Saturday, 17 December 2016

The "Well I Liked It" awards, 2016.

Another year, another chance to reflect on what's been happening. Obviously, offstage, this year has been a bit of a garbage fire, between beloved cultural icons dying, Trump, some rather awful local politics, and general awfulness. But on stage the standard has generally been pretty strong, and occasionally exceptional. So it's the exceptions I'm naming here. As always, I did not see everything, and this is driven by my personal taste exclusively, so all the basic one-guys-prejudices apply.

Having said that, here are a couple of people, companies and shows that stuck out for me.

Jordan Best had possibly her most kickarse year ever in theatre. I didn't see everything she did because she did so damn much, but I did see the thoroughly engaging "Beauty and the Beast", the truly outstanding ensemble of "Playhouse Creatures", the intense and gripping "Macbeth" and her intensely rageful performance in "The Normal Heart". Whatever she did, she did it with dedication, drive, commitment and strength. I am grateful to be living in a town where Jordan is regularly presenting productions that challenge, provoke, engage and enlighten.

Will Huang has the kind of talent that should annoy people. He's got all the good looks of a leading man, plus the acting talent of a character actor. Plus he's got a powerhouse voice. He started the year blowing up my "long hair Will is Nice Will" theory by being the longhaired diva jerk Stacee Jaxx in "Rock of Ages", went on to be the disturbing son Gabe in "Next to Normal" (with slightly trimmer hair) before breaking hearts as the charming but ultimately doomed Felix in "The Normal Heart" (with the long hair). You know what, I don't think it's his hair that indicates how he's going to behave, I think it may actually be the script and his talent. Anyway, he was a compelling presence to watch this year.

Everyman seems to get an award every time I do one of these, but it's because they remain my favourite company who do stuff that nobody else does. Not only did they deliver a great dramatic experience in "The Normal Heart" full of rage and fury and engaging compassion, they also provided a variety showcase where so many have burned before with "Musical Theatre Confessions", a format that gives top-edge performers a chance to show off a couple of extra strings to their bow. All hail the Everypeople.

Phoenix Players had a one-two punch of two modern musicals that delved deep and dramatic but also rocked the audiences socks off with solid performances and bands with "Next to Normal" and "Spring Awakening". I spent a lot of this year avoiding local musicals again (for the usual reasons, either I'd seen the show before or the production otherwise did not appeal) but these two got me out of the theatre and held me spellbound. I know the audiences unfortunately did not throng to these fascinating works, but I hope somehow this was financially sustainable enough for Phoenix to continue to think different to the rest of the pack.

The visiting production that excited me the most was "Things I know to be True". Andrew Bovell has an ability to cut through with style and grace, and the combination of his words and Frantic Assembley's exceptionally physical production made for a night that was heartfelt and poignant and oh so beautiful.

Interstate I was most impressed by "Matilda" - yes, it opened last year but I saw it this year so it counts, dammit. This is big-scale musicals done right - if there's a couple of minor imperfections (in particular, Tim Minchin may need to simplify lyrics for choral singing so they don't get lost in follow up works, or at least have them not be sung by kids), it's an all round entrancing night out.

So that's my lot for the year. Thank you to those who read everything, or just the reviews of the show's they're in.

Girl Asleep, Windmill Theatre Co and Belvoir

I've sorta reviewed this already over on my other blog ( but at the same time, this is a slightly different experience. A revival of the play that inspired the movie, coming out after the movie with some of the original company (some of whom were also in the movie, some of whom weren't), this is the same basic structure (girl has a 15th birthday party thrown despite her best wishes, girl has adventures during a dream, girl wakes up and reconciles to reality) but there are intriguing variations to be captured. If this still isn't my favorite coming of age piece (it's not even my favorite coming of age piece by Matthew Whittet, I preferred "Seventeen"), it does have a fair bit of charm and insight.

There is a bit of a tonal difference between the two - whether it's just the casting of Greta (with a twenty-something actress rather than a genuine 15 year old) or simply the shifting media, the stage version seems to reach out to the audience far more directly. The fantasy sequences and almost parodistic approach to the people surrounding Greta serve in the film as slightly alienating, while in the play they work more on the level of fun gags. I'm still not entirely sure why this is set in the seventies beyond for a bit of visual flair, and I'm not sure whether the intention is to say something deeper about female social emergence or whether it's just a fun premise, but I do find this doens't go particularly deep. The pleasures are largely surface level.

Having said all that, the performances are quite fine. Ellen Steele is an engaging protagonist, and Dillon Young as her friend/possible-love-interest sells geeky enthusiasm well. Amber McMahon, Matthew Whittet and Sheridan Harbridge serve well in their multiple roles, whether as Greta's only mildly dysfunctional family, as schoolkid stereotypes or strange fantasy figures.

Jonathan Oxlade's set and costume design capture the period well (and the set also has some lovely surprises to move across the very many location demands made by the script). Rosemary Meyers keeps the story tight and very much focussed on embracing the audience.

If I'm less than totally sold, this may be that I find this ultimately a fairly slight play done well. So it's worth it for the production if slightly less for the play itself.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

A Flea in Her Ear, Sydney Theatre Company

Georges Feydeau is one of farce's true masters. He practically invented the split-second timing, multiple-door-slamming farce, with his plots sprawling as large casts of bourgeois frenchpeople get caught up in increasingly ridiculous complications.

There appear to be four main reasons why he's not more widely seen these days. First, his scripts demand a large cast, all outfitted in gorgeous turn-of-the-century french costumes. Second, you need two very solid sets to survive actors running at full pelt around them (as Feydeau usually writes three act plays, with acts one and three in a bourgeois household and the middle act set elsewhere, frequently a hotel of ill repute). Third, they really do demand split second timing to work. Fourth, they are full of racial stereotypes, gags about people with physical impairments, and are generally pretty damn merciless to everyone.

STC trims slightly on the budget by having 6 of its cast of 9 perform in double (or in one case, triple) roles. One piece of doubling is written into the play, as the genteel Chandebise turns out to be the exact double of the grotty hotel porter Poche, but the other five aren't . This additional level of complication shouldn't really work, yet due to the sterling efforts of the cast (and to what I can only imagine is a equally hectic set of dressers) it does, frequently virtuosically. David Woods completely captures both the smooth Chandebise and the slumped Poche; Justin Smith scene-steals wildly as the demented spaniard Carlos Homenides de Histangua, and is snootily imperious as the hotel manager August. Leon Ford is persnicketty as the butler Etienne and bewhilderldy blase as the manageress Olympe. Harriet Dyer is snootily blase as Mme Chandebise, right up until the point where she's hectically demented, and Helen Christiansen is a wonderfully stylish partner in crime. Harry Greenwood is adorably befuddled as the tongue-tied Camille.

Simon Phillips directs a sharp, tight production that gets every laugh it's going for. Gabriela Tylesova's costume and set design are marvelous Belle Epoque creations, keeping the setting stylish even as the behaviour falls apart.

Andrew Upton's translation is not perfect - there is a tendency to drop anachronisms in to no appreciable effect - but it's serviceable for what's going on. IN short this is a fun end of year frolic that serves as good solid entertainment for two and a half hours.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Disappointments, Judith Lucy and Denise Scott, Canberra Theatre

It's about three and a half years since Judith and Denise last toured with their last shows together, and since then, several things have gone on - Denise has won an award and been written out of "Winners and Losers" (without her character ever getting a proper exit), Judith's had a few TV projects of her own. So both of them are back together for another go-round, this time particuarly focussed on the things that have disappointed them.

Well, sorta. Mostly it is a somewhat similar mix to last time, a combo of standup, audience interrogation, a little scripted fighting and, yes, the return of certain outfits. This time we get the show somewhat earlier in its development, which means, among other things, Denise is not utterly on top of her lines in a couple of the more scripted elements (but the shemozzle that happens means that it's pretty much as entertaining as if the lines had come out perfectly). There's a couple of staging elements that may need a rethink (in particular, the opening with both in their separate beds has them a fair distance from the audience - hopefully future revisions will bring them back up close and personal earlier, as that's how they work best).

The "disappointments" theme does mean that a lot of the standup tends to be a bit of a whine, which particularly Judith can indulge in rather a lot - it may be wise to dial that back just a little and get away from it. In general, there's not necessarily a lot new here, although what there is is still two very good comedians giving good funny stuff. This'll be touring for a while up until the Melbourne Comedy Festival, and by that time it should be a riotous good time (it's already pretty damn funny as is). So if you like either of the two and don't hate the other one, it's probably worth a look.

Friday, 25 November 2016

Spring Awakening, Phoenix Players, ANU Arts Centre

Phoenix Players has spent 2016 doing two of the more innovative Broadway musicals of recent years, and have picked two very actor-focussed shows with strong modern-rock foundations and dealing with deep emotional undercurrents. In the case of "Spring Awakening", it's a teen-focussed show based on Frank Wederkind's 1891 play, showing in some ways how little our understanding of adolescent sexuality has really progressed in a century or so.

Being teen based, there's a lotta angst on display here, as innocence gives way to brutal experience. The main innovation of writers Steven Sater and Duncan Shiek is that the explosions of angst are modern alternative-rock, while the other action stays in 1890s period. The songs are virtually all internal expressions of the character's feelings rather than representing any dialogue (and as such, the usual risk of rock musicals, that the lyrics are rambling and unfocussed, sorta works as these teen characters are themselves not entirely understanding the new emotions that have hit them - it's broad emotional expression rather than tight analytic understanding).

In all honesty, I do think the material wobbles a little towards the end (as it struggles to find a solid resolution to the cavalcade of teen horrors - Wederkind's ending is not very much better than what's written, although the final "Song of Purple Summer" appears strangely detatched from the remaining action and there simply to have a more calming song before sending the audience back out into the world rather than leaving them depressed), but Grant Pegg and Kelly Roberts' production barely falters. Their staging has the young cast often at the edge of scenes they're not otherwise involved in, observing silently. And when it breaks out into dance frenzy it's alive and urgent.

The cast is frequently outstanding. Pip Caroll in particular as Moritz is virtually an exposed wound of pain for roughly the entire evening, but he's never less than completely engrossing - angst and bewilderment and barely repressed rage as the adult world gets increasingly confusing and oppressive to him. Kailtlin Nihill is a yearning innocent, not at all aware that she's starting to be perceived as an adult, plus she has a singing voice with endless beauty. Callum Bodman as the somewhat more cynical Melchior becomes the focus of the latter half of the show and frequently scores well, though I think there are instances where he could profitably hold back on the emoting - there is a bit too much wild signalling rather than truly expressing Melchior's inner frustrations. Kelda McManus and David Cannell as all the adult characters switch modes regularly as the different adults find ways to oppress or disappoint the children under their charge. The eight other young performers are similarly strong, although the writing for them frequently leaves them a little abandoned - minor characters often come into focus to reveal some secret about themselves only to disappear back into the background again.

