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Review: Summer of Harold at the Ensemble Theatre

Review by Scott Whitmont

Set in the simpler time of the 1980s, the three short plays by Hilary Bell currently being performed at the Ensemble Theatre may, initially, seem unrelated to each other. Yet each subtly highlights our deep connection to the objects we collect and the memories they evoke - nostalgic, sad or hilariously funny.

In the expert performance hands of Hannah Waterman and Berynn Schwerdt under the direction of Francesca Savige, these pieces sparkle with energy, perfect comedic timing and deep emotion. The first two, Summer of Harold and Enfant Terrible, are extended monologues that would test the mettle of the most talented thespians, whereas the third, Lookout is a profoundly touching ‘double-header’.

Jeremy Allen has designed an imposing set for our stories. The entire back wall from floor to ceiling is a hodgepodge of timber shelves of various sizes, displaying a diverse array of ornaments and objets d’art - each one carrying a special memory or meaning to our protagonists (as becomes evident through the narrative). Whether a coffee mug or a backpack, a painting or a cricket bat, many of them evoke a memory and accompanying story. These mementos are made all the more significant by clever spot lighting from Lighting Designer Matt Cox who also adds mood with shadows and reflected light and shapes on the floor coming from the ‘stained-glass window’. The atmosphere is further enhanced by well-chosen, appropriate music for the times and situations, judiciously provided by Composer & Sound Designer, Mary Rapp.

In Summer of Harold, Hannah Waterman is Janet, who recounts her adventures with her friend Alison, a fellow Tasmanian who as teenage backpackers, happened across a seasonal ‘dream job’ in London as live-in housekeepers to none other than famed playwright Harold Pinter and his equally accomplished (and daunting) wife, Lady Antonia Fraser. They had no experience in cooking or hospitality but decided they could ‘wing it’ and competently do the job. Waterman’s description of how she served a hot lunch in the garden for 25 of London’s aristocracy and arts world elites, as well as her story of the cricket match that ensued must surely rank as one of the most entertaining, gripping and impressive monologues performed on the Sydney stage.

Berynn Schwerdt in Enfant Terrible would be an equal contender for the same praise. Showing tremendous physical comedy, his Gareth is deeply disturbed by the long-standing grudge he has held against a fellow ceramicist since school days. But was it justified, or perhaps misjudged?

In Lookout, Jonathan and Rae look back on their lives and the importance of their relationship to each other. Are they ready to move on? With an unexpected twist in the tale, Schwerdt and Waterman play the roles with a tenderness that moves many in the audience to tears and culminates on the night this reviewer saw it, with a rousing and much-deserved standing ovation.

Bell’s play about “adventure, obsession and hope” and the Ensemble’s production of it are examples of true theatre brilliance.

Image Supplied


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