Saturday, 15 December 2012

The "Well I Liked It" awards

Given that I've (probably) seen my last bit of theatre for the year, and everybody's concentrating on exciting things like awards or, probably far more important, planning Christmas with friends and family, it seems the time to celebrate the good and ignore the bad from the year in theatre.

So I'm inaugurating the "Well I Liked It" awards for things that I liked. For any recipients - you should enjoy your WILI in private. Waving your WILI around in public doesn't impress anyone. My reasons for granting a WILI are my own, and I'm not going to give my WILI to anyone who's work I haven't seen. A critic has to have some standards, after all...

And I'm aware that theatre is a ridiculously collaborative medium, and amateur theatre even more so, so there will probably be instances where I'm praising someone for their work when actually several people were involved.

And these are awards with no particular rhyme or reason - I'm not doing anything like categories or anything. Just "I think that's award worthy".

Enough pre-amble. Let's get to the giving.

First up: "Thysestes" and "Death of a Salesman" get gongs for being the outstanding two works I saw interstate this year in the professional sphere, both at Belvoir (and I'm aware my eye is limited by only seeing Belvoir of the major companies interstate). Both were inventive takes on classic stories - "Thysestes" admittedly being a much older story and a much looser interpretation, but "Salesman" also providing a creatively different vision on a familiar play centred skillfully on a strong single visual metaphor and some incredible performances.

Also interstate, a production of J. Julian Christopher's "Man Boobs" in Melbourne, a dramatic-comedy/comedy-drama about body-image, emotional failure and the effects of past trauma, done by VicBears as part of the Midsumma festival. An intimate two-man piece turned one night's casual hookup into something far more heartfelt and soul destroying.

Locally: Big praise to Jenna Roberts' performance as Roxie in "Chicago" - one of the most striking performances in a local musical was also one of the first of the year. Jenna wasn't on stage a lot this year, but she made her performance count - it had the element of surprise, never quite knowing what she was going to do next but knowing that it was going to be amazing, whatever it was.

Duncan Ley's twin directorial triumphs for the year, "Pride and Prejudice" and "Pool: No Water" beg to be looked at as a pairing, just because they applied a consistent directorial aesthetic of "for gods sake, make it interesting" to two very different scripts. P&P was a story everybody knew going into the theatre, Pool a story I suspect nobody knew - both showed great ensemble work, were visually stunning to look at, kept all kindsa surprises up their sleeves and generally dazzled.

Cynthia Jolley-Rodgers lighting for "Speaking in Tongues" made an unconventional set look amazing, with clever use of shade, colour and pools of light to enhance the emotional impact.

Lachlan Ruffy deserves an award for being everywhere, and fitting in perfectly and perfectly differently every time he was somewhere. His twin performances in "Breaker Morant" were differentiated beyond just haircut-and-accent into portraits of intimidated fear and blind arrogance respectively, his gorgeously genial Bingley in P&P was delightfully charming, his palsied-up Gus The Theatre Cat in "Cats" was heartbreaking, his lighting for "Memory of Water" was emotionally acute and kept the work intimate, his gawkily brave teenager in "Lost in Yonkers" was hilarious and moving, and his waiter-dance-moves in "Rent" were just plain gigglesome.

Euan Bowen gets an award for what he did with a cape in "Improbable Fiction". Dear god, can that man wield cape.

Jarrad West was also everywhere (to the extent I didn't see everything he did). But both as performer and director, he amazed. In particular, his Diabetes in "God" pulled the whole piece together (in a ridiculously short skirt), his direction of "Hairspray" was witty, soulful and oh-so-John-Waters and his direction of "Rent" made me see stuff in my favourite musical I'd never seen before.

Vanessa DeJaeger impressed the hell out of me in three different places - her sunnysided Rosemary in "How To Succeed in Business", her mini-bitch Amber in "Hairspray" and her touchingly damaged Mimi in "Rent".

Max Gambale also brought the gobsmackingly good in two places: The just-plain loveable Edna in "Hairspray" and the demented artilleryman in "War of the Worlds" both amazed in two very different ways.

I've undoubtedly ignored stuff that I loved but just forgot to mention. But this is a few things that sprung to mind as worthy of some form of reminder recognition.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Rent - Everyman Theatre

Once upon a time in 1996, there was a musical I fell in love with. I was in my final year of uni, I was regularly commuting up to Ava and Susan's, a CD store that had nothing but musicals and film scores on its shelves in the Sydney Town Hall arcade, and picking up new and classic scores. And there was this new rock musical based on a Puccini opera about young people in contemporary New York. And I listened. And I fell in love and I commited large amounts of the lyrics to memory.

