Canadian Stage presents Jack Charles’ powerful show in Toronto as part of Spotlight Australia

I had never hear of Jack Charles before seeing Canadian Stage Company’s production of Jack Charles V. the Crown. Now, I will never forget him. Charles is a 74-year old famous and infamous Australian Aboriginal actor. He is famous for his award-winning film and television career that has spanned over four decades. He is infamous for an almost equally lengthy career of thievery in support of a severe heroin addiction.

Jack Charles V. the Crown is a one man, multimedia performance that tells the moving, tragic, and uplifting story of Charles’ life. Charles was taken from his mother as an infant and is a survivor of Australia’s forced assimilation program – their version of the residential school system. He grew up in a Salvation Army home for boys where he suffered total isolation from his culture, and experienced sexual abuse. Sound familiar?

It is no small wonder that he turned to drugs and crime. What is miraculous is his journey to come back from that. The piece opens with stills and clips from Charles’ life and acting career, and some particularly gritty footage from a documentary made about him while he was still using.

The performance also featured a live jazz band that accompanied Charles’ storytelling and songs. Charles is an engaging speaker, managing to keep the tone personable and funny despite the strangeness and brutality of his tale. The music did a fine job of creating an atmosphere that was furtive and morose, but also resilient and inspirational.

Charles was sentenced to serve time on 22 separate occasion and ended up spending a total of 20 years incarcerated. A true renaissance man, Charles became a potter while in prison. One of the most arresting and compelling aspects of the show is that Charles makes pottery while having what feels more like an intimate rap session with his audience, rather than a performance.

While on the whole, the inclusion of live music in the performance was evocative and engaging, there were times when the volume of the music made Charles’ powerful words hard to hear or inaudible. This was frustrating and unfortunate because Charles’ words are important, needed, and timely. You don’t want to miss a syllable.

The sound design issues notwithstanding, this is a profoundly personal show that is not to be missed. The piece succeeds at being heavy but not draining, due in large part to Charles’ excellent sense of humour and facility and ability to tell a good joke.

This award-winning play has received international acclaim, and it is fitting that it is being performed here on Turtle Island. By shining a light on Australia’s shameful history of mistreating Indigenous people, he holds up a mirror to one of the saddest chapters of our nation’s past, and it could not have come at a more relevant time.

NEW YORK - Live Arts @ PS122 Theatre

Posted on March 23, 2017 by  in Off-BroadwayPlayssolo

Harrowing and redemptive, Jack Charles V The Crown is a fascinating and dynamic autobiographical performance art piece.

With a mane of white hair and a long white beard, the charismatic, athletic and 73- year-old Jack Charles tells his life story in the course of 75 minutes.

The Aboriginal Mr. Charles was born in Australia in 1943, to an unwed mother who got pregnant 13 times.  According to government legislation he was taken away as an infant and raised in a boys’ home and then taken in by foster parents.  He was an apprentice glass blower and after getting into arguments with his foster parents, he was sent to reform school.  There were many traumas during this era including sexual abuse.

Charles became an actor after getting a part in a production of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in The Sun, founded notable theater companies, and appeared in such films as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

His innate charm, joy of performing and theatrical grandeur is always on display in this show. All of those qualities combined with his resonant, Australian accented vocal delivery makes it easy to imagine him being commanding in Shakespearean and any number of roles in the classics of dramatic literature, as well as a screen actor.  Sadly, environmental circumstances did not as of yet make this possible.

After getting hooked on heroin, he began a life of petty crime, committing robberies to pay for his habit.  He was arrested 22 times and served about 20 years altogether in prison.  A 2008 film documentary about him garnered attention and led him to stop taking heroin.

Co-writer and dramaturge John Romeril collaborated with Charles in shaping this raw material into a compelling narrative.  Racism, classism, the criminal justice system, and grappling with self-destructiveness are all fiercely explored with often gallows humor.

