Saturday, 6 August 2022

Hand to God, Everyman Theatre, ACT Hub, 27 Jul-13 Aug 2022

 I rarely go back and rewatch shows. Seeing the same show twice in one year is pretty much verbotten. So .. given I saw the Old Fitz version of this play back in March (link here), why did I come back for more? Well, partially it's that I have historically kinda been Everyman's bitch (see reviews from here to here), and partially that my husband expressed an interest in coming to see this and he very rarely wants to see anything. 

So in the grand competition of the big-name indie Sydney darlings and the local heroes, how did the locals do? Surprisingly well. There are some different choices, partially driven by the nature of the venues and partially by the performers, but Robert Askin's twisted comedy about desperation, religion, lust and puppets holds up well to this different interpretation. Strangely, the local production feels a little less intimate (the Old Fitz is a tiny venue while the Hub, in the configuration used for this show, feels larger), leading to a larger-scale, slightly more professionally-constructed looking Tyrone puppet (rather than the sock used at the Old Fitz, which is admittedly more realistic for the young teens who are meant to have constructed them, but the professionally constructed Tyrone is more able to reach the back row of the Hub).  

Michael Cooper in the dual role of Jason and  Tyrone gives a very physically committed perormance, dividing between the bashful, surpressed Jason and the exuberant monstrous id of Tyrone, who seems to literally enlage and take more control of the play every time we see him. The final battle between the two of them is probably the biggest physical action I've seen from a performer this year and I can't imagine the bruises after yesterday's two-show-day. As his mother Margey, Steph Roberts carries all the nervous tension in the role and lets it out exuberantly when the character suddenly gets a chance to go wild. Aaran McKenna as Pastor Greg conbines a disturbing hairstyle, shorts-and-socks combo and a manner that takes obsequious to a whole new level. Holly Ross as Jessica gives the character a hilarious disssasociation, plugged into her own alternate reality. Josh Wiseman as Timothy gives the sullen moody teen a growing enthusiasm as he gets to unleash his own brand of mayhem, leading to the inevitable crash of pain when the consequences catch up with him.

This is an enjoyable skilled production with great performers giving their all to a text that kinda plays a little like Sam Shepard Meets Avenue Q with a little of John Milton thrown into the mix. It's fast, furious, funny, faith-questioning, felt-based, philosophical, theological, psychologica and parapsychological entertainment that will get you buzzing. 

Friday, 5 August 2022

The Year of Magical Thinking, Critical Stages Touring, The Q, Aug 5-6, 2022

 Joan Didion's 2005 memoir was adapted for the stage in 2007 and has played with actresses like Vanessa Redgrave and Robyn Nevin. Stripped back to a monologue, telling the story of Didion's dealing with the grief after the death of her husband and the hospitalisation of their daughter. It's a deep meditation on how those left behind negotiate the life after - the bargaining, the ritualistic behaviour to avoid provoking memories, the evasion of your shared past and the reinterpretations of events in the light of the loved one's departure. 

Jillian Murray plays this with care - deliberately not taking on the persona of Didion and eschewing the American accent in favour of her own RP voice, but using her words as a Malibu-and-Upper-West-Side-abiding American writer of novels, non-fiction and screenplays, an immensely priveleged person who can dash off with her husband to Paris with very little effort, whose life becomes suddenly undone in the wake of twin tragedies as those she's closest to suddenly slip away. It's a confronting tale that Murray gives with compassion and feeling, with the support only of a chair and a table with a glass of water on it, and some sensative light choices from Andy Turner and a little bit of sound background from Darius Kedros. Murray has a natural sharing, gentle way that brings the audience to her, filling the large Q stage with her presence and bringing us closer in to listen to the details of the story she's carrying to us. It's a radically simple performance, with Didion's self-analytic narrative delivered cleanly in ways that draw the emotions from the audience, dealing with the fear and insights that grief may bring, without feeling like a relentless dirge. 

It's an impressive addition to the Q's season, and makes the venue feel intimate and warm.

Thursday, 4 August 2022

Romeo and Juliet, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3, 28 Jul-13 Aug 2022

 Shakespeare has a large presence on Australian stages, due partially to having well known stories with rich dialogue for actors to wallow in, and partially due to being well out of copyright. This does mean that there's a risk of this work becoming overly familiar and productions going well out of their way to make themselves unique and different in a way that doesn't really serve the text so much as directorial ego.

