Thursday, 30 November 2017

Australia Day, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Jonathan Biggins' 2012 comedy is in the firm tradition of popular Australian comedy (particularly the David Williamson pieces so beloved of the various state theatre companies during the 90s and 2000s) - there's a mix of people gathered, issues of national importance that are brought down to tribal loyalties (indeed, Williamson's favourite word, "tribe", shows up here again), and a couple of moments where people get up on their hobby horses or have an emotional breakthrough of some kind on the way to a tidy conclusion.

Biggins is, perhaps, a wittier writer than Williamson, with a lot of great one liners springing back and forth across the stage. But there are a couple of rough edges in his plotting, particularly in the moments where a serious moment tries to intervene, and Rep's production doesn't always smooth over those rough edges as much as it might.

Acting honours tend to accumulate at the older end of the cast. Neil McLeod as the cantankerous and uncensored Wally gets the most of his "I can't believe he just said that" lines, albeit occasionally softening up just a little too much, perhaps, when the plot turns sentimental. Micki Beckett's Marree is the perfectly gentle CWA representative, with an essential befuddled innocence about her. Sarah Hull as the Greens representative gets a large chunk of the plot and a minimum of the jokes, but represents the character well as she starts to realise how down and dirty in politics she's going to have to get to succeed. Pat Gallagher tends to get the other half of the plot, and often is everybody else's straight man, but he has an endearingly shifty way about him that helps the plot get through. Jonathan Lee gets a grand set of jokes and delivers them well, although he also carries very little plot. Thomas McCoy as Gallagher's mordant sidekick unfortunately falls a little flat during the denouement, which as written should be his moment to shine - you never really get the sense that anything about him has been changed as a result of the events of the play.

Cate Clelland's sets capture nicely the realism of a scout hall and a tent, although the blocking around the meeting table is a little odd - if you're going to spread out the table lengthways (and the proportions of Theatre 3 kinda require it), why are people sitting downstage of the table with their backs to the audience? Heather Spong's costumes delineate character well, including Beckett's ridiculous animal costume.

This tends to be the kinda piece that works better as a set of jokes then necessarily as a stringent commentary on the state of the nation, with a middling plot along the way. And as a set of jokes, it's very funny. But there's not a lot behind the laughter to stick around with me.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Atlantis, Belvoir

Lally Katz's work has flirted with barely-disguised autobiography for a while now, through taking stories of friends and family - "Neighbourhood Watch" from her neighbor, and "Back to the Dojo" from her parents. This time, she's drawing directly from herself. And what we get is a play that is, inevitably, somewhat self-indulgent (and this is a fairly freewheeling autobiography that hopscotches from fact into fantasy and back again all over the place). But still, as directed by Rosemary Myers, it's an entertaining international road trip as our heroine tries to find her place in a confusing world

Amber McMahon as Lally is the centre of the story and she provides a lovely upbeat all-accepting presence - very aware that the things happening to her are probably going to be theatre material at some point, but still happy to engage in the people and experiences of the moment. The other four characters cover around 40 characters between them, sliding in and out with remarkable ease - Matthew Whittet plays everything from boyfriend to uncle to teenage girl, Paula Arrundel similarly slides from philosophical AirBnB host to religious revival host, Lucia Mastrione goes from crabby Psychic to cabbie, and Hazem Sharas covers cowboy romantic pickup and a panther. The shifts are all clear and frequently hilarious. Jonathan Oxlade's set is simple and abstract but contains multiple surprises to cover the extensive demands of Katz's shifting imagination in a classily stylish manner, and Damien Cooper's lighting design also has to be noted for supporting the mood and location as the story moves.

This isn't necessarily a play that I love but it's probably as good a production as it's ever going to get unless serious rewrites set in, so it's probably worth seeing. It does have the best comic use of the Vengaboys I've seen in a while.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Boys will be Boys, The Street

Regular readers will note I haven't reviewed a show at the Street in about 4 years . There's a bunch of reasons for this, but part of it has been that the Street has had the feel of a "closed shop" - there's still lingering resentment from the amateur theatre movement in Cnberra both of some fairly intolerent statement made by it's artistic director/CEO and the venue's unavailability for amateur groups.

