Friday, 27 December 2019

The "Well I Liked it" awards 2019

It's that time again to do the "Well I liked it" awards, or WILIs for short. It's the 8th WILIs and, yes, that innuendo has managed to stretch that far and will keep on giving what it's got.

It's been an interesting year in theatre blogging, my full year of blogging with my name on it (which has meant ... a grand total of one freebie ticket that may possibly be related to the blog! Clearly I'm raking in those big blogging bucks). It's also meant I've been a tad slower in the blogging than I used to be, and a tad more careful. There's two shows I saw that I didn't review at the time because they were both in previews, though both were in pretty solid condition and among my favourites of the year otherwise ("Caroline or Change" at the Hayes, which combined some great performances with a stunning physical production for a show that I'd never have expected to see in Australia, and "Fangirls", which had a freshness and wit about it, albiet perhaps about half an hour too long and with a couple of early-preview sound problems which meant multiple witty lyrics went a little unheard).

But of the biggies:

Locally, "Assassins" was probably my favourite show of the year that I hadn't seen a previous production of, with the return of "Playhouse Creatures" my favourite show I had. I have an obvious bias towards the one I production managed, "A Doll's House", and particularly the lead performer Susannah Frith whose performance grew during the show from the apparently frivolous girl to the clearly capable and strong woman willing to seize her destiny.

Of the touring shows, "Prima Facie" was my favourite thing I saw - an astonishing combo of writing, performance and direction as one woman broke down the brutal effects of the legal process on victims of sexual assault in a gripping presentation. It looked so simple yet was spectacular in its effects.

Interstate "The Wolves" captured my imagination early and never really let go - I strongly believe it's a major work that, with any luck, we'll be seeing all over the place, and Belvoir's production, picked up from an independent season elsewhere, gave it a cracking good production. And "Come From Away" was every inch as good as everybody said it was, a stunningly good mix of show, cast and production.

Hoping to get out and see more this year, and for there to be much skillful work from our local teams as well as the wider interstate productions. There's strong seasons coming from both the CAnberra Theatre and the Q, and good potential elsewhere - here's hoping there'll be great works to see.

Wednesday, 25 December 2019

First Love is the Revolution, Griffin Theatre Company

This is an odd combination of fantasy, romance, comedy and brutal drama, set among a colony of urban foxes and the household of a boy who befriends one of them. Looking at nature, humanity and with a fair chunk of surrealism, this plays like gangbusters in the tiny Stables space (converting it into a small suburban hill completely covered in fake grass, with a few surprise spots for cast to jump out of). Leading the cast are Sarah Meachum (back after "The Wolves" in another role that's a physical workout as well as an emotional one) as the youngest of the foxes, and Bardiya McKinnon as the boy - both a very appealing pair as they bond further despite the obvious divisions in their natures. This is the second time I've seen a play at Griffin that's been pre-tested in the UK before getting an Australian audience (despite being by an Australian playwright) and there's a robustness in Rita Kalenejais' script that plays confidently with the mixture of anamalistic fantasy and brutal realities delightfully. The supporting cast of four ramble between ten roles between them, including various other species of animal (Rebecca Massey scores as both the fox's mother and as a distinctly kiwi chicken, while Matthew Whittet has a trio of chicken, mole and the boys's dad, Guy Simon as another fox and a guard-dog, and Amy Hack bouncing between fox, cat and human). Lee Lewis shows a sure sense of pace and style giving this fantasy an appealing sense of reality and place. A delightful end to the year.

