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.