Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Wolves, Red Line Productions, Belvoir Street Theatre

This 10-character play takes 90 minutes to tell of a group of young women preparing for games of indoor soccer over a series of weeks - and as it does so, we get insights into their hopes, fears, how they entertain each other, their jealousies, their understandings of the world and how they hold together in the face of disaster. It's an exraordinary production in a number of ways, starting with the credits - in the entire production team, there's only one man (Mandela Mathia, the actress's soccer coach) - otherwise it's all women. It's relentlessly physical as the pre-game rituals include continuous drills, stretches and training for the offstage games. The setting, largely astroturf with a few benches and a set of soccer nets between the audience and the actors (as, after all, these are actors, not trained soccer players, and a ball accidentally propelled towards the audience could prove disastrous), keeps everything focussed on the nine actresses in the team. Dialogue is naturalistic and frequently overlapping, as the girls muse on everything from their hopes for soccer progression to history and op culture trivia. And we get to know the seperate personalities, from the driven captain, #25 (Brenna Harding), to the sarcastic star striker #7 (Cece Peters) to the new girl in the team, #46 (Nikita Waldron).

I find it difficult to explain quite what I loved about this play except, perhaps, for the relentless energy and engaging nature of the cast, the deceptive simplicity of Sarah DeLappe's script and Jessica Arthur's direction, the chance to watch a number of actresses at the dawn of their career getting great meaty roles to bite into, the chance to catch a new play that celebrates and engages deeply in young women in a way I haven't seen in theatre in a while, and one that makes their perspective absolutely central. It's an extrordinary evening in the theatre.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Counting and Cracking, Belvoir Street Theatre and Co-Curious, Sydney Town Hall

This Sydney Festival epic tells a story covering around 50 years of the lives of one Sri-Lankan family, taking place largely between Sri Lanka and Sydney, with a cast of 17 drawn from Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and France. By any measure, it's an ambitious work, and one that succeeds far more than it fails. It's true that in structure the most immediately relatable section is the first act (mostly set in Sydney, the first scene in Sri Lanka carefully selects the topic most immediately remember able to Australians, the cricket travails of Muttia Muralitharan). And some of the most interesting tangents of the first act remain unexplored (in particular, the question of how a family comes together after 21 years of separation is kinda squibbed, as the play instead looks into the background of how they became separated in the first place - acts two and three act more as a social history lesson of Sri Lanka). But there's a beauty to the staging and much of the writing - a simple deep thrust stage, a wide platform covered in earth and dust, where the characters sweep on and off, using meta-theatrical devices like actors on the sidelines translating for actors speaking in foreign languages, or performers becoming part of the setting. Dale Ferguson's set and costume design uses simple devices to locate us in time and place, and Damien Cooper's lighting creates mood and space within it.

I do think act three suffers slightly from the choice to show Columbo falling into disaster from the perspective it does - slightly removed from the action, with everything reported by phone call - and it's the one point where Eamon Flack's staging flags a little - more direct engagement with the subject matter seems called for here - we want to be where the action is, but instead are stuck inside an upper class compound just hearing about it.  And I kinda do wish the play stayed confidently with the perspective of the current generation family - it does feel like a separate play about the matriach's grandfather is trying to fight its way into the material, and, though that does indeed give it size, the two stories don't entirely naturally fit together. But still this is a feast for the eyes, the mind and the emotions, and sees Belvoir back on the right track after last year had me doubting them consistently.

Tuesday, 18 December 2018

The "Well I liked it" awards, 2018.

It's been a weird year. For those of you who have been reading along, it's probably been a bit of a tenuous year, waiting for me to actually seem like I like coming to the theatre - looking back on the year, I've found myself sitting through more things that I kinda wish I didn't than I'd normally like to admit. Hopefully next year either I won't be sitting through things or I'll actually be enjoying them more, so we have that to look forward to. Also, there were a couple of genuine bright sparks in the year that made it worth sitting through.

Locally, we may as well start with the one I'm prejudiced about, because I was involved in the production behind the scenes - "Arms and the Man" was one of those experiences where I kinda fell head-over-heels for the production (of a play that I must admit I was kinda working on in a "I should do something during the year, and I suppose this is a decent something" rather than particular fondness for Shaw's play - I'll admit on reading it, I'd found it a little stodgy). For that one, I found it stood up to repeated viewings throughout rehearsals and the run, with a firm sense of how the play could work - both by taking the war aspects of the story seriously, and by letting the characters be flawed, sometimes silly, sometimes a little full of themselves, and genuinely real. In particular, the navigation of the complicated sexual dynamic between Isha Menon's Louka and Riley Bell's Sergius was allowed to be both serious in its implications and hilarious in its outcomes, in ways that danced on the knife's edge of carelessness without ever falling off it.

