Tuesday, 18 December 2018

The "Well I liked it" awards, 2018.

It's been a weird year. For those of you who have been reading along, it's probably been a bit of a tenuous year, waiting for me to actually seem like I like coming to the theatre - looking back on the year, I've found myself sitting through more things that I kinda wish I didn't than I'd normally like to admit. Hopefully next year either I won't be sitting through things or I'll actually be enjoying them more, so we have that to look forward to. Also, there were a couple of genuine bright sparks in the year that made it worth sitting through.

Locally, we may as well start with the one I'm prejudiced about, because I was involved in the production behind the scenes - "Arms and the Man" was one of those experiences where I kinda fell head-over-heels for the production (of a play that I must admit I was kinda working on in a "I should do something during the year, and I suppose this is a decent something" rather than particular fondness for Shaw's play - I'll admit on reading it, I'd found it a little stodgy). For that one, I found it stood up to repeated viewings throughout rehearsals and the run, with a firm sense of how the play could work - both by taking the war aspects of the story seriously, and by letting the characters be flawed, sometimes silly, sometimes a little full of themselves, and genuinely real. In particular, the navigation of the complicated sexual dynamic between Isha Menon's Louka and Riley Bell's Sergius was allowed to be both serious in its implications and hilarious in its outcomes, in ways that danced on the knife's edge of carelessness without ever falling off it.

In shows I'm less prejudiced about because I wasn't involved in them, we have Jordan Best's one-two punch for the year - with a thoughtful, mournful production of "Dr Frankenstein" for Rep featuring a double act of two of Canberra's best actors as creator and monster, followed by "Switzerland" for canberra theatre featuring a different pair of two of Canbera's best actors as (SPOILER WARNING) a different pair of creator and monster... Both felt distinctive and creative (Frankenstein went for a reasonable amount of Grand Guignol in the set, the makeup and the music; Switzerland felt more crisp, pristine and psychologically intense), both gave their casts great places to manouvre in roles that are among the best I've ever seen them in, and both knew just how to nail an ending. Incidentally, "Dr Frankenstein" wins the "Most looked at" award of the season's reviews - with a whopping over 500 views - even some desperate Streisand Effect controversy chasing couldn't get any other post this year even vaguely in breathing distance.

Interstate the musical I loved the most all year was "Cry Baby" at the Hayes, which channeled the spirit of John Waters in a hysterically nonsensical assault on conformity, rebellion and all the best qualities of 50's teenagehood. Non-musical plays this year interstate seemed to best come from Griffin - a reckless, wild production of "Kill Climate Deniers" was relentlessly thought provoking, the emotional journey of "The Almighty Sometimes" challenged the heart and "The Feather in the Web" was a suitably hilarious dismantling of every romantic comedy convention you've ever complained about.

Also a quick thank you to Chalk and Cheese, who seem to have semi-retired - I found whoever they were to be pretty insightful most of the time and expressed thoughts on shows I didn't see that made it interesting to see what might have happened in them. I hope that despite whatever controversies may have happened during the year, more people are encouraged to share their thoughts publicly and in different ways about Canberra Theatre - nobody likes the same things, and the more voices that are out there (including voices that wildly disagree with me), the happier I'll be. Yes, even if they hate the things I'm involved in.

Looking forward to a large chunk of what's on offer for next year, and hoping that there'll be more opportunities for me to put my excited rave voice on and less opportunities for me to embarass myself and others on social media. Thank you to everyone who's been reading the reviews, everybody who's popped up on Canberra stages to keep the beast going, and everybody who cares about theatre enough to keep it

and a-ONE, and a-TWO, and a MANohMAN! Dr Radi O'Repenstein's Lovely Happy Panto, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

... I was asked to do this one.

Rep's christmas Panto is a tradition that, like most traditions, seems to have been there forever - certainly I've been seeing them pretty regularly since joining Rep back in 2005. They're a weirdly distinct form of entertainment - not really a panto (there's very little crossdressing or time for "it's behind you"), instead there's a vaguely linking narrative that ties together elements of the season's shows under something that, if you squint a bit, vaguely looks like a plot, told using rhyming couplets that vary from delightfully piquant to utterly groanworthy.

This year's seems a bit more elaborate than previous - there's a pretty decent set, there are costumes, and even the odd musical number - but the plot feels just as loose as ever, the puns elicit the right amount of groans, and this one dashes through the season without too much desperate plot contortions. The magnificent cast of 7 all deliver well - Andrew Kay (again fulfilling the job of writer/narrator/general plot-dogsbody), Sue Gore-Phillips as an imperious Dr Repenstein, Ewan as the subservient Ewgor, Antonia Kitzl and Michael Hemming (apologies, actually Michael Cooper) as a pair of bodysnatchers-cum-scientists, Jemima Phillips bringing back Wanda June for a chance to see her in a better play than her first appearance, and Peter McDonald making with the Boom-Boom on drum kit.

It's fast, it's silly, it's probably pretty indulgent, but dammit, Christmas isn't Christmas without the Rep Christmas Panto, and long may it continue to sail.

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Coda For Shirley, The Acting Company and Shadowhouse Pits, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

So, that may be the shortest retirement since Nellie Melba, John Farnham or Cher.

Yes, I'm back after recent rounds of feeling sorry for myself. And this ... okay, to be completely fair to the show, I've mentioned previously that poetic drama is not entirely my bag. (my review of "Under Milk Wood" a few years ago basically spends a bunch of time admitting I know other people like this but it isn't my thing, but it's well presented for something that isn't my thing). ANd Geoff Page's play is most definitely poetic - looking at four members of an extended family as they look on the legacies of past loves and family dramas. It's the third play of a trilogy and there is a certain sense in this one that a lot of the significant action took place back in the first two plays (although I haven't seen them, it's clear there's signifcant backstory in them) - as the title suggests, this is a bit of an afterword rather than a fully formed plot on its own. Geoff Page definitely has a nice turn of phrase, though for my mind it tends to work better in monologue than in dialogue, and the text is delivered well by the cast but ... this falls into the "nice" and "well crafted" for me rather than the dynamic-gets-my-heart-racing that I really crave.

Micki Beckett is at the centre in both the staging and in the text of the show, and her Shirley is something to be treasured. Rueful, funny, romantic and forgiving, she's the best mum and grandma anybody could ever want - gently human. The middle-aged duo of daughters, Nikki-Lyn Hunter and Elaine Noon both have the thinner material - the poetry doesn't necessarily individuallise the sisters particularly as both seem to talk pretty similarly, and the revelation they come to doesn't, in this standalone presentation, feel particularly cathartic (again, this may be the problem with seeing this without knowing the other two plays) - but both actresses do reasonably with the material they have, as they drift further into the vino. Alex McPherson establishes a chummy warmth with the audience as the youngest castmember, Jen, whose relation to the rest becomes apparent during the course of the story, and gives her material an easygoing charm.

Kate Blackhurst's production brings a lot out from the actresses but can't spice up the essentially static nature of Page's scrip. Ronan Moss' set design features some distinctly retro-looking furniture but gives the spaces a separate identity in keeping with the character's mode.

I do feel like i'm slightly damning this with faint praise, but ... again, maybe I'm not the perfect audience for this, with my slight resistance towards poetic drama and unfamiliarity with the previous two plays. But this is a chance to see Micki Beckett on stage, which I haven't had for a year, so I can't regret the afternoon spent on that basis.

Friday, 30 November 2018


Due to hurt feelings from my last review, I feel very uncomfortable reviewing any further work or engaging in any way with its director. I've tried to keep this blog relatively collegial, where I don't interfere with the right of artists to do their work the way they want and in return, they don't interfere with my right to respond in the way I choose. That polite exchange has been broken. And I don't know that it can be healed particularly easily. I am aware that in one private conversation a year and a half ago I was intemperate. I wasn't aware that was going to be held against me forever. But apparently it is.

So, we're on a hiatus.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

One Man Two Guvnors, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Carlo Goldoni's commedia-inspired "Servant of Two Masters" is one of those classics that can always stand a revival as long as you've got the right leading man playing the titular servant. In an Australian context the translation written for the Old Tote in the 70s, originally entitled "How could you believe me when I said I'd be your valet when you know I've been a liar all my life" and starring Drew Forsythe has stuck around a reasonably long time (returned to its standard, non-marquee-busting title, it got a Nimrod revival in the 80s and was picked up by Bell Shakespeare in the 2000s to be a vehicle for their talented clown Darren Gilshenan). The Richard Bean adaptation premiered at the National Theatre in 2011 emerged to prominence on the back of a James Corden performance that launched him into the heights of talk-showdom, and a carefree updating from the renaissance to early-60s Brighton, an England just on the verge of swinging that still had plenty of time for Carry-On style jokes.

