Saturday, 23 February 2013

Calendar Girls - Canberra Rep

Let us now praise populist entertainment. It's not necessarily deep, it's not innovative, and it doesn't change perceptions of theatre as an art form. But what it does is entertain, it keeps the audience engaged, it gives casts fun things to play and it hopefully brings nice amounts of box office to a theatre company.

Such is "Calendar Girls", which... yes, is basically a movie on stage (although it brings the scope back to one hall and a hill, rather than the international shenanigans that showed up in the film). But it's a friendly, funny piece with plenty of great roles for women of a range of ages and sizes, and just a spice of sauciness. There are plenty of laughs, just a few sad bits, and of course the nude calendar shoot centerpiece which tips it over the edge into hysteria.

Director Catherine Hill pulls together a tight company, played out on Russell Brown's adaptable set. Central are Elaine Noon as Annie, the heart of so much of the piece, and Naone Carrel as Chris, who gets a lot of the more outrageous comedy and is the source of at least two of the bigger dramatic moments. Jon Garland's  role is to incite the action, which he does gorgeously sympathetically - he and Noon have that lived-in-feel of a real couple. Of the rest of the Calendar girls, most get at least part of a subplot each, although Anne Yuille's Jessie doesn't, and therefore seems to steal the show frequently by just getting all the best lines instead and delivering them devilishly well (I've not seen Yuille before, her last gig was around 20 years ago - I'm hoping she'll be snaffled up into the Canberra Theatrical regulars quick smart). The rest feel like their subplots are a tad tacked on - Megs Skillicorn's gormlessness would shine just as brightly without the tacked on straying husband, similarly Liz deTotth's Cora doesn't really need the departed daughter to bring her strength and humour, and Nikki-Lynn Hunter's monologue about unhappiness in the world of golfing clubs also feels kinda superflous.

Elsewhere in the cast - Paul Jackson's ability as a physical comedian are getting better and better - as the photographer Lawrence, his reactions are 50% of what makes the calendar shoot hilarious. Judi Crane's Marie is wonderfully imperious, with some wonderful layering, particularly in her act two showdown with Chris. Rob deFries seems to be going through an experiment where his love interests are getting older, which ... is nice, but otherwise there isn't much to his part - he's fine for what it demands, but it demands very little. Sam Hannan-Morrow's cameo is quite delightfully amoral - he's really quite brutal in a few short words, particularly "it's what you do, isn't it?"

Again, this is not theatre that reinvents the form, but it's a solidly craftsmanlike piece speckled with moments of extreme joy (the end of act one in particular) and occasional sadness.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

The Secret River - Sydney Theatre Company

This review should not have happened. A sold out show I hadn't booked suddenly, through great providence and the generosity of a friendly fellow-critic, opened up the chance to see this. A vitally necessary story of the horror that lives at the beginning of white Australian history and colours our past to this day, "The Secret River" brings theatrical life to a popular novel (that I've never read) and is essential theatre for anybody whether you're watching for the politics, the emotional journey or for something visually fascinating.

The story is about Will Thornhill, a recently freed convict who takes his family to establish a home on the Hawkesbury river, and what happens when he comes face to face with the Dharug people who've been living there, is a story where we can see what's going to go wrong from fairly early on (the line "he realised how easy it was for a man to have land just by standing on it and claiming it" (paraphrased as I don't have the script) perfectly expresses that grand hope that often leads to disastrous ends).

Yet this is never just  lecture theatre, telling us "what our ancestors did wrong". It's engaging throughout, in that we can see the tragedy coming, but we can also see the joyous life that is under peril - the chance to live together that was lost through fear of the other. There's brilliance and intelligence at every turn here - Iain Grandage's music drives the show emotionally, Stephen Curtis' open space reveals surprsing ranges of creativity as it changes from bare land to the titular river (and is wonderfully capable of being slippery when required, while also being steady-under-the-feet for the rest of the show).