Chris Zuber's set largely of wooden shipping palettes gives a good stark backdrop to the action, with plenty of options to show moments of strange beauty. Matt Webster's musical direction is immaculate - he gets great harmonies out of his cast and great sounds out of his band. The sound balance (which I've bitched about so often in musicals) is damn fantastic - whatever's been learned here, can this be the standard for Canberra shows going forward? Cause that would be awesome. Hamish McConchie's lighting design is similarly solid, switching effortlessly from existential inner angst to thrash-rocking-out.

This is an immaculate presentation of a show that is a great expression of the frustrations of adolescence. Well worth the watch.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Noises Off, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Michael Frayn's farce is a multidimensional wonder. There are many plays about plays, including a fair few plays in which the play under question goes horrendously wrong, and which personal disasters intervene on a show in progress. But I can't think of another that builds a whole separate story that takes place backstage in virtual silence while the actors are running a show. The fundamental "keep it going no matter how ludicrous it's got" nature of farce is captured perfectly in a show that, no matter what, still has to go on.

And this production is perfectly cast with a cast timed to within an inch of their lives. Peter Holland adds to his considerable stack of utter bastards with the irritable lothario Lloyd; Lanie Hart bounces between ratty housekeeper and grande-dame-of-the theatre as star-and-producer-of-the-show Dotty; Lewis Meegan is delightfully incoherent and, eventually, wild rage-monster as leading-man Garry; Alex McPherson is dimly determinted and looks rather fantastic in frilly underthings as Brooke; Arran McKenna is charmingly vulnerable and a tad dopey as Freddy; Stephanie Lekkas indulgently enjoys the gossip as the increasingly protective Belinda; Carla Weijers blindly tries to hold things together as stage manager Poppy; Brendan Kelly scatters between exhaustion and frantic movement as Tim; and Andrew Kay's Selsdon floats above it all with only a vague understanding of what everybody else might be up to.

Cate Clelland's direction makes sure the multiple layers are slided through seamlessly. The characters may be all at sea but we're never in doubt where we are, what's going on, and what horrible thing to dread (or enjoy the possibility of) happening next.

Quentin Mitchell's grand set is beautifully realised by the usual Rep crew of handymen (and one handy woman). Lighting by Bernard Duggan and Sound by Neil McRitchie are similarly on point.

This is hysterical fun for anybody who loves theatre in all its gloriously live possibilities. Absolutely recommended.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Box and Cox, Papermoon, Theatro Vivaldi

Dinner theatre is sometimes a little bit mocked - it can fall into that awkward position of being mediocre at both. Vivaldis, though never really has - their shows are high quality, the food similarly so, (and most importantly they observe the essential "the food and the entertainment are separate things and should not overlap" rule).

"Box and Cox" is a Victorian era short comedy - often used as a "curtain raiser" or opening sketch for a longer evening of several plays - it was considered a grand hit of the period (including getting a musical version with tunes by Arthur Sullivan) but is mostly forgotten today. The simple setup is that two lodgers - the somwhat dandyish hatter, Cox, and the more morose printer, Box - have been unknowingly sharing the same lodgings, with one using the room during the day while the other one works at night and vice versa, and their landlady Mrs Bouncer taking two sets of rent quite happily. Inevitably, they meet and discover the ruse, and further shenanigans follow. It's all kinds of ridiculous, and frequently unlikely, but there's enough in there to sustain around a 45 minute time and to give actors a grand opportunity to be fairly silly.

This isn't the tighest-directed of farces, and does show slight signs of being under-rehearsed, but by and large the performers pull off the characters pretty well - Jim Adamik has just the right level of dignity to be reasonably crushed later as Cox, while Graeme Robertson has a Eeyore-ish charm as the woebegone Box. Elaine Noon pops in and out as the untroubled-by-ethics Mrs Bouncer being appropriately impertinent. The set by Ian Croker is unusually substantial for a Vivaldi's performance but allows enough space for the cast to manoeuvre around.

All in all this is a very light night's entertainment with a few giggles and some good quality nosh.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Musical Theatre Confessions 2, Everyman Theatre, Polit Bar

Ah Everyman, wait ages for a production from them then you get two in a fortnight... Not that I'm complaining particularly. "Musical Theatre Confessions" is a cabaret format that, for my mind, works like gangbusters - performers get ten minutes for two songs and a story, getting to share a little of themselves and their talents, and leaving us wanting more rather than begging them to get off (and if we do somehow find someone getting tedious, there's not long before someone else is on).

While last time around I argued the female performers absolutely had it all over most of the men, this time around it was a much closer race. And, thank goodness, it wasn't that the women had dropped, it was that the men had raised their game a lot more (stories were more on point, songs had all the lyrics known, that kinda thing). This was a collection of nine ridiculously talented people sharing themselves and their songs in an evening of warmth and style. I will say one or two of the songs did sound a little under-rehearsed (with a few notes more reached-for than hit-confidently) but in general this was a strong night of entertainment.

There will apparently be another one of these around April 2017, possibly focussing on duets (which may help to iron out the under-rehearsal). Get in early and catch it once it's announced!

Faith Healer, Belvoir

Brian Friel's three-hander has gradually emerged into a modern classic - originally a flop on Broadway (due partially to star casting and nepotistic casting, as James Mason insisted his wife, Clarissa Kaye, perform the only female role), it's grown in reputation since, with several revivals. A series of connected monologues (with one performer doing the first and last monologues and the other two covering off the middle) about, as the title suggests, a travelling faith healer, his partner and his manager, their travails on the road and the events that divided them, it offers three distinctly different perspectives on the same events, as well as three great roles for actors to get stuck into.

I'll be honest and say this is more a "bravura acting display" than necessarily a play I take to my heart - the story, such as it is, feels a tad familiar with not many new insights into faith or relationships, although Friel shares most Irish playwrights talents with writing dialogue that drips with poetry. As has been noted previously, I'm not necessarily entirely in love with poetry on stage that doesn't also serve plot - and that this is a personal thing, not necessarily a "this is what makes great art for everyone" rule.

Colin Friels dominates as Frank, the titular healer, with a gentle charm and a slightly mystic way about him (I've often seen Friels as a fairly meat-and-potatoes actor, it's good to see some of his gentler angles). Alison Whyte as his erstwhile wife-or-possibly-mistress is heartrending as she tells of their troubled relationship, full of losses and estrangements and occasional romance. And Pip Miller as the manager is simultaneously scuzzy and certifiably moving as the man who watched over both of them but was always ended up on the sidelines.

Brian Thompson's set, Tess Schoeflield's costumes and Verity Hampson keep this minimal-yet strangely eternal - the platform-with-clouds behind it changes aspects as the lights change, allowing it to reflect the emotional transitions. Judy Davis' direction has a direct no-bullshit style about it - this is all about the actors and the words, and she keeps the focus very strongly there.

This is a case where I think this is a great vehicle but not necessarily a great play, except that the performances don't come from nothing so clearly there is something in the material that I can't quite get my head around yet. So it's worth seeing for the performances.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The Normal Heart, Everyman Theatre, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

I asked the question a while ago "are Everyman the best theatre company in Canberra"? And the answer is still, yes, of course they are. They add here to 8 years of theatrical excellence with a production that arouses the heart, mind and outrage in about equal measure. 

"Normal Heart" is the not-very-disguised autobiographical story of Larry Kramer, prominent gay activist, screenwriter and novelist (he wrote the successful 70's film of "Women in Love", the unsuccessful 70's film of "Lost Horizon" and the controversial late 70's novel "Faggots", an exposing story of the risks and emotional minefield of sexual liberation) - and deals with his engagement with the early days of AIDS activism in New York from 1981-1984. The play was first produced in 1985 and burns with passion and outrage as Kramer attempts to process, explain and advocate for what had had just happened and what was still happening to people around him. Kramer is unflinching, not least about himself and his tendency to alienate and bully people around him, but also in the heartbreak and tenderness and sometimes inadvertent comedy that happened at that time. 

Jarrad West plays Ned, the Kramer-analogue, and plays the speechifying with a passion and outrage that, in the early stages, has a slightly comic tinge. There's a vast risk here that the character could be nothing but a self-important polemicist, and West avoids that by keeping Ned flawed, human, and often immediately-guilt-stricken after he's unleashed with both barrels into someone else. In the face of an inhuman disaster of a disease, he's fighting just as blind as everyone else, and you feel the pain and damage he has. As his love interest, Felix, Will Huang is a warm embracing and frequently comic presence in the early stages - so much so that as he succumbs to the disease, the heartbreak is all the greater as you see this vigorous engaging stylish man stripped of everything soft and gentle about him as his body continually betrays him. Christopher Zuber is the somewhat straight-arrow head of Gay Men's Health Crisis, a closeted banker whose engagement with the cause is strong but who constantly clashes with Ned, standing toe-to-toe with him as he tries to keep the organisation working with the mainstream rather than fighting it. 

Michael Sparks as one of the core activists plays meek and mild up until the point where he can't take any more and his heart breaks in a monologue of astounding pain and anguish and rage. Riley Bell is stunning as a guy who characterises himself immediately as a southern bitch and proves himself to be a whole lot more - practical, kind, gentle and so very compassionate, presented in a performance of maturity and grace. Jordan Best as a doctor caught up in this cause matches West in intense rage, but shows true bedside manner and care as a woman who has no answers but will not surrender the fight. Rob deFries as Ned's brother is the show's token heterosexual, who balances generosity with his brother with reservations about his hectoring manner and just plain not understanding. homosexuality. Tieg Saldhana scores in cameos both as the show's first AIDS victim and as a crisis-line volunteer, similarly Christopher Carroll presents the show's only true villain as a City Hall worker whose platitudes barely cover his frustratingly pitiful assistance. 

Karen Vickery directs a tight show, balancing light and shade within a rich ensemble, allowing everybody their moment while making sure the story is key. 

In short (and dear god is this not short), yes, you should see this. It's Everyman at their considerable best, doing engaged, relevant, stunningly-performed and richly provoking theatre. Miss it at your peril.

