Reviews - Tiptoe | June 2015

Madeleine Dale | 18 June 2015

Sven Swenson’s powerful new play is the perfect mix of Australian gothic thriller and unflinching post-war narrative. With an incredible cast and a stellar script, Tiptoe is not a production to miss.

After the plethora of military plays that opened in April, Tiptoe feels a little late to the party—but perhaps this is fitting, given that it deals primarily with the aftermath of the Great War, and the uncertain, turbulent time that we rarely see on stage or screen. Certainly, it’s worth the wait, as Tiptoe is arguably the best response to the ANZAC centenary to hit a Queensland stage. Play-wright Sven Swenson has gained considerable critical acclaim throughout his illustrious career, and his interconnected series The Sundial Plays(of which Tiptoe is a part) have won three gold and five silver Matilda awards. With work like this, it’s very easy to see why

Tiptoe is an incredibly taught piece of writing, playing out in two time-frames on either side of the stage simultaneously. A remarkably clever script weaves intricately between these two settings, and through the haunting memory of the war, as the play brings together elements of gothic thriller with post-war anxieties and narratives of social oppression. The story has almost too many twists to number, and every time you feel you might have it pinned down, the play snakes away again. But if the body of this production is riveting, the aftershocks of its final act will be felt long after the audience has left the theatre.

To say Tiptoe is powerful is to grossly underestimate the potential this play has to sucker punch you in the gut. Every character is wonderfully rich, and in their unexpected moments of weakness and strength they are by turns funny, frank, thought-provoking and utterly heart-breaking.

The seven-strong cast must be applauded for their unfaltering realisation of a script that is whip-fast, frequently disturbing, physical and full-frontal. Sarah McLeod is captivating as the foul-mouthed, deeply inappropriate Binny, while James Trigg (as Angus Drummond) and Sam Ryan (as Seth McClusky) shoulder the weight of not only some of the most difficult character moments, but of preserving the play’s central mystery. Everyone on stage, however, sell their complicated, flawed and very human characters completely.

Meredith Walker | 18 June 2015

Critically acclaimed Brisbane playwright Sven Swenson’s “Tiptoe” is set in 1918/19 Logan Village. Even without having read any show blurbs, it is clear that staging is representative of a time gone by; the Powerhouse Theatre stage looks appropriately weathered and worn in its representation of a sparse house. For a moment it feels a bit Anne of Green Gables-ish, with mention of porch chair pondering and an evening visitor from across the gully. It is quickly clear, however, that Binny Broadroot (Sarah McLeod), is no Anne of Avonlea.

When the audience meets the foul-mouthed, formidable and very funny Binny on Valentine’s Day 1919, she has little to celebrate. With a lover lost in Great War, she is full of superstition and yearning, but only behind closed doors. Six weeks earlier, on New Year’s Eve, 1918, Angus Drummond (James Trigg) and Seth McClusky, (Sam Ryan) two recently returned soldiers, sneak away to a dilapidated humpy to tend to their home-made still and share in their forbidden love, unaware of the far-reaching consequences about to be befall.

Each of these three characters desperately clings to their vision of a perfect life as the two timeframes unfold simultaneously side by side. And the result of the overlap of these two different scenes is quite astounding to experience. Engaging as the stories are individually, when they collide together with shared lines and thematic focus, audiences can only marvel at the precision and craftedness of the piece, as they try to keep up with its fast pace and only retrospectively recognisable hints, such is the script’s subtle cleverness.

The two scenes occur under the watchful eye of Binny’s fallen beau, Snow (Michael Deed), who hovers as narrator of his letters home from war. Full of eloquence in his meditations of life and love, his words are perhaps the most enduring of the evening, as he takes audiences into the heart of the human condition with observations about secrets and life, emphasising the Australian psychological thriller’s examination of the price of the post-war fairytale in a changed world and the haunting power of secrets, for there are more wars that just those that are named.

Sven Swenson has a talent for dialogue and “Tiptoe” proves to be no exception. The script is brilliant and its dialogue strikingly authentic down to the finest of language details. The show is a long one, told as it is in three acts with two intermissions, but necessarily so, given the many clever threads to its tightly-woven fabric. And it is only in Act Three, when the plot twists around upon itself in unforseen ways, that its genius can truly be appreciated.

As the always inappropriate, commanding central figure Binny, Sarah McLeod is captivating, however, she could not shine as she does without the impressive work of her fellow performers, particularly Caitlin Hill as young newly-wed Justine Cutler. Initially girlish as accused by Binny, she soon transforms before the audience’s eyes. And while Acts One and Two belong to the ladies, Act Three is dominated by Sam Ryan’s masterful execution. Cameron Clark, too, as Justine’s youthful newlywed husband Archie, gives an appropriately youthful performance when naïve, when drunk and when naïve and drunk.