It helped that I was a precocious lad who was hyperinformed by most of the references - I'd already started on my Sondheim obsession (the other CD I bought at the same time as "Rent" was the original cast of "Company"). And it helped that I was young and still living with my parents and about to move out and face the big wide world of responsibility, and I was the prime market for a tale of rebellious artists and their interconnecting personal lives who resisted selling out and embraced the chance to let their freak flag fly.

I'm older now, and I've paid off one mortgage, have moved to a bigger house and am in the middle of paying off another. But those wild young kids still have an appeal to me. I saw the  1998 Australian production three times (taking advantage of the "$20 tickets for the front three rows, available at the box office two hours before the performance, queue out the front for as long as you like beforehand" rule) and grinned like a maniac (particularly the night when a young actress called Natalie Basingthwaite played Maureen). I'm aware the material has its weaknesses (in particular, I can opine for ages exactly how crappy a song "Your Eyes" is and how it lets the whole show down) but I have too much love for the rest of the songs to really let anything like that ruin things. I've got a copy of the final broadway performance on DVD and have watched it somewhat frequently too.

Which is to say ... I'm very partial to a particular way of doing Rent, which is big, broad, and dramatic. So when Everyman (yes, I've almost got to this production, thank the lord) advised they were doing Rent in the Courtyard studio, I was skeptical. It's a musical with loudness and a bit of spectacle, how can you squeeze it in there?

The answer is ... by being a tad less loud and a lot more intimate, and keeping the show about the people. Which is what it always was, at its core - these lovers, artists and philosophers, all struggling to make sense of their messy and complicated lives.

It doesn't hit at once how successfully this works - in fact, the first time I realised the benefits was about five or six songs in, during Roger's "One Song Glory" solo (the first solo number of the show). Suddenly everything draws in, and we're focussed on one lost man, trying to make his mark and afraid he may fail. Nick Valois' performance is not perfect (among other things, his harmonies need work), but in this scene, and in a lot of his acting, he brings real soul and pathos.

Really owning and taking advantage of this intimacy is Vanessa de Jaeger, who is transcendantally good as Mimi. She's the first I've seen, or heard, who's really looked like a junkie, and has looked that young and that broken. Her emotions are raw across her face and her body - in tiny gestures that would get lost in a bigger space - in glances and in moments. You really feel a lot has gone on in this young woman's life to bring her to this point. Her entrance in "Light My Candle" starts very fragile - growing in confidence as she uses her sexuality to manipulate. And then the gobsmacking "Another Day" - Roger's resistance is almost physically abusive in a way that is uncomfortable to watch, and you can feel the pain of his rejection across de Jaeger and her desperate need to get past that rejection and grab onto love like a liferaft.

Elsewhere in the cast ... It's good to see Louiza Blomfield unleash her powerful voice and equally powerful comic chops on the Canberra stage again, and it's also good to welcome Julia Jenkins for added hilarity and to match Blomfield note for note in my favourite lesbian love duet ever, "Take me or leave me". Jarrad West adds to his army of charming portrayals with a Collins that is loveable, funny (though his "I'll cover you (reprise)" failed to break my heart...), while Adrian Flor was a giddy delight as Angel (though, again with the nitpicks, his voice was maybe a little too Carol Channing, and one of the metal bars he was drumming on during "Today 4 U" gave out more of a "ping" than the "clunk" it was supposed to). Matthew Chardon O'Dea's Mark has the nervy jewishness down pat and does well in the somewhat difficult "observer" role. And Will Huang gives Benny a nice drive, keeping the character from being a simple villain of the piece, rather another person who's mixed up in the same complex world as the rest of them instead.

Two ensemble highlights for me was, first, the chance to see Amy Fitzpatrick acting and singing on stage (I've only previously seen her as a choreographer - she's got a powerhouse voice and I'd like to hear it again soon!), and second, Lachlan Ruffy for two standout cameos - his reading of "I'm a New Yorker, fear's my life" hit the laughs right, and his special dancing way of taking restaurant orders during "La Vie Boheme" also drew the eye.