This production has the right leading man. Arran McKenna has played the role before (in a much-remembered-by-this-reviewer ANU drama lab production in 2007 where I particularly remember his comic byplay with Erin Pugh, one of the best physical comediennes of her generation), and he knows exactly how the role works - ingratiating himself with the audience quickly and committing himself whole heatedly both to the comic shenanigans and the very real physical hungers that underlie all the comedy. It also has the wonderful Steph Roberts, doing her best Barbara Windsor as the lusty, independent, thoroughly no-bullshit Dolly, and Patrick Galen-Mules upperclass-twitting to perfection as one of the titular Guvnors, Stanley.

Elsewhere, the spread is a little more uneven. There's exposition that feels raced through, there's curtain lines that fall flat, there's running gags that stagger and there's sight gags that fail to pay off. The physical production is big and impressive (and I don't object in principle to people trying big-scale stuff on Canberra stages) but here it often seems like it's trying to compete with the actors rather than compliment their work - the play lives and breathes when the cast is forming a connection to the audience and some of the grandiose nature of the production acts, for me, as a block rather than an assist to having that connection.

I laughed a reasonable amount at this, and for those three key performances this is certainly worth watching. But there's a lot here that could have been improved with a bit more control and focus on the bigger picture.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

12 Angry Men, Everyman, Queanbeyan Bicentennial Hall.

Reginald Rose's play is more than sixty years old, and while it's still a taut effective drama, it's not, for me, an unimpeachable classic. There are rather a lot of contrivances in getting the events in the jury room to play out, as the jurors, provoked by one man who holds out for "Not Guilty", re-examine both the evidence at the trial and their own prejudices, as people reveal at various points they "just happened to see" some extra fact that opens up the case for further discussion, dropped in ways that don't always feel organic to the conversation as much as they seem like something that can push the play closer to its resolution (and of course, all plays are ultimately contrivances to present events to develop towards an interesting resolution, but in this one the gears are a little too obviously apparent). It feels its age slightly when it gets into issues of race (the out-and-out racist is deliberately kept vague as to what race he's racist against, in a way that definitely feels contrived) and in some unexamined sexism near the end of the play as the one female offstage character referred, a witness to the crime, has her evidence questioned using some fairly iffy dimestore psychology. And it does have a few moments when it confuses drama with "Everybody yells at each other a lot" in ways that feel a bit like pointless machismo.

Having said that, it's a well known play and one where the title will sell tickets (while one of the alternate-gendered variants on the title "Twelve Angry Women" or "Twelve Angry Jurors" might not), so I understand the marketing decision to do it (and, well, other people probably don't have my nitpicks so they may actually like it anyway). And Everyman's production is mostly a pretty effective one - performed in the round, from my seat (midway down the table) everything was audible and clear (I understand reports have varied between performances). In a cast of 12 (well, 13 including baliff), I'm not going to list everyone, but I will pick out a couple. Certainly it's good to have Isaac Reily back onstage after way too long a gap as the inciting juror number 8 - in a performance that's precise, sturdy and solid as he picks away at each of his fellow jurors towards finding some level of certainty. As his chief antagonist, Rob DeFries combines surface charm with under-the-surface-bitterness as it becomes increasingly obvious what hidden agendas are driving him. Elsewhere around the table there's a mix of familiar and unfamiliar performers, with most serving their characters reasonably (although I tend to think most of the characters are written pretty thinly with maybe only one or two personality traits, and not everyone really managed to conceal that to bring us something that felt a bit more rounded). The points where the tension boils over and fights get louder tended to feel a bit messy - movement and focus became unclear and it all became a bit of undifferentiated yelling.

All in all, despite the in-the-round approach this did feel a little bit distanced - both by the decision to keep it based in the US in the 50s, by my own issues with the script, and by a performance style that keeps this very "classic movie" - this isn't a production that surprises anywhere except in the curtain call music (I did love the curtain call music). Everybody's doing what they're doing pretty well, it's just ... I didn't often have that sense of discovery or being taken away in the moment. And that's kinda why I go to the theatre.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

Godspell, Queanbeyan Players, The Q

"Godspell" is a very early-seventies kinda musical - a look at Jesus with mostly the parables through a mix of improv-style comedy and a folky-style of music with lyrics drawn from traditional hymns, finishing with Christ's passion and execution. There are obvious parallels with that other big Jesus musical that seems to hit the stage fairly regularly, but this also has significant differences - there's far more emphasis on spiritual teaching, the score is far more shared around the ensemble, and there's less howling for power-notes all the time. It's a very sincere show that allows a lot of opportunities for a production to choose its own way into it (the parables and songs allow for a range of different presentation - in a weird way, this is a very Brechtian kinda religions show).  Best remembered, perhaps, is the original Toronto production that launched the careers of comedians like Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas (four would go on to create the legendary Canadian sketch comedy series "SCTV" - Radner would go on to be one of the original stars of "Saturday Night Live", taking with her both the show's musical director (Paul Shaeffer) and its saxaphone player (Howard Shore)).

Queanbeyan Players takes this and runs with it, experimenting with the show in a lot of different ways. Not all the experiments pay off completely, but more do than don't. A game-for-anything cast of ten with a carefully deployed backup choir that only emerges in a couple of big moments give the parables a warm sense of humour and gentleness. Alexander Gorring and Anthony Swadling are the only ones directly playing familiar biblical figures (Gorring as Jesus, Swadling playing a role that morphs from John the Baptist to Judas over the course of the evening), and both have great moments (in particular the double-edged "All for the Best", shared between the two), but so does everybody else (Emily Ridge giving a heartfelt and beautifully sung version of the show's biggest hit, "Day by Day", Kirsten Haussmann a sultry and hilarious "Turn Back Oh Man", Lauren Granger is heartbreaking in my personal favourite song of the score  "By My Side", Aaron Sims gives a bouncy "We Beseech Thee", Joe Moores a powerful "All Good Gifts", Sarah Hull a slammingly good "Bless the Lord", Michael Jordan a rocking "Light of the World" and Alyce King a sweet "Learn your lessons well". The company combines beautifully on the touching moments just before the finale with "On the Willows", and the finale version of "Beautiful City" (added for the movie and then incorporated formally for 2011 revisions) is a gorgeous way to wrap the show up.

There are a couple of hiccups - the opening moment in the foyer is one of those things where if it could have been blended through to get the audience into the theatre it woulda completely paid off (and in actual perforamnce and presentation, it's impressive, but the fact it's followed by a few minutes of practically getting the audience into the theatre means it feels separated from the show in a way that it probably shouldn't be) - and Alexander Gorring's Jesus was showing a couple of moments of vocal strain. But I felt the warmth and the tightness of a company of actors engaged with pure storytelling in an emotionally direct way, the foremost quality that defines a good Godspell. It's a very sincere and heartfelt show, and if you're looking for glossy polished surfaces, this is not the show for you. It's a show that reaches across the footlights and holds you in its heart with strength and compassion. And this production meets that challenge head on.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

An Enemy of the People, Belvoir

For me, this is a near-miss. A combination of a couple of creative decisions means that a promising update of Ibsen's classic drama of standing alone against popular opinion ends up feeling just that little bit flatter than it should.

First, the good. Kate Mulvany is a powerhouse performer and casting her as Ibsen's protagonist gives the play so much additional power. And when the rubber hits the road in the second act (particularly in the public meeting at the top of the second act), Ibsen's play feels utterly current in its look at whistleblowing, how an individual can be demolished by the society around them and how a conspiracy of silence actually works. There's also strong imagery in the basic design.by Mel Page (both in the last scene of the first act and the second scene of the second act - though the design in the last scene of the first act both looks visibly impressive and doesnt' entirely make sense in the situation of the play - why is Dr STockman walking through a steam room when the steam is made up of toxic water? Is the toxicity removed simply by boiling it? In which case why isn't she just suggesting boiling it first?)

Still, that same design also weakens the production. The glass-boxed patio, while useful for a couple of stage images, means that too much of the action is played at a slight cut-off from the audience (miked inside the box, with voices amplified outside), and it means much of the second scene of act one and the second scene of act two just don't feel quite as immediate and engaging. Like all stage devices, these need to be used carefully and this just feels like a recycle.

