Thursday, 17 September 2020

What the Butler Saw, Canberra Rep

 "What the Butler Saw" is a curious beast - employing the traditional tropes and actions of a British sex-farce for a deeper look at sexuality, society, psychiatry and authority, taking everything to brutal extremes as characters are stripped of identity and clothing, beaten, wounded and in a gratuitous deus-ex-machina, reconciled and sent out to face the world again. It's a hard piece to get right - Joe Orton's script is incredibly verbose as two lead characters, both psychiatrists, attempt to diagonse each other and those around them in a desperate battle for some semblance of control. As the scars they leave behind become more and more apparent, the veneer of civilisation gets ripped further and further away and the choice is to either be appalled or laugh.

Fortunately, Liz Bradley's production manages to keep things largely on the side of dark comedy, with a drilled-to-perfection cast perfectly embodying their characters as conclusions are leapt to and characters rush in and out of the multidoored set, designed by Quentin Mitchell. David Cannell gives just enough world-weariness to the somewhat sleazy Dr Prentice to take the edge off, Lainie Hart's Mrs Prentice parrys verbally with him with aplomb in endless good humour, and Peter Holland as the paranoid inspector, Dr Rance, deals with large walls of dialogue as he rants out his crackpot psychological theories on what lays beneath all the confusion (I don't think I've ever seen him go quite so red in the face as in this play). On the younger side of the cast, Zoe Swan is good-natured enough to never make us feel particularly sorry for the increasingly awful treatment the script piles upon her, Glenn Brighetti has a suitable sleazy charm as the on-the-make Nicholas, and Thomas Hyslop deploys largely confusion as the befuddled Sergeant Match.

A hilariously twisted production with a bit to chew over in the mind on the drive home as you realise just what you've been laughing at is just what the times demand, and while this is largely sold out for the rest of the season, it's absolutely worth the begging, borrowing or stealing to catch it if you can.

Friday, 14 August 2020

Shows I wish Someone Would Do #1: Xanadu

(I started drafting this early during the COVID lockdown but never finished it due to ... well, work and stuff - now people are doing stuff, so go see that stuff instead!)

It’s one of the most disliked movies of all time, a cheesy early-80s Olivia Newton-John roller-disco themed movie combining greek muses, the old-style musical glamour of Gene Kelly and the blandly good-looking Michael Pate together with a soundtrack full of ELO and ONJ’s longtime songwriter, John Farrar. The soundtrack is the thing that’s most loved about it, ELO’s hooks and grandiose production combining with Olivia’s pure singing ability and charm to deliver something very listenable to, even while the film is going all over the place to be somewhat unwatchable.

It’s also a damn fun stage musical – Douglas Carter Beane’s script rewrite lugs in two new songs, one ELO’s classic “Evil Woman”, and one John Farrar deep cut “Have you never been Mellow” and doubles down on the greek mythology element, giving “Evil Woman” to two evil muses, Melpomene and Calliope, and “Have you never been Mellow” to Zeus and three of the goddesses in a Clash of the Titans tribute that induces irresistible giggles, even while being completely aware how silly the plot is (sample line “this is like children’s theatre for 40 year old gay men”)

In terms of marketability, this is a double-edged show – it’s well known but it’s normally known as being not very good. And certainly it’s never quite done as well as it should – the Australian premiere production in Melbourne was done in a tent in Southbank under an expressway, making it hard to draw the attention of your modern musical theatre appreciating aficionadas. But the fact remains this is a show with five great lead roles for performers, a fun bunch of songs to sing, an entertaining story and a few deep things to say about making art in a commercial environment, about the act of creating and about how irresistible roller disco really is.


Friday, 7 August 2020

Brighton Beach Memoirs, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

 Rep returns with a play set in roughly the same period as their last play pre-Covid, “Grapes of Wrath”, albeit at the opposite end of the US and dealing with a family in a very different social setting (Brooklyn middle-class Jews rather than working-class Oklahoma Dust Bowl residents). Neil Simon’s 1983 comedy is a memory piece, as the title suggests, with his extended Jewish family all crammed into one house and hitting up against circumstances that stretch the familial bonds to breaking point.

The play represents a bit of a swerve in Simon’s work – he’d previously largely written contemporary comedies touching on the various stresses of marriage, friendship and romance – and it does feel slightly like a memory not only of Simon’s own life but also of classic American drama of the late 30s early 40s (the extended “waiting for a gentleman caller” sequence at the beginning of act two riffs off “Glass Menagerie” a tad, as does Laurie's fragility, and there are a couple of other echoes here too). The multiple subplots pile up into some strong set piece (in particular act one’s family dinner), but also leave Eugene Jerome, the narrator character, curiously having very little plot function in his own narrative – the stories of the characters around him feel all much bigger than his subplot dealing with his early adolescent libido, and he mainly functions to quip off to the side of other people’s stories and provide exposition. The ending is also a little reluctant to let the characters be permanently shifted by the events of the story, meaning that the return-to-status-quo ending left me a little unsatisfied. It’s not entirely Neil Simon’s fault that his gag rhythms and structures were so extensively imitated by generations of American sitcoms that everything feels a bit familiar, but never the less it is a comfortable kind of familiarity, a warm hug of a play.