A highly skilled musical trio is onstage throughout, and frequently performs. Musical director Nigel Maclean is on guitar and violin, Phil Collings is on percussion and Malcolm Beveridge is on bass.  They play a lot of jazzy instrumentals and accompany Charles on an eclectic selection of songs that include blues, originals, and even something by Pat Boone.

A flaw of the presentation is an overly elaborate production design and a reliance on multi-media elements that at times undercuts the show’s impact.  However, Charles’ magnetic, lovable rogue persona transcends these mostly accomplished but extraneous conceptual aspects.

Scenic designer Emily Barrie has the stage segmented into areas that indicate a living room with some furniture, a visible backstage dressing room, and a raised platform that serves as Charles’ pottery studio.  It’s all very well rendered, though not really necessary.  Ms. Barrie’s costume design is as lively as her subject.

Peter Worland’s audio-visual design is technically proficient with its recurrent photographs and film clips that are abundantly projected onto a jagged screen that’s center stage.

The musical portions are well modulated by the sound design, but sometimes dull Charles’ booming voice with too much amplification.

The lighting design by Danny Pettingill is as intrusive as the other features with too frequent variances.

Director Rachael Maza’s staging overall adds visual depth and a compelling pace.  Less successful is integrating all of the components into a fluid and totally unified event.

Ultimately these production defects do not deter from the entertaining power of Jack Charles V The Crown.  It is produced by the Australian, the ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, and since its 2013 premiere, has toured internationally.

Jack Charles V The Crown (March 22-25, 2017)

ILBIJERRI Theatre Company

Performance Space 122 and New York Live Arts

New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, in Manhattan


CANADA  National Arts Centre Ottawa 2016

Theatre review: Jack Charles' Australian story uncomfortably true for Canadians 

Published on: January 15, 2016 | Last Updated: January 15, 2016 11:16 AM EST 

Jack Charles V The Crown NAC Studio 

Reviewed Thursday 

At one point in this remarkable show about his own life as a damaged Indigenous person in Australia and the collective experience of colonized Aboriginal people almost anywhere, Jack Charles sings the 1957 Connie Francis hit Who’s Sorry Now? 

It seems an odd choice, this very white song by a very white singer from a very white time in America. Charles, backed by the tight, three-piece band that plays on and off through the show, sings the song in a jaunty, absolutely straight fashion, so while you know it’s meant to be ironic (after all, how sorry are we really about our treatment of Indigenous peoples?), his delivery leaves the import entirely up to us. Heck, he may even be singing the song, one of several in the show, just because he likes it. 

It’s a sly bit of performing, the kind of thing the 72-year-old Charles slips now and then into his compelling account of being a member of the Stolen Generation who was torn from his mother as an infant to become a ward of the state, spent years as the sole Indigenous person in a boys’ school, wound up as an adult who ricocheted between a career on stage and in film and a life as a junkie, cat burglar and repeat prisoner, and finally broke free of drugs and crime to live a fulfilling life. 

Charles’ show, which he co-wrote with John Romeril, opens with a video from Bastardy, the 2009 documentary about him, playing on a raised surface. As we watch the filmed Charles nonchalantly shoot up heroin – the clip is followed by mug shots and a list of his offences including the theft of a pair of Gucci sunglasses — the present-day Charles, an accomplished potter, bends over a wheel fashioning a small pot. 

The juxtaposition of a life badly off-course and the physical presence of a man serenely creating something beautiful is powerful. It also embodies the many juxtapositions of the show and his life: an Indigenous man who’s an outcast in his own land; the attempt to banish existential pain by damaging oneself with drugs (“If this is harmful, bring on the hurt, please,” he says after shooting up in the film clip); the conversational, sometimes very funny manner in which Charles delivers his story and the fact that he suffered so badly from abuse as a child that he was later diagnosed with PTSD. 

