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'Rockabye' by Joanna Murray-Smith. The Canadian premiere

Produced by ARC now onstage at Toronto's Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street

Produced by ARC now onstage at Toronto's Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street

Joe Szekeres

“Electrifying and riveting performances! The shocking turn of events in this ‘Rockabye’ still makes me think about our continued obsession with all things celebrity. Perceptive and keen direction by Rob Kempson.”

ARC’s Canadian premiere of Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s ‘Rockabye’ takes a shockingly dramatic turn in the second act I didn’t see coming. And when it finally becomes clear what’s going on…

Mother of God…

A dark comedy, ‘Rockabye’ initially deals with the public’s obsession with celebrity and status, which deviates into a social justice issue in the second act. When this happened, I was initially confused about the connection between the two. And then, when it was apparent what was happening, my interest in said issue deepened even further when the pieces came together.

Bottom line…is ‘Rockabye’ worth a visit?

It certainly is, especially for some electrifying and riveting performances and perceptively keen direction by Rob Kempson.

The production is set in 2009 in London, England. I loved that Murray-Smith’s script is chock full of pop culture references (Madonna and Deborah Harry are only two) because that’s when some excellent period music soared. The dialogue zips and clips at a sometimes-furious pace, with zingers upon zingers thrown in for appropriate hilarious measure in the first act. There are some wonderful comic moments in the back-and-forth bantering between the characters.

It is in Act 2 that events turn sombre and dramatic. And that’s where we begin to see unfeigned and genuine stage work.

Ageing rock star Sidney (Deborah Drakeford) is insecure and irritable in her high maintenance. Her success on the music circuit stalled after her number-one album. Although she’s a hit in Russia, Sidney’s career appears to be fading now. She’s over forty. Is she going to have to re-invent herself? Moreover, Sidney wants a baby as her biological clock is ticking, and she turns to adoption officer Layla (Shauna Thompson).

Those fawners surrounding Sidney believe a comeback album will put her back on the music charts. But a baby in the picture?

The supposedly trusted yes-men hovering around Sidney are comic parodies. Her trashy, coked-out manager, Alfie (Sergio Di Zio), might not be that reliable. Personal assistant Julia (Julie Lumsden) appears no-nonsense and on top of Sidney’s scheduled appearances, but she harbours her own secrets and will not let them destroy her work ethic. Sidney’s ex-rocker boyfriend, Jolyon (Nabil Traboulsi), isn’t much help either.

What will help to kick start Sidney’s career is an appearance on rock journalist Tobias Beresford’s (Christopher Allen) television show. However, like any journalist out to bring dirt for viewers, Tobias relies on rather unscrupulous tactics to profile Sidney on his television show about her upcoming album and where her life and career are headed. His flirting with Layla may just lead to potential disaster for everyone involved.

Jackie Chau’s uncluttered set design and Jareth Li’s sharply lit spotlight during the pre-show focused attention on the stage. The Andy Warhol-ish painting of rocker Sidney hangs over the couch and coffee table, upon which sits a picture of a baby buggy. I assume this to be Sidney’s dressing/sitting room in her London apartment.

At breakneck speed, the set pieces are moved in and out quietly by the cast. Chau’s costume designs are glorious creations, from Drakeford’s skin-tight black leather pants right down to the gold chains and open half-way down buttoned shirts worn by Di Zio and Allen. Adrian Shepherd Gawinski’s musical composition and sound design are apt reminders of the rock scene combined again with Li’s concert blazing and bright lights just before Sidney gives a show.

Deborah Drakeford is vocally and convincingly passionate as the narcissistic yet terrific-looking and gravelly-sounding Sidney. I could detect that roughness in her voice akin to rock singers. The mousse in Drakeford’s hair made me immediately think of Deborah Harry. Sergio Di Zio is an impressively sleazy, porn-stashed manager, Alfie. At first, I didn’t recognize a bearded Nabil Traboulsi as the dopey boyfriend, but like Di Zio, something in both performances makes the skin crawl uneasily. Julie Lumsden aptly becomes that caricature of the personal assistant to a demanding rockstar. She’s matter-of-fact and business-like but will not put up with any crap from anyone, including her boss. Sidney’s cook Esme (Kyra Harper) offers insight into why women may or may not want to have a baby as part of who they are.

Shauna Thompson and Christopher Allen are on top of their gain and become two of the play’s highlights in their performances. Their synchronistic chemistry and the peeling back of layers as their characters ‘get to know’ each other are masterfully crafted and handled.

Final Comments: I hope there is an opportunity for a talkback after some performances. Part of ARC’s mandate is to take socially justice active material and allow audiences to engage with relevant global conversations through community engagement.

‘Rockabye’ deserves that opportunity for informed discussion.

In the meantime, grab some friends to see and discuss this Canadian premiere.

Running time: approximately two hours and 45 minutes, including one interval/intermission.

‘Rockabye’ runs until February 11 at the Factory Theatre in the Mainspace Auditorium, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto. For tickets, call the Box Office at (416) 504-9971 or online at www.arcstage.com for more information.

‘ROCKABYE’ by Joanna Murray-Smith, The Canadian Premiere
Presented by ARC

Produced by Julia Dickson
Directed by Rob Kempson
Set and Costume Design: Jackie Chau
Lighting Design: Jareth Li
Composer & Sound Designer: Adrian Shepherd-Gawinski
Stage Manager: Tamara Vuckovic

Performers: Deborah Drakeford, Nabil Traboulsi, Christopher Allen, Sergio Di Zio, Kyra Harper, Julie Lumsden, Shauna Thompson.

Photo Credit: Sam Moffatt. Centre: Deborah Drakeford and Christopher Allen.

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