Vieux Carré

by Tennessee Williams
ITCH Productions, fortyfivedownstairs, 2013
Director: Alice Bishop

Kelly Nash steals the show. She constructs a fantastic Williams’ character in her tough and loud yet absolutely vulnerable character that deep down fights the cold corner that is loneliness. She bursts onto the set, is snappy with her cues, and delivers an enormous amount of lines.

– Ian Nott, Theatre People

Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead – The Age

Reviewed by Cameron Woodhead – The Age, 2013

The late, autobiographical work Vieux Carre recalls with languorous rhythm Tennessee Williams’ sexual awakening in the humid squalor of 1930s New Orleans.

Queer characters and the playwright’s famed sense of place are central to this play of erotic and artistic emergence, and the design, especially Alexandra Hiller’s set, makes the seedy rooming house come alive with the intensity of memory too often recollected, with a crepuscular sense of Southern heat and decay.

The acting isn’t as reliable. Thomas Blackburne portrays the young Williams figure as impossibly spectral and one-noted. He gets the radiant naivety and shyness at the start but there is no character development.

Still, Vieux Carre can be carried by the strong women and lost souls that surround the young writer. Francesca Waters commands the stage as the dignified, put-upon Nursie. Kelly Nash impresses as the broken-hearted dragon lady who runs the guesthouse.

Samantha Murray’s fallen New York fashion designer balances intellect and destructive sensuality; Des Fleming brings out the complexities in her no-good lover, while Stephen Whittaker’s consumptive gay painter starts well.

Director Alice Bishop has a sensitive ear for the cadences in Williams’ work, but some wilder scenes that should be moving are berserk and bathetic.

Reviewed by Vito Mattarelli – Australian Stage

Reviewed by Vito Mattarelli – Australian Stage, 2013

[From review on the Australian Stage website.]

Tennessee Williams is arguably one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th Century, whose works are well documented as being very personal and based on those who were close to him.

Vieux Carre is a very early piece of writing that dates back to 1938, when the young, naive Wiliams moved to New Orleans after leaving St Louis. What is now regarded as a very autobiographical play, Vieux Carre was not completed until nearly forty years later.

While not a great piece of writing, it is a remarkably interesting one. The original Broadway production opened in 1977, but closed after playing only five performances and eleven previews.

In the play a young man (who is nameless, and played by Thomas Blackburne), arrives at a run-down boarding house in the Vieux Carre of New Orleans (now more commonly known as the French Quarter) run by a demented landlady Mrs Wire (Kelly Nash).

The assorted tenants, who are all battling personal demons include an alcoholic, lecherous painter, Nightingale (Stephen Whittaker) and a dying young woman, Jane Sparks (Samantha Murray) who shares her room with her sexually ambiguous lover, Tye (Des Fleming). There are a number of other characters that add to the tensions.

During the two acts a few secrets are revealed as the writer comes to accept his sexual identity, while observing and interacting with his close neighbours.

The constant themes of Williams’ works is seen very clearly in Vieux Carre. The women are mostly very strongly written, but all lead quite tragic existances. The men are largely drug or alcohol dependent.

The use and discussion of drugs is actually quite amazing given the time period that this play originated from. The open discussions about homosexuality and the underlying sexual tensions are also unusual for a play that dates back to a period when so much was unsaid.

I suppose that this is really the strength both of the piece and of this very ambitious production. Given that there are up to ten actors on stage as well as a musician, which adds great value to the mood and location of the play, this could not have been an easy task for director, Alice Bishop.

The staging is well handled on the large set, which outlines different rooms in the house. But perhaps more time needed to be given to the actors. While performances are generally good, a wide choice of styles is displayed, with some performances almost over-powering some scenes.

The strongest performances come from Kelly Nash and Samantha Murray. Murray in particular manages to bring much light and shade to her performance and probably gives the audience the most rounded character.

Stephen Whittaker is very good as the painter who is fast going down-hill, but one is left feeling that this should have been even more camp in the earlier scenes, especially when he is flaunting his sexuality.

This production is already receiving a lot of attention, and judging by the crossover audience is not only of interest to Melbourne’s gay community (being part of the Midsumma Festival). This is a good thing, as the play has an historical significance as the forerunner to much greater writing.

Reviewed by Tania Herbert – Theatre Press

Reviewed by Tania Herbert – Theatre Press 2013

A rare classic performed with real finesse

[From review on the Theatre Press website.]