Friday, 30 September 2016

She Stoops to Conquer, Canberra Rep

Old-fashioned laughs a-plenty are on offer in Rep's latest offering, an almost-250-year old comedy that proves that sometimes, there's no joke like an old joke. A tale of romance and confusion, it's energetically played shenanigans that offers big giggles, a little wisdom, some nice frocks and a happy ending.

The title role of the she-who-is-stooping-to-conquer is Zoe Priest, showing a nice charming wit, charm and a whole lot of stage presence. He-who-is-conquered-via-stooping is George Pulley, who covers off the requirements of being handsome, amiably dim-witted, and enjoyable sympathetic. As the monstrous mother, Elaine Noon is grandly gorgon-esque, managing a performance that matches her quite astounding wig in size and grandness. Lord of misrule for the evening is Adam Salter, being appropriately impudent, silly and just-on-the-right-side-of-annoying. Jonathan Pearson gets a solid evening of exasperated confusion in as the regularly bewildered Mr Hardcastle, and Tieg Sadhana and Kate Harris are appropriately romantic and silly as the secondary-couple whose quest to escape with both jewelry and each other makes up the rest of the plot. There's a supporting cast of various supernumerary servants who frequently serve as almost an on-stage-audience to the action, albeit a slightly cruder and sillier audience than the fine folks who are watching the show,

Cate Clelland's set is-simple-but-stylish in its effect, painted as black and white line drawings, while Anna Senior's costumes are a nicely contrasting riot of colour and ostentation.

Simple in its pleasures, "She Stoops" is a fun frolic of a show and worthy of a watch.

The Drover's Wife, Belvoir

We haven't exactly been short of dramas about Australia's colonial past recently. But very few of them have been from an Aboriginal perspective - yes, they may have included Aboriginal characters as victims or marginal figures, but almost inevitably we've got white stories about the history that still shames us.

Not this time. Leah Purcell has hit the bullseye here, co-opting Henry Lawson's 19th century narrative of the woman left behind in the middle of nowhere trying to make the best of a hostile wilderness, and adding her own Aboriginality to the mix. Performing the demanding lead and scripting should theoretically be too much and feel too self-indulgent - but that's never the case - Purcell the writer serves Purcell the actress brilliantly, giving her a role that starts in reticent agressive reserve before continually revealing more and more sides to this apparently simple woman. Mark Coles-Smith matches her as the escaped aboriginal she initially holds at gunpoint and whose breaking down of the barriers between them is the meat of the play.

Leticia Caceres' staging keeps things tight and simple - a curtain, a fallen tree, and a tree stump, often with axe locked into it, are most of the set. But the menace stays real and strong and the playing is heartfelt and real, bringing us a play that has integrity and skill.

Good solid thumping relevant theatre.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Gloria, Griffin Theatre Company

Benedict Andrews has been away from Australian theatre for a while now - his last production here was "The Maids" in 2013, and he's since been working internationally, most noticeably the Gillian Anderson-starring production of "Streetcar Named Desire" (which screened here as part of the NT live series). He's a bit of a controversial figure - his reinventions of classic texts (along with Simon Stone's work in the early 2010s) tended to raise the hackles of a lot of conservative theatre critics who found him more destructive than constructive. Personally I liked three out of the four productions I saw of his - "Measure for Measure", "The Seagull" and "Streetcar". The only one that was a bit of a mess was his attempt at an original work, "Every Breath" - at the time, I remember thinking it suffered a lot from him directing his own writing - some interesting directing images were sabotaged by the writing's imprecision, and some good poetic writing was sabotaged by unclear or overly schematic directing.

"Gloria" is his second original play to reach Australian stages, and it continues his stylistic intention of writing plays that are strong on the poetics, not so much on the "easily comprehensible plot that moves forwards at a regular pace". And for those of you who remember my review of "Under Milk Wood", that does tend to be one of my less favourite types of theatre. Though, as in that case, this does lead to virtuoso staging, provided by Lee Lewis.

In terms of plot, "Gloria" is about an actress who's participating in a production dealing with a traumatic event, and as she enacts it, she finds her sense of identity falling apart. Marta Dusseldorp plays the main character, and manages the multiple emotional and personality shifts with aplomb. She's a magnetic central presence who you're engaged in even as whatever the action is that's going on around her can prove enigmatic or elusive. The cast surrounding her play multiple roles - friends, family, co-stars, attackers, neighbours, and equally manage the multiple personalities they're required to don.

Lee Lewis' staging is unusually spectacular for the tiny Stables stage - morphing, using all the projected multi-media technical bells and whistles while also keeping the focus on the actors whether they're in single monologue, complicated scenes that cross multiple conversations simultaneously or bitchy backstage banter. If Andrew's script is a tad bewhildering, Lewis' staging knows where it is and what it's doing at any particular moment, which gives us enough to carry on through the play.

So this is a good production of a play that I'm not entirely sure I love, but am intrigued enough to consider worth watching. Put it in the "it's interesting" category.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Macbeth, Canberra Repertory

Shakespeare's Scottish tragedy gets a fast-moving and stripped-for-action production here. Jordan Best has got to be using some form of witchery to handle so well a large cast and complex text in a production of such directness and clarity of purpose. Michael Spark's deceptively simple set allows fast movement, sudden appearances and presents a space for widely varying stage pictures. Heather Spong's costume designs give a basic approach that could be tightened a little (in particular, the men's basic blacks could be consistent rather than such a widely varied set) but otherwise has the right idea in terms of simplicity and labelling the cast easily in multiple roles.

First among a strong cast are the Macbeths - Chris Zuber plays the journey as a good soldier becomes a maddened tyrant with the promise and assumption of power, his difficult journey towards becoming a murderer eased with the persuasion of his eager wife, Jenna Roberts. The instant regret both feel after committing murder is palpable, as is the disintegration of their formerly close and seductive relationship as the rot sets in (the image of them going their separate ways is heartbreaking just before interval). The donning of kings's robes and a crown let Zuber unleash some rather magnificent hair and gives him the image of a bestial lion, but much that was human about him disappears under the weight of the acts he has committed to get power. Roberts' disintegration into madness is heartbreaking - her formerly-determined self now damaged beyond repair.

There's too many names to talk about all individually in a 23-strong ensemble, but there are images that stick in the memory like the disturbing hand movements of the witches, isolated against their black robes; the reactions of the attendees at the disintegrating bloody banquet; the touching short story as Lady Macduff tries to disown her husand only to see him still doom her; the ragefull Macduff ready for righteous avenging; the wild clowning of the Porter; the every-inch-a-king-ness of Duncan; the young Malcom resisting and eventually answering the call of his rightful kingship; Hecate's act-two-opening-rage at her coven... oh, pretty much the whole two and a half hours.

This is major theatre by a major director with a major cast. You should not miss this.

Sweeney Todd, ANU Interhall Productions and ANU School of Music, ANU Arts Centre

Student theatre has its limitations. Mostly that the casting pool tends to be, mysteriously enough, students, meaning that you end up with most of your cast somewhere in the age range 18-23 - which can get problematic when they're meant to be playing parents and children. Still, this is theatre we're talking about, not strict realism, so a certain amount of suspension of disbelief should be brought to the table anyway.

And Sondheim's musical thriller is a classic of the genre - an updated Victorian-era thriller that combines the pulpish thrills and scares with a tight revenge structure. It's pretty much unique as the only major slasher-musical I can think of (maybe Phantom, although he has a much smaller body count). And it uses the music for maximum tension, drawing at least as much from Bernard Herrmann as Rogers and Hammerstein. Gowrie Varma's production works very well at establishing a disconcerting atmosphere where dark deeds are certain to happen, and then allows the deeds to be exactly as dark as we'd feared they were going to be.

Key among the performers is Spencer Cliff in the title role. He has astounding vocals for such a young performer and has a great way of seeming midly off - closed and brooding. His movement is perhaps a little stiff and he doesn't always commit to the grand moments (his "My Right Arm is Complete Again" doesn't quite get to be as glorious a moment as it surely needs to be), but he has the basics of the role down quite well. George Juszcyzk as Mrs Lovett joins him in oddness, and has the vocal dexterity to handle the tricky "Worst Pies in London" (although her "By the Sea" suffers a little in comparison), but she's a powerful comic and coniving presence. Will Collett as Anthony has the handsome hero down pat - he's charming, handsome, and sings gogeously. Amy Jenkins' Joanna similarly sings with great beauty and sensitivity, and disappears down into the rabbit hole of insanity with aplomb as the second act complications start to set in. Colin Balog's Judge is clearly much more young and attractive than the role requires, but he has powerful vocals and he makes up for his physical attractiveness by being personally disconcertingly overbearing in pretty much every other way. Cameron Allan's Beadle Bamford does milk the obsequiousness a little bit (and in his "Parlour Songs" he milks the miming-the-harmonium thing even more) but he has a good high tenor. Anna Rafferty is a disturbing presence as the Beggar woman, shifting between pitifulness and terrifying with ease. Jeremy Hoskins has a great italianate pomposity but should possibly have not been costumed in high-heels-and-shorts - he has fantastic legs, but fantastic legs are not what the role really cares for and they probably shoulda been in long pants for this one. Sachini Poogoda is a delightfully naive Tobias and brings a sweet presence.

Varma's set design is impressively-grand-on-a-budget, and KAtarina Tang's orchestra plays strongly throughout. Technically, this is one of the best-sounding musicals I've heard in canberra lately - there's none of the standard "mics get turned on one line into the song" moments you get all too often. Lighting is a little patchier - there's a couple of moments where scenes are left waiting for the lights to go on.

All in all this is recommended viewing for anyone who's ever despaired of seeing a "Sweeney Todd" on Canberra stages - no, it's not 100% perfect but it's pretty darn solid.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Letters to Lindy, Merrigong Theatre Company, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre

"There are three things that have divided Australia: Conscription, Whitlam, and Lindy Chamberlain". Conscription drives one of the New Wave of Australian Playwriting's first great plays, "The Legend of King O'Malley", and Whitlam drives a whole heap of the rest of that New Wave. But Lindy Chamberlain hasn't really had much of a theatre presence - there was an opera in 2002 but otherwise the space is clear for a good-quality piece of theatre for an enduringly controversial story.