In the performances, there's some brilliant use of language, accent and design in letting us into the characters world. The Dharug speak in their own language throughout, with the audience to interpret their meanings through gesture and intonation only - but the white characters are just as distanced, both through performing in English accents (it's a mark of how thoroughly Belvoir's approach of "actors accents only" has sunk in with me that it took me a minute or two to adjust to the performer's use of english accents) and through white makeup on the white characters - it's not a blatant alienation effect, but it's enough to be noticeable and to present a slight stylisation. Similarly, the Dharug's outfits are not historically accurate either - there's a blending towards modern clothing in the design that makes it harder to treat them as "the other". The two characters who veer closest to "modernity" are Ursula Yovich's narrator and Colin Moody's Blackwood, who stand as a case where black and white are living together without fear or conflict.

Performances across the board are excellent - from familiar veterans like Yovich, Moody, Trevor Jamieson, Jeremy Sims,  Bruce Spence and Judith McGrath, to the young performers like Callum McManis, James Slee, Bailey Doomadgee, and, in shared roles, Bailey Doomadgee and Kamil Ellis as Garraway/Dulla Djin's child and Rory Potter and Tom Usher as Dick Thornhill. It's very few productions that would be confident enough in its child actors to have them perform at the start of Act two as the audience came in, and ... this show was that confident, and fulfilled that confidence spectacularly.

I haven't said anything about the work of writer Andrew Bovell and Neil Armfield, except the obvious, which is to say that it sits under and makes everything that I've praised above possible. Armfield's professional career goes back  almost 35 years at this point, and this is a perfect blending of his mastery of stagecraft, his deep engagement with performance and his constantly surprising vision. Bovell is one of Australia's great writers and his adaptation works to distill a complex novel into a clear, illuminating, direct and powerful show.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Standup comedy - Dave O'Neil, 33 Things I should have Said No To, Civic Pub

Canberra Standup comedy has a pretty good repuation round town, and one of the best gigs for a while has been the Civic Pub's first Wednesday gig. Good enough that, in warmup for appearances at the Adelaide Fringe and Melbourne Comedy Festival, Dave O'Neil (he's been on telly repeatedly!) brought his current show to canberra for a tryout night there. Surprisingly, this wasn't one of the Civic pub's best nights - the venue, which has usually been good for a quiet night that supports the standup, let a little too much bar-noise and downstairs rattles through. Also slightly underattended, which was disappointing.

Anyway, on to the actual standup. On MC and warmup duties were Canberra stalwarts The Stevenson Experience, a musical twin-brother duo who I've been seeing on-and-off for the last couple of years. It was good to see them with a bunch of fairly new material (I only recognised one song from previous gigs), even including a bit of character acting and choreography (or at least marching in one place) in an attempted mini-musical. The Stevenson's are very polished (even when they slide off-script, they keep good solid momentum going), and kicked off and held the evening together well.

Of the support act gigs, Harris Stuckey kicked off his gig by apologising for using his notes (never a good look) and dropped a series of amusing but unstructured one-liners. Craig Harvey used his physicality and a nice set of running gags in some good suburban-dad material. Simon Bower seems improved from last time I reviewed him (as part of Kale Bogdanov's gig) but his last joke was not his best joke.

Dave O'Neil was exactly what you expect from him on telly - a nice ramble through material about Devo, bogans, a reasonable sideline in the occasionally-risky-territory of Queanbeyan jokes, being a dad, the perils of being a breakfast radio host or Tonight show location-guy and boy-scouting. It was maybe a little over-extended as a 50 minute gig (I get the feeling he's still getting the kinks out) but, for $12 a pop, it's not a bad feeling to be experimented on a bit with someone as skilled as Dave is.

As noted, Dave will be touring this all over the place (Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne comedy Festival, many other places). Harris Stuckey and Simon Bower are 50% of the Canberra Comedy Festival's "Irresponsible" which you can read more about or buy tickets to here. The Stevenson Experience will also be featuring in their show "How I met your brother" which you can read more about or just buy tickets to here.