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Driftwood the Musical ★★★
Glen Street Theatre, until May 28

After an acclaimed first outing in Melbourne in 2022, Driftwood, a new musical based on an original stage play by Jane Bodie, with music and lyrics by Anthony Barnhill, has found its way to Sydney. It is a family saga spanning three generations inspired by the memoir of Eva de Jong-Duldig, who was born to Polish-Jewish parents in Vienna in 1938. Through her, we piece together the journey of her parents, Karl and Slawa, as they escape the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany), are then deported from Singapore and interned as German refugees in Australia, before finally finding a home in Melbourne.

Tania de Jong and Michaela Burger star in Driftwood the Musical.Credit: James Terry

This is a heartfelt show, not least because one of the main characters is played by Tania de Jong, daughter of Eva. But, family ties aside, this show’s inventive storytelling and excellent performances, along with a not-unwelcome dose of nostalgia, make it hard to resist. Anthony Barnhill’s impressive score, which deserves a bigger band, melds razor-sharp narrative and big showstoppers with the emotional jolt of traditional Jewish prayer song. Meanwhile, director Gary Abrahams stitches together the complicated, stop-start episodes with clarity and pace.

A tight-knit, high-energy ensemble smooths out the rough edges of a work that is still evolving. Bridget Costello as the fresh-faced, bright-voiced Eva is a standout, as is Anton Berezin as Karl, particularly in his final number, where he demonstrates a wide vocal range. Tania de Jong brings a dignity and operatic tone to the role of Slawa. Nelson Gardner’s voice adds a delicious dark burr to the ensemble, while Michaela Burger’s portrayal of Slawa’s sister Rella is bursting with emotion.

Driftwood the Musical is about many things – love, war, art, refugees and tennis– but it is also about what we leave behind.

Driftwood the Musical is also on at Riverside Theatres from May 31-June 4 and Darlinghurst Theatre Company from June 7-18.

Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

When I Am Not Theatre ★★★
Art Gallery of NSW, until June 4

It’s almost more fun watching the audience at Melbourne artist Shelley Lasica’s new performance exhibition than it is watching the work itself.

Spectators follow the lead of a troupe of dancers, including Lasica, who wander around two large rooms of the gallery, stopping to dance singly or together, gyrate their hips, paw the floor or pile up into an untidy tangle of limbs.

Shelley Lasica’s When I Am Not There can be unnerving to watch.Credit: Felicity Jenkins

Yet etched onto the onlookers’ faces is a heady mix of confusion, fascination and, sometimes, outright alarm. A man standing idly viewing the performance visibly jumps when a dancer walks straight up to him and says, “I didn’t expect to see you here!”

He’s just composing an answer when you can see it suddenly dawn on him that this is simply part of the dancers’ dialogue and has nothing at all to do with him perhaps playing truant from the office. But by then, he’s already blushed beetroot red.

And that’s part of the charm of such an avant-garde display. It feels quite confronting to be so close to the performers, and on their level, watching what they’re doing with their arms, their legs and their bodies, especially when they break off and march towards you or sidle past.

Staring at more traditional artwork never feels this intimate. This, however, is the tension between the ideas of “to perform” and “to exhibit” that Lasica has been highlighting over her four-decade career.

Sometimes there’ll be eight dancers, sometimes six, occasionally two. All are dressed in mismatched outfits and dance independently – with one taking off her top and using it to wipe away her underarm sweat – before coming together to the sounds of an otherworldly score by Francois Tetaz.

The props, including costumes from past performances pegged to a webbing, moulded plastic children’s chairs and vinyl mats, look almost incidental.

It’s an interesting, and slightly unnerving, concept, with the only guarantee that, at any viewing, it’s unlikely ever to be the same. And that we’re all, somehow, playing a role in this strange balletic search for meaning.

Sydney Morning Herald subscribers can enjoy 2-for-1 tickets* to the Archibald, Wynne and Sulman Prizes exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW during June 2023. Click here for more details.

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