Favourite moments in 2015: Sydney theatre

Theatre critic and AussieTheatre Deputy Editor Cassie Tongue sees hundreds of shows a year. In this piece, she writes about the moments that give theatre its magic: the ephemeral, tantalising seconds and minutes that create a uniquely theatrical sublime.

These are not best or worst performances or productions. These are favourites: warm memories of moments, people, and shows, to be savoured for a long time to come.

Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole in Dogfight. Photo by Noni Carroll
Luigi Lucente and Hilary Cole in Dogfight. Photo by Noni Carroll
  • In the middle of Strange Bedfellows, the wonderfully crass, camp, baroque-contemporary battle of a cabaret by opera escapees Jacqueline Dark and Kanen Breen, came a beautiful surprise: a song, penned by Dark, that evoked her own motherhood story. It was profound; she was beautiful; in the next moment, we were covered anew in filthy jokes. It was the most daring part of the whole cabaret.
  • As Radiance unraveled at Belvoir, in shallow water, Shari Sebbens let go of her wooden reserve and melted into a confession – a baptism of truth witnessed by her sisters. Suddenly her performance paid off, this woman with nowhere to hide.
  • After Dinner, Andrew Bovell’s comedy at STC, was a winner in all kinds of ways. But unless you were watching closely as the audience was seated and the play began, you might have missed Glenn Hazeldine’s silent, hilarious shtick: his painstaking finger-drawn masterpiece created on his menu out of spilled salt, that he unknowingly sent scattering when he opened the menu with anxious ferocity. His look of horror and loss was perfect.
  • Eryn Jean Norvill is extraordinary, and as Suddenly Last Summer at STC came to its claustrophobic conclusion, suffocated by plants and people and cameras, she held the stage and delivered a terrifying, urgent monologue. Norvill’s Catherine was impossible to resist; she spoke because she must. She was thrilling to watch.
  • Downstairs at Belvoir, Nick Coyle’s Blue Wizard was an astute reaction to being a queer person now, post-AIDS crisis, post-assimilationist activism. His Wizard trapped on Earth was bemused, flirted with an obligation to heteronormativity, and then refused it in a blazing, shocking, exciting way. Remember him walking around that junkyard, trying to make do with trash, trying to glorify the scraps with which he was supposed to build a life. One of the most underrated shows of the year.
  • Upton’s Endgame was designed in such a keening, desolate way that it became magnificent. That set and lighting, by Nick Schlieper, that stretched on forever, that helpless soundscape – was there dripping water, or did we just think we heard it? Those colours, and that tower, linger.
  • Dogfight, a new and pleasantly substantial musical at the Hayes Theatre, devoted time to its characters and found a sobering reality in which to ground its book: the way that soldiers, and men, are shaped to be divorced from feeling. Nowhere was this better represented than in Rowan Witt’s sweet young Marine, whose goofball veneer hid terrifying taught ideas about women, and his entitlement to them. Witt’s savage turn was all the better because it was slowly built over the course of the musical, offhandedly and in the background; Witt is the kind of actor that musical theatre needs.
  • Of course, so is Hilary Cole, and her lead role as Rose in Dogfight is the kind of performance we should have paid double to see (I went a second time so I could pay for these performances). Rose’s tenderness was shot through with steel; her heartbreaking and perfectly sung “Pretty Funny” stole hearts, but her good-hearted stubbornness and idealism won Eddie Birdlace’s as Cole and Luigi Lucente built a relationship in soft moments, in the push and pull of repeated lines like “come to a party” and “don’t know why I decided to come.”
  • Adena Jacobs’ Wizard of Oz took one of our most popular modern myths and ripped it to shreds, holding femininity and queer women up to the light, demanding we look at their constant performance in the world, their desire, their loss and confusion, and consider them on their own terms. Emily Milledge’s Dorothy craved Luisa Hastings-Edge’s Witch; she wobbled in her heels; she trailed behind her radical companions, soaking it all in. Many were ravaged and broken. None were lost forever. An incredible musing on queerness, women, and belonging.
  • Kate Gaul’s direction of Misterman was nothing short of remarkable. A sophisticated juggling act, she took to it like an intuitive interpreter; the staggering number of sound and lighting cues were never an onslaught, and her work with actor Thomas Campbell created a tense, unforgettable line that pointed right at the finish which felt completely organic and totally inevitable.
  • Josie Lane’s Asian Provocateur, her first cabaret at the Hayes, was a direct ancestor of the blisteringly political Weimar tradition. She told dirty jokes; she gave shows that fetishise its Asian characters a piece of her mind, and then she gave them her sensitivity in her storytelling as she sang. I’ve never heard “The Movie in My Mind,” from Miss Saigon, sung with such a perfect sense of nuance and balance before. Give her a leading role immediately.
  • Angela Betzien’s War Crimes gives young women the dignity they deserve by writing about them like heroes and villains in epic poems. As two of the girls meet, bicker, and then – just at the achingly right moment – share a kiss, something shifts in each of them, but the world doesn’t end and the world doesn’t slow. Women fight hundreds of little wars as cities and countries rage; queer women sometimes can’t rage enough to work through it all. An electric play.
  • Paula Arundell took command in Angus Cerini’s bewilderingly beautiful poetics in The Bleeding Tree. Confronted by a righteously angry outsider daring to question how she protected herself and her daughters for her abuse, she fires at him with language, with all her hatred and fear and strength. Arundell will not apologise for a problem her community helped perpetuate; Arundell will not waver. I had chills.
  • “When I Grow Up,” Tim Minchin’s study of the yearnings in childhood and adulthood and in between, is the secret weapon of Matilda. It’s the quiet jewel that inspires tears, a little grieving for lost freedoms, and a lot of knowing. We never really feel grown up enough to fight off all our demons, and Minchin knows it, and Matilda the Musical knows it, giving us a story that begins with loneliness and greed, but ends with love and a cartwheel. A much-needed addition to the mainstage musical landscape.
  • Virginia Gay’s Liz Imbrie in High Society is a reporter in love with her partner, Mike Connor. He has no idea. She pines but she won’t fall apart. In this show, Gay felt like a movie star from the 1940s, right out of a screwball (appropriately, given High Society’s original source – The Philadelphia Story). She can land a line but damnit if she doesn’t want love too. The best thing about a dreadful production, Virginia Gay was timelessly endearing.