Alana Valentine's telling uses, as the title suggests, the thousands of letters sent to Chamberlain since the controversial death of her daughter in 1980. It keeps the setting very clearly domestic (James Browne's set is a simple lounge-and-dining-room-setup, with adaptations largely through lighting and staging to take us to other locations) and has Lindy as our prime viewpiont, with most commentary coming from the letters. Jeanette Cronin holds the stage as Lindy with aplomb - with multiple costume and wig changes to cover the era (from the iconic big-bob to her modern smart-clipped hair). It is in some ways a very folksy evening, and offers a lot of light and shade in telling the story - Lindy is eminently pragmatic and common-sense about what happened to her and we're not subjected to two-odd hours of angst so much as a story with an undercurrent of pain that sneaks through. The focus so tight on Lindy does occasionally mean we get the sense other elements don't get much traction (her husband Michael, for instance, is virtually invisible in this version), but what it loses in breadth it gains in individual empathy.

The remaining ensemble play various letter writers and other figures, crossing age-ranges and genders with aplomb.  Glenn Hazeldine maybe does the greatest range (slipping touchingly into the role of Lindy's youngest son, Aiden) but Phillip Hinton and Jane Phegan match well in various roles.

This is engaging, intriguing theatre that captures the heart and the mind and is worthy of a watch.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Twelfth Night, Belvoir

I've seen a lot of "Twelfth Night" over the years. It's a popular perennial which combines romance with better-than-usual parts for women and a lot of fun comedy. It also has a few production difficulties, key among them the requirement for realistic-looking-twins who are of opposite genders.

Eamon Flack's production succeeds in elements but somehow doesn't entirely cohere. It's partially, I think, that the pre-show device (having the cast in generic white clothing meandering around the stage fooling around together) doesn't really tie into the rest of the show in a dramatic way - are they meant to be children or madmen, and how does this inform the show that happens afterwards? Alas, it doesn't quite inform anything - the white clothing shows up when the cast are playing minor characters occasionally, as does the child-like behavior, but it's not quite a big enough gesture to really hold the evening together.

Having said that, this is by no means a show that one should write off. Key among the performances is Keith Robinson, a onetime Belvoir stalwart whose health problems have kept him offstage for about a decade. His return is an absolute triumph - he's a more-than-usual fourth-wall breaker of a Feste (including recycling some old "Popular Mechanicals" jokes at the beginning of Act Two) and he hands singing duties over to Emele Ugavule (whose voice is strong and pure), but it works and makes him compelling. Peter Carroll seems born to play the angry puritan turned crazed lover Molvolio, and owns the role brilliantly, Anita Heigh builds nicely into the role of Olivia - her increasingly obsessive romanticism is delightful. John Howard is falling a little too comfortably into a standard "drunken cynical John Howard role" but he's good at it. Anthony Phelan has a good comedic presence as Sir Andrew, and Lucia Mastrantone has good frenetic busyness as Maria. Amber McMahon scores well as both FAbian and Sebastian (in particular she does great leg-comedy as Fabian attepting to get off a wall). Damien Ryan does not do a lot with the role of Orsino but there is not necessarily a lot to do with it, while Nikki Shiels is not the most interesting Viola I've ever seen but is personable and perfectly pleasant. 

There are some staging highlights in here - especially the almost-music-video-ish "Come away death", but all in all this is a show that is more likeable than compelling. So I have to call this mixed. It's not bad, by any means, but it's not brilliant either.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Extinction, Red Stitch Actors Theatre and Geelong Performing Arts Centre, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

A four-hander about environmental protection and the rational and irrational passions that drive us, "Extinction" should, by rights, be a fairly engaging, thoughtful piece. But it doesn't quite get over the line - partially because the characters never really stray too far outside their cliche, partially because the arguments seem a tad stacked, and partially because the entire evening feels just that little bit underpowered.

Colin Lane is the biggest name in the cast, and he may be part of the problem. He's a very nice guy in a role which possibly needs an actor with a bit more mongrel, a bit more go-and-get-it, a bit more, well, sex appeal. Of the rest, Natasha Herbert scores best as the character trying to balance pragmatism with passion - she often feels like the only grown-up on stage, frankly. Brett Cousins gets a lot of sympathy-drawing devices into his character but never really escapes the sense that he's also a tad self-righteous, unbending and a dick to pretty much everybody around him. And Nagaire Dawn Faire feels exceptionally dumb for someone who's meant to be a research scientist - she's a sentimental nincompoop who spends a lot of time wandering between two men, neither of who feel particularly charasmatic enough to draw the attention.

Nadia Tass's direction is kinda perfunctory, and David Parker and Daniel Nixon's video sequences that act as set-and-scene-change-breaks start out interesting but become rather repetitive montages.

I'm possibly sticking the boot into this more than it actively deserves - I did find bits funny and there were a couple of moments where dramatic sparks seemed about to fire. But as a thinkpiece that manages to get shallower the more you think about it, this ended up being a somewhat unrewarding experience.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Next to Normal, Phoenix Players, ANU Arts Centre

This is one of the good ones. In fact, this is looking pretty damn good for being my musical of the year. So you may want to book now (tickets are pretty goddamn reasonably priced for a musical, too), go see the show and then come back and read the review. Not least of all because I'm going to have to wax spoilerific later on in the review and if you want to avoid them, you should just go now and see a superlative dramatic musical about pain, love, loss, family and heart. Bring tissues, you'll need 'em.

So what makes this so good? Particularly given I reviewed a production of the same show at the Hayes in Sydney about 18 months ago and wasn't entirely sold? Well, part of it is that this is a much better production in several respects. Despite being a six-performer show, the emotions dealt with here give it epic size, and Steve Galinec and Anita Davenport's two-level set uses the width of the Arts centre stage to give these emotions room to spread and claim their space in a way the Hayes didn't really allow. Partially too this is a much better cast production - every performer nails their role and makes their contribution felt (again, the Hayes had some slight issues in a couple of roles).

In this through-sung musical (there is a bare minimum of dialogue in between nearly 40 listed songs), you need a cast who can dramatically sell their songs. And each of them do this with aplomb. Janelle McMenamin has one of the rare leading roles for a middle-aged woman that allows her to seize the stage - in many ways, the show utterly revolves around her, and McMenamin is by turns loving, cynical, detached, disturbed, amused, hurt, wounded, sexy and heartbreaking, and most of all constantly compelling. Grant Pegg as her husband plays a lot more repressed, as the figure who just wants to pretend everything can be resolved and that the cracks can be painted over, but the darker pain breaks through, first in moments then, towards the finale, completely. Pegg's powerful voice captures both the repression and the outburst easily. Kaitlin Nihill is pure perfection as the troubled daughter Natalie - angered and damaged by her awful home situation, defensive and scarred, but drifting never the less into a new relationship that may help her find her way. It's a role that's very easy to simplify into eye-rolling brattishness, and it's appreciated that Nihill goes beyond the surface to find the relatable core of the character.Will Huang makes it difficult for a reviewer to come up with new superlatives, but he is as electrically compelling as he's ever been, in a role that asks him to shift from gentle confidante to terrifying monster, from detatched observer to engaged participant, often in a second. Daniel Steer is loveable adorable sweet gentleness as Henry and he matches well with Nihill. Joel Hutching's two doctors are largely detached and professional (although he is able to break the cool facade for a couple of moments of rock-god-ness).

Kelda McManus' direction keeps the relationships front-and-centre and makes sure this is consistently engaging (she also did very well to corall a runaway possum on the set during intermission - possum is, I assume, not a regular cast member). Rhys Madigan runs a tight six piece band to skilful effect .Pete Barton's sound design could be tighter (there are a couple of dodgy microphone moments), while Liam Ashton's lighting design designates the many different spaces of the action well and reinforces the drama where required.

In short, a quality show, done skillfully, that will take you on an emotional journey and make you feel damn good about the quality of Canberra talent. Go, see, enjoy.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Back at the Dojo, Belvoir

Lally Katz has a strong line in mixing personal stories with magic realism and making something sweet and heartfelt and entertaining out of it. "Back at the Dojo" takes the stories of her father and his drifting into and out of a drug addiction and into a relationship with the woman who became her mother, and combines it with a somewhat invented wraparound with an older father waiting at his wife's hospital bed and being visited by their transgender grandchild.

The strengths of this show largely lie in the father's story - while this is in many ways a young man's coming of age and finding love story, and as such is fairly familiar territory, it's played with heart and truth and few histrionics. The wraparound is a bit more problematic. It's partially that, with the best will in the world, Brian Lipson's New Jersey accent does not convince, and it creates an unavoidable drag in his performance that never really lands. It's also partially that, while Luke Mullins gives the role of Patti his all, Patti tends to come across as a self-obsessed whiner who manages to make her grandmother's deathbed All About Her.

But this script could ask for no better production than Chris Kohn's. Using the background of a realistic facsimile of a hospital room (down to the mass-produced plastic chairs) it flits across time and space in an instant, with a talented ensemble playing multiple role. Harry Greenwood as the drifting young Danny is a sweetly befuddled kid slowly finding his way into adult responsibilities and encountering love and loss as his journeys lead him towards maturity. The karate dojo at the centre of much of the second act lends a distinctive controlled physical energy to the play, and that's led by Natsuko Mineghishi, who embodies control and compassion in roughly equal amounts. The remaining cast cover multiple roles exceedingly well - Fayssal Bazzi, who stole scenes wholesale in last year's "Ivanov", now is heartbreaking as the emotionally damaged Jerry, Catherine Davies is immediately endearing and adorable as the young Lois, Shari Sebbens has a range of sympathetic roles while Dara Clear has an equally wide range of largely unsympathetic ones.

The contribution of Jethro Woodward's sound design (a rich mix of compelling dramatic music) and Richard Vabre's lighting design (switching moods from institutionally cold to cosily warm and back again in an instant) cannot be underestimated in making this a compellingly intriguing production.

I don't think this is as strong a script as Katz's previous hit with Belvoir, "Neighborhood Watch", but Kohn's staging makes it an intriguing journey none-the-less, well worth the taking.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Witness for the Prosecution, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Thrillers and farces are in some ways the hardest plays for critics to review effectively. They don't work the way other plays do - the action is almost totally driven by plot and incident and very little of it by character and nuance, and the play is either effective or not based on the audience's reaction  - are they enthralled and thrilled, do they laugh. IF you're going to wax pretentious (and why not, this is a theatre blog with no word limits, pretentious comes with the territory), you could say both are ruthless interrogations on the topic of identity - the difference between the real you and the one you present to the public - and how desperation and desire can change who you appear to be in an instant.

