feelings to the surface in the blink of an eye,” I wrote. “Her performance is rich, edgy and unbridled.”

Ben Neutze thought so too: “Scawthorn is absolutely outstanding as Becky, not missing a single opportunity thrown forward by [Penelope] Skinner’s writing, whether it be moments that are darkly funny or desperately sad … it’s all driven forward by Scawthorn’s intricate and blisteringly powerful performance.”

Mr Burns (State Theatre Company of South Australia/Belvoir)

Imara Savage’s production (brilliantly designed by Jonathon Oxlade) was a delight: extravagantly cast with top shelf talent (including Mitchell Butel – what a year he had) and full of laugh-out-loud moments culminating in the reveal of the title character.

Cassie Tongue, writing for the Guardian this time, put it perfectly: “Savage, one of the sharpest talents on Australian stages, has created a production that crackles and burns – comic and melancholy and unsettling.”

Muriel’s Wedding the Musical (Sydney Theatre Company /Roslyn Packer Theatre)

Better than Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Strictly Ballroom combined, Muriel’s Wedding the Musical is the complete package: a beloved film seamlessly updated; a central character who retains all of the ambiguities that made you root for her in the first place; a conspicuously inventive score peppered with classic pop hits, and a mainstage debut [Maggie McKenna] that will be talked about for years.

Audrey wrapped up the critical word after opening night. Check it out here.

And yes, there are still tickets available for the final weeks of Muriel’s premiere season.

MDLSX (Motus Theatre/Carriageworks)

It only played three shows but the viscerally exciting MDLSX, created by Italy’s Motus Theatre and its star, Silvia Calderoni, left quite an impression on the few who saw it. Donning and shedding a variety of costumes as the show unfolded.

Calderoni danced, played with party lights, recited text and writhed on the floor. Her extraordinary stage presence – amplified by a whippet-thin body, androgynous face, killer grin and platinum blonde hair – made it hard to tear your eyes away.

The Second Woman (Liveworks/Carriageworks)

Based on a single scene from a John Cassavetes film Opening Night, this durational dramatic experiment featuring Nat Randall and 100 men picked from a cattle call was mesmerising.

Every 12-13 minutes, performer-devisor Nat Randall had a new co-star and the chemistry created was utterly unpredictable. Sometimes the scene might be almost charming. Sometimes it was boring, excruciating or just plain weird, depending on what the guy had going on in his head when he entered the space. Repeating patterns of attempted domination, violation and failure were disturbing to behold.

Richard 3 (Bell Shakespeare/Sydney Opera House)

The Shakespearian performance of the year. Kate Mulvany gave us a fresh-faced, physically vulnerable son of York, boyishly charming when he wanted to be, viperish when crossed.

Peter Evans’ production, set in what looked like an upmarket gentlemens club, was one of the best I’ve seen from Bell in recent years. Mulvany’s dramaturgical work imbued the story’s women with a sense of agency and the new ending – using lines plucked from the last act of Henry VI, part III – was a masterstroke.

This from Diana Simmonds at Stage Noise: “Richard 3 is Kate Mulvany’s triumph and not to be missed. Her courage, skill, heart and intelligence are given free rein, yet she’s as disciplined and thoughtful as we’ve come to expect of one of our finest theatre practitioners … and she’s brilliant.”

Away (Sydney Theatre Company /Sydney Opera House)

I found the hallucinatory quality of this Matthew Lutton-directed production of Michael Gow’s modern classic entrancing. Dale Ferguson’s design  and composer J. David Franzke’s woozy 1960s party music made the whole thing very trippy. Great performances, too: Heather Mitchell shone as the brittle, neurasthenic Gwen; Nastasha Herbert, with that distinctive voice of hers, was superb as Coral; Liam Nunan was outstanding as the hungry for life but terminally ill Tom.

Neutze nailed it for The Daily Review: “Lutton’s production really is a totally absorbing piece of theatre, but most importantly it reminds just how wonderful Gow’s text really is. The play is now more than three decades old, but the characters that populate it still feel like our families and friends as they love, laugh, and struggle through their limited time on this planet.”

The Trouble With Harry (Siren Theatre/Seymour Centre)

A great Sydney story was superbly told in Lachlan Philpott’s documentary drama on the life and crimes of Harry Crawford, who was born female in Italy in 1875, raised in New Zealand, lived as a man and was judged guilty of a notorious crime. Kate Gaul’s production was elegantly simple and exceptionally clear, the story gripping and the performances excellent, led by Jodie Le Vesconte, whose finely observed masculine posture and body language, chiseled features and cocky smirk made Harry entirely beguiling.

Black is the New White (Sydney Theatre Company)

Using the sturdy chassis of a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner scenario, Nakkiah Lui delivered what I thought was not only the best new Australian comedy of the year, but an astute and questioning play about identity politics.

Black is the New White is revived at Merrigong Theatre (February 21-24), The Roslyn Packer Theatre (February 28 – March 10) and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, March 21 – 24.

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