John Bell’s Ensemble debut, a Reg Livermore one-man show and Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests are on the bill.

The Ensemble Theatre celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2018, so in putting together the season Artistic Director Mark Kilmurry wanted to both pay homage to the past but also signal that the Company is looking to the future and moving forward. As part of this, the Ensemble has undertaken a rebranding with a new look brochure.

“We are looking at who we are, what we’re doing and what we’re trying to do – not to change too much but to look at what we are wanting to do more of, particularly co-productions, working with emerging artists, and supporting emerging directors and writers, as well as keeping our core season secure, healthy and fun. I always think variety is the best thing for a season so we’ve got [plays ranging from] Luna Gale, which is more of a challenging drama, to the great Alan Ayckbourn classic The Norman Conquests,” says Kilmurry.

Reg Livermore stars in a new one-man show The Widow Unplugged. Photo © Christian Trinder

The 2018 season includes three new Australian plays, the Australian premiere of three international dramas, and two classic British comedies (four if you count The Norman Conquests as three plays). John Bell makes his Ensemble debut as both actor and director, Sharon Millerchip returns to the stage for the first time in four years, and Reg Livermore – a founding member of the Ensemble – unveils a new one-man show.

The season opens with another new social comedy by David Williamson. “Sandra [Bates, Kilmurry’s long-serving predecessor] and Williamson had a great relationship before I came along and I think he’s been very happy to write a play for us every year. And we are very happy to have one – it’s the biggest selling show of the year. He’s always very popular and I think he speaks to an Australian society that has grown up with him,” says Kilmurry.

Williamson’s new play is called Sorting Out Rachel. Billed as a social comedy “about legacy, entitlement and making good on past relationships”, it concerns a businessman called Bruce who has a secret daughter. “His family want to talk to him about his money when he goes and he’s wondering how to tell them. The Rachel of the title is his granddaughter. It’s pure David Williamson,” says Kilmurry. Sorting Out Rachel is directed by Nadia Tass and stars John Howard and Chenoa Deemal.

John Gaden and John Bell star in Diplomacy. Photo © Christian Trinder

John Bell directs and performs in Diplomacy, a new translation and adaptation of a French play by Cyril Gély called Diplomatie, which premiered in 2011 and was adapted into a film in 2014. Set in 1944 at the Hotel Meurice, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Nordling has one night to persuade the German General Dietrich von Choltitz to disobey Hitler’s instructions to destroy the landmarks of Paris as they leave.

“It’s a great thriller,” says Kilmurry, comparing it to Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. “I read the direct translation from French, which was a bit clunky so we commissioned Julie Rose, who is an award-winning translator, to adapt it for us.”

John Bell directs and also plays the German General, with John Gaden as the suave diplomat. The cast also includes Jennifer Hagan and James Lugton. Anna Volska is Assistant Director.

Sharon Millerchip stars in Willy Russell’s much-loved comic monologue Shirley Valentine. It’s her first time on stage since performing Joanna Murray-Smith’s series of monologues Bombshells for the Ensemble in 2013. In the interim she has worked as Resident Director on the musicals Strictly Ballroom and Aladdin. Mark Kilmurry directs.

Sharon Millerchip stars in Shirley Valentine. Photo © Christian Trinder

“I’ve said to Sharon for five years ‘I’d like to do Shirley Valentine with you’ and she’s said, ‘great, but I’m not acting anymore’ and I’ve said, ‘well I’ll wait’. So, every year I ask her and, finally, at the end of last year she said, ‘yes’. She’s perfect for the role,” says Kilmurry.

Kilmurry also directs Reg Livermore in his new one-man show The Widow Unplugged or An Actor Deploys. “It’s a very funny play about an actor who’s doing a show about his life but keeps getting side-tracked. He realises that he’s in a nursing home but he thinks he’s the entertainment officer. It’s that bitter-sweet melancholy of Reg’s that I love,” says Kilmurry. “It’s going to be a thrill because I haven’t worked with Reg though I’ve been a fan forever.”

Mitchell Butel directs Marjorie Prime by US playwright Jordan Harrison, which was a finalist in the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. Described by The New York Times as an “elegant, thoughtful and quietly unsettling drama”, it explores family, memory and artificial intelligence. Maggie Dence plays an elderly lady with dementia or Alzheimer’s. A young man is employed to play the role of her husband to try and jog her memories. But who is he? And is he real?

Butel calls it “a gem of a play: suspenseful, moving, wryly funny and completely unique. Memory, family, technology, love and loss and science fiction all combine in a powerhouse vehicle for four great actors led by the incomparable Maggie Dence,” he says.

Maggie Dence stars in Marjorie Prime. Photo © Christian Trinder

Genevieve Hegney and Catherine Moore have written and star in a new Australian play called Unqualified. Moore happened to mention to Kilmurry that they had written a six-part comedy series for television. When discussions with networks dragged on, Kilmurry suggested they turn it into a play, so they condensed it into a 90-minute comedy about two women, whose lives have been unravelling, who decide to run an employment agency. The trouble is they have no one on their books so they hire themselves out for various jobs, whether they have the right qualifications or not. Janine Watson directs.

Susanna Dowling (who directed Tribes for the Ensemble in 2016) directs Luna Gale by US playwright Rebecca Gilman. Georgie Parker stars as a social worker who made to decide whether to give the custody of baby Luna Gale to her 19-year old meth-addicted parents, put her into temporary foster care, or hand her over to her Christian grandmother who is filing for permanent adoption. The Guardian described it as “less a social tract than a fascinating moral debate”.

The season ends with Alan Ayckbourn’s classic comedy trilogy The Norman Conquests, directed by Kilmurry with a cast including Danielle Carter, Rachel Gordon, Brian Meeghan, Sam O’Sullivan, Yalin Ozucelik and Matilda Ridgway.

“It’s one of my favourite pieces,” says Kilmurry of the three interconnecting plays which chart events happening simultaneously in the living room, kitchen and garden in a dysfunctional household over the course of a weekend. “You can see each play individually – they all stand alone – or you can do one of those lovely trilogy days on a Saturday with a lunch break.”

The season also includes a pop-up cabaret festival with performances by Mitchell Butel, Todd McKenney and Queenie van de Zandt, and a series of talks called Mornings With Sandra, in which Sandra Bates chats with founding Ensemble members Lorraine Bayly, Reg Livermore and David Williamson.