And the gender change feels like it hasn't gone far enough. Peter Carroll, Leon Ford and Steve LeMarquand in particular are fine and well regarded actors (and Charles Wu and Kenneth Moraleda are equally as strong, if less well known), but the play would only gain if one or more of these roles had been cast female - as it stands, this presentation of the play simplifies things to "good women versus bad men", and that's surely too simplistic a way of telling the story. There's interesting complex roles going begging for women here, and it'd give us a wider sense of the world if women were allowed to play both sides of the debate rather than just being stuck on one.

Melissa Reeves adaptation also sometimes feels a bit under-thought through  - she introduces a thread of class-consciousness into the play, but it feels imposed rather than part of the material (it doesn't have a parallel in Ibsen and while it's not the worst idea in the world, it's too marginal to matter), and there are occasions when some of the dialogue fails to sit comfortably on the actors.

Still, there's Mulvaney and the rest of the cast delivering strong performances in what is, in its bones, a strong play (even if there are occasional hiccups). This is a "almost gets there" show.

Book of Mormon, Lyric Theatre sydney

Yeah, I'm late to this one - it's about to close in Sydney and it's a good year and a half since the Australian production first opened in Melbourne - but I had an afternoon off, it's about to leave Sydney and it was time I got around to it. I was already very familiar with the US cast recording (and have even bought a copy of the script), but it was time to see how this held up on stage, and is it worth the somewhat exorbitant prices? The answer is "pretty well" and ... "possibly".

There is a reason why this is an international hit - it's tuneful and wickedly funny, and the combination of Parker and Stone from "South Park" and Bobby Lopez from "Avenue Q" and "Frozen" turns out to be a great trio. Parker and Stone's fascination with Mormon theology (which has popped up both in their film "Orgazmo" and during "South Park") gets explored in a way that both points out the ludicrousness of the beliefs and the otherwise-good-intentions of the people involved in spreading them, and the songs and script give the most sensible attitude to the Africans that the Mormons are meant to be enlightening. If, yes, it's also full of fairly brutal honesty about the nature of both modern African culture and the nonsense of theology, it's remarkably willing to let pretty much everybody have a redemptive ending. Casey Nicolaw's production keeps things visually distinctive with bouncy choreography and fast flowing effective design which knows how to emphasise every gag and cut to the chase as quickly as possible.

If there's a problem, it's a problem common to a lot of long-running professional shows -this does feel just that little bit too glossy - there's no sense that there's anything really "live" in this show any more, that most of the cast is pretty much going through exactly the same motions they will be going through for months ahead. And I don't really get a sense of anything individual from any of the performers - everybody seems very stuck in a track which was set down by another performer years ago. And that makes this slightly less fun for me  -even as I'm aware it's the nature of the beast that this can't be varied that much, it does kill the "live"ness of a show just that little bit.

But as what this is, yes, it's indeed a very finely polished fun machine.

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Heathers, The Musical, Gunghalin College Theatre

30 years ago, "Heathers" was probably the coolest teenage rebellion film of the year. Combing a just-emerging Winona Ryder with a never-better Christian Slater as two teenagers who find themselves up against the most hostile high school of the 80s outside of actual slasher flicks, ruled over by the ultrabitchy and ultraglam Heathers. Daniel Waters script is incredibly quotable, the film is razor sharp and it entranced a generation of disenchanted teens (and anybody else who remembered teen angst).

Hitting off-broadway 4 years ago, the musical has had a pretty good launch worldwide (with productions in London and Sydney). And there's a good solid tunestack from composer Laurence O'Keefe and lyricist Kevin Murphy, although there's also a couple of cases of "this is a song because people remember that bit of the movie" and perhaps a little too much softening of the nastier edges of the original  - also the addition of material outside the perspective of the lead character, Veronica, while probably inevitable in any adaption that isn't going to produce a show that utterly overwhelms its lead, means we lose her personal snarky sarcastic tone (and some of the new material, being placed in the mouths of characters originally written as somewhat shallow peripheral figures, tends towards being pretty crude rather than clever or witty).

This production largely works well with the material it's got - it's well paced, it knows how to individualise and explore it's ensemble, and despite being written, co-directed, musical directed and choreographed by men, there's a refreshing lack of female objectification (there is a reasonable amount of male objectification with three of the male leads appearing in tighty whities, but the only problem I have with that is that I've known Pippin Carroll since he was around 13 and therefore it feels creepy looking at him all buffed up in a tight pair of jocks, but that's my own personal baggage). There's a major problem with the lighting, though, as significant scenes tend to be either under-lit or not lit at all, and this suggests either an overly rushed or not very well planned lighting-and-plotting process during tech (either cast don't know where their light is or the lighting team don't know where the cast is meant to be). Belle Nicol as Veronica has the snarky tone and a strong singing voice, although there are a couple of moments in the upper end of her register where she was straining a little and notes got approximate. Will Huang hosts his usual powerhouse voice and a truly alarmingly cool hairstyle with the twistedly troubled JD, although .. well, Will gets cast a fair bit in things and I usually like seeing him, but ... may the theatre gods forgive me, I do feel like I've seen bits of this performance before, meaning it, perhaps, very slightly lacked freshness. The three titular Heathers are great both as a unit and individually - their introductory trio "Candy Store" is a highlight of character, singing and choreography coming together to lock in this trio as menacing, fascinating and enthralling. Charlotte Gearside as head Heather (Chandler) has every merciless put-down right, moves like a goddess, sings like a demon and dances with precision and intent.  Mikayla Brady as the dopiest Heather (McNamara) has a great sense of blithe adorability up until the point when everything gets too much for her. Maddy Betts as second-in-command-Heather (Duke) seethes wonderfully until her time to take control arrives, at which point she's got all the terrifying authority of someone who just grabbed power for the first time. Pippin Carroll and Pierce Jackson as school bullies Kurt and Ram are a perfect pair of meatheads, embodying the characters brutally moronic presence.

As the previous may make clear, for me this production was a mixed bag - the material's got weaknesses that the production wasn't able to work around, and there were a couple of production hiccups that I couldn't quite get round. I think it's a fair attempt, but I do wish it was all-round stronger.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Feather in the Web, Griffin, Stables Theatre

This is a fun look at a slightly surreal anti-romantic comedy, as the distinctly unconventional Kimberley (Claire Lovering) finds filling in as a caterer at the engagement party of Miles (Gareth Davies) and Lily (Michelle Lim Davidson) - and instantly falls in love with Miles. Ingratiating herself into the lives of Miles and Lily in an attempt to win Miles for herself, she rips apart the world around them, full of karaoke, improv classes and high-powered business. Nick Coyle's script does feel a little like a series of sketches rather than a sustained narrative (in particular, the first three or four scenes, before Kimberley meets Miles, are entertaining but feel slightly like padding in retrospect - theoretically they serve to establish her, but she comes pretty fully formed from the moment she comes on stage, and none of this background material is particularly relevant). But the show's consistently funny and, in Ben Winspear's production, keeps constantly moving as Davies, Davidson and the show's fourth actor, the luminous Tina Bursill, switch roles constantly throughout the show (I must admit, I'd considered Davies a fine actor who tended towards one or two stage personas, but he showed a lot more versatility than I was expecting  - but Bursill is the highlight whatever role she's switched into, whether it be Miles' snobby mother, a harried improv teacher or a randomly drunk karaoke participant). It even manages, somehow, to come through with a poignant ending as we get a sense that Kimberley's doomed pursuit may be better than the conventional happy ending Miles and Lily are headed for. Provocative, clever and constantly surprising.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Shrek the Musical, Free Rain Theatre Company, The Q

It's been a while since I've reviewed a local musical on this blog - well, excluding Dogfight, which I did about a month and a half ago. It's partially that I've felt a lot of the material is over-familiar to me, partially that ... well, have you seen the film blog? I've been reviewing a LOT of films lately, and that's taken a bit of priority over theatre.

But anyway, theatre is my first love, and it's good to see a "not previously given a production in Canberra" show. I have seen "Shrek: The Musical" before (on Broadway, a bit under a decade ago), and as material goes it's good but has a coupla flaws. This production goes along with that - there's some highlights, but also some clunky bits.

