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Ripped dancers in jeans and open white shirts gyrate on a climbing frame bar
Photograph: Supplied/Peter Brew-Bevan

The best theatre to see in Sydney this month

It's a whole new year and the city's main stages and indie darlings alike are preparing for a hopefully brighter run

By Stephen A Russell
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Last year was, errr, complicated, but Sydney's theatres have dusted themselves down, popped on their glad rags and got on with things. Swinging into the busiest season of the year, it's a joy to welcome back old friends and new as we gear up for the drama once more.

With Sydney Festival hot to trot, major musicals like Frozen and Magic Mike Live in full swing and Hamilton waiting in the wings, fingers crossed everything stays a-ok this summer.

Here are a few of our fave board-treading must-sees this January.

Mainstage and indie theatre

A red-haired Nikki Shiels looking over her shoulder, close-up, as Sybylla in Belvoir’s My Brilliant Career
Photograph: Supplied/Belvoir/Brett Boardman

My Brilliant Career

Theatre Drama Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills

Depicting the life and times of headstrong Sybylla Melvyn and her determination to go her own way back in the 1890s, My Brilliant Career is a treasured Australian story penned by esteemed author Miles Franklin, who gave her name to our most prestigious book prize. Written when she was only 20 years old, it sparkles. The story was memorably brought to the big screen by, yes, brilliant director Gillian Armstrong, casting Judy Davis as Sybylla and Sam Neil as her would-be suitor Harry. Now you can see a new adaptation by playwright Kendall Feaver (The Almighty Sometimes) on stage at Belvoir St. Directed by Kate Champion (Every Brilliant Thing), the magnificent Nikki Shiels (The Sugar House, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) steps into Sybylla’s shoes. And the theatre can be 75 per cent full, too.

Four actors in a line
Photograph: Supplied/Nancy Trieu

Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls

Theatre Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

This four-part monologue, directed by S. Shakthidharan (Counting and Cracking) comprises a cast and crew made up entirely from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds. It's also heavily informed by traditions outside of the mainstream culture, like that of oral storytelling.Writers Winnie Dunn, Omar Sakr, Shirley Le and Stephen Pham each unravel their version of Western Sydney, spanning nighttime bakery ruckuses over bread rolls, foraging for magic mushrooms in the suburbs, and the tale of a mixed-race Tongan woman's Tinder date with a white bodybuilder from Castle Hill. Actors Emily Havea, Henry Vo, Aileen Huynh and Hazem Shammas enact the stories on stage. 

 

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a man and a woman in white shirts, him upside down, against a yellow backdrop
Photograph: Supplied/New Theatre

Twelfth Night

Theatre Comedy New Theatre, Newtown

“All is fortune,” Malvolio announces in Shakespeare’s fabulously OTT rom-com Twelfth Night. It's hard not to agree, now that theatres are finally lit up bright once more. Consider us pumped for this latest take, staged at Sydney's New Theatre between January 6 to 26. A kooky classic about disguised identity and falling for the true spirit of a soul. And if you think you’ve seen it all before, think again, because even the players don’t know exactly what’s going to happen on the night. It rests on the toss of a coin. Quite literally, with the cast of twelve each learning two parts, and the way the silver lands on the night determines which roles they will be playing.

 

Chika Ikogwe in a leopard print skirt and pink top in Fangirls at Belvoir St 2021
Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud

Fangirls

Theatre Musicals Seymour Centre, Darlington

Yve Blake’s joyous Australian musical about the agony and ecstasy of teen longing is back by popular demand as the first cab off the ranks in Belvoir St’s 2021 season. Karis Oka steps into the lead role of Edna – played by Blake herself In the 2019 run – a teenage girl obsessed with Harry, lead singer of global sensation boyband True Connection (The Voice contestant Aydan). Lovingly directed by a returning Paige Rattray, the show is a sympathetic look at the intense teenage kicks felt by young women admiring their favourite pop stars from afar. It’s also a savvy reading of the effect of our increasingly digital landscape on them.

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A red-headed woman peering through a torn hole in a newspaper
Photograph: Supplied/Old 505 Theatre

The Apologists

Theatre Drama Old 505 Theatre, Newtown

In the age of social media there’s nowhere to hide when you say the wrong thing. It’s just as easy to broadcast an apology, but whether or not you really mean it is up for fierce debate. That crucible is at the thorny heart of an exciting new play opening at the Old 505, The Apologists. Written by a trio of female playwrights – Lucinda Burnett, Cordelia O’Neill and Iskandar Sharazuddin – it’s also helmed by esteemed director Jane Moriarty and performed by Gabrielle Scawthorn (The Killing Fields, The Village Bike). The Latter takes on multiple roles that shine a light on gender inequity, racism and other major topics.

