Directed by Elaine Mitchell, October 2016
Ceres’ Theatre of the Winged Unicorn has over the years built a reputation for carefully adapting and staging the works of classic writers, with a leaning toward Shakespeare and Dickens.
But this time it was Anton Chekhov’s turn to get the treatment, with his tragic tale of the consequences of suppressed emotions in 19th-Century Russia.
Three Sisters stands as a testament to Chekhov’s ability to capture in print the stifling atmosphere of that time and place.
And this production made an excellent job of transferring his series of emotionally-charged, intense family dramas to the stage.
Credit company founder Elaine Mitchell with her assistant Kath O’Neill for achieving this by the careful application of what is essentially the ToWU hallmark. This is a rare theatrical combination of thoughtful, caring adaptation with clever staging, artistic set and costuming – and a sympathetic, well-rehearsed cast.
The result emerges as more than just a play, for ToWU’s works are essentially pieces of staged art; they are delicate, beautiful live versions of the writing skills that made their subjects classics in the first place.
And that was certainly the case with this production.
The Three Sisters in the title were poor, but middle-class 19th Century Russian adults, stranded by circumstances in a oppressively dull rural town. The quietly serious older sister, Olga (Ellie Gardner) suffered stifled ambitions; the moody middle sister, Masha, beautifully portrayed by Jocelyn Mackay, was trapped by the consequences of marrying too young while their vibrant younger sister Irina had an unattainable ambition to move to Moscow and spread her wings. Their weak and irresponsible musician brother, neatly, gloomily played by Michael Leigh, had a gauche girlfriend in Georgia Chara who initially aroused the sister’s criticism, but turned the tables after marriage.
This household attracted the interest of several males. These included a dark and foreboding doctor (Ben Crowley) whose morose persona symbolised – and eventually enveloped – everyone’s lives; and a trio of billeted soldiers who offered a potential path for escape.
These were Matt Biscombe’s cheerfully feckless nobleman, his unstable eccentric friend, neatly portrayed by Kris Smythe, and Ben Mitchell’s dashing officer who was burdened with a suicidal wife.
Add in Masha’s passed-over schoolteacher husband, (Greg Chadwick, in a study of resigned, restrained understanding) and Miriam Wood’s put-upon elderly servant and Chekhov’s tragi-drama ingredients were complete.
We saw these characters brew and simmer over several months, experiencing some fiery heroics before their collective passions were brought to breaking point then an emotional climax at the conclusion of the play’s fourth act.
For this Three Sisters had one large and two short breaks, and it said much for Elaine Mitchell’s neat direction that all those Chekhov dramas and tragedies were played through yet still the audience enjoyed a reasonably early night.
So Chekhov and his Three Sisters now join the ever-lengthening list of satisfying, memorable Ceres stage classics.
– Colin Mockett
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Directed by Elaine Mitchell, May 2016
This production was exactly as expected. Ceres’ Theatre of the Winged Unicorn has spent 24 years building a reputation for performing classic plays with exquisite care and artistic flair. And this play, staged to commemorate 400 years since Shakespeare’s death, stood as the culmination of that experience.
It was simply elegant, from its white enchanted-wood setting to each character’s gorgeous individual costuming to the production’s innovative whole-hall staging – right through to any number of well-drilled, faultless performances from a fresh, young cast.
These are all TotWU hallmarks, so it was small wonder that the production’s season was practically sold out before opening night. Shakespeare’s fairy-tale comedy remains among the most popular of his works; it has been produced and staged in so many ways and forms that it would be difficult to conceive a different production.
But producer/director Elaine Mitchell did achieve this in the most innovative way; by sticking to the original script and era – but then adding buckets of artistic flair to its presentation. This started with the setting and costumes, was lifted by six cute tiny child-fairies and beautifully enhanced by a couple of delightful original songs and even a dance or two. Yes, this Midsummer Night’s Dream was part musical.
And that musical element was very much built around Ellie Gardner’s Fairy Queen, who harmonised in two delightful duets, first with her lead Sprite Joni Gardner and then with her Fairy King Ben Mitchell (while Joni accompanied on guitar).
But there was much to this production than cute children fairies and added music. There was the authoritative bearing of Simon Thorne and Miriam Wood’s aristocrats, alongside Heather Dempsey’s controlled cool. There was the amorous manoeuvring of young couples Julie Fryman and Colten Dunn, Cassidy Krygger and Michael Leigh, which was to produce so much comedy once the fairies’ magic became misdirected on that magical night. Then there was more comedy from Greg Chadwick’s gormless, bungling theatre troupe comprising Ben Crowley, Kris Smythe, a reprised Joni Gardner and wonderful Simon Finch flying high as Bottom. There was Kath O’Neill adding authority in a tiny but essential part – and then there was Rose Mussellwhite’s wonderfully energetic, athletic – and so mischievous – performance as the rogue fairy Puck.
Go and see this Midsummer Night’s Dream if you can get a ticket. It’s a fine way to mark the Bard’s commemoration, it’s a delightful evening’s theatre – and it’s just about the perfect advertisement for Ceres’ Theatre of the Winged Unicorn.
– Colin Mockett
Directed by Elaine Mitchell, October 2015
According to the programme notes, the twin drivers of this production, director Elaine Mitchell and writer Amelia McBride Baker, once decided on this project, first chose Simon Finch as Heathcliff and then built the rest of their cast around him. That decision was completely justified by Simon’s opening night performance of glowering, brooding intensity that dominated every scene – and every other performer, too. He is nominated for a Geelong Virtual Oscar for the sheer power of this performance, as, too, is director Elaine Mitchell. For Elaine’s strikingly clever set design and tight direction allowed Amelia’s myriad-of-short-scene book adaptation to flow smoothly with few halts for scene-changes. But even with Elaine’s slick direction, this was still a long play, with its final bows taken at 10.45pm after an 8.00pm start including two intervals.
In expected Theatre Of Winged Unicorn style, this Wuthering Heights gave an impressive theatrical experience, with every member of its beautifully-costumed cast word and movement perfect. And their movement was important, with so many quick-change scenes and entrances from behind the audience. This was a production that was choreographed, but without a dance scene. For indeed any dance scene would have been quite inappropriate in Bronte’s stark tale of unlovely people on the bleak Yorkshire moors. For although this play’s style was traditional ToWU; its content – of the motives and causes behind two family’s cruelty, violence and oppression, would have been a long way from some audience members’ expectations. But it was carried out with such intense skill that only a couple of audience members chose to make an early exit. They may have had other arrangements; or perhaps were unable to decipher a couple of cast members’ thick ‘Yorkshire’ accents that could have been deserving of SBS subtitles.