For a start, this does have a teensy bit of a running time issue. Excluding intermission, this is a good 40 minutes longer than the movie, pushing out to a slightly young-kid-challenging 2 and a half hours (there were definite whinges from the boys sitting behind me near the end). And while the movie was pretty good about playing tight and irreverent, the musical occasionally finds itself a little bogged down. David Lindsay-Abaire (book and lyrics) and Jeanine Tesori (music) are highly qualified people (Tesori's done one of my favorite scores of recent years, "Fun Home", and Lindsay-Abaire did the clever book for "High Fidelity" and has a great backlog of plays from the sassily sexy "THe Little Dog Laughed" to the thinkily political "Good People") but this does suffer slightly from clunkiness. In particular, the titular Shrek slightly suffers from having a dearth of solos in act one and a overload of introspective solos in act two (both of them within the space of about ten minutes) - we don't really get a chance to just be with him before he's invaded by all the other fairy tale characters and off doing plot things, and by the time he's given space to just be him, he's at his lowest ebb and we get two songs with pretty similar purposes (both good songs, just ... there's one too many). In general, there's a little too much time spent in the denoument (not only do we get both of Shrek's solos, we also get a group number for the fairy tale characters who haven't been seen for about two hours by the time they come back, and it's kinda difficult to care about them or think of their number as anything but padding at a time when the show desperately needs to be finding its way to the ending).

Having said that, there's great stuff in here. First there's Max Gambale - who I'm sure I've raved enough about previously. This is the first time he's basically carried most of a show and ... while the material doesn't always serve him as well as it might, he sings it strong and mighty and hits both the cantankerousness and the soulfulness with aplomb. Laura Murphy plays Princess Fiona in a style somewhat consistent with her loony Leonora in "Cry Baby" and it actually works wonderfully (it helps she has lyrical assistance - one of her songs describes her as "a bit bipolar" and she takes that and runs with it in an adorably nutty way. Joel Hutchings finds his calling in the loose and goofy comedy of Donkey (he may look like a leading man but being a goofball suits him so very much), and Martin Searles is a hilariously diabolical and vain Farquaad. Tegan Braithwaite as Dragon has a great voice and soulful presence that gives a character with not-very-much-stage-time a genuine power and, eventually, pathos (her song's the one major improvement over Broadway, where the dragon proved to be one of those things the show hadn't quite worked out how to handle yet).

There's very impressive sets and costumes too - Martin Searles' double duty doesn't mean he's scrimped on some fairly elaborate sets (hooray, no projections!) that move the setting nicely with minimal fuss (The Q is not the easiest place to do this kinda thing either - being a fairly big stage with no flytower), and Fiona Leach covers the ridiculously hefty costume demands with skill and glamour.

Yalaria Rodger's direction is a mixed success - she gets a lot of the simpler scenes between small groups of characters very well, and is able to frame strong stage pictures (including using bits of the Q I haven't seen in use before!). But the ensemble scenes between the fairy tale characters are a bit of a mess - both of their songs lack clear focus on who's singing a particular line at any one time, meaning it becomes a bit of an exercise in searching down who's actually got this line (killing a lot of good jokes). Musical direction from Katrina Tang and Ian McLean is consistently strong, and Michelle Heine's choreography  is witty and silly and spectacular whenever required to be.

All in all, this is a mixed bag - a production with significant strengths and a couple of significant weaknesses. It's worth it for the cast and a lot of the production, even if I have a few issues with elements.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Calamity Jane, ONe Eyed Man productions in association with Neglected Musicals and Hayes Theatre Co, Belvoir Theatre

This one's been doing the rounds a while (originally hitting the stage at the Hayes last year, it toured to Canberra in August before playing its Sydney season at Belvoir, but due to different timings of season announcements, I'd booked for the Belvoir season before I realised there was a Canberra season, so ... here's this one). But it comes fresh and easy, an entertainingly loose version of the 1953 movie musical and its slightly lesser known 1961 stage adaptation that brings out the goofy fun in the material. Playing very much to the audience - both the one onstage, and also reaching out into the one in the auditorium, it captures a pure sense of fun.

The main issues are with the material, which, well, is 55 years old. Inspired/borrowed/ripping-off the recently-successful "Annie Get Your Gun", this is another look at a gun-toting Western woman who bustles up against a male lead who's somewhat jealous, and sees her involved in showbusiness. This is somewhat better about maintaining the female lead's dignity (although it still gets a bit messy in act two), and gives Calamity a full community to be part of and beloved by, rather than the slight sideshow oddity that Annie Oakley tends to stay. Even if the song stack isn't quite as strong as Irving Berlin's masterpiece, this holds true as pretty good material, and Virginia Gay makes the uncouth and ungainly Calamity a wonderfuly endearing heroine, singing bold and brassily and otherwise goofing and playing around as the plot demands. Laura Bunting as the more feminine Katie Brown is gently appealing and not too goody-goody, and Sheridan Harbridge as the inelegant ingenue Susan and the brassily bitchy Adelaide Adams is equally apealling. There's a little bit of stiffness to the two male romantic leads - Anthony Gooley's Wild Bill Hickock comes across a bit vaguely in act one and when he becomes more important in act two, it somwehat feels as if he's being bundled in just so we can get to a hapy ending - and Matthew Pearce's Lt DAnny Gilmartin never really is more than a nice set of abs and a charming tenor. In the comedy roles, Rob Johnson as the hapless Francis Fryer and Tony Taylor as pushy proprietor Henry Miller hit every laugh they're going for and then some with alomb.

Look, this is mostly a delight, and my act two quibbles are, in the bigger scheme of things, pretty marginal - in a season at Belvoir that has been deeply uneven, this has given the most straightforward pleasure I've had in that venue. And Virgina Gay's Calamity is a thing to treasure. But dammit, I wish I loved it all the way through rather than feeeling a bit "oh, yeah, this is the plot we had to have" in act two.

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

The Misanthrope, Bell Shakespeare and Griffin Theatre Company, Playhouse, Sydney Opera House

Moliere's comedies often feel a tad formulaic - one or two characters are obsessed by something (money in "The Miser", religion in "Tartuffe", hypochondria in "The Imaginary Invalid", literature in "The Learned Ladies" etc), most of their household tries to dissuade them, their obsession starts to threaten young lovers, eventually the obsession is broken and the young lovers get married. "The Misanthrope" is a bit different, as Moliere doesn't entirely disagree with the titular obsession - the dislike of human kind and their foibles - in particular, in this play, the polite fictions that society runs upon with small talk and false praise. It's also far more of a social rather than domestic comedy with most of the action taking place in fashionable salons and drawing rooms.

This production fiddles with the timeframe, milieu, and genders of a few of the cast - most noticeably, the titular Misanthrope switches from male to female, their beloved Celimene becomes the male Cymbeline, and events move from the 17th century aristocracy to the 21st century fashionable world of pop music. Not all of this works, but I don't know that it's necessarily the updating that's at fault so much as particular aspects of the translation - Justin Fleming's rhyming dialogue is a little too keen on indulging in cheap Australian colloquialisms for quick laughs rather than really delving into the characters and their issues - and while that's worked with Moliere's other plays, "THe Misanthrope" really does get pretty deep into philosophical argument and takes its characters a bit more seriously than this production really chooses to. Cymbeline in particular suffers - the translation I know best, the Tony Harrison one from the 70s, treats her as a delightfully bitchy and witty figure who's seductive power is never in doubt, while this version has him being largely a standoffish himbo (Ben Gerrard gets to show off very impressive abs, but we never quite get the sense why he's an object of romantic fascination for about half the cast). Danielle Cormick does capture a lot of Alceste's frustration with the world, and the age gap between her and Cymbeline isn't, in theory, a bad idea, but it pushes things into shallow infatuation more than I think the work requires. Rebecca Massey as Alceste's more reasonable (or alternatively, more pliable) friend Phillipa, shows why I've always loved seeing her on stage - she's funny and pragmatic and always enjoyable. The remaining cast are pretty reasonable but not given quite as much material to work with as these key three.

