Saturday, 14 December 2013

The 2013 "Well I Liked It" awards

Yep, it's another year of theatre-watching gone, so it's time to write the wrap-up. It's been an interesting year, with some widely-admired-shows that I didn't connect to ("Under Milk Wood" being perhaps the biggest example) and other shows that I loved that didn't always find a huge audience. It's also the first year that the That Guy reviews went international (meaning, yep, "watches Canberra Theatre" is probably a misnomer or at the very least an understatement", but, I'm stuck with it now).

For those of you who didn't read last year's, the "Well I Liked It" awards (or WILIs for short) are, of course, tremendously partisan, selective and ill-informed as to what actually went on backstage to produce the effect I saw at the time. So with that in mind, let's get to the awarding:


There's two local shows that stand out for me. First in my affections this year is "The Book of Everything" which just nailed everything I wanted to see in a production. Inventive, heartfelt, funny and intense, everything in this one worked. How much did I love it? I went to see it a second time and paid for friends  to see it with me, that's how much I loved it.

The other is "Home at the End". Was it flawed? Yes, there's a little bit of over-writing here and there (but such is the nature of premieres, you don't always know what you have til you face an audience), but by and large this was an excellent piece, excellently achieved as it delved into deeply challenging material creatively, with an astoundingly talented cast expertly directed.

Inter-state, the two I loved were "Angels In America" (an intimate production of Kushner's epic bringing broad, bold themes and exploring them unflaggingly) and "The Cherry Orchard" (which gave Chekhov a fresh lick of paint but kept all the human drama of missed-connections, failed hopes and crushed souls).

Internationally, "Fun Home" stood out as a major achievement in the American Musical -   something simultaneously personal and universal about familial dysfunction and personal liberation, and "Twelfth Night" as something at the same time deeply retro (15th century performance practices) and utterly modern in its ability to directly connect ot the audience.


Duncan Driver - A longtime presence on Canberra stages, I think this may be the best single year I've seen of performances for Dr. Driver - I had issues with the text of "Under Milk Wood" but the decision to concentrate a lot of the production on the quality of his voice was amply rewarded, similarly his caddish Demetrius in "Midsummer Night's Dream" was a witty highlight and his Tramp in "Home at the End" centred the story wonderfully. If Driver is the quieter achiever of the three Everymen, he made a bit more noise this year.

I only saw Jenna Roberts in one play this year, "Midsummer Night's Dream", but it was enough to establish that she's still a force to be reckoned with in Canberra acting circles. Her witty, angsty, tightly-wound Helena was great fun to behold.

Helen Vaughan-Roberts is a staple of Canberra stages. And the one-two punch of her Jenny in "Don Parties On" and her Mrs. Van Amerhorst in "The Book of Everything" shows why - she's a force to be reckoned with and can be imperious or warm, hearbreaking or hilarious, and always, always watchable.

(edited to add because I had an idle brain moment) Chris Ellyard's lighting has to be mentioned for the year as adding massive levels of impact to two shows - "Under Milk Wood"s entire production premise would not have worked without his skillful lighting, and "The Book of Everything" was immeasurably enhanced by his careful selective beautiful highlights.

And Lachlan Ruffy was, as usual, everywhere and excellent almost wherever he was (I'm sure he was even brilliant in a teensy role in Les Mis, where I didn't see him, and I'm not going to talk about Jazz Garters because I'm trying to be nice about things). As sleazy Sergei in Eurobeat, as the goofy lion-performing Snug in Midsummer Night's Dream, and most spelndiferously as the innocently questing, quietly heroic, romantic, adorable Thomas in Book of Everything, he shone. His upcoming departure to WAAPA is Canberra theatre's loss, but it's Australian theatre's gain.

Friday, 6 December 2013

The Musical of Musicals, Everyman, Courtyard Studio

I recently mentioned I haven't seen a lot of Canberra musicals this year, between a fair chunk of recycling shows I've seen before, me disappearing for a month, and just plain not being interested in seeing Phantom. And ... in some ways Everyman's "Musical of Musicals" is the eptitome of recycling - it's the same show, the same cast, with a few polishes here and there. 

It's effective recycling, though - I suspect the four key performers, Louiza Blomfield, Adrian Flor, Hannah Ley and Jarrad West have only got stronger as performers in the four years since they last hit the courtyard. And all the memorable moments are back, from the goofy pleasures of "Corn!" to the sleazy dive of "Speakeasy". It's still a fast and frenetic frenzy through five different musical styles, with Joanne Bogart's lyrics and Eric Rockwell's music delivered to maximum effect (though neither are mentioned at all in the program, a bit of a critical oversight...) There is a bit of satire-through-reference (just playing "oh, I spotted what they referred to" isn't the same as a joke, dammit), and some pretty cheap jokes here and there (Flor's introduction as "Big Willy" is pretty much an indication that no easy gag will go un-used), but there's a lot of wit in the performances and it's put over very stylishly. If it's still a little flat at the end of act one, it's mostly that "Dear Abby" is probably the least-funny of the five mini-musicals with not much to say about Jerry Herman beyond "he's a bit cheesy and likes divas". The rest skewer their targets in fine style, with the pianistic assistance of Nick Griffin and some clever choreography from Ley and West.

If there are any concerns, it's ... the recycling thing. Yes, I know, companies like a hit. And this plays like a hit. I just wish it was a little bit ... more. Everyman are, as I've mentioned before, one of my favourite companies. And this is them playing safe. Now that may be an economic necessity, but I hope it doesn't become a force of habit. 

Thursday, 28 November 2013

The Fox on the Fairway, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

The end-of-year knees up at Rep is a regular tradition - it's been going on at least as long as I've been going to Rep stuff (back with 2001's production of "Black Comedy"). They haven't always been farces (one of the bigger end-of-year hits was Duncan Ley's "And then there Were None" which was pure Agatha Christie Thriller), but there's always been a sense of fun, of running off the leash a bit.

However, that running-off-the-leash is a little deceptive -  particularly with farce, that most tightly-controlled of genres, where the threat of discovery and disaster lurks just around every corner and part of the fun is in seeing how it is avoided at the last minute (it's like watching car-racing expecting to see people nearly-crash).

"Fox on the Fairway" doesn't quite get there - it's partially that Ken Ludwig is a fairly gentle farceur as they go (his characters are never particuarly punished for their transgressions, and he's very fond of his deus-ex-machina happy endings for everybody), but I think it's production-related - much of the staging feels a bit ... undetermined. There isn't the speed, the promptness, the purpose-of-movement that gives farce its energy.

Jim Adamick, Rachael Clapham and Bridgette Black are capable, skilled, charming, familiar actors and they're amusing in their roles. Martin Hoggart is less familiar but seizes his fresh-faced role with gusto and skill. Andrew Price perhaps over-emphasises the stuck-up villain side of Dickie and underemphasies the stupidity, leading to a slightly awkwardly-angled performance, while Natalie Waldron's performance doesn't quite get the tone right - playing two-dimensional characters larger than life so that they fill all the space that would otherwise be occupied by the third dimension.

I don't know whether Andrew Kay's set is too large or Liz Bradley's direction is just unable to manouvre the actors around the stage effectively, but in the wide-open spaces characters sometimes felt lost on their way to the next exit.

I don't want to sound like "Fox on the Fairway" is a waste of the audience's time - it's often fairly amusing. But it could have been riotous. And instead... it's a gentle giggle. A pity.

Saturday, 23 November 2013

Hamlet, Belvoir

There's a sense of anticipation to this one. Simon Stone is at the top of his game, Toby Schmitz similarly. And this is the first Shakespeare at Belvoir for a fair while - not since 2010's "Measure for Measure". And Hamlet is one of those roles that defines an actor as "the real thing" - it's a marathon part with lots of solid soliloquies, and has plenty of space for someone to show off their talents.

This is a particularly Hamlet-centric Hamlet - the cast has been chopped down to Hamlet's family and Orphelia's Family plus one courtier (with some lines reshuffled between characters to keep the play moving). And as the bodies pile up, the actors playing the recently-deceased (or, in the case of Hamlet's father, before-the-beginning-of-the-play-deceased) remain on stage as mute ghosts observing the remainder of the action. This can be creepy (Greg Stone's Polonius in particular) or surprisingly moving (as Polonius and Orphelia are re-united post-mortem) - and it makes it very clear exactly how many of the bodies on stage Hamlet is responsible for.

So while being Hamlet-centric, it's by no means sympathetic to him - it's quite bracingly unsentimental, in fact. Schmitz brings his soliloquies right into the face of the audience ... it's quote confronting to have Hamlet stare at you asking whether he should kill Claudius or not (and reacting sarcastically when you can't give him an easy answer). Hamlet is the quintessential angry young man, questioning all the certainties and striking out at the hypocrisies he sees around him - this production, though, doesn't let him off the hook for his own crimes and hyporisies, but instead leaves them very visible around him (in the shape of the bleeding and dripping bodies).

I don't know that all the artifice works. In particular, the funereal laments sung by Maximillian Reibel and played on piano by Luke Byrne give this a classicist feeling that I'm not entirely sure the rest of the production works in (it also leads to the finale, which is played semi-abstractly around Hamlet as a pile of corpses, death and pain - it works in the moment but it lends a lot of distance to the production). In some ways, this has the same "museum piece" feeling as Stone's 2011 production of "Thysestes" did - making us more observer than involved participant by the end. It's a deliberate choice and ... I'm not saying it's a wrong choice, but I'm saying it's a deliberately distancing choice that can make a play of hot, impulsive, dangerous passions come across as somewhat cold.

It's a production that engaged me, that made me think, anticipate, laugh, feel terrified, moved, and disturbed me. And in that sense, it's a great production.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Annie Get Your Gun, Queanbeyan Players, The Q

Yes, this is the first Canberran show I've seen since Broadway. So, yes, possibly standards are going to be tricky when judging what comes next in the firing line (see, that's funny cause this is a musical about people shooting a lot).