And given the mainly unpleasant or intimidated characters they portrayed, the cast was, individually and collectively, well up to the task behind Simon’s glowering lead role.
Cassidy Krygger was an irrational, headstrong Cathy; Ben Mitchell her nasty, bullying brother Hindley. Ellie Gardner was touchingly pitiable as Ben’s unfortunate wife while Matt Biscombe was understandably aggrieved as Cathy’s cuckolded husband. Stacey Carmichael gave a neat cameo as his sister besotted by Heathcliff’s aura, Glen Barton was a surly, incomprehensible servant with sweet violin skills, Hannah Verspaandonk’s initial happiness was turned to sullen resentment by the treatment she received, Thomas Russell Shears was bright, then pathetic under his father’s intimidation. Colten Dunn was tragic as Heathcliff’s doomed son, and all their stories were neatly stitched together by dialogue from the admirable Kathryn O’Neill’s servant Nelly in conversation with Josh Verspaandonk’s intrigued tenant Mr Lockwood.
It was strong, heady stuff – the fight scenes and violence were particularly well done – and it’s rare that such nastiness has been so well portrayed on stage. Especially in Ceres.
– Colin Mockett
Two Gentlemen of Verona
Directed by Ben Mitchell & Stacey Carmichael, May 2015
This cheerful, light happy version of Shakespeare’s period rom/com is very much to Ben Mitchell’s credit. Not only does Ben star as Proteus – one of the Two Gentlemen – but he co-directed the play with Stacey Carmichael. Add to that, he wrote the script, preferring to adapt Shakespeare’s original manuscript rather than stage an existing version. And just for good measure, Ben provided the play’s music, by accompanying Matt Biscombe’s delightful and appropriate version of ‘Who Is Sylvia’ when the pair went a-wooing.
But that’s moving too far ahead. Let’s return to the set-up. Ben’s character, though central, was far from sympathetic. He played a two-timing schemer planning to cheat on his fiancee by stealing his best mate’s girlfriend. His fiancee, herself capricious with schemes of her own, was played with knowing aplomb by delightful Hannah Verspaandonk, while Ben’s unsuspecting bestie , and the second Gentleman, was played with worthy assurance by Alard Pett. In turn, his intended, the subject of Ben’s unwanted attention, was principled, precise Maddie Field and this quartet’s coupling and uncoupling adventures were played out with panache on a big, empty central stage whilst subject to interferences and intrusions from a rich cast of support characters. That wide-open space, achieved by set designers Stuart & Ingrid Pett’s clever reworking of the entire venue, allowed the action to cheerfully, seamlessly flow at a happy rate and those support characters ranged from cheeky servants to meddling aristocrats. And the net result of all this was a fresh, energetic production swinging around Ben’s anchor role and packed with memorable moments.
There was Amelia McBride Baker, relishing every moment as her bolshie manipulative servant – and displaying perfect comic timing – while Julie Fryman played her servant as a cheeky, knowing, buxom wench. Miriam Wood played Ben’s mum with resigned but assured determination, while Heather Dempsey provided her with a confident confidante. The quartet above later doubled as a bunch of knit-bearded comic outlaws straight out of Dibley village. Meanwhile Matt Biscombe gave us a delightfully gormless suitor aside from his song, Jocelyn Mackay played her protective mother as a dragon-sharp aristocrat – and Bruce Woodley was a cycling knight in lycra-armour.
And threatening to pinch just about every scene was clown-servant Simon Finch with his utterly charming dog, Archer.
Elaine Mitchell’s quirky cross-era costumes were entirely appropriate and the whole production managed to meld the directors’ high-energy approach with traditional Ceres charm.
This was Shakespeare with a fresh, happy approach delivered with enough theatrical skill to gain no fewer than nine Virtual Oscar nominations. Three have gone to Ben in his different capacities – and that’s a first in our awards history.
I heartily recommend you go see Two Gentlemen of Verona. It’s Shakespeare, but with a fresh, fun approach and a happy, cerebral attitude – and this makes for smiling fine theatre.
— Colin Mockett
The Woman in White
Adapted & directed by Amelia McBride Baker, October 2014
It was with anticipation that I attended the opening night of the dramatisation of Wilkie Collins’ famous 1859 novel The Woman in White. Consistently placed in the top 100 novels ever written, I wondered how a stage version could convey the suspense and the often complex storyline spread over locations in the north and south of England. In any event, I need not have worried. Amelia’s dramatisation flowed seamlessly and her characters revealed the strengths and foibles of those created by Collins. The latter made extensive use of narrators to tell their bit of the story and indeed each chapter in the book purported to be a written account by an individual directly involved. The use of narrators also worked well on stage and Amelia solved the multi-site issue by setting the play in one location, Liveridge House in Cumberland.
Without wanting to reveal the plot, let me say that it revolved around the physical resemblance of two young women – the heiress Laura Fairlie and the sick and troubled Anne Catherick from a lower social order – and the man, Walter Hartright, destined to fall in love with Laura and be dragged helplessly into the tragic life of Anne Catherick.
The parts of Laura and Anne were played by Hannah Verspaandonk who quietly and convincingly captured the fragility inherent in both roles. Laura’s half sister, Miriam Halcombe, whose strength of character and purpose helped Laura and Walter Hartright through years of emotional trauma, was confidently portrayed by Maddie Field in a manner that contrasted beautifully with the uncertainty displayed by Laura as a result of her divided loyalties.
Before his death, Laura’s father had asked that Laura marry the eligible Sir Percival Glyde, who turned out to be a real bounder with a secret which he was determined at all costs to keep hidden.
Simon Finch, as Sir Percival, gave a wonderfully arrogant performance, his pecuniary interest in Laura’s estate providing the rationale to create a most objectionable character with his dark hair, beard and clothing contributing to his menacing demeanor.