Dan Potra's set gives a convincing air of a music-video studio, slowly stripped of clutter as the cast get closer to truth, and the music by MAx Lambert and Rodger Lock has a chilly elegance that suits Cymbeline pretty well. And this isn't a complete writeoff - Lee Lewis is too skilled to completely fail. But I do wish that the central dynamic worked just that little bit better and the script respected the show's "villain" just a little bit more.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Dogfiht, ANU Musical Theatre Company, Belconnen Community Theatre

"Dogfight" was an early work for the powerhouse team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who've since succeeded wildly both on Broadway ("Dear Evan Hansen") and in Hollywood ("La La Land", "The Greatest Showman"). For all that, it's a piece that has its natural home in a smaller theatre - the focus is mostly pretty tight on the two protagonists, with everybody else in the background. The genre is familiar stuff (three soldiers on their last day before shipping out meet up with girls for a night on the town ... it's pretty much "On the Town"!), but with a couple of harsher twists - the boys are shipping out to Vietnam, not World War 2, and the girls are being chosen as part of a "Dogfight" - the guy who brings the most "unattractive" girl wins a cash prize.

Its' a clever choice for a student musical theatre company - it has depth, it has writers with good credentials, it's got a lot of roles for a young student-aged cast. I must admit I don't entirely love the show on this presentation - Pasek and Paul's songs tend in this one to be very much of the "the idea of the song is in the title, and it repeats it as much as possible" persuasion, with not a lot of interesting development or storytelling going on within the songs. And they never entirely get past the simple problem with the scenario- you don't really want boy to get girl because boy starts as a bit of a creep and, while he attempts to reform later, he mostly ends up only as an apologetic creep rather than anyone likeable. THe musical form isn't always known for the greatest character depth, but in this case nearly everybody is written just a little too thin - the occasional character notes that spring up feel throwaway rather than anything that really shapes something rounded.

In this production, there's a couple of standout things. The best material in the show is written for the female lead, Rose, played here by an exceptional Tegan Braithwaite. Her innocent open-book attitude means she's the one character in the show who's really engaging and interesting, and she manages to make believable that Rose would return to a guy who's never really quite worthy of her. The band under musical director Jack Quail is tight and strong, delivering funky rhythms throughout. Set design by Kat Carrington is the best I've ever seen in the tricky space of the Belconnen Community theatre - it's never been my favourite Canberra performance space, but she makes the best case for it I've seen. Daisy Sibtain as Marcy is impressive in the brief moments she has material, playing sardonic and bitter as the one character who seems fully self-aware and has everybody else pegged pretty well too.

I didn't regret seeing this - it's a chance to see a show that I doubt I'll see many other places - but between only being a middling show and some less-impressive performance in the rest of the ensemble, I can't call this a complete success. But it's a nice demosntration of some of the strengths of ANU musical theatre.

Friday, 24 August 2018

A Taste of Honey, Belvoir Street Theatre

Shelagh Denaney's play about a teenage girl and her fractured relationship with both her mum and the various men in her life was a sensation in 1958 - rough as guts, sexually provocative and hilarious. But sixty years later, it falls flat in this production - partially due to yesterday's provication being today's old-hat, partially due to a production that holds back and feels a little distant from the hot emotional material on offer.

I've seen Taylor Ferguson be highly skilled before, but here, she's just not the rebel the role demands. She's a sullen, discontented teen,but her rebellion is never really very present in her performance - she's more mildly grumbling than actively rebelling. Her self-indulgent mum played by the equally talented Genevive Lemon never really gets the full status of a full blown monster - again, she's too damn mild. The first act in particular drags, as both mother and daughter take up with two separate men - JoshMcConville was engaging as recently as "The Sugar House" back in May, but here there's just not that much material for him to bite into, similarl for Thuso Lenwape as the daughter's merchant navy beau. Things improve in the second act as the daughter drifts into a platonic relationship with Tom Anson Mesker's gay lodger, and there's some warmth between them, but the payoff doesn't quite feel worth the setup.

Mel Page's set keeps up too much of a distance from the audience to the cast - it's not THAT different to the design for "Hir" last year, but while that got out and grabbed the audience and dragged them into the low-budget housing nightmare its cast lived in, this one feels too much like a museum where the passion never crosses into the audience - it's period, but so what. Australian accents are used but, again, don't really do much to get this material to emotionally engage the audience .

So it's another dead fish from Belvoir. Hoping for beter next time.

Monday, 20 August 2018

Cry-Baby, LPD and Hayes Theatre Co, Hayes Theatre

"Cry-Baby" is a show that got a bit of a rough deal on Broadway. Being the second attempt at a John Waters musical on broadway (with the same script team as "Hairspray", but a different composing team), comparisons were perhaps inevitable, and, for good or evil, this doesn't quite have the slickness of "Hairspray" - it feels like it has a lot more John Waters in it, with bad taste in abundance, and it's a lot more cynical about its social messages than "Hairspray" is. Further away, though, what you see is a show that is thoroughly wild fun - a broadranging satire on the conflict between the ultra-conservative "Squares" and the wildly unonventional "Drapes", with a sweet love story in the middle. Mark O'Donnell' and Thomas Meehan's script is quippy, fast and hilarious, and while the songs by Adam Schlesinger and David Javerbaum are mostly pastiche, the lyrics are consistently clever (and if they get a little thesaurausy here and there, they do at least recognise it and make ufn of that as well)

THe first thing to note, perhaps, is how Isabel Hudson's set design has largely solved the problems of the tiny Hayes THeatre stage by, counter-intuitively, shrinking the stage still further into a tiny box with a couple of surprise doors here and there. There's a deliberate choice by director Alexander Berlage's to have the Squares spend most of their time "inside the box" while the out-there-Drapes can use the trapdoors to intrude on the sterile perfection that the Squares aspire to. There's constant playful choices that maximise the fun, and the show moves like gangbusters - you're never waiting too long for the next good bit.

The cast is a consistently game ensemble of 14. Everybody's perfect for what they're doing - whether it be our dopey rockabilly hero, "the most popular loner in town" played to sweet perfection by Christian Charisiou; our heroine the all-american-girl-who-wants-to-break-out played by Ashleigh Rubenach, her grandmother the perfectly poised ettiquette godess played by Beth Daly, the too-perfect-to-be-true boyfriend Baldwin played with increasing psychosis by Joel Grange, the crazed stalker Lenora played by a utterly batshit Laura Murphy, or the rest who bounce in and out of characters on either side of the Drape/Square divide (also hopping genders with abandon). And along with all the spoofiness there's a dear-god-yes-it-is all out assult on a blockbuster production number with act-two's "A Little Upset" which combines staging, choreography and musical performance to hit that delight that only exceptional musical theatre can really give you. Music Director Nicholas Griffin gives us a five person ensemble that really rocks the joint, and all round this is just the best fun I'm probably going to have in a musical this year. Deliriously good.

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

The Almighty Sometimes, Griffin, Stables Theatre

"Almighty Sometimes" is a play that boldly announces a strong new writing voice. Kendall Feaver is a young Australian playwright who's already found considerable success in the UK before having her first work premiere back home - which, alas, isn't necessarily as unusual as it should be. The setup is simple - a young woman has been medicated for mental illness since she was eight. Now, at eighteen, emerging into adulthood, she starts to wonder who she really is underneath the medication, and starts skipping doses. As the fallout affects her, her mother, her shrink and her new possible boyfriend, the tangled world of mental health gets increasingly precarious.

I can't imagine this being done better - it's taken me way too long to realise just how good director Lee Lewis is at the simple nuts-and-bolts of keeping a production ever-flowing and perfectly judged to make every bit of impact it can make. And there's a powerhouse quartet in the middle too - Brenna Harding makes our protagonist equal parts understandable and deeply concerning, Hannah Waterman makes her mum both adorable and frustrating, Shiv Pakelar as the potential boyfriend has a generous openness about him - kind, gentle but also passionate. Penny Cook as the shrink has the role that is a little tricky - the shrink very much keeps her professional distance, which can lead to her coming off as cold, but it's still clear how difficult she finds keeping the boundaries clear.

This is the kind of stuff I go to Griffin for - new voices given their best possible production in an intimate and heartfelt production. Well worth seeing.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

The Judas Kiss, Mockingbird Theatre, Courtyard, Canberra Theatre

In the late 90s, three major plays about Oscar Wilde were produced. One, "The Invention of Love" by Tom Stoppard, is really only in on a technicality as he's a five-page cameo, but inevitably when you've got Tom Stoppard writing Oscar Wilde, the wit pours like gold, and in those five pages, when Wilde converses with the poet A.E. Houseman about art and love, there's theatrical magic (the play, incidentally, has never, as far as I can tell, had a production in Australia - probably due to a slightly dense first act that's largely about Latin vocab - the second act however has scenes as witty and heartbreaking as you could ever want that make it worth sitting through act one for). The second,"Gross Indecency" by Moises Kaufman, is the documentary, taken largely from the transcripts of the three trials that disrupted his life, and uses the documentary techniques to examine the trial from multiple angles - we get the social, political and class-issues as well as the suffering artist.