Still... this was not an enjoyable evening in the theatre. Irving Berlin's 1940's musical has a strong song-stack of standards including "There's No Business Like Show Business", and "Anything You can Do I can Do Bettter", and a script that I remember thinking was pretty good when I first saw it when someone else's high school did it in Armidale when I was 12. And Annie Oakley is one of the great female leads in a musical - written for the legendary Ethel Merman, the role's bounced around since then being performed by everybody from Debbie Reynolds and Bernadette Peters to Suzi Quatro and Reba McIntyre.

There are, however, key problems with the show that any production needs to deal with in any contemporary production - first, the sexism (the basic conflict of the show is that the male lead can't accept being outclassed by his love interest, and that's a fine thing to deal with, but not if you're going to think his reaction is perfectly acceptable); and second, the racism (there's material about indians which is pretty much on the level of "gosh, they have silly names and speak silly"). This 1999 rewrite vaguely attempts to address both, but really fails to engage either on a fundamental level, at least in this production - the indians are still largely joke characters, and the sexism thing isn't really engaged either as Frank remains a bland character who whines a bit (cutting his character-establishing song, "I'm a Bad Bad Man" probably doesn't help, as it might at least have given him a little bit of roguish charm to be getting on with. It's also bad history, as the real life Frank Butler doesn't seem to have had any problems with his wife being more capable than him.

The device of framing the entire show as a "wild West show" is intriguing (for historical reference, the events of the show are taking place at about the same time as the events in the TV series "Deadwood", which means there's something that can be said about how the Wild West was being mythologised even as it was dying off, so a bit more use of the idea that what we're being told is nothing like the whole truth would be handy ..) but instead  all we really get is a few pre-announced scene changes and a chance for the stage crew to be visible. Which is disappointing.

Very nearly redeeming the whole exercise is Anita Davenport, whose Annie is reckless, charming, sings well and supremely self-confident. Elsewhere the cast isn't as good - a reluctance to embrace Frank's slightly caddish nature instead leaves Richard Block largely playing a peevish blank of a character, Pat Gallagher is fine but doesn't have a lot to do as Buffalo Bill Cody, Greg Sollis and Sophie Hawkins are charming but their subplot remains so massively inessential (it was cut in the 1966 revival in favour of giving Merman an extra song) that they mostly keep contributing to running time rather than anything else. A lot of the supporting cast plays some very average jokes very very broadly, with the result looking like bad high-school drama. Oddly enough, the best acting apart from Davenport seems to come from 8-year-old Jake Keen, who's performance avoids the ick associated with child actors and who instead lands all his jokes and is rather effortlessly charming with it.

The orchestra put together by John Yoon is perfectly fine once they work their way in (I suspect a little pre-tuning up would have been handy as the overture had a couple of wildly off-key notes). Kathyrn Jones' choreography varies from the bland to the "what the hell are you thinking" during "My Defences are Down" (I assume she's going for laughs, but ... god knows why, it has nothing to do with the characters, the song or the show).

So... no, this wasn't a great night out in the theatre - instead it's an evening where I kept on wishing I could be watching the Davenport-sings-the-Merman-catalogue-with-an-8-year-olds-assistance show instead. Which is a pity.

Friday, 15 November 2013

No Mans Land, Cort Theatre, Broadway

And so we come to the end of our Broadway odyssey with a shameless Star vehicle. "No Man's Land" is a two-star vehicle, with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart uniting for Harold Pinter's 70s play featuring a lot of scotch drinking and intemperate thought.

Occasionally I'll watch productions of plays that I've read but not enjoyed simply to see whether they go better in the staging. And I'll confess, Pinter's plays of subtle-menace often slip into the "too subtle for me to notice" on the page. Productions of "The Birthday Party" and "The Caretaker" in the past, for instance, have made a somewhat dry reading experience come alive into something much more three dimensional.

Alas, this production doesn't really do that. I'm not sure if it's because Pinter is writing something a lot more cerebral, or whether it's simply a case of there not being very much there to begin with.  Either way ... yes, this is a story about two men, one wealthy, one not, both literary men, who meet one evening and keep on drinking, and talking, and find it difficult to disengage from one another. There's a sense of the losses that come with age, of the uncertainties before death, but that's about it - there's not a lot of plot development going on.

Stewart and McKellen give it a fair go - McKellen gets most of the lines in the first half, rabbiting on extensively while Stewart gets the occsional "oh", and "good" to react with - and they draw out a fair bit of humour from the extreme vagueness of the action (about ten minutes in, McKellen realising that he hasn't even let Stewart know what his name is yet, for example). In support roles, Billy Crudup and Shuler Hensley are suitably menacing (and sound suitably English) but ... this still remains a distinctly unengaging evening. I can say I've seen Stewart and McKellen. I can't say I enjoyed it.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Fun Home, Public Theatre, Off Broadway.

It's easy to forget that, before Alison Bechdel became a test and a meme, she was a cartoonist - her regular strip "Dykes to watch out for" spawning three-point test that asks whether a piece of work has (1) at least two named female characters; (2) who have a conversation; (3) about something other than a man, and thereby provoked continual debate about the representation of female characters in pretty much every form of narrative art from comics to TV. But her other work is also important - "Fun Home" is based on her autobiographical graphic novel about growing up, particularly focussed on her coming out process, and on her relationship with her father, a neatness-obsessed man who part-time ran a Funeral Home (hence the title) who was also a closeted homosexual and who committed suicide a few months after Alison came out to her family (not a spoiler, we find this out about ten minutes into the show).

It may come as a surprise that this story is being told as a musical. But it really shouldn't - it's a story deeply covered in emotion and soul and pain and that makes it perfect for singing. The technique of having three different Alison's on stage (a young one, a college age one and a forty-something Alison who's trying to draw the story) keeps the story moving in multiple timelines (as we jump from college Alison's awkward first flirtations with the cute girl in the Women's collective to young Alison on a family trip to see "A Chorus Line", or coming up with a Jackson-5 inspired commercial for the funeral home, or focussing her attention on the Partridge Family to hide from the arguments between her parents. Beth Malone as the older Alison has a bemused detatchment as she observes her past, while Sydney Lucas is sweetly, smartly inquistive as the Small Alison and Alexandra Socha is all fumbling late-blooming adolescence (her singing of "I'm Changing My Major to Joan" is a particular highlight).

Broadway vetrans Michael Cerveris and Judy Kuhn play the parents, and they are astounding - Cerveris in particular takes a tightly-wound, deeply-uncomfortable man and makes his insecurities, his self-justifcations and his compromises fascinating. Kuhn's supressed for a lot more of the show (her initial reaction to her husband's dalliances is to bottle the feelings up) but when the true pain of living with the compromises is revealed, we feel all the pain she's been living with for far too long.

Composer Jeanine Tessori's had one of the odder modern musical theatre careers - she's never had a consistent lyrical partner, and her shows vary from the highly commercial with "Thoroughly Modern Millie" and "Shrek The Musical" to deeper fare like the civil-rights era "Caroline Or Change" and the faith-healing cult hit "Violet". But she proves herself a composer to be reckoned with in this strong, emotional material. Scriptwriter and lyricist Lisa Kron provides a script that is witty, smart, passionate and heartfelt and lyrics that get to the core of the characters .

I found this really emotionally affecting - a show that deserves to be seen wider (the season at the Public has extended repeatedly and supposedly eyes are on a Broadway transfer, though it would benefit from keeping things intimate) - the costs to a family of a life of painful lies in an era not set up to cope with them. This is solid, major musical theatre work of a type that's seen too rarely, and thoroughly recommended.

(note - there's a really good article at about Bechdel's reaction to the show which is well worth checking out)

Twelfe Night, or What You Will, Belasco, Broadway

Exactly what "traditional" Shakespeare means has been the subject of much debate for a good couple of decades now. Certainly, you'd think Shakespeare's Globe would have a handle on it - performing in a theatre purpose-built to recreate the original conditions of his work. So when the company goes on tour, what do they bring with them to keep the style alive?

In this case, a simple set design designed to resemble how Shakespeare's plays would have been presented in the great halls of the aristocracy - a screen, two doors, seating on stage for a few rows of highly visible audience, a simple single lighting state (there are something like 100 candles onstage, but quite obviously there's also additional lighting for visibility), no amplification, and a gallery for musicians to play rauschpfeifs, sackbuts, shawms, recorders lutes, citerns, therobos, hurdy gurdys, pipes, tabors, field drums and tympani, and, of course, an all male cast. (note, I have no idea what half those instruments are but they're listed in the program and ... we all have google).

To add to the feeling of this being an "event", when the audience enters the theatre the cast is on stage getting changed from a basic shirt or smock into their full garb (for the men who are playing women, this is of course a fairly complex operation - Elizabethan outfits for women were not exactly easy wearing - but even the men have a fair bit of clothing to stuff themselves into).

All these externals don't really matter, of course, if the acting style is a dead recreation of something long gone. But that's where the magic really hits. Because this is some of the liveliest Shakespeare I've seen in years. Leading the company is Mark Rylance in the not-obviously-a-starring-role of Olivia, and in this case, he doesn't re-centre the play to make it All About Him, so much as bring a character fully to life who could easily slip into the background - finding the funny in Olivia's high seriousness early on and the increasing disruption as her desire for the disguised Viola and the increasingly reckless behaviour of her servants (the delivery of the word "Malvoli... oooh" at the right moment particularly gets belly laughs). His dignified, stately manner of walking and speaking makes the comedy so much funnier when that dignity is cracked.

And of course, it really isn't all about him. Twelfth Night is Shakespeare's ensemble comedy par exellence, and the Globe brings fine ensemble playing - with Stephen Fry as the obivous interloper as Molvolio (which makes sense - Malvolio's puritan ways means he never completely fits into everybody else's world, and his attempt to ingratiate himself is quite ridiculously funny. As is Samuel Barnett's Viola (who's as confused by what's happening to her as everyone else), Angus Wright's gloriously thick-headed Aguecheek,  Paul Chahidi's smart, witty Maria (whose half-hearted "yay" near the end brings down the house) and Colin Hurley's charmingly disreputable Toby. Peter Hamilton Dyer's Feste rides across the evening as a wise, free-roaming sprit of misrule, charmingly mischevous.