The central character, Walter Hartright, was played by Matt Biscombe who convincingly managed the transition from uncertain and insipid drawing-tutor to intrepid amateur sleuth. It is interesting to dwell on the fact that Wilkie’s Hartright laid the foundation for the role of detective that we see so frequently today.
The remaining roles were those of Sir Percival’s partner in crime, Count Fosco, and his wife Lady Fosco. Ben Mitchell played the role of the urbane Count Fosco with great skill. His dandyish appearance and occasional foppish gestures provided the humour, although it was obvious that Fosco was altogether more dangerous than Sir Percival because he did not let his passions rule his head.
Madame Fosco was played with spine-tingling, icy coldness throughout by Julie Fryman, whose black costume complimented her dark temperament.
The set, by Stuart and Ingrid Pett, was elegant in its simplicity: a white backdrop in front of which were two rotatable window-like structures. One acted as a door onto the stage and when rotated a door off stage and the other the inside or when rotated, the outside of a bay window. These devices created great flexibility on stage and the ease with which they were rotated deserves mention.
In short, The Woman in White is an intriguing story, and it’s transposition to the stage provides an evening’s entertainment that Wilkie Collins would be pleased to watch. I recommend you take that trip back in time, relish the costumes and enjoy a Victorian novel transposed to the stage.
— Bryan Eaton
Agatha Christie’s The Spider’s Web
Directed by Elaine Mitchell and Amelia McBride Baker, May 2014
2014 is already proving emotional for our region’s theatre companies. First there was Rep’s opening play in memory of Mike Ellis – and here at Ceres memories were stirred in a show-must-go-on atmosphere following the recent death of the company’s co-founder Dennis Mitchell.
I’m certain that Dennis would have approved of the full house and positive audience reaction to his Theatre of the Winged Unicorn’s treatment of the classic Agatha Christie murder mystery, The Spider’s Web.
It’s also pretty certain that he would have appreciated the unusual switch in the show’s impetus and outcomes. For what was written in 1954 as a suspenseful whodunnit, to showcase the talents of British actress Margaret Lockwood, now presented sixty years on as a beautifully staged period farce.
In her central role, Jocelyn Mackay showed perfect 50s style with clipped diction and unflappable Lockwood stage elan, prettily coping with some really unusual circumstances in her household. These included odd houseguests; feuding servants; a universally ravenous stepdaughter and a visit from her husband’s ex-wife’s creepy new husband who was later mysteriously murdered in the lounge – and whose body disappeared from a secret cupboard where she had hidden it.
Naturally, Jocelyn told packs of lies to the politest of police inspectors who arrived unexpectedly and who appeared to relish sorting lies from truths told by everyone in the house.
And just as naturally, the Ceres audience lapped it all up and greeted each plot twist and turn with appreciation and well-sustained laughter. The appreciation was also for ToWU’s attention to detail – for its excellent, clever set, period-perfect costumes and some neat portrayals, while the laughter was generated sometimes by the script’s off-hand non-committal lines and also from some characters apparent willingness to go along with Jocelyn’s loopy murder-cover-up ideas.
Her kooky houseguest conspirators included urbane diplomat Tony Wright, who literally threw himself with gusto into the plot; an aloof foreign Baroness in Miriam Wood and a chirpy, cheerful up-for-anything attaché Ben Mitchell, each wrangling to protect her aforementioned warm but ever-hungry stepdaughter Hannah Verspaandonk and mostly absent cool consul husband Patrick Laffy.
The conspiracies were stirred by house-servant-with-a-past Amelia McBride Baker and pushy, unlikely, gardener-with-attitude Marylin Nash, while Alard Pett delivered an almost off-the-shelf villain/victim and the whole thing was solved by unflappable police inspector Heather Dempsey, with her trusty Welsh sidekick constable Julie Fryman. This duo sniffed out red herrings while uncovering clues and leads to what was an unlikely, but suitable outcome.
This Spiders Web, though overlong in places and and always overcomplicated nevertheless presented an impressive structure – pleasing to the eye and overall cheerful good fun.
Dennis would have approved and enjoyed every minute.
It gains four VO nominations.
— Colin Mockett
All The Things You Are – The Music of Jerome Kern
This was a pleasant Sunday afternoon, Winged Unicorn style.
It had all the expected ingredients: the small, intimate space allowing good singers and musicians to perform without microphones; the informed, quirky introductions with splashes of subtle humour; the appreciative audience seated at tables with their BYO nibbles – it was all there, but with a single ingredient missing.
This was the first Nimbus Room end-of-year concert – since its inception – without Dennis Mitchell.
Dennis was there all right, beaming from the back of the room – and his trademarks were all over the entertainment, from the theme – the 1920s & 30s music of Jerome Kern – to the choice and order of material and the selection of on-stage performers. But in this instance, Dennis had chosen not to personally take the stage as he’d studied a DVD of his last appearance and decided he was too old-looking for modern audiences.
So it was his son, Ben Mitchell, on stage with glamorous soprano Jocelyn Mackay, violin artist Phil Smurthwaite and oh-so-dependable John Shawcross on the room’s Baby Grand piano.
And a fine job Ben did, too, taking the biggest load, by singing ten Kern classics, including The Way You Look Tonight, They Didn’t Believe Me, The Last Time I Saw Paris and a couple of lighthearted duets with Jocelyn, The Folks Who Live On The Hill and I Won’t Dance as well as handling the (mainly biographical) introductions with aplomb.
He looked right, too, in basic black & white with slicked-back 1930s hairstyle.
The sequinned and fascinator-topped Jocelyn contributed seven solos including Dearly Beloved, Why Do I Love You and the standout Smoke Gets In Your Eyes while plain dressed by jazz-flourished John and Phil chipped in with instrumental versions of All The Things You Are andYesterdays.
It all made for a polished and thoroughly enjoyable musical presentation.
But I have to admit that I did, at times, miss Dennis’s knowledgable asides and impish wit.
So here’s a suggestion. Perhaps next time a place could be found for him as an off-stage Muppet-style old-man-in-the-box commentator.
What a delicious Ceres confection that would be…
— Colin Mockett
An Ideal Husband
Directed by Elaine Mitchell and Amelia McBride Baker, October 2013
This was not so much a play as a stage confection of elegance, charm and wit.
