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.