This is not one of those productions - it's very much a back-to-basics version played out on an adaptable set designed by co-director Christopher Zuber of arches and a wall, using Rep's revolve very effectively in creating scene pictures of an earthy, brutal Verona where heat and passion can run rampant and where Romeo and Julet can escape the conflict on the top of the wall.  The directoral team of Kelly Roberts and Zuber make some unusual choices in cutting the text to meet a two-hours-plus-intermission timeframe -  favouring the older supporting cast (particualary Capulet, Lady Capulet, the Nurse and Friar Lawrence) over the younger supporting crew, though there's still enough material to allow Romeo, Juliet and Mercutio to make an impact (Tybalt is more defined by flashy costuming and contemptuous attitude than by anything he says in this edit). 

There are a lot of elements here, some of which work better than others. There's a 70s grunginess to this production with a lot of the musical elements drawn from the CBGB's lineup of the mid-to-late 70s (Patti Smith, The Ramones), plus composer/performer Richard Manning's raw guitar sounds, though the costuming is mostly modern dress. The early presence in the first fight scene of dance elements isn't really followed through for the rest of the production, and the lack of a stage-combat expert is slightly felt - the confrontation at the top of act 2 could use a little bit more focus to sell the danger of the moments. There's some overlapping of dialogue which helps accelarate the telling but with some loss of focus. 

At the centre are Pippin Carroll and Annabelle Hansen as the titular pairing. The show very much gives them space from the first time they meet, isolating them in a large party scene and breaking up their shared-sonnet meeting scene into two parts, giving us the urgent love story racing towards marriage and death - pretty much every moment the pair spend together in the narrative is on stage in front of us, and we realise how little time that is. We see Romeo transformed by his passion from the early callow youth to the passionate lover, and Juliet taking ownership of her emerging adulthood over the course of the story with the pair constantly moving forward to the next step. Elsewhere Tracy Noble is a delight as the gossipy nurse, Crystal Mahon is a suitably haughty Lady Capulet, Richard Manning gives weight to Capulet, Ryan Street has authority as the Prince and makes some unusual Peter-Cundall-esque noises during Friar Lawrence's gardening lecture, and Anneka van der Velde gives her Mercutio a true lust-for-life that is sorely missed after the character's death. 

This is a solid modern take on one of Shakespeare's most well known tales, giving it life, energy and passion. 

Thursday, 28 July 2022

This Changes Everything, Echo Theatre, The Q, 22-30 Jul 2022


This is big-thinking theatre. A cast of 18 take on a dystopic story of dealing with the big questions of dealing with an increasingly overwhelmingly pressured world, of flawed idealism, of the ways communities form and organise themselves, and about how we fall prey to charismatic leaders through fear, inertia, ego and groupthink. 

Writer Joel Horwood introduces us to a small remote community of teenagers through the eyes of three new arrivals. We see the hope that inspired the project, but also glimpses of the issues, from directionless meetings that require complete agreement to decide anyting, to the limited resources, to the mysterious departure of one of the group. And as the days progress, the trio get more enmeshed in the building tensions until everything boils over into a somewhat familiar scenario to anybody aware of revolutionary politics of the French or Russian varieties, or Orwell's "Animal Farm" or Golding's "Lord of the Flies". With a cast this big, there's a little bit of a limitation in that no one character gets a deep dive inside - most of the characters are given one or two characteristics for the duration, but the interactions of all these personalities is where the work gains its strength as we see egos, fears and ideals clash in escalating dangers.

Jordan Best directs with clarity and clear intention, whether it be the crowd scenes with a sea of voices arguing their way towards consensus, or the smaller two-and-three character scenes that highlight elements of life among the team. She has a strong way with a striking image, using the various areas of the set (designed by Best and Ray Simpson) to give power to particular moments. Jacob Aquilina's lighting design picks out spaces and helps with the paranoic mood that develops over the course of the story. 

There's a lot of strong work in the ensemble, but it would be unfair to pick out individuals - partially because part of the pleasure of the play is the developments as various characters shift into prominenence and power while others are cast aside brutally. But all are passionate, committed performers who give themselves over to the drama well. 

William Best's original music gives the narrative a moody underpinning, building our sense of tension and imminent doom. There's also strength in the costumes and makup choices, with boilersuits and a simple bit of facepaint giving the cast a sense of unity and belonging that frays as the story goes on. 

This is, in short, the reason I come to serious theatre - to engage in strong ideas expressed strongly, with passion and devotion.  It's well thought out and a great addition to the theatrical landscape of our region, and should be watched by anybody interested in the world around them. 

Thursday, 21 July 2022

Urinetown: the Musical, Hearts Strings Theatre Co, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre, July 15-23 2022

 A couple of years ago the Canberra area was overflowing with active musical theatre companies. Between Philo, Queanbeayn Players, SUPA, Dramatic Productions, the ANU Musical Society, Phoenix Players and Free rain we had seven companies regularly providing solid productions of a widish variety of musicals (though most of them still did runs of "Grease", "Les Mis" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"). COVID and time has narrowed the field a little, so there's now space for a new entrant - Heartstrings Theatre Company. On their first appearance, long may they reign.