So this isnt' good traditional Shakespeare - it's simply good Shakespeare. If you wanted to nitpick, there are definately line readings and performance approaches that would not have matched Elizabethan practice - but who really cares? The point of any play is in the moment, in the theatre, and it's there that this production shines gloriously.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Mildred Fierce, Theater 80, Off-broadway

Yup, it's drag-time! "Mildred Fierce" is shamelessly retro-drag, digging out Joan Crawford's second-finest-moment on screen (right after Baby Jane) as an excuse for jokes, songs and general ridiculousness. I can't defend it as high art, or even as particularly witty, but goddamn is it good fun - throwing taste out the window and throwing puppets, dance-numbers, innuendoes and all out stupidity in.

Varla Jean Merman plays the long-suffering Mildred with appropriate histrionics, drama and all-round ridiculousness. Varla is, of course, the fictitious child from the very real 32-day marriage of Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine  (the chapter entitled "my marriage to Earnest Borgnine" in Ethel Merman's biography is a blank page). She's also a man in a dress, but a man who has a spectacular pair of legs and unleashes them occasionally during dance numbers.

Can I recommend this as high quality theatre you should leap to? Nope, it's a ridiculous cartoon, slapped together, basically panto for adults (the song lyrics in particular are pretty poor, though the puppet and model work throughout are quite fun). But as a light fluffy diversion ... this diverts nicely.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Buyer and Cellar, Barrow Street theatre, Off-Broadway

Off-Broadway is a realm of all kinds of small and wacky theatres. In the case of the Barrow Street, it's quite obviously used as a community-centre during the day, but of an evening it's hosted a lot of top-flight stuff. "Buyer and Cellar" is no exception - it's a one-man play telling of a struggling actor who gets a job in Barbra Streisand's basement, looking after her accumulated possessions. As the prologue states, this is speculation based on a couple of paragraphs of Barbra's somewhat bizarre interior-decorating book "My Passion for Design" (which turned out to be entirely real and available on severe discount at Barnes and Noble ... I didn't buy it), but it uses the speculation to extend into asking some major questions about celebrity, ownership, detachment and class. It's also ridiculously gossipy, funny and bitchy as hell.

Michael Urie is the one man, and he's delightful. He mentions early on he's not going to do Barbra's voice ("everybody does it, even women")... but the voice he chooses for Barbra has wit, Jewishness, is canny and full of character. As Alex More, the unemployed actor, he's hopeful yet aware of the risks, funny, clever-and-goofy in about equal measure. And he's a delight to behold.

The simple one-room set by Andrew Boyce is enhanced by clever lighting from Eric Southern. It's intriguing that there's been two shows largely relating to working for Barbra Streisand very recently ("I'll Eat You Last", which starred Bette Midler on Broadway and will star Miriam Margoyles in Melbourne next year, is the other one and deals with Barbra's long-term manager, Sue Mengers), and suggests there's still something about her unique combination of massive talent and equally massive narcicissm that retains relevance, even as the performer herself has done less and less interesting work over the last decade or two. And "Buyer and Cellar" is certainly both a celebration and an examination of that phenomenon, while also going beyond simple celeb-gossip into something far more human.

Pippin, Music Box, Broadway

Broadway is Big. Really big. How big? Well, there are 40 theatres which are formally called "Broadway" theatres, most of which have stuff running 12 months of the year. That's not to ignore a massive number of off and off-off-broadway theatres also spreading across New York City, also incredibly active in their product.

Anyway, point being, there's a lot of theatre. And, given this is the height of commercial theatre, the tickets are bloody expensive and the theatres usually somewhat overstuffed with people crammed into overly-tiny seats, how good is it, really?

In the case of "Pippin", pretty darn good. "Pippin" is a fairly seventies show on that most seventies of subjects, a young man trying to find himself. In this case, he's the son of the medieval king Charlemagne, though in some ways this becomes increasingly irrelevant to the plot - the show largely consists of Pippin trying various life options and finding them unsatisfactory (war, sex, politics and finally, ordinary domestic life). It's a rare show where the main character can become king of France and it ultimately doesn't matter to the outcome of the story - arguably you could show up for the last forty-five minutes or so and not have missed anything particularly substantial, except for everything else about the storytelling and presentation (which is, of course, substantial). Pippin's guide through these adventures are a team of players -  in this production, quite an acrobatically-capable team, who spin, tumble, and divert through Pippin's meandering adventures.

In the title role, Matthew James Thomas is a sweet-natured hero, not exactly a naive idiot but certainly not entirely worldly wise. He sings the big ballad "Corner of the Sky" with conviction. There's also a nice sense that he's being led by the show rather than leading it - his involvement in the choreography, for instance, has a fun sense of "learning the steps" (which, six months into the run, obviously he isn't). He also onstage has a blonde head of hair which makes hims startlingly resemble Lachlan Ruffy. There's a basic part of the premise that everyone else in the show has been performing it for ages, but Pippin is brand new. And to his credit, Thomas makes that believable. He's fresh, funny and charming.

For our performance, the role of "Leading Player" (narrator, chief tempter of Pippin, and ring-master) was played by the understudy, Gabrielle McClinton. You wouldn't know - she sings, dances and tempts skillfully. She's also nicely petulant when the show doesn't run completely according to plan as Pippin and other performers make choices outside her control.

Most notable of these misbehaving performers is Rachel Bay Jones, who pays Catherine (Pippin's partner in "ordinary life"), whose sweet simplicity is utterly disarming - she's daffy, charming and kinda heart-breaking.

The entire production is a marvel of invention (the staging of "Simple Joys" with variations on large exercise balls is particuarly delightful), and brings glee and a fair bit of spectacle to a story of frustrated ambitions and learning to accept your place in the universe. A perfect start to a run of shows on-and-off Broadway.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

The Wheel, Steppenwolf, Chicago

Yes, That Guy has been away for a bit. Yes, that means I missed "Little Shop of Horrors" and "A Month of Sundays", and "The Female of the Species" and "The Popular Mechanicals" and a bunch of other things that played in Canberra while I was away. However, this means I have seen things in other parts of the world which I'm going to review. And you get to read them.

First up is "The Wheel" - a big-scale brechtian drama about war. Why go see it? Well, the big attraction here is Joan Allen returning to Steppenwolf after a couple of decades ago away of becoming an internationally renowned film actress - she plays Beatriz, a woman from a peaceful village in Northern Spain who's suddenly thrust into looking after a young girl when a war is declared and the girl's father goes missing. Her quest to find the father gets increasingly surrealistic and runs through multiple wars (WWI, WWII, Vietnam, Afghanistan are among the wars visually referenced). And like the best of Brecht, it's big-scaled theatre with a strong, solid, central performance at the centre. Unfortunately, unlike the best of Brecht, it doesn't quite find an adequate ending, and the surrealism makes it a very "and then this happened" play rather than something with a strong spine. Instead, the ending chooses a "back to the beginning" structure (which, I suppose, the title suggests it should) with some indications that maybe on the next cycle things may change slightly... but without really paying off.

Allen grounds it as well as, I think, it possibly can be grounded. She's tough yet compassionate, radiating intelligence and determination. The physical production, too, is impressive - it uses the entirety of the stage space, eventually stripping it back so we can see the wings and the set-structures. There's mud and dirt and explosions and a fair bit of spectacle too ... this is theatre that gives the eyes a fair bit.

I'm glad I saw this. Steppenwolf is one of America's premiere companies for a reason - starting as a three member ensemble, it's now grown to an ensemble of 40-odd with a strong actor-based focus dedicated to presenting theatre that challenges, excites and thrills. It may veer on the edge of pretentious for some, but ... I found enough to enjoy to get away with the pretension.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Rupert, Melbourne Theatre Company

Murdoch is, there's no doubt, an Australian icon. He's been a major media player in this country for around half a century, he's been spreading his wings internationally for 45 years, and has significant influence on how pretty much any major media story is reported in this country. And nobody's ever written a play directly about him (the closest you get is probably David Hare and Howard Brenton's "Pravda", which specifically concentrated on the period of his life where his UK purchases were expanding, and disguised him as a South African). Until now.

Williamson's play makes the choice to tell pretty much the entire story of Murdoch's adult life, from the perspective of an older Rupert, without apologies. It's inevitably somewhat bit-ish (then he bought this, then he bought that, then he did this business deal, then he met this politician...) but the story flows pretty well (although after the Packers midway through act one, there really aren't any other decent individual antagonists for Rupert to play against - it also helps that the Packers are delightfully caricatured in writing and performance, with Williamson indulging in the theatrical potential of foul language for the first time in a while). The device of having an older Rupert narrating while a younger Rupert enacts the events becomes odd by act two (the play wisely points out that by the time of the events narrated, Rupert's in his 50s - the older Rupert responds by having the younger Rupert engage in more and more physical exercise) so we're never in doubt that this is a very self-serving version of events. It's a far more landscape view of events than we're used to seeing from Williamson - getting out of the middle-class-domestic-comedy niche suits him, and I'd love to see him exploring it further.

Without Lee Lewis' virtuoso staging, this could come dreadfully unstuck - as noted, the events are somewhat repetetive (then again, so's "Candide") - but with the help of Stephen Curtis' simple-but-adaptable design and a versatile ensemble of six playing around sixty characters between them, plus Sean O'Shea's aloof Older Rupert and Guy Edmond's puppy-doggishly eager Younger Rupert, we're never bored. The device at the end of the play of seeing the entire stage stripped back to the bare bones works beautifully in conjunction with Older Rupert's long closing monolouge - visuals perfectly reflecting and enhancing the script.