Karen Vickery’s production brings this to life with all the emotional heft and charm that you could want. A rich cast, made up largely of new-and-recent-arrivals to Rep, invest their scenes with sincerity and create a touching family straining against one another in close quarters.  Jamie Boyd plays Eugene with a effortless geniality and enthusiasm, becoming an easily enjoyable narrator. Victoria Tyrell Dixon's Kate Jerome is absolutely gripping as the rough, unfaltering disciplinarian of a mother, up until the point where the dam finally breaks in the second act. Paul Sweeney is a perfectly warm, engrossing father, with a strong sense of the history that led him to this point in his life. Amy Crawford takes the terminally indecisive Blanche to heartbreaking places, as the pressures of widowed motherhood bear harder and harder on her. James McMahon as big-brother Stanley provides that perfect big-brotherlyness that means we can understand why Eugene looks up to him even as he makes teenage-boy mistakes. Caitlin Baker's passion for freedom and Ella Buckley's nerdy reticence make the two cousins a solid part of the ensemble. Set, lighting, sound, costumes and props give the space and period the strength they need to support the narrative.

This isn't my favourite Simon play but it's a fine production and well worth catching.

Sunday, 15 March 2020

Family Values, Griffin Theatre Company, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre.

David Williamson arouses weird sensations in a lot of theatre critics. He has been an institution in Australian Theatre for 50 years, from "The Removalists" through to tonight's show - with most of his plays giving a semi-comedic view of the issues of the day (from domestic violence and police corruption in "The Removalists" through to our current border policies and a grab bag of other issues in "Family Values"). And, yes, like most prolific playwrights, there's probably about five plays that I'd prefer went back into the "never to be seen again" drawer, and it's difficult to avoid the thought that a few of the last two decades worth of plays could have been improved by rewrites that would have been imposed if it wasn't for the fact that he's guaranteed box office so why bother fiddling with the winning formula. And even that the emphasis on him has not always been great for other writers who have fallen into the trap of being considered "the next Williamson" (and, inevitably, found wanting because they don't particularly want to be him, they want to follow their own muse).

But for all that, I own pretty much every play he's ever had published, and enjoy reading them. He's the kinda playwright that can be relied on for a reasonably speedy plot, some good jokes, a dramatic confrontation and a solid ending. And with solid direction they can provide an engaging night out. Lee Lewis is more than a solid director (I'm sure I've mentioned before how strong I find her work), as well as having prior form in keeping Williamson interesting (both with "Rupert" and with Griffin's production of "Emerald City" a few years ago, that solved some of the issues with Williamson's overly long rants by ensuring action continued during them). Yes, this one does have some clunky introductory dialogue, and it's true that in this family of mum, dad, and the three kids, one of the kids does seem to be distinctly underwritten. But it's a play that confronts some urgent issues - as Lee Lewis says in her director's notes "This play is not perfect, but it is necessary" - and while it wraps the standard Williamson tropes around it, there's no mistaking the passion with which Williamson shows his outrage at how successive Australian governments have treated asylum seekers. There's some great performances here as well - particularly from Belinda Giblin's mum showing her inner strength, Sabryna Walters as the person most effected by the issues, and Jaime Oxenbould finding some dimensions to a persona who could very easily be thin caricature. Sophie Fletcher's simple but useful design ensures the cast have a number of interesting areas to congregate, and there's a general sense that this has been handled with loving care to realising every bit of potential that the script has. Good stuff.

Saturday, 7 March 2020

American Song, Red Stitch Actors Theatre and Critical Stages Touring, The Q

Joanna Murray-Smith's plays seem to rise and fall for me based on whether she's using a pre-existing character or not - in the plays tied into someone already known ("The Female of the Species", clearly inspired by Germaine Greer, "Switzerland" with Patricia Highsmith), there's a strong and solid presence which draws my interest. In the others, where she has to create people from scratch, I never quite find that they feel fully formed, so much as an abstract series of familiar tropes (I've read one of her more famous peices, "Honour", a few times, hoping this time it'll grab me, but it never really rises above the familiar for me). She's got a good line in dialogue, with a poetic bent ... but nothing in the plots really ever get to me.