Still, in the interests of at least pretending to be vaguely fair, I went along to "Boys will be Boys" - the STC production in 2015 got a fair bit of acclaim, and of the cast of 5 women, I knew and liked the work of three of them.

And while there's some impressive work here (in particular, Imogen Keen's set and costumes are top notch stylish work, and Niklas Pajanti's lighting design handles some of the trickier aspects remarkably well), it doesn't quite work. Melissa Bubnic's script has its strengths but never quite gets out of the specifics of the ultra-rich-and-ultra-greedy to feel more universal - Caryl Churchill's simiarly "women in business" themed play, "Top Girls" perhaps has more to say about how little it matters whether the top capitalist is male or female. As directed, in some of the earlier scenes some of the incisive wit fails to land effectively - there's a tendency to play scenes as fast as possible, sacrificing meaning along the way - I can understand the intention to have smart energetic banter, but there still needs to be more than just rattling off lines. Scenes that play slower tend to work more effectively - in particular the search for connection between Astrid (Pippa Grandison) and Isabelle (Kiki Skoutzos), or the later scenes as personal disaster leads to a divide between Astrid and her protoge Priya (Isha Menon). Grandison is also effective during the songs where her powerful voice has soul and strength. Kimmo Vennonen's sound design is a little too busy - there's a few too many cases where noise is there for the sake of being noise (I should also note here, the audience was kinda painful - I had people behind me muttering throughout the show, a lot more audible than they seem to think that the were, and so was somewhat seething throughout).

So unless something particularly intriguing shows up on the Street schedule again, I'll probably be continuing my absence.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Diving for Pearls, Griffin, Stables

Katherine Thompson's play was one of the major works of the 90s. Telling the big story of industrial decline and the collapse of the working class through the prism of the relationship between two middle-aged dreamers, it touched the heart and engaged the mind as we saw two people struggle with their hopes and dreams only to find them crushed by forces beyond their control and betrayed by corporate greed and economic rationalism. It's slipped into the background a little since then, but this revival returns it to life, animated in particular by the performances of Steve Rogers and Ursula Yovich as the two people under examination.

The play does suffer a little in that it attempted to predict what was coming in the South Coast during the 90s, but, like most predictions, missed the mark. As it turns out, steelworking shut down in Newcastle rather than Port Kembla, and the refocus towards tourism which is treated as a false hope turned out to be fairly successful. Still, the larger truths of how the invisible hand of market forces leaves people crushed behind it remains true. It's also true that the play keeps a lot of the rage buried for quite some time - people I came to thought the first act played almost entirely as domestic romantic comedy - I see it more as a sucker-punch manouvre than as a flaw, but it is true it's not the most direct way to get to the point of the night. And Barbara is almost too fascinatingly thrusting a character to fit into the thesis of "crushed by outside forces" - she fights ruthlessly against any attempt to keep her down, including, it turns out, her own flesh and blood. But perhaps that's the point - by fighting so hard in a game that's rigged against her, her failure rings even more painful.

Darren Yap's production keeps the action flowing thick and fast between multiple locations, using the tiny space at the stables cleverly as scene piles upon scene - as Den and Barbara's romance runs almost out of control, with neither of them truly understanding one another until the disasters have come and it's too late for them to survive together. Sound is a bit overamplified in the tiny space - effects almost overwhelm dialogue in a few key spaces, and perhaps this could have been wound down a little.

Still a good chance to see a solid play from Australia's theatrical past that certainly still speaks to now.

Strictly Ballroom, Canberra Philharmonic, Erindale Theatre

Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom" feels like a natural for a stage musical. Not only is it a well known property, it's got an immediate musical milleu, and a simple but inspiring story with familiar elements like the hero who battles against the establishment, the ugly-duckling girl who blossoms into a beauty, and a big happy ending.

And for a lot of audiences, this seems to have worked quite well. Philo's production played to largely sold out houses with rapturous applause at the end.