A pile of VHS with black wax dripping down them
Photograph: Supplied

Videotape

Theatre Drama Kings Cross Hotel, Potts Point

Unwind as a new Australian thriller reopens Kings Cross Theatre (KXT) this January. Videotape, written and directed by Saro Lusty-Cavallari (Animal Farm, The Great Australian Play) follows the travails of Daniel and Juliette, a seemingly picture-perfect young couple whose homely bliss is shattered when mysterious videotapes that have somehow recorded deeply private moments disrupt their run isolating together. Are they ready to grapple with the truth and figure out where the tapes are coming from and why? What could they possibly have to hide? Starring Jake Fryer-Hornsby and Lucinda Howes, with additional video performance contributed by Laura Djanegara, it's inspired by David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Michael Haneke’s Hidden, Lusty-Cavallari says. 

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A black and white close up of a rhino
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

Duba

Theatre Performance art Carriageworks, Eveleigh

More often than not, Marrickville’s puppet masters at the Erth Studio Workshop create magic aimed at kids (though the grown-ups are usually just as awestruck by their wonderous manipulations ). Duba, which means ‘ground’ in the local First Nations language, is a trippy, immersive happening at Carriageworks that turns that idea on its head. Running from January 8-24 this Sydney Festival 2021, it's driven by children, who work incredible avatars of endangered species like rhinos, elephants and our very own Leadbeater’s possum in a work aimed at us crusties. The half-hour experience kicks off in ten-minute intervals throughout the day. 

A man in overalls cap and short shirt with hairy arms holds a toilet plunger aloft
Supplied/Sydney Festival/Christian Trinder

Kenny

Theatre Comedy Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli

If you’ve ever found yourself wondering why something being “the shit” oddly means good instead of poop, then Kenny is the prime example. Starting life as a popular and critical hit mockumentary co-written by and starring Shane Jacobson, it cast him as the eponymous porta-dunny installer. We're pumped like a septic tank for Kenny's overflow onto the stage as part of Sydney Festival, opening at Ensemble Theatre on January 15, running until February 27. Ben Wood (The Big Time) plays the dunny man with a big heart to match the size of his wrench and a bottomless bucket of true blue one-liners.

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A woman in a white shirt with dark holds an man in an orange shirt
Photograph: Supplied/Flight Path Theatre

The Shape of Things

Theatre Drama The Addison Road Centre, Marrickville

Audiences flocked to the catch The Credeaux Canvas at Flight Path Theatre in Marrickville when shows took off again in the harbour city last year. If you thought that saucy art heist show was hot, then it’s time for another trip. Dubbed smart, sexy, funny and provocative, playwright Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things touches down at the newly refurbished Flight Path from January 8-31. And funnily enough, it’s also intrigued by the sweet Venn diagram spot in the centre of art and sex. The title is a reference to the future of art and the shock of the new. Adam is a nice guy, a shy man until his life is changed almost overnight when he meets Evelyn. Taking charge of his life and his body, she re-shapes him in a new image. Examining gender roles, it carries a sting in its tail.

 

Performer Jonny Hawkins in a  vaguely religious, sorta Hindu, sorta seance-like four-armed configuration with a yellow halo of sorts
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

Maureen: Harbinger of Death

Theatre Performance art Seymour Centre, Darlington

Star Jonny Hawkins delivers a loving tribute to his late friend and ‘working class glamour queen’ Maureen in this intimate Sydney Festival show, devised with director Nell Ranney. A love letter to the matriarchy and the power, wisdom and passions of older women who defy the tyranny of invisibility, the stripped-back performance recreates her bohemian living room and gleefully acerbic life advice. Hawkins transforms into Maureen with minimal costuming or props, though all velvet, Jatz crackers and cigarettes. “It’s beautiful storytelling,” says Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch of the Seymour Centreshow opening Jan 15.

Musicals

Channing Tatum with buff male dancers on stage announcing Magic Mike Live
Photograph: Supplied

Magic Mike Live

Theatre Musicals The Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park

Get ready to sweat with the boys (and a handful of fabulous girls) of Magic Mike Live. Diverted from Melbourne, where it was supposed to open first, their loss is our muscular gain. Channing Tatum might not be stripping down for us, but he has assembled one heck of a limber cast who will clamber around the audience in a purpose-built big top that's part-burlesque club, part-workout sweathouse. It will premiere at Moore Park on December 17, after runs in Las Vegas, London and Berlin. Tatum says, “The morning after we opened our first production in Vegas four years ago, we all talked about the crazy idea of someday putting Magic Mike Live in a tent and travelling around Australia. The fact that it’s actually happening now is mind-blowing to me."

A green hued circus tent cast photo from the Us tour of Pippin
Photograph: Terry Shapiro

Pippin

Theatre Musicals Sydney Lyric Theatre, Darling Harbour

The Lyric has lit up with Pippin, the story of a young prince who runs away to the circus. “We’re thrilled to invite audiences back to the theatre to experience this magical show,” Australian producers John Frost and Suzanne Jones say. The Broadway sensation originally debuted in 1972, with music and lyrics by Oscar and Grammy-winner Stephen Schwartz, who went on to pen Wicked, and had Motown Records backing. Roger O Hirson wrote the book, and original director Bob Fosse contributed to the libretto. In other words, the gods of musicals are all over this acrobatic circus showdown. Time Out New York reviewer Adam Feldman says the show is “musical-theatre showmanship at its best, a thrilling evening of art and craftiness”.