Nick Griffin's band is tight and hits all the notes nicely without dominating. Jordan Kelly's choreography is mostly pretty good (for a show that I'd usually think needs not-a-lot-of-choreography - the only instance I'd question is during "Out Tonight", where, honestly, I was so busy focussing on DeJaeger, the decision to have three other dancers elsewhere on stage felt like an unnecessary adornment).

Is this the perfect production of Rent? No, partially beause I've so assimilated Rent by ozmosis by now that the perfect production for me can only be directed by me, starting me, to an audience of me. But this is a fascinating version that is well worth the watching.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Improbable Fiction - Canberra Rep

I love Alan Ayckbourn. Let's just get that out there. Of the super prolific playwrights who've dominated theatre since the seventies (I'd argue Williamson, Neil Simon and Ayckbourn are the respective champions of Australian, US and UK theatre in terms of sheer prolificness), he's the most formally innovative, cleverest, funniest and often, the one with the most insight into human nature and its undoings.

"Improbable Fiction" is in the purer-fluff end of his writing, a light entertainment with no greater message, perhaps, than the ever-important instruction "if you're going to be a writer, then write" - perhaps with an overly mild Act one to set up, but the standard  Ayckbourn playing-with-form kicks in with a vengeance for Act two as the play starts bouncing across multiple genres with ease in a gleeful showcase that allows the performers to showcase their versatility and skill.

Glueing it all together in this production is Jerry Hearn, playing what is essentially the audience point of view character, essentially the straight man. It's been a while since I've seen him, and in this one, he strangely resembled Geoffrey Borny (in all the best ways - charming and meek and with a natty red jumper) - a perfect gentleman in bizarre and befuddling circumstances.

The other six members of the ensemble bounce between roles with maximum speed and  wit - each displaying their various strengths. Andrew Kay substituted in for Jasan Savage at fairly short notice, but if it wasn't for the occasional glance at a script here and there, you wouldn't be able to tell - he fits in spectacularly. I will say that it's obvious that Euan Bowen has dreamed for years of a role where he'd be given a cape, and celebrates his chance to flourishes one delightfully.

Madelaine Kennedy brings a playful sense of fun and makes it clear why she'd be the centre of attention from six different writers, Kate Blackhurst has the closest to an "authors message" speech as the one writer least convinced she should continue and makes it fly, Christa deJaeger is poignant in act one and suitably wild in act two and Heather Spong is giddily gorgeous in act one and, by turns, grim, soppy and taciturn in act two.

Enhancing it all are the costumes by Miriam Miley-Read (several different fantastic looks for the various cast members), the adaptable set by Wayne Shepherd and the creative lighting by Chris Ellyard. I'm not as sold on the original music by Wayne Sheperd and the sound design by Mike Maloney - the original tune for the musical number is lovely, but the pre-show and interval music sounds tacky and cheap and tends to annoy rather than sooth you into the show (keyboards have their place, but when they sound too "keyboardy", that's ... not the right place).

All in all, this is a fun night out, perfectly made for the silly season.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

War of the Worlds, Supa Productions

Yes, I'm reviewing this late. In all honesty, I wasn't intending to see this at all, but friends invited me late in the run and I needed the afternoon off. And, since I've seen it, and I have a blog ... I'm reviewing it.

First, a disclaimer. I'm a big fan of theatre with a plot, with characters who interact to make that plot develop, and perform actions that materially matter in the resolution of the story.

War of the Worlds is not that kinda show. Jeff Wayne's musical is a prog rock extravaganza, based on the HG Welles novel, with lots of repeated leifmotifs as Martians blast their way through Victorian England (act one) and various humans react to their impending doom (act two). The majority of the time, you're looking at an orchestra (very well conducted by Sharon Tree), a whole lot of lighting effects (Chris Neal, clearing out everything that's in the Eclipse catalog) and a filmstrip (borrowed from the professional tour of a few years ago, including a lot of images from the various paintings by Peter Goodfellow, Geoff Taylor and Michael Trim that came with the LP back in the seventies).

And the orchestra's nice (though I did hear a couple of audience comments on it being very loud, the sound produced is of just-like-the-album quality), and the lighting is good, and the film strip is perfectly reasonable. So why don't I care more?