Fortyfivedownstairs must be one of the more atmospheric venue spaces in Melbourne, and the conversion into a seedy New Orleans rooming house for ITCH Production’s Vieux Carré was an impressive use of space. Add the live blues artists to the side of the stage for score, and the stage is set for a fully immersive theatrical experience.

In the Midsumma festival of extremes, subtlety is the new black, and the piece still manages to capture a feeling of controversy by running a delicious line between sensuality and crudity.

Noted as Tennessee Williams’ most autobiographical coming-of-age piece, Vieux Carré follows the awkward character of “Writer” who ends up destitute in the rooming house. Who doesn’t love the tried-and-true Williams model of fast-paced humour descending into heart-wrenching angst? – and despite the obscurity of the play, this is Williams at his best.

The quiet entry of Thomas Blackburne as the everyman “Writer” captured the audience from the opening moment, and his beautiful albeit self-conscious presence plays in contrast to the dramatic and colourful individuals around them who find commonality in their individual tales of loneliness.

For an opening night, this was an astonishingly polished performance, and there was a veteran command of the stage by all performers without exception. The immaculate timing and flawless build-up of intensity plays sentiment to the skill of director Alice Bishop, and her tale in the program of having visited New Orleans in preparation for the played out in the authentic feel.

While difficult to single an individual in such an impressive ensemble, particular highlights included the gut wrenching despair of Stephen Whittaker’s performance, Samantha Murray’s exceptional ability to spout a running monologue without breath and Kelly’s Nash’s wonderful range throughout the play.

Vieux Carré is a little piece of life in a box. Not for the dramatically faint-hearted, ITCH Productions have done true credit to Williams and to Midsumma. Highly recommended.

It isn’t Cat on a Hot Tin Roof but ITCH production’s Vieux Carré by Tennessee Williams awakens the French quarter of New Orleans in a Williams’ semi-autobiographical play charting life’s loves and losses in the boarding house at 722 Toulouse.

A voyeuristic piece, the audience is privy to the life of an aspiring young writer amid his tumultuous path to self discovery, juxtaposed within portraits of the other tenants of the building. The audience is engulfed by a brazen translucency which correlates with Williams’ own life and offers a candid depiction of depravity and desperation.

Thomas Blackburn’s portrayal of the young writer is initially accurate, capturing the audience with a shying yet inquisitive young man. As Blackburn’s character progresses although he succeeds to keep up with the rhetoric of Williams’ words, he struggles to pair this with an authoritative maturity and neglects to age with the development of the protagonist’s narrative.

He is supported by the gloriously inglorious land lady, Miss Wire, whose strength of character is ferociously tackled by Kelly Nash combusting like a tinder box. Samantha Murray’s portrayal of her exasperated failed fashion designer was both majestically disenchanted and despairing whilst being well supported by Des Flemming who played her sexually ambiguous and uninspiring partner Tye.

Paying homage to the decadent musical stylings of New Orleans Jazz & Blues, Bob McGowan and Nat Grant and depict then decipher for us the visceral velveteen landscape of the french quarter.

Director Alice Bishop has displayed a tender knowledge of Williams work, yet the visceral emotion of some of the more moving scenes is lost in frenetic activity.

Reviewed by Ian Nott – Theatre People

Reviewed by Ian Nott – Theatre People, 2013

[From review on the Theatre People website.]

Kelly Nash steals the show. She constructs a fantastic Williams’ character in her tough and loud yet absolutely vulnerable character that deep down fights the cold corner that is loneliness. She bursts onto the set, is snappy with her cues, and delivers an enormous amount of lines. For the most part, all of the actors succeed in not pushing their part into over acting or stereotypical characters but keep the comfortable flow of naturalism going throughout the play.


Rhonda is in Therapy

by Bridgette Burton
Hoy Polloy Theatre Productions, fortyfivedownstairs, 2012
Director: Wayne Pearn

… top honours have to go to Kelly Nash, who played the therapist to an absolute turn, as well as ducking out momentarily to play Rhonda’s mother; rarely have I seen a more convincing portrayal of good counselling (including from actual counsellors at work) in a performance which only improved as the character became more complex.

– Nicole Eckersley, ArtsHub

Reviewed by Nicole Eckersley – artsHub

Reviewed by Nicole Eckersley – ArtsHub,  2012

[See review in its original context on the ArtsHub website.]