Monday, 23 December 2019

Packer and Sons, Belvoir

For whatever reason (defamation law, unco-operative living subjects, lack of dramatist interest) it's rare for the activities of the super-rich to get documented on Australian stages (the only similar project I can think of off the top of my head is David Williamson's "Rupert" from 2013). And this narrative, which tells of three generations of Packer men, over the course of about 50 years, is certainly an intriguing one. It's perhaps better in the first half (concentrating on the rising of Kerry as contrasted with his brother Clyde and under the thumb of the domineering Frank) than in the second (which is very dominated by James' failures in administration of OneTel and Kerry's brutal dismissals of him), but there's a lot of very strong writing from Tommy Murphy, who enjoys a stronger subject than his recent history-based narrative, "Mark Colvin's Kidney" (which felt more anecdotal, while this feels more "epoch defining drama"). If it falls slightly into the trap of humanising the characters and not entirely emphasising the damage they do to the world around them, it's still a strong piece of drama.

Central are two extremely strong leads - John Howard playing both Frank and the elder Kerry, and Josh McConville as the younger Kerry and James. Howard perhaps has the more challenging role as both Frank and the elder Kerry have definate similarities, brutal men who bully their children, but he manages to build very different personas to the two tyrants. McConville has both the strong transitions as Kerry grows from the feckless carouser black sheep of the family to his father's chief headkicker and designated successor, and as the cheerily naiive James gets more and more crushed as it becomes apparent how out of his depth he is - again, managed with aplomb (and a couple of helpful hairpieces). The remaining cast are mostly in support - Brandon McClelland has the most to do as the undone-by-his-ethics Clyde, while Nick Bartlett, John Gaden and Anthony Harkin offer strong support in various roles.

Eamon Flack directs with a sure sense and two strong coups-de-theatre - the opening image (where i'm still not sure how the polo horse got on-and-off stage, and suspect there's some trickery involving the prop), and a sudden transition between younger-and-older Kerry. I don't know he entirely avoids the longeurs in the second act as the material dwells a little long on OneTel's disastrous corporate shenanigans, but that's partially script issues.

IN short, this is gripping, engaging theatre about contemporary Australia, well worth catching.

Thursday, 5 December 2019

Waiting in the Wings, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Noel Coward's image as a writer of witty cosmopolitan comedies is mostly backed up by the four plays that most frequently get revivals ("Hay Fever", "Private Lives", "Blithe Spirit" and "Present Laughter"), but the truth is, he had a career wider than that. Some of his greatest successes leaned more towards very British "stiff-upper-lip" dramas (the epic "Cavalcade", the family drama "This Happy Breed" and particularly "Brief Encounter"). And "Waiting in the Wings" reflects the other Noel Coward more than the cuttingly humourous one audiences may come in expecting.

It was his second-to-last major play, after a series of not-quite-successes that had drifted increasingly conservative. But the combination of memorialising actresses of his youth, and reflections on his own mortality gave "Waiting in the Wings" a poignant aspect that allows a certain soulfulness not often seen in his work. The plotting is a little all over the place (in a three act play, most of the significant plot points are wrapped up by act two, with act three left to tidy up minor business and let the cast have a few sing-a-longs), and a couple of the characters end up being single-jokes-repeated rather than really getting a full characterisation, but there is a reasonable sense of aging with dignity and acceptance of the world which gives this a nicely sentimental appeal.

Stephen Pike's production takes advantage of the chance to let nine older actresses have substantial roles, many who have been off Canberra stages for a while. Ros Engledow is as close as the ensemble gets to a lead as the newly-arrived Lotta, perfectly poised and gorgeously dressed, the epitome of Coward's "keeping a brave face" approach to life's disappointments. Liz Bradley opposite her as her long-time rival, May, has a great line in irritation, and plays it strongly. Of the rest, Joan White tends to steal scenes wholesale as the increasingly demented Sarita, while Liz St Clair Long takes advantage of both an Irish accent and a walking stick as the over-dramatic Dierdre. There's nice support from some of the younger cast members, particularly Peter Holland as the "written for Noel Coward's boyfriend" liaison with the home's committee, getting to flash a dancing leg and a not-bad-singing-voice, Nikki-Lynne Hunter as the army-commandant-style-matron Ms Archibald, and Antonia Kitzl as the interloping journalist Zelda.

