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!)