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.