David Hare's play is the personal view - two snapshots before and after Wilde's imprisonment. Hare was a particularly widely performed writer in the 90s - his ability to examine social issues via the personal portrait (and, incidentally, writing huge star parts for Michael Gambon ("Skylight"), Judi Dench ("Amy's View"), Nicole Kidman ("The Blue Room") and himself ("Via Dolorosa")) made him hugely attractive to places like the MTC and the STC. "Judas Kiss" when originally performed had a star who was probably wrong for the part - Liam Neeson (who is Irish but otherwise has few characteristics in common with Oscar Wilde) - but in its first Australian production, found exactly the right star, Bille Brown (in a Belvoir production that toured to Canberra in March 1999) - returning to Australia after a UK career that had seen him performing with the RSC for roughly 11 years to a role that suited him exactly. The equivocating, romantic, sometimes exasperating Wilde sat on Brown like a glove - you couldn't help but recognise the supreme talent of the man even as you recognised how easily he was setting himself up for his downfall.

The play has traps. Hare often gestures towards a more interesting play than he's actually written - there's a well-painted portrait of Victorian sexual hypocrisy at the beginning of the play between three hotel staff, but this stays as background for the rest of the play as the characters aren't really developed and become slightly sentamentilised. Bosie, Wilde's lover and the primary cause of his downfall, is a man who it's almost impossible to paint with a lot of sympathy (his behavior largely indicates an entitled brat with no sense of how his actions affect anybody else) and Hare's play doesn't help matters, having Bosie enter the play as a prat and leave as scum. And the second act has very florid and verbose passages of static conversation, longer than they need to be to prove the point they're making. Plus ... well, as a wit, Hare isn't in Wilde's class, so Wilde's dialogue generally tends to be more airily affable than constantly fascinating - it needs that star in the centre to make the exercise work. There's a theme in the play about love that I wish was developed more - Robbie Ross's frustration in the corner as the ex who is not over his former partner, disapproving of the new partner, looks at this distance like a classic example of "nice guy" syndrome (where the "niceness" is a cover for a raging sense of entitlement over another person's feelings); while Bosie's frustration at being loved so excessively and publicly in a way he's not ready to admit he's incapable of returning is similarly not quite developed in a way that would take the prattish edges off the character and give him dimension.

And yes, now I'm actually getting to the production. This is ... an adequate production. In performances, I particularly liked the servant trio of Meaghan Stewart, Cole Hilder and Arran McKenna in the opening scene, although McKenna's scottish accent does veer on the borders of incomprehensibility). Patrick Galen-Mules does okay by Robert Ross's "decent friend" side but the darker, "entitled to his love" side of the part feels undercooked. Liam Jackson seems underprepared for the difficult role of Bosie - at some points his performance seems like something out of "Blackadder" rather than a serious play. Chris Baldock as Wilde draws the attention and maintains the night like a person in a star part should, but is missing some of the essential lightness of Wilde in act one - he's almost indicating Wilde's fall before it actually happens, so there's not quite as much of a journey as one might want - and in the long act two, he's unable to be compellingly still - there's a lot of fidgeting while he's sitting there observing. Benjamin Balte Rusell has the challenge of performing nude in Italian while having his genitalia commented on - the production doesn't seem to have worked out what purpose his role serves apart from that (from memory, the Belvoir production gave him some bubbly genial charm that offset the otherwise grim nature of the rest of Act Two - this doesn't give him that but there's not a lot else to replace it).

Karina Hudson's direction doesn't really wrestle with the challenges Hare's script presents, or if it does, it doesn't succeed in finding resolution for them. It's also got issues with sightlines (characters who sit on the couch disappeared behind the audience member in front of me from where I was sitting). Anna Senior's costumes have a good sense of period although some of them are worn a little roughly.

I had hoped for better from Mockingbird in their first production - I've been anticipating this for a while - but this is fairly middling stuff.

Friday, 27 July 2018

Happy Birthday Wanda June, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Kurt Vonnegut isn't really known as a playwright - his one play, "Happy Birthday Wanda June" had a short run off-broadway in 1970-71 (and a 6 week revival this year, again off-broadway), was turned into a barely remembered film and then disappeared into the collection of "also wrote a play" alongside those by authors like David Malouf, Thomas Keneally, Henry James and Doris Lessing - a literary curio rather than a perennial. Still, someone's decided to put this on stage anyway so here it is.

It's a very 70's mix of broad comedy and drama, dealing with what nowdays we call "toxic masculinity", as the missing-presumed-dead Great White Hunter Harold Ryan returns home to his wife only to discover she has got educated and has acquired two new suitors - a peace-loving doctor and a somewhat more brutish vacuum salesman. While his son celebrates his return, his wife feels inclined to do so, and it quickly becomes clear Harold may have been better left for dead...

This is a bit of a mess - Vonnegut's dialogue doesn't always sit comfortably with actors, and the play is far more interested in bringing up a bunch of interesting themes than in consistently addressing and resolving them in any conventional dramatic way. Still, it comes alive in moments, whether it be letting Ryan off the cuff to be fully monstrous, or in the portrayals of a distinctly amoral afterlife.

Michael Sparks as Ryan hasn't let the fact he's in a less-than-great play stop him from giving a great performance anyway - his satanically bearded Ryan is a bombastic, destructive creature but damn if he's not interesting to watch. Part of the problem with the play, in fact, is that nobody really gets to solidly stand toe-to-toe with Ryan until near the end, and even there, it's the wrong goddamn character doing the toe-to-toe-ness (Penelope, who does the opening narration, clearly should be the one to fully combat him, but after some great set-up, she never really gets a moment to cut loose). The three afterlife characters are also presented with a lot of strength (although frustratingly they never quite connect with the main plot of the play - they seem more like interesting diversions than actual plot development) - Jemima Phillips' polyanna-ish Wanda June, Iain Murray's offhandedly sardonic Major Sigfried von Knoisburg and Antoina Kitzl's drunkenly unimpressed Mildred liven up the action considerably. There's also quite a solid performance from young Nick Dyball as Ryan's son, a realistically moody kid who sustains our interest (and who would also have been an interesting choice to deal his father the final blow - can you tell I really found the ending flat?). Jess Waterhouse is most interesting when the script is giving her things to do in the first third-or-so of the play - once Harold arrives the script leaves this charming clever sophisticate and gives her very little to do except hide from her husband. David Bennett as Ryan's fellow-returnee-from-the-jungle lends a bit of entertaining side-play but, yet again, what he has doesn't quite add up to enough to justify the time spent.

Cate Clelland's production gives this as much pace and cartoonish joy as it possibly can take, including some great retro-design both in set (Clelland) and costumes (Helen Wotjas). I just wish that all this skill was dedicated to a better play.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Switzerland, Pidgeonhole Theatre, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

It's a rarer thing than it probably should be for local theatre companies to take part in the Canberra Theatre's subscription season - the last time we saw one was about five years ago with Everyman's "Home at the End". But hopefully with this being a rocking great sell-out hit, the gap may be reduced a little, and maybe, just maybe, the biggest professional venue in town may be persuaded to invest a little more in our own local product.

Anyway, apart from that, how is the show? It's a tight two hander, an Australian-written, European-set, American-characters-led thriller about Patricia Highsmith, best-selling thriller writer best known for "Strangers on a Train" and the Ripley series of books - confronted by a representative of her publishers requesting one more book from her, a young-but-enthusiastic man called Edward Ridgeway. Highsmith's bitterness, rage and defensiveness is high, but the temptation to prove herself one more time proves stronger than she's expecting, and the cat-and-mouse game proves that Ridgeway may not be quite as mousy as he seems...