This new work from Hoy Polloy Theatre and Baggage Productions is a touching – and often funny – exploration of what is often considered the most cutting form of grief: the sudden loss of a young child. We meet Rhonda as she visits her new therapist for the first time, and slowly see every aspect of her life unfold in their discussions. In bereavement, the term ‘complicated grief’ is used to describe intense or unresolved mourning; in Rhonda Is In Therapy, Rhonda brings whole new meanings to the word ‘complicated’.

The work, written by Bridgette Burton (with the development assistance of Julian Meyrick, and of the R E Ross Trust Playwrights Script Development Award) and directed by Wayne Pearn, is surprisingly long at an hour and a half, but given I didn’t realise that fact until I was on the tram home, it’s safe to say it doesn’t drag in the least.

This is going to be a hard work to review, because it contains not just one big reveal, but several, each of which reshapes the work, and re-casts its events in a series of new and increasingly convoluted lights. All of which I am itching to talk about at length, because they are really quite good, but my lips are sealed. Suffice to say that there was many an ‘OH MY!’-type moment. It’s also, as is to be expected, a big old tear-jerker. With material like this, it would be hard not to be, but Burton has added a good amount of levity to offset the emotional subject matter, and handles the work’s emotions neatly, so there’s a nice flow between humour and drama.

In the lead role, Louise Crawford was a little awkward to begin with, but soon warmed up and gave a solid and very believable turn as Rhonda, a 40-something chemical engineering professor, all nervous energy and elbows. Ben Grant offered a well-executed performance as her absurdly lovely German husband Lief (with both an excellently maintained German accent, and some actual German for good measure). Jamieson Caldwell did a good (if brief) job as the student, but top honours have to go to Kelly Nash, who played the therapist to an absolute turn, as well as ducking out momentarily to play Rhonda’s mother; rarely have I seen a more convincing portrayal of good counselling (including from actual counsellors at work) in a performance which only improved as the character became more complex.

To be fair and even-handed in my gushing: Nash’s ring-in as the voice of Rhonda’s children was a little excruciating. It’s always going to be difficult to create a theatrical work involving children, much less five year olds: Rhonda is in Therapy opts for invisible children and a voiceover, with middling success. Speaking of excruciating, the work also made possibly a little too much use of theatrically faked sex; while it was interesting as a character plotline, at length it became a mite silly.)
Nevertheless, this is a gripping, touching, and dramatic piece of theatre, and if the heavy subject matter isn’t too rich for your blood, it’s a chewy and interesting bit of food for thought.

Reviewed by Simonne Michelle-Wells – Australian Stage

Reviewed by Simonne Michelle-Wells – Australian Stage,  2012

Moving and masterful cast performance

[See review in its original context on the Australian Stage website.]

Rhonda Is In Therapy by Bridgette Burton is the latest production from Hoy Polloy Theatre Productions and deals with a young mother’s grief and loneliness since the tragic passing of her child.

The four actors all find the subtleties of their characters and flesh them out into life. Jamieson Caldwell as the naïve young student who begins an affair with Rhonda brings a sense of innocence to the proceedings, which is a great contrast to Kelly Nash’s therapist who subtly attempts to break down the defensive wall created by Rhonda.

Louise Crawford is brilliant as Rhonda, a mother who can’t let go of the guilt that is eating her inside. The scenes showing Rhonda at different periods of her life when things were more happy and simple, and then switching to the present with all her emotional conflict, are compelling to watch. Ben Grant’s portrayal of a loving and supportive husband who is quietly struggling to keep it all together for his family is superb and made him the shining star of this production.

The subtle comedy still implicit in pain and human suffering is captured beautifully here and there are some truly honest moments presented; the scenes between Rhonda and her therapist boast some sharp and witty dialogue. However, Rhonda Is In Therapy could have done with some tightening, especially towards the end. There were a few scenes that didn’t add much to the story and slowed proceedings down a little.

The other minor downfall was the scenes that involved the ‘children’. The performers would “imagine” the child being present as voiced by one of the other actors. At times, there were voice recordings played which had the dialogue of both the adult and child. Both these devices really detracted from the intimacy the play was striving for, and reminded the audience that they were in fact watching a performance and not something that was otherwise powerfully real.

Despite these issues, Rhonda Is In Therapy is a thoroughly engaging performance piece with some stellar acting from its four stars.