If it's a flawed work, it's a creatively interesting one, and is a eye-and-mind-catching night out.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Cherry Orchard, Melbourne Theatre Company

Simon Stone is the current face of "young Australian Theatre" - he's 29 and has had a meteoric rise to the top of Australian theatre, largely through his productions of classics (signature productions include "Death of a Salesman", "The Wild Duck" and "Thysestes") - starting out at the fringe with the Hayloft project and expanding to acclaimed productions for the big state theatre companies. He's controversial, however, as his approach to classics often tends to de-scale a lot of the accreted assumptions about them (he came notably unstuck when his production of "Salesman" cut the epilogue and the Arthur Miller estate insisted on it being returned) and to return these plays to being active stories told now - with the actors using their own accents, in settings and costumes that appear largely contemporary, and often with sets that are pared back to just a few bare essentials.

His latest, "The Cherry Orchard" is, of course, an adaptation of the Chekhov. I was a late bloomer to Chekhov - his four iconic plays are all largely apparently-plotless stories where the real drama is internal and the key is in the details, And I often wondered, why should I care about these wealthy Russians paying the price of their own feckless living? I've started to come around to him - largely due to stagings that start to take away the remote, "english country house" interpretations of his work - Benedict Andrew's "The Seagull" a few years ago ripped the bandages off my eyes and showed me a play that had ridiculous numbers of telling details hidden just below the surface... and Simon Stone's "The Cherry Orchard" does the same. A ridiculously strong cast brings these complex, flawed characters to perfect life.

One of the keys may be that this respects Chekhov's instruction that the play is a comedy. There's the melencholy, true, but it's not an all-pervasive gloom. And this doesn't come at the expense of the characters, if anything it enhances it. And there are intriguing alternate interpretations that arise - for every Pamela Rabe's Ranevskaya (who perfectly captures her character's over-emotional nature), you get something like Robert Menzies' Gayev (who transforms a charracter who is often portrayed as an amiable, mildy eccentric duffer into something far sadder and funnier, a socially inept, shellshocked man still trying to function in society without fully understanding how it's supposed to work). Steve Mouzakhis' Lopakin is probably the most obvious modification of a character - instead of the russian peasant-made good, we get a second-generation Greek boy who's caught between his knowledge of what has to change and his affection for these people. It's a case where the modification brings us a more direct insight into the character - rather than having to diagram out the social norms of Russian peasantry, we know immediately where people are coming from and can then proceed to engage with them on their own terms.

This is an unusually grand staging for Stone - the full width and height of the Sumner stage is engaged and it's used well, using the distances between characters carefully to capture important emotional information. And the show delivers in doing what Chekhov is supposed to - engage the mind, amuse the wit and break the heart a little.

Friday, 13 September 2013

The Book of Everything, Canberra Rep

The short version of this review is: If you care about theatre that is passionate, inventive, engaging, funny, sweet and touching, go see this show. And drag anybody you know, any kids who you think can handle the unfortunate fact that sometimes, parents are not always right, or kind, or good - this is the show that you can recommend to everyone you know as "The Good Stuff". Go, book for it now. I'll be here when you've finished.

You're back? Good. So, let's talk about a play, apparently simple in intent, that captures something very fundamental about humanity, about love, about faith and kindness and about broken people and the ways that they can become unbroken. The central conceit of "Book of Everything" is that we experience a small neighbourhood in 1951's Amsterdam through the eyes of a 9 year old boy - one whose imagination and compassion is unrestrained by his strict Calvanist father and the uncertain post-World-War 2 environment around him. Ed Wightman's production completely buys into this, from the childlike design by Andrew Kay (full of tricksy panels and flaps and hidden cupboards - it takes true adult ingenuity to be this wonderfully playful) to some of the low-fi special effects (the early scene where the family Kloppers eat dinner, and the other actors provide live sound-effects acts almost as a style-guide to the audience, indicating this a show that's going to let the strings show but still let the magic be just as effective). 

The performances are outstanding. Lachlan Ruffy hasn't exactly been invisible on Canberra stages in recent years, but this is the first time he's been the undisputed centre and lead of a show I've seen (after sharing lead duties with Sarah Golding on "Eurobeat"  and Pippin Carroll in "Yonkers"). And he nails it. There's not a hint of personal vanity or ego in his performance, and there's not a lot of performer's shtick in it either - simply presenting Thomas as a gentle, rounded, wise, hopeful, clever, kind boy who goes through the world with wide eyes and a hopeful heart. 

I've spent a few reviews saying that I wanted to see Helen Vaughan-Roberts cry. I didn't realise how much I wanted to see her laugh until this show - where she releases wonderfully infectious, full-hearted giggles and glee. A woman whose life has been touched by tragedy but refuses to be defined by it, Mrs Van Amersfoort offers HVR one of the best roles I've seen her in and she seizes the opportunity with both hands.

The rest of the cast is equally as effective - from Maddy Kennedy's perfectly-pitched-sixteen-ness as Margot, to Miles Thompson's cool-dude Jesus, from Liz de Totth's fun and free-wheeling Auntie Pie to Tamina Kohene-Drube's sweetly good-natured Eliza, and from Lanie Hart's generous loving nature as Mother to Jerry Hearn's tightly-wound narrow-mindedness as Father. And there is magic and delights throughout - the rain of frogs being perhaps a particular highlight, although the journey of Thomas' letter, the effects of Neil McRitchie's sound and Chris Ellyard's lighting during Thomas' first listening to music at Mrs Van Amersfoort's ... the whole damn show is a highlight, and should be seen as soon as possible. And probably twice or more.

(edited to correct names - Apologies to both Sarah Golding AND Eliza Shepherd who I mis-attributed earlier)

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Home at the End, Everyman Theatre, Courtyard Studio

Is Everyman the best amateur company in Canberra? Hell, are they the best theatre company in Canberra, full stop? Certainly, they're my favourite company - their only drawback is that they sometimes take longish hiatuses between productions (it's been 9 months since last year's "Rent"). But on the level of pure theatrical craft, presenting fascinating stories with visual and verbal skill, utilising every inch of the Courtyard Studio stage like masters, they are tough to beat.

"Home at the End" is the latest work from the-Everyman-who-writes, Duncan Ley. It's a play about stories and traumas, a more personal narrative after the wider political concerns of "The Ides of March", asking questions about how a moment of moral failure haunts a man. Structurally, there's three narrative threads going on. Act one varies between Joe (Isaac Reilly), a writer who's finishing off his new novel about his Nazi grandfather while settling into a new house with his wife Andie (Helen McFarlane) and daughter Molly (presented as a puppet, operated and voiced by Amy Dunham); and a tramp in a fishing shack (Duncan Driver), who's telling stories to Andie and Molly as they shelter from a storm. Act two deals with Joe in the wake of a shocking event, delving through his surreal experiences of the systems built to help him and hinder him (medical, police and media) as he tumbles through grief. 

There's a lot of elements to juggle and ... I'm not entirely sure all of them are vitally necessary (in particular, the prologue featuring the Nazi grandfather feels un-necessary, and is also by some margin the weakest-acted-and-written portion of the play - the only reason it seems to exist is so we get a sense of Joe as a writer ... but it doesn't present him as a good or interesting writer). But it's Ley's most completely theatrical script (earlier plays like "Ides" and "In Cold Light", for instance, would probably work just as well on film or TV), able to snap between genres, to flow between surrealism and stark realism, and to give full reign for a skilled company of performers and a director to show their talents.

Which Jarrad West siezes with both hands - his production is a triumph of design, movement, pacing, lighting ... completely engaged in whichever genre the script happens to be in at the time. It's not every director who could navigate the streams of act two, where the surrealistic comedy of the police scene, for example, bashes up against the strong solid realism as Joe works with his counsellor (Jordan Best). West manages this with aplomb, getting every laugh out of the first and drawing us into the painful emotional territory of the second. 

The cast is, of course, excellent. Helen McFarlane as the only character who appears in all three threads of the story is goddamn extraordinary - sexy as a lover, loving kindness as a mother, and sharply acerbic as Joe's nightmare of guilt - and even gets to show off a great bluesy singing voice and eye-catching dance moves. Isaac Reilly's been off Canberra stages for five years, and I hope he's not offstage for a second longer - he's ridiculously capable physically, verbally and intellectually, and gives generously of all three in this. Duncan ("mr sexyvoice") Driver gets a chance to be funny, eccentric, strange and resonant in his role as the tramp, creating someone quite special and intriguing. Amy Dunham's vocal work and puppet-manipuation as Molly creates a real, questioning, intriguing six year old. 

The remainder of the ensemble is also excellent throughout the production. If I cherry pick, Jordan Best's performance of the counsellor is touching and strong and brave and a reminder that I haven't seen her onstage in way too many years - she's a skilled director but she's also a skilled actor and I need to see her more often. Will Huang's various cameos are eyecatching in the best of ways -we knew from Corny Collins he could do a game show host, but who knew he could be so touching as Lorenzo (mimed, even), so goofy as a policeman, so inscrutable as a doctor? Alice Ferguson's mournful physicality in the tale of Bella Autaunte, Laura Dawson's sharp agent ... there are so many highlights ... but the show's still running, so why not go see it rather than read me inadequately describe how good this is. 

Because, make no mistake, this is great stuff. It's a theatrical banquet, rich and tart and tangy and surprising. Get going.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Miss Julie, Belvoir

August Strindberg was undoubtedly a misogynist - he's quoted as describing women as "half apes ... criminal, instinctively evil animals". But he also wrote one hell of a lead role for an actress in "Miss Julie" - a young woman feeling strong passion for a man who is socially below her, with lust and power combining in a brutal confrontation that has a suitably unpalatable ending.

It's a story that's been adapted before (most noticably Patrick Marber's "After Miss Julie", which gets a program-photo-shout-out), but this version twists it in some very contemporary ways. Most noticably, the rich young woman is both more closely attatched to power (her father's prime minister) and is only 16 - which may be the only way you can viably keep it viable that she'd still realistically be a virgin, but also brings in a whole lot of other complications, given her partner-in-lust is the 37-year old Brendan Cowell.

