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Fun Home is coming to Melbourne as part of MTC’s 2020 season

Ben Neutze

Melbourne musical theatre fans have had to wait a long time to see the celebrated stage version of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel Fun Home. It won the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 2015, but it won’t be until next year that we’ll finally get to see why this story of a young woman’s discovery of her own sexuality, and her difficult relationship with her funeral director father, has captured so many hearts and minds.

Local musical theatre dynamo Dean Bryant (behind award-winning tours of Sweet Charity and Little Shop of Horrors) will direct a new production, starring Lisa McCune and Muriel’s Wedding the Musical’s original Muriel, Maggie McKenna.

The musical is the centrepiece of Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2020 season, which was announced tonight. Fun Home isn’t the only international hit in the season, but it’s the Australian content that really stands out, with half of the plays penned by local writers.

“I guess the thing that I value more than anything else for our audience is that our work is relevant,” MTC artistic director Brett Sheehy says. “That’s the lens I put all of our work through: is it relevant to their lives as Australians in what’s about to be the third decade of the 21st century?”

As part of that effort, MTC has spent the last few years investing in local writing with its Next Stage writers’ program. Next year is when those efforts will come to fruition, with four plays from the Next Stage program having their premieres.

“Telling new Australian stories is certainly one of MTC’s primary roles in the theatre landscape,” Sheehy says. “That’s one thing that excites me. In terms of our ability to contribute, in some way, to the landscape of Australian writing – that this company can have some sort of legacy in that space.”

While it’s sometimes been thought of as a hard slog to get Australian audiences interested in Australian plays, all of that has changed in recent years. In fact, major theatre companies are finding that their biggest surprise hits are mostly local stories, and they are programming accordingly.

“[Australian plays] are not any imposition on the companies’ part,” Sheehy says. “The Australian audiences are hungry for Australian stories, perhaps like never before, and that’s an amazing thing to observe and be a part of.”

Melbourne Theatre Company season 2020

Home, I’m Darling (Jan 20-Feb 22)
By Laura Wade
Director: Sarah Goodes

MTC is kicking off the year with plenty of belly laughs, thanks to this hit British comedy, which picked up Best New Comedy at this year’s Olivier Awards. It follows a couple in the 21st century who have decided to live a completely authentic 1950s lifestyle.

“It throws up situations that are incredibly funny but also deeply poignant and moving in many ways,” Sheehy says. “It really looks at the clash of their chosen ‘50s lifestyle against the 2020s, as they’ll be by next year, and what the frisson between those two time periods means in terms of values. How much have our values really changed over that period of time?”

Nikki Shiels plays Judy, the woman who has chosen to step back in time, while Kath and Kim star Jane Turner plays her mother, who used to be a hippie feminist and is outraged that her daughter has chosen to be a stay-at-home housewife. 

Torch the Place (Feb 8-Mar 21)
By Benjamin Law
Director: Dean Bryant

This is the debut play by Benjamin Law, the journalist, columnist and writer behind SBS’s The Family Law, and it was developed through MTC’s Next Stage program.

“I think Ben is such a polymath; terrific in all of the spaces he works in,” Sheehy says. “I’m a great fan of his television writing, I’m a great fan of his column writing, but also his analysis writing; that Quarterly Essay he did was extraordinary. So it was really exciting that he came into the Next Stage orbit and agreed to come on board to create a play.” 

Torch the Place is a comedy set on the Gold Coast. A family of siblings come together to celebrate their mother’s 60th birthday and help to clean up her house. But her hoarding habits prove particularly difficult to overcome. Fiona Choi, Michelle Lim Davidson and Diana Lin star in Dean Bryant’s production.

“It looks at the funny side of her hoarding but also digs much deeper into the reasons for her holding onto all of this stuff, which all has a meaningful place in her life. Finally, the play is sort of about a woman who unconditionally loves her children, and how does she hold onto those children when they inevitably move away and create lives for themselves.”

Torch the Place. Photograph: Justin Ridler.

