Wednesday, 27 December 2017

The "Well I liked it" awards, 2017

It's time to wrap up the year with the "Well I Liked It" awards, or WILIs for short. This is the sixth awards, so therefore I can talk about how the WILI is long-standing, hardened and well practiced. It's quite respected to have a WILI, the WILIs stand out in theatre awardsand I've even seen people occasionally talking about their WILI on facebook, with a few celebratory eruptions here and there for anybody with the balls to go beyond normal performance level. And who am I to judge. Well, I'm a guy with a blog, that's who, therefore I can judge however I like, and other people may even agree, or violently disagree. And either way, I get paid exactly the same amount. Which is nothing.


Let's kick off with Jarrad West. He knocked three very different shows out of the park this year. First with a production of Avenue Q which was undoubtedly my favourite local production of a musical of the year (admittedly, I saw only three local musicals so it's a weak field this year, but still) - a solid, funny and playful production of a contemporary classic. He followed up with another fast and funny night in the theatre with the consistently hilarious "39 Steps" that combined a thrilling breakneck narrative with a touch of romance, some hysterical nonsensical diversions and a bit of dashing heroism. And with "The History Boys" he brought a dense, thoughtful play to full emotional life in an intimate, intense production that combined the abstract questions of knowledge for its own sake versus knowledge as a commodity with a heartfelt examination of how the individual personal failings of teachers affected or inspired their students.

Two shows have to get a mention here that I didn't actually write reviews for, largely because I ended up seeing both before they officially opened, and I don't review previews. Pigeonhole's "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll"  took a play I thought I knew too well and opened up fresh new angles, particularly through the lead performances of Jordan Best (an Olive full of drive and energy right up until the point where life hits her like a truck and brings her heartbreakingly to her knees) and Andrea Close (whose Pearl made a character who could otherwise play as a sniffy scold into a fully rounded player who's been around enough to enjoy it while it's fun but who knows where her limits are and can shut it down when it goes too far). And Belvoir's production of "Ghosts" felt frighteningly relevant as a story about religion, secrets, sexuality and respectability played out between five strong performers to a conclusion of utter devestation.

Other plays that deserve a mention include Jordan Best's tense, gripping production of "Wait Until Dark", held at the centre by a perfectly cast Jenna Roberts, who moved from initial naivety to final strength as she was repeatedly conned and betrayed on her way to resolution; and two American plays from Belvoir with the intensely theatrical "Mr Burns" showing the immense power of pop-culture stories to sustain and survive beyond the ephemeral; and "Hir" showing what happens as cultural revolutions hit against the mainstream masculinity that it's trying to transcend.

I also have to mention the National Theatre's "Follies", a knockout of a production showing fantasy, memory and reality smashing up against each other in an emotional demolition derby that simultaneously embodies musical escapism and rebels against it. I have no idea if the NT Live broadcast showing in Australia in February will capture what I saw on the Olivier stage in anything like the brilliance that the stage production did (performances tuned for a 1000 seat venue can often look oversized in closeup), but I can only hope that it does so that others can share.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Belvoir

You can't help but be surprised by Stephen Curtis's set as you wander into Belvoir for this show - a fairly strong transformation has taken place, all the way into row B of the theatre, as this inner suburbs drama palace has been transformed into a run-down pub on a band night, complete with mini-stage in the corner and bar tables and couches for the patrons. Co-written by and starring Ursula Yovich, this is the venue for an exploration both of a tough woman in tough times, and about the place of the Aboriginal people in modern Australia. The basic setup, with Barbara telling her story in between songs, would seem to resemble a cis female "Hedwig and the Angry Inch", but this has a few differences in the structure - in particular, Barbara's offsider, her cousin Rene, is quite capable of being as vocal a presence as Barbara, and the songs, while showing off Yovich's fine soul voice and generally having a good groove to them, aren't quite as focussed on story telling as the "Hedwig" numbers.

Still, the work by the "Camp Dogs" team is pretty strongly memorable. The script, by Yovich and hardest-working-playwright-in-the-business Alana Vanentine, has a strong throughline, clever wit and true heart to it. And Leticia Cacares' direction makes this a show that comes out and embraces the audience, and uses the stage wisely and well - both in the strong performances of Yovich and Elaine Crombie, and in the witty use of various elements of the stage (including the occasional moment in the spotlight for the tight band). 

This is a show that reaches beyond simply being an indulgence piece for Yovich (showing off both her acting and her singing) to tell a story about family and belonging and how hard both can be in a production of unusual strength and passion.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Australia Day, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Jonathan Biggins' 2012 comedy is in the firm tradition of popular Australian comedy (particularly the David Williamson pieces so beloved of the various state theatre companies during the 90s and 2000s) - there's a mix of people gathered, issues of national importance that are brought down to tribal loyalties (indeed, Williamson's favourite word, "tribe", shows up here again), and a couple of moments where people get up on their hobby horses or have an emotional breakthrough of some kind on the way to a tidy conclusion.

Biggins is, perhaps, a wittier writer than Williamson, with a lot of great one liners springing back and forth across the stage. But there are a couple of rough edges in his plotting, particularly in the moments where a serious moment tries to intervene, and Rep's production doesn't always smooth over those rough edges as much as it might.

Acting honours tend to accumulate at the older end of the cast. Neil McLeod as the cantankerous and uncensored Wally gets the most of his "I can't believe he just said that" lines, albeit occasionally softening up just a little too much, perhaps, when the plot turns sentimental. Micki Beckett's Marree is the perfectly gentle CWA representative, with an essential befuddled innocence about her. Sarah Hull as the Greens representative gets a large chunk of the plot and a minimum of the jokes, but represents the character well as she starts to realise how down and dirty in politics she's going to have to get to succeed. Pat Gallagher tends to get the other half of the plot, and often is everybody else's straight man, but he has an endearingly shifty way about him that helps the plot get through. Jonathan Lee gets a grand set of jokes and delivers them well, although he also carries very little plot. Thomas McCoy as Gallagher's mordant sidekick unfortunately falls a little flat during the denouement, which as written should be his moment to shine - you never really get the sense that anything about him has been changed as a result of the events of the play.

Cate Clelland's sets capture nicely the realism of a scout hall and a tent, although the blocking around the meeting table is a little odd - if you're going to spread out the table lengthways (and the proportions of Theatre 3 kinda require it), why are people sitting downstage of the table with their backs to the audience? Heather Spong's costumes delineate character well, including Beckett's ridiculous animal costume.

This tends to be the kinda piece that works better as a set of jokes then necessarily as a stringent commentary on the state of the nation, with a middling plot along the way. And as a set of jokes, it's very funny. But there's not a lot behind the laughter to stick around with me.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Atlantis, Belvoir

Lally Katz's work has flirted with barely-disguised autobiography for a while now, through taking stories of friends and family - "Neighbourhood Watch" from her neighbor, and "Back to the Dojo" from her parents. This time, she's drawing directly from herself. And what we get is a play that is, inevitably, somewhat self-indulgent (and this is a fairly freewheeling autobiography that hopscotches from fact into fantasy and back again all over the place). But still, as directed by Rosemary Myers, it's an entertaining international road trip as our heroine tries to find her place in a confusing world

Amber McMahon as Lally is the centre of the story and she provides a lovely upbeat all-accepting presence - very aware that the things happening to her are probably going to be theatre material at some point, but still happy to engage in the people and experiences of the moment. The other four characters cover around 40 characters between them, sliding in and out with remarkable ease - Matthew Whittet plays everything from boyfriend to uncle to teenage girl, Paula Arrundel similarly slides from philosophical AirBnB host to religious revival host, Lucia Mastrione goes from crabby Psychic to cabbie, and Hazem Sharas covers cowboy romantic pickup and a panther. The shifts are all clear and frequently hilarious. Jonathan Oxlade's set is simple and abstract but contains multiple surprises to cover the extensive demands of Katz's shifting imagination in a classily stylish manner, and Damien Cooper's lighting design also has to be noted for supporting the mood and location as the story moves.