This isn't the only change made by Simon Stone's adaptation. He also plays with the structure (instead of Stringberg's single location, this is two separate acts - act one in a kitchen as the bored girl, basically playing with her sexuality, gets drawn further and further into a seduction that can't end well, act two in a hotel room as the reality of the limitations of this relationship become apparent) - as well as noticably altering the ending.

Director Leticia Caceres gives this a naturalistic sheen - there are a couple of production choices I'd question (the set's stark white look, the awkward noises in the sound design by "The Sweats" that over-dramatise moments that might better be silent, the placement of the actors often against the far back walls which makes the production less intimate than it might be, and means the best areas of the Upstairs theatre aren't in play as much as they might be), but the important thing is that the performances get central focus and are played strong and clear and true.

Taylor Ferguson's major stage debut is a wonder - she's able to swing from sexually curious teenager to naive in an instant, and projects Julie's deep intelligence, her naivety, her unthinking acceptance of her powerful status amongst her father's employees, and her ultimate desperate act. Teenage sexuality is a minefield, presenting it in art doubly so - but here, it's shown as curiosity, a desire for knowledge, largely unaware of any of the implications this has.

Brendan Cowell's Jean is the other key player in this - resistant, but unable to stop himself falling further and further. Cowell's essential Australian-ordinary-guy nature plays brilliantly here - we know he should be the adult here, and he should stop ... but we also see, early on, how much he is excited by the small trappings of the rich society he's an employee in (stealing just a bit of the smoked salmon risotto made for Miss Julie, drinking a little of the boss' wine) and the small temptation of touching just a little bit more of that world becomes more and more irresistible to him. And as the second act makes it clear just how far he is from being able to function in that world, his sullen resistance to the truth becomes both sadder and more dangerous.

Blazey Best is the third figure in this - Jean's fiance, and the cook - there to play against Cowell's rants about Julie early in the play, and to present the practical, realistic way out near the denouement. I've heard it argued elsewhere that, surely, no fiance would forgive this - and I think that's ignoring that, in fact, women cover up for men far more often than they should, for all level of despicable activity. Women still feel that obligation to clean up after, rather than, as would be wise, walk away. It's not the right moral behavior, but it is awfully, sadly realistic. And Christine pays part of the price for bringing realism into Julie's fantasy of escape.

This is strong, brutal drama, and ... it's not quite perfectly done (as noted, the set, sound design and some of the blocking irked me).  But there's a great deal of strength in this production that re-imagines a classic into a contemporary examination of sexuality, morality and the ways of power in relationships.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Squabbalogic, The Factory Floor, Marrickville

I'll be honest, Canberra's musical theatre is increasingly leaving me a tad cold. Recycling the same dozen shows is starting to bug me. And ... I'm aware that Canberra's musical theatre does not exist solely (or primarily) to entertain me as a target audience. So therefore, time to look a bit further afield.

Squabbalogic is a Sydney-based Independent Music Theatre company, aimed at presenting newer musicals and reinterpretations of the existing music theatre canon. They've been going since 2006, but this year is the first time they've done a full season of shows. "Bloody Bloody" fits right in the middle of a season in three different venues - "Forbidden Broadway" in a cabaret room in Newtown, "Bloody Bloody" at The Factory in Marrickville, normally a music and standup venue, and "Carrie" at the Seymour Centre. Their show selection is nicely eclectic, clever and gives a lot of space for younger performers to show off their talents in a range of different material.

And "Bloody Bloody" is the perfect show to sample. A very irreverent, post-punk look at early 19th century American politics, covering issues as broad as border control, stolen elections and politics through popularity rather than policy, it's not hard at all to see modern day parallels. The approach is very much a young, reasonably educated, person's approach to everything  - sample lyrics are "Alexis de Toqueville says/something in French/That None of us can translate" and "Life Sucks/and My life sucks in particular"). It's basically the South Park/Simpsons version of history - and like both, it's both as entertaining as possible and has a strong underlying ethical and intellectual undertone - even as the characters can be both profoundly unethical and anti-intellectual. 

It's not necessarily an easy show to get perfect (there's a lot of shifting tones, as the show moves between sarcasm and sincerity often within the space of the same line), but Squabalogic give it a red hot go and are probably about at an equivalent level to anyone in Canberra (and their ticket prices, at $40, are roughly equivalent too). 

There are some very strong performances in here. Peter Meredith as Jackson is not quite among them - the role needs a charismatic sociopath ... and Meredith is good looking and looks appropriately sociopathic, but good looking and charismatic aren't the same thing and on that level it does make the ride a little bumpier than maybe it should be (he's also clearly a nutbag almost immediately, rather than letting us get seduced and entertained by him then later realising just how horrendous our hero really is). Louise Kelly as his wife Rachel is both gorgeous and touching during the fairly sincere "The Great Compromise" (with its blistering final lyrics "I give up everything/You give up nothing") - she also wins the unofficial prize for best bio that probably burns your bridges anywhere else (dishing some quite hilarious dirt on other show's she's been in). Jay James-Moody's Martin Van Buren is constantly hilarious whenever he appears - he's pretty much the Smithers to Jackson's Mr Burns, an easily enchanted sycophant. Ex-Canberran Toby Francis has regular solos and acquits himself quite nicely vocally and with a nicely sarky way with dialogue. 

I'm not entirely in love with Monique Salle's choreography - there are some moments (the girl singers in "Ten Little Indians" that land strongly, but other things like the little leaps during "Populism Yea Yea" feel unmotivated and more a case of "steps for the sake of steps". It's tightly performend and rehearsed, so this isn't a case of me thinking it's done badly, just a case of "I'd prefer to see something else there".

Like I said, this kind of thing is exactly my cup of tea (or my bottle of burbon). But it isn't necessarily a lot of other people's - even in Sydney, the audience I was in was less than half full (on a Saturday Matinee) and I don't know if that's a sustainable financial model for very long. But I'm glad they exist and I'm glad this show was done anyway.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Short and Sweet Week 2, Courtyard Studio

Another year and Short and Sweet is back again to give an allsorts collection of plays in under 10 minutes. It's an opportunity to see performers in unfamiliar roles, to see the work of new directors and writers, and to experiment a bit with theatre form.

Unfortunately, it can also, like everything else, slip into a bit of a formula and uninspired directing. And sad to say there is a certain percentage of that this year.

The evening begins reasonably with "Bendigo Banjo Saves the Day", which is no great shakes as a script (it is, like a lot of these scripts, fairly flabby and unfocussed), but has a certain charm in festival director Kate Gaul's staging, which brings a lot of clever imagery, charm and movement into a script that could very easily become completely unstuck (due to the festival director having stepped into direct, this isn't eligible for prizes at the end of the festival).

Unfortunately for the entire first half, there really isn't a staging that matches it. There are moments that glimpse through in performance (Paul Jackson's abashed admittance in "Therapist", Helen Way's enthusiastic theory-spinning and the very impressive fake rock in "Good Cop Mad Cop", Liliana Bogatko's cynical disbelief in "A Dim Light"), but these are mostly mediocre sketch comedy ideas stretched out a little too long and feeling a little too undercooked. "The Boat", which closes out the first half, tries for something a little more serious, but unfortunately the piece is very repetitive in its effect and doesn't offer anything that wasn't done better in two verses of "Cats in the Cradle".

After intermission, things get worse before they get better. "I have a Plan... The Battle for Canberra" draws from historical facts and quotes, and ... unfortuantely, historical quotes often make really really rotten dialogue. Rob DeFries is a fine actor who for the last two years has been in complete dogs of plays at Short and Sweet, and this is, alas, another one. Exactly what's going on with Ben Drysdale's "The Grey Man" in the scripting is anyone's guess, but he's the only one onstage who's bringing very much colour and movement into the piece.

Things improve dramatically, though, for the final three. Ruth Pieloor performs her own monologue that becomes a dialogue through the use of a particularly freaky looking ventriloquists dummy (which Ruth both embodies and manipulates excellently into a great antagonist). If she's not yet Nina Conti (the singular most amazing ventriloquist act I've ever seen), she's at least finding a good creative spin on the material.

Last Drinks is the entry from the team who did last year's winner, writer Greg Gould and director Margaret Allen. And  they hold up admirably with this one - mostly a showpiece for last year's best actress winner (Caroline O'Brien) as the much-accursed bride. If, yes, this is a bit of a sketch comedy piece, Gould's writing and O'Brien's performance seem to bring just that bit extra out that makes this a little bit more rounded.

Checkout breaks the formula completley - it's an excellently staged piece as four women represent one checkout chick on an average day - it's polemic, it's incisive and it moves like lightning under Pete Malicki's expert skill. It's about the type of people who don't end up in drama, all too often, and it's about why what's going on in their lives may be one of the most important things we need to know about. This is great stuff to wind up the evening.

In short ... even for Short and Sweet, this is a frightfully uneven evening. But it comes home very strongly, and that's enough to make it worthwhile for me.

(edited to add - Ruth Pieloor's "Vanity Insanity", "Last Drinks" and "Checkout" all got through to the finals, along with "I Have a Plan". The Short and Sweet format sorta encourages barracking for a favourite, but ... honestly, I'd be happy with any of the first three (bearing in mind, of course, I haven't seen anything from week 1 or the wild cards that could also take the prizes))

(second edit - Vanity Insanity won best Direction and Best Actress, Last Drinks won People's Choice and Checkout tied for Best Production - huzzah for shows that I liked getting prizes!)

Sunday, 11 August 2013

Phantom of the Opera, Free Rain - Guest review

I'm not seeing "Phantom" for ... a few reasons, one being the cost, one being my own middling feelings about the show itself. However, a friend offered to review it for me. And I've agreed. So... this is "That Other Guy" with a review of "Phantom".

