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.