If it doesn't quite conquer Coward's lacksidaisical script, Stephen Pike's production brings out most of what's valuable about it, with the mix of sentimentality and laughter, in a very cosy, comfortable production. Andrew Kay's set gives everything a nice style (particularly a staircase and a landing for most of the actresses to play grand-scenes at one another), and Anna Senior's costumes have a nice style to them.

I can't claim this is my favourite play of the season, but as a nice comfortable pair of slippers of a play, this certainly suits.

Sunday, 1 December 2019

Come from Away, New Theatricals, Junkyard Dog Productions, Rodney Rigby et al, Comedy Theatre, Melbourne

In the world of hypertouring internationally successful broadway musicals, it's rare for something that feels personal, individual and yet at the same time humans-scale and heartfelt to get attention. But thank goodness for something like this - in many ways "Come From Away" feels like the biggest-scale-ever-community theatre project, with a cast of twelve playing a vast array of characters caught up in the town of Gander, Newfoundland as, on September 11th 2001, it suddenly becomes the destination for 6,579 passengers unable to land in the United States after the plane hijackings and subsequent destruction. There's a strong history of verbatim theatre operating this way, with a small cast jumping in and out of character, switching between dialogue and direct narrative as they summarise a large incident with personal stories, and when it's done well (and it's done excellently here) it reaches out and grabs you immediately. The script and music by Irene Sankoff and David Hein skillfully scratches in dozens of different stories, tying them together and allowing them not to be a homogeneous mass of simple uplift (two of the stories, perhaps, stick with me best because they leave loose ends, of the unresolved tensions of those days and of how, while a community can come together to create something warm, it's never quite perfect and always that little bit of human flaws that remain).

Christopher Ashley's direction (alongside musical stager Kelly Devine) makes this staging something constantly flowing - on a simple staging with chairs and tables, he ensures we're constantly focussed on the characters, on the stories, on the connections and on the world of these people. We're drawn in from the first five minutes and we're not let go again for another 95. It's an extrordinary achivement by cast, crew and production team, and I'm deeply grateful the Australian production had enough extensions for me to finally get to see it in Melbourne, and hope as many as possible get a chance to catch it before it goes.

Friday, 29 November 2019

Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Melbourne Theatre Company, Southbank Theatre, The Sumner

Manuel Puig's 1976 novel went on to be a stage play in 1983, a film in 1985 and, in this form, a Broadway musical in 1993. It's an intriguing piece, about the relationship between a homosexual window dresser imprisoned for morals charges and a political prisoner held to try to get more information about his colleagues, and how the window dresser's fantasies based on the melodramas he's seen form a kind of escape for both of them.

In this version, there's some awkward gear shifting in the script and some of the score that makes this a challenging experience, particularly in the first act. Molina, the window dresser, gets a nice setting-up song, and the fantasy glamour queen Aurora, gets to shift into the grim prison with splashy musical numbers, but a lot of the setting-up songs for Valentin, the political prisoner, and the relationships for both Molina and Vanentin outside the prison seem more functional than inspired. And it does feel very much like Vanentin is drawn into Molina fantasies during the intermission, rather than this being a process we're drawn into - the beginning of act two is a glorious example of Aurora's melodrama capturing both of them (and shortly after features Valentin's best solo as he expounds his political history) but it doesn't feel very much like it picks up where we left act one. There's also a not-exactly-ahistorical homophobia coming from Valentin which makes him a difficult character for the audience to warm to.

In short, this is a rare musical with Act One problems that are mostly improved in Act Two - the writing feels a lot more confident and with a strong sense of direction in the second half. Dean Bryant's production uses a grim-but-grand prison setting with the characters largely on bare beds with a few shifting bits of scenery and some spectacular lighting effects to shift the mood back and forth from grim reality to splashy fantasy, and the trio of cast are mostly pretty strong - Ainsley Melham's Molina has the strongest writing and holds the stage well, Adam-Jon Fiorentino has the right presence but can't compensate for the underwritten character, and CAroline O'Connor has the voice and a lot of the right attitude for Aurora, but does feel a little like an extremely strong character actress playing the role of a glamourpuss rather than someone who is authentically the goddess-figure  the role is written for.

