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.