BWW Review: A BUNCH OF AMATEURS at Holden Street Theatres
Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 9th May 2019.
Red Phoenix Theatre Company, the resident company at Holden Street Theatres, present only works that have never been performed in South Australia, and that gamble has really paid off, with shows selling out and great critical acclaim, the group and individuals within it winning several Adelaide Critics Circle Awards. They kick off this year with a comedy, Ian Hislop and Nick Newman's A Bunch of Amateurs. The production is directed by Michael Eustice, with Libby Drake as assistant director. She will have her directing debut in August for the company's production, Dividing the Estate.
Jefferson Steel is a Hollywood has-been who jumps at the chance to travel to England to play the lead in Shakespeare's King Lear, his over-inflated ego telling him that he can teach them a thing or two about playing the works of the Bard and kick-start his flagging career. Imagine his surprise and horror on his arrival to discover that the Suffolk village of Stratford-St.-John is not, as he had assumed, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and that, far from working with the Royal Shakespeare Company, sharing the bill with some of the great names of English theatre, he has been contracted by the tiny village's amateur theatre company, the Stratford Players, who are hoping that a big name will attract audiences and help them to save their theatre, a barn, from developers.
Having been conned by his agent, and expecting royal treatment, his dreams of a luxury hotel suite and all the attention that he could possible desire are shattered when he finds himself in a room in Mary Plunkett's bed-and-breakfast, The Rectory. He also has to deal with the unexpected arrival of his teenaged daughter, Jessica, an aspiring actress, with whom he has had a very poor, very limited relationship, and Nigel Dewberry, whose nose has been put out of joint as he feels that he is the only good actor in the village and should be playing the lead, as usual.
The 2008 film starred such people as Burt Reynolds, alongside British greats including Derek Jacobi and Imelda Staunton. Both critics and audiences were, to put it tactfully, highly unfavourable in their comments, and the writers later said that Reynolds in real life was just like the character that he was playing in the film. The play, adapted from the film script and incorporating some of Reynolds's real foibles, received its premiere in 2014.
The play is a comedy, but it has depth and substance, which offers the cast many opportunities to create and develop solid characters. There is a huge pool of experience in this group of performers, in both amateur and professional work, and Michael Eustice has to be congratulated for assembling such an immensely talented group and bringing this production to such a high level.
Jefferson Steel is an action hero whose film sequels, as sequels often do, have got worse each time, leaving him unemployed and unemployable. His overactive ego doesn't allow him to admit his failure, but he comes to accept that this is his one chance to resurrect his career. Brant Eustice is a reliable and versatile performer and fulfils the requirements of the role with accustomed ease. Jefferson's bluster covers his insecurities, with moments of poignancy amidst the comedy, and then, there is Lear. Eustice handles the comedy and serious undertones with aplomb and, as King Lear, he shows his extensive experience in playing in a good few of the Bard's plays during his career.
Dorothy Nettle is the head of the theatre company, the director of the production of King Lear, and will also be playing Lear's Fool, along with carrying out a myriad other duties. Petra Schulenberg makes a welcome return to Adelaide theatre in the role, and her interpretation of Dorothy who takes no nonsense from him, creates a superb foil for Brant Eustice's Jefferson.
Mary Plunkett gushes over her silver screen idol, the love light in her eyes, although the accuracy of her knowledge of his career is, to say the least, highly suspect. Tracey Walker brings lots of fun to the character giving Mary an air of a schoolgirl crush.
The quirky jack-of-all-trades, Dennis Dobbins, lives in a world of his own, and manages to assign himself to the role of Jefferson's 'minder'. Derek Crawford's antics bring forth plenty of laughs, as much for his 'business' as for his delivery of the lines.
Nigel Dewberry is outraged that he is not going to play Lear, and is instead given the part of Kent. Lindsay Dunn provides facial expressions that suggest that Nigel walks about with a foul smell permanently assaulting his olfactory senses whenever Jefferson Steele is near, or even mentioned in conversation, for that matter. Dunn is marvellous as the waspish, carping Nigel.
Laura Antoniazzi plays Jessica Steel in a well-considered and emotionally varied performance, making the gradual transition from the disillusioned and disappointed daughter, to the supportive fellow actor, after being recruited to play Cordelia, to eventually become a proud and loved daughter.
The whole project to save the theatre is only possible due to finance from the local brewery, owned by the husband of Lauren Bell, from whom Dorothy tries to keep the truth that Jefferson doesn't want to be there and shows no sign of be able to play Lear. Cheryl Douglas is wonderful as the wide-eyed idealistic patron of the theatre.
Three journalists, of the worst kind, played comically by Anthony Vawser, Anita Zamberlan Canala, and Anishaa Faith, hover between being intrusive paparazzi, and unqualified and ill-informed theatre critics with preconceived notions that Jefferson's performance will be a disaster, discussing their numerous prewritten lines for their reviews before even arriving at the theatre.
In a clever set design by Kate Prescott, the play within a play has a stage within a stage, all lit by Richard Parkhill, and with a sound design by Michael Eustice.
Jefferson demands the trappings that he believes are due to him, a limousine, an elaborate sound and video entertainment system, a mini-bar, fresh flowers, and a pool table. Dorothy, in her own way and with the nonexistent budget, provides them, but you'll need to buy a ticket to find out how. Do not leave it too long to book as Red Phoenix Productions usually sell out.
Disclaimer. Petra Schulenberg is one of the Broadway World reviewers in Adelaide, but she has taken temporary a break since being offered the role in this production in order to avoid any conflicts of interest.