This isn't necessarily a play that I love but it's probably as good a production as it's ever going to get unless serious rewrites set in, so it's probably worth seeing. It does have the best comic use of the Vengaboys I've seen in a while.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Boys will be Boys, The Street

Regular readers will note I haven't reviewed a show at the Street in about 4 years . There's a bunch of reasons for this, but part of it has been that the Street has had the feel of a "closed shop" - there's still lingering resentment from the amateur theatre movement in Cnberra both of some fairly intolerent statement made by it's artistic director/CEO and the venue's unavailability for amateur groups.

Still, in the interests of at least pretending to be vaguely fair, I went along to "Boys will be Boys" - the STC production in 2015 got a fair bit of acclaim, and of the cast of 5 women, I knew and liked the work of three of them.

And while there's some impressive work here (in particular, Imogen Keen's set and costumes are top notch stylish work, and Niklas Pajanti's lighting design handles some of the trickier aspects remarkably well), it doesn't quite work. Melissa Bubnic's script has its strengths but never quite gets out of the specifics of the ultra-rich-and-ultra-greedy to feel more universal - Caryl Churchill's simiarly "women in business" themed play, "Top Girls" perhaps has more to say about how little it matters whether the top capitalist is male or female. As directed, in some of the earlier scenes some of the incisive wit fails to land effectively - there's a tendency to play scenes as fast as possible, sacrificing meaning along the way - I can understand the intention to have smart energetic banter, but there still needs to be more than just rattling off lines. Scenes that play slower tend to work more effectively - in particular the search for connection between Astrid (Pippa Grandison) and Isabelle (Kiki Skoutzos), or the later scenes as personal disaster leads to a divide between Astrid and her protoge Priya (Isha Menon). Grandison is also effective during the songs where her powerful voice has soul and strength. Kimmo Vennonen's sound design is a little too busy - there's a few too many cases where noise is there for the sake of being noise (I should also note here, the audience was kinda painful - I had people behind me muttering throughout the show, a lot more audible than they seem to think that the were, and so was somewhat seething throughout).

So unless something particularly intriguing shows up on the Street schedule again, I'll probably be continuing my absence.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Diving for Pearls, Griffin, Stables

Katherine Thompson's play was one of the major works of the 90s. Telling the big story of industrial decline and the collapse of the working class through the prism of the relationship between two middle-aged dreamers, it touched the heart and engaged the mind as we saw two people struggle with their hopes and dreams only to find them crushed by forces beyond their control and betrayed by corporate greed and economic rationalism. It's slipped into the background a little since then, but this revival returns it to life, animated in particular by the performances of Steve Rogers and Ursula Yovich as the two people under examination.

The play does suffer a little in that it attempted to predict what was coming in the South Coast during the 90s, but, like most predictions, missed the mark. As it turns out, steelworking shut down in Newcastle rather than Port Kembla, and the refocus towards tourism which is treated as a false hope turned out to be fairly successful. Still, the larger truths of how the invisible hand of market forces leaves people crushed behind it remains true. It's also true that the play keeps a lot of the rage buried for quite some time - people I came to thought the first act played almost entirely as domestic romantic comedy - I see it more as a sucker-punch manouvre than as a flaw, but it is true it's not the most direct way to get to the point of the night. And Barbara is almost too fascinatingly thrusting a character to fit into the thesis of "crushed by outside forces" - she fights ruthlessly against any attempt to keep her down, including, it turns out, her own flesh and blood. But perhaps that's the point - by fighting so hard in a game that's rigged against her, her failure rings even more painful.

Darren Yap's production keeps the action flowing thick and fast between multiple locations, using the tiny space at the stables cleverly as scene piles upon scene - as Den and Barbara's romance runs almost out of control, with neither of them truly understanding one another until the disasters have come and it's too late for them to survive together. Sound is a bit overamplified in the tiny space - effects almost overwhelm dialogue in a few key spaces, and perhaps this could have been wound down a little.

Still a good chance to see a solid play from Australia's theatrical past that certainly still speaks to now.

Strictly Ballroom, Canberra Philharmonic, Erindale Theatre

Baz Luhrmann's "Strictly Ballroom" feels like a natural for a stage musical. Not only is it a well known property, it's got an immediate musical milleu, and a simple but inspiring story with familiar elements like the hero who battles against the establishment, the ugly-duckling girl who blossoms into a beauty, and a big happy ending.

And for a lot of audiences, this seems to have worked quite well. Philo's production played to largely sold out houses with rapturous applause at the end.

I wasn't quite sold. And the reason why lands pretty early in the show - the inciting incident, in fact. As people who've seen the movie may remember, the whole source of the conflict that maintains the 90-odd minutes of screentime (inflated to 2 hours 30 for the musical, minus intermission) is that Scott Hastings (Paul Mecurio in the movie, Joel Hutchings on stage) breaks free from the choreographic conventions, improvising in an inspired but undisciplined manner during competition. The problem here may be fundamental to the show - when musicalised, the role becomes a triple threat requiring acting, singing and dancing at the top level, and ... while Hutchings is a fine singer and a much better actor than Mecurio, the dance steps he does for this moment feel anything but improvised - I'm not sure whether it's his ability or the choreography of Emma Nikolic and Karen Brock, but whatever it is, we never really get a sense that he's a man who comes alive when he dances, whose prime method of expression is his body. and who can release his tension in movements that are electric and inspiring. We get a reasonably well executed steps rather than a moment that needs to thrill for the plot to work.

There are compensations elsewhere in the show. In particular, Ylaria Rogers as Fran gives what should be a familiar arc a fair degree of freshness. She does have the benefit of being allowed to blossom so we can see and participate in her development, and she invests us in both the romantic yearnings she feels and her independence and frustration with the self-centred Scott. As a romantic pair, the two have wonderful chemistry. The act-one finale as Scott finally gets to understand her background and to participate in it fully, "Mangifico", is one of the true highlights of the show (even getting around Tomas Dietz's somewhat bodgy wig).

As a physical production, this is gorgeous stuff, featuring some of Philo's best design work in a while, both set (by Ian Croker) and costumes (by Anna Senior) - although I'll slightly quibble with using ballroom costumes with feathers at the top of the show, simply because it means the feathers tend to stick around onstage til interval. Still, they evoke a true sense of the daggy grandeur of the movie, suitably glittering when required and just as suitably downmarket when the story goes in that direction.

There are issues I have with the construction of the show - 11 different songwriters for the new parts of the score are credited, plus a couple of familiar songs from the movie are used. Almost inevitably, the familiar songs stick better, and the new ones tend to feel generically functional rather than particularly inspired. In addition, the flashback, a highlight of the movie, just isn't as much fun if you substitute out the performers playing the older characters for younger dancers - part of the joy of the moment in the movie was that it was these older performers recreating their glory moments, and that's kinda lost. ONe hangover from the movie is that Shirley Hastings is so heftily unpleasant that her reconcilliation with her husband Doug at the end feels slightly unearned and unredemptive. I'm also not entirely sure why the show has to be set in the early 80s - it doesn't feel particularly inherent to the material. There are some delightfully shameless moments (a cute number for the kids, some auidence rousing moments from host JJ Silvers, and even a meat raffle - which, again, feels slightly weird when after establishing repeatedly that the show's set in 1985, the money's going to the 2018 Vikings junior rugby team - I've heard of forward planning but that's ridiculous).

The ensemble roles feel nicely filled and the music and movement is generally pretty strong. There's some very smooth physical staging - this is rarely a show that stands still very long, and it's a tribute to the production team that it runs so smoothly.

But... like I said, there's a little bit of a hole in the middle which leaves the entire edifice feeling awkwardly hollow.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two, Palace Theatre, London.

Playscripts as a rule are not spectacular big sellers. And as far as I can tell, the script of this is the best selling script since records began - this despite significant chunks of the fanbase criticising it as "bad fanfic". Never the less it's not stopped the show playing to full houses at reasonably high prices for about a year, so as a Potter Fanboy and the partner of a Potter Fanboy, this was squished into the visit.

