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.