Well, there's not a lot for the actors to do. Joe McGrail-Bateup handles the narration well, with suitable stern-ness and clarity. Roy Hukari as his singing-doppleganger is perhaps less well handled, he tends to spend a lot of time on stage wandering vaguely about, with not a lot of urgency for a man who's meant to be in the middle of a cataclysmic disaster. Of the rest of the cast, who mostly have one-song-per-person, Simon Stone and Steve Herzog both, unfortunately, do a lot of rock-posturing that substitutes for acting (particularly surprising in Stone, who I've seen be much better in other stuff - his believability is perhaps slightly limited by a bible that looks far too thin to be convincing) as the Parson and the Voice of Humanity respectively. Sarah Gooding is better as the Parson's wife, but has an unfortunate exit where she just wanders off midway through a song, to have her demise narrated later.

That leaves Max Gambale as the Artilleryman. Max is ... astounding in this for his one big song, "Brave New World". In act one he registers decently (although, again, there's a slight problem of lack-of-urgency in this section), but in his big song in act two, he brings a level of madness that is quite unnerving and spectacular to watch (hitting every falsetto note in the song at full intensity). It's the highlight of the production by far, for me, because it's about an actor presenting a character and telling a story. I am gobsmacked by Gambale, again. It's a good thing to be.

Anyway, a lot of people loved this. I ... didn't, entirely. I could just hate prog-rock, and wish the composer would get on with the plot, rather than repeating the same leif-motifs a few dozen times. But the album is a best-seller, and this, for better or worse, largely captures the album accurately. As a non-album-fan, I was probably never going to be the main audience for this show. And Supa productions have absolutely done a production that impresses fans of the album, which is what the production should do. I just kinda wish there was more for the actors in there. (but having said that, 99% of theatre I've seen is, in some ways, all about the actors, it's probably good for their egos to have a show which is this manifestly Not All About Them).

Monday, 8 October 2012

Private Lives, Belvoir Street Theatre

Yes, I occasionally see theatre outside Canberra (actually, I have a subscription to Belvoir Street - have been watching them on-and-off for over two decades). And this one's touring to the Canberra theatre in November anyway, so ... why not review?

The first thing to note is, yes, this is Noel Coward - who would seem to be the king of traditional theatre, with people swanning around in smoking jackets dropping bon mots stylishly. And ... certainly, there's a lot of bon mots in this one, as two couples on honeymoon discover that the husband in one couple used to be married to the wife of the other. And of course, the old familiar feelings start to swell to the surface, leading to all measures of bad behaviour. But it was never entirely a gentle romantic comedy - this is a play where the two leads are deeply selfish people, who leave a fair bit of disaster behind them (and, indeed, are probably physically dangerous to one another). Over the years, though, through a combination of casting too-old actors (Coward and Gertrude Lawrence were both in their early 30s when they orignally did it, but pretty much every revival I've seen lately has cast actors in their late 40s and 50s) and downplaying the physical combatitiveness, this has become the gold standard of safe, uneventful theatre.

So Belvoir gives us Noel Coward with the stick taken out of its arse. Belvoir's current house style is to perform plays in the actors natural accents (which in his case means, largely Australian, with Zahara Newman performing in her own natural Jamaican accent, which is to say, a slight American twinge), in a largely contemporary style. The production isn't perfect - I think the set choices are a little perfunctory (and sometimes work against the actors moving clearly - a shelf or two to put the cocktails in act one wouldn't have gone astray), and it's peculiarly poorly lit in places. But a good mix of quality performances (Toby Schmitz and Zahara Newman bring stylish charm, Toby Truslove continues his good line in "complete dork", and Eloise Mignion is suitably annoying - plus Misch Grigor is hilariously grumpy as the french maid) and some very clever blocking ensures that this is a very funny night out with a nicely cynical view of lust and love over a tight 100 minutes (no intermission).

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Lost in Yonkers, Canberra Rep

A lot of the best plays have a second story that only becomes apparent while you're watching them. You think you're experiencing one story, small scale, about a couple of people in a particular situation. And then something happens and you realise that what you're seeing is a much bigger story about an entire way of living, a society and the costs and damages those choices cause to people.

Lost in Yonkers is one of those plays. It starts out as the story of two smart-aleck Brooklyn kids forced by circumstance to live with their grandma for a year, with typical Neil Simon one-liner quips, and becomes something far wider as the various aunts and uncles show up to reveal the damage that can come from grandma's tough-and-brutal brand of love. 