And honestly, this is pretty well executed. A continuation rather than another interpretation of the saga, this picks up pretty well directly from the "22 years later" epilogue of the last book, with the children of the series protagonists about to go off to the magic school Hogwarts. But a combination of unfinished business from the series and ongoing tensions between Harry and his son lead to fresh dangers that will see all kinds of wild adventures, both revisiting favourite elements of the series and expanding the saga. It does require a reasonable amount of foreknowledge of the saga but if you haven't read the books or watched the films, why on earth are you starting with this one? And yes, despite Harry being now in his 40s, there is still a little too much of the angst elements that felt a bit laboured in the books and remain just as laboured here.

In production it's as smooth, stylish and fascinating as you probably could wish. Transitions from location to location are instantaneous and presented with wit and whimsy - sets are just abstracted enough to let the audience do some creative work while the magic is suitably impressive and "how the hell did they do that". Some of the acting is a little broad, perhaps, but it never breaks the style. Imogen Heap's music is perhaps a bit of a disappointment - I'm a fan of her and therefore was disappointed that I could recognise a lot of themes from her album "Speak for yourself" - and there are a couple of coreographed montages that kinda tend to look like dance for dance's sake rather than something that fits with the rest of the world of the show (although a movement section among the moving stairs of Hogwarts is a highlight).

I can't claim this is a deep and thoughtful show - it is, ultimately, a brand extension, but as a brand extension it's a quite enjoyable one, with a consistently rolling plot (one of JK Rowling's best features) and a suitably large amount of spectacle. Well worth the time.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Follies, National Theatre

"Follies" is one of those shows that is Broadway legend. Its original production was legendary both in its ambition and in how under-appreciated it felt at the time - losing its entire investment after running a year and three months. It's a tough show, unlike many in that it examines the escapism that musicals usually represent and sees how temporary and fleeting that escapism can be - the loneliness and failure that the escapism can't ever really relieve.

The underlying premise, a reunion of ex-showgirls as the theatre where they once were glorified is about to be demolished, sticks the show fairly firmly in its original 1971 period (modernising it would mean that the oldest of the girls, an operetta singer who goes back to 1918, would be at the very youngest around 115). And as the show goes on, it brings into focus two of the girls and their two husbands - one was in love with the guy who married the other, and both marriages have soured, due to distance, changing ambitions, the weight of time, or simply an aching empty space where desire used to live. There are two types of songs - plot songs (between the main quartet) and "party pieces" for the other girls, most of which illuminate in some way the theme of faded glamour and the way time has worn on them. Throughout the cast are accompanied by younger spectral figures of their youth  - the very present pasts that everybody carries with them.

There's elements that stick out today more than they perhaps would have originally (in the week after the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a moment when the producer of the Follies remembers how the casting couch used to be plays somewhat differently than it might have a week earlier, and the somewhat more casual references to extra-marital affairs is very much a seventies thing more than it would be post-AIDS), but the common description of the show has been that Sondheim's songs soar but Goldman's book is flat. I didn't find it so - yes, the book is tight and, rightly, gives the deeper emotional expressions to the songs as is suitable for a musical, but it diagrams very clearly how distastrously wrong these people have gone, giving space for the songs to expand on them.

This production has all the lavishness the National Theatre can bring to a production of this nature, on its biggest stage, the Olivier. And as importantly it brings the acting talent to bring across the pain under the glamour. Imelda Staunton as maybe the most damaged of the characters is astoundingly good, both singing the haunting "Losing my Mind" and in acting as it becomes increasingly clear how unfaded her passion is (in the central relationships, it becomes clear that "Sweeney Todd" isn't the only horror musical Sondheim's ever written - there's horror in just how broken these people are as well). Phillip Quast as the unsatisfied man who she loves but who abandoned her has perhaps the trickiest part - he's a white rich successful guy who never the less feels empty inside, and it's a credit to him that we care for the indecisive broken arsehole as much as we do (even as, minutes after a deep romantic ballad between him and Staunton, he's running away from their relationship and hitting on other women). Janie Dee plays Quast's wife, who acquired layers of sophistication to become worthy of him but also a layer of ennui and self hatred that she finds difficult to shift - her "Could I leave you" is a lush vomit of vitriol that remains compelling in its dark penetrating wit. Peter Forbes plays Staunton's husband, somewhat aware he's always been second prize but unable to let go of the woman he's always loved.

The various party-piece-performers seize their various moments - Di Botcher lands "Broadway Baby" as the standard it's always been, Dawn Hope leads most of the women in the ultimate production number "Who's that Woman", and Tracie Bennett slightly channels Judy Garland to bring an "I'm still Here" that stands strong with the many great women who have sung it.

There are perhaps a couple of elements of Dominic Cooke's production that delay it getting off the ground as cleanly as it might (it slightly over-prologues the show, which means focus doesn't come until the third song, "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs") and at least one element towards the end could be accused of over-underlining matters (as a flashing "Follies" sign suddenly loses the "Fol"). But otherwise it's a very solidly strong production. It's not a show that could ever be called light entertaiment. But it's a powerful show that leaves you shattered and enthralled.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

The History Boys, Everyman, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

Alan Bennett is often treated as an English national treasure, something safe and comfortable and fluffy. But that doesn't quite square with the reality of what he writes - there's a lurking interrogating mind that doesn't just reinforce simple opinions, that challenges and provokes. "The History Boys" is one of the major plays of the 2000s, but it's a treacherous one, starting as a play about education before spinning off into wider questions about politics, culture, sexuality, feminism and the class divide... while still being very much focused on what goes on in preparing 8 young men for their future beyond high school.

Everyman's production captures the play exactly in all its dense complexity, in a production that flows magnificently - fleet of foot when it needs to be (if directors around town see this for nothing else (and they have multiple reasons to see this), they should see this simply to understand this is how you do scene transitions, without dead air), but taking the time to delve deeply and embrace the silences between words - particularly during the highly-charged lesson about Thomas Hardy at the end of act one. It is expertly cast, a tight ensemble that also gives individuals time to bask in the limelight on their own. In the round, where nobody is more than two rows back, it's an intimate and engrossing experience.

At the centre is Chris Baldock as Hector. He's in many ways a Falstaffian figure (not just through the stomach padding and beard, also through the humour and cajoling and in the sense that, fun to be around though he is, he may not be the most practical or safe pair of hands to be around), and Baldock captures him exactly in the sense that he, too, may be a little bit of a boy that never quite grew up. Hayden Splitt as Irwin is the outsider-who-comes-in-and-provokes. His is in some ways the more difficult job - he's the voice of practicality, of accommodating the realities of presentation and spin (it's no surprise that in flashforwards, he's a politician), but there's just enough of a sense that his brash confidence is a somewhat brittle facade and could be broken through at any moment. Alice Ferguson as Mrs Lintott combines the characteristics of confidante and confronter - she doesn't let anyone get away with anything, yet somehow remains compassionate to most. Geoffrey Borny as the headmaster is an oily figure, almost entirely concerned with his own professional agenda, but ... again, he isn't entirely wrong when he confronts Hector with the ways Hector hasn't .

As for the boys, they retain every element of an unruly class of late-teenage hormones, rebellion and eagerness, as a strong ensemble, whether debating seriously the issues presented to them or goofing about, or somewhere between the two. As individuals, Patrick Galen-Mules as the experimentally-religious Scripps, Pat Mandziy as the hyperconfident and mildly manipulative Dakin and Henry Strand as the yearning, slightly isolated Posner get the lions share of the plot, with the remainder having to grab moments. Lucas Frank gets the lions share of the best moments, as Rudge, the figure who doesn't quite fit in with the comfortable middle-classness of the rest of the group, but Cole Hilder, Jack Tinga, Andrew McMillan and Andrew Brigetti all make characters who are more than just "and the rest of the boys".

This is essential, whether to see a great play in a tight, intimate production or to see what the next generation of CAnberra's leading men will look like (bloody brilliant, is what it looks like). So yes, you should grab a ticket while you can.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Hir, Belvoir

The recent death of Sam Shepherd reminded us that he was an incomparable poet of a certain type of American experience - chronicling and mourning the death of the American Midwest Working Class in plays like "Buried Child", "Curse of the Starving Class" and "Lie of the Mind", and illustrating masculinity in crisis as it finds itself increasingly marginalised and forgotten. "Hir" brings that to mind but also asks the question, what were the values behind that culture, and how much should they really be mourned? It tells the story of downtrodden American family who have never quite gotten out of their low-cost "starter home" - Brother Isaac has been away in the middle east collecting body parts, and now returns to what should be normality. But Father Arnold has had a stroke, and mother Paige has taken advantage of her new found freedom to explore a whole new identity and to abandon anything that kept her trapped in the old one (including housework). While sister Maxine has discovered her trans identity and is living as Max, on gender-shifting hormones. It's a play that's compassionate, smart and yet, in the final calculation, merciless as it brings contemporary gender theory right back into the midwest loungeroom where a lot of journeys start.