Much of Charles’ story rings uncomfortably true for us in Canada and the show is part of the NAC’s focus on Indigenous storytelling and reconciliation during January and February. In fact, Charles briefly but pointedly makes the Canadian link in his line, apparently adjusted for his tour to Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver, “like your Residential schools, I grew up ignorant of my Aboriginal heritage.” It’s a stinging moment for Canadian audiences. 

Directed by Rachael Maza, Charles packs a lot into his 75-minute show including a sketch of the history of Australian Aboriginal theatre and film performance of which he was a prime mover. A man with a self-deprecating but proud sense of himself, he shifts toward the end of the show from addressing us to addressing an off-stage court as he appeals to the judges that his criminal record be expunged. Like the rest of the show, his appeal is delivered in a spirit of reconciliation rooted in an awareness of reality: “I live in hope we are works in progress,” he tells the judges at one point, “hope” being the operative word. 

One’s fingers remain crossed.


DUBLIN THEATRE FESTIVAL: Jack Charles V The Crown – Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin Oct 12 2014


Writers: Jack Charles and John Romeril

Director: Rachael Maza

Musical Director: Nigel Maclean

Reviewer: Sophie Everton Ryan


Australian Theatre Company ILBIJERRI brings Jack Charles’ life to its rightful place, the stage. This seventy-five minute performance combines the past and present to showcase Charles’ life from being placed in a boys’ home for his entire youth to his illustrious career as a burglar. Never truly fitting in anywhere, one witnesses an honest navigation of Charles’ checkered past ultimately addressing, as Charles describes, his state as a free man in theory but in reality he is hostage to his history.

The show itself is a visually gratifying performance that encompasses all the senses onstage. There is a beautiful calming atmosphere as for the first few minutes Charles perches over a kiln, slowly and deliberately creating a piece of pottery. Emily Barrie’s expansive space is captivating as one’s eye is drawn to every corner throughout. The use of multimedia, projected texts and footage of Charles works successfully to engage the audience and assault their senses. Nigel Maclean’s musical direction is superb. Fantastic performances by talented musicians greatly accompany Charles’ exuberance without overpowering the show.

Charles himself is an abundance of characteristics onstage. He is charming, mischievous, spritely, (even though he is in his seventies) talented, verbose, manipulative and engaging. Bright and alluring with a dark past that hangs like a shadow throughout the show, Charles is ultimately a performer. He has a magnificent speaking voice that bodes well to his career as a storyteller. He works hard for his showmanship and to keep the audience’s attention yet it translates as effortless to watch. The show’s pace does not falter. Jack Charles V The Crown is a raw, honest and self-aware glimpse into his colourful life and his dealings with the festering guilt and shame left in his society.

This show frankly examines the determined consequences of one’s past and whether or not you embrace or reject them. The show’s ending is quite moving with Charles having addressed the audience as the judges to whom he pleas in a heartfelt speech for a chance at independence. At the beginning of the performance Charles asks do you believe in miracles? For him, in his later years in life, he now has the chance to have his childhood back. This, for Charles and now his audience, is a miracle.



Jack Charles and John Romeril

Ilbijerri Theatre Company

Barbican, The Pit

From 11 February 2014 to 15 February 2014

Review by Belle Lupton


The name Jack Charles may not be familiar to a British audience, but his kind of story is.

On the play’s second night Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott pledges to spend a week in an Outback Aboriginal settlement to show once again his commitment to improving the bleak plight of indigenous people. So far good timing for Australia’s longest-running Aboriginal theatre company.

For the story of Jack Charles v The Crown reflects the stories of so many Aboriginal peoples.

But then Jack Charles has been banging this same drum for more than 40 years. Now 71, the aboriginal actor has brought his story to a new audience on the other side of the world, an audience whose familiarity with his mugshots can’t be taken for granted.

And as a piece of theatre Jack Charles v The Crown actually works better coming to it with no prior knowledge. Gradually piecing together Charles’ past from his eclectic monologue, interspersed as it is with live singing, a three-piece band and a courtroom recreation, is a more engaging exercise than rehearsing newspaper headlines that would be already familiar to an Australian audience.

