The Ensemble Theatre is picturesquely located on the edge of Sydney Harbour, Kirribilli.
It is Australia’s longest running professional theatre company and since 1958 has delivered outstanding seasons of theatre from a repertoire of international plays, treasured classics and new Australian works.
This consistently admirable reputation continues with its current dazzling, contemporary and entertaining production of Buyer and Cellar by Jonathan Tolins.
Buyer and Cellar was Tolins first one man show and premiered in April 2013 at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre in New York. He has written a spirited play of celebration, compassion, power play and the unlikely consequences of fame and fortune with quirky undertones that are refreshingly delightful. The line between fantasy and reality is touchingly fragile but always exploding with bubbles of fun, humorous anecdotes and delicious dialogue.
Tolins takes the audience into a shopping mall, constructed in the basement of the barn adjoining the Malibu mansion of singer, songwriter, actress, and filmmaker Barbra Streisand. Her mall was inspired by the wonderful museum of American decorative arts near Wilmington, Delaware.
Tolins innovatively explores the emerging relationship between Streisand and the out of work actor Alex who secures a job as caretaker of the mall in this very unusual and isolated location.
Themes of materialism and the entertainment hierarchy are explored, while there is also opportunity for many interpretive possibilities. One of these shows an imaginary doll from the cherished collection gently and lovingly handled.
This symbol suggests Streisand’s domain is not as solid as the world is led to believe. It also invites the audience to invoke individual memories and images adding their own perspectives to the narrative.
This one hander is a very demanding role as Ben Gerrard not only plays Alex, but also switches between the other characters presented in the play.
Gerrard captures the vocal intonation and subtle physical nuances of not only Streisand, but Sharon, the manager of the Streisand estate, his agent, his sceptical partner Barry and Streisand’s husband James Brolin.
His ability to deliver the narratives within the play is extraordinary.
Discipline, timing, very accurate interpretive skills are coupled with a sensitive insight into human behaviour to effectively convey the emotions and experiences that have shaped the actions and thoughts of the characters. In the play’s preamble Alex showcases Streisand’s 2010 coffee table book My Passion for Design, where she not only shares the taste and style of her beautiful homes and collections, but the childhood memories that haunted and drove the passion. Alex’s personal development moves from a naïve innocence through to increased confidence and ultimately a more centred and focused self-concept.
Through his encounters with Streisand, and his time in the new position for reflection and analysis of his relationship with partner Barry and his own directionless life, he is ready and willing to face the world. She gives him a new way of seeing and being.
Alex’s initial evaluation of his mundane role is overturned as he makes connections and evolves into a more purposeful young man. He finds his positive core within.
The transformation is powerful and has the possibility of taking his acting career in new and exciting directions.
From the moment the audience enter the theatre they are transported into the exquisitely charming but restrained décor of Streisand’s basement.
Designer Charles Davis has conceived and fashioned a set of arresting beauty. The pink glow emanating from the chaise lounge, the elegant fall of the drapes and the warmth of the timber floors create an ambience of stylish opulence.
The soft furnishings deliver contagious geniality that envelops the audience in a cocoon of ease and graciousness.
The set has such a compelling allure and magnetic charm you can believe Barbra Streisand herself could step on stage anytime.
The atmospheric set is enhanced by the stylish and perceptive lightning of Alexander Berlage. The lights twinkle and dance, casting their magic and responding to the changing moods of the unfolding narrative.
The final lighting sequence splendidly highlights the current marriage debate. The clarity and importance of the YES message is eloquently and expressively honoured.
This is the reality of theatre at its most poignant and responsible.
The effective and coherent work of Sound Designer Marty Jamieson sympathetically aligns the drama and emotion of the script with the musical score. It’s a very nostalgic moment when the audience hears Streisand sing the lyrics from The Way We Were: “Memories, Like the corners of my mind”
Memories are touchingly woven throughout the script and construct a tenderness and vulnerability in the characters that is accessible to the audience and intensely moving at times.
Director Susanna Dowling has achieved an artistic unity in the production. She has impeccably cherished the script and defined the mood and pace of the narrative with persuasive clarity.
In this challenging role Dowling has guided and nurtured Gerrard so prudently that his shrewd performance is the perfect vehicle for Tolins brilliant play.
It’s a winner!
Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Now Showing until 12 November 2017
- Playwright JONATHAN TOLINS
- Director SUSANNA DOWLING
- Assistant Director FRANCESCA SAVIGE
- Cast BEN GERRARD
78 McDougall Street Kirribilli 2061