Full disclosure – The God of Carnage is NOT, as I first assumed upon hearing the name of Valley Artists latest production, the blood soaked account of a psychotic deity’s rampage across the muddy fields of some medieval wasteland (as much as I would like to see Bob Philippe depict such mayhem).
What it is however, is a thoroughly engrossing 80 minute depiction of two, very much small ‘c’ civilised couples progressively ripping into each other both verbally and physically while entirely failing to sort out the branch wielding shenanigans of one son that led them to meet in the first place.
The often blackly comic action, played out entirely in Craig Howe and Micaela Elphick’s painfully tasteful lounge room (wonderfully rendered as always by the VA’s set creation team) flows nicely from early brittle politeness through to increasingly bitter accusation and finally to the out and out carnage alluded to in the title. In a performance without breaks and absolutely jam packed with dialogue, all four actors barely miss a beat.
Darren Philip’s horrendously pre-occupied lawyer is a joy to behold as he constantly answers the call of his (ultimately doomed) phone while Karen Jones does the business for Valley Artists once again as his increasingly desperate, increasingly nauseous, then increasingly pissed and phoneocidal, wife.
On the other side of the room Micaela Elphick and Craig Howe show just how uncomfortable it is possible for two unhappily married people to be. I pity anyone on the receiving end of one of Micaela’s withering looks in a non-stage setting. Craig for his part provides many of the play’s most humorous lines, even if a fair number of them are at the expense of a hamster that is tragically missing, presumed dead, at his hands.
The play benefits greatly from running uninterrupted by interval or scene breaks allowing the action to rampage forward in truly chaotic fashion as intended by its author Yasmena Reza. Bob Philippe’s experienced hand on the directorial wheel is of course steady as always and the production values are of Valley Artist’s usual high standard. Catch it over the next week or spend your life wondering why you didn’t.
27 May 2016.
Tell us a little about your background with Valley Artists
I am a founding member of VA which all began in 1997 from a Pencil Orchids script-writing workshop with Australian playwright Timothy Daly, funded by NSW Writers’ Centre and OZCO. We then decided to perform the short scripts. The original group was a total of seven. We started by putting in $100 each. Somehow we broke even and decided we were good at this and should become an incorporated company and get serious. In those days we all wrote, performed, produced and marketed. So due to necessity, I have experience in all aspects of theatre and have learnt a lot from my fellow thespians. VA also sent me to NIDA to complete a short director’s course. This will be the fifth play I have directed for the company.
What drew you to Bryce Courtenay’s novel The Family Frying Pan in the first place?
I read the novel in the late 1990’s and realised what a great story it was. It’s a very descriptive novel and always in the back of my mind. I knew it would make a great piece of theatre. I work from a visual perspective when I approach a play and The Family Frying Pan is full of colourful characters with varying backgrounds who are now “all in the same boat”, so to speak, fleeing country in turmoil. The gathering together of people around a camp fire, sharing history and stories, is a culture shared by many countries and appealed to me. Everyone loves a good story.
The setting of The Family Frying Pan is Russia but there are issues that eerily resonate with what is happening around the world today.
Yes there certainly are. I have been asked if I planned the timing of this play to coincide with the current state of the world’s refugee crisis. My answer to that is no, but I can’t really remember a time in my life when there haven’t been refugees fleeing from war or tyranny. And I expect that if I ever found myself in that situation – fleeing a country for a new life of freedom – I would certainly be asking questions of my fellow refugees and sharing stories of the past and my hopes for the future.
The Family Frying Pan contains personal stories of hardship and struggle from people of all walks of life, differing social status and educational background. Can you expand on this?
To have had the stuffing ripped out of your soul, by witnessing your family murdered, your house burned to the ground, and having no control over these situations is, I imagine, indeed something that people find it hard to recover from. If you manage to find freedom by escaping tyranny and remain unscathed and able to share your memories then you’re lucky and that comes from pure courage. This story has all of these elements. From hard-working peasants to educated professors, there is a range of social class, thrown together with one goal in mind: freedom and peace of mind.
Adapting this story for stage has been an epic journey for you as well. Tell us about it
I ran my idea past a friend who, it turns out, had a connection with Bryce Courtenay. I first approached Bryce in early 2011 asking for permission to adapt the story. I kept my fingers crossed and several weeks later I received confirmation and blessings for my project from Bryce and his wife Christine. During that year I directed A Streetcar Named Desire, and at the end of 2011 I became ill. Early 2012, I began treatment for my illness but it got worse and I was in and out of hospital until, late in 2012, I was diagnosed with liver failure. I had already started the adaptation, but writing was put on hold.