Canberra Rep's production services the first of these stories wonderfully. It's a very fast-paced production, which works nicely in making sure the jokes land every time, but I found some of the emotional material in the second act felt raced - I would have liked to see a couple of seconds more reaction time in a couple of the later scenes where the truth of how these characters have been living their lives hits home. But I acknowledge this is a personal preference - emotional torment isn't everyone's idea of a good night out, and I expect others will appreciate that this allows the pain to peek through rather than wallowing in it.  

The set by Andrew Kay is a sepia-toned beauty that opens up to the full width of the Theatre 3 stage while keeping the action nicely concentrated, and the performances by Lachlan Ruffy (as the older and more responsible of the two brothers) and Pippin Carroll (as the younger and goofier) are gorgeous in their variety. 

This year has been a bit of a Ruffy-fest (his performance in "Breaker Morant" saw him being the second-best actor to play two roles only because he happened to share a production with Graheme Robertson, and I've given praise to his work in Cats elsewhere), but this one gives him a chance to be front-and-centre, which he seizes with both hands - heroic and vulnerable, strong and hapless... I have no idea what Ruffy will do next, and from someone I previously considered a friendly face in the chorus ... well, let's just say if the dude does Hamlet next year, I wouldn't be at all surprised and would be popping down my dollars to watch it.

Pippin Carroll meanwhile is delightfully natural in an endearing performance - as the younger and more naive brother, he sparks an audience's protective instincts. The art of being adorable without being annoying is a tricky one (many a child actor has sparked desires to slap them), and Carroll manages it without any visible effort.

As their protective Aunt Bella, Bridgette Black is damn good. Bella's a child in a woman's body, and Black brings it in all its complexity - her glee when she sees something good, her stubbornness when she chooses something she wants, and her heartbreak when hurt. It's an emotionally naked performance of rare skill.

Paul Jackson is the best I've ever seen him (again, he's been popping up a bit lately) as the shifty gangster uncle Louie - performing in his natural accent (or closer to his natural accent, anyway) seems to have unleashed his hidden potential (or maybe just allowed an audience to see what was there all along). Louie isn't nearly as tough as he pretends to be, and Jackson allows just enough of the man-behind-the-curtain sneak through to bring that all-important third dimension to the character.

Elaine Noon is also delightful in her cameo as Aunt Gert - it's a one-joke character and plot-device really (an extra outsider to act as an escape hatch when required), but she sells that one joke and absolutely belongs to the greater family that is the rest of the cast. 

Helen Vaughn-Roberts is slightly a victim of the emotional-skimping I mentioned earlier (for example, I would really have loved the revolve at the end of the penultimate scene to happen, say, about ten seconds later for true emotional-shattering effect...), but she is suitably stern while allowing her tough  kind of love to glimpse through (in particular, she sells the hell out of the line "It's not important that you like me, it's important that you live"). 

Colin Milner's accent work was a little unstuck on opening night, but the central heart of his character shined through - the love he has for his children. Hopefully this is a role that will grow throughout the run into something special.

In short, this is an excellent production of a great play with some spectacular performances in it. I have niggles, but ... I suspect this is a case where most audience members won't have the same niggles I do. Well worth watching.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Kale Bogdanovs - Tuggernong Arts Centre

Canberra standup comedy has been undergoing a renaissance for the past few years. There's a lot of very funny people going around telling jokes - your average open mike night is still a bit hit and miss, but the co-ordinated nights (such as the regular gig at the Civic Pub) are usually nights of continuous comedy gold.

And if it's a renaissance we've got, Kale Bogdanovs might just be our ... I don't know, one of the really impressive Ninja Turtles. Leonardo, probably. Cause he invents stuff that nobody else does. He comes across as just that teensy bit more intellectual than your average joke-jockey - that may just be to do with wearing glasses and enjoying the way a sentence is put together way too much, but never the less, it's rare for him to be caught in the middle of doing a cheap joke. His jokes are very expensive artisan-carved pieces.

So this Tuesday he did his CD recording at Tuggernong Arts Centre. Using the theatre rather than the cabaret room (and comedy ALWAYS gets better in the big room at tuggernong - suddenly you're not stuck in the corner with the tiger-print lounge and the weird angles), he claimed the stage as his own for an hour of material that looked at love, work, body-image and, surprisingly, mortality to an appreciative audience. It was delightful, and if you missed it ... buy the goddamn CD, it'll be awesome.