This is a case where, where the show hits its best marks, it's a really fascinating experience, but there's a lot in here where the material feels a little too, dare I say, competent-but-unexciting in the set-up. The payoff is great, the setup is not. So I come out a tad mixed.

Friday, 25 October 2019

Splinter, Griffin, SBW Stables Theatre

A couple are reunited with their missing infant daughter and have retreated to a beach shack in an attempt to get their lives back on track. But the father is disconcerted by how the girl has changed, and begins to wonder whether she really is his daughter - and that splinter of doubt begins to rot everything around it...

Hilary Bell wrote one of the great plays about children and their disconcerting unknowability in "Wolf Lullaby", and this later play (originally premiered in 2012) plays in some of the same fields, although with a lot more ambiguity - the characters are just known as Man, Woman and Laura (in the original production, Laura was played by a puppet, in this production she's a voice over). It's a challenging piece for audience and performers, and ... I'm not sure this production entirely meets all the challenges. I liked Lucy Bell's performance as the woman, but Simon Gleeson's performance never quite dove into the emotional turmoil the role seems to demand - he always seemed at a slight remove, indicating the emotional journey rather than disappearing inside it. And with what is basically a two hander, if 50% of the performers don't feel quite right, it's going to be a struggle. I liked the design of this (Tobhiyah Stone Feller's set, Benjamin Brookman's lighting and Mic Gruchy's video all combine to bring out some fascinating effects), and the general intent of Lee Lewis's production seemed valid. But at this performance, it didn't seem to realise all the potential there is in the script. So this has to be marked as a disappointment.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

Assassins, Everyman Theatre, Belconnen Theatre

Stephen Sondheim's 1990 musical is one of the special ones for me - I encountered it, age 16, when the cast recording was played in full on ABC Classic FM in their Sunday musical theatre slot. And it's a powerful show, with moments that shocked and astounded 16-year-old-me, that a musical could go this far  - dealing with big questions about American identity through the prism of 9 people who all attempted to kill a sitting US president (four successfully). Through a combination of Sondheim's score (genre hopping from Sousa-ish patriotic marches to seventies light-FM romantic ballads to a grand cakewalk) and John Weidman's script which mixes and matches the nine across time and space to confront each other with the questions of why they felt drawn to murder, and what the underside of the American Dream really is.

The show does have its revue-ish tendencies, and there's a certain structural repetitiveness as each of the Assassins are introduced and have their story told, drawing us into sympathy with them before throwing us back out again as we see the consequences and ugly sides of their actions. But Kelly Roberts and Grant Pegg's production keeps it moving along, played almost as a small local carnival of the angry disenfranchised. On Christopher Zuber's set of a lawn, a covered wagon,  a couple of boxes and a faded American Flag, we get an up close and personal view of these historic malcontents.

All 9 performers knock their sections of the show out of the park. Jarrad West as John Wilkes Booth combines self-important actorish pomposity with terrifying rage when he unleashes it ("The Ballad of Booth" is one of my favourite songs of the score, and the way it moves from drawing you in with Booth's southern lost-cause sentimentality before reminding you what dark roots that lost-cause had). Isaac Gordon's Leon Czolgosz has a sweet, yearning quality combined with anger at his losses (and his sweet voice at the top of "Gun Song", another of my favourites, drew me in). Jonathan Rush's demented Charles Guiteau, vain, deluded and ultimately lost in his own ego as he bellows "I will be remembered!" (ultimately, of course, Guiteau is an obscure murderer of an obscure president, making the moment all the more pathetic). Belle Nicol's smugly enlightened Lynette 'Squeaky' Fromme, who repeats everything Charles Manson's taught her with absolute assurance is engrossing and powerful. Pippin Carroll's Balladeer has the challenge of bringing back perspective to what these people really are, and the implications of what they have done, and he sells his songs with compassion and clarity. Tracy Noble's Sara Jane Moore is a nutty delight, bewhildered, disorganised and easily drawn into the idea of murder as a possible release for her confusion. Jim Adamik's Samuel Byck is largely communicated in two monologues, full of bitterness and rage but trying desperately to communicate outside his own circle. Joel Hutchings' Guisseppe Zangara maybe gets the least exposure of the nine (his one big song is largely a song about the bystanders to his attempted assassination) but his powerful voice and evident pain remains impactful. And Will Collett's John Hinkley Jr is an all too familiar figure of a young man who doesn't recognise how ludicrously out of place his desires are.