I wasn't quite sold. And the reason why lands pretty early in the show - the inciting incident, in fact. As people who've seen the movie may remember, the whole source of the conflict that maintains the 90-odd minutes of screentime (inflated to 2 hours 30 for the musical, minus intermission) is that Scott Hastings (Paul Mecurio in the movie, Joel Hutchings on stage) breaks free from the choreographic conventions, improvising in an inspired but undisciplined manner during competition. The problem here may be fundamental to the show - when musicalised, the role becomes a triple threat requiring acting, singing and dancing at the top level, and ... while Hutchings is a fine singer and a much better actor than Mecurio, the dance steps he does for this moment feel anything but improvised - I'm not sure whether it's his ability or the choreography of Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock, but whatever it is, we never really get a sense that he's a man who comes alive when he dances, whose prime method of expression is his body. and who can release his tension in movements that are electric and inspiring. We get a reasonably well executed steps rather than a moment that needs to thrill for the plot to work.

There are compensations elsewhere in the show. In particular, Ylaria Rogers as Fran gives what should be a familiar arc a fair degree of freshness. She does have the benefit of being allowed to blossom so we can see and participate in her development, and she invests us in both the romantic yearnings she feels and her independence and frustration with the self-centred Scott. As a romantic pair, the two have wonderful chemistry. The act-one finale as Scott finally gets to understand her background and to participate in it fully, "Mangifico", is one of the true highlights of the show (even getting around Tomas Dietz's somewhat bodgy wig).

As a physical production, this is gorgeous stuff, featuring some of Philo's best design work in a while, both set (by Ian Croker) and costumes (by Anna Senior) - although I'll slightly quibble with using ballroom costumes with feathers at the top of the show, simply because it means the feathers tend to stick around onstage til interval. Still, they evoke a true sense of the daggy grandeur of the movie, suitably glittering when required and just as suitably downmarket when the story goes in that direction.

There are issues I have with the construction of the show - 11 different songwriters for the new parts of the score are credited, plus a couple of familiar songs from the movie are used. Almost inevitably, the familiar songs stick better, and the new ones tend to feel generically functional rather than particularly inspired. In addition, the flashback, a highlight of the movie, just isn't as much fun if you substitute out the performers playing the older characters for younger dancers - part of the joy of the moment in the movie was that it was these older performers recreating their glory moments, and that's kinda lost. ONe hangover from the movie is that Shirley Hastings is so heftily unpleasant that her reconcilliation with her husband Doug at the end feels slightly unearned and unredemptive. I'm also not entirely sure why the show has to be set in the early 80s - it doesn't feel particularly inherent to the material. There are some delightfully shameless moments (a cute number for the kids, some auidence rousing moments from host JJ Silvers, and even a meat raffle - which, again, feels slightly weird when after establishing repeatedly that the show's set in 1985, the money's going to the 2018 Vikings junior rugby team - I've heard of forward planning but that's ridiculous).

The ensemble roles feel nicely filled and the music and movement is generally pretty strong. There's some very smooth physical staging - this is rarely a show that stands still very long, and it's a tribute to the production team that it runs so smoothly.

But... like I said, there's a little bit of a hole in the middle which leaves the entire edifice feeling awkwardly hollow.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two, Palace Theatre, London.

Playscripts as a rule are not spectacular big sellers. And as far as I can tell, the script of this is the best selling script since records began - this despite significant chunks of the fanbase criticising it as "bad fanfic". Never the less it's not stopped the show playing to full houses at reasonably high prices for about a year, so as a Potter Fanboy and the partner of a Potter Fanboy, this was squished into the visit.

And honestly, this is pretty well executed. A continuation rather than another interpretation of the saga, this picks up pretty well directly from the "22 years later" epilogue of the last book, with the children of the series protagonists about to go off to the magic school Hogwarts. But a combination of unfinished business from the series and ongoing tensions between Harry and his son lead to fresh dangers that will see all kinds of wild adventures, both revisiting favourite elements of the series and expanding the saga. It does require a reasonable amount of foreknowledge of the saga but if you haven't read the books or watched the films, why on earth are you starting with this one? And yes, despite Harry being now in his 40s, there is still a little too much of the angst elements that felt a bit laboured in the books and remain just as laboured here.

