Review: FESTEN at Holden Street Theatres

A powerful piece of theatre.

By: May. 27, 2022

Review: FESTEN at Holden Street Theatres Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Thursday 26th May 2022.

Multi-award-winning company, Red Phoenix, presents productions that have never been staged in Adelaide, which is a real pleasure for critics who have seen some plays more times than we care to admit. The productions have to be more, though, than previously unseen, and must comply with a good many other criteria to ensure that every play presented engages the audience and sends them home thinking and talking about it afterward. The latest offering is David Eldridge's Festen, which translates as The Celebration, adapted from Thomas Vinterborg's 1998 Danish screenplay, the first of the Dogme 95 films. It certainly complies with Red Phoenix's desire to generate in-depth conversations, taking the term 'dysfunctional family' up several levels.

Festen is directed by Nick Fagan, who also designed the set and sound and, on opening night, and for the first week, plays the role of Lars due to Stuart Pearce being in isolation, having tested positive to the dreaded COVID. Pearce is expected to return to play the role in the second week. Fagan has assembled a mighty cast, including some professionally trained, in Australia and England, and most of them have extensive professional and/or amateur experience. It says much for the reputation of this amateur theatre company, and the quality of their productions, that professional actors want to work with them, unpaid.

At the centre of the celebratory event is the father, Helge, played by Adrian Barnes, who is celebrating his 60th birthday. He is Lear-like, expecting the undivided love of his family and complete admiration of his friends, and obedience of his household staff. Everything must revolve around him. His attractive wife, Else, played with detached elegance by Lyn Wilson, his three adult children, and a few close friends and colleagues, have gathered to help him. He is Lear-like, expecting the undivided love of his family, and the devotion and obedience of his friends and servants.

The central character in the play, however, is actually the eldest son, Christian, played by Brant Eustice, whose twin sister, Linda, has recently taken her own life. Eustice is no stranger to psychologically and emotionally complex characters and presents another powerful characterisation as Christian, brooding over the death of his twin, and full of lifelong resentment that he releases in an explosive first toast to Helge at the dinner.

His brother, Michael, a thoroughly nasty piece of work, violent, angry, entitled, misogynistic, and racist, played with great intensity by Nigel Tripodi, arrives with his wife, Mette, who gives as good as she gets in their love/hate marriage. She is played by Georgia Stockham, Their daughter, a resilient child, is given a delightful portrayal by Sienna Fagan, the director's daughter, who has studied for some years at the well-respected Theatre Bugs school and has shown great promise in her first stage role. It is safe to say that we will be seeing more of her in the future.

The remaining daughter is Helene, a freewheeling and widely travelled young woman, played by Claire Keen, a recent newcomer from England, experienced in both stage and television. She gives a good account of the free-spirited daughter, very convincingly conveying the change after discovering Linda's hidden suicide note. The arrival of Helene's current lover, Gbatokai, triggers a vicious verbal racist attack by the obnoxious Michael. Stephen Tongun brings a nice touch of strength and dignity to the role.

Helmut, played by Gary George, began as a dishwasher and is now the CEO of Helge's restaurant empire, tasked with the job of being the toastmaster for the evening, and finding his efforts continually overridden by interruptions from the others. George gives his character a degree of sycophancy, coupled with frustration at the difficulty in executing his duty as toastmaster.

Christian's past lover, one of the servants, Pia, is played by Cheryl Douglas, demonstrating a believable fondness for Christian, suitably seductive as she tries to rekindle the romance, and supportive as he suffers.

There are plenty of elements of black comedy, the humour provided, largely, by the senile Grandfather, portrayed by Joh Hartog, whose principal desire is to tell his dirty joke, which, we suspect, he has told many times before, and the chronically depressed Poul, played by Geoff Revell. These two bring many years of experience to their roles and exhibit superb comic timing coupled with fun characterisations.

Russell Slater plays the chef, Kim, an old friend of Christian who encourages him to press on, and Carmel Boffa completes the cast as the maid.

Richard Parkhill is, once again, the lighting designer, aiding with separating time and place. Composer, and music supervisor, Pat. H. Wilson, is responsible for the large number of incidental and included musical parts of the play.

Red Phoenix has, yet again, delivered an exceptional piece of powerful theatre. Even with people being cautious because of COVID, opening night was a full house and it is sure to sell out the season, as usual. If you haven't yet booked your tickets, don't delay.

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