Presented by Hills Musical Company
Reviewed 10th November, 2017
”Nothing inspires murderous mayhem in human beings more reliably than sexual repression”, says psychologist Dr Christopher Ryan. He’s not far off the mark. This beautiful late 20th century reworking of Frank Wedekind’s late 19th century play of the same name pits curiosity against constraint, honesty against deception and sensitivity against repression. The sum effect is a searing socio-political critique of familiar arguments. You remember – we saw and heard them last week during the Same-sex Marriage Postal Vote campaign. Hayley Horton’s direction is bang up-to-date.
The charming honey-coloured stone and olde-worlde elegance of the late 19th century Stirling Institute offers a reminder of the age of Wedekind’s original play. Paradoxically, all publicity for this show bristled with MA15+ warnings (Contains partial nudity, adult themes, frequent sexual references and strong language). Out in audience-land, we braced ourselves.
What the Hills Musical Company dished up is an intelligently-directed, musically confident and dramatically satisfying production which never apologises for Wedekind’s confrontation with religious and societal repressions, and faithfully serves Steven Sater’s book and lyrics and Duncam Sheik’s score.
Set in a non-specific era, the theme is adolescent sensuality and sexuality, and fifteen cast members tell the story of seven girls and six boys. Two actors (Josh Barkley and Kate Anolak) play all the adult characters (parents, teachers, etc.). These multiple roles, many of whom are unsympathetic and insensitive, serve to emphasise the divide between the adults and the adolescents in this piece.
The six young men of the cast (Mitchell Smith, Connor Olsson-Jones, Zachary Moore, Harry Nguyen, Robbie Mitchell and Dylan Rufus) formed a fine unit, and worked together well. Their choral work sounded great. Precisely the same can be said for the seven young women of the cast (Millicent Sarre, Jemma Allen, Sahra Cresshull, Emily Downing, Chelsea McGuiness, Emma Wilczek and Kieren Gulpers). However, the lion’s share of the work in this musical re-telling goes to Mitchell Smith (Melchior), Connor Olsson-Jones (Moritz), and Millicent Sarre (Wendla). These three must drive the show; and they need both acting and singing skills of a very high order to maintain the dramatic intensity. Mitchell worked well all night; his acting showed range, maturity and restraint, and he was vocally secure throughout. This is no small thing – Melchior is a demanding sing. Sarre was well-cast, counterbalancing Smith with effortless strength. Her acting was very good, showing good preparation and clear intentions, and her singing was beautifully judged, strong and flexible. Apart from a lapse in The Guilty Ones, her articulation was copybook clear. From the simplicity of the quiet first lines of Mama Who Bore Me, through to passages of commanding belt quality, she performed with confident authority. Her reading of Whispering was pitched just right – she showed how an actor/singer works. And bravo to Mark DeLaine and his band for their sensitive musicianship.
Connor Olssen-Jones (Moritz) showed evident enjoyment in progressing from innocent schoolboy to disillusioned young man. His voice is still in development, and, although he looked the part and sounded right for the character, greater vocal maturity would have given him the stamina to fully encompass this demanding role.
Standing out from the rest of the young men was the consistent vocal reliability of Robbie Mitchell. And, speaking of voices, Josh Barkley’s spoken voice, in the multiple adult male characters he portrayed, was superb. His nuanced, clear, resonant and subtle delivery built a rock for all other actors to rely upon. In the young women’s ranks, Emma Wilczek has star quality. Without trying to pull focus at any time, she’s constantly watchable. She works with amazing focus and sincerity. Sahra Cresshull’s portrayal of Martha is heart-breaking and pin-point accurate. A tiny, thin, angry girl with dark stockings and long sleeves (for a good reason), she radiates heat and frustration. Although Jemma Allen (playing easy-going Ilse), had little to do throughout the show, she was consistently good, and she revealed why she was cast when she headed The Song Of Purple Summer, which serves as a healing and unifying company song at the end of the show. Her grace, warmth and authority shone through.
Choreography in a piece like this is tricky. It’s not anywhere near 42nd Street, but demands specific and arresting set pieces. Thomas Phillips knew how much he could ask of his cast, and has confected a range of movement and choreography which always added to the dramatic tension and maintained focus on the plot.
The set design (by director Hayley Horton) was remarkably thoughtful and clever. The flats each side of the stage were coated with a lumpy, shiny black substance. It looked like cooled volcanic lava. Set furniture consisted of small black blocks and a few moveable rostra, all in dark grey or black. Integral to the design was a large screen which filled the back wall of the stage. From the beginning of the show, white chalk-like drawings slowly appeared on a black background, a single moving line frequently creating yet another doodle. The theatrical surprise embedded within these visual metaphors worked well, assisting the dramatic intensity of the piece.
Duncan Sheik’s music was handled with respect and theatrical flair by musical director, Mark DeLaine, and his eight-piece band. Balance, levels and tempi were all good. It was evident that the main task DeLaine had set himself was to enhance and expand the dramatic quality of the story. His musicians handled the music deftly, kept a close eye on DeLaine’s idiosyncratic direction, and built a secure musical base for every singer. The Mirror-Blue Night at the end of Act 1 sounded sumptuous – just a tad like Mahler at times.
Good theatre should disturb us. This is good theatre. When Dr Edward Stirling laid the foundation stone for this theatre in 1883, he proclaimed that it had been built “for the purpose of providing means of healthful recreation for the minds of the residents of Stirling West”. Job done, Doctor Stirling!
Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson
Venue: Stirling Community Theatre
Season: 10th – 25th November, 2017
Tickets: Full Price: $32:00 Concession: $28:00
Bookings: [email protected] or 0466 118 153