Friday, 27 December 2019

The "Well I Liked it" awards 2019

It's that time again to do the "Well I liked it" awards, or WILIs for short. It's the 8th WILIs and, yes, that innuendo has managed to stretch that far and will keep on giving what it's got.

It's been an interesting year in theatre blogging, my full year of blogging with my name on it (which has meant ... a grand total of one freebie ticket that may possibly be related to the blog! Clearly I'm raking in those big blogging bucks). It's also meant I've been a tad slower in the blogging than I used to be, and a tad more careful. There's two shows I saw that I didn't review at the time because they were both in previews, though both were in pretty solid condition and among my favourites of the year otherwise ("Caroline or Change" at the Hayes, which combined some great performances with a stunning physical production for a show that I'd never have expected to see in Australia, and "Fangirls", which had a freshness and wit about it, albiet perhaps about half an hour too long and with a couple of early-preview sound problems which meant multiple witty lyrics went a little unheard).

But of the biggies:

Locally, "Assassins" was probably my favourite show of the year that I hadn't seen a previous production of, with the return of "Playhouse Creatures" my favourite show I had. I have an obvious bias towards the one I production managed, "A Doll's House", and particularly the lead performer Susannah Frith whose performance grew during the show from the apparently frivolous girl to the clearly capable and strong woman willing to seize her destiny.

Of the touring shows, "Prima Facie" was my favourite thing I saw - an astonishing combo of writing, performance and direction as one woman broke down the brutal effects of the legal process on victims of sexual assault in a gripping presentation. It looked so simple yet was spectacular in its effects.

Interstate "The Wolves" captured my imagination early and never really let go - I strongly believe it's a major work that, with any luck, we'll be seeing all over the place, and Belvoir's production, picked up from an independent season elsewhere, gave it a cracking good production. And "Come From Away" was every inch as good as everybody said it was, a stunningly good mix of show, cast and production.

Hoping to get out and see more this year, and for there to be much skillful work from our local teams as well as the wider interstate productions. There's strong seasons coming from both the CAnberra Theatre and the Q, and good potential elsewhere - here's hoping there'll be great works to see.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

First Love is the Revolution, Griffin Theatre Company

This is an odd combination of fantasy, romance, comedy and brutal drama, set among a colony of urban foxes and the household of a boy who befriends one of them. Looking at nature, humanity and with a fair chunk of surrealism, this plays like gangbusters in the tiny Stables space (converting it into a small suburban hill completely covered in fake grass, with a few surprise spots for cast to jump out of). Leading the cast are Sarah Meachum (back after "The Wolves" in another role that's a physical workout as well as an emotional one) as the youngest of the foxes, and Bardiya McKinnon as the boy - both a very appealing pair as they bond further despite the obvious divisions in their natures. This is the second time I've seen a play at Griffin that's been pre-tested in the UK before getting an Australian audience (despite being by an Australian playwright) and there's a robustness in Rita Kalenejais' script that plays confidently with the mixture of anamalistic fantasy and brutal realities delightfully. The supporting cast of four ramble between ten roles between them, including various other species of animal (Rebecca Massey scores as both the fox's mother and as a distinctly kiwi chicken, while Matthew Whittet has a trio of chicken, mole and the boys's dad, Guy Simon as another fox and a guard-dog, and Amy Hack bouncing between fox, cat and human). Lee Lewis shows a sure sense of pace and style giving this fantasy an appealing sense of reality and place. A delightful end to the year.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Packer and Sons, Belvoir

For whatever reason (defamation law, unco-operative living subjects, lack of dramatist interest) it's rare for the activities of the super-rich to get documented on Australian stages (the only similar project I can think of off the top of my head is David Williamson's "Rupert" from 2013). And this narrative, which tells of three generations of Packer men, over the course of about 50 years, is certainly an intriguing one. It's perhaps better in the first half (concentrating on the rising of Kerry as contrasted with his brother Clyde and under the thumb of the domineering Frank) than in the second (which is very dominated by James' failures in administration of OneTel and Kerry's brutal dismissals of him), but there's a lot of very strong writing from Tommy Murphy, who enjoys a stronger subject than his recent history-based narrative, "Mark Colvin's Kidney" (which felt more anecdotal, while this feels more "epoch defining drama"). If it falls slightly into the trap of humanising the characters and not entirely emphasising the damage they do to the world around them, it's still a strong piece of drama.