“Tiptoe” is a daring and confronting show in its inclusion of strong language, simulated sexual violence and full frontal nudity. But it is also an outstanding piece of theatre that needs to be seen more than once, if only so you can take in the elements missed the first time around. There is so much happening on stage, it is difficult to settle focus for any length of time, which keeps audience members guessing until its final moments and enhances the discomfort of some of the gothic thriller’s storyline. It might be more marathon than sprint, but this only makes the “Tiptoe” journey more satisfying.

Kellie Scott | 19 June 2015

If themes of gay oppression, rape, war, abortion, and betrayal bother you, you’ll miss out on seeing this intriguing psychological thriller from Brisbane playwright Sven Swenson.

Tiptoe is a story with many twists – all of which you won’t likely see coming. And if you think theatre can’t bring you to the edge of your seat, this suspense-ridden plot will change your mind.

The three-act-play (yes it’s three, don’t leave after the second like many did thinking it was over red rover), depicts two time frames simultaneously.

Having not read the preview, this wasn’t entirely clear to begin with. And there were some other confusions at the start in terms of the relationship between characters. But quickly the story moved into second gear and I was engrossed.

On New Year’s Eve, 1918, Angus Drummond and Seth McClusky, two recently returned soldiers, sneak away to a broken down shed to tend to their home-made still. They have skipped Spanish Flu quarantine and invite over some extra company for an evening that starts out more innocently than it ends.

Six weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, the notorious Binny Broadfoot has had a day of ill-omens.

A knock on the door signals Binny’s premonition of unexpected company – Justine Cutler.

Sarah McLeod as Binny is as crass as they come and brilliantly embraces the rough Australian-owned traits. Immediately the audience is forced to question why she has become the hard woman she is, which is made clearer as she is visited frequently by the ghost of Snow Cutler, played by Michael Deed.

Caitlin Hill as Justine Cutler portrayed the mature 16-year-old well, a persistent presence in Binny’s home.

Forbidden lovers Drummond and McClusky are played by James Trigg and Sam Ryanrespectively. The pair are convincing in their struggle having returned from the perils of war while also battling with their romance.

Cameron Clark as Archie Cutler is the biggest surprise of all, as his character transforms throughout the tale.

Gene Von Banyard strips bare to play the role of Jurgi Girdler, a “man haunted by the tragedies of his past and the collective horrors of war. With a ghoulish lope he haunts the surrounding landscape. Jurgi Girdler shuns the light,” as described by Banyard himself.

The set effectively set up two backdrops to play alongside one another and along with costumes, took you back to the early 1900s.

21 June 2015

Brisbane, 1919. The first Great War of the twentieth century is over, but the terrors aren’t. The night air is thick with shrieks, ghosts, and everything you couldn’t print in a newspaper – nudity, abortion, buggery, bondage…

Sven Swenson’s ‘gothic thriller’ is a period piece that pretty much ignores the outward primness of its era to explore the dark soul-spaces beneath. Even teenage bride Justine can’t escape the horror. She’s already been surgically deprived of a womb by her own father.

Desperate to engineer a fairytale of family life, Justine has come slumming to buy a child. But the potential supplier, sluttish farmwoman Binny, is more keen on interrogating her. Why has Justine’s husband not been seen since the night of his buck’s gathering? The truth is revealed in intercutting flashbacks. It involves a pair of closeted veterans and the unquiet ghost of their digger mate.

Swenson has a gift for making characters live through vivid turns of phrase. It’s what makes his work worth watching even if you find his overall design too convoluted, as I did here.

The suspense frequently stalls, especially when switching between story strands. Often one tale doesn’t slip into the background enough for the other to fully take over. This may be intended, but it’s hard to feel properly engaged if you think you might be missing something in the part you’re not concentrating on.

Other elements are momentarily effective, but their connection to the main plot is too slight or revealed too late to add to its forward drive. The soldier ghost speaks fragments of his memories or makes portentous pronouncements. A crazed hermit wanders around, but it’s not clear if he’s really there or just being thought of by the others onstage.

Then there are the frequent periods when characters almost lose sight of the present in order to detail how they’ve been thwarted by the past. There’s a fair amount of raking over the horrors of war and sexual restrictions of the time. Though these are important concerns, their treatment feels too drawn out, especially when people paraphrase what they’ve just said a moment ago.

It certainly feels a long wait for the S&M climax that comes in the third act. Even then, with so many gear shifts beforehand there’s barely enough momentum to give satisfying force to the dramatic collision.