And alas, for me, "American Song" suffers the same way. There's a good visual metaphor (as our monologuing character builds a dry-stone wall) and the thread as he examines his life to try to determine the moment when the flaws emerged and led to an initially un-named tragedy is an intriguing set-up. But the life feels, for me, like it's made up of things I've seen before, with no new insights or particular surprises. Joe Petruzzi does good work with what the script offers, but ... this all felt very distant from me. I'm not sure whether it's that everything turns on an examination of American gun culture (which isn't really where my life centers), or that it's a story from the point of view of a hetrosexual father (I'm neither). But I never really found myself sufficiently engaged by this - it felt too much like an exercise, a demonstration, rather than the emotional catharsis I was hoping for.

Tuesday, 3 March 2020

Spamalot, One-Eyed Man Productions, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

Eric Idle's loving ripoff/financial brand extension of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" has been seen a couple of times in Canberra before, most memorably in theatre lore as "that show where Max Gambale Stabbed Dave Smith By Mistake".  It's quite a fun piece - yes, to a certain extent, it is a weird case of watching a covers band do all your favourite bits of the movie in a slightly rearranged form, but much of the rearrangement (at least in act one) serves to tie together the plot of a film that, fun though it is, does play a bit as a series of sketches.

And this production brings with it a good mix of the epic-and-the-micro-budget emulating some of the spirit of Python, with a cast of 8 playing on a deliberately-reduced stage, with much of the stage magic done very much with the strings showing and the stage manager popping up to help out. There's all kinds of fun in the performances, from Craemer Crain's imperious King Arthur, his loyal servant/horse Patsy (Amy Hack), all kinds of odd service from Blake Appelqvist (with several silly voices and some equally silly dancing), Abe Mitchell (going from bloodthirsty to weirdness with a side order in eccentric),  Rob Johnston (from stoic historian to romantic prince Herbert, via some silly miming), Marty Alix (largely the wimpy Sir Robin but also popping up in odd spots) and Jane Watt (nominally the flatulent Sir Bedevere but with plenty of her own side roles). Plus there's special guest Diva Josie Lane to power through the power ballads, nominally connected to the plot but often off in her own show.

This does suffer a bit from the "runs out of invention a bit in act two" (to a certain extent, once the knights split off into their own section plots, it becomes a random collection of good-bits-from-the-movie-then-finale), there's a lyric substitution in one of the second act songs that doesn't really work (the original lyric is very Broadway-centric, but this one's not as much fun), and in general the staging doesn't quite have the creativeness that the first act does (where a simple set turns out to have a bunch of bonus surprises). There's also occasionally a few cases of over-telegraphing the joke (the staging of "I'm all alone" foregrounds Patsy earlier than it should if the audience is going to find the responses funny). In short, of the two Hayes-theatre-tours that came through Canberra and its surrounds, this is probably the not-quite-as-good-one, but it's still pretty fun.

Friday, 28 February 2020

HMS Pinafore, Hayes Theatre Co, The Q

"HMS Pinafore" has been delighting audiences pretty much from the point where it opened in 1878 - the first big Gilbert and Sullivan hit, it's locked in its immortal status by, like most great pop culture, getting referenced in "The Simpsons" ("Cape Feare", where Sideshow Bob performs a one man production for the family). And it retains a lot of its delights, some 140 years later, from Sullivan's gorgeous score and Gilbert's jokes that still retain relevance and hilarity ("When I Was a Lad" will forever be hilarious as long as men with no qualifications better than an ability to say "yes" the right number of times get to head national institutions). The simple story of a humble sailor in love with a captain's daughter plays with ideas of class, responsibility and romance in delightful ways, with an ending as brisk and hilarious as possible (just don't look at the logical implications too hard).

Kate Gaul's production brings out all these delights and a few bonus ones. After a couple of years of enjoying the Hayes productions in their own venue but not necesarily on tour (sound issues with "Little Shop of Horrors", intimacy issues with "Sweet Charity"), it's a delight to see they've worked out how to tour these - a simple stage-within-a-stage is the toybox a tight ensemble of 12 get to play in (many of them both as performers and as musicians - there's no pit, just a case of performers picking up a violin or a trombone or guitar to accompany the action, alongside Musical Director Zara Stanton, who also accompanies on  piano (or clarinet, or accordian, or whatever else she has nearby).  There's a slight panto-quality to it (with Thomas Campbell playing Little Buttercup as panto dame, and Bernie Palin as Ralph Rackstraw as principal boy) that helps, adding a bit of eyebrow glitter to glam up the occasion, and using the excuse of Sir Joseph Porter's arrival for everybody to get into party gear that they keep for much of the rest of the evening, it lets cast members bounce muck around with genders quite happily.  It's careful to keep the one serious bit (the emotional too-and-throwing between Palin's Rackstraw and Hanna Greenshield's Josephine as she first rejects him for his class-inferiority, then rejoins him) to true emotional effect - for the first time in a while, I actually did get caught up in the usually tedious stuff between tenor-and-soprano (oh, just ask me how I feel about Marius and Cosette, I'm sure I'll ramble on for a coupla hours).

This is fluff, but it's quality fluff expressing joy, wit and charm, and is absolutely worth catching.