Taylor Mac is a trans writer/performer who did in fact grow up in a poor town, and this play simultaneously is about triumphing over your origin and what's left behind when you do. It's clear that characters like Paige and Max come from the bones, but Isaac and Arnold are recognisable figures too - the conventional values that are simultaneously crushing and yet so prevalent. Anthea Williams' production captures everything, from Paige's chaotic joy to Max's teen growing pains, a mix of embracing the new and being embarrassed by Mom's over-enthusiasm. Helen Thomson's a virtuoso as Paige, gleeful and funny and strongly resistant to any backsliding out of her new-found freedom. Similarly, Kurt Pimblett as Max is a great Belvoir debut, with a truly sympathetic naivete that's balanced by an awareness that this teenagehood will be transcended shortly. Michael Whalley as the straight-man (in every sense) has a role that largely consists of bewilderment and belligerence, but he manages to keep us believing that Paige and Max would continue to engage with him rather than ignore him. Greg Stone as the impaired Arnold is a performance that asks no sympathy and therefore, when the inner ugliness emerges, ensures he lands effecively. Special mention to the stage crew under Isabella Kerdijk, which has a whole lot of work to do during intermission and does it efficiently.

Michael Handkin's set and costume designs capture with not-quite-realism, making it just that right side of larger than life.

In short, this is modern,relevant, heartbreaking and wildly funny. One of the highlights of the year.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Neighborhood Watch, Canberra Rep

"Neighborhood Watch" is a fine addition to the list of plays about an older mentor and a younger student, most recently seen in shows like "Old Wicked Songs" and "Tuesdays with Morrie". The main difference is that for most shows, mentor and student tend to both be male - here, both are female. As always, there's a gentle humour, life lessons are there to be learned, and there is a poignant ending as the torch is passed on.

I did see the original production back in 2011 at Belvoir Street, starring the actress it was written for, Robyn Nevin. So I was a little worried that comparisons would set in unfairly. And yet, this doesn't entirely lose in the comparison. Nevin was a powerhouse, no question, but she tended to overpower the rest of the play - and with a slightly more balanced cast, other elements have a chance to come through. In particular, Alex McPherson's Catherine gets a chance to stand somewhat more as an equal to Liz DeToth's Ana - Catherine's not just a young empty vessel waiting to be filled, she's a feisty young woman who's perfectly capable of standing up to Ana when she oversteps the mark. The strength of the play is the relationship between the two of them, and the two actresses chart a real journey from wariness to warmth, through estrangements and exasperations to an ultimate peace. While there is a certain sentimentality to this arc, Katz's script and the performances largely avoid the maudlin, giving Ana's brittleness full reign and letting her be as frustrating as she is enlightening.

The supporting cast is, in this case, particularly supporting. Craig Battams has possibly the biggest single role beyond the main pairing, but is pretty much there for Catherine to have someone to talk to, and he presents a good listening ear, a mixture of sympathetic and slightly-judgmental. As for the rest, Judi Crane commits a little bit of scene-stealing as Jovanka, basically a show-long running gag but an amusing and slightly heart-rending one at the end, Tim Sekuless is in fine voice as a Hungarian folk singer, Nikki-Lyn Hunter gives a brief glimpse of another set of struggles elsewhere in the cul-de-sac, Loren Kalis has enthusiastic persistence as a neighborhood watch co-ordinator, Peter Holland pops up in various roles either sympathetic or sinister and Damon Baudin has a pleasant nerdyness as the local pharmacist and quiet sincerity as another presence from Catherine's life.

Director Kate Blackhurst uses the wide open space of Rep's stage with care - letting the characters establish themselves in isolation before they start to mix and blend across the stage. Andrew Kay's set design is deliberately somewhat minimalist, capturing just enough of a suburban cul-de-sac to give us a sense of suburbia, and letting the journeys beyond take flight mostly in the mind. Joel Endmondson's lighting design and Jesse Armistead's sound design help give a little extra sense of place.

This is a quiet pleasure - it's not necessarily a barn-burster drama poking you in the chest for your attention, but it sneaks up on you until you are drawn into affection for a pair who discover a few things about one another along the course of an evening.

Saturday, 29 July 2017


Yeah, that's a lot of producers. It takes a bunch to get a play doing multi-city touring nowadays. Anyway, yes, this is the much-hyped Orwell adaptation, Unfortunately, this doesn't quite cut it for me. Robert Icke and Duncan McMillan's adaptation succeeds more on the visual scale than it does on the verbal or ideas scale. Winston Smith seems less like an everyman rebel than a gullible fool who takes the first opportunity for revolution that is offered to him, and the relationship between him and Julia seems more like something that exists is in the book than something that any kind of sane woman would ever be involved in. It's obvious from the first second that whatever revolution Julia wants to have, Winston doesn't understand it and is utterly bamboozled by the simplest of tricks. While there's still a certain power to the torture that follows, it's pretty diminished by being practiced on a virtual non-character.

Ironically for a play about the human impulse struggling with crushing systems, this doesn't show a lot of humanity. I can't say for certain it's a case of this production having been toured too long, or whether it's because it's a replication of a production that worked overseas, or whether it's simply something where what's here doesn't resonate with me. But while there are impressive visuals and moments, it isn't something that hangs together or sticks with me beyond the occasional image, and while the grand set transformation is technically impressive, it's not enough to make me think this is anything that engaged me very much.

Friday, 21 July 2017

The Rover, Belvoir

Aphra Behn's Restoration comedy is of more than just historical interest. Yes, she's the first noted female playwright, but as importantly, she's up there with her contempories like Wycherly and Congreve, with a very individual voice. "The Rover" tells the common tale of two young women, both controlled by their brother, one promised to a man she doesn't love, one about to be confined to a convenant, and both escaping during carnival time in Naples to discover a wilder world of debauchery and romance. It's unusual, though, in playing very heavily into the women's perspective - not only do the two sisters drive much of the plot, the romantic rival for the escapee-nun, the prostitute Angelica Bianca, has plenty of time to get her own personal perspective out there.

Eamon Flack's production plays the romance largely straight and the comedy somewhat looser, but hilariously so (I have no idea why he decided to put the pengin bit in there,, apart from because it would be funny, but it absolutely is funny). He's also quite willing to let the males look either clueless or actively hostile in various cases. The titular rover, Toby Schmitz, gets a truly scene-stealing entrance and is clearly wild and irresponsible, but it's also quite clear how that irresponsibility can do real damage, both to the heart and sometimes also physical. It's not all fun and games, there are genuine physical threats out there. Taylor Ferguson as the not-gonna-be-a-nun Hellena has innocence and yearning on her side but is also smart enough to know how to hold her man's wandering eye. Nikki Shiels is pure lustrous Italianate energy as the gorgeous Angelica Bianca, sophisticated courtesan who is undone by her passion for the Rover. Leon Ford and Elizabeth Nabben hold up the straight-romance subplot, Ford, delightfully, just a little dim, and Nabben thoroughly frustrated as the debauch gets out of control. Andre DeVanny has the awkward bit that he's meant to be comically tedious at the beginning (and, as often happens, he slips slightly into tedious), but as the action gets going he becomes a worthily foolish participant. Megan Wilding as Angelica's maid and another lady of the night sells either relentless practicality or saucy trickstering, as required .Nathan Lovejoy is wonderfully ludicrous as the goofy Don Antonio and provides staunch backup as Frederick. Gareth Davies has the tricky challenge of moving from idiot to dangerous monster in the second half and he manages to make the giggles dry in our mouths as we realise how completely unpleasant he is becoming. Kiruna Stammel has the least to do as one of the maids but by the second half she's amusing simply by walking through a scene so that helps.