The phrase that echoed around the Canberra Theatre Centre of Phantom’s opening night was “It’s good, for an amateur production.” While the sell-out crowd were receptive to the performance (there was a quarter of a standing-ovation), they were just as receptive as crowds tend to be on any other opening night. Perhaps the strengths of this production worked against it; the necessary complexity of bump-in meant that they only had three days in the theatre before preview (a common amateur theatre situation, but one that kept being used as an excuse, even in speeches by Somes and Harmon). Regardless, I enjoyed this musical. I didn’t love it, nor did I hate it. It simply happened, and I was there, and it was an important event for the community.
Let’s begin with what everybody has been talking about: the professionals. Let’s be honest for a second – they were good, but they were always going to be. It seems a little redundant to say that Michael Cormick and Julie Goodwin were stand-outs of this show... They’ve had the benefits that come with years of professional training, extensive experience with the material and, let’s call a spade a spade, professional abilities. Since it was first announced, the public have been bombarded with how excellent these two are. Which made them, unfortunately, victims of their own hype in performance. I’ll make no excuses, professionals are never critiqued worse than by amateur performers.
Michael Cormick’s Phantom was not overly Phantom-y. In terms of balance, for every excellent moment, there was an average one. More than anything, Cormick appeared to be the victim of his director. Overall, Cormick’s Phantom didn’t hold my attention. There were definite points at which he showed the abilities of his voice, but production week appeared to have taken its toll, particularly in Music of the Night, as there was the tell-tale growl and occasional cough from then on. Perhaps it is the over-hype I mentioned before, but while I enjoyed his performance, I expected more. As one person said to me in the foyer, “The Phantom wasn’t Phantom enough” – his presence wasn’t what it needed to be.
Julie Goodwin’s voice is stunning, and she fitted into the ballet chorus well. There was a believable friendship between her Christine and Tamina Koehne-Drube’s Meg Giry, which was delightful to watch, albeit at times in their duet (Angel of Music) Meg seemed less of a trusted friend, more of a dresser and awkward third wheel to the voice in Christine’s head. Goodwin’s acting, like Cormick’s, didn’t quite seem comfortable with the direction in places. There were moments where Christine appeared to know exactly what was going on, which is the opposite of her character’s reality. Christine is a pawn, first for the Phantom, then for Raoul, and appeared too strong for either man.
David Pearson’s voice is delightful. At times, though, it felt like he was Christine’s father, not her fiancĂ©e. His lower register is also noticeably louder than his higher, which made it seem that through All I Ask Of You, he was intermittently yelling in Christine’s face. His characterisation, however, was a new twist of the usually played vacuous and playful Raoul, providing a Raoul who was just as charming, dominating and often controlling as the Phantom himself. While not exactly melt-in-your-mouth sweet, Pearson’s Raoul was the first I’ve seen that I didn’t instinctively dislike for being whiney and self-entitled. I’m very glad Pearson’s back in town.
Christine Wallace’s Carlotta was vocally stunning. I don’t know who taught this woman to sing, but sign me up. Carlotta’s trills and operatic vocal runs were spot-on, and she never missed a note. Performance-wise, her non-singing moments could have used a touch more “diva”, and her costumes could have been credibly repulsively garish. Often, Carlotta was dressed in sepia tones, which left her looking a little washed out.
Ben O'Reilly’s Piangi (edited - this role was previously miscredited) left something to be desired. He missed many of his operatic notes in Hannibal and others, but an operatic tenor in Canberra is hard to find. More than that, there wasn’t really a Piangi character. He was Carlotta’s offsider, and left it there, missing many opportunities for physical and verbal comedy associated with being a leading man and still subject to a diva’s whims.
As the theatre owners, Tony Falla and Michael Moore were well cast. While still coming to terms with the intricate timings and lyrics of the Notes scenes, they presented the first real characters we see in the show. The pair showed an excellent contrast in two oft-similar characters, and at times they worked the stage better than Cormick and Goodwin.
Tamina Koehne-Drube has been becoming more and more prolific over the last two years, and Phantom gives us a chance to see why. She is delightfully graceful en pointe for the ballet chorus (although she would be more so if she put her shoulders back), clearly emotionally involved as a character, and her classical vocal training is paying dividends. While she had a few hard moments in her lower register, as well as some microphone issues, she was definitely one of the best performers onstage. The chemistry she had with not only Christine, but with Bronwyn Sullivan’s Madame Giry was apt and believable.
Sullivan’s strict ballet mistress, Madame Giry, was a well-acted and well-sung performance. While the production didn’t make as much of Giry’s ability to frighten respect from anybody she wished, be they dancer, crew or theatre manager, she nonetheless commanded attention and used her time onstage excellently.
Even the famous chandelier gave a perfectly balanced performance: the drama and excitement of its crash to the floor was balanced by jerky, awkward, inexplicable rising. The dramatic opening chords of the show were met by an almost painful stop-start ascension, with unnecessary pyrotechnics.
More than anything, I would say that the show was let down by its direction. David Harmon provides us with yet more balance issues, as for every moment of excellent direction, there are moments of awkwardness. Every director has to put their own spin on things, but The Phantom of the Opera (the Les Mis of Andrew Lloyd Webber “musicals”) has certain things that need to be done a certain way to be most effective. Free Rain’s production demonstrates why.
While there is understandably not much to be done with the minimal set, there were certain directorial decisions that left Cormick in odd places for certain moments. For example, the Phantom overheard the entirety of All I Ask Of You (sung on the roof of the Opera house) from his comfortable seat in Box Five which, logically, not only raises the question of how he physically heard any of what just happened, but why the police, when searching for the Phantom (a murder having just taken place and all), didn’t think to look in his favourite seat?

Similarly, Music of the Night is a slow, gradual build up of seductive power, which should make anybody who hears it crack a theatre-boner for the Phantom. The Phantom has rehearsed and rehearsed this moment for years, plotting his seduction of Christine, where he’ll stand, where he’ll put her when she faints etc. Every detail is measured and precise, for the ultimate theatrical gain. Cormick’s Phantom is all over the stage for this number, his body doing the work that his voice should be. There are only so many times we can believe that the Phantom can wave his hand over Christine’s head and she’ll pirouette. The clear planning of All I Ask of You is then supposed to provide a dramatic difference to Pandemonium, in which the Phantom’s plan has been ruined and he’s hurriedly, desperately ad-libbing a way to fix his problem (the kidnapping of Christine etc). Phantom seemed more prepared for this than anything else in the show.

Pandemonium also sees the threat of killing Raoul (a man who apparently thinks his eyes are at chin level, judging by where he held his hand, despite MANY warnings from the Giry women)... The Phantom pulls a rope, which lifts Raoul’s noose, choking him. Then, without any explanation, the Phantom lets go and walks around the stage, particularly to Christine, while Raoul hangs there, feebly fiddling with noose. As Phantom hasn’t tied the other end off on anything, there is no visible explanation as to why Raoul doesn’t just pull his end of the rope down and at least relieve his airway. Obviously, there are various knots and pulley mechanisms that can explain this, but I don’t think any production can rely on assumed knowledge in an audience.

Another confusing directorial decision was to have all of the Phantom’s asides boomed out into the theatre space and reacted to by the other actors. While this may seem logical as there are gaps in the script for them, it doesn’t really make sense to have the Phantom loudly announce his plans and then for the theatre managers and Raoul to continue as if nothing had happened.

During Il Muto, the ballet is performed facing the audience, and yet we can see a set of fly-ropes in the background. Either the Opera Populaire skimped on set, or the stage was an M.C. Escher design, in which the side of the stage is also at the back. Understandably, the corpse has to drop, and this drop has to be seen from the audience. This just shows why most productions choose to have the corpse drop into the middle of the ballet... So the audience, dancers and managers would all see it at once. Also, the dummy used as the corpse lacked human weight and therein bounced comically when it fell, like a rag-doll.

The ensemble, ballet corps and chorus members alike, sang wonderfully, but lacked any real characterisation. Oliver Baudert shone in his two initial characters, and then appeared to fade into the background (or at least out of my notice). He did, however, appear to have the only French accent in the production. If Les Mis has taught us anything, it’s that either you all do, or nobody does. Joe McGrail –Bateup’s frazzled director/conductor/repetiteur was also entertaining at times.
While this may be nit-picking, it is nit-picking from someone for whom The Phantom of the Opera was the first seen non-G&S musical. It is a passionate love of mine (and one of the two Andrew Lloyd Weber musicals I adore, although this is purely for the story). I feel that I missed a lot of the emotion and heart of the piece because I was too distracted by other things, particularly in the moments above. Those around me in the audience and foyer, I learned, suffered equally.
The design team, led by Cate Clelland and Fiona Leach, with help from Nick Valois, Steve Galinec, Anita Davenport and an army of others, did a tremendous job with what they had at their disposal. Galinec and Davenport’s mausoleum and theatre boxes not only looked the part, but stole the show (as far as non-moving, non-explosive components were concerned). Leach’s costumes were for the most part stunning, with occasional anachronisms that are unavoidable without a bigger budget.
Ian Maclean’s musical direction is superb, with excellent vocal coaching by Lloyd-Weber veteran Leisa Keen. The band, while over-amplified, played exceptionally and the company numbers sounded terrific.
In short, Free Rain’s Phantom was about balance. For every good moment, there were not-so-good moments, and the entirety of act one was upstaged by a falling lamp. While seeing Phantom with professional performers in the Canberra Theatre may be special, this production struggles to be anywhere near the standard to which it claimed. It was an excellent plan by Somes, and successful even before the cast reached the theatre.
I can only hope that the cast and company don’t try to rest of the laurels of selling out, considering they would have had every seat filled regardless of the show’s quality. A safe bet is a safe bet.
On a final, P.S-ish type note – there were flowers and gifts for the production team, Cormick and Goodwin. Most shows at least save that for closing night, and if you’re going to give the leads a present, you should probably give the rest of the cast one too. In a similar vein, I only saw leads at the post-show VIP function, and heard rumours that everyone else had been relegated to the green room...  