The selection of show, the venue and the production methodology shows this is a little bit different - choosing a modern satirical musical with sharp takes on capatalism, optomistic thinking, environmental collapse and social revolution is a very different choice to the more familiar repertoire we've seen lately. Using the small confines of the Courtyard Studio means that we get a production with more-than-usual emphasis on the performers and the storyline rather than spectacle and stage-filling choruses. And that follows through into the set design and the performance style - a set of ladders, some sawhorses and a short scaffold, plus a few cloths make up the entire set, with the performers lending credibility to everywhere from public street to secret hideout to top-floor-office-building. Helen Wotjas' costumes have a distinctly homemade, patchwork look which gives the show a friendly embracing style, with performers swapping characters and sometimes gender with the addition or subtraction of a coat and, now and then, a hat.

Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis' show is a weird contradiction - a cynical show that's also deeply charming, a bitter social message that's seductive and constantly refuses to take itself as realism, and a score that combines the discordances of Brecht-Weill with the celebratory gospel and romantic yearning songs of the contemporary American musical. It's clever without being smart-alecky, and able to be simultaneously emotionally resonant and ridiculous. Ylaria Rogers directs with a clean style, using the limited space of the Courtyard to maximum effect and giving a show that plays to both the heart and the brain, allowing for a beautifully silly, apparently-simple-while-the-cast-is-clearly-working-their-butts-off show to land with full effect on the audience. Leisa Keen's control of both a four-part band and the harmonising of an 11-strong cast makes beautiful sounds come from the stage, and Annette Sharpe's choreography is fun, varied and always feels like a logical evolution of where the show is going at that particular moment.

There's so much strength in this cast, from Karen Vickery's ingratiatingly cynical narrator, Lockstock, to Petronella Van Tienan's bubbly classic-musical-theatre-heroine Hope, even able to dance along while bound-and-gagged in act two. Joel Horwood's Bobby Strong combines classic musical-theatre-hero integrity and earnestness with goofy idiocy. Max Gambale plays evil capatilist with enthusiasm and verve, particularly his bloodthirsty "Don't Be the Bunny". Deanna Farnell gives bitter cynacism and emotional outpourings as required in the inevitable surprise revelations. Natasha Vickery enjoys the hell out of playing the ultimate hopeful-little-girl, Little Sally, bantering gormlessly with Lockstock. Joe Dinn switches easily from cynical Senator Fipp to desperate emotional Ma Strong, adding to the joy. Glenn Brighenti's dopey sidekcik Barrell and psychotic Hot Blades Harry both register strongly.  

This is not really a go-buy-tickets kinda review because, as I understand it, the show has found its audience and is very much on its way to completely selling out, so much as a "buy early for the next thing Heartstrings does because judging by this level of quality you won't be disappointed" kinda review. Long may they sail.  

Saturday, 16 July 2022

10 years later


"If I've made a fool of myself, I have at least made of myself the kind of fool I want to be. That is the Virtue and Power of Pretentiousness" - Tony Kushher, opening quote from "The World only spins Forward", an oral history of the creation of "Angels in America".

So, a decade ago today, or nearly 300 posts ago, I started up this exercise of logging my experiences in theatres around the region and beyond (with reviews in here from London, New York, Chicago, Seatltle, Sydney and Melbourne). It's been an interesting ride, starting out anoymous and getting less and less so to the point where, in late 2018 after certain interactions, I put my name in my bio and  decided to live with this being my public shingle. I've attempted to be fair to productions and to meet them at their level of production and talk about what I saw and whether I enjoyed it. 

It's not always been easy - there's been one point where a particular e-mail had me talking to two lawyers - but I've tried to be fair and honest in my opinion, and only harsh where I felt the target was big enough to take it. There's been missteps, and reviews I probably wouldn't write today (in particular, one preview I was unduly harsh on for a show that was clearly on its first rehearsal in the venue), and there's been cases where I've got to express my love for a particular production when it has captured my heart. 

There are things I wish this blog could have been which it hasn't really had a chance to do. I'd kinda hoped the comments section would be more active than it has been - these entries are not meant to be holy writ, they're meant to indicte my thoughts on the production and open up the floor to further discussion. But apart from the occasional private message telling me I've been too easy on something or too harsh, it's been pretty quiet. 