In shows I'm less prejudiced about because I wasn't involved in them, we have Jordan Best's one-two punch for the year - with a thoughtful, mournful production of "Dr Frankenstein" for Rep featuring a double act of two of Canberra's best actors as creator and monster, followed by "Switzerland" for canberra theatre featuring a different pair of two of Canbera's best actors as (SPOILER WARNING) a different pair of creator and monster... Both felt distinctive and creative (Frankenstein went for a reasonable amount of Grand Guignol in the set, the makeup and the music; Switzerland felt more crisp, pristine and psychologically intense), both gave their casts great places to manouvre in roles that are among the best I've ever seen them in, and both knew just how to nail an ending. Incidentally, "Dr Frankenstein" wins the "Most looked at" award of the season's reviews - with a whopping over 500 views - even some desperate Streisand Effect controversy chasing couldn't get any other post this year even vaguely in breathing distance.

Interstate the musical I loved the most all year was "Cry Baby" at the Hayes, which channeled the spirit of John Waters in a hysterically nonsensical assault on conformity, rebellion and all the best qualities of 50's teenagehood. Non-musical plays this year interstate seemed to best come from Griffin - a reckless, wild production of "Kill Climate Deniers" was relentlessly thought provoking, the emotional journey of "The Almighty Sometimes" challenged the heart and "The Feather in the Web" was a suitably hilarious dismantling of every romantic comedy convention you've ever complained about.

Also a quick thank you to Chalk and Cheese, who seem to have semi-retired - I found whoever they were to be pretty insightful most of the time and expressed thoughts on shows I didn't see that made it interesting to see what might have happened in them. I hope that despite whatever controversies may have happened during the year, more people are encouraged to share their thoughts publicly and in different ways about Canberra Theatre - nobody likes the same things, and the more voices that are out there (including voices that wildly disagree with me), the happier I'll be. Yes, even if they hate the things I'm involved in.

Looking forward to a large chunk of what's on offer for next year, and hoping that there'll be more opportunities for me to put my excited rave voice on and less opportunities for me to embarass myself and others on social media. Thank you to everyone who's been reading the reviews, everybody who's popped up on Canberra stages to keep the beast going, and everybody who cares about theatre enough to keep it


and a-ONE, and a-TWO, and a MANohMAN! Dr Radi O'Repenstein's Lovely Happy Panto, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

... I was asked to do this one.

Rep's christmas Panto is a tradition that, like most traditions, seems to have been there forever - certainly I've been seeing them pretty regularly since joining Rep back in 2005. They're a weirdly distinct form of entertainment - not really a panto (there's very little crossdressing or time for "it's behind you"), instead there's a vaguely linking narrative that ties together elements of the season's shows under something that, if you squint a bit, vaguely looks like a plot, told using rhyming couplets that vary from delightfully piquant to utterly groanworthy.

This year's seems a bit more elaborate than previous - there's a pretty decent set, there are costumes, and even the odd musical number - but the plot feels just as loose as ever, the puns elicit the right amount of groans, and this one dashes through the season without too much desperate plot contortions. The magnificent cast of 7 all deliver well - Andrew Kay (again fulfilling the job of writer/narrator/general plot-dogsbody), Sue Gore-Phillips as an imperious Dr Repenstein, Ewan as the subservient Ewgor, Antonia Kitzl and Michael Hemming (apologies, actually Michael Cooper) as a pair of bodysnatchers-cum-scientists, Jemima Phillips bringing back Wanda June for a chance to see her in a better play than her first appearance, and Peter McDonald making with the Boom-Boom on drum kit.

It's fast, it's silly, it's probably pretty indulgent, but dammit, Christmas isn't Christmas without the Rep Christmas Panto, and long may it continue to sail.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Coda For Shirley, The Acting Company and Shadowhouse Pits, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

So, that may be the shortest retirement since Nellie Melba, John Farnham or Cher.