That said, there are aspects of this technically polished production that do work well. The set makes you feel the grain of the wood, the coarseness of the cloth. An eerie soundscape bristles with animal cries and the sounds of indefinable things moving outside. The lighting effects, including film projections, are deftly deployed. A translucent screen gives the impression you could pass your hand through the digger ghost, and turns the nakedness of the wandering madman a deathly grey.

Above all there are the personalities that Swenson’s dialogue creates. If not quite three-dimensional, they are sharply etched, and brought to life by some committed acting. Sarah Mcleod is all thorns as Binny, the vengeful drudge ‘with a mouth like the bottom of a birdcage.’ Cameron Clark shows an impressive range as his bridegroom character moves from sunny innocent to hardfaced survivor.

James Trigg and Sam Ryan are excellent as the disturbed soldier lovers. Triggs shows us a man who dodges his own fear by terrorising others. His bullish frame twitches with pent up paranoia. With the bodily beauty of Ryan you’re aware of how much potential for love has been lost. There’s a terrible woundedness to the way he submits to his partner’s increasingly brutal demands, as though he knows no other way to show loyalty. It’s a huge relief when he finally musters enough anger to force an honesty between them that at last gives the tale a feeling heart.

Finn Kirkman | 21 June 2015

As 1919 dawns, something sinister has gone down in the backwoods of Logan Village. Two returned soldiers, Seth and Angus, are never seen again after spending the night drinking hooch at a tumbledown shack belonging to local bogeyman Jurgi Girdler, and local lad Archie Cutler has all but vanished too. Then, six weeks later, Archie's young and proper wife Justine calls on the abrasive, no-nonense Binny Broadfoot (who's literally haunted by the ghost of her dead Digger lover Snow).

Tiptoe, by acclaimed Queensland playwright Sven Swenson, weaves a fascinating and fully-realised world during its three-hour length, with a solid backdrop in post-WWI history.

Swenson's script cleverly intercuts three time periods, constantly switching back and forth, and the full final act reveal of what happened to these tortured souls drip-feeds information from all three. It's a sharp way of writing and real edge-of-the-seat stuff.

Katelyn Panagiris

Tiptoe is an Australian psychological thriller, one of the interconnected series, The Sundial Plays, by critically acclaimed playwright Sven Swenson.

It is a play of epic proportions, shining a light on humanity in the aftermath of World War I.

The play follows seven characters across two timeframes presented on stage simultaneously.

From the opening moments, I felt immersed in the gothic world of the play; crafted in no small part by Brent Lammas’ set design and Tim Gawne’s lighting design. Combined with Wil Hughes’ sound design, an eerie and unsettling mood is set as the omnipresent character, Snow Cuttler (Michael Deed) is introduced. The interaction of performance and design – for example the use of the scrim and projection – distances the past from the present, and the fallen from the living. What follows on from these opening moments is a performance of equal parts beauty and violence.

As a psychological thriller Tiptoe demands active engagement and interpretation from the audience. The play contains several characters, subplots and twists at every point. Striking a balance between what is said and unsaid is crucial: in the first act I felt like there was too much exposition, whereas in the latter acts of the play I was left piecing together fragments of information. The density of the narrative especially became too much to process when focus was split and I was required to navigate three conversations simultaneously. In saying this, the staging is effective in linking characters and situations across the two timeframes, and there are some beautiful shared lines executed in perfect unison.

Each character, haunted by the past and dreams of a perfect future, is fully embodied by actors who realize the dense script with great skill. They are captivating to watch, with moments of sheer brilliance in Act III when the tension and intensity of the piece reaches its peak. In particular, the performances of James Trigg as Angus Drummond and Sam Ryan as Seth McClusky are heart-wrenching, while Sarah McLeod’s gritty performance as Binny Broadfoot carries the performance through to its final moments.

At the heart of Tiptoe is a simple love story driven by loss and hope. It is an enthralling performance, engaging the audience on both an intellectual and emotional level.

Toni Megan

Tiptoe, written, directed and produced by multiple award-winner, Sven Swenson opened Wednesday night at the Brisbane Powerhouse and was received by an audience who watched in both stunned silence and fits of giggles.

The Powerhouse was the perfect location for the stories of seven unfortunate souls and the ghosts that haunt them. In fact, the beautiful exposed brick of the building, with its graffiti scribbles, made a beautiful backdrop for all the sad projections that were displayed upon it.

Tiptoe is set in the Logan area after the conclusion of Word War I and as a result audiences can expects some clever Queensland based humor weaved into the brilliant script.

The stage itself was split into two distinct locations and time periods. On the right audiences were exposed to the happenings inside Binny Broadfoot's home on Valentine's Day. The left side of the stage however sent audiences six weeks into the past so we could see what Angus Drummond and Seth McClusky were doing on New Year's Eve. The two returned soldiers stay hidden away in a dilapidated humpy trying to understand the feelings that emerged between them during their military service. On both sides of the stage there is an unexpected knock at the door, and as new characters step over the limen Tiptoe suddenly becomes a fast-paced psychological thriller.

