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Castle Hill Players: 33 Variations - Review by Jordan Anderson

It starts pianissimo, with a slow-building tremolo of rolling chords in the left hand, and then finally, a soaring melody rings throughout the theatre, captivating all those inside. 33 Variations plays like a beautiful piano concerto full of intrigue, whimsy, and heart, constantly changing but ultimately staying true to its heart and core theme. Jennifer Willison has not only succeeded but thrived in bringing this multi-faceted story to life in the Pavilion Theatre and allowing it the space and time to truly sing out and evolve.

This show did so many things right, but for me, one of the biggest wins is its attention to details—the little flourishes that give it the extra edge. One of these details that I loved was in the costuming, Anthea Brown, putting small references to that era of Beethoven into the modern costumes was such a great element that really showed the thought and care the whole team put into the show. Similarly, the set design by Maureen Cartledge had a great, cluttered energy that really conveyed the manic, panicked energy of Beethoven trying to find the music. It really is a joy when all creatives share a common vision and come under the command of an excellent director. Not only were the creatives completely dedicated to this show, but each actor on the stage is worthy of the utmost praise and recognition, and if I had the space to mention them all, I would. Oh, wait, I do.

Todd Beilby played Diabelli, the original composer of the Waltz and music publisher, with a lovely flair and drama that would have felt right at home on the stage of any opera house in Vienna. Robert Snars played the friend of Beethoven, Schindler, with determined energy and quiet comedy. He had a fierce protectiveness and love of Beethoven that radiated off him in waves, and the way he commanded the stage was a joy to watch.

Faith Jessel played Gertie, the uptight German archivist. Many of the funniest scenes were the ones she was in, completely deadpan, allowing the shock value of the lines to elicit belly laughs from the audience. But not only was she hilarious, but watching her frosty shell thaw as she became friends with Katherine was genuinely heartwarming.

Mike, Clara’s boyfriend, was played by Jen Rowe; his wooing of Clara was beautiful, and you could see the heart and passion he put into the character.

Speaking of Clara, Katherine’s daughter was played by Tia Cullen with a stubbornness to rival her mother's. The internal struggle of trying to hide herself from the very real pain she feels about her mother’s illness and the fear that she could not be there to support her mother as she needs it, compounded with the fact that her mother didn’t want to lose her own independence, was exquisitely portrayed.

Of course, I must mention Steve Rowe as Beethoven and Michelle Masefield as Katherine. Steve played a manic Beethoven, conveying the genius and the pitfalls of said genius with an unhinged fervour. His overall descent as he lost his hearing was humbling to watch, but how he still retained his passion for music was absolutely touching and one of the highlights. Michelle played Katherine with a determined spirit, a heartbreaking vulnerability, and a touching respect for those struggling with ALS. Her journey, mirrored against Beethoven's, left me in tears; it was a journey of subtlety, starting well before you realise. A small shaking arm, a slight stutter on a word, or a small misstep—it was all there from the start; you just had to notice. Every moment, she drew you in, and you could not look away.

There’s one final person I must mention: Andrew Beban, who spent the entire show on stage behind a beautiful grand piano and accompanied the story on stage, playing his way through a selection of the variations. His playing was beautiful and really helped elevate the emotions of the scenes. As someone who works mostly in music theatre, there was something comforting about having a live musician on stage, but it was more comforting than people suddenly bursting out into show tunes.

In a year of excellent theatre, this is going to be one show that I keep coming back to. I always love the shows I see at the Pavilion, but there’s something about this one that has just stuck with me, and I thoroughly suggest you go see it. This show is deserving of all of its 33 variations and 4 and a half symphonies.

Photos courtesy of by Chris Lundie

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