Which is to say that Agatha Christie's "Witness for the Prosecution" is a very, very effective thriller - it does indeed enthrall and thrill, drawing the audience in slowly, casually, with what appears to be a simple courtroom drama of dueling barristers scoring points off each other in the defence of a hapless young man, only to pull surprise revelations out of the hat in the last act in ways that definitely left the audience gasping. There are trails of clues throughout, lightly dusted with several red herrings, and while the ending is surprising there's also a remorseful, horrible logic to how things work out (and aargh, it's kinda annoying that I can't talk about certain plot points in order to say how well they're done, but ... yes, the shocks are very well done).

A reasonably large cast leads us through the action. Our point-of-view character is Sir Wilfred Roberts QC, the barrister charged with defending the young man who may or my not have dunnit, and he delivers with aplomb - slightly pompous, happy to play to the jury's prejudices, yet we never have any doubt that he's doing what he believes is good. Cole Hilder plays his client as a slightly naive and feckless but basically charming young fellow who begins to realise quite how out of his depth he is. Emma Wood shines as his mysterious wife whose motives are continuously up for question - her darting eyes and controlled nature mean we don't miss a nuance. Elsewhere in the cast, there's good support througout - Alice Ferguson as the scottish housekeeper who's a little too eager to point the finger, Morgan Heathwilliams as Sir Wilfred's bubbly secretary, Ian Hart as his equally mordant clerk, Jerry Hearn as the formal but kind-hearted solicitor, Peter Holland as the prosecutor both teasing of his opponent and ruthless in the attack, Jonathan Pearson as a slightly-snooty clerk of court, the trio of David Bennett, Anthony Ives and Brendan Kelly as three very different expert witnesses, and Saban Lloyd Bennett coralling it all with cool formality as the judge.

Aarne Neeme's direction starts a little languid, but keeps the characters and plot engaging enough to keep you going through to the several-layer twist ending. Quentin Mitchell's set looks spectacular and fills the Rep stage admirably. Lighting by Cynthia Jolley-Rodgers subtly keeps the moodiness and deliniates between the warm chambers and starkly-formal courtroom.

This is undoubtedly as traditional as trad theatre gets. But if all trad theatre was like this, there'd be few complaints - it brings the audience in and holds them well with an engrossing tale of murder and its aftermath and keeps then tense till the finale. Go see and enjoy.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Literati, Griffin and Bell Shakespeare, Stables

Yes, Moliere is neither a new Australian Writer (Griffin's main raison d'etre) nor is he Shakespeare. Never the less, this is a new Australian translation (by Justin Fleming), somewhat Australianised, and it is from the classical canon otherwise, so it does get by.

It's also kinda delightful, if very slightly over-long. Moliere's work is a tad formulaic (it's familiar from Tartuffe and The Miser that I've seen) - there's a young couple in love, the people who block them are obsessed by something-or-other, a friend suggests moderation would be wiser, all ends reasonably happily. Fleming's translation uses various different rhyme schemes throughout, and Lee Lewis' production keeps it witty and bright for most of the length, with most of the cast doing multiple duties as various characters.

Kate Mulvaney is on the posters and dominates proceedings despite being, in effect, a reasonably minor character - she's the easily led snobbish sister of the girl who loves boy. But she effortlessly drips condescension while simultaneously showing a great physicality in her tight, awkward, insecure movements that shows just how shallow her sense of superiority really is. Miranda Tapsell doubles both as the bright lovely heroine (cheery yet not irksome) and as the peeved maid, working well as both. Jamie Oxenbould does stirling work both as the similarly cheery hero and as his beloved's father (including having a scene between his two personas on the fast-moving revolve at the centre of the stage, effortlessly shifting from one to the other and back again by putting on or removing a cap and shifting physicality and voice so virtuosically at the end of the scene he solicits a well-deserved round of applause). Caroline Brazier mostly ends up playing the straight woman either as the pretentious mother or the academic voice of moderation - there isn't quite the go-for-broke comedy in her performance that there is in the rest of the cast. Gareth Davies' Tristian Tosser is maybe a little too much the minor dopey weasel rather than the utterly deceptive slime that the role really calls for - you're not really begging for him to have his come-uppance as much as you might, and while he's still fairly amusing, his performance is a little too puppy-doggy and eager to be liked.

Still, this is a fairly fun and frivolous evening, with a couple of very strong and impressive performances in there. It could probably use 15 minutes worth of tightening during act one (there's a couple of debates back and forth that really don't advance the plot or particularly amuse so much as they underline the point of the show with a trowel - we've got the point, pretension is silly, move on), but in exchange for that, you do get a lot of good fun. So worth seeing.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Things I Know to be True, State Theatre Company of South Australia and Frantic Assembly, Canberra Theatre

Andrew Bovell is a rare Australian writer who can sell tickets based largely on his name alone, and can get regular overseas productions (both "Speaking in Tongues" and "When the Rain STopped Falling" had successful seasons in New York and London). His new play is in many ways a simple family drama (the entire cast consists of a mum, a dad and their four adult children), but a superlatively written and staged one.

The structure is in many ways pretty simple. Rosie returns from a European trip that goes wrong, to return to the certainties of her Adelaide-based families. Except of course very little of those certainties remain constant, and the family is shaken repeatedly as events sever the siblings from their parents. In some ways the writing is a little schematic (each of Rosie's siblings has a scene with the parents with Rosie looking on that reveals something about them), but Bovell's writing gets the characters out of being simple plot-devices and into fully rounded people with mixed and complex reactions to their situation - as it becomes clear to Rosie (and us) that home isn't immune to the world's shifting challenges.

The show is co-directed and co-produced, with Geordie Brookman from State Theatre Company of South Australia and Scott Graham from Frantic Assembly (A UK based company specialising in highly physical theatre). The collaboration leads to a production that is uniquely fascinating, as it lets Bovell's longer monologues develop into semi-dance pieces, with movement of cast, set and lighting (both set and lighting are designed GEoff Cobham, and set and lighitng are unusually tightly integrated in the story-telling) illuminating the stories told and tightly choreographed to fascinating effect.

All of the cast are particularly strong - Tilda Cobham-Harvey has a background that is largely dance and cinema-based, but you wouldn't know it from her assured, heartfelt performance as Rosie - she has the skills of a true theatre vet. Paul Blackwell IS a true theatre-vet and contributes the other beating heart of the show as the father who tries to keep his family vaguely together even as they all drift further and further apart.

This is astounding, engrossing, heart-engaging theatreStrongly recommended.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Little Shop of Horrors, Canberra Theatre, Canberra Theatre Centre.

Howard Ashman and Alan Menken's 30-odd year old musical is a perpetual popular favourite (it's also the third of four of their shows that are hitting Canberra-or-nearby stages - Ickle Pickle did "Beauty and the Beast" in Jan, "Little Mermaid" for Free Rain a bit over a month ago, and the pro-production of "Aladdin" kicks off in Sydney in August). And with the production team behind last year's hit revival of "Sweet Charity", this should be a slam dunk.

It isn't. But it's not because of lack of quality casting. Brent Hill in particular is heartwarmingly engaging as Seymour Krelborn - the decision to have him also voice the plant means that the duet between the two, "Feed me", becomes a virtuosic exercise that is deserving of maximum plaudits. Esther Hannaford has the role that is almost genetically imprinted on Ellen Greene, but she also brings a bit of Marilyn Monroe to the damaged, gorgeous and dumb-as-a-rock Audrey. Elsewhere in the cast, Tyler Coppin has a good line in exhausted-jewishness as Mr Mushnik and Scott Johnston has a nice rockabilly idiocy as Orin, The redesigned Audrey 2 puppet by Erth Visual and Physical Inc. is grandly impressive, although it doesn't always lipsync as well as it might.

But there are two production decisions that make this visit to the Canberra Theatre a mixed blessing. First, the mainstage of the Canberra THeatre is big. ANd this is a smallish show that probably would have been served better in the Playhouse. Second, the sound mix is atrocious. I mean really, really, appallingly bad. A professional touring show should not have regular dropouts in microphones, particularly when it's well into the third month of the tour. And the sound balance between band and actors is well out of whack to the point where the girl-group trio narrating, Algenique Cassimatis, Josie Lane and Chole Zuel, become frequently incomprehensible. "Little Shop of Horrors" is one of the centerpieces of Canberra Theatre Centre's subscription season, and it's ridiculous that the performers should be so badly served technically.

So these are good performers and smart design in a venue that is too big and that has not adequately re-teched for the current location in the tour. So this is probably the definition of mixed.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Not Today Satan, Bianca Del Rio, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

Bianca Del Rio is in some ways a very atypical Drag Queen. Yes, her outfits are fantastic - but she barely lipsynchs, her makeup isn't so much "feminine" as "clownish", and she makes no attempt to sound or move in a particularly ladylike way, In some ways, a night with her is just a typical standup act with a different outfit. But she's an exceptional standup, and somehow the splashy outfit makes it so much stronger - if you're going to do standup from a high-status POV, why not look like a goddess at the same time?

In all honesty, this is a victory for flawless delivery over well-structured-and-thoughtful-standup - Bianca has about half a dozen random topics she wants to talk about, and is apparently all too-eager to be distracted from them to engage in audience participation (a casual reference to "Spoilers" from the audience gets a full three-minute rant, and the Q&A at the end of the show is a highlight rather than feeling like stretching the running time out, as such things can do in lesser hands). She's stylish, she's sassy, and she promised she's coming back next year. So catch her next time, and be prepared for the awesome.

Dogmatic, Hannah Gadsby, Belvoir

Hannah Gadsby has earned her spot at the top of the Australian Comedy pantheon. Her relentlessly honest, heartfelt and above all funny shows have a way of getting under your skin. She may have the manner of a slightly eccentric aunt, but she's got a sharp mind and wit that gets the brain working at the same time as the funny bone.

"Dogmatic" is theoretically her happy-go-lucky show (after a previous show got both five stars and the contact number for Lifeline included after the review), but it's never particularly tied down to that - though it is true that this is less of a thematically tight show than some of her previous work. This one touches on feminism, pop-culture, her family, her mental state, her dog and several other topics, and if there isn't a thesis-statement as such, this is still a damn strong evening of giggles and charm. There's even a costume change!

The Events, Belvoir

David Grieg's "The Events" is a tale of finding your way through the darkness after a traumatic events. Inspired by the Norwegian acts of Anders Brevik, this uses the sudden deaths of a choir as the impetus for their choirmaster, a priest played by Catherine McClements, to try to find reason and a way through the aftermath.