Written in the 1890s, and dressed in a stylish range from the 1880s to the 1920s, this Oscar Wilde political satire appeared as a droll period comedy of mores and manners – such is the change in our perception of politicians over the past century.
Because Wilde’s original central theme – that an established politician’s career could be ruined should it be revealed that he gained his wealth and status by leaking a cabinet document – appears almost farcical in light of our cynical perception of parliamentary representatives today.
But I’m pretty sure that not a single member of the audience left this play believing they had been watching an outdated political plotline.
Instead, every one of us had been charmed by the production’s period appeal, its droll human insights into marital and gender wrangling and its overall comfortable, tasteful turn-of-the-century feel.
Credit this to co-directors Amelia McBride Baker and Elaine Mitchell, whose care and artistic flair allowed the play its delightful period polish.
On a simple, refined and elegantly perfect set the duo’s choice of actors reflected their attention to detail, with every member of the on-stage team contributing to the stylish mix. From Tony Wasley’s distinguished delivery to Miriam Woods’ superlative scarlet woman; Jocelyn Mackay’s charming composure to Maddy Field’s sparkling sauce and Alard Pett’s studied standoffishness; right through to Scott Popovic’s precision pomposity, Janine McKenzie’s stately stature and Lachy Joyce’s faultless flunky – who actually gained a round of applause for his in-character scene change – to create a whole of sweet and stylish charm.
This was enhanced by the cast’s near-faultless delivery of Wilde’s witticisms in almost 1930s Noel-Cowardly sharp little brittle sentences – and intensified by the huge advantage of staging in the quaint surrounds of Ceres Temperance Hall. Because not was the surrounding atmosphere period-perfect, but every line was spoken without microphone amplification – quite old-fashioned in today’s theatre – to seal the production’s authentic feel.
And who, you may ask, turned out to be The Ideal Husband among the production’s elegant male cast members?
I won’t reveal the play’s neatly worked ending here.
Instead, I’ll highly recommend you go see and enjoy for yourself a piece of delicious theatrical composition.
Jane Austen’s Emma
Adapted and Directed by Amelia McBride Baker, May 2013
Truly, the only fault I could find with this elegant and charming new production was that, at almost three hours, it was too long by half an hour.
Director Amelia Baker, who adapted and condensed Jane Austin’s book to present this period saga of Georgian romantic wrangling simply needs to trim and edit the over-long first act to bring her play close to perfection.
Just as long as she leaves in Bruce Woodley’s dietary advice on boiled eggs and that beautifully reconstructed first dance scene that, performed by such tastefully attired and finely schooled characters, drew spontaneous applause from its first-night audience.
Indeed, the finely detailed dance, costuming, set and careful casting were stand-out features of this production, quite apart from the high quality of its acting.
But back to the need to edit. By trimming the first act, Amelia would bring in sooner the gorgeous Stacey Carmichael, whose crass and caustic character Mrs Elton caused consternation to the fanciful scheming of Emma – portrayed with demure maturity by 15-year-old Hannah Verspaandonk – and thereby jolted the action from its smooth sedate dignity to an altogether different level.
It brought a change in character for Stacey’s new husband, Allard Pett, too, from cloying suitor to sour spouse.
Another feature of this Emma was that director Baker’s meticulous attention to detail – and the quality of her on-stage staff – meant that her audience was able to empathise and understand every character, from dashing, handsome and worldly leading man Tony Wasley to the compulsive prattling Aunt Miriam Wood; the indecisive and shy Julie Fryman; bold and socially daring Ben Mitchell; timid and talented Maddie Field – right down to socially adept Josh Fraser and his beautiful second wife Tanya Vick. Even non-speaking support Andrew Baker appeared every inch correct in a play where every line was delivered with assurance, every move composed. And it was all brought to a completely logical and satisfying conclusion.
Given all the above, you’ll understand how this Emma has totalled an imposing 11 VO nominations.
I heartily recommend you go see Emma. It’s as close to a perfect period play as you’ll experience – if a little long at the front and hard on the rear.
Directed by Elaine Mitchell and Heather Dempsey, October 2012
It’s an odd title, Hayfever, conjuring up images of watering eyes and sneezing. There were no sniffles at this production’s opening night, but there was a great deal of laughter. Because this bout of Hayfever showed that given the right company, cast – and care – Noel Coward’s topical 1920s comedies of manners can appear as fresh, funny – and relevant – in the 21st Century as when they were written.
Hayfever’s storyline is Coward pure and simple and it has nothing to do with pollen-counts. It’s based around a family of shallow English theatricals – the circles that Coward moved in – who had each invited weekend guests to their country home without bothering to tell the others, or, as this was the affluent 20s, the servants.
Anyway, this resulted in a house-party from hell, full of generational gender-games, sibling point-scoring, giddily-switching partners, misunderstandings and general mayhem, all overlaid with Coward’s brittle, witty dialogue.
The action took place in a single room which saw the small Ceres Hall stage transformed with accurate and elegant art-deco decor. This room was cluttered enough to make some of the family’s extravagant gestures appear almost dangerous.
The play’s dual directors, Elaine Mitchell and Heather Dempsey were necessary because each took a very different stage role in the production.
Elaine played the matriarch, a retired actress who set her family’s tone for outlandish theatrical behaviour. She did this with such panache that when she sang a vamp song to guest David Mackay it elicited an unexpected dual response from the appreciative opening night audience – warm applause mixed with laughter.
Co-director Heather was a maid-character scene-shifter – along with decor/props steward Alard Pett – whose silent mime made the production’s scene changes almost as enjoyable as the main action.
The rest of Elaine’s stage family was as outlandish as expected.
Daughter Jocelyn Mackay was a study in bright, shallow superficiality; son Ben Mitchell was flippant, frivolous and given to extravagant grand gestures; and husband Ross Pearce managed to portray pomposity with an odd mix of self-centred polite randiness.
The guests were a more recognisable bunch, given that every one was understandably peeved and perplexed by the family’s hot/cold behaviour.
Ed Dolista’s eager, bemused young motorist suitor was neatly balanced by David Mackay’s assured if slightly perturbed diplomat; while Miriam Wood’s cool, indifferent sophisticate was equally countered by Madelaine Field’s innocent, willing yet cautious flapper. Karen Boer’s jaded north-country maid gave excellent and appropriate support to them all.