Support acts were mostly pretty reasonable. Host Neil Sinclair seemed a tad nervous (and got Kale's name wrong, which... is very slightly inexcusable), and I've seen Simon Bower be better (a man that young and allegedly prudish possibly shouldn't be doing non-stop sex humour), but Jay Sullivan brought a very professional ten minutes to close out the first half in style, including a nice line in Gina Reinhardt jokes that moved a little beyond the obvious.

But Kale was, and is, the main attraction. He's leaving Canberra for the bright lights of New York shortly, so ... this might be one of your few chances to say "I saw him when" - he's hosting the Hot Five competition on 17 October and is headlining the Civic pub on 7 November. Go. You know he'll be funny. It's what he does.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

Short + Sweet, courtyard studio

The short play night is a difficult mistress... it's like having a tapas meal where the food hasn't been picked according to how it goes together, but just on what various people might like. So you can get stuff you really like, and stuff you really don't.

Such were the three rounds of the Short+Sweet festival this year. It's great to see Canberra's various theatre practicioners coming together in once place for an evening of very varied entertainments (many of whom perform in areas I'm unfamiliar with). One can argue with some of the slotting (I'm not entirely sure a play with a kid of around 10 years old should be in the second half of the evening, for instance, or that a play with a bathtub on stage should be right at the beginning since it tends to leave a lot of water to clean up early on)... but over the three rounds there were 32 separate plays, several worthy of mention. In particular, I liked:

- VD - Eliza St John had an appealingly emotionally open quality and sold this one woman story beautifully.
- Ah! - Fast and furious and with plenty of opportunities for all three actors (Elizabeth McRae, Kiki Skountzos and Riley Bell) to do some great physical acting.
- Smart Jimmy Slow Bob - A clever piece that twisted nicely and defined its characters well. Sterling work from Dan Halliday and Scott Rutar in particular
- sushiwushiwoo - Some great characterisations from Caroline Simone O'Brien and an almost-unrecognisable Megs Skillicorn (not just the wig, it was her whole physicality that was totally different from anything I've seen her do before)
- The Brett I haven't Met - Sam Hannan-Morrow is an actor I praise highly. And this is why. Even in a statically-staged piece like this, he brought sterling emotional work.
- "G" - Miranda Drake delivered something that could easily fall into pretension or overly-personal revelation, and made it funny, moving and poignant.
- How About Canons - Really just mentioning this for Joshua Knol's inspiredly ridiculous performance which added hilarity to a somewhat familiar type of piece (the "historical figure and his secret inspiration" genre)
- Seasons of a Lifetime - Again, great emotional work in this improvised piece from Reid Workman and Katherine Green. Impro is tricky in nights like this (you don't necessarily have the finely honed emotional arc you might have in a rehearsed developed piece, and exposition has to be fairly naked because you're expositing both to the audience and to your fellow actor!) but these two brought something pretty special
- The Voyeurs - I'd heard noises about Alison McGregor being something to watch, but hadn't previously seen her. This is a big mistake on my part and I'll be watching out for her again.

I may not agree precisely with who won and who didn't in the finals (results are at but I just wanted to chuck some praise out there for a fine evening of varied theatre.

Friday, 17 August 2012

Hairspray, Canberra Philharmonic

It feels like a long time since I've been to see a Philo show. It's not  really (the last one I saw was "42nd Street" in Feb/March 2011), but between them cancelling one show and me missing another, a year and a half away is a long time in theatregoing.

I'm pleased to say that with "Hairspray", they're back in the swing of things. The show itself is a delightful pop piece of 60's nostalgia fluff with a bubbly fun score and just a small spicing of John Waters' signature bad-taste. There is a bit of "well, we're supposed to care about racism because one white girl happens to care about racism" but ... feh, I can't stay angry about a show as loveable as this.

First thing to note is that the orchestra is back in fine form. Philo's orchestras have been a mixed bag lately (I HATED HATED HATED the synthesizer noises from the pit during "West Side Story" and "Boy From Oz" which were blemishes on otherwise skillfully done shows), but this time either I didn't notice them or the orchestra actually has musicians that can play every part. Big thumbs up to Rose Shorney's fine orchestra work.

Second - Jarrad West directs a gobsmackingly good show. The staging rarely stops - there's gorgeous inventiveness throughout (particularly the ever-so-slightly-creepy staging of "I can hear the bells", which makes the entire thing 10 times as funny) and the cast and crew keeps a cracking pace. There is a slight tendency to let a little too much scene-stealing at the edges go through (there's a moment late in act one with Stephen Barwell's Wilbur and a few chorus member that takes scene-stealing to new heights). But if a show sins by entertaining its audience too much, can that really be said to be sinning? My answer is "naaaah"!