The opening scene is confronting: Charles shooting up in the video played on the back wall of the set while the band strikes up, haunting, and a dimly-lit figure hunches over a potter’s wheel. The video is clips from Bastardy, the 2008 award-winning documentary by Amiel Courtin-Wilson about Jack Charles; the figure in the foreground is that film’s protagonist, throwing pots as the shadow of his former self dances behind him.

Any fears (justified) that this will be a self-indulgent performance are soon dissolved in the gregarious warmth of the storyteller. Charles’ mellifluous voice and age-defying sprightliness with director Rachael Maza’s easygoing blocking create the air of the campfire – Charles even settles down for a cuppa as he gets into his tale. Bursts of music break up the narrative, with moving performances from Nigel Maclean, Phil Collings and Malcolm Beveridge. The music is as much part of the performance as the projected images and actor, electric violin emitting strains not dissimilar to those of the didgeridoo before breaking into blues when Charles throws on his blue sequined jacket.

Basterdy, also showing at the Barbican, shows the audience what happened to Jack Charles. Jack Charles v The Crown shows the audience what he’d like to happen from now, with only poetic hints at the abuse and sexuality difficulties in his past. The fabricated court appearance, in which Charles puts forward to the audience (his courtroom) the argument that he should be separated from his prisoner number, works as a vehicle for him to talk about the treatment of Aboriginal people in Australia without sounding preachy. What he says about “black man justice” (you may get a club to the head but once exile is over you’re fully accepted back into the fold) compared to “white man justice” (you’ll be crippled by your prisoner number long after you’ve finished serving your time) travels beyond its Australian origin.

In the end the credit for this fantastic piece of theatre must go to its performers, for it was a gift to the director and co-writer. The story was already there, already documented, performed by a natural performer. But, as we’re reminded by the macabre sight of Charles standing by own his homemade gravestone, thank goodness they put it onstage before his truth was buried with him.

Jack Charles v The Crown

By Jack Charles and John Romeril. Ilbijerri Theatre Company, with Uncle Jack Charles, directed by Rachael Maza. The Playhouse, Canberra, 17–19 July 2013, and touring

Advance publicity, billing Jack Charles as a recently reformed heroin addict and cat burglar, made me ponder what kind of tale he was going to spin; cautious lest, albeit subtly, it excuse, even glorify, social destructiveness.

Despite a frank introduction to the actor's former heroin habit, I needn't have been concerned.  Strangely, the performance, though dealing much with them and offering subtle insights into their genesis, was not about Charles's former bad habits.  Rather, it featured the life within which they occurred: a childhood of the Stolen Generation; a career littered with performance success; repetitive punitive action; and the merest hints at sustained systemic abuse and violence toward him.


Yet what Charles chose to focus his audience on was not even these sustained features of his life, but rather the freedom he had, even in harsh prison conditions, in his spirit.


What is this freedom that keeps a man so advanced in years and experience so obviously young in motion and attitude?  Evidently, whatever it is, it keeps him creative and appreciative, and this is what shines through his work.  Jack Charles is a veteran film, television, and stage performer, and his ability to hold us with a sprinkling of songs merely knocks up one more talent.  But he can hardly be bettered in his ability to mesmerise with an overtly simple tale.



Charles's approach to his own story is fascinating in explicating the inexplicable: failure in success, success from failure, and, above all, the return to himself of a man who, having been stolen, was lost and now is found.


Charles's mixture of humility and pride might have evoked distaste had it subtly excused, even glorified, poor judgement; but his openhearted honesty, his ability to connect with others, and his preparedness to put himself aside in entertaining us very obviously evoked a great deal of fellow feeling even in those of us whose life paths have had nothing, or at least nothing obvious, in common with his. Supported by interesting but unobtrusive stage design, very effective lighting, and great audio, the performance succeeded in keeping audience focus where it was meant to: on a well-told story.