This was a bucket-list show for me that I desperately wanted to see, and it paid off everything I ever hoped it could be. There are moments, particularly in the climax of this show, that I desperately want to write about but won't because they spoiler moments of the extraordinary that need to be discovered in the moment - but this is powerful, urgent, engrossing work that tore into me in the best possible way. Most impressive. Tickets at https://www.canberraticketing.com.au/show/assassins/

Friday, 6 September 2019

The Woman in the Window, Canberra Rep

A look at art, freedom, loyalties and supression, "The Woman in the Window" plays in two timeframes, Leningrad in the 1950s and Australia in a distant future. The first looking at the historical Anna Akhmatova and the period when she was kept virtual prisoner by the Stalinist regime, forbidden legally to write anything but translations of other people's poems, and required to show herself at her window twice a day, her life with her supportive friend Lili, her neighbour Tusya, and the police, Stetsky and Korzh. In the future, we follow Rachel Sekerov, a young "conference stress consultant" (which in reality appears to be a government-approved prostitute) assigned to a poet from a rich family who struggles with her own kind of freedom.

The two halves sometimes make strange bedfellows - the thematic links are apparent but it's not until the second act that they start to feel like they actually belong together and are informing each other. For the first half, we get the viscerally staged scenes of Akhmatova and her life, passionate and engaging, cut across with Rachel's story, which is (deliberately) somewhat more sterile in design. The Akhmatova scenes are anchored by two glorious performances from Karen Vickery (as Anna) and Lainie Hart (as Lili), who sell a relationship driven by survival and passion for art and admiration for each others work, even in the dire circumstances they're currently in - both are given room to breathe and to build a real, three dimensional friendship between old colleagues. Vickery also has most of the best jokes in the play (in particular one line demolishing Chekov - I'm starting to think a one-woman show of "Karen Vickery Plays Authors who Hate Other Authors" would be my dream night in the theatre). In a more minor role, Michael Sparks makes his authority clear as the key interrogator Stetsky. 

It's in the future sections where the play struggles a little - Rachel, perhaps inevitably, comes across a little more shallowly than Akhmatova, and it's not until the second half that she really starts to engage in the themes of the play more deeply. I think there's a little more space than this production presents for these sections to have a bit more passion and engagement (and the moments where that does sneak through - a VR encounter with a tartigrade, and towards the end, are the ones that work best) - and while I understand the desire for contrast between the two sections, the future sections feel a little bit flat. Zoe Swan as Rachel and Alex McPherson in two roles as the stern Miz and the emotional Maren drive a lot of the energy of these scenes where it comes - Michael Cooper's poet Sandor isn't ever quite as deeply drawn as the plot seems to require him to be, and Marli Haddell's Auditor is more an abstract menace figure than anything permanent.

Liz Bradley's direction mostly serves the period sections rather than the future sections well - while the scenes flow together reasonably, it tends to feel a little bit sterile (this may be partially a function of most scenes playing without any accompanying music or soundscape - it does feel like it needs something to give it just a little more drive). Michael Spark's set is functional without really finding a good visual metaphor that might tie the action together. and Anna Senior's costumes are, again, appropriate without really ever standing out into anything surprising or eye-catching.