Joanna Murray-Smith's script is one of her best (for me, she does better when tempted into the more heavily plotted genres of thriller (this) and farce (Female of the Species), rather than the looser moral-conundrum plays like "Honour", "Fury" and "The Gift" she's made her name with). Yep, there are a couple of speeches that wander closer to the-author's-essay-pieces rather than functional character dialogue, but it's a tight evening that succeeds in unpeeling two characters in ways that are constantly thrilling. Jordan Best's production seduces us in - Karen Vickery's venomous Highsmith is an unholy terror who we're glad is firmly on the other side of the footlights to us, and Lachlan Ruffy's Ridgeway proves a worthy adversary - Ruffy still looks ridiculously boyish, damn his hide (I'm sure there's a portrait in his cupboard somewhere), but shows that the long gap we've had between seeing him on Canberra stages hasn't been wasted. Vickery too shows her skill in making Highsmith just the right mix of brutal and engaging - she's a fascinating monster to watch. Michael Sparks' visually dense set contains all the right nooks, crannies and lethal instruments, and Cynthia Jolley Rogers lighting brings the right amount of mood and focus to the shifting onstage power-struggle.

I'd usually say "rush out and buy a ticket" but you can't. Rush out and buy tickets to anything these people are involved in next time, get in early. It's rare that work this good has sold this well (damn you Canberra audiences) but I'm glad that this time, quality has been rewarded and can't wait to see what comes next for everyone involved.

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

John Cameron Mitchell: The Origin of Love, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

This is more a concert/cabaret than theatre, but I'm including it anyway because it was awesome. Singing a range of songs from his musical "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" (eight, skipping "Angry Inch", "Hedwig's Lament", "Exquisite Corpse" and the "Wicked Little Town" reprise), plus a cut song and a few other related extras, with a full backing rock band and backing singer (Amber Martin, who performs a few solos), Mitchell surrounds this with stories of how the show got created and some of the after-effects of the show. If Mitchell is now over 50 (compared to the 30 something who first performed Hedwig) his energy has barely dipped - the harder-rocking songs get full-pitch performances while the ballads still cut just as deep into the heart. And while inevitably there's some blurring of the lines between Hedwig and John CAmeron Mitchell, we get a chance to see a stunning performer giving his all in a culturally iconic show. If this is how Mitchell chooses to perform the songs from now on, I can't say I'd complain very much.

Friday, 29 June 2018

Bliss, Belvoir

This is a show that just plain doesn't work. And the "not working" starts early, with the opening monologue. Adapting Peter Carey's novel is not necessarily a bad idea (it's worked perfectly fine as a film and as an opera) but it has a couple of iconic images that really should be attempted if you're going to adapt this properly. And the opening monologue captures one of these - the "vision splendid", of a woman traversing a flooded town carrying a giant crucifix. Except it's entirely narrated, by Toby Truslove and his particularly fidgety hands. And the monologue just lies there, dead on the stage, buried in Marg Horwell's tasteful pine set.

There are occasional moments when the story gets a little life in it - particularly Anna Samson's Honey Barbara (a character who should be a massive cliche - the earth-mother prostitute who liberates the bewhildered leading man) who gives the show a human energy that otherwise is missing in action most of the time - she feels real and lived in. The mental-hospital sequence at the beginning of Act Two also has a bit of life in it, particularly with Marco Chiappi as a guy who decides that he's going to go with the madness rather than fight against it in the most gleeful of ways.

But otherwise a skilled cast lies pretty much wasted under a boringly directed and adapted version of a classic novel. Novels absolutely can make great stage pieces - most recently, "Jasper Jones" and "The Secret River" brought their particular source material to life. But this is deadly theatre - giving no life to the ideas in the text, all very tasteful and careful but with no idea what the animating centre of the production is beyond "people liked this when it was a book". Whatever adapters Tom Wright (script) and Matthew Lutton (directing) thought they were doing, this is an almost complete failure - and, more embarrassingly, a failure shared between two different theatre companies. I feel great pity for everybody associated with it.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Radio at Repertory Lane, Canberra Rep

Rep has struggled with different approaches to variety since Music Hall put up its clogs about a decade ago - "Jazz Garters" started strongly but became repetitive and a tad self induglent later on, and the Jerry Herman tribute "Showtune" felt underbaked. For the last three years Rep's been leaning more on strong entertainments ("Casanova", "Witness for the Prosecution" and "The 39 Steps" to warm the dead of winter, but now variety returns with a radiophonic twist - a series of sketches and longer pieces paying tribute to the golden age of radio.

This works better in the sketches (pretty much all of which are by John Cleese, with some combination of collaborators), than it does with the longer pieces, but by and large it works as a quick-and-frivolous night out. The longer pieces seem a tad haphazardly chosen - "Flash Gordon" is better known as a film and comic-strip serial than a radio serial because it's strongly visual, and the scripted two parts lean very heavily on narration to provide the action that can't be conveyed on audio. The "Hercule Poirot" episode seems like a loosely targeted tie-in rather than really having classic Agatha Christie elements (Poirot swanning around New York seems wrong, his natural home is some English manor or other), and "Blue Hills" got a lot of attention in its time but very little of it translates 50 years later. A deeper dive to find more robust scripts for 2018 audiences would have helped - maybe, if you're going to raid the Cleese archive, go looking for the longer 15 minute sketches that made up the second half of most "I'm Sorry I'll Read that Again" episodes?

A talented cast give this a lot of verve anyway - with 9 people playing fifty-something roles over 11 sketches, plus filling in on foley for the sound effects, everybody gets a chance to show off their versatility. A few actors spend a little too much time with their heads in the scripts, rather than playing out to the audience - those who play out tend to do better. Fiona Leech's costumes also give this a lot of style as everybody is dressed to the nines giving the evening the feeling of a special occasion.

All in all I enjoyed the night out but can't help wishing they'd picked better for the longer material.

Friday, 8 June 2018

The Sugar House, Belvoir

This is one where I think the production and performances holds together a script that isn't quite as cohesive as it might be. A play about inner-city Sydney and how one family moves through from struggling working class through political activism to the modern real-estate boom, this wins mostly when it concentrates on character - particularly Kris McQuade as grandma June, the matriach that holds the family together and pushes them in their roughest moments. McQuade's always been a great prescence, usually at the periphery (whether it be her Dolly Pickles in Cloudstreet or Jovanka in Neighbourhood Watch) but here at the centre, she's compelling, tough and tender in all the right ways. Sheridan Harbridge as our narrator/protagonist, her granddaughter Narelle ties things together in multiple timeframes, from eager child to prickly teenager to slightly lost adult. Sascha Horler as her mother has a solid performance but her character slightly feels like she's coming in from a separate play - the awkward relationships both upwards to McQuade and downwards to Harbridge only seem to matter when she's actually onstage - Horler gives the role slightly more solidity than the script can really handle. Josh McConville as the reckless uncle has a warm gentleness that endears through some foolish choices, and Nikki Sheils contrasts nicely between his loosely affectionate lover Jenny and the uptight estate agent Prin. Lex Marinos suffers slightly from being placed in multiple roles as he really doesn't find solid points of differentiation outside of costume between the characters and therefore everything seems declaimed at the same level.

Director Sarah Goodes gives it a tight smoothness of action, blending multiple locations in Michael Harkin's sparse and adaptable set that combines a very real sense of space (all dirty windows, pillars and industrial flooring) with room to manouvre. Despite being a long time in the baking (the acknowledgements note Neil Armfield commissioned this, and he hasnt' been artistic director of Belvoir for around 8 years) there still is a slight element where the script hasn't quite found its final focus - but the production's emphasis on the bonds of family and the tensions of class do a lot of work to make this still a compelling night in the theatre.

Gypsy, Luckiest Productions and One Eyed Man Productions, Hayes Theatre

"Gypsy" is considered up in the top tier of Broadway Musicals - it's barnbuster of a lead role, its climactic emotional deconstruction, it's tour through the dying ages of vaudeville all the way into the bottom of the heap in burlesque (and of the surprising rise of the title character as she becomes a unique burlesque phenomenon). It's also notoriously outsized, covering something like 15 years of narrative, with many of the roles doubled between child-and-adult versions of the same character. It's got a big monster of a score by Jules Styne, lyrics by the emerging Stephen Sondheim and a sharp-tongued book by Arthur Laurents.

For all that, I never quite find myself loving productions of "Gypsy", and this, alas, isn't an exception. It may be that I find the first act, in particular, too indulgent in demonstrating the kinda-awful kiddie show act that Mama Rose (Best) imposes on her daughters June (Jessica Vickers and later Sophie Wright) and Louise (Laura Bunting) - it's the kinda thing where seeing it repeatedly feels excessive. There are a lot of compensations - the wayward romance between Rose and her kid's manager Herbie (Anthony Harkin), the romantic moments between Louise and Tulsa (Mark Hill), but the first act feels like it's taking a long time to get us to where we need to be in the second act (there's also the long-winded "HAve an Egroll Mr Goldstone" which feels very much like an imposed showstopper rather than something that should emerge from the characters). The second act, by contrast, is all gravy and wonderful payoffs as Rose, Herbie and Louise find their fates as their failures hit them harder and harder.