Yes, I'm back after recent rounds of feeling sorry for myself. And this ... okay, to be completely fair to the show, I've mentioned previously that poetic drama is not entirely my bag. (my review of "Under Milk Wood" a few years ago basically spends a bunch of time admitting I know other people like this but it isn't my thing, but it's well presented for something that isn't my thing). ANd Geoff Page's play is most definitely poetic - looking at four members of an extended family as they look on the legacies of past loves and family dramas. It's the third play of a trilogy and there is a certain sense in this one that a lot of the significant action took place back in the first two plays (although I haven't seen them, it's clear there's signifcant backstory in them) - as the title suggests, this is a bit of an afterword rather than a fully formed plot on its own. Geoff Page definitely has a nice turn of phrase, though for my mind it tends to work better in monologue than in dialogue, and the text is delivered well by the cast but ... this falls into the "nice" and "well crafted" for me rather than the dynamic-gets-my-heart-racing that I really crave.

Micki Beckett is at the centre in both the staging and in the text of the show, and her Shirley is something to be treasured. Rueful, funny, romantic and forgiving, she's the best mum and grandma anybody could ever want - gently human. The middle-aged duo of daughters, Nikki-Lyn Hunter and Elaine Noon both have the thinner material - the poetry doesn't necessarily individuallise the sisters particularly as both seem to talk pretty similarly, and the revelation they come to doesn't, in this standalone presentation, feel particularly cathartic (again, this may be the problem with seeing this without knowing the other two plays) - but both actresses do reasonably with the material they have, as they drift further into the vino. Alex McPherson establishes a chummy warmth with the audience as the youngest castmember, Jen, whose relation to the rest becomes apparent during the course of the story, and gives her material an easygoing charm.

Kate Blackhurst's production brings a lot out from the actresses but can't spice up the essentially static nature of Page's scrip. Ronan Moss' set design features some distinctly retro-looking furniture but gives the spaces a separate identity in keeping with the character's mode.

I do feel like i'm slightly damning this with faint praise, but ... again, maybe I'm not the perfect audience for this, with my slight resistance towards poetic drama and unfamiliarity with the previous two plays. But this is a chance to see Micki Beckett on stage, which I haven't had for a year, so I can't regret the afternoon spent on that basis.

Friday, 30 November 2018

Notice

Due to hurt feelings from my last review, I feel very uncomfortable reviewing any further work or engaging in any way with its director. I've tried to keep this blog relatively collegial, where I don't interfere with the right of artists to do their work the way they want and in return, they don't interfere with my right to respond in the way I choose. That polite exchange has been broken. And I don't know that it can be healed particularly easily. I am aware that in one private conversation a year and a half ago I was intemperate. I wasn't aware that was going to be held against me forever. But apparently it is.

So, we're on a hiatus.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

One Man Two Guvnors, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Carlo Goldoni's commedia-inspired "Servant of Two Masters" is one of those classics that can always stand a revival as long as you've got the right leading man playing the titular servant. In an Australian context the translation written for the Old Tote in the 70s, originally entitled "How could you believe me when I said I'd be your valet when you know I've been a liar all my life" and starring Drew Forsythe has stuck around a reasonably long time (returned to its standard, non-marquee-busting title, it got a Nimrod revival in the 80s and was picked up by Bell Shakespeare in the 2000s to be a vehicle for their talented clown Darren Gilshenan). The Richard Bean adaptation premiered at the National Theatre in 2011 emerged to prominence on the back of a James Corden performance that launched him into the heights of talk-showdom, and a carefree updating from the renaissance to early-60s Brighton, an England just on the verge of swinging that still had plenty of time for Carry-On style jokes.

This production has the right leading man. Arran McKenna has played the role before (in a much-remembered-by-this-reviewer ANU drama lab production in 2007 where I particularly remember his comic byplay with Erin Pugh, one of the best physical comediennes of her generation), and he knows exactly how the role works - ingratiating himself with the audience quickly and committing himself whole heatedly both to the comic shenanigans and the very real physical hungers that underlie all the comedy. It also has the wonderful Steph Roberts, doing her best Barbara Windsor as the lusty, independent, thoroughly no-bullshit Dolly, and Patrick Galen-Mules upperclass-twitting to perfection as one of the titular Guvnors, Stanley.

Elsewhere, the spread is a little more uneven. There's exposition that feels raced through, there's curtain lines that fall flat, there's running gags that stagger and there's sight gags that fail to pay off. The physical production is big and impressive (and I don't object in principle to people trying big-scale stuff on Canberra stages) but here it often seems like it's trying to compete with the actors rather than compliment their work - the play lives and breathes when the cast is forming a connection to the audience and some of the grandiose nature of the production acts, for me, as a block rather than an assist to having that connection.

I laughed a reasonable amount at this, and for those three key performances this is certainly worth watching. But there's a lot here that could have been improved with a bit more control and focus on the bigger picture.