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.