The play’s farcical all-on stage scenes were probably a little less effective than its smaller intimate moments – certainly an awkward small-talk scene between smooth sophisticate David and naive unworldly Madelaine was a theatrical gem. But there were so many highlights in a production that abounded with Coward’s flashy dialogue and ToWU’s neat touches.
I’ll not explain any outcomes, because in truth, the actions in Hayfever are secondary to the portrayals. And they’re pretty predictable, too. But be assured that if you do get to see this Hayfever, any watery eyes you’d get would have come from laughter, and not an allergic reaction to the country supper.
Go see this Hayfever. It’s a timeless delight.
– Colin Mockett
Agatha Christie’s Murder On The Nile
Directed by Ben Mitchell, May 2012
First-time director Ben Mitchell’s stylish production highlights two cultural divides. The first was embedded in Agatha Christie’s writing and it reflects the dominant social mores of her times. This could be paraphrased as ‘Britons rule by right.. and they never trust foreigners’.
The second cultural divide is in time. It’s the difference in audience perceptions between then and now.
When Agatha Christie wrote Murder On The Nile in the late 1930s and staged it as a play in the early 40s, the whodunit was a popular and highly regarded genre. It was then the done thing for readers, and then audiences, to sit and puzzle out all the author’s different leads; discard those considered ‘red herrings’ and try to solve the mystery before the end.
But today’s audiences, sated by decades of TV detectives for Columbo and Kojak to Barnaby and Frost have very different expectations. They sit back and wait to be entertained; and want the crime solved and ends neatly tied in the last moments.
That explained why this production’s opening night audience chuckled through some key scenes; instead of mulling over clues, they were amused by the outdated high-handed self-righteous Britishness depicted on stage. To some, it may have appeared as a send-up, but in truth, the players were accurately depicting the way the play was written.
Agatha Christie really did write women as arrogant and puffed-up as Ferri Bond’s double eff character; as docile and awed as Miriam Wood’s; as conceited as Kimberlee Bone’s (who was justifiably bumped off after the interval) as mysterious and devious as Georgia Thorne’s and as dutiful as Hannah Verspaandonk’s servant (attentive, but not to be trusted because she was French).
The male players were just as forceful – and odd – from today’s perspective. There was Simon Thorne’s pompous idealist; Jamie McGuane’s imperious money-grabbing churchman; Declan Robinson’s self-important husband; David Mackay’s enigmatic doctor (another mysterious foreigner not to be trusted); Peter Wills’ smarmy Arab steward and Ray Ferguson’s bumptious captain.
All of these played out their scenes, beautifully and accurately costumed on Alard Pett’s (VO nominated) elegant, stylish and correct 1930s steamer saloon stage set.
You’ll notice that this review gives no clue to the murderer. That’s because there just might be some diehard whodunit fans in the sold-out audiences yet to come. The rest will, I’m sure, enjoy the sheer style of this Death On The Nile.
– Colin Mockett
What The Dickens!
Directed by Elaine Mitchell, May 2011
It’s one of the predictable elements of Geelong’s theatre scene that Ceres’s ToWU will present 19th Century literature in lush, lavish style.
After all, it’s director Elaine Mitchell’s favourite period, genre and, as a textile artist, she delights in the crinolines and costumes.
The company has presented many such adaptations over the past decade, but none quite as splendidly grand – or generous – as this.
Billed as ‘a Victorian evening celebrating the work of Charles Dickens’, the production began and ended with an elegant mass-character musical pastiche choreographed by Anne Peterson-Commons. These bracketed a series of readings, excerpts and scenes from 12 of Dickens’ novels neatly linked by a handful of traditional folk songs, some original songs and snippets of flute solos. The 16 players switched characters – and costumes – with swift and seamless ease and if you’re thinking all this would add up to a long and complex night – you’d be right. The first half took 80 minutes – as long as the two previously reviewed plays did in total – and the entire What The Dickens! lasted a tad under three hours including a (supposed) 15-minute interval. Not that anyone in the full audience complained, or minded, such was the compelling fare. Because the combination of Dickens’ writing portrayed by an evenly excellent cast and directed with loving care made for delightful, and at times mesmerising, theatre.
At first impression, the players appeared to be unevenly distributed with their character parts, with some shouldering a majority of work while others presented mere cameos; but there was no occasion when an actor appeared to be miscast or struggling with the burden.
Leading the list of hardworkers were Bruce Woodley, Ben Mitchell and newcomer Andrew Weinmann. Each were chameleon-like in their own ways, within Ben’s powerful projection, Bruce’s light and sensitive insights and Andrew’s calm, competent presence.
Their female equivalents were the oh-so able Heather Dempsey, captivating Jocelyn Mackay and ultra-versatile Miriam Wood with pert Colleen O’Toole and stately Marilyn Nash not far behind in the number of allotted roles.
Experienced campaigners Allister Cox and Melissa Musselwhite added their skills, Ferri Bond brought a glorious Mrs Gamp and the company’s mature-aged debutants Rhena and Dennis King providing touches that displayed their wealth of experience. Meggie and Dennis Mitchell weighed in with music and cameos and Liam Dempsey made a highly suitable Pip, especially to Ben’s looming and intimidating Magwich.
The acting quality was never less than first class, the costumes and attention to detail outstanding, the treatment of The Coventry Carol just beautiful – and – need I say more?
It’s Elaine Mitchell and ToWU Ceres’ traditional fare. It’s delightful, it’s charming, go see it. You’ll love it.
– Colin Mockett
It’s De-Lovely – A celebration of the music of Cole Porter
The Scarecrow Patch, November 2010
Sometimes the unexpected happens; fate takes a hand and things don’t go as planned. Most often this leads to things going wrong and it’s a struggle for everyone involved; but just occasionally the planets appear to line up and the unplanned turns into a little magic.
That was certainly the case for the first night of a Theatre Of Winged Unicorn’s small-cabaret concert series to celebrate the music of Cole Porter.
Initially, things didn’t look good. The show was ten minutes late starting, and when the players took to the stage, not only did they look worried, but there was a late substitute – Shandelle Cooke was there in place of the advertised Davina Smith-Crowley.