This review could be a love-letter to Amy Dunham's Penny and Vanessa De Jaeger's Amber, both of whom stand out in an "everybody's great" cast - both are, in their separate ways, complete hilarity and, in the best possible way, scene stealers.

As a longtime admirer of Max Gambale's work ... I have slight issues with his Edna Turnblad. Great in dialogue, the decision to sing Edna in a falsetto was something I'm not entirely in love with. This could just be me listening to Harvey Fierstein on the original cast (who, yes, can't sing, but the not-singing he does is wonderfully characterful). Still, if it's a choice to go for "more loveable, less funny", I'll live with that. His joy at bursting out in better and more beautiful dresses as the show goes on is a delight to behold. So maybe that means I'm wrong, he's right, and it works.

Anyway, I'm getting to the point where I'm going to comment on all the cast and ramble on for ages which is going to be boring fast. Let's just say "yeah, its awesome, go see it, you'll be glad you did"

Friday, 3 August 2012

Memory of Water, Canberra Rep

The "three sisters" play is a mini-genre unto itself. Offering the combination of sibling rivalry, generational drama, a couple of well-buried secrets and that all-too-rare opportunity of a range of good parts for actresses, a good example of the genre provides laughter, tears, and a vehicle for skilled performers to deliver both.

And fortunately, that's just what Shelangh Stephenson's comedy-drama "The Memory of Water" is - as three sisters gather for their mum's funeral, the bickering and secrets start bounding out soon enough, with the assistance of those-long-enjoyed dramatic devices, a joint and a bottle of whisky, to help everybody become a bit less uptight-English and a bit more "move-the-plot-along". I think it succeeds more as a vehicle for the actresses than it does necessarily as "great drama", whatever that is.

But fortunately, the three actresses playing those sisters are up with Canberra's best. Andrea Close as the eldest, Theresa, is a study of anal-obsessive-resentment, with not a hint of actorly ego as Theresa continues to be the butt of a lot of the jokes. Lainie Hart as the middle daughter, Mary, has all the brittle edge and intelligence, together with a great line in sardonic quips, as well as being truly heartbreaking when the facade finally falls. And Eliza Bell as Catherine provides a whirlwind of insane shambolic brilliance, her ditzy free-associating brain ("it's often shoes, except sometimes it's underwear") and perpetual energy making her simultaneously delightful and frustrating.

Sally Rynveldt in the small role of the departed Mum also fascinates - in her brief time on stage we get to find out a lot about a woman with her own wishes, desires and resentments, with a very definite opinion on the daughters she's left behind. The two men are slightly less well written, perhaps - David McNamara does well as the trying-to-be-supportive-but-not-quite-managing-it-completely Mike, while Rob DeFries' Frank occasionally goes a little too much for the laugh at the expense of both the character and a reliable single regional accent - he does slip around the counties a little.

Ed Wightman's direction is tight and focussed, bringing out the reality, humour and drama in the script. Quentin Mitchell's set helps keep the action contained on the large widths of the Theatre 3 stage. Lachlan Ruffy's lighting, Jonathan McFeat's music and Neil McRitchie's sound design all add beautifully to the mood and soul of the piece, including some quite gorgeous transitions into and out of scenes.

This isn't quite theatre that grabs me by the heart and the brain and makes me stare in astonishment (it's a play that works better as "great entertainment" than "serious art", which makes my overly-analytical critic nerves twitch a bit - it's when the play is reaching for "serious art" that it loses me a little, including some of the dialogue about memory that gives the play its title). But it's funny, modern-leaning (although modern-leaning in this case is still the late 90s ... it'll be delightful when Rep catches up with the millennium one of these days...) theatre with heart to it. And that's pretty damn good.

Friday, 20 July 2012

God and Pool/No Water - Everyman

The glorious triumvirate that is Everyman is back with their first-ever double bill. Both comedies, one wild and frivoulous, one black of soul and heart.