It's a show of multiple parts - scenes between McClements and Jonny Carr (playing roles from the killer to McClements' partner, as well as other involved parties), and interactions with the choir (played by various community choirs - on the night I saw it, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir). The opening song appears to be from the choir's repertoire (the well-known Elvis classic "Can't Help Falling in Love With you"), with the remaining songs with lyrics by Grieg and music by John Browne. And it's these remaining songs that are where an issue arises, which is that these songs haven't been written to best effect for a choir - quite simply, the lyrics are not very comprehensible. And if these lyrics contain exposition and thematic exploration, you're pretty much experiencing the show with a limb chopped off.

McClements and Carr deliver strong performances, and the scenes develop a strong sense of the quest for clarity that is never really available - but the choir element, while being the central attraction and promotion element (and certainly adding a tonne of production value) ends up being a mixed blessing.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Play On!, The Q

And now for something completely silly. "Play On!" is a goof on amateur theatre - the actors barely know their lines, the props aren't always in the right place, the prompter is missing pages from the script and the writer is still rewriting days before opening. Panic is in the air, and as the disasters continue to pile up, can they survive opening night with their dignity intact? No, of course they can't, and watching it all fall apart spectacularly is part of the fun.

Rick Abbott's script is simple but fun - it doesn't have the pure cascading ruthless plot logic of great farce, but it works as a good start for the performers to play various archetypical theatrical types. As the cast repeatedly work their way through a reasonably awful murder mystery, we get to know the various egos at play, the complicated relationships and all dangers that will pile up in the final act (as the opening night plows its way to inevitable disaster).

Taking honours with grandly ridiculous movements and OTT performances are Riley Bell and Duncan Driver - Bell in particular has a hilarious pair of legs and employs them to wonderful effect whenever he's required to make an overly-dramatic movement. Driver's arms and fingers carry roughly equal levels of comedy, along with the ever mellifluous Driver-voice which makes the ridiculous fatuousness of most of his dialogue even funnier. Steph Roberts has a lovely way of being thick-as-a-post yet adorable as the befuddled and pregnant ingenue, Marion West's stage-manager/prompt/dogsbody is delightfully weary and mordant. Liz St Clair Long has a great line in ranty frustration, and Tony Turner lends an exhausted dignity to the proceedings. Sian Harrington is pure nervous panic, while Bradley McDowell as the incredibly-slappable pretentious author of the piece is almost upstaged by his three awful outfits.

Jarrad West keeps it reasonably tight and furious, landing every gag that's there in the script and possibly adding a few bonus ones. Brian Sudding's set is nicely stylized, and the gorgeous red-lighting of Hamish McConachie at the beginning of Act Two deserves a quick mention.

This is not by any means a deep or particularly penetrating piece of theatre. But it is fun and provides some warming giggles for the beginning of a Canberra or Queanbeyan winter.

Saturday, 7 May 2016

Uncle Vanya, Canberra Rep

Chekhov's mordant sense of humour is often mistaken for miserabalism and dullness. Why are all these people spending extended time not doing very much? But of course, the real action is happening inside the characters - there's lust and frustration and guilt and agony and pain. And weirdly enough, it's funny (largely because all this frustration isn't yours, it's theirs). Funny, and painful and true - and very human.

There are certain common themes to Chekhov's plays - they all take place in provincial country estates, they all feature frustrated love and emotional disappointment, they (nearly) all have a doctor showing up at some point, they (nearly) all have a gunshot at some point. The plotting often feels casual and indirect, but "Vanya" builds to possibly the most famous gunshot in theatre (definitely the most famous gunshot that doesn't hit its target), along with a tight focus on five central characters, all intertwined in their passions and their frustrations.

SAm Hannan-Morrow as Vanya has one of those roles that defines an actor and the definition is "extraordinary". He can be snotty yet damaged, smart-arse yet vulnerable, and unleashes righteous rage in a way that commands attention and breaks your heart. Lanie Hart combines glamorous beauty, desire, kindness towards her newly-acquired-step-daughter and the frustrations of her responsibilities towards the husband she no longer respects. Jim Adamik is one of CAnberra's best clowns but he's also able to bring passion and strength to Astrov's ecological passions as well as to show how those passions are sapped as his desire for Yelena begins to warp his better judgement. Yanina Clifton is heartbreaking as the diligent yet ever-yearning Sonya whose never-faltering love for Astrov is eternally doomed.  And Jerry Hearn is the preening centre of their world as the professor who they are pledged to serve yet who they all realise is a man-baby utterly unworthy of their attention.

Geoffrey Borny has a PhD in Chekhov and he proves to be an academic who can bring his knowledge to grand theatrical in a production that engages the heart, the mind and the wits. The set design by Andrew Kay and costume design by Heather Spong support this with beautiful simplicity - this isnt' an ostentatious production (although there are elements of grandness - the giant piano in Act 2, Yelena's showy outfits), but it's perfectly suited to the characters and captures them in all their complex humanity.

A rich emotional banquet about heartbreak, frustration and what happens when your belief structure falls away in front of you, presented with just the right mix of humour and pain, this is a powerhouse production with a team at the top of their game that should be relished.

Friday, 6 May 2016

Musical Theatre Confessions, Polit Bar

A collection of some of Canberra Music Theatre's finest performers, sharing a story and two songs? What's not to love? Particularly when the performers are as fine as this lot, and the stories and songs as intriguing.

Of the various performers, the girls (as is frequently the case in Canberra Musical Theatre) present the best, with not a dud performance between them. Louiza Blomfield emotes a fine Patsy Cline's "Crazy", shares a love gone wrong tale and gets a chance to lift the roof off the place with "Cabaret", Amy Dunham brings her irresistibly shiveringly fun self to a pair of songs which are new to me (one of which turns out to be Joe Iconis' "Blue Hair", one of which ... isn't, damn her and her obscure song choices that I'm sure everybody else knows and will tell me in the comments what it is) and her own special variations on love-chasing, Pip Murphy introduces me to a song from "Waitress" ("She Used to be Mine") and beautifully travels the emotional journey of "Burn" from "Hamilton", while telling a story of acquiring a stepmother, and Jordan Best has pure soul for "Miss Otis Regrets", is irresistibly touching with "No-one is Alone" and tells a hysterically funny story combining racist grandmas and light aircraft. 

Of the men, best of the lot are the top and tail of the evening. Jarrad West knows how to frame a song and a story like nobody's business, and kicks the evening off on a deeply romantic note with "What More can I say" from "Falsettos" and a tale of how the simple gesture of buying a book can change a life. He also hosts smoothly and brings down the house with a song about his couch and his friends. Fraser Findlay's immaculate tenor closes the evening with "Lonely House" from "Street Scene" and "You Walk with Me" from "The Full Monty". The men between are a little shakier - there are a couple of wobbly notes (and in one case a "I have no idea what's in these 32 bars"), but it's largely in comparison that they suffer.

Anyway. It's a fun, wild, engrossing evening with some of Canberra Music Theatre's finest performers. Wild enjoyment to be savoured. Hopefully a variation of this'll be back in a few months with another selection of Canberra Music Theatre Geniuses (there are bunches I'd love to see in this format), so keep an eye out and catch it!

Wednesday, 4 May 2016

The Great Fire, Belvoir

A big cast drama on broad national themes. It's the ambition for the Great Australian Drama, and it's brought many a playwright unstuck as they don't quite live up to the hype. Kit Brookman is the latest young playwright to fall victim to it, and the difficulty may be generational. Wheras Belvoir's last show, "Blind Giant" was easily able to capture its time and place and engage in big questions about the country at large, "The Great Fire" falls a little flat. Admittedly, it's attempting something a little different - a family drama with the national themes implied, rather than a grand melodrama that spreads from factory floor to penthouses, but still - there's a crucial failure of conviction to realise and engage with any of the questions that Brookman is aiming for. Gesturing in the direction of a theme isn't enough - you have to plow into it and examine it from all sides, create genuine theatrical energy. THis is more a gentle amble through some vague thoughts, and as such it doesn't really cut the mustard.

Which is a pity, as this is a show with strong resources, and the theme of how generational wealth has become concentrated in the Boomers is notably current. But by having the strongest casting in the roles of the boomers, the argument becomes terribly lopsided in their favour. Geoff Morell and Genevieve Picot pick up the show and run away with it as the parents whose success shames their children, and Peter Carroll and Lynette Curran clear up most of the rest of it in their Act Three appearance as Morell's parents (with Sandy Gore picking up the remainder as their artistic neighbour).

Perhaps part of the issue is that by having many of the characters be theatre professionals, it all feels a bit inside baseball. But at the same time, we don't really get any sense of what kind of theatre the various people are presenting - the closest we get is a vague suggestion Eden Falk's Michael may be a bit of an enfent terrible a la certain of Belvoir's recent directors, but even there the writing isn't willing to go very deep in getting a sense of what his art is like.

It isn't two-and-a-half hours of tedium - the family interractions do build nicely, particularly during acts three and four (of a five act play) and there's a nice sense of humour going along. But it's not a play that really gets under the skin of its characters or into the meat of its arguments, which means it's mildly interesting rather than compelling.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Replay, Griffin Theatre, Stables

The power of memory and the ways we use it to re-interpret ourselves are at the centre of "Replay", the debut script from Phillip Kavanaugh. It's a clever piece with some virtuosic moments both for writer and for actor as realities and identities start to shift, as the characters change who they were and subsequently who they are now. 

The intimate space of Griffin's stages are a perfect setting for this three-hander. There's a careful setup of two brothers, one successful, one screwed-up, both slightly troubled by the memory of what happened to their older brother. But as they revisit the past, their description changes ... and suddenly their brother is back with them. But this is only the beginning of a trip through multiple identities, fates and possibilities. 

Differentiating the multiple selves and keeping the audience with them is the challenge facing Anthony Gooley, Alfie Gledhill and Jack Finsterer - and it's one they ride with aplomb. Going across from wild comedy to deep pathos, they are the bed on which the show rests.

Lee Lewis keeps things moving smoothly with tight direction. If it isn't a 100% perfect evening it may be that as a brief 80 minute tightly controlled piece, it's more a "demonstration of what we can do" rather than a full exploration of its themes - in particular, there's a hint as to how separated men sometimes characterise their relationships after the fact that could play out more fully in the play than it actually does - but as a showcase for the performers and writers skills, this is very effective.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Matilda the Musical, Princess Theatre, Melbourne

"Matilda" was one of Roald Dahl's last novels - a celebration of a heroine who just really really likes reading, enough to develop special powers that see her through a particularly horrible family life and a school led by a sadistic headmistress. It's not, perhaps, his most densely plotted book, but the space between the incidences leaves plenty of room for songs, dances and other diversions, which the musical gratefully accepts.