Central are two extremely strong leads - John Howard playing both Frank and the elder Kerry, and Josh McConville as the younger Kerry and James. Howard perhaps has the more challenging role as both Frank and the elder Kerry have definate similarities, brutal men who bully their children, but he manages to build very different personas to the two tyrants. McConville has both the strong transitions as Kerry grows from the feckless carouser black sheep of the family to his father's chief headkicker and designated successor, and as the cheerily naiive James gets more and more crushed as it becomes apparent how out of his depth he is - again, managed with aplomb (and a couple of helpful hairpieces). The remaining cast are mostly in support - Brandon McClelland has the most to do as the undone-by-his-ethics Clyde, while Nick Bartlett, John Gaden and Anthony Harkin offer strong support in various roles.

Eamon Flack directs with a sure sense and two strong coups-de-theatre - the opening image (where i'm still not sure how the polo horse got on-and-off stage, and suspect there's some trickery involving the prop), and a sudden transition between younger-and-older Kerry. I don't know he entirely avoids the longeurs in the second act as the material dwells a little long on OneTel's disastrous corporate shenanigans, but that's partially script issues.

IN short, this is gripping, engaging theatre about contemporary Australia, well worth catching.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Waiting in the Wings, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Noel Coward's image as a writer of witty cosmopolitan comedies is mostly backed up by the four plays that most frequently get revivals ("Hay Fever", "Private Lives", "Blithe Spirit" and "Present Laughter"), but the truth is, he had a career wider than that. Some of his greatest successes leaned more towards very British "stiff-upper-lip" dramas (the epic "Cavalcade", the family drama "This Happy Breed" and particularly "Brief Encounter"). And "Waiting in the Wings" reflects the other Noel Coward more than the cuttingly humourous one audiences may come in expecting.

It was his second-to-last major play, after a series of not-quite-successes that had drifted increasingly conservative. But the combination of memorialising actresses of his youth, and reflections on his own mortality gave "Waiting in the Wings" a poignant aspect that allows a certain soulfulness not often seen in his work. The plotting is a little all over the place (in a three act play, most of the significant plot points are wrapped up by act two, with act three left to tidy up minor business and let the cast have a few sing-a-longs), and a couple of the characters end up being single-jokes-repeated rather than really getting a full characterisation, but there is a reasonable sense of aging with dignity and acceptance of the world which gives this a nicely sentimental appeal.

Stephen Pike's production takes advantage of the chance to let nine older actresses have substantial roles, many who have been off Canberra stages for a while. Ros Engledow is as close as the ensemble gets to a lead as the newly-arrived Lotta, perfectly poised and gorgeously dressed, the epitome of Coward's "keeping a brave face" approach to life's disappointments. Liz Bradley opposite her as her long-time rival, May, has a great line in irritation, and plays it strongly. Of the rest, Joan White tends to steal scenes wholesale as the increasingly demented Sarita, while Liz St Clair Long takes advantage of both an Irish accent and a walking stick as the over-dramatic Dierdre. There's nice support from some of the younger cast members, particularly Peter Holland as the "written for Noel Coward's boyfriend" liaison with the home's committee, getting to flash a dancing leg and a not-bad-singing-voice, Nikki-Lynne Hunter as the army-commandant-style-matron Ms Archibald, and Antonia Kitzl as the interloping journalist Zelda.

If it doesn't quite conquer Coward's lacksidaisical script, Stephen Pike's production brings out most of what's valuable about it, with the mix of sentimentality and laughter, in a very cosy, comfortable production. Andrew Kay's set gives everything a nice style (particularly a staircase and a landing for most of the actresses to play grand-scenes at one another), and Anna Senior's costumes have a nice style to them.

I can't claim this is my favourite play of the season, but as a nice comfortable pair of slippers of a play, this certainly suits.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Come from Away, New Theatricals, Junkyard Dog Productions, Rodney Rigby et al, Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

In the world of hypertouring internationally successful broadway musicals, it's rare for something that feels personal, individual and yet at the same time humans-scale and heartfelt to get attention. But thank goodness for something like this - in many ways "Come From Away" feels like the biggest-scale-ever-community theatre project, with a cast of twelve playing a vast array of characters caught up in the town of Gander, Newfoundland as, on September 11th 2001, it suddenly becomes the destination for 6,579 passengers unable to land in the United States after the plane hijackings and subsequent destruction. There's a strong history of verbatim theatre operating this way, with a small cast jumping in and out of character, switching between dialogue and direct narrative as they summarise a large incident with personal stories, and when it's done well (and it's done excellently here) it reaches out and grabs you immediately. The script and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein skillfully scratches in dozens of different stories, tying them together and allowing them not to be a homogeneous mass of simple uplift (two of the stories, perhaps, stick with me best because they leave loose ends, of the unresolved tensions of those days and of how, while a community can come together to create something warm, it's never quite perfect and always that little bit of human flaws that remain).

