Brutal Utopias

Brutal Utopias
By Stephen Carleton. Playlab Theatre. New Benner Theatre, Metro Arts, Brisbane. 18 to 28 May 2022

When I see a new Australian play, personally this is exactly the sort of story I want to see: an engaging mix of political history, current events, personal relationships, family secrets and a generous dollop of warm and witty humour. And I think the full-house audience at the New Benner Theatre at Metro Arts agreed. Brisbane-based award-winning playwright, Stephen Carleton, has set his new work in New York and Yugoslavia, with the cast playing multiple roles in both a current and 1971 cold-war setting to explore themes of climate change, colonialism, capitalism, Brutalist architecture, and our human need to survive and leave our mark on the world.

Director Matt Scholten has a dream job on his hands with a superb cast. He steers them all to a seamless ensemble performance. Ashlee Lollback is energetic and engaging as the feisty Aussie geo-engineer Natalia, and the young Yugoslav designer Valentina. Kate Wilson shines as the acerbic New York architect and older Valentina, and it is a joy to see her on stage. Nikhil Singh is totally convincing as both a high-powered modern-day New Yorker and an Indonesian businessman in the 1970s: a refreshing presence on stage. Michael Mandalios is outstanding as the ambitious Branislav and principled Costas. I was totally enthralled by his chameleon-like ability to portray such diverse characters. All the performers show great versatility in capturing their multiple roles. The characters’ story threads cleverly collide and lead to a shock reveal and satisfying conclusion.

I look forward to reviewing Anthony Standish’s performance in the future, but for the show I saw, due to illness, his dual roles as corporate cut-throat New York CEO and cold-war entrepreneur were brilliantly handled by Francis McMahon. The director informed us that Mr McMahon had found out just three hours before curtain-up that he would be stepping in. And, while he read the part from a script, to his credit, I totally forgot after about five minutes. He humbly stepped aside when the audience wanted to give him a lion’s share of applause at the show’s end.

Transporting the audience to such diverse locations is a stunning set design by Bill Haycock – chrome, glass and concrete match the Brutalist architecture movement that is a backdrop to the story. With lighting by Geoff Squires it magically morphs from a New York skyscraper to the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel to office blocks in Yugoslavia, the suburbs in Coolum and back to New York for a Guggenheim exhibition! The costumes by Bill Haycock and sound design by Guy Webster also work outstandingly well to underline the play’s themes. It is a really wonderful achievement by the whole creative tech team. It is no wonder that this production has seen sold-out performances for its all-too-short run.

Beth Keehn

Photographer: Stephen Henry

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