Tim Minchin's songs contain a lot of ready wit and a fair bit of whimsical sweetness (although there are one or two songs where the lyrics are too dense to be easily made out through a chorus of children) and Dennis Kelly's script is funny enough to avoid emphaisising that this is two-and-a-half hours based on a story that doesn't really have that much content. And Matthew Warchus' staging is a visual feast, with moveable bookshelves framing the space nicely, and a tone that moves between intimate drama (particularly in the scenes between MAtilda and the kindly Miss Honey) and broad panto (with Miss Trunchbull in particular, though also a fair bit of Matilda's family).

Alanna Parfett is the girl at the centre (for this performance anyway, there are four girls alternating the lead) - she's a very sensible, logical performer with a sweet sense of wit and intelligence to her. Elise McCann manages the tricky job of being nice without being wet as the kindly Miss Honey. James Millar steals every scene he's in as the villainous Miss Trunchbull. Similarly scene stealing are the smarmy dad (Daniel Friedricksen), blithely unaware mum (Nadia Komazec, understudying in for this performance in a "wouldn't have noticed she was the understudy if I hadn't checked" performance), dopey brother (Daniel Raso) and mum's flouncy dance partner Rudlolpho (Travis Khan).

This is big-budget family musical theatre as it should be - drilled to perfection, funny, heartwarming, fancy, spectacular and all-round entertaining. The whole package. Absolutely worth the trip.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The 5:30 show, Backstage Room, Melbourne Town Hall, Melbourne Comedy Festival 2016

A short guide to Canberra Comedy's contribution to the Melbouren International Comedy FEstival. About 9 years ago or so, a mob calling themselves "Capital Punishment" sent some of the better emerging Canberra acts down for a run-of-the-festival show. It gave a few of the performers exposure, it got the word out, and ... eventually it spun off a little brother, as a couple of the younger comedians started their own thing at an earlier timeslot - originally called "Irresponsible" and now calling itself "The 5:30 show" (the show with the easiest-to-remember timeslot). Capital Punishment has gone away this year so it's just the 5:30-ers flying solo, and on a Thursday night, they were flying pretty well.

MCing the show is one of the original quartet, Shaheed Sharify. He has a pleasant if slightly abashed way of working the crowd and gentle wit that sets up and links the show well.

Canberra Comedy-Scene regulars Andrew and Danny Bensley deliver separate sets that are reasonably similar in style - one's a little bit more hipster, one's a little bit more talking about possums, and it's utterly my fault that I can't remember which Bensley is which, but they're both good value.

Sean Morgan delivers an eccentric line in poetry that gives him a cleverly differentiated pace to the rest of the night, and scores pretty much every laugh going.

Raw entrant James McMahon manages to score laughs mostly by pure attitude. His jokes even work when he calls an audience member up and gets them to tell them for him. He's got a strong sense of controlling the room and the pace at which he wants to go and should go far with this kinda skill.

HArris Stuckey winds up the night, the other veteran of "Irresponsible". His ability to turn a pause is lengendary, and he's able to go relatively dark while still remaining appealing and carrying the audience along with him. If he does start to go overly meta at some spots, it's still surrounded by a lot of meat-and-potato joke-style-jokes.

Conveniently timed, located and entertainingly put together, "The 5:30 show" is a quality showcase for some emerging performers who are definately deserving of future attention.

The Big Little Things, Troy Kinne, Swiss Club, 2016 Melbourne Comedy Festival

Troy Kinne has a charming, if bogan-ish, presence and has a reasonable number of decent youtube sketches and got two TV series on Channel 7 due to someone managing to actually commission an Australian Sketch comedy series for commercial TV. But his standup act doesn't do itself a lot of favours by extensively crossing to and using sketches from the TV show.

I'll admit, this was the third act I saw in one night, so it may not be entirely his fault that my attention was not engaged for the full run of the show. But this was an evening in the territory of "mildly amusing" rather than "gut bustingly funny". I'd guess that Kinne's blokey charm and pleasant nature will probably keep him around in Australian comedy for a while, but I really hope that he finds something that challenges himself a bit more next time he gives standup a try. Either leave the sketches to youtube or genuinely interact with them a bit more. He's by no means a bad comedian, he's just giving a very middling evening that doesn't try very hard and gets by on charm. In a festival with a couple of hundred alternatives to choose from, this doesn't stick out from the pack.

Friday, 15 April 2016

101 Hits, Tripod, Spiegeltent, 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival

For their twentieth anniversary, Tripod have finally hit the big time. Yes, they're putting out a book of sheet music. And to celebrate, they're performing all 101 songs from their new book.

Not in one night, of course. But they do have a raffle-barrel that they're drawing numbers out of and over the course of their season hopefully they'll perform all 101 songs at least once.

THey do mention a few of the possible pitfalls of the show early on (the risk of doing all the serious songs at the beginning of the show, the fact that they've only theoretically rehearsed all of them)... yet, at this performance at least, they're as polished as you'd hope any act with 20 years in the business would be, with a nice line in banter, and a good chunk of songs with no duds drawn over the course of the evening. Whether it's Yon (the bald one) declaring himself lead singer, Scod (the Graeme-Garden-y looking one) unleasing his sexy dance moves, or Gatesey (the vaguely normal looking one) singing a love song from "Tripod vs the Dragon" by the lady playing the dragon about Gatesey, they have what it takes to amuse a large Spiegeltent crowd for a good solid hour of tunes and giggles. If it's a bit of a victory lap of a show, it's a well-earned one.

Lessons with Luis, ACMI Games Room, 2016 Melbourne International Comedy Festival

"Lessons with Luis" is an act that's been around since 2012 (when it won Raw Comedy). It's an odd character piece that kinda has to be seen to be believed - a naive home-schooled kid in a daggy jumper attempts to entertain and educate the audience with songs, dancing, interaction and the expensive medium of giving the audience lollies. Originally, it was a three-piece, (with Luis as the centre, his dad Len and his brother Luelin supporting) but for this season, they're confined to video (in this case a VCR) and Luis is alone except for his various props and costumes (and the VCR, which is running almost throughout and which Luis interacts with regularly).

In the small arena of the Games Room (capacity is 35), it's a very intimate experience, almost like spending time with a kid doing a show in their backyard. And this has a very different tone to most conventional standup - the awkward sincerity of it kinda gets to you and means you feel sentimental attachment even as you're laughing at how daggy it all is. The show swerves into some reasonably deep emotional territory but it's kept very much at a suggested-level rather than indulged too much. And it's funny and strange and slightly heartbreaking and in just under an hour you've had a full emotional experience. Well worth a watch.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Playhouse Creatures, Pidgeonhole Theatre, The Q

Pidgeonhole Theatre launch into Canberra Theatre with a clever, thoughtful and above all immensely skilled production drawing from the Restoration period, as women were allowed to act on the English stage for the first time. We follow four actresses onstage and off as they struggle with their precarious profession along with the expectations and bad treatment of the men around them.

The main attraction here is five extraordinarily rich roles for five extraordinary actresses. All get a chance to mine rich comedic and dramatic gold out of their parts. 

For Amy Dunham, it's a role that could have been written for her. She is lustily enjoyable as the most famous of the bunch, Nell Gwynn, who gets the widest arc as she rises from tavern wench to king's mistress. She's vulgar, naive, engaging, wildly crazy, fun, reflective, glamorous, thoughtful, emotional and above all mesmerising. She's one of my favourite actresses on the Canberra stage and this may be the best thing I've seen her in thus far - if not, it's pretty darn close. 

Fortunately the rest are some of my other favourite actresses. Karen Vickery has true imperious power as Mrs Betterton, wife of the theatre manager, who starts as a somewhat petty snob before evolving into something far more interesting as she finds herself increasingly denied opportunities as she gets older. To start as a figure of comedy and end as a figure of tragedy is no mean feat, and Vickery triumphs in both, from the hysterical acting lessons to Nell to the intensity of Lady Macbeth's mad scene. 

Emma Wood as Mrs Marshall combines onstage smoothness with offstage desperation and rage as she is increasingly taunted and mistreated by an ex-lover. Again, the role requires Wood to patrol the full range between dignity and wild frustration, and she hits every note spot on. 

Jenna Roberts as Mrs Farley gets maybe the shortest shrift in the writing - her rise is largely implied in a blackout and her fall is similarly abrupt - but as the girl who trades on her beauty and body until both betray her and see her exiled, she's suitably stylish, proud, infuriating and ultimately heartbreaking. 

Liz Bradley's Doll Common is dresser, confidante, sardonic observer and occasional narrator and ties the evening together with wit and with strong presence in her opening and closing monolgoues.

Jordan Best directs with a strong hand and a smooth pace, as well as providing tense and dramatic cello interludes as part of Matthew Webster's score. Christine Nowak's set is simple (a platform with a decorative screen above for the stage, a couple of chairs and hainging spots below for the dressing room) but effective, and Kelly McGannon's lighting shows it off nicely. 

As a demonstration of the power of these fine actresses, "Playhouse Creatures" should not be missed. 

Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Blind Giant is Dancing, Belvoir

Stephen Sewell may be one of the best Australian Playwrights who is also a wildly paranoid loon. His plays engage in the big political questions of our age - whether a person can really seek power for the greater good or whether they will be corrupted, how the fight for righteousness is inevitably a compromised and human one - but simultaneously approach the line of the batshit insane as characters get caught up in deeper and deeper lunacy. In the case of "Blind Giant" this is mostly some ranting about the part of the CIA in manipulating Australian Politics (which does seem like personal paranoia writ large) - but there's also a great sense of building tension over two hours 45 minutes of drama with a true epic scale, taking us from the height of executive boardrooms to the factory floor, and from inner-city trendies to quiet suburban homes.

What survives most strongly in Sewell's 1983 play is the journey of its central character, Allen Fitzgerald - an idealist who gets all too willingly caught up in the game of winner-takes-all politics, who is betrayed by and in return betrays his family, his wife, his beliefs and himself in a chase for power. Dan Spielman keeps him remarkably human, even as he's increasingly isolated and bitter. It's a solid centre for the action to revolve around.

Elsewhere in the cast, Yael Stone matches him as his slightly-underwritten wife Louise - Sewell doesn't entirely make her motives clear but she stands solidly as a conscience figure without being an artificial saint or simply a set of agitprop beliefs. Zahra Newman as his lover Rose has some of the more purple bits of dialogue as a femme-fatale figure, but keeps everything just the right side of believably, Geoff Morrell as his principal rival has a great mixture of cynicism and passion. There's 9 other actors all of whom engage in rich supporting performances keeping the ebbs and flows of the story roaring along to a shattering conclusion.