Mel Page's set and costumes contribute to the lushly fantasticly frivolous nature of the show. Scott Witt ensures the fights are both realistically threatening and, presumably, actually reasonably safe.

This is largely a winter-warmer of a comedy, but with a couple of deeper thoughts about man-woman relations that gives it a little substance. Worth coming out for.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Kinky Boots, Michael Cassell Group, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

There's been a bit of a run of reasonably glitzy musicals based on British comedies from the late 90s/early 2000s about Northern English Industrial Crises - whether it be "The Full Monty", "Billy Elliot" or now "Kinky Boots". This is probably the glitziest of the lot, based loosely on a true story of a shoe manufacturer who turned to boots for drag queens as a specialised market. In real life, the market was eventually taken over by cheaper imports and the company has since folded, however for the purposes of musical theatre, it's largely a story of inspiration and triumph and a whole lotta glitz.

This is not a perfectly put together show - one lead, the factory owner Charlie, is rather colourless with most of his songs rather generic ballads, while the other, drag queen Lola, gets all the good up-tempo songs and the better of the ballads but gets no real defined sexuality; female characters are mostly functional only (Sophie Wright's Lauren scores the best with the hilarious "History of Wrong Guys", but is otherwise ignored, while Tegan Wouters' Nicola is just a walking plot-device), and the second-act complication in particular feels fairly contrived. And the ending rolls into curtain call almost before the plot has actually stopped. 

However, Jerry Mitchell's direction and choreography smooth over the clunky bits as much as possible (when the plot takes us to a somewhat unlikely boxing match, he damn well brings us a boxing arena with the assistance of a couple of ribbons and a drag-queen's leg) and gives us a production that never looks less than spectacular and moves like greased lightning. There's a solid band under the direction of Luke Hunter, good performances throughout (including an ensemble that has a nice mix of bodies ad personalities - not just a bunch of gym-polished dancers), and a few good gags and songs as well. So if it's not perfect, it's not awful either, and its heart is in several very right places.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The 39 Steps, Canberra Rep

Let's have a quick word on the Canberra Theatre career of Jarrad West. It's almost 11 years since he showed up, stealing scenes brutally in "The School for Scandal", and nine since he made his major theatre-directing Canberra debut with "Angels in America" (and if you're going to show ambition, nothing beats rolling out "Angels in America" as your first major show). And while on the one hand he's become a regular director on the scene since then, the ambition, the drive and the ability to show the audience a damn good time has never wavered. Whether it's acting (with iconic leads like Bobby in "Company", Peter Allen in "Boy from Oz" and "Ned Weeks" in "Normal Heart") to directing (the incredibly flowingly theatrical "Home at the End", the spectacular "Cassanova", the brutally direct "Laramie Project"), he's thoroughly worn his way into Canberra audience's heart by presenting an individual, ever-creative vision that has its own very personal approach that ensure s he's consistently one of Canberra's most engaging presences.

And that continues with "The 39 Steps". Patrick Barlow's adaptation of the Hitchcock film of the Buchan novel is a demanding beast - requiring four energetic actors and an equally energetic production that keeps track of the multiple locations and characters in a non-stop frenzied comedy-thriller with a strong emphasis on the comedy. There isn't even the usual safety net of some underlying social theme to make people think this is in any way important - just the pile up of events as our dashing hero races out of one certain-death scenario and straight into another. This is pure silly theatrical fairy floss that only survives if it can keep things moving fast enough that you're too busy enjoying yourself to worry about anything else.

And that's what this does. Patrick Galen-Mules IS the dashing hero-type, an effortlessly charming Canadian Gent with a pleasantly befuddled nature. Steph Roberts triples as three very different romantic interests, each with a different accent, each in their own gorgeous Fiona Leach costumes and each with their own seperate theme tunes - whether she's the ubermysterious Annabella, the temptingly naive Margaret or the thoroughly sensible Pamela, we're absolutely with her every step of the way. Helen McFarlane and Nelson Blattman play everybody else, often warping from personality to personality mid-scene in an astonishing high-wire quick-change series of performances that never once slips - we slide with delight as we wonder what on earth they're going to show up as next.

Michael Sparks set deliberately tightens the playing areas to allow exits-and-entrances to spill out almost immediately and to allow the cast to race in and out of different-coloured doors with alacrity, lending the right level of cartoonishness to the occasion. Stephen Still's lighting is pin-point accurate, enhancing and sometimes helping to create the set, whether it be train, automobile, plane or seemingly-endless-hallway. Sound by Tim Sekuless adds its own ridiculousness from sentimental ballads to screwy cat noises.

This is pure, frantic fun done to perfection. Thoroughly enjoyable ridiculousness.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Mr Burns: A Post-Electric Play, Belvoir

Belvoir's latest is a tad unusual - a new American comedy adapted from one of pop-culture's most prevalent narratives - The Simpsons. While, yes, the show's a good 15 years past its prime, I'm one of a vast number of my age group who, back in the day, watched the first eight or so series in regular repeats and could and did recite gags from the series (indeed, my brother and I still will recite the Frogurt conversation from Treehouse of Horror III).

So this is a post-apocalyptic story about how narratives survive, mutate and survive - while also being, almost, a retrospective history of how theatre evolves. In the first act, we meet a set of people gathered around a fire, trying to remember the episode "Cape Feare" (notably, a Sideshow Bob episode, and one based on a film that is itself a remake). We're not told the full details of the disaster that's led them to this point, but references make clear that it's scary, dramatic and very real for these people, and that whatever escapism sharing the narrative can give them is desperately needed. In the second, five years later, these people have formed a small touring theatre company, now re-enacting the episodes with rudimentary props and costumes, trying to evoke for their audiences the world before the disaster. Of course, the world outside is still impinging, and some of the squabbles of the troupe will feel awfully familiar to anybody who's ever been part of an amateur theatre group (in particular the petty rivalries with other groups and the concerns about naturalism versus styalisation), and it's clear this is still not entirely a safe world, but the performers try their best. In the third, seventy-five years later, things have morphed and advanced to the point where the story has become something between a passion play and an opera, semi-ritualistic with a heroic narrative and hyperstyalised performances.

It's one of the most astounding things I've seen at Belvoir in quite some time - by no means is this a conventional narrative (none of the characters from acts one and two appear in act three, unless you count the "characters" being re-interpreted), I'd normally go through the cast and point out highlights, but this is such a ridiculously tight ensemble it feels impossible to pick people out - Esther Hannaford's heroic Bart in act three has true nobility to her, and Jude Henshall's director Colleen has all the exasperated energy of the character in act two, while Brent Hill's Matt holds as the centre of Act one as the primary character driving the memories, but really, everybody is exceptional.

Imra Savage pulls together a tight production that allows even the most ridiculous moment to have generous humanity to it. Jonathan Oxlade's design is exceptional, and in particular Act Three is the most glamorously excessive I've ever seen the Belvoir stage, while still having strong authenticity to it.

For something that could have been a trivial wacky diversion, this is a show with an awful lot of depths. Well worth catching up on.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

A View From the Bridge, Canberra Rep

Arthur Miller's "View from the Bridge" is the only contemporary working-class drama of his major plays ("All My Sons" and "Death of A Salesman" are both closer to middle-class, "Crucible" isn't contemporary), and acts partially as a rebut to Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg's "On the Waterfront" - set in the same location, it argues that sometimes the legal system needs to be defied when it comes to things like immigration law in the face of genuine human need. It also presents a gripping home drama as the relationships within a Brooklyn home are stretched as two visitors expose fautlines.

In Chris Baldock's production, this is a story both about a family and a community and how the two interract. In the first act, the continuous prescence of a greek chorus of neighbourhood people seems almost intrusive on the domestic scenes inside the hosehold of Eddie Carbone. But it pays off greatly in the second act as Eddie's private transgressions face public consequences, as his community turns against him and as he seeks desperately to find his way back to reclaim his place in it. There's a cumulative power that pays off wonderfully by the end of this tense, tight piece.