Mid 2013, I moved to Sydney to be closer to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and went on a waiting list for a liver transplant. Fortunately for me, I received a liver in August 2013. My partner Col Philip, (who became my carer) and the amazing transplant team from RPA are the reason I am here today. As with all transplants, rejection is imminent at all times. A regime of daily medication is necessary to keep this at bay. I have gradually gained energy and managed to finalise the script. I have also pulled together a great crew and wonderful cast. Current acting workshops have helped to fuel the enthusiasm. I thank my old friend and colleague Wayne Van Keren and also Chris Davey for running these workshops.
We are now well into rehearsals and I guarantee that with this world premiere, VA will deliver a classic piece of outdoor theatre. I hope one day to be able to publish this work and see other theatre companies perform it.
The Family Frying Pan is also innovative in some technical aspects. My great friend and technical director, Peter Fewtrell, has been designing for this production for the past four years. I am pleased to say that this outdoor production will be lit using LED lights powered by solar charged batteries. This is a first for lighting and sound in theatre. Valley Artists are ahead in the carbon points stakes!
You must have been inspired by Bryce’s whole-hearted support of your project.
Bryce was a very generous. He gave me total freedom on the writing of the script. During our correspondence we talked about payment for rights for the use of his story and he told me that he had heard that the wombats in the Wollombi Valley had a hard time and could I please donate what I thought was a reasonable amount for rights to WIRES. I was overwhelmed with his and Christine’s generosity and assured him that this would happen and that I would do him and his family proud in my adaptation. I am sorry Bryce is no longer with us and will not be able to witness his story come alive on stage. However, I hear that his wife Christine may be attending.
Miss Mirabella is an ageing vaudeville soubrette in 1905. She yearns to be part of Mr Harry Rickards’s Tivoli group; yet she knows, deep down, that she will need to do something new and different to attract his attention.
She would rather not take advice from her accompanist Tommy; but she will.
Fiona Migan-Philip is a perfect Miss Mirabella. She is all soubrette, but one who faces reality: soubrettes are “all 16” these days, and she … isn’t.
With great reluctance, she agrees to Tommy’s suggestion that she change her spots, and become a “pantomime boy” … or a male impersonator …
There are a number of quick changes as Mirabella tries on her new persona. Tommy offers his own trousers, and the mime sequence of Mirabella attempting to get into them, and walk in them, is priceless.
Tommy could have been played as a simple foil for Miss M. Darren Philip does much more with the part. Tommy has depth and subtlety; indeed, his quiet determination (which achieves his aim of turning Miss Mirabella into the Butterfly Dandy) has almost feminine qualities: he is understated but determined, he persists, he gets his way. He looks well in a red satin skirt, too.
This is Fiona’s first stage role, and she is outstanding. Her voice is a delight. She is funny, confident, then insecure; determined, then self-doubting. She asks Tommy for ideas, spurns them, returns to them. It’s not an easy part; she masters it.
Underlying the discussion of how to change and re-invent Miss Mirabella, is the question of the period: the place of women in society. In 1905, women have just achieved the vote … but who are they? Does the women’s vote mean no more than “two votes for a married man” – or does it rock the previously solid foundations of men’s belief that women are decorative, useful, and not much else. Do they “cogitate”? Miss Mirabella explores the concept – among others.
Costumes are critical; Mirabella changes often, Tommy less but occasionally. There are some quick changes, which can be tricky. Lynda Marsh (Costume Design & Wardrobe) has created not only lovely and period-perfect costumes, but has made them (when required) easy to shed and replace. Sounds simple? It isn’t. Careful design and attention to the smallest detail makes it work.
The play as written has lyrics to the fifteen songs, but no music. Here Valley Artists have exceeded themselves. Clare DiNatale (Song Development & Vocal Coach), Jason Tyler (Song Development & Lead Piano) and Andrew Ross (Musical Consultant) have created the music which is essential to this production, and which perfectly supports the story, the period and the characters. It’s a tour de force, this music; a remarkable job which deserves to be a permanent part of this musical comedy.
This is Dain Southwell’s debut as director. The production is thoughtful, witty, often hilarious – and there is depth, and a conscious look at the matter of women’s place in society. The ability to weave this discussion into a musical comedy is a feat. An excellent debut.
Butterfly Dandy by Alana Valentine is a Valley Artists production and opens in the Laguna Hall 1st May 2015
In November 2014, Valley Artists performed “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay” a farcical comedy by famous Italian playwrights Dario Fo and Franca Rame.
Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” is a fun-filled, twisted, comical farce of lies, deception and conception. The setting of Can’t Pay! Won’t Pay! is Milan 1971 where, caught in the midst of an impromptu rebellion at the local supermarket, put-upon housewives Antonia and Margherita are swept along in a protest against the escalating cost of living. The problems are all too desperately familiar to us in Australia in 2014; rapidly rising food prices, closing manufacturing industries, increasing powers afforded to those in authority and unfair pressures on the lower income earners. Sound familiar? This, however, is no gloomy political agitation!
This video shows the work performed by the stage crew and actors as they transformed the Laguna Hall from an empty hall to a fantastic performance space.
Can Pay. Should Pay….cause it’s entirely worth it.
Just to make clear the political orientation of this play – on more than one occasion, it pointedly accuses the Communist Party, yes that Communist Party, of being not really left wing enough. So not likely to be on Andrew Bolt’s list of things to see and almost definitely absent from the National Curriculum being currently prepared by our duly elected Minister for Education.
Not that I was overly aware of this until I was half way home on account of the layer of unapologetically slapstick hilarity laid down over the rhetoric with enthusiastic abandon and consummate skill by Director Bob Philippe and his very able cast of five (…..or eight, if you count all of Tim Williams’ near identical twin brothers, none of which I had the slightest idea existed until last night).
Karen Jones as Antonia, gets through an absolute mountain of dialogue as she first ropes her less than enthusiastic friend Margherita, played with excellent comic timing by first time actor Karen Toohey, into accepting the proceeds of an ever so casual major shoplifting incident, then spends the rest of the play more or less successfully convincing their two less than perceptive husbands (Ross Fletcher and Peter Firminger)and one similarly clueless Police Inspector (Tim Williams) that the large bag of stolen goods Margherita has stuck up her overcoat is in fact something else entirely.
See the play if you want to find out what.
Ross’s Giovanni is a perpetually active study of comically conflicted chaos and Peter’s Luigi plays off him nicely as his rather more politically pragmatic friend (though still sadly lacking in knowledge vis a vis the female reproductive system). Both were perfectly suited to the roles, even if I was initially confused by Peter’s complete lack of facial hair and the fact that Karen and Karen seemed to have stolen his signature long black coat look.
Tim Williams as, well, about 50 different characters, demonstrates a level of verbal and physical fitness that boggles the mind, as he effortlessly plays half the play’s cast entirely by himself. I for one am quite happy he never went into law enforcement.
Technically of course the whole thing went off with the practiced efficiency that is a hallmark of all Valley Artists productions. So, well done to the team of creative lunatics that yet again put together such an awesome set and to all those running about in the shadows wearing nothing but black skivvies and presumably really cool night vision goggles.
Bob Philippe has once again presented the valley with a production well worth stumping up $25 for and I recommend doing just that as soon as you absolutely can …….even if he does seem to be suggesting we should all pop into Cessnock and clean out Woolworths.
How long have you been a part of the Valley Artists?
I’m one of the founding members of VA and was involved in the first production “Come To Pieces” in 1998, just over15 years and more than 30 productions ago.
As director of CPWP – what number play does this make for you in a directing capacity?
This will be the 12th show I’m directing for VA.
What made you choose to do this one? Are you a fan of this particular playwright?
I’d become aware of Dario Fo and his plays “Can’t Pay? Won’t Pay!” and “Accidental Death of an Anarchist” in my last year at NIDA in 1980 and was really taken by the dynamic nature of the writing, the physical style and the cheeky Commedia dell’arte influence.
I’ve been working through my wish list over the years and this time when I took Can’t Pay down from the bookshelf it seemed right.
I am a fan of Dario Fo, along with many thousands of Europeans and people all over the world. He is a very clever satirical writer and indeed a recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Do you think it is timely given the state of the world at the moment?
Yes for many reasons and not just political ones. For a start this is a very funny play and it seems to me we can take ourselves bit too seriously at the moment so to laugh at ourselves is healthy. Beyond that, in Australia, we are seeing rapidly rising food prices, manufacturing industries closing, those in authority abusing their powers and unfair pressures on the lower income earners. These were the issues on Fo’s mind in the late 70’s.
What are you hoping that people who see the play walk away with?
They will walk away with smiles on their faces and over time I hope reflect on the messages within the fun.
As a director, do you follow a formula or science if you will in how you relate to your cast and crew or does it depend on the production?
Each production is different with different genre requirements. My last production, “Across the Water” was naturalistic in style and required that form of study to get as close as possible to the truth of life of the characters. And so that informs the rehearsal style.
This one though is a different animal again. It‘s a farce; fast, funny and physical, so rehearsal is tailored to that.
When we start I don’t know all the answers but I trust the process and my companions. This is a collaborative art form.
It’s good for our actors, directors and indeed our audience to experience a broad range of theatrical styles and over the years I think the Valley Artists team of people have provided just that to our community.