Wisely, they kick off with the frivolous fun of Woody Allen's "God" - a wild comedy about theatre, creativity, fate and the baser instincts of lust. Jarrad West in the central role of the actor "Diabetes" lets forth with all manner of clowning and foolery in a somewhat skimpy tunic, and he's backed up with solid hilarity from the rest of the cast - Duncan Ley unleashes his portentous serious-actor-tones for goofing, Euan Bowen provides a variety of different silly accents in a variety of different silly roles, and ... well, it's difficult to review everybody without spoiling who does what, but let's just say, you will giggle and guffaw and have a fun time. Duncan Driver's direction allows the piece to remain (mostly) under firm control and accelerating towards the dramatic/comedic conclusion (including a masterclass in that difficult art, Very Bad Acting). Wayne Shepherd's simple Grecian-column set nicely complements the fun.

After interval, it's the darker comedy of "Pool/No Water" by In-Yer-Face-Theatre veteran Mark Ravenhill. The only other production of Ravenhill I can think of in Canberra is Elbow's "Shopping and F**cking" back in the late 90s/early 2000s, and this is, in its way, equally confronting theatre. A tight quartet of actors (Amy Dunham, Zac Raffan, Steph Roberts and Jarrad West) provide nonstop energy, supreme physical acting, precise vocal control and attention in a one-hour tale of ambition, jealousy and conspicuous bad behaviour. The beautiful simplicity of the staging (backed by a more-than-usually fantastic lighting design) keeps the focus, as it should be, on the actors and the text. This is not going to be a show everybody takes to their heart (the doings are very very dark indeed and it's pretty confrontational stuff), but I doubt that I'll see better ensemble acting this year anywhere.

Yes, Everyman get a lot of good reviews. They richly deserve all of them. This is an A Grade company presenting A Grade Theatre. Don't miss it.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Cats - Free Rain

"Cats", notoriously, ran forever in the West End and Broadway (although it's now closed in both - its West End home now hosts "War Horse", its Broadway home has "Mamma Mia") and launched the solo career of Andrew Lloyd-Webber as a composer (also marking his break with Tim Rice after arguments about an alternate lyric for "Memory"). With lyrics coming from the safely-dead poet T.S. Eliot, direction from Royal Shakespeare Company regular Trevor Nunn (who also got credit, and royalties, for the "Memory" lyrics), choreography from Gillian Lynne and an oversized junkyard set from John Napier, it stuck around 21 years on Broadway and 18 in London.

And now, it's on at ANU Arts in a production by the increasingly Musical-Minded Free Rain company. How is it?

Well... it's "Cats". Which means, a disjointed series of solo spots dragged together by a bare semblance of a story, some incredibly cutesy rhymes, a lot of tune repetition, and a whole heap of nothing-very-much.

No, I don't love the material, how did you guess?

So with that dismissive comment about one of the longest running shows ever, how'd this production go (why did it run so long? Well, the logo is a very good looking logo indeed, plus it's probably a show that's equally incomprehensible to english speakers and non-english-speakers alike, thus making it a popular choice for tourists. and Memory is a damn emotional little earworm of a song)

Mostly, pretty reasonable. There's some quibbles (the choreography during the Jellicle Ball is a bit samey leading to it dragging, Roy Hukari's narrator "Munkustrap" doesn't appear to have an actual character to play beyond "I own a leather jacket and like telling stories about other cats", a couple of Mr Miestoffele's magic tricks are a bit obvious,  and Dave Collin's Growltiger costume shows off his genital region alarmingly...), but the cast is in good voice, the movement is pretty nice, the orchestra appears to know what the hell they're supposed to be playing , and generally the impression is made of a theatre company who can put on a show that is what it's supposed to be. 

Do I think it's the greatest thing seen in Canberra this year? No, of course not, it's still "Cats". But it's a nicely done version of "Cats".

Tuesday, 17 July 2012


Because a certain Canberra Critic has decided to be very lazy and not write particularly many posts about productions, instead wanking on with interviews most of the time, I thought.. you know what, starting a blog isn't that hard, why not give it a go yourself. I'm probably going to find out exactly why I shouldn't give it a go shortly, but never mind.

I won't see everything. I don't get comp tickets to everything, I have a limited budget, and I don't always have the time and inclination to see everything just because it's playing.

And opinions are like arseholes. Everybody has one, and you don't take one out in public unless you want it to be kicked around a little. And I think Canberra Theatre could use a little active conversation. I don't expect everyone to agree with my opinions, nor do I think my opinions are necessarily the best or right ones, and I'm possibly persuadable by a good argument here and there.

Anyway, here goes nothing.