What is more brilliant than the split focus on stage is the way Swenson weaved the two plots together. I have now watched the confronting performance twice and only on the second time did I truly understand the consideration put into every single line, which allows this interaction to happen. Not only are certain props mirrored on both sides, but even when Binny is cussing about something completed different to what the war heroes are discussing, there are shared words, lines and themes that clash together and highlight the playwriting brilliance of Sven Swenson.

All seven characters had their own merits, as did the actors who played them. In fact, you know you have some really great characters on stage if one never utters a word and yet still captures the audience's attention. However it was Binny Broadfoot played by Sarah McLeod who excelled on the stage. This intimidating character whose desire to read every little occurrence as a warning of danger and whose nasty vocabulary will have even potty-mouthed audiences cringing, had the crowd in fits of gutsy laughter right to the very end. McLeod, with her extensive list of acting credits, did an incredible job of portraying this rough woman in both her commanding voice and often-vulgar demeanour.

Overall Tiptoe is a confronting and shocking thriller with a sharp script and tough characters. However this brilliant work is only in season for three more nights so don't wait around to grab your seat.

Bobbi-Lea Dionysius | 29 June 2015

It’s impossible to predict what delights awaits you when planning to attend a Sven Swenson production. With intriguing storylines and surprising plot twists assured, the lead-up to opening night is always full of anticipation.

Tiptoe, the latest production from the masterly creative team at Pentimento Productions has just finished an incredibly short run at the Brisbane Powerhouse and left an awed audience in its dark and murky wake.

Act one of this frenzied three act thriller introduces us to all the players and impressively runs two scenes at the same time, side by side on a rustically adorned stage that takes us to two places in Logan, 1919. The imbalance of the two timeframes and two competing sets keeps the audience slightly confused and has the remarkable effect of quietly unsettling the viewer as the story starts to unravel from both ends of the timeline burning toward the centre of the story which is where our perpetrator lurks.

Angus (James Trigg) and Seth (Sam Ryan) have absconded from quarantine on returning from World War 1 and hide out in an old shack where they have the privacy to explore their passionate love for one another and tend to their illegal still, Spanish flu fearing Logan residents are none-the-wiser.

Playing out simultaneously beside the two holed-up returned serviceman is Binny Broadfoot (Sarah Macleod) in her living room some weeks later. Pregnant and supposedly planning a home abortion, she is disturbed by Justine (Caitlin Hill), the barren wife of the weedy and seedy Archie Cutler (Cameron Clark). As the two ends of the play hurtle toward each other (like a stick of dynamite lit at both ends) they are interwoven with the mysterious tales of the death of the revered Snow Cutler (Michael Deed) – Archie’s brother who died at war, and Jurdi Girdler (Gene Von Banyard) a creepy, haunting character who exists on the edge of society; an urban myth-like creature that sticks in the nightmares of the locals. The explosive conclusion is truly unexpected. My guest and I both turned to each other with our mouths open and eyes wide once the story had reached its intense conclusion.

Once again Sven Swenson shines out as a master craftsman; the writing is supreme and the characters are complete human beings uncovered from some dark crevices of the human psyche. Swenson keeps his audience well in his grip for almost three hours which is not an often accomplished task. It is arguable that Swenson’s courage to push hard on the boundaries of shock demonstrates his true genius. An example of this? The audience watches a captive Archie Cutler flailing around (full frontal nudity) on the shack floor in a well-orchestrated and extremely graphic rape scene. The extreme nature of the scene is essential to set-up the final reveal and deliver the oomph it requires. If it had had been one second longer or had one more visually assaulting element however it would risk going too far and endangering the payoff but Swenson knows how to use shock in high doses which other writers may avoid for fear of being confronting, or others still overdo, mistakenly thinking that more makes the glory.

Of course such brilliant writing serves great actors well and it’s difficult to single-out cast members from such a talented, well played line-up; Sarah McLeod was full-on as the brash, provocative, independent Binny; a woman of-her-time and out-of-all-time. James Trigg was powerful as the conflicted queer Angus and Sam Ryan’s tortured Seth made the heart sink in hopelessness.

Pentimento Productions was established in 2009 to produce Sven Swenson’s award-winning work and should be held up as a shining light for Brisbane’s independent theatre scene. If you haven’t yet seen a work from this magnificent team, you are most definitely missing out on some of the best talent that Brisbane has to offer. Show your support for the team by visiting their website Pentimento Productionsor keeping an eye out for their next production.

It’s a shame the run was so short but if you have missed out on any of Svenson’s work, I encourage you to get in quickly next time.

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