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Great, NUTS

NUTS all-modern-Australian drama season continues with another clever choice - Tony McNamara's Russian-history comedy-drama, "The Great". An anomoly in McNamara's writing, this breaks from his usual contemporary comedy mode (seen in plays like "The Cafe Latte Kid", "The John Wayne Principle", "The Virgin Mim", :"The Give and Take", "The Unlikely Prospect of Happiness" and "The Grenade" (the man really likes starting his titles with a "The"), as well as his copious TV writing career for shows like "The Secret Life of Us", "Love My Way" and "Tangle") and instead chucks us back into 18th century Russian history, in particular, the reign of Catherine the Great, telling the tale in two chunks - Act I depicting Catherine's arrival in Russia, her marriage and subsequent involvement in plots against her husband, and Act II dealing with events towards the end of her reign, as she's challenged by her children.

It's a grand story full of humour, revenge, anger and a fair amount of sex, and Casey Elder's production mostly presents pretty well... particularly on the sex. This is a very lushly designed production for NUTS, with red curtains covering the Drama Lab and the cast in some great mixed-modern-and-period costumes by Ara Steel and Chrissy Solazzini. The costume look is almost Amanda-Palmer-esque in its burlesque style, which is accompanied by some music selections from her current album (particularly well-applied in the use of "Do It with A Rockstar" with full lighting effects in the opening moments of act two - less so with the reprises of "The Bed Song" as a romantic theme, which seems to pick the same moment to begin cueing from throughout and becomes a little too repetitive (and misses the point of the lyrics of "The Bed Song", which has bugger all to do with romance and is far more about time and alienation)). The production doesn't quite maintain the pace - it presents a lot of the humour well but gets a little bit lost when things get more serious. It could have used a bit more of Palmer's pop-punk-enthusiasm thrown into the production. The decision to have frequent blackouts between scenes, rather than blend from moment-to-moment also led to a bit of pacing difficulty - bridging the space between scenes is important, and it's slightly flubbed here.

Bojana Kos as Catherine is central, and captures some of Catherine's capering naivety early on very well, and gets her groove on in act two as the older, wiser, and more bitter Catherine. But it's partially structural that there's a scene missing where her naivety gets finally broken and she goes from innocent miscomprehension of the strange Russian court that surrounds her into anger and resentment., and the show therefore gets a little subdued for a short time while I got used to the fact I wasn't going to get a smooth transition.

As her husband in act one and her son in act two, Andrew Eddey has a vehicle to be wonderfully, selfishly silly, and he grabs it with both hands. His work with a tricycle in act two is particularly outstanding. His casual use of his power in act one maps him out as a dangerous sociopath, and his entitled brat in Act two is equally funny. Meanwhile Ben Russell as her lover (in act one) and her daughter's lover (in act two) has a fair amount of charm and swagger to him, which turns to arrogance in act two. If he's never quite sympathetic ... I don't think that's really what anybody is going for here. He's charming and he's kind ... but he's also dead wrong and hedonistic, and the production wisely never lets us forget it. Brody Warren as Orlo starts out solidly but seems to slip away as the character becomes more and more marginal to Catherine - his last-minute confession of devotional love doesn't feel like it's been maintained throughout so it's a little bit lost.

Lauren Klein as the maid, Marial, maintains interest throughout, smart, snippy and not-too-far outside the boundries of good servant-y behaviour. Saskia Roberts's teenage entitlement as Catherine's daughter in act two launches delightfully, but by the time she's debating Catherine on roughly equal terms towards the end of the play, there isn't really a sense of growth so much as a sudden transition.

This is an unusually ambitious piece, but also strangely suitable for NUTS - it's character-focussed and its uneven-ness seems to suit the performers, allowing them to slide between contemporary and period nicely, with a combination of sarcasm and melodrama that plays nicely. This'll be my last review of NUTS for the year (I'm out of the country when "Female of the Species" premieres) but I've been strongly impressed with their work this year. They've survived some fairly rough treatment (including one offensively rude BMA review) but I've noticed solid audiences engaged in new Australian drama that I don't often see in more "respectable" established companies.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Don Parties On, Canberra Rep

David Williamson is Australia's most commercially successful playwright. It's not a debating point, it's a clear and established fact that, for over four decades, he's produced a massive stack of work (this year sees his 45th and 46th hitting the stages) and is still writing at a prodigious pace (in the last decade, he's had 13 different new plays produced), plus his back-catalogue is regularly revived.

For all that, he doesn't get a heap of respect. Critics tend to get sniffy about his work, and it's true, he tends to write about largely prosperous, white Australians dealing with the personal dilemmas that come with being prosperous and white - but, then again, people without money have never been a particularly big audience for theatre, and I don't necessarily see a lot wrong with engaging your audience on their own territory.

And while "Don Parties On" is the first Williamson play that's a direct sequel (unless you count the latter two Jack Manning plays as sequels), inevitably the themes have been visited before - the rituals of masculine friendship as the line between friend and rival blurs, the strained marriages, the generation gap as boomers are confronted with their children's differing values (and in this one, their grown grandchildren), and the disappointments with the state of the world they're in.

Aarne Neeme's production of "Don Parties On" captures a great deal of this - the sadness as well as the all-too-familiar comedy, of broken dreams and almost-friendly-rivalries, of the ways old friendships can be the things that hurt and support you most, in just about equal measure. It's not altogether perfect - a couple of instances of the casting and a couple of instances of the writing let it down - but when it's a play about people, it's affecting and funny and wise and true.

For the casting, let's start with the women, who are the standouts here. Judi Crane can do withering looks and commanding voices as well as anybody, and gets to unleash them here - but she also gets a chance to be gentle, soulful, wise and true. Helen Vaughan Roberts, similarly, has played the holy terror repeatedly, but this is the first time she's really been heartbreakingly, vulnerably broken (in my "Lost in Yonkers" review, I complained I was denied ten extra seconds to really feel her pain ... this time, I felt it). Liz St Clair Long does a great line in resigned acceptance of her husband's foibles, rolling her eyes at his daggy dancing delightfully. Isha Menon is new to me but owns the stage well, opinionated, strong-minded and, again, able to let her heart show where it counts. Anne Mewburn-Gray is a little trapped by her role - the character begins in a high key and only goes higher - there's probably no way of not playing this character unhinged, strained, and
desperate for attention, and that's what she gives it.

The men are generally less successful - Pat Gallagher's Mal is a notable exception here, he's every bit the braggart philosopher with a chip on his shoulder the part requires, and he's hilariously unconsicous of how incredibly tactless he frequently is. Sam Hannan-Morrow also delivers a good line in angst and befuddlement as his life increasingly spirals out of control. Peter Robinson's Don has the height of a good David Williamson surrogate and is good at the gormlessness and vacancy, but he seems to get a little lost in the more politically meaty bits of the play. Len Power's Cooley, similarly, is frequently funny and dances delightfully dorkily, but he's a little too much inwardly the gentle soul to be a convincing lothario, former or otherwise.

This isn't an all-time great new play by Williamson, but it's an entertaining evening with heart, soul and comedy, and is definitely worth catching.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Queanbeyan City Council, The Q

It's been a while since a major amateur company in Canberra put on a Shakespeare production - the last I can think of is Everyman's "Richard III", which was back in 2010. I don't know whether it's the regular visits from Bell Shakespeare or the belief that Shakespeare is a difficult writer, but never the less, there's been a bit of a hiatus in productions since ANU's Paper Moon company put the brakes on in 2008. 

Fortunately, the Bard is eternal (he's also out of copyright) and so he's back, with director Jordan Best compiling a strong cast to give Shakespeare's comedy of love and magic a strong theatrical form. There's a little bit of unnecessary framing device (the songs at the beginning and end, in particular -it doesn't help that there's still an audible clicktrack in the backing tape), but otherwise this is a straight-down the line delivery of Shakesperean comedy.

Which is not to say there's anything by the numbers in this production - this is inventive, clever work on several levels. The foundation of any Midsummer Night's Dream is the four lovers in the middle of the story, and in this case, there's superlative work, in particular from Jenna Roberts, whose glorious indignation whether she's being romantically ignored or romantically pursued is constantly delightful; some great caddish disdain from Duncan Driver accompanies her. It takes Rachael Clapham and Chris Zuber a little longer to find their groove (as people who have basically found their romantic partner at the beginning of the play, there's not quite as much to get into) but certainly Clapham's increasing irritation at the unlikely proceedings before her in the second half grab all their laughs. Chris Zuber's Lysander is a bit more worthily staunch, but he's handsome enough to make any lady want to run off to the woods with him, and keeps Lysander not-too-bright entertainingly.

On the fairy level, Dave Evans is a hyperactive Puck (possibly a little bit too much so - there's a few moments when he gabbles lines), Tim Sekuless and Alison McGregor combine imperiousness and strangeness as Oberon and Titania respectively, fairy attendants Michelle Cooper, Alex McPherson and Carly Savona combine beauty and grace of movement, and Erin Pugh's oppressed Moth is adorable and funny (her Philostrate in the court scenes is snobbishly hilarious, too).

In the Mechanicals corner, Shakespeare's satire on amateur theatre plays delighfully, with plenty of physical shenanigans going on throughout. When the worst you can say is that David Clapham as Starveling is slightly under-used (and that's because I remember how damn good Clapham can be), it's a compliment to the whole thing - Cannell's Quince is delightfully pedantic and annoyed, Cameron Thomas' Bottom delivers several pounds of ham, Ruffy's Snug goes from shy reluctance to superenthusiastic lion with aplomb, Liz Bradley's Snout brings grumpiness and potential violence, and Brendan Kelly's Flute is sweet, clear and enthusiastic.

As for the technicals - Wayne Shepherd's set is fine, if more decorative than necessarily useful most of the time, and requires better lighting than it gets from Owen Horton for full effect. The range of costumes from Cate Ruth, Emma Sekuless and Miriam Miley Read, together with the elabourate jewellery and wing designs by Mia Ching and Ann McMahon, are absolutely gorgeous.  