This is an interesting attempt at a challenging work, but it, for me, doesn't quite engage me as much as I hoped it would - it's liberated largely by the performances of Vickery and Hart, which is where it feels most human. 

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Shakespeare in Love, Melbourne Theatre Company, Canberra Theatre

This is a case of a production that is gorgeous (Gabriela Tyeslova), staged fairly well (Simon Phillips direction flows the scenes together tightly and ensures everything moves well) and has a lot of witty dialogue and a rich and strong supporting cast (Deirdre Rubenstein, as is appropriate, steals every scene as Queen Elizabeth I but there's also good work from Tony Taylor, Aljin Ajella and Francis Greenslade). So why did I leave just a little dissatisfied?

I think it's that I just didn't quite buy the love story that's meant to be at the centre. Michael Wahr as Shakespeare and Clair Van Der Boom as Viola should spark off each other and ... here, it never quite takes hold and captures me up in the grand romance of it all. They go through the motions effectively but ... the spark just doesn't land. Which is a pity. This is a clever production that, while it has all the familiar highlights from the movie, doesn't feel slavishly tied to its image or its performances - all the performances feel like they've been developed organically - it's just that, at the centre, this doesn't quite go from "very pretty" to heartfelt and lifechanging. Which, well, is how I like my theatre.

Thursday, 29 August 2019

Belfast Girls, Echo Theatre, The Q

In the middle of the 19th century, five women embark on a journey from Belfast to Sydney, escaping impoverished Ireland in the hope of a new life where they can leave behind the horrors of their past. But it becomes increasingly apparent that those horrors have left its scars on all of them - old hatreds and traumas resurface and their hopes for a second chance rub up against their knowledge of what they have been through.

This is a strong debut for Echo theatre - a chance for five actresses to show their skills both comic and dramatic as the women's small fights and squabbles escalate alarmingly into something brutal. Jaki McCarrick's script is maybe a little lackadaisical in the first act, easing our way into getting to know the dynamics of these five women (from Isabel Burton's eminently practical organiser, Judith, to the push-me-pull-you relationship between Joanna Richards' earthy Ellen and Natasha Vickery's more hopefully dreamy Hannah, and the two outsiders, Phoebe Heath's slightly snobby country girl Sarah and Eliza Jennings' inquisitive Molly), but the second act builds to a fairly brutal climax before sending the women off  the ship to an uncertain future.

The physical production is rich and absorbing, from Chris Zuber's evocative set to the personalised costumes of Anna Senior and the carefully chosen props of Yanina Clifton. Director Jordan Best builds in a strong sense of time and place, juggling the dynamics as the women vary between hope and trauma, finding ways to speak their truths. This is an engrossing, gorgeous looking production with strong performances and demands your attention.

Monday, 26 August 2019

City of Gold, Griffin and Queensland Theatre Company, Stables Theatre

"City of Gold" is a play definitely drawn from writer/lead actor Meyne Wyatt's personal experience - he plays an actor who's been in "Home and Away" and played the Bastard in "King Lear" (King Lear is on Wyatt's resume, though it's Neighbours he's shown up in), who reconnects with his family when his father dies in the town of Kalgoorlie. And it's at its best when it's drawn, almost unreconstructed, straight from his life (there's a ten minute monologue near the top of act two which is Wyatt, alone and unleashed, leting loose on the contradictions and challenges of being Aboriginal in Australia). The problem is, there's six other actors in the play, and I don't know Wyatt the playwright has served them nearly as well as he's served himself.

In particular, Shari Sebbens has more than proved she's a strong capable actress. But this offers her very little to play that's interesting, and being left on  the sidelines to play sympathetic sister is, frankly, at this point a disservice. I haven't seen as much of Mathew Cooper, Maitland Schnaars and Jeremy Ambrum, but they need more than the thin gruel that's left for them here. This is a play