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.