In production it's as smooth, stylish and fascinating as you probably could wish. Transitions from location to location are instantaneous and presented with wit and whimsy - sets are just abstracted enough to let the audience do some creative work while the magic is suitably impressive and "how the hell did they do that". Some of the acting is a little broad, perhaps, but it never breaks the style. Imogen Heap's music is perhaps a bit of a disappointment - I'm a fan of her and therefore was disappointed that I could recognise a lot of themes from her album "Speak for yourself" - and there are a couple of coreographed montages that kinda tend to look like dance for dance's sake rather than something that fits with the rest of the world of the show (although a movement section among the moving stairs of Hogwarts is a highlight).

I can't claim this is a deep and thoughtful show - it is, ultimately, a brand extension, but as a brand extension it's a quite enjoyable one, with a consistently rolling plot (one of JK Rowling's best features) and a suitably large amount of spectacle. Well worth the time.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Follies, National Theatre

"Follies" is one of those shows that is Broadway legend. Its original production was legendary both in its ambition and in how under-appreciated it felt at the time - losing its entire investment after running a year and three months. It's a tough show, unlike many in that it examines the escapism that musicals usually represent and sees how temporary and fleeting that escapism can be - the loneliness and failure that the escapism can't ever really relieve.

The underlying premise, a reunion of ex-showgirls as the theatre where they once were glorified is about to be demolished, sticks the show fairly firmly in its original 1971 period (modernising it would mean that the oldest of the girls, an operetta singer who goes back to 1918, would be at the very youngest around 115). And as the show goes on, it brings into focus two of the girls and their two husbands - one was in love with the guy who married the other, and both marriages have soured, due to distance, changing ambitions, the weight of time, or simply an aching empty space where desire used to live. There are two types of songs - plot songs (between the main quartet) and "party pieces" for the other girls, most of which illuminate in some way the theme of faded glamour and the way time has worn on them. Throughout the cast are accompanied by younger spectral figures of their youth  - the very present pasts that everybody carries with them.

There's elements that stick out today more than they perhaps would have originally (in the week after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a moment when the producer of the Follies remembers how the casting couch used to be plays somewhat differently than it might have a week earlier, and the somewhat more casual references to extra-marital affairs is very much a seventies thing more than it would be post-AIDS), but the common description of the show has been that Sondheim's songs soar but Goldman's book is flat. I didn't find it so - yes, the book is tight and, rightly, gives the deeper emotional expressions to the songs as is suitable for a musical, but it diagrams very clearly how distastrously wrong these people have gone, giving space for the songs to expand on them.

This production has all the lavishness the National Theatre can bring to a production of this nature, on its biggest stage, the Olivier. And as importantly it brings the acting talent to bring across the pain under the glamour. Imelda Staunton as maybe the most damaged of the characters is astoundingly good, both singing the haunting "Losing my Mind" and in acting as it becomes increasingly clear how unfaded her passion is (in the central relationships, it becomes clear that "Sweeney Todd" isn't the only horror musical Sondheim's ever written - there's horror in just how broken these people are as well). Phillip Quast as the unsatisfied man who she loves but who abandoned her has perhaps the trickiest part - he's a white rich successful guy who never the less feels empty inside, and it's a credit to him that we care for the indecisive broken arsehole as much as we do (even as, minutes after a deep romantic ballad between him and Staunton, he's running away from their relationship and hitting on other women). Janie Dee plays Quast's wife, who acquired layers of sophistication to become worthy of him but also a layer of ennui and self hatred that she finds difficult to shift - her "Could I leave you" is a lush vomit of vitriol that remains compelling in its dark penetrating wit. Peter Forbes plays Staunton's husband, somewhat aware he's always been second prize but unable to let go of the woman he's always loved.

The various party-piece-performers seize their various moments - Di Botcher lands "Broadway Baby" as the standard it's always been, Dawn Hope leads most of the women in the ultimate production number "Who's that Woman", and Tracie Bennett slightly channels Judy Garland to bring an "I'm still Here" that stands strong with the many great women who have sung it.

There are perhaps a couple of elements of Dominic Cooke's production that delay it getting off the ground as cleanly as it might (it slightly over-prologues the show, which means focus doesn't come until the third song, "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs") and at least one element towards the end could be accused of over-underlining matters (as a flashing "Follies" sign suddenly loses the "Fol"). But otherwise it's a very solidly strong production. It's not a show that could ever be called light entertaiment. But it's a powerful show that leaves you shattered and enthralled.