A flustered Dennis Mitchell announced that Davina had no voice, and Shandelle had been recruited at 30 minutes notice. This would mean, he explained, that he would sing some of the songs planned for Davina, Shandelle would sing some of his parts plus some songs that were not on the original programme – and he hoped we would forgive any glitches that might occur.
He then said there were prizes for audience members guessing the songs from their obscure intros, before launching into his first vocal backed by the calm, controlled John Shawcross on piano and ultra-cool David Gardner on sax.
Shandelle sat out the first two numbers before joining Dennis to sing harmonies in a one-sided duet version of Don’t Fence Me In.
So it was the fourth song of the evening that actually became Shandelle’s first solo. She was, like Dennis, backed by John and David – but then it became apparent that neither of these skilled musicians had their music open in front of them. Yet the trio produced the classiest version of Night And Day vamped from pure musicianship – and from that moment the evening’s magic sparked and grew.
Dennis was clearly in fine voice and comfortable with the music he favoures, while beside him was the new, cruise-liner-honed Shandelle; slim, buffed-fit and glamorous in a classy strapless evening dress and singing with a late-night jazz-club voice like smoked honey.
We audience, awed by the superb musicianship on display, forgot about the lollies on offer for guessing intros – we just rapturously applauded every number, every solo from David and John – I don’t think they produced a single wrong note throughout the night – and after the final duet It’s De-lovely we called for more in the sort of scene more likely to be found in Melbourne’s Bennetts Lane than in the quiet Barrabool Hills.
This night of magic once more demonstrated the superb quality of musicians in our community. Even when things go unexpectedly awry – they can still conjure a brilliant evening.
It’s De-lovely continues next weekend in the Scarecrow Patch – but as planned with Davina’s vocals alongside Dennis, backed by John and David.
– Colin Mockett
The Unexpected Guest
Directed by Dennis Mitchell October 2010
Agatha Christie wrote her popular whodunit plays in the 1930s and 40s, making her life in crime so much simpler and less complicated than today. For her sleuths, there was no such thing as forensic evidence, DNA, CSI or SOCU, no white-overalled-taped-off crime scene contamination or detailed autopsies – all these were later arrivals. And though they’re now what we now consider normal investigation in everyday TV series, they were unknown to Agatha.
On a parallel level, so too has local theatre developed from what used to be called Amateur Dramatic Societies, where the curtain would rise, a dramatic scene enunciated and enacted; then the audience applauded as the lowering curtain signalled the scene’s end.
Today’s companies, following the influence of TV and film, strive to present flowing action by melding scenes together with lighting changes, actors switching furniture, costume or characters to enable seamless scene transitions.
This production of The Unexpected Guest took us back in time in so many ways.
The entire play took place in a murder crime scene, a well-appointed living room, with the corpse conveniently taken away but the murder weapon available for anyone to examine or play with. Also the furniture, including drinks decanter and glasses, though dusted for fingerprints, were nicely cleaned and returned into position for ease of re-enactments.
And true to the Agatha Christie tradition, every character was talkative, explaining their backgrounds on first meeting and each in turn revealing reasons why they should or shouldn’t be considered the killer.
All, that is, except the investigators, played by winsome Kate Hunter and her very Welsh sidekick Ray Jones. There was no technology for these sleuths. Instead, the well-mannered Kate politely asked questions while Ray noted the answers with his pencil and pad. The household that they so gently interrogated was, too, classic Christie. There was the corpse’s frustrated and long-wronged widow, played with intensity by Heather Dempsey; his mentally-challenged brother, the beneficiary of his small arsenal, portrayed with gusto by Tim Hetherington and his manipulating and worldly mother, played with matronly style by Marylin Nash. That was the family. Then there was Ross Pearce’s foreign manservant with a suspect past and sinister accent, Colleen O’Toole’s winsome Irish servant/companion and the handsome next-door-neighbour-politician with whom the widow had been conducting an affair, portrayed with aplomb by Bruce Woodley. On top of all these came the unexpected guest, Geoff Gaskill, who, though an intruder, was allowed total access and Christian-name recognition.
The tangled web of Agatha’s plotline was played out with dedication by this team with scenes denoted by the dropping curtain – and the whole experience was of a skip back into a different, distant place and time.
And it was all very pleasant. The only real mystery was why director Dennis announced at the very beginning that the play was set in the present…
– Colin Mockett
This That and T’other
A collection of the writings of Dennis Mitchell, June 2010
This aptly- titled piece of theatre was essentially a grab-bag of thoughts, ideas and memories from Dennis, delivered by the man himself along with some talented friends.
It contained a single song, I Still Call Corio Home – a not-too-subtle parody of Peter Allen’s original – plus what amounted to a radio play, a poignant poem, pungent monologue, a couple of practical book-readings, an indulgent wander through childhood – all delivered with a good deal of charm – but all leading to an unexpected finale which started as a humorous monologue from Dennis based around his visits to the doctor, and ended with the declaration that he’s now living with cancer and, on balance, would have perhaps preferred not to have been told…
It brought the evening of gentle, urbane charm down to earth – but not with a bump. Like all before it, this segment was told with such calm, warmth and smiling skill that the audience found themselves digesting the content while applauding the neat theatre of the delivery.
Those friends, Colleen O’Toole, Jocelyn Mackay, Ray Jones and Marylin Nash were all on stage for the first piece, Gertrude, which was an international story, originally written by another friend, Heather Dempsey, who was to be seen operating the show’s sound and lighting desk. It had been adapted by Dennis to become essentially a 40-minute radio play, read live on stage with Jocelyn in the lead and the others taking several character parts in a variety of accents as the storyline unfolded across two continents. The evening then continued with a series of much shorter pieces; Dennis’ song parody, his gentle poem on ageing and reminiscences of his childhood in Lancashire, punctuated by Colleen’s beautifully delivered modern monologue Half Price; Jocelyn in a flowing black cloak telling a chill story of a Welsh witch who met a dramatic end and Marylin, delivering Lancashire love story – also with a poignant ending.
But none of the contrived, written endings had a fraction of the impact of Dennis’ gently delivered true one.
If you can get to see this performance, do so. It’s on again this afternoon, and has a simplicity and charm that’s compelling. If you can’t get to today’s performance, well, I sincerely hope to see it updated and restaged in a couple of years…
– Colin Mockett
Directed by Elaine Mitchell & Heather Dempsey, May 2010.