Blazey Best as Rose is pushing the desperation from her first entrance and ... it does feel too much, sometimes. I saw her on a weekend matinee and it may be that the week's performance had done a number on her voice but, certainly early in the show she was reaching for vocals she didn't quite have. I can see the outlines of what the performance can be ... but it just wasn't at that place where it all comes naturally out of her. Bunting and Harkin do better fitting into their roles (though the show is scoped so that Best is in the middle for nearly the entire evening). The ensemble have great moments but there's also a couple of cases where it's clear directorial-bright-ideas have settled in ways that don't always fire quite as well as they might. The orchestrations do so well for a five-member member combo under the musical direction of Joe Accaria that it's a pity that the two places it fails come as early as they do, with the underpowered overture and the bossa-nova-ish "Small World".

This is, ultimately, a disappointment. It may be that "Gypsy" really does need all the size and dimensions and bigness of theatre to really work - certainly, on this production, the case for a smaller-scale production has not been made.

Friday, 18 May 2018

Good Cook, Friendly, Clean; Griffin, Stables

After she loses her spot in a share house, 50ish Sandra is sent into a spiral looking for somewhere else to live. As her explorations continue, her situation becomes more and more desperate. How do you survive sudden homelessness at an age when life should be settled?

This kinda didn't work for me. The structure (with each scene featuring Tara Morice's Sandra and different characters in each scene played by Faysall Bazzi and Kelly Paterniti) means there's only one character we really get any insight into, and she's constantly repeating roughly the same situation, seeking their approval to share their house. While Bazzi and Paterniti do good work differentiating the various characters, they're pretty shallow figures, and Morice doesn't necessarily have a lot more to work with - up until near the end you don't get much more of Sandra than a loose outline - the various encounters don't so much illuminate who she is as paint her as an everywoman eager to adapt to whatever other people want her to be. We never really get much sense of what she's been doing with her last 50 years on the planet - what's caused her to be so rootless that she can be chucked aside so easily? The final scenes should hurt much more than they do - there's not much interest in seeing a cyper tortured.

Marion Potts' production is mostly efficient without being spectacular.

This ends up landing more as a good theme for a play that never got depth added beyond the log-line.

Friday, 20 April 2018

Sami in Paradise, Belvoir

Back to Belvoir and to a stripped-down production based on Nikolai Erdman's "The Suicide". Relocated from early-Stalin-era Russia to an unlocated refugee camp, this retains the story of people in desperate need who take the apparent suicide attempt of a friend as a chance to carry all kinds of messages into the outside world. It's played with verve and energy but ... possibly as a product of the way the script was devised (the various cast members collaborated and semi-improvised their roles into the final form), it does tend to lack cohesion - feeling more like a series of sketches than one central production. Yalin Ozucelik has a strong sense of humourous self-pitying misery as the titular Sami, and while the story centres around him, his wife (Victoria Haralabidou) and his mother-in-law (Paula Arundell), it continues on quite nicely. But as events expand, the sense of control starts to slip.

The relocation does appear, alas, largely skin-deep. While the cast is individually excellently talented and the music of Mahan Ghobadi and Hamend Sadeghi gives a nice energetic background, this ends up being light-hearted shenanigans rather than something that really penetrates. Satire needs to be worked like surgery, and instead it seems this is kinda a bit of random slice-and-dicing.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Dr Frankenstein, Canberra Rep

The obsessed doctor and the irate creature sprung from that obsession are a pair that have been adapted frequently across the last two centuries - there's something elementally fascinating about a scientist confronted by the bestial figure born by their own desires. Selma Dimitrijevic's version of Mary Shelly's classic novel draws the focus fairly strongly onto the scientist member of the pair, presenting her obsessions as they start as healthy curiosity and become something far more dangerous.

The only major change to the story as told originally is that the doctor is written female, and no longer has a fiance to be collateral damage in the battle between creator and creation. There's no overriding feminist agenda except for the perfectly fine one of "let's have good parts available for women" (the same agenda that got Sarah Bernhardt playing Hamlet over a century ago). And Jenna Roberts dominates the first half of the play very effecively - whether it be through arguing her responsibilities to her family against her desire to make a space for herself, or demonstrating her scientific experiments with blithe indifference to the fate of those experimented on (her treatment of a lab rabbit is quite startling), or her first experience coming face to face with the man she has reanimated.

There is a flaw that appears in both novel and play that, once the creature comes into existence, the scientist starts to go into retreat, reacting to the creature's provocations rather than beating their own path. And while Jenna Roberts presents very strongly the guilt she feels as unintended consequences start to pile up around her (yes, this is another Jordan Best Rep show with a body count - so far she's not had a show there with everybody as alive as they started), never the less we become more and more intrigued by the creature. And Michael Sparks paints him as a fascinating figure (with the assistance of some truly creepy post-mortem-makeup from Sian Phillips) - emerging first as a strange new-born babe ,both innocent and brutish, before growing increasingly embittered by his encounters with the world. His act two monologues are utterly compelling to watch - giving us a creature who stares us down with disgust at what he has to share a world with.

The remaining cast, inevitably, are largely supporting and there to feed the story of Victoria and her creature - but each have their moments, whether it be the gentle charm of Cole Hilder's Henry, the familial judgement of Georgina Horsburgh's Elizabeth, the terrifying fate of Emily Pogson's Justine or the cold and harsh judgement of Saban Lloyd Bennet's Father.

Matthew Webster's original music lends a funereal mood to the proceedings, setting Percy Shelly's poem "To Night" to suitably specteral tones, with a clever mix of live and pre-recorded singing. Chris Zuber's set design combines with Chris Ellyard's lighting to provide something suitably suggestive and with plenty of eerie spaces to allow fear and doubts to gather. Anna Senior's costumes tell the stories of their characters well - with Victoria's simple unadorned outfits contrasting well with the more ornate ones for Elizabeth and Henry's colourful cravats, supporting who the characters are.

This is not the full-throated gothic grand guignol some may expect - instead it's something more creepy and disconcerting, something that builds and creeps in its effect. If nothing else, it's worth seeing to catch two of Canberra's best actors, Roberts and Sparks, together in scenes of pure brutal power as creator and creation go face to face.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Kill Climate Deniers, Griffin Theatre

Gosh, it's been a while since I've written over here. YEs, there have been shows in Canberra, and no, I haven't seen them, and I have no particular excuse other than ... I just didn't get to them.

So here's the first show of the year I actually saw. Not in Canberra, but at least by a Canberra writer, set largely in Canberra and originally workshopped and tried out in various productions in Canberra before hitting the big smoke. This is a very meta-heavy show, with four women playing most of the characters and Eden Falk playing the author, commenting both on his play and the reaction the title has gotten from right-wingers (this may be the first play to be significantly improved by dramaturgy from Andrew Bolt).

The play-within-the-play is an OTT satire of politics, revolutionary and otherwise, in their reaction to climate change, through the form of a Die-Hard-esque action movie. It's incredibly cartoonish satire done to hilarious perfection by Rebecca Massey as our heroine, besieged Environment minister Gwen Malkin, Sheridan Harbridge as her PR offsider Georgina Bekken, Lucia Mastantone as the terrorist Catch and Emily Clarke as both a sniffy journalist and a mining executive. It plays broad but hits every target, particularly as the action gets more and more ridiculous leading to a climax of complete absurdity that simultaneously gives us an effective action finale.

The wraparound is where the thinking really happens, and where the real dialogue with the audience begins. This is a play that examines itself and the easy attitudes expressed within as much as it examines the outside world. What does climate change really mean, and are we really ready for it?

Lee Lewis delivers a production that pushes the tiny space at the stables to its limit. There's a whole heap of projections working in conjunction with the action, sometimes footnoting it, and ... every once in a while, possibly upstaging it, briefly. It's hyperactive theatre at its best - you hang on and enjoy the ride and you think about the thoughtful bits on your way home, grinning, stunned and overwhelmed. It left me gasping in a good way. Yes, even the bit about how all bloggers are crap, which I can't find in the script now but which I laughed my head off while in the theatre.