    Rent at Hayes Theatre Co 2015. Image by Kurt Sneddon
    Rent at Hayes Theatre Co 2015. Image by Kurt Sneddon
  • Eamon Flack’s Ivanov was pretty much perfect, but the women! Blazey Best and Helen Thomson brought a little caricature but a lot of truth to their women, at loose ends but at parties, and Zahra Newman kept the fire even as she grew seemingly, endlessly, ill. Ivanov suffered, sure, but the women were never there just to facilitate and demonstrate his suffering. They were there, in their own right, with their own stories. Beautifully Chekhovian, beautifully performed.
  • In Velvet,  a disco cabaret concert that ran much deeper than expected, Brendan Maclean’s young man ran smack into the last days of the uninhibited queer movement of the dance floor before the creeping destruction of queer identities as other. His “Staying Alive,” which never feels divorced from his diva beacon of light Marcia Hines, was a chilling premonition of what was to come after disco was over – a mourning of what has been left behind in the LGBT struggle to stay alive, to be saved, and then, to be validated and accepted, because maybe it’s safer to be inside the societal circle, rather than on the fringe – but was it really worth it?
  • Shaun Rennie, an actor in his directorial debut, took on cult favourite Rent. He opened the second act with a surprise that shouldn’t ever be spoiled, especially considering the show is returning in 2016 – but this touch spoke to the essentialness at the heart of Rent: that hungry, messy, eternal business of forging connections with other people, even as the continual tragedies of life pile up and over our heads. “For once I didn’t disengage,” sing Mark and Roger. Rent reached out and engaged with us, and it was magical.


Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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