Eamon Flack's production is fast-moving, tense and visually spectacular. Dale Ferguson's set is dominated by a wall of lights that can project multiple images while also being see-through at various times, but uses the Belvoir space cleverly.

This is an engaging, tense, gut-wrenching evening of drama played at full roar by a company at the height of its powers. If this is the official launch of the Flack era at Belvoir, it's a cracking good launch.

Friday, 25 March 2016

Ladies Day, Griffin, The Stables

Alana Valentine has written a number of plays that fall into the "docudrama" genre - including major plays like "Run Rabbit Run" (about the South Sydney rugby League team), "Parramatta Girls" (about the Parramatta Girls home) and "Head Full of Love" (about the Alice Springs beanie festival). She's stealthily become one of Australian drama's most prolific writers (she has five plays premiering this year, including two that are playing in Canberra, "Letters to Lindy" touring at the Canberra Theatre and "Cold Light"premiering at the Street). Her work is regularly carefully researched, using extensive interviews about the topic to create plays that reflect the issue at hand in an interestingly interrogative way.

"Ladies Day" is a little different. While it's based on research into the queer community in Broome, Valentine becomes a character in the play (here under the pseudonym "Lorena") - partially because it's as much about how the stories are told and who really owns them as much as the content of those stories. It's not a story that completely resolves itself in the course of the telling, but it raises a lot of fascinating questions to think about.

As the central story teller, Wade Briggs walks a tightrope between tensely withholding and emotional vulnerability expertly. Dry and defensive, but clearly also deeply in pain, he is the beating heart of the play. Matthew Backer provides excellent support as his friend. Lucia Mastrantone doubles as both the author-surrogate and as a cop, and differentiates nicely, as does Elan Zavlesky as the somewhat straightlaced Rodney and the predatory John.

A probing, thoughtful and emotional play, "Ladies Day" holds the attention with wit, heart and soul.

Thursday, 24 March 2016

Josh Glass in the Ultimate Triumph of Loneliness, Polit Bar, Manuka

Doing a standup show about a recent breakup is the kinda thing that is fraught with peril. The emotions are surely too raw, the comic perspective difficult to attain, and the risk of simply being a whiny-twit-who-can't-understand-why-it-all-ended-while-at-the-same-time-demonstrating-exactly-why-it-ended-by-whining is pretty damn great.

Luckily, Josh Glass falls down none of these rabbit holes. Possibly because, for all that this show is about a recent relationship that ended in breakup, there's not a lot of bitterness here. There's ruefulness, sure, and a little bit of "wasn't I stupid", but it never feels like revenge is the motive here. Glass instead turns inwards and finds the common romantic stuipdities that people fall into, and celebrates and mocks his own naivety and errors with charm.

This isn't a completely polished hours - there's a couple of jokes that don't quite land, and the ending is more a "and I'm done" rather than a "this caps this perfectly", but it is a skilfully presented hour of comedy from one of Canberra comedy's risking stars.

In support, Riley Bell was a solid MC, with strong skills in acting out his various tales of modern debauchery, while Peter Szmowski had a few good gags but a bad tendency to say his setups twice ("People are ridiculous, they're ridiculous") that could stand to be cut (admittedly, he's a polish performer doing a set in English, and any set I did in Polish would be way worse, but still... he could lose the re-statements)

Friday, 11 March 2016

Rock of Ages, Canberra Philharmonic, Erindale Theatre

There is a time and a place for good old-fashioned no-brains-required-whatsoever entertainment. And "Rock of Ages" serves that well. An exceptionally cheesy 80's rock musical compiled around twenty-odd songs of the hair-metal era, this is a case of very good production sustaining what is a somewhat ridiculous exercise.

The plot is your standard boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-again played against the background of LA's Sunset Strip in the mid-to-late-80s, and is servicable enough, most of the time. THe main attraction is the songs which are performed with all the energy appropriate to the era (including a well-choreographed bevy of dancers doing their best skanky writhing).

Emma McCormack plays "girl" in this equation, and does so exceptionally. She has a real genuine sweetness to her, and a powerful voice that serves her songs well. Dave Smith is "Boy" and, while the character as written is a tad bland, Smith gives it an endearing goofyness that combines with his rockin' tenor to keep things rolling along nicely (plus he chucks in some ridiculous running at the end). Tim Stiles provides narration, audience bonding and all-round ridiculous hell-raising while also bringing the thunder from his vocal chords. Shell Tully similarly is strong in voice and in presence as the strip-club-owner-with-a-heart, Anita Davenport brings great righteous indignation and is not afraid to get ridiculous, particularly with the similarly-ridiculous-but-also-with-a-silly-accent Hayden Crosweller. And Will Huang grabs onto his chance to play grandly-deluded-rock-god-vanity superbly, with every ridiculously affected gesture producing delight and every musical yelp showing why, in the Canberra Musical Theatre Pantheon, there is only one Will Huang, and we are forever grateful.

Not all of the material and the direction is up to the quality of the performers. In particular, the script slightly starts gagging for air in the second act, as the complications that keep boy-and-girl apart are never particularly convincing, and, even worse, the song stack starts to fall into the deep cuts of rock-balladry. "High Enough" and "The Search is Over" are pretty obscure cuts and neither really get top-class staging here - they're both sung well but they're both staged pretty much as "stand and sing" exercises, which kinda makes you think back to the days when Groucho Marx would suggest the ballads are a good time to duck out and have a cigarette. The Act One finale is also pretty messy as action takes place in five separate areas of the stage but without any good focus towards where the interesting stuff is taking place at any one time.

Max Gambale's band is a tight-rocking outfit that also scores a few quality insults to yell out. Vanessa DeJaeger's costumes give a good sense of trashy-and-often-disturbing outfits with a good sense of period (okay, technically Stacee Jaxx's boots are not 80s, they're 70s, but dammit, they work on him anyway).

In general, this is a show where the performers widly outclass the material they have, but it is a good chance to see these very skilled performers be ridiculous, rocking and have general goofy fun.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Threepenny Opera, Canberra Rep

In the 1990s, it was fashionable to say that Brecht was a historical relic. Brecht's brand of diadactic propaganda had, the theory went, gone with the dodo with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of socialism.

Of course, socialism has been making a bit of a comeback recently (between Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK), and capitalist society has not exactly been covering itself in glory, so it's probably time to give Brecht's biggest hit another look.

"Threepenny Opera" is not exactly the most fuzzy or friendly piece of theatre ever written - Weill's biggest song hit, Mack the Knife, is a ballad describing the activities of a murderer and a rapist in somewhat unflinching terms - and Rep's production plays very true to the source. This makes the evening a bit of a slow burn - in particular, the first act, where we see Macheath at his height, bullying his gang, having a distinctly unromantic wedding. There is a slight sense, too, that the first act is a bit effortful - that the cast hasn't yet loosened up and let the show play as freely as it might - it's a laborious setup - though Tina Robinson's fierce-as-hell "Pirate Jenny" is a notable highlight. But acts two and three pick up and fly, as the forces around Macheath begin to close in.

Kurt Weill is not really going for easy-listening music -these are songs full of atonalities and sharp notes and pervading tensions. And in many ways this is not particularly audience-friendly theatre - it's a long night, it's going to confront you with characters who are not at all likeable and present situations that are not easy to resolve. We aren't talking charming criminals and scampish neer-do-wells here, these are genuinely dangerous people who we would do well to fear. Even the intervals aren't exactly audience friendly - the cast invade the auditorium throughout, and with a fairly strict 10-minutes only, a fair chunk of audience members were caught coming while act two had already started running... But there are definitely rewards to giving yourself over to the production, not least in several of the performances.

Starting with Tim Sekuless' Macheath - this is a performance that is not looking for sympathy in any way, and can feel quite offputting early on, particularly in his bullying-act-one appearance. As he starts to get a run-up going, fleeing from pillar to pillar during act two, we get a better sense of him under the gun as he faces off against the various women in his life. And in act three's "call from the grave", the tension mounts and, while genuinely disliking him, we fear his imminent execution.

Tina Robinson's Polly Peachum captures both the outward sweetness and the inner demon of Macheath's bride, while Helen McFarlane brings both lustful heat and angry rage to the double-dealing Jenny Diver (plus an immaculate tango). Sian Harrington's Lucy had a singing voice that was slightly stretched to its limit in the vocalally-rangy "Barbara Song", but she matched energies with Robinson well in the Jealousy duet, and had great "drawn-to-and-simultaneously-enraged-by" attitude towards Macheath.

Peter Dark's natural height serves him well as the hypocritical Peachum, gleefully lording it over and imposing himself on various and sundry. Saralouise Owens has that great combination for a Brecht-Weill show of a fine soprano and a vicious guttural attack, and can land either with ease.

Jim Adamik again gets a chance to show why he's one of Canberra Theatre's finest clowns - his Tiger Brown manages to get impressively more ridiculous as he disintegrates further and further under his increasing pressures. Oliver Baudert provides a fine cameo as Reverend Kimball - befuddled but willing to go along with whatever's happening (including a surprise final combination), and Rob de Fries' Warder Smith is ever-ready to be smoothly corruptable. Dick Goldberg's Street Singer ties it together in perfect cynical style, narrating and giving the audience just the right amount of raised eyebrow.

Of the rest of the ensemble, particular mention should be made of Pippin Carrol and Dale Stam's legs during the chase sequence, which manage to be a running gag in their own right (yes, it's a bodgy pun, but it's an appropriate one), the sultry work of the ladies ensemble, and Daniel Ferri's (I presume natural) broad Chicago accent giving us great B-movie hoodlum.

Ewan's musical direction sees a band of nine and a cast of nineteen carry the show in fine style - particularly stirring during the group-singing finales, but throughout they carry the Theatre 3 stage without unnecessary amplification (having been deafened by the odd musical in my time, it's appreciated!) Quentin Mitchell's set has a strong epic sensibility, with most of the theatre exposed to the elements, but with some great odd-angles in set-pieces like the jail cell and the Peachum's door, feeling very Berlin-Twenties. Equally so Anna Senior's costumes frame the characters on the spectrum between bourgeoisie and lowlife (in particular, perhaps, Helen McFarlane's great 1920s wrap).

As noted - this is not the easiest of viewing, and there is certainly a hope that act one will play a little tighter later in the season. But it's impressive, epic work none the less, pure theatre in a way that we don't often get to see. Certainly worth the time and effort.