TOTWU, its founder/director Elaine Mitchell and Alan Ayckbourn do not make a natural fit.
Elaine is foremost an artist with a love for 19th Century literature. As such, Geelong audiences have come to expect, almost as a tradition, that when her company takes over her local venue, the historic Ceres Temperance Hall, they’ll experience an artistically staged fully costumed flowing drama in the Dickens/Hawthorn/G&S style.
So this simply staged piece of 1970s Ayckbourn comedy came as something of a surprise. But by golly, it worked. This production was visually excellent, its content insightful, funny – and as a bonus, it made first-rate theatre.
Elaine and her co-director Heather Dempsey’s decision to keep their staging as unobtrusive as possible – using plain white furniture and props against a black background – went totally against TOWU tradition. But it did clear the way for their well-chosen ensemble cast to deliver Ayckbourn’s shrewdly clever perceptions of the human condition with maximum impact.
Their further choice, to keep the cast-list small, with each player in a number of different parts, gave their ensemble a chance to display some fine on-stage skills. This was further enhanced by a clear no-frills approach that had each actor delivering every line in normal tones, never over-playing for laughs. The result was a delightful, natural and very funny treatment of Ayckbourn’s five neatly written, sharply observed social scenes.
The first portrayed a harassed mother so set in her child-rearing ways that she used it on her adult neighbours; the second featured a sad and lonely would-be adulterer; the third a triangular restaurant social-climb wrangle; then a clever series of park-bench conversations and finally a scene from the Fete from Hell.
Every scene worked; every aspect was funny. And every one highlighted a different feature of that talented cast. So Miriam Wood, wonderfully distracted as the mum, returned as a nervous, introverted spinster in the park, then became a stressed caterer at the Fete. All were finely, perfectly drawn. Ultra-dependable Ross Pearce began as a slobbish bloke, morphed into an executive snob, a wary refuge–seeker in the park then the ringmaster of absolute havoc at the Fete. Ed Dolista’s welcome return to the Geelong stage saw him play a series of losers; the sleazy would-be adulterer became a status-obsessed cuckold, a card-carrying loner then finally a sadly, drunk non-pack leader. Melissa Musselwhite changed from being a concerned nosey neighbour to become a knowing wronged wife and then a disheveled posh dignitary. The lovely Kate Hunter moved from seducer Ed’s aware target to become his vengeful wife then a naïve beaten-up girl in the park. Tony Wright played the waiting game, first discreetly, then with tested patience before he was bancrupted in the park then became a dithering vicar. Assistant director Heather competently filled the final part as Kate’s attractively scented workmate.
Please go see Confusions – for all the above reasons. It’s shrewd, funny, insightful and a very good evening’s theatre. It also shows an unexpected aspect of the Ceres entertainers.
– Colin Mockett
Directed by Elaine Mitchell, September 2009
This delightful piece of theatre had elements to enjoy at every level. Noel Coward’s elegant, witty script was played out on an accurate 1930s set shoe-horned on to Ceres Hall’s tiny stage. The talented cast, bedecked in sumptuous 30s costumes, delivered Coward’s brittle dialogue with terribly, terribly cut-glass accents and lashings of period panache. The simple plotline – which revolves around a rich, shallow divorced couple, well-matched in contrite and tactless superficiality, who meet again when coincidentally honeymooning in adjoining rooms – was unwound to its (fairly obvious) conclusion with a great deal of flair and flamboyance. This was more than enough to satisfy the refined tastes of its 21st Century audience, which laughed throughout – in all the right places.
It should be noted here that when played with such care, skill and talent, even 80-year-old marriage dilemmas can bring laughter aplenty to today’s supposedly media-satiated cynical audiences. And this was a particularly skilled cast, under the control of an artistic, intelligent and experienced director.
The on-stage talent was headed by wonderful Jocelyn Mackay, who wrung every nuance from her gilded, lovely but so self-centred shallow Amanda. In Jocelyn’s hands, this character became real, and curiously lovable, even. But more than a match for her was Steven Georgiardis, as ex-husband Elyot, the part originally played by Noel Coward himself. Steven managed to convey this with Cowardesque gestures and diction, while still stamping his own worth on the part. The on-stage wrestle between these two was a masterly piece of choreography in such a tiny space. But there was more…As their wronged new spouses (spice?) Kate Hunter and Ross Pearce each gave beautifully weighted performances which both fleshed out their characters while offering light and shade to the leads. Beautiful Kate moved her Sibyl from cloying newlywed to perplexed wronged wife with aplomb while Ross took his Victor through prim bridegroom to blustering aggrieved husband with accomplished ease. These four principals were neatly supported when necessary by verbose cold-ridden French maid Marylin Nash.
Altogether, this became much more than a revived dated Noel Coward play. In the hands of these Unicorners, it was a clever, refreshing and almost joyful piece of human-behaviour theatre. I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go. Enjoy.
– Colin Mockett
Directed by Dennis Mitchell, May 2009
This evening of live theatre was essentially a pleasant step back in time. On stage was an agreeable 1950s Agatha Christie whodunit; but larger than this, the production took us back to the days before small theatre borrowed from TV such things as computer-aided lighting effects, sound-effects, split-stage scene changes and back-projection screen imagery bringing an unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting slickness.
Instead, what this low-tech production delivered was an old-style simple play packed with old-fashioned values. It had a single set plonked centre-stage behind a swift-rising red velvet curtain.
The room, though small, was well-constructed, well-lit, accurately furnished and workable. The players’ costumes were correct and fitting for the time and the play’s casting was first-rate. There were no passengers or bit-part players on view, even though Ms Christie’s script called for long gaps between appearances for several characters.
But above all, this Hollow contained a uniformly high standard of stagecraft – of language and acting skills, abilities, discipline and application. This was across the board, from stuffy English aristocrat homeowner Robert Trott, his slightly lost wife, neatly portrayed by Heather Dempsey, and their staid, all-knowing and ever-present butler Bruce Woodley, to as motley a bunch of houseguests as Agatha ever assembled under one stately roof.