As if this journey weren't enjoyable enough, the act is accompanied by a trio of musicians whose performance was utterly virtuosic.  Led by musical director – guitarist – violinist Nigel Maclean, with Phil Collings on drums and percussion and Mal Beveridge on electric bass, and with Gary Dryza's audio engineering evidently providing solid support, this trio rescues modern jazz from doo-wop and sends it mainstream, making it music you can hear as song and feel as dance.  Come for the music alone, and you'll leave feeling that you've gotten your money's worth.  The musical performance that allows me to speak of impeccable timing is a rarity to the point of near extinction.  That alone delineates this trio from the majority.  Its timing is not merely impeccable, but exquisite: as exquisite as its blend of vocal and instrumental harmonies and its sound design.


With such talent accompanying the show, it is perhaps unsurprising that Jack Charles and co-author John Romeril's creativity has fruited so sweetly in Charles's remarkable performance.


John P Harvey



Melbourne. Arts. Fashion

A Day in the Life Of...Nigel MacLean - Composer

Classically trained on violin from the age of five, Nigel MacLean debuted with a performance of the 1st Movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto at the age of thirteen. As an established multi genre violinist, Nigel has played a variety of roles including Orchestral Leader, Solo Artist, Assistant Producer, Producer, Director and Composer.

Q1. What was the defining moment you realised you wanted to work in the field or position you are now working in? How old were you?
A: I was 12 years old and a career counselor came to our classroom to lay out some options. I remember feeling very happy that my mind was already made up and I could carry on daydreaming in class and ignore the whole thing. Not long afterwards I had a vision of my room full of musical instruments and today that vision is realised.

Q2. How long did it take you to reach your goal – how many years of training or experience did you have to undertake to get there? 
A: According to my parents I told them at the age of three that I was going to play the violin. Finally after some pestering they got me my first violin at the age of 5. I learned classical violin and seemed to have a natural affinity for it. At 13 I performed the first movement of the Beethoven Violin Concerto with the Waikato Symphony Orchestra and in my last year of school was awarded a scholarship to study with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Training Group. This was a 7 piece string group and we worked from 9:30 to 3:30 5 days a week playing through pretty much all the orchestral repertoire and string quartets with live to air broadcasts and concert tours. One lunchtime I saw a bearded banjo player busking on the street playing jazz standards and was captivated. I asked him if I could join in and from there I would rush out in my lunch hour to perform with him. This met with much disapproval from the orchestral management and I was told that I was forbidden to continue. This was like a red rag to a bull for me and I soon realised that my passion for music was going to be squashed playing in a symphony orchestra for the rest of my life. At 18 I decided to 'leave the page' and began carving my own path to musical freedom by studying jazz improvisation firstly at the Canberra School of Music and then at the Berklee College of Music in Boston USA where they awarded me a scholarship for my tuition fees. I learnt so much from there and returned to Australia ready for anything. Music is like an ever expanding universe. The more you learn the more you realise how little you know. 'Unlearning' soon became my new catch phrase as I moved from jazz bands of my own to performing with blues, country, folk and rock outfits. This brought about new challenges for me as jazz violin doesn’t work in these genres. I had to learn how to play the necessary note choices and phrasing that fitted the genre.

In the mid 1997 I was approached by Academy nominated composer David Hirschfelder to work for him as his personal assistant, and aside from contracting and leading 96 piece orchestras for film scores such as Elizabeth and Sliding Doors, I was required to learn the music software he uses. This was an incredible gift as I soon realised that armed with this knowledge I could compose and produce my own projects. Much of the approaches I use today to produce new projects of mine are a result of this invaluable learning.

Q3. Did you initially work for free to get experience or start at the bottom and work your way up? 
A: Yes and yes. Being an easy and helpful person to work with is probably one of the best skills to develop in the music business. Obviously having the skills that people want makes you more attractive but learning how to be a 'solutions person' and not an egotistical diva (or davo if you’re male) helps keep you in demand and the clients returning. 