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Callum Francis and Seann Miley Moore in costume for Rent, including angel wings, on the steps of the Opera House
Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud

Rent

Theatre Musicals Sydney Opera House, Sydney

Speaking of Broadway royalty, Jonathan Larson’s smash-hit rock musical Rent is on its way to the Opera House. Kinky Boots champ Callum Francis and former The X-Factor competitor Seann Miley Moore will step into the Tony and Pulitzer Prize-winning show about struggling New York artists  trying to keep their head above water, meet rent and stay alive as the HIV/AIDS crisis crashes the party. “In these dangerous times where the world is ripping apart at the seams, we can learn from those who stare death in the face every day, by reaching out to each other and bonding as a community,” Larson, who tragically died just before the show opened, said in 1996 and his words are just as true today.

A woman with a moustache in a polka dot bikini top and sailors hat flexes her guns
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival

HMS Pinafore

Theatre Musicals Riverside Theatres, Parramatta

Ahoy there. The already fruity showtunes of Gilbert and Sullivan get a genderqueer re-do in this Hayes Theatre take on beloved comic opera HMS Pinafore. Directed by Kate Gaul, this Sirens Theatre Co produced show brings the sequins and sea-spray to the Riverside Theatres this time round for Sydney Festival, January 13-23, 2021. There’s a hint of Titanic in this class-smashing romance that sees the captain’s daughter fall for a tattooed sailor with a secret.

Circus and cabaret

a circle of people in bright yellow tops mid-leap
Photograph: Supplied/Sydney Festival/Justin Ma

Humans 2.0

Theatre Circuses

Producing some of the most spectacular circus acts in the world, never mind Australia, Brisbane powerhouse’s Circa are back this Sydney Festival and they mean business. They’ll amaze jaw-gaping audiences at Carriageworks with a sensuous, sinewy work building on on their smash hit Sydney Festival 2017 show. As spun from the mind of artistic director Yaron Lifschitz, the show pushes the boundaries of what circus and acrobatics can be. The towering pile of human excellence on display will celebrate the magnificent power and silky smooth moves of the human body in intimate detail. And composer Ori Lichtik knows just how to match their virtuosic body-bending with a soaring score. He’s ably assisted by Paul Jackson’s dazzling light show.

Royal Heart Revue
Photograph: Tom Wilkinson

The Royal Heart Revue

Theatre Performance art

Curated and hosted by Sydney's queen of burlesque herself, Porcelain Alice, this vintage-style variety show takes over Newtown’s stalwart vaudevillian-vibed live venue, the Vanguard, with a gang of gorgeous showgirls and unruly circus folk. The monthly show made a recent heart-stopping return after the city went dormant due to the big party pooper of 2020. But don't worry if you missed out, you have three more shots, on December 3, 10 and 17. With burlesque front and centre, you can also expect to see circus, aerial acts and troupes sporting heart motifs. Like all great post-lockdown comebacks, this is a ‘dinner and a show’ event, with a two-course meal included in your ticket ($101.90).

Dance

First nations woman Jasmin Sheppard performing a dance inspired by the lyrebird
Photograph: Supplied/Samuel James

The Complication of Lyrebirds

Dance Campbelltown Arts Centre, Campbelltown

Jasmin Sheppard’s thought-provoking new dance work The Complication of Lyrebirds tackles head-on the pressure many First Nations Australians feel to blend in. Debuting at the Campbelltown Arts Centre January 20-23 as part of Sydney Festival 2021, the idea behind teh show has us hooked. As creator, choreogrpaher and performer, Sheppard adopts the mating dance of the native lyrebird. The feathered fancy famously adopts the calls of prospective mates to appear more attractive to them (not to mention mimicking all sorts of mind-bending sounds, from construction work to pedestrian crossing beeps). She compares this technique to the external pressures placed on many Indigenous people to either prove their ‘blackness’, or somehow minimise it, by adopting different ways of talking or appearing.

Family-friendly shows

Frozen Capitol Theatre Disney Sydney 2019
Photograph: Deen van Meer

Frozen

Theatre Musicals Capitol Theatre, Haymarket

What could be cooler than booking a trip to Arendelle while we wait for international borders to re-open? The magnificent Jemma Rix, who was so spectacular as Elphaba in Wicked, takes on another enchanted role as the magically cursed Elsa, doomed to go it alone in her icy palace while belting out irrepressible earworm  ‘Let it Go’. SIX the Musical star Courtney Monsma plays her estranged sister Anna, with Jersey Boys lead Thomas McGuane as Prince Hans, and Jonathan MacMillan and Lachlan McIntyre sharing the role of reindeer herder Sven. Matt Lee (Mary Poppins) get the best gig in show as adorably goofy snowman Olaf. With an ice-cool cast like this, consider us super-excited. 

Check out the all-Aussie Sydney Festival line-up

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