Their weekend guests were suave womanizing doctor David Mackay and his insecure doting wife, Miriam Wood, each dealing with his present arty and earthy mistress Davina Smith-Crowley and a poor decent cousin reduced to working in a shop, Kathryn O’Neill. Also on hand was a rich eligible cousin who had been unfairly bequeathed a house and was besotted with Davina the mistress, that’s highly respectable Brad Beales, while the doctor’s past fiancé, now a Hollywood film vamp, glamorous Emma Jones dropped in unexpectedly. Add in a Kate Hunter’s gorblimey cockney housemaid and the stage was set for a classic Christie murder for smooth and able detective Alan Wilson and his trusty capable assistant, constable Will Pearce, to solve.
This, of course, they did with panache while injecting some gentle humour into the deadly goings-on.
It was all beautifully crafted and left the audience with a nostalgic satisfaction not entirely due to the play’s writing. This wasn’t at all hollow – it was simply fulfilling.
– Colin Mockett
HMS Mikado & The Best of the Rest
Written and directed by Dennis Mitchell, October 2008
This was an unusual production for TOWU and it had a couple of curious, and probably unforeseen, outcomes.
Firstly, it occurred in reverse. The original work, HMS Mikado made up the second half of the programme, while the remainder, The Best of the Rest, which comprised chorus numbers from every Gilbert & Sullivan operetta except The Mikado and HMS Pinafore was presented first. The same cast presented both items; and it was a big cast by Unicorner standards, with 10 male and 16 female singers under the direction of Geoff Tomkins, who also sang. All were accompanied by Michael Wilding on the Roland piano.
Now this, you may note, is not at all unusual for the Ceres Unicorners, because the company has, over the past decade, won a fine reputation for presenting first-rate 19th Century works on the Ceres stage; especially big colourful period musicals, and most especially the Savoy Operettas.
But none have been like this. Firstly The Best of the Rest, by virtue of the fact that it crammed every member on the tiny Ceres stage – and they all sang – became essentially a choral concert; but one with a good deal more flair than the norm. There were some admirable voices involved, producing harmonies that would rival the Geelong Chorale on a good day. But there were no music-scores in hand, every verse and note had been memorized. Add to this a considerable amount of stage discipline, with excellent, swift, seamless movement on such a confined space, and you’ll see that this was not a standard concert – nor was it usual Ceres fare. The movement came courtesy of choreographer Anne Peterson-Commons, and they were excellent. The items were neatly held together with pertinent commentary from conductor Geoff Tomkins. The movement and dance was necessary, for, despite its high quality, the items did have an unchanging sameness about them and The Best of the Rest was, for this reviewer, probably two numbers too long. But it did showcase some lovely voices; notably from Kim Ivory in The Dilemmma Chorus, Davina Smith-Crowley as the Fairy Queen from Iolanthe – and the whole chorus replying to Geoff in When The Foeman Bears His Steel.
Davina was outstanding in the second act, too, when she played a yummy Yum Yum in Dennis Mitchell’s original HMS Mikado rewrite. And again, this was an unusual piece for TOWU in that it was borderline controversial. Dennis’ plotline had HMS Mikado, a Japanese whaling, sorry, scientific survey, vessel, moored off Point Lonsdale taking on supplies. There, it was boarded by Green Peas activist Tim Hetherington who discovered allies in Davina’s Yum Yum as well as ship’s cook Ray Jones and captain’s squeeze Buttercup, played with a northern English accent by Carol Fogg. These fine players delivered Dennis’ clever and witty satirical lyrics to Sullivan’s original music. And they were all, lyricist included, upstaged by John Cameron’s drollest of droll captain Pooh Bah. The whole thing was brought to a suitably farcical and wholly satisfactory G & S ending.
All in all, the two different halves combined to create yet another delightful evening of Ceres musical theatre, and I’m so glad I made time to experience them, because I doubt I’ll see a combination like them again.
– Colin Mockett
The Tempest – William Shakespeare
Directed by Elaine Mitchell, May 2008
This could almost be counted a signature production for Elaine Mitchell. She has been cooking up to it for the past two decades. That’s how long she’s been creating visual and textile artworks of the play’s characters in her distinctive colours and flowing style. To see them realized on stage must have been as heartwarming for her as it was for us.
For this production was visually striking. Its set was brilliantly complex – and distinctive – in its drapes and fabrics, yet sparse and functional in its staging. It comprised a huge fairy grotto made from seaweedy fabrics that enveloped the whole stage, which pushed most of the action out on to a multi-level thrust stage taking up the Hall’s centre. We mere-mortal audience were arranged around the edges, looking inwards. And if the set was distinctive – well, it paled in comparison to the costumes on view. The clothes for this production were stunning in their drama and complexity – as were their accessories, make-up, hats, wigs, shoes – and fingernails. Every one of them designed by, and distinctive to Elaine. That was the visual artist at work.. On-stage, the theatre director Elaine Mitchell had assembled and drilled a team of actors to present her vision of Shakespeare’s final work with precise and loving care. These were led by a trio of outstanding performances. First up was Ben Mitchell, the director’s son. Ben should have been way too young for his part as the wizard father-figure Prospero, yet he carried the role with ease by the power of his voice projection and compelling stage presence. His was a dominating performance, helped considerably by his all-enveloping costume. Yet this was matched – and sometimes surpassed – by Steven Georgiadis, who played his slave/monster Caliban as a crawling, conniving, rebellious – and totally compulsive – alien. Balancing this was Julie Fryman’s light- sprite Ariel, the brightest, happiest, nimblest fairy of the bunch, with a delightful singing voice that harmonized beautifully with Heather Dempsey and Amelia McBride in their Goddess scene. But thinking back, there were eye-catching performances – and performers – throughout this production. Ross Pearce played his elderly retainer Gonzalo with both accuracy and flair, Robert Trott and Joshua Verspaandonk made highly creditable conspirators and John Calvert gave gravitas to his regal role as Alonso. Ray Jones and Michael Lambkin clearly revelled in their clown roles as Trinculo and Stephano, while Kath O’Neil and Alard Pett were so suitably staid as the destined lovers. Dennis Mitchell carried his small but crucial Boatswain part with practiced ease while Lauren Muscat, with Timothy and Josephine McQuillan provided delightful tiny sprites.
But memorable as the performances were, the lasting impression from this production was that we audience were able to see the visions inside Elaine Mitchell’s head – and that’s a place of fairies, Celtic music, Shakesperian plotting – and magic.
– Colin Mockett