Christopher Ashley's direction (alongside musical stager Kelly Devine) makes this staging something constantly flowing - on a simple staging with chairs and tables, he ensures we're constantly focussed on the characters, on the stories, on the connections and on the world of these people. We're drawn in from the first five minutes and we're not let go again for another 95. It's an extrordinary achivement by cast, crew and production team, and I'm deeply grateful the Australian production had enough extensions for me to finally get to see it in Melbourne, and hope as many as possible get a chance to catch it before it goes.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank Theatre, The Sumner

Manuel Puig's 1976 novel went on to be a stage play in 1983, a film in 1985 and, in this form, a Broadway musical in 1993. It's an intriguing piece, about the relationship between a homosexual window dresser imprisoned for morals charges and a political prisoner held to try to get more information about his colleagues, and how the window dresser's fantasies based on the melodramas he's seen form a kind of escape for both of them.

In this version, there's some awkward gear shifting in the script and some of the score that makes this a challenging experience, particularly in the first act. Molina, the window dresser, gets a nice setting-up song, and the fantasy glamour queen Aurora, gets to shift into the grim prison with splashy musical numbers, but a lot of the setting-up songs for Valentin, the political prisoner, and the relationships for both Molina and Vanentin outside the prison seem more functional than inspired. And it does feel very much like Vanentin is drawn into Molina fantasies during the intermission, rather than this being a process we're drawn into - the beginning of act two is a glorious example of Aurora's melodrama capturing both of them (and shortly after features Valentin's best solo as he expounds his political history) but it doesn't feel very much like it picks up where we left act one. There's also a not-exactly-ahistorical homophobia coming from Valentin which makes him a difficult character for the audience to warm to.

In short, this is a rare musical with Act One problems that are mostly improved in Act Two - the writing feels a lot more confident and with a strong sense of direction in the second half. Dean Bryant's production uses a grim-but-grand prison setting with the characters largely on bare beds with a few shifting bits of scenery and some spectacular lighting effects to shift the mood back and forth from grim reality to splashy fantasy, and the trio of cast are mostly pretty strong - Ainsley Melham's Molina has the strongest writing and holds the stage well, Adam-Jon Fiorentino has the right presence but can't compensate for the underwritten character, and CAroline O'Connor has the voice and a lot of the right attitude for Aurora, but does feel a little like an extremely strong character actress playing the role of a glamourpuss rather than someone who is authentically the goddess-figure  the role is written for.

This is a case where, where the show hits its best marks, it's a really fascinating experience, but there's a lot in here where the material feels a little too, dare I say, competent-but-unexciting in the set-up. The payoff is great, the setup is not. So I come out a tad mixed.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Splinter, Griffin, SBW Stables Theatre

A couple are reunited with their missing infant daughter and have retreated to a beach shack in an attempt to get their lives back on track. But the father is disconcerted by how the girl has changed, and begins to wonder whether she really is his daughter - and that splinter of doubt begins to rot everything around it...

Hilary Bell wrote one of the great plays about children and their disconcerting unknowability in "Wolf Lullaby", and this later play (originally premiered in 2012) plays in some of the same fields, although with a lot more ambiguity - the characters are just known as Man, Woman and Laura (in the original production, Laura was played by a puppet, in this production she's a voice over). It's a challenging piece for audience and performers, and ... I'm not sure this production entirely meets all the challenges. I liked Lucy Bell's performance as the woman, but Simon Gleeson's performance never quite dove into the emotional turmoil the role seems to demand - he always seemed at a slight remove, indicating the emotional journey rather than disappearing inside it. And with what is basically a two hander, if 50% of the performers don't feel quite right, it's going to be a struggle. I liked the design of this (Tobhiyah Stone Feller's set, Benjamin Brookman's lighting and Mic Gruchy's video all combine to bring out some fascinating effects), and the general intent of Lee Lewis's production seemed valid. But at this performance, it didn't seem to realise all the potential there is in the script. So this has to be marked as a disappointment.