Emerald City (Mar 6-Apr 18)
By David Williamson
Director: Sam Strong

David Williamson’s comedy about real estate, ambition, power and the slippery ladder of success was an immediate hit when it premiered in Sydney in the 1980s. It’s part love letter and part hate mail to the Harbour City, where successful screenwriter Colin has to balance art and commerce.

This co-production between Queensland Theatre and Melbourne Theatre stars Ray Chong Nee, Marg Downey, Nadine Garner, Jason Klarwein and Rhys Muldoon, and it is directed by Queensland Theatre’s artistic director, Sam Strong.

“Sam and I were really keen to do something together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of David Williamson’s plays being on the Australian stage,” Sheehy says. “David has new plays all the time, but for this 50th anniversary, we decided to have a look at the classics, and we settled on Emerald City. I think it’s arguably David’s greatest comedy. It’s beautifully written, and it has one of the best curtain speeches in Australian writing at the end of act one, when the character of Colin throws away his scruples and talks about wanting to be immensely powerful and enormously rich.”

Berlin (Apr 25-Jun 6)
By Joanna Murray-Smith
Director: Iain Sinclair

Australia’s most popular playwright of recent decades, Joanna Murray-Smith, is returning with a new show about two young people meeting one night in Berlin. They have vastly different family backgrounds, and each has been affected by the city’s dark past. It touches on history ranging from World War II until today, with Germany’s frequently debated approach to refugees coming under the microscope.

“It looks at that, but also the idea of a whole nation atoning for the past, and questions: is there some point when the line should be drawn in the sand? When that ceases and the country only looks forward? Or should we always look backwards and calibrate our future through the lens of the past?,” Sheehy says.

Iain Sinclair, behind MTC’s excellent A View from the Bridge, is directing Grace Cummings in this premiere.

Berlin. Photograph: Justin Ridler.

Slap. Bang. Kiss. (May 7-23)
By Dan Giovannoni
Director: Prue Clark

This new play about three revolutionary events happening around the world – a 16-year-old girl slaps a soldier, a teenager makes a fiery speech honouring school shooting victims, and two boys lock lips to break a world record – fills MTC’s families and education slot for 2020.

Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes (May 15-Jun 27)
By Hannah Moscovitch
Director: Petra Kalive

Quite a few playwrights have tried to tackle the #MeToo movement since the Harvey Weinstein story broke in late 2017, but Sheehy says Canadian writer Hannah Moscovitch has landed a point that few others have managed. The play came to MTC’s attention when the company’s literary director, Chris Mead, attended a reading at an international play festival.

“It looks at a university teacher who has a relationship with an 18-year-old student,” Sheehy explains. “It explores their first meeting, then five years later, then five years later again. It’s very much about who controls the narrative of their affair over that period of time, but also the impact of that relationship in both of their lives.”

The play won’t have its world premiere until late 2019, but Sheehy says he hopes it will help unpack some of the stickier points of a movement that’s frequently misunderstood by uncovering how power dynamics work in certain relationships.

“I think this is the one that absolutely has nailed the answer to that question that I think so many people still ask, and mainly older people in our community. And I think it’s vital that they get a handle on that answer so we can all move forward so there’s not just this generational divide for the next 40 years.”

The Heartbreak Choir (Jun 13-Jul 18)
By Aidan Fennessy
Director: Peter Houghton

Songs by artists like Nina Simone and Leonard Cohen are a driving force in this new play by the writer behind The Architect

“It looks at a rural community and an amateur choir and how the choir brings the community together,” Sheehy explains. “But there’s a split when one of the choristers dies suddenly. A renegade choir called the Heartbreak Choir starts up, and breaks away. Then, through the power of song, we slowly see the potential for the community to be brought back together.”

The play – which draws on a particularly topical story from the recent news cycle – will be directed by Peter Houghton, who collaborated with Fennessy on The Architect, and stars William McInnes, Genevieve Morris, Ruva Ngwenya and Louise Siversen.