All in all, this is a fine reading of the play, capturing the humour and magic of the text. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Improvention World Gala, Canberra Theatre

I used to enjoy improvisation a lot. Fast-moving, funny, pure creativity right on stage, it amused and delighted me regularly. But lately I've drifted away. And I wasn't quite sure why. But going back, I suddenly relised why. 

Impro is wonderfully affirming for its performers. Your first idea is always your best idea. You are encouraged to accept and be accepted, you are encouraged to throw out ideas like confetti, you are allowed off the leash. But it isn't always a format designed for audiences, and can become massively self-indulgent. And unfortunately, there was an awful lot of self-indulgence on display at the World Gala. 

This was a very sparsely attended show and ... in some ways, it probably deserved to be. A gala is meant to have performers with name recognition, and there was none of that here. The international guest stars were not exactly star-ry - they were all capable, strong performers, but ... you don't get to stick star after your name unless you've actually done something your average audience member would recognise, and with the best will in the world I can't say Patti Stiles, for instance, is really being pulled up in the street for her cameos in "Neighbours" or "John Safran's Race Relations". And the format of the evening didn't lend itself to great scenes for an awfully long time - the various performers challenging each other often led to throwing so many twists and requirements on a scene that meant that actually telling a story, getting in and out and putting a few jokes in between them, kinda fell by the wayside. This stabalised a little in the second half, but even so ... there were an awful lot of scenes that flailed around failing to be interesting. 

I understand the improvisation model - it's more about teaching than it is about performing, to a certain extent (certainly, they suck far more money out of course attendees than they do out of audiences). And that's perfectly okay. But in the end ... theatre needs to be thinking about its audience, and I kinda think this wasn't a case where the audience really got much of a gurnsey.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

At Home at the Zoo, Something Borrowed, Smith's Alternative

Something Borrowed is a new theatre company - Smith's Alternative is a new performance venue - and Edward Albee's "At Home at the Zoo" is a 50% new play (it's simultaneously Albee's earliest and most recent play - "The Zoo Story", which forms act two, is his oldest, while the first half, "Home Life" is his most recent). So much for nobody doing new work  in Canberra...

I was invited to a preview of "At Home at the Zoo", so ... this isn't so much a review as a couple of general comments about the show (as what I saw wasn't quite a finished production). But to start with the play itself - I've got to be honest, I'm not sure whether Albee's extension entirely works, the first half seems a little static and doesn't quite achieve it's stated purpose, to make Peter, previously "man on park bench", a richer character. It's probably going to join the circuit of less-interesting curtain raisers such as "White Liars" (the other half of Peter Shaffer's "Black Comedy"), "Duck Variations" (the other half of Mamet's "Sexual Perversity in Chicago") and "Harliquinade" (the other half of Terrence Rattigan's "The Browning Version") as things-written-to-fill-out-an-evening, rather than successful plays in and of themselves. There are diverting moments in the script and in the performances by Kate Blackhurst and John Lombard, but this is a script that takes a long time to warm up.

The second half, though, is a completely different animal. I've seen a previous production with Canberra theatre regulars Jim Adamick and Jay Sullivan (well, Jay's now a standup, but at the time he had been doing a fair bit of theatre) and hadn't really enjoyed it, but this version comes alive. Graham August's Jerry is a much more actively engaging scene partner (as compared to the WASP-ish distance in act one between Blackhurst and Lombard) meaning that we can get fully engaged in Albee's fifty-year old confrontation on a park bench. There are so many more overtones in "The Zoo Story" - Peter is threatened on all sides, by Jerry's sexual allusions, by the obvious class difference between them, by Jerry's verbal diorrehea ... it's great to see this played out, up close and personal, by a skilled team.

This is sold out for opening night, and unfortunately I won't be able to make it this Friday or Saturday. But hopefully there'll be plenty more opportunities to see the work of Something Borrowed, and plenty more entertaining productions to come.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Happiness is a Bedside Table, Hannah Gadsby, Courtyard Studio

Hannah Gadsby is a surprise package of a comedian. Her recent success as a sidekick on Adam Hills Tonight and presenting various art docos on the ABC hides the fact that this apparent overnight success is seven years in the making (since winning Raw Comedy in 2006), and her personable manner, clever wit and deep insight make her quite good value to hang out with for 80 minutes of stage time.

She returns to canberra stages with a show about maturing, finding contentment and comfort. Which of course, since this is a comedy show, means that we get to explore all the immaturity, discontent and uncomfortableness that's preceded this point. Some of this cuts quite deep - the pain of childhood (and, indeed, adulthood) awkwardness is still very clear - and it's always fascinating, with the jokes coming from a very real, personal place. We're drawn into Hannah's personal stories of her experiences with body dysmorphia, terrifying discoveries of what happens to rabbits during a plague, and a quite brilliant deconstruction of one idiot's insulting internet posting.

Throughout, Hannah's style is something like a genial auntie - despite the darkness of some of the material, she resolutely refuses to be bleak in the face of it. Long-form standup is not for the faint hearted, and Hannah plays it brilliantly, in an evening of rare skill and wisdom.

Hipbone Sticking Out, Big hArt, Canberra Theatre

Big hArt is a group dedicated to creating both quality art and social change. They collaborate with various communities, getting them involved in creating new and different narratives to tell their stories to the wider world, to ensure those stories can effect real social change.

Their latest production, "Hipbone Sticking Out", is as a result of a collaboration with the community of Roebourne in WA. And at this point, it's got to be said, the theatrical production that's resulted isn't quite a successful one - it's flawed in a couple of ways that I'll go into later in the review. But in this case, the theatre production isn't the whole deal of the project, and it may not even be the most important. The engagement in the community has seen work online from a number of young artists in the community - in the lobby, there's fliers and videoscreens showing some of the many, many other projects that have come out of this collaboration - some brilliantly engaging material coming from the young people of Roebourne.

To get back to the show at hand, though - there are several great moments in this show. However it takes a while for the show to work out what it wants to be about, and the mishmash of ideas, particuarly in the first half, damages the stuff that's good. There's skilful ensemble playing and visual effects in the first half, but there's little sense of an underlying narrative or of where any of this is going - the early stages set up a flashback narrative as a young indigenous man, two hours before his death, looks back on the history of his people ... except that suddenly we're getting a history of white people's decision to come to WA instead, with the story told very much through a white perspective through the faces of the Dutch settlers. And this is almost fatal - ripping the story out of the perspective of its participants, and framing it very very awkwardly. It takes us away from where the power and soul of the piece is - with the people of Roebourne and their own personal histories - and into something that feels more like a generic history lesson that could be anybody's story. It's cleverly staged, but... there doesn't feel like anything to hang onto.

The second half comes alive in a much more direct manner. Kicking off with Derik Lynch's clever enticement of the audience, semi-entrapping them, there's then a swerve into a brief, dangerously meta argument which points out the lack of protagonist or uplift in the journey. And ...that's fine, but just pointing out your flaws doesn't make them go away.

Still, the second half has by far the strongest material of the evening - as it starts to tell the story of that young indigenous man facing death. It's a death in custody, and it's told, powerfully and well by the ensemble. We're drawn in, we're engaged, we're told a simple story that comes from these people. Noticably, there's far fewer bells and whistles in the staging for this section. It doesn't need it. It's followed by a recital of Kevin Rudd's speech of apology and ... in the midst of everything that's happened in this last week in politics, it made me remember why Rudd was admirable - that speech is still a sign that politics can, and has, done some good, sometime, somewhere. And the show goes on to establish that, even after these words, the pain and the struggles and the damage still remains ... but the story goes on, and that there is hope.

(Edited to add: I've since been advised that the speech is Paul Keating's Redfern speech, not Kevin Rudd's apology - apologies for my mistake on the matter - this does, I suppose, open the question of whether, after these speeches, anything substantial has changed, and whether this stain on our national character is something we will need to apologise for forever, until it is ingrained that this original sin has been done and is still being perpetuated. Which ... I'm a guy with a blog, I have no answers, just further questions).

I cannot figure out the rationale for the first half of this show. Is it an attempt at context, to frame things better for a presumed white audience, to find a way into the story? Because ... I don't think it's necessary, and as a framing device, it fails (the sign that a framing device has failed is if it only shows up at the beginning and never comes back at the end), and it makes peculiar assumptions about what the audience might want, rather than providing them with the communities own story - which is what we've come to see, and what, surely, the community wants to tell. I found myself massively unengaged by the first half, and completely drawn in by the second. This is a technically very skilled show in many ways. But I wish it knew where its best face was more, and had faith that drawing stories from the community can be genuinely fascinating.

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Spiral, Denise Scott & Judith Lucy, Canberra Theatre

It's under a year since Judith Lucy and Denise Scott both played the Canberra Theatre with separate standup shows. So why come back again this soon? Have they really come up with another essential hour worth us ponying up the cash to watch?

The answer is ... of course they have. The Spiral is a little bit of an oddity - it isn't quite a standup show, it isn't quite a book-tour-event, but it's definitely entertaining. The evening kicks off with Judith and Denise basically completely bypassing  the stage and going straight into the audience for a few minutes of audience interaction, harassing, teasing and general amusement (plus the inevitable mocking of latecomers - if you've got tickets to a standup show, surely you'd know by now that the performer is probably going to mock you. Unless all latecomers are secretly masochists who just want to be told off for their temerity in coming late...) It's followed by conversation, jokes, one highly startling dance routine, a little bit of Q and A (and woe betide you if you decide to just make a statement rather than a question), and a little bit of book reading.

Both are highly skilled (well, they'd want to be, as Judith said to a twenty-three year old, "I've been doing this longer than you've been alive"), and both have a fairly different style and viewpoint - Judith the over-it-all fortyish one, Denise the fiftyish mother of multiple children - that makes this a highly polished evening that rolls along quite cleverly. There isn't anything particularly deep here, this isn't a show that's going to change your life, but it could change at least some elements of your wardrobe. And probably inspire you to buy (or at least hit the library up for) their books. A packed-out Canberra Theatre clearly loved it, and I loved it along with them.