Q.4 Are you now employed by an organisation or do you work freelance? In your opinion what are the advantages of each? 
A: The only advantage of working for an organisation full-time must be the regular pay-packet. I have been touring plenty the last few years with a theatre show called Jack Charles v The Crown. It was produced by Ilbijerri Theatre Company. I also lend my services to organisations such as 'Black Arm Band' and am known to various music organisations/groups that when needed employ me for my music services. If you mean, do I do a 40 hour week for one employer? Then no! I am a freelancer. I love to mix it up and nothing beats being your own boss, employee and shareholder. I get to meet a huge range of inspiring, talented people, tour the world and country at someone else’s expense, drink the rider, get a huge variety of situations to perform in, work from home and make my own hours. 

Q5. What kinds of things do you do to stay at the top of your field? Do you undertake professional development or read journals to keep your skills and knowledge current?
A: I listen to music, practice playing and writing and stay vigilant for inspiration. 

Q6. How many hours a day do you work at your position to stay on top?
A: I will often work from 9am to 12pm depending on what project is in front of me. Composing music can be like watching grass grow. It’s a process that takes time. Keeping a happy work/life balance for me often means just taking a break in my garden and pulling some weeds or planting new seedlings. I like to keep my violin practice schedule constant however it can be difficult to maintain with the time restraints and responsibilities of modern living and caring for kids.

Q.7 What is the pay like in your field? Can you make a realistic living? 
A: I first started playing in bands in the 1980’s when musicians were actually paid! Through the 1990’s the music industry began collapsing and re-arranging as digital technologies advanced and the money disappeared. I diversified my skills to keep up and make myself available for any work out there. Learning is sometimes 'doing things for free' just to be more informed however developing a sense of worth and charging accordingly helps pay some bills. It’s pretty much a roller coaster when it comes to earning from music. Getting used to the insecurity of it all is paramount. I found that you actually don’t die when the money runs dry. You gotta be there for the music and the fun! I may not be materially wealthy but there’s a big happy, balance in my 'Soul Bank'. Happiness ought to be a part of what quantifies a 'realistic living'.

Q.8 What are some of the highlights of your career? 
A: So many.... hanging backstage with Bob Dylan’s band and performing for the man himself with his band, working for David Hirschfelder on numerous films, winning a Helpmann Award for Best Regional Tour for four months on the road with Jack Charles V The Crown and performing the show at the Barbican in London, gigging with Dan Hicks, having Paul Kelly record his vocals on my Ben Hall project, the list could go on and on. I feel very blessed to have had so many exciting musical adventures and look forward to many more of them.

Q.9. Hindsight is a wonderful thing…have you ever looked back at your career and wished you had of done things differently or do you feel that things have worked out just as they should?
A: In music business one really does have to create their own opportunities. As they say ‘je ne regret” I love my life and have never wished things were different. Had I truly wanted to be a multi-millionaire I would have focused all my attention on making money. Seems like a soulless journey to me. Philosopher Alan Watts once said “life is not about a beginning or ending. You just have to remember to sing and dance along the way”. That being said if there are any millionaires out there who would like to support my musical projects I am very open to spreading the happiness around!


Q.10. What advice would you give to someone wanting to work in your field or position? 
A: Be there for the right reasons and don’t behave like a schmuck. I have had much glory, money has come and gone, relationships bloomed and died but my desire to strive for excellence and resist the “she’ll be right” attitude has kept me going. Trust yourself and don’t make reactive rash decisions.

Please provide a diary of a typical day of work for you:
There generally isn’t a typical day for me as my diary changes depending on what jobs are booked but here is a run down on whats happening this week.


  • 8am - Stretch and breathe
  • 9am - Office duties including hustling for work and replying to emails
  • 10am - Turn on workstation and continue composing music for new play Going Through to be premiered March 14th
  • 12pm - Lunch
  • 1pm - Practice violin
  • 3pm - Continue composing
  • 7pm - Dinner
  • 8pm - Continue composing
  • 12am - Sleep Filmharmonix