So this will continue to be a personal record of local theatre history, one inevitably affected by the biases and preconceptions of its writer, only covering stuff where I've either been comped (rarely) or where I've decided I'm interested enough to pay for my own ticket. There are some shows where I feel I've seen them enough and don't need to give them another run (so the next few revivals of "JC Superstar", "Les Mis" and "Twelfth Night" are probably not getting a review), and there are genres where I don't feel I'm particularly knowledgable to give a useful review (which is why I've not reviewed Canberra's very active modern dance scene at all). But hopefully a couple of you will continue to find it interesting and worth the read.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Arsenic and Old Lace, Canberra Repertory, Theatre 3, 9th June-2 July 2022

 Joseph Kesserling's 80-plus-year-old plot boiler has a core to it that's instantly engrossing - two gentle sweet little old ladies who's principle hobby is mass-murder with their own special concoction of wine with a couple of doses of Arsenicc, strycnine and cyanide. Otherwise dedicated to the utmost proper behaviour (to the extent that they gasp at the possiblity of ever fibbing about their hobby), they're part of a charmingly eccentric milleau - the brother who thinks he's a former political figure, regualar visits from the reverend and his eager-to-marry daughter, the nephew who's an uptight drama critic and the other nephew who's eccentricities lean distinctly sadistic. Their story has been delighting audiences on-and-off ever since, a rare case of American comedy embracing light toned lunacy rather than sledgehammer go-for-the-gut bellylaughs. 

For this production, Ian Hart has modified the script in some interesting ways to attempt to bring the play into the modern era (though it does end up feeling a little stranded between now-and-then, with characters having attitudes and making references that live more comfortably anywhere betwween 1942 and 2022), and a local context rather than the original's Brooklyn (though the geography of the adaptation's imaginary Queanbeyan is somewhat eccentric and involves some fairly speedy travel back and forth to various Canberra institutions). To nitpick in a couple of places - both Teddy Brewster (now Bobby Brewster for this adaptation) and Jonathan Brewster require impersonations of particular American types - Teddy obsessed with Theodore Roosevelt, Jonathan bearing a resemblance to Boris Karloff - the chages to Robert Menzies and Freddie Kruger, despite the best efforts of the actors involved, Robbie Matthews and Rob de Fries, don't quite land with full context - Bobby is still doing Teddy's enthusiastic "Charge!" and bugle calls that don't really sit as well with Menzies (besides which Menzies is not a particularly easy PM to hook an impersonation on - why not Hawke?); and De Fries' Kruger impersonation is down to a couple of light scars (rather than the all-encompasisng burn marks), a stripy shirt and a lurching manner (to be fair, Kruger is pretty much the only horror icon of the last several decades that doesn't wear a mask - though the reference to having the little-old-ladies recently having gone to see a movie with him accompanying a bloodthirsty young boy wears out as soon as you realise that the last "Nightmare on Elm Street" movie came out a dozen years ago).  

There are other slight indulgences with the script - it's a longish show played in three fairly full acts, which get slightly longer when Andrew Kay's delightful set proves adaptable to give us both an exterior AND an interior rather than the all-in-one-location original - the insistence on inserting bonus scenes outside the house drag out the evening a little too much for material which rarely has anything to add after the opening exposition dump. 

Fortunately the core of the show is well cast. Alice Ferguson has the slightly larger of the two central roles as Abby, the one who gets the big exposition scene where she explains and justifies why she's been so generous with the poisoning, and sells the character's self-justifying morality wonderfully - she sells the show's big leap-of-faith that she and her sister can be so convinced they're just doing the right thing. Nikki-Lynn Hunter forms a good double-act with Ferguson as the goofy chef of the pair, with an infectious grin and enthusiasm (and matches accents to Ferguson's native Scottish). Jack Shanahan has the hyperactive role as Mortimer, the figure who has to have everything explaind to him and who gets to run around trying to fix everything, and gives it a spin of massive-young-man-ego and utter disregard for anybody else that's going on around him - while he's theoretically the straight-man of the show, his normality is exposed as just as nuts as anybody elses. Robbie Matthews makes the slightly script-muddled character of Bobby somewhat endearing as he's eagerly led as long as people play into his fantasy. Rob de Fries has an enthusiastically sadistic creepy manner as he lurches across the stage threatening doom to everybody. Natalie Waldron gets the role that is most clearly 1940s - a girl who's biggest feature is to whine in the middle of the stage about how she wants to get married while the man in her life either ignores or berates her, and while she doesn't exactly modernise the cliche, at least she commits to it. Kayla Ciceran is suitablly weirdly drugged-out-of-her-mind as the sinister Dr Swan. David Bennett in a triple role gives good effect to each part that makes you not wonder very much why Queanbyan has so many Oklahomans in it. Mae Schrembi gives enthusiasm to the Police Officer Who Has Written A Play and is very enthusiastic to explain all of it to people. 

All in all this is a production that hits most of the key delights of the play, even while inserting some slightly unnecessary tampering with the material.