Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The "Well I liked it" awards, 2017

It's time to wrap up the year with the "Well I Liked It" awards, or WILIs for short. This is the sixth awards, so therefore I can talk about how the WILI is long-standing, hardened and well practiced. It's quite respected to have a WILI, the WILIs stand out in theatre awardsand I've even seen people occasionally talking about their WILI on facebook, with a few celebratory eruptions here and there for anybody with the balls to go beyond normal performance level. And who am I to judge. Well, I'm a guy with a blog, that's who, therefore I can judge however I like, and other people may even agree, or violently disagree. And either way, I get paid exactly the same amount. Which is nothing.


Let's kick off with Jarrad West. He knocked three very different shows out of the park this year. First with a production of Avenue Q which was undoubtedly my favourite local production of a musical of the year (admittedly, I saw only three local musicals so it's a weak field this year, but still) - a solid, funny and playful production of a contemporary classic. He followed up with another fast and funny night in the theatre with the consistently hilarious "39 Steps" that combined a thrilling breakneck narrative with a touch of romance, some hysterical nonsensical diversions and a bit of dashing heroism. And with "The History Boys" he brought a dense, thoughtful play to full emotional life in an intimate, intense production that combined the abstract questions of knowledge for its own sake versus knowledge as a commodity with a heartfelt examination of how the individual personal failings of teachers affected or inspired their students.

Two shows have to get a mention here that I didn't actually write reviews for, largely because I ended up seeing both before they officially opened, and I don't review previews. Pigeonhole's "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll"  took a play I thought I knew too well and opened up fresh new angles, particularly through the lead performances of Jordan Best (an Olive full of drive and energy right up until the point where life hits her like a truck and brings her heartbreakingly to her knees) and Andrea Close (whose Pearl made a character who could otherwise play as a sniffy scold into a fully rounded player who's been around enough to enjoy it while it's fun but who knows where her limits are and can shut it down when it goes too far). And Belvoir's production of "Ghosts" felt frighteningly relevant as a story about religion, secrets, sexuality and respectability played out between five strong performers to a conclusion of utter devestation.

Other plays that deserve a mention include Jordan Best's tense, gripping production of "Wait Until Dark", held at the centre by a perfectly cast Jenna Roberts, who moved from initial naivety to final strength as she was repeatedly conned and betrayed on her way to resolution; and two American plays from Belvoir with the intensely theatrical "Mr Burns" showing the immense power of pop-culture stories to sustain and survive beyond the ephemeral; and "Hir" showing what happens as cultural revolutions hit against the mainstream masculinity that it's trying to transcend.

I also have to mention the National Theatre's "Follies", a knockout of a production showing fantasy, memory and reality smashing up against each other in an emotional demolition derby that simultaneously embodies musical escapism and rebels against it. I have no idea if the NT Live broadcast showing in Australia in February will capture what I saw on the Olivier stage in anything like the brilliance that the stage production did (performances tuned for a 1000 seat venue can often look oversized in closeup), but I can only hope that it does so that others can share.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Belvoir

You can't help but be surprised by Stephen Curtis's set as you wander into Belvoir for this show - a fairly strong transformation has taken place, all the way into row B of the theatre, as this inner suburbs drama palace has been transformed into a run-down pub on a band night, complete with mini-stage in the corner and bar tables and couches for the patrons. Co-written by and starring Ursula Yovich, this is the venue for an exploration both of a tough woman in tough times, and about the place of the Aboriginal people in modern Australia. The basic setup, with Barbara telling her story in between songs, would seem to resemble a cis female "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", but this has a few differences in the structure - in particular, Barbara's offsider, her cousin Rene, is quite capable of being as vocal a presence as Barbara, and the songs, while showing off Yovich's fine soul voice and generally having a good groove to them, aren't quite as focussed on story telling as the "Hedwig" numbers.

Still, the work by the "Camp Dogs" team is pretty strongly memorable. The script, by Yovich and hardest-working-playwright-in-the-business Alana Vanentine, has a strong throughline, clever wit and true heart to it. And Leticia Cacares' direction makes this a show that comes out and embraces the audience, and uses the stage wisely and well - both in the strong performances of Yovich and Elaine Crombie, and in the witty use of various elements of the stage (including the occasional moment in the spotlight for the tight band). 

This is a show that reaches beyond simply being an indulgence piece for Yovich (showing off both her acting and her singing) to tell a story about family and belonging and how hard both can be in a production of unusual strength and passion.

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.