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What, or one of the things, I love about New Theatre is it isn’t. 1932 ain’t new. By contrast, Brand Spanking New, clearly, is. If I’m not mistaken it’s in its third year and my colleague in critiques, Gus Supple, has taken the reins as the season’s artistic director. Week one’s programme brings us eight short works, from a diversity of writers, directors and actors.

But before we go there, a word about Paul Matthews’ design. That word is fantastic. Oh, not fantastic in the backstop cliched way in which that word is typically divested of its power. But fantastic in the way my year 7 English teacher, Miss (that was still politically de rigueur in my day) Bahr had us apply it. Imagine countless pages of discarded manuscript borne on the breeze and you have it. A brilliant notion, but one exceptionally difficult to realise. Yet he has.

While on backstage craft, Rosie Chase has devised some compositional fragments and devised sound that’s quite fresh and captivating.

Black and White has been penned by Ned Manning, whose stature as a playwright just grows, kinda like Topsy. New York-schooled Michael Howlett and WAAPA-trained Jennifer White muse on interpretations of history, via ambiguous black-and-white photos, noting their own differing frames of reference in so doing. It’s a compelling, well-executed meditation on Venutian verses Martian perspectives; the dissonances and gulfs between people, even those intimately involved. It is painstakingly directed by Supple, who seems always to have an eye on nuance.

Kids in their cubbies and treehouses (probably virtual now, on Wii-Wii, or whatever such devices are called) are liable to let their imaginations run wild and come up with all manner of scenarios, some of them dark. Sometimes the darkness may come from trauma or anxiety that’s very real and not at all imagined. The ambiguity that veers between these two possibilities, entirely discrete, or merged in some degree, is what, for me at least, drives Jo Erskine’s Ham and Eg, directed deftly by Bev Callow, and played convincingly by Felix Jozeps and tiny Anya Poukchanski.

Yolk, by Tamarama Rock Surfers associate artistic director Phil Spencer, and directed by former electronics technician Ngaire O’Leary (if she had a fraction of the talent for that profession she has in this one, she must’ve been bloody well brilliant), sports the incredible comic gift of Andrew Johnston. Every gesture and look is honed and timed with absolute precision. There is, it seems, an almost innate knowing in this man’s performance: he plays us like instruments. The work itself is, effectively, a biting satire on everything from pseudo-academic lectures to workplace training, self-improvement seminars and born-again bullshit. It chows down on our frightening, open-ended propensity to suspend will and intelligence and be seduced by simplistic political and other arguments. Laugh till you cry.

Chicom is Kate Mulvany’s deceptively spare grappling with the vagaries of modern soldiering, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. In between and underpinning the essentially humourous dialogue between three grunts and their lightweight commander, out on a routine patrol, is a more serious and sympathetic glimpse, as she speculatively peers into their hearts and minds. Alex Bryant-Smith plays the stereotypically obtuse defence drone to a tee: his character is as inexperienced in life-at-large as in the combative context. Luke Carson is his monosyllabic stablemate, but better-schooled in the sharp realities he confronts. Amy Mathews is sassier, carefully camouflaging her attraction to the first. Matt Charleston is their higher-up, solemnly affecting the posture expected of him. Mulvany’s elegant idea is drawn out suspensefully by director Supple, as our heroes make uncharacteristic revelations, by way of last wishes, in the event one of them should set off an IED or mine. It’s a fine line, trodden without setting off any damaging devices. Better yet, it’s theoretically tenuous momentum is sustained superbly; a tribute to players, playwright and director.

Band Practice, by Fleur Beaupert, is delicately directed by Caroline Craig, who shows herself to be an acute observer of human behaviour, a gift inculcated in actors Kailah Cabanas and, more especially, Thomas Mittelheuser. Indeed, the physical theatre (by way of mannerisms, gestures, tentative eye contact and the like) is what distinguishes this piece and make sit compelling: there’s more depth and development to be found in performance than on paper. Still and all, it is a distinctive slice of life, touching on love, lust, fidelity, chance meetings and out-of-joint, killing time.

Rebecca Clarke’s Ascend, directed by James Winter and featuring Jim Gosden and Sony Glover is even more inscrutable and, while it lands, now and then, in meaningful places, to explore the tangled webs we weave in family and other relationships, the fine lines between pleasure and pain, love and hate, it’s a bit of a Chinese meal: I found myself still hungry almost immediately after partaking; frustrated, wondering what my takeout should be.

Katie Pollock has achieved more topicality and immediacy with her play, One Percent, and Lisa Eismen has drawn highly creditable performances from Adam Roberts, playing an idiot savant, and Bruno Xavier, as a set-upon Pakistani intern, caught in the confusion and clash between two divergent cultural imprints. But again, I was left unsure as to what I might be meant to glean: sociopolitically; intellectually; philosophically; emotionally. Neither was this a challenging uncertainty, but an itch I still can’t quite scratch.

The reunion of childhood acquaintances embodied in Anna Lise Phillips’ The Pash-Off proved more satisfying, if still something of a cliffhanger, in more than the intended respect. But the relationship echoed real life possibilities, intriguing and teasing delightfully, dancing with our own experiences, fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams. It has romance and a tragicomic textual sensibility that’s animated with profound empathy by director Shannon Murphy and actors Georgina Symes and Tim Walter, who are, dramatically-speaking, made for each other.

All in all, Supple’s selections reflect a degree of stylish diversity and a keen, even shrewd artistic eye for what can and will captivate a broad audience. Brand Spanking New has, thus, consolidated a rightfully proud place on the Sydney theatrical calendar; one that merits the attention of anyone who’s earnest in laying claim to a desire to afford opportunities for the nurture of new and newish talent.

Curtain Call rating: A-

The details: The second week of New Theatre’s Brand Spanking New begins on Wednesday, November 6. Tickets through MCA-TIX.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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