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.