Central, of course, to the tragedy is the Eddie Carbone. Knox Peden's making not only his Rep but also his Australian debut with this production, and it's a knockout performance, pugnacious, combative but with a longing soul at the middle of it that can't help but draw compassion even as it becomes increasingly obvious how wrong he's going. Karen Vickery is a 3 year Canberra veteran now (with, of course, a whole lot more behind her), and brings every inch of that skill to Beatrice, Eddie's wife and confidante, supportive but completely willing to call her husband on his bullshit when she knows he's wrong, powerless to stop him failing. Karina Hudson also makes her Canberra debut as the bubbly young Catherine, who is required to do a lot of growing up in a brief period of time as she finds love, meets betrayal and finds her confidence to stand up to Eddie. As the charming-but-possibly-mercenary Rudolpho, Alexander Clubb keeps you guessing as to his true motives - there's a surface charm and a sweet voice, but also that little bit of withholding that keeps things uncertain. Chris Zuber has a strong solid integrity that grows into brutal menace when he is betrayed.. David Bennett narrates in the one role I'm not entirely sure is utterly necessary - I've not seen a production where Alfieri's monologues feel integral to the play rather than imposed to underline themes that don't need underlining, and this isn't the one that changes my mind, but he's solid enough. Cameron Thomas and Benjamin Russell double both as Eddie's casual buddies and two menacing Immigration Officers, and present strong distinguishable characters in brief stagetime.

Baldock's set, realised by a team of 17 dedicated buillders, is impressive both in how it fills the stage (across the wide Rep stage but also through strong verticals) and how it allows tight focus on the small family drama while letting the bigger community elements come through. Helen Drum's costumes give a gritty period authenticity, Chris Ellyard's lighting design impresses both in giving focus to the different areas and to building the hellish intensity as the play winds to its inevitable conclusion. Jon Pearson's sound design gives a strong sense of place and mood.

This is intense, raw drama presented in top-notch condition. This is theatre that will draw you in and get the heart pumping. Go see it.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Avenue Q, Supa Productions, The Q.

This is a first para about my personal history with the show. So if you're looking to see if you should go watch this (spoiler: YES YOU SHOULD) or you're involved in the show and want to see if I've mentioned you by name (spoiler: PROBABLY IF YOU WERE ON STAGE OR INVOLVED IN DIRECTING. DESIGNING LIGHTING CHOREOGRAPHY MUSICAL DIRECTING OR SOUND, PROBABLY NOT OTHERWISE), skip onwards. Okay, for the rest of you - this is, weirdly enough, the fourth time I've seen this show. It's the first show I ever saw on Broadway (one of my facebook profiles is of me with the Bad Idea Bears - photo entirely does not capture me having original cast member Jennifer Barnhardt behind me working both bears), and it's probably the only show where I haven't at least been front-of-housing where I've ended up seeing it three times in a year (I saw the Australian professional tour twice, once in Melbourne and once in Canberra despite having slight issues with a few production decisions and performances, particularly in handling of puppets, largely due to Canberra being discounted and wanting to support top-level professional tours of shows that I like - I like amateur theatre a lot but I also like people being paid for their efforts cause you can't feed yourself on applause).

Anyway, point being, yes I know this show and like it lots. It's a refreshingly young-feeling show (the writing team were all making their debut, with Bobby Lopez starting his EGOT-claiming ways with his 2004 Tony for the score), taking the "Sesame Street for College Graduates" with both humour and a fair bit of sincerity - it's not just a puppet-filled gagfest, it's also about feeling lost in a big terrifying world (whether that world be New York City or anywhere else) of financial pressures, entangling relationships, and of course, casual racism.

And this production gets a young lively cast to go with it - some of them thirty-something theatre veterans, some making spectacular debuts. My very specific objection to the Australian professional run is that there is one golden commandment for this show - Thou Shalt Not Pull Focus From Thy Puppet (and there were a few too many cases where that took place in that production) - but this cast, despite being full of talents who in other circumstances absolutely should have focus, knows that we're here to see the puppets and gives them free rain. Nick Valois nails the gentle befuzzlement of Princeton, and Emma McCormack's Kate Monster gives us a rich range between sensitivity and rage. Dave Smith relishes the chance to have silly voices both as the gormlessly silly Nicky and as a distinctly deep-south Bad Idea Bear, and Joel Hutchings is distinctly stick-up-the-butt as the not-particularly-hiding-it-very-well-closeted-Republican Rod. Robert Stankov makes an utterly adorable debut as a gleeful Trekkie Monster, Josie Dunham brings every element of puppet-sex-appeal to Lucy T. Slut, Kate O'Sullivan brings wild energy to the other Bad Idea Bear, and Jo Burns is the best kind of Crabby Old Bitch as Mrs Thistletwat. As the token humans, Nina Wood is a delightfully dogmatic Christmas Eve, Riley Bell a loose and playful Brian (and in things I never knew I wanted to see on stage, Riley Bell Does Jazz Hands is now one of them), and Joanna Licuanan Francis has funk and attitude as Gary Coleman.

Jarrad West runs a tight production, keeping the show fresh and focussed. Elizabeth Alford's band is one of the strongest I've heard lately - there's not a bum note from the 6-member pit. Pierce Jackson's choreography has a delightful playful quality to it - there's nothing that looks particularly complex, but it's exactly the kind of thing the show needs - giving the cast movement that reflects the character of the show. Nick Valois and Chris Zuber's set is a nicely solid bit of building, looking lived in, run down, but also loose enough to let people get on-and-off relatively quickly.

Lighting is a little bit imprecise (there's a few too many moments when characters are not lit as they're supposed to be - particularly in the opening of the "Fantasies Come True" sequence). Sound is mostly pretty solid except for one misbehaving microphone at one point.

In short - yeah, this is a great production of a favourite show full of great local talent. So, yeah, you should book a ticket for this one.

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

The Play that Goes Wrong, Canberra Theatre

Spoofing theatre itself is a reasonably old gag (going back at least to "Pyramus and Thisbe" in "Midsummer Night's Dream", and probably further) - and we've seen two strong examples last year with "Play On!" and "Noises Off". But this is the modern-state-of-the-art version with all stops out. Like "Play On!" the play being (badly) done is a fictitious Murder Mystery, although in this case we're witness to one disastrous performance rather than a combination of rehearsals and runs, and there's not a lot of backstage story to go with what's going on on-stage. Instead we see a run with vast levels of disaster piling on one another as set, props, words they don't understand and their fellow actors conspire to endager life, limb and the show going on.

This is very heavy on the slapstick and lacks any kind of higher mind beyond giving the audience a good time. It also has virtually no reference to popular culture post the mid 80s. But it is immaculately drilled slapstick, as the set becomes more and more a deathtrap. Acting throughout is broad, but appropriately so for the material - if it's difficult to pick highlights in the cast, that's largely because they're such a solid strong ensemble.

I will say the script is a little keen to actually go through with the plot mechanics of the murder mystery which seems somewhat irrelevant to anyone's enjoyment (and, indeed, I kinda wish we got one of the two follow-ups that have come along in the UK since this, "Peter Pan Goes Wrong" or "The Nativity Goes Wrong" instead), but as commercial theatre goes (as compared to the subsidised stuff that hits the Canberra Theatre season), this is thoroughly enjoyable stuff.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

The Dog/The Cat, Belvoir

Double bills are, for whatever reason, not always all-that-popular. Possibly because it's frequently the case that one half of the evening vastly supersedes the other, that you feel like you're getting theatrical snacks rather than a full meal, or that the two plays are great individually but just don't taste right together.

Such is not the case with "The Dog/The Cat", possibly because both were written with the express purpose of being companion pieces. WHile they both have different characters and different concerns, they are both clearly contemporary Australian plays perfectly suited to the three actors performing them. They are also perfect expressions of their individual writer's skills. Brendan Cowell kicks the evening off with "The Dog", which tells of two guys who share ownership of the same dog but who otherwise wildly contrast (one a writer with a disastrous work and personal life, one a phone-app entrepreneur who's super-slick) and the woman that both meet in the same park while walking the dog. Cowell is a master at expressing Australian masculinity in writing, and these two guys are vivid creations. The woman between them is also a pretty solid creation. It's been way too long since Cowell's written a full-length mainstage play (three years since "The Sublime" at MTC), and I'm not entirely sure why.