Fun Home (Jul 15-Aug 15)
By Jeanine Tesori and Lisa Kron
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel
Director: Dean Bryant

Sheehy saw this moving musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel’s graphic novel in New York before it became a major hit, and he immediately knew it was the sort of musical MTC should tackle.

“That it was such a success internationally excited me so much, and that it won the Tony Award for best musical was thrilling,” he says.

It’s an autobiographical work following Alison Bechdel, played by three actors from childhood to adulthood, as she learns about her sexuality and grapples with a tough relationship with her father. Jeanine Tesori’s sweeping score and Lisa Kron’s book and lyrics have been lavished with praise – when it opened on the West End in 2017, Time Out London declared it the best new musical they’d seen since Hamilton – and the pair became the first female team to win the Tony for Best Original Score.

True West (Aug 1-Sep 4)
By Sam Shepard
Director: Sarah Goodes

MTC is rethinking Sam Shepard’s great American classic about two estranged brothers – one a successful, educated Hollywood screenwriter and the other a thief whose life is in second gear – coming back together with fiery consequences. 

“We haven’t done a Sam Shepard for ages, and I think this is one of his works of true greatness,” Sheehy says. “I think it’s a bit of a pat expression now, but it speaks to toxic masculinity; and I think analysis of masculinity is essential as we move forward as a society.”

MTC’s associate artistic director Sarah Goodes is directing a cast that includes stage favourite Josh McConville.

“It staggers me to see the empowerment of the patriarchy that Trump’s America enables,” Sheehy says. “This play looks at that in a very classic way: looking at the entitlement of white men and what they believe they’re owed. Then obviously, in a very dramatic way, it’s about how the relationship between those two brothers unravels spectacularly.”

As You Like It (Sep 14-Oct 24)
By William Shakespeare
Director: Simon Phillips

“This one is pure entertainment plus,” says Sheehy of this lavish production of Shakespeare’s comedy of mismatched loves and courtly drama. MTC has had plenty of success with Simon Phillips’ production of Twelfth Night and Macbeth (and, of course, Shakespeare in Love), which is why the director is returning to the Bard’s work. 

He’s teaming up again with Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall, who are writing all new music, and a cast that includes Bert LaBonté and Christie Whelan Browne as one of Shakespeare’s most fascinating characters, Rosalind.

As You Like It. Photograph: Justin Ridler.

Girls & Boys (Oct 30-Dec 12)
By Dennis Kelly
Director: Kate Champion

Dennis Kelly’s name is now most closely associated with Matilda the Musical (he penned the book, alongside Tim Minchin), but he was picked for that gig for his ability to dig into dark territory. And he certainly does that in this monologue, which was originally performed by Carey Mulligan and will be taken on by Robin McLeavy for MTC.

“It was possibly the most affecting experience I’d had in the theatre in a decade or more,” Sheehy says of seeing the New York production. The play concerns a woman who meets her husband-to-be in line for a budget airline. She’s a documentary filmmaker, and he imports antiques.

“The audience are entirely enjoying being in their lives and experiencing their lives with them, and then an absolutely shocking and appalling event takes place, and from that we start questioning how much do we really know the people closest to us? How do we raise our children? How do we raise boys and girls?”

Sunshine Super Girl (Nov 20-Dec 19)
By Andrea James
Director: Andrea James

The story of Evonne Goolagong, the Wiradjuri woman from rural NSW who became the world’s number one tennis player, is the stuff of legends.

“It’s one of the greatest Australian stories ever in my view, and also probably the Australian sports story of the 20th century,” Sheehy says. “Her life, her rise to the top, her shock retirement from tennis to have a family. Even more shocking to the media and tennis establishment around the world, was her decision to come back, eight years later. The response to the idea of a mother taking a place on a Wimbledon roster, which was almost unheard of at the time.”

This new play, by Andrea James, looks at the financial, gender and racial inequality that Goolagong faced during her career, and her triumph over that. The play is being developed by NSW company Performing Lines and is set to tour extensively.

Can't wait until 2020? Check out our hit-list of the best theatre in Melbourne this month and our hints for scoring cheap tickets.

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