Lally Katz has the other half of the night with "The Cat", a somewhat more whimsical piece about a divorcing couple who decide to share custody of the cat. This goes some truly eccentric places (starting with the cat being represented onstage by an actor and progressing from there) and lets Katz express her oddball view of modern life and dating in a fast-moving set of scenes that produce regular giggles.

The trio of performers get to show off a wide range of skills - Xavier Samuel engages our heart as the sad-sack Ben and produces regular giggles as the moody cat, Sheridan Harbridge is effortlessly cool as Miracle, equally uncool as ex-wife Alex and goofily airheaded as girlfriend Sophie, while Benedict Hardie locks in as the dapper Marcus, the nerdy Albert and the super-physical Jeff. This is a two-years-later remounting of a production originally directed by Ralph Williams, with Anthea Williams doing the remounting for the upstairs space, and however the combination works, this feels suitably effortless.

Entertainment that feels this freewheeling and easygoing is damn hard work, and I'm deeply appreciative that Belvoir's brought this back for a bigger audience to catch.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

Trelawney of the Wells, Canberra Repertory Society

This is old-school stuff, a grand 19th century play set in the world of 19th century theatre. But it's not utterly without contemporary interest - written as a nostalgia piece (produced in the 1890s, it's set in the 1860s), it depicts a moment when actors were starting to move into the upper echlons of British society, about the limitations of that upper society, and the changing theatre from broad melodramas and pantomimes to the more "realistic" drawing room comedies.

Tony Turner's production hits this in fits and starts. A few edits may have been wise on the script - there's a few characters who add nothing except for running time and a few too many times when characters stop being humorously tedious and just become tedious. And the opening exposition has particular pacing issues - it feels like the show takes a good twenty-thirty minutes to really get going. The second half is noticeably stronger than the first, as both script and performances seem to crystalise a lot more.

At the centre, though, are a couple of fine performances. Alessa Kron as Rose Trelawny is our sympathetic heroine - playing both the lively girl and the somewhat more exhausted figure later in the play with equal gentleness. Rob de Fries brings his usual charm as the frustrated small-part-actor and budding playwright Tom Wrench. As Rose's fearsome potential in-laws, Jerry Hearn and Alice Ferguson have suitable imperiousness and outraged propriety - Ferguson in particular scores great laughs when scandalised by ankles. As two of the older members of the Wells company, Jan Smith and Nikki-Lyn Hunter have a moving moment towards the end as they realise both that theatrical fashion is about to pass them by, and that it will inevitably change again.

The 19th century is right up Rep's alley for set and costume design, and between the fine work of Ian Croker, Anna Senior and the set-and-costume teams, that tradition is maintained. Lighting design by Stephen Still is a little crude and basic for much of the action (though the final image is delightful), and John Pearson's sound design has some odd musical choices.

This is one of those nights for me where it's not a rolling continous delight but there are some gems worth picking up.

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Renonsense Man, Jimoein, Canberra Comedy Festival, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre.

This is more traditional comedy than Gadsby, for good and for ill. It's just jokes, very much in the same style that Jimoein has been doing for over 20 years around Australia - and he shapes them pretty reasonably and pretty charmingly. If there's no greater topic or greater aim, is that necessarily a problem?

Well, for me, it is a bit. I kinda now feel I have ticked off that "seen Jimoein live" box and I haven't really seen a screamingly good motivation to come back and see him again. He's perfectly reasonable and acceptable, but he doesn't bring anything particularly different to the table. And there is a fair bit of material about his wife which is... just not thought through at all. While, yes, these are "just jokes", he's spending a substantial chunk of the show basically saying he kinda hates his wife but he's not strong enough to separate. Which is kinda pathetic and not in an interesting way.

Look, Jimoein will sell out theatres for another coupla decades with material that will probably be very much like this anyway. I just won't be there again.

Nanette, Hannah Gadsby, Canberra Comedy Festival, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

There's a point that some stand up comedians reach where they're no longer necessarily funny but you don't mind because they can capture a mood and a thought to tell you about something so interesting that you're drawn in and silently compelled.

Such a show is Hannah Gadsby's "Nanette". It is, as has been noted in the pre-publicity, her retirement-from-standup-comedy show, and, indeed, the last ten minutes contains barely any jokes whatsoever. There's definately a sense of a woman who's worked out how much further she's going to reveal and not reveal, and a letting go of a couple of old grievances (in particular, there's a section where she talks about her mother, a frequent earlier source of both bitterness and comedy, that feels like a new sense of forgiveness has set in - not forgetting the pain, but letting it find its place).

That's not to say this is in any sense a dour evening. There's passion and rage and, yes, there are indeed jokes (and dear god, can Gadsby craft a joke - she knows just where the right word should fit and deploys it instinctively). But to the fucktard in the balcony who asked "where's the comedy" during the last ten minutes, the answer was pretty much "in the preceding 60"- Hannah's leaving comedy behind, and maybe it's time not to pretend everything has to be hilarious. Which, yes, is a strange thing to bring into a comedy festival, but never the less it works.

Monday, 13 March 2017

Mark Colvin's Kidney, Belvoir

I've clearly been out of the elite-person loop. I had, until this play came along, no idea who Mark Colvin is. I used to listen to ABC radio's PM program back in the late eighties and early nineties, but ... well, there's an awful lot of media about these days and when I'm driving, I prefer songs.

Never the less, the story of how he got a kidney transplant is an intriguing one - particularly the details of the woman who donated it, and how she got to know Colvin. Sarah Pierse incarnates Mary-Ellen Field, a rare figure on Australian stages as she's a sympathetic conservative character - smart, perhaps mildly irritable but all-in-all, remarkably strong and determined to do what she views as the right thing.

It's a pity the rest of the play that surrounds her falls a little flat. John Howard as Colvin is quite under-powered - the writing for him is a little thin, but Howard's performance seems frequently so sedate that the central meeting of minds that needs to happen just doesn't.

The remaining supporting cast all play multiple roles - Helen Thompson most noticably as Elle McPherson (the rest of her roles are very throw-away), with Peter Carroll scoring in a range of roels from Field's husband to a disconcerted priest.

David Berthold's direction finds it difficult to find a central flow to the play - the short scenes connected by scene-changes as furniture is re-arranged don't tie together very well (although Vexran Producitons' projection design combines very well with Michael Hankin's set to get rich visuals, they never quite link in clearly to what's going on in the scenes and instead are just a nice visual distraction).

This is a play I really wanted to like but instead was left a little cold - the human connection between the characters, for me, just wasn't there, and while this taps on a couple of hot button issues, in the end everything is left just a little under-explored. So it's a disappointment.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Aladdin, Disney Theatrical, Capitol Theatre

Disney's been doing big-budget stage versions of their animated movies for about twenty years - sorta in compensation after they stole the duo of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken away from Broadway when they wrote the trio of "Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin". For various reasons, I've never seen any of them in a full-scale professional production (no, not even "The Lion King"), but ... well, now I have.

In the case of "Aladdin", there's an obvious challenge to be gotten over immediately - how on earth do you replace Robin Williams (not necessarily the first celebrity voice in an animated feature, but certainly the one whose involvement had the most impact on the film, to the point where the finished product includes a vast amount of his ad-libbing). There are other elements as well (two animal sidekicks along with a carpet with considerable personality), but the quicksilver-morphing Genie is the one that has to be gotten right.

Fortunately, with Michael James Scott, they've got it. He's wildly engaging and dominates the stage every moment he's on - while, no, he can't actually change shape, he talks and moves so fast while being just that damn compelling every second he's on stage that you barely notice. The highlight of the show is his eight-minute-or-so "Friend Like Me" that pulls out every stop from shoving the chorus through multiple costume changes and a tap interlude all the way to literal fireworks.

The rest of the show surrounding it doesn't always keep up to the same level. Our two romantic leads, Ainsley Melman and Hiba Elchikhe, are both a little bland, and while an understudying Alex-Gibson Giorgio and a regular-cast Aljin Abella do some good sniveling conspiring and Aladdin's trio-of-friends (who have snuck back in from early drafts of the movie) are a diverting trio of Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Troy Sussman and Robert Tripolino.

The score has all the original movie songs plus two cut Ashman/Menken numbers ( the ballad-ish "Proud of your Boy" which is okay but gets an unnecessary two reprises, and the rollicking "High Adventure" for Aladdin's buddies, which is far more amusing), and a couple more songs by Menken and Chad Beugelin, who also wrote the script - most of which serve only to pad out time. It's a very glitzy show with fabulous costumes, grand sets and some snappy choreography, but it doesn't quite sustain continuous joy the whole way through - it's more stop-starty than perhaps it should be.

With expectations adjusted downwards there's a fair bit to enjoy in this, but it's not top-tier Disney - though the middle of their pack is still pretty solid.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The Addams Family, The Q

For audiences of my generation, the definitive Addams family is always going to be the one from the two 1990s movies directed by Barry Sonnenfeld with Raul Julia, Anjelica Houston, Christopher Lloyd and Christina Ricci. These took the sitcom setup from the 60s and pushed them into delirious perfection - Gomez and Morticia's relationship with hefty S&M overtones, Wednesday's mordant nature, Fester's joire de vivre ...

Due to the vagaries of international copyright law, the musical isn't based on the film  or the sitcom, it's officially based on the original Charles Addams cartoons. Which may be why it feels slightly tonally off. While these are larger than life figures who should, naturally, sing, there's a really basic problem at the centre of the plot, which is that it's both overly familiar and the wrong plot for these characters. The "child introduces their radical parents to their love interest's conservative parents" plot was reasonably old-hat when "La Cage Aux Folles" did it 30 years ago (the gay angle was the only twist), and it's older now, with the show introducing a truth-telling potion into the mix (again, personality-altering concoctions were considered old hat by Arthur Sullivan when W.S. Gilbert proposed it as a plot in the mid 1880s). And of all members of the family to centre this plot on, why Wednesday? Reducing her to a simple girl-pining-for-a-boy is to screw up a basic element of her personality, and it leaves the show at a big disadvantage.

It's not all bad news. While the script by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman is, to my mind, both wrong and conventional at a plot level, at an individual joke-level the material has a reasonable amount of wit. The songs by Andrew Lippa never really surpass the original theme tune (here introduced-oh-so-briefly at the beginning of the show then brought back for the curtain calls, and never with the iconic lyrics), but again there are a couple of good jokes in there, and particularly the material for Uncle Fester has a disarming sweetness.

The cast do sterling work with the material they have. Gordon Nicholson has bravado and charisma to spare as Gomez, Lainie Hart brings languid stylish sexiness and a killer singing voice that's been under wraps for way too long as Morticia. Tim Stiles is endearingly weird as Fester, Rachael Thornton is stuck playing the Wednesday that's in the script, but suggests she could bring off a much better-written character by getting massive laughs from the sight of her in a bright yellow dress. Callum Doherty's Pugsley is disconcerting in several ways - he's the only character whose intensity has been turned WAY up from the original material, and from the youngest member of the cast, that feels wildly off. Barbara Denham's Grandma is, again, misconceived at a plot level (instead of being a whimsical potions mistress she's somehow a drug pusher?) but Denham almost pulls it off with a blithe manner. As the visitors, Liam Dowling as the son has no written personality and doesn't add much to that, Joseph McGrail-Bateup has the unenviable job of being the fun-crushing character of the evening (although he does produce one truly epic spit-take), and Deanna Gibbs has a goofy charm as Alice. Nathan Rutups is a great looming presence with various grunts and growls as Lurch.

Costumes by Christine Pawlicki and Barbara Denham are a gorgeous bunch of outfits that do a lot to bring the show whatever life it can have, and Emily Geyer's makeup design, particularly on the chorus-of-ancestors, is top notch. Matthew Webster's orchestra is a bit muddled during the overture but settles down to providing decent support.

So this is wildly inessential material, but with some performances that make this quite watchable anyway.

Friday, 24 February 2017

Wait Until Dark, Canberra Rep

Stage thrillers are an endangered genre - there are a large number of scripts out there, but it's rare to find a really good one (and most of them tend towards the spoof end of the genre, which all too frequently ends up with a comedy thriller that is neither funny nor thrilling). It's one of those genres that can be paradoxically difficult - the very simplicity of the characters and the situations means that performers don't necessarily have a lot of support to avoid slipping into stock characterisations and cliched actions that only happen because "it's in the script".

Fortunately, "Wait Until Dark" avoids a lot of those cliches - the story of three con-men eager to retrieve a doll full of heroin from an apartment under the nose of an unsuspecting blind lady is a slow build but the last ten minutes, in particular, are as tense as theatre can get. There's just enough dimensions for the characters to be more than cardboard cutouts, and plenty of twists and turns as the differences between the three con-men become apparent. Jenna Roberts makes Suzy simultaneously vulnerable and tough - she's never just a damsel-in-distress, she's a woman in a difficult situation who takes on the cards she's dealt with grim determination and just the right amount of humor. Riley Bell as the con-man who most effectively wheedles his way into Suzy's life has just the right mix of scumbag and sincerity - we almost want to believe him just as we know that 90% of what he's telling Suzy is a manipulative lie for his own ends. Annabel Foulds is wonderfully comically indignant as the slightly brattish girl upstairs who Suzy battles with but finally enlists as support. Euan Bowen combines a mix of tenderness and teasingness that makes Sam and Suzy's relationship so very real, lived-in and comfortable. Zach Raffan's Harry Roat is effective in his more overtly menacing moments but I do wish we'd seen the shark-in-waiting a little bit more during the scenes where he's not directly menacing anyone. Nelson Blattman is a little young to be posing as a police sargeant (maybe a constable...) but he's got a nicely suggestible quality that suggests exactly why this guy has drifted into a life of crime.

Michael Sparks' set is a perfect dingy 50's downstairs apartment, with authentically ancient kitchen furnishings. Cynthia Jolley-Roger's lighting design shows why she is the queen of suggestive moody lighting - just enough to make the skin creep. Similarly Matthew Webster's sound design hightens the tensions like a good old-fashioned thiller soundscape should.

An effective night out to draw you in, make you tense and make you gasp. 

Friday, 20 January 2017

Tom Ballard: Boundless Plains to Share, Belvoir

This is, to a certain extent, left wing comfort food. It's a political standup show about immigration, to an audience that, presumably, largely sympathises with it. And it's no offence against Ballard (who's a fine comedian, easily at the level of, say, Samantha Bee or John Oliver) that I'm slightly weary of the echo chamber of things we all know to be true but which never seem to actually turn into positive change.

Anyway. That was the political bit of the review done. For the rest - Ballard presents very well a topic that could be dry or glib. He's not afraid to let the serious bits be serious, but also quite willing to allow humanity and life into the show. There's some clever dynamics with how the show is constructed that keeps it lively and keeps it from being utterly One Man Rants At The Audience About Injustice For An Hour (which I can't talk about much further because, well, that's spoilers). It refuses to be too glib about things either, The jokes are funny, the content is wise, the presenter is charming and clever ... it's just one of those things where it makes me wish the world was better and fear that it isn't.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Prize fighter, Belvoir

Belvoir launches the season with a relentlessly physical production, transferred from Brisbane’s LaBoite theatre. This is the story of Isa, a Congolese refugee currently living in Brisbane, escaped from the war and starting again as a boxer. The story’s told largely through two boxing matches as Isa gets the chance to challenge for a title fight, and how in the ring he recalls the previous experiences that have led him to this point.

Direction is almost split evenly between director Todd McDonald and fight choreographer Nigel Poulton, so heavily is the boxing featured. There are sharp, dramatic transitions as the performers swap between ringside participants and figures in Isa’s past – from opponent in the ring to warlord, from supportive friend to an instruction in murder. The performers and lighting design turn on a dime between now-and-then. Lighting and simple staging effects ensure this flows fast and furious and keeps the audience gripped pretty tightly.

This is a tight play, barely over an hour, but there’s not a moment that’s undercooked here - I suppose one could slightly argue that there isn't necessarily a lot of character depth in Future D. Fidel's script, but that's not what this is aiming for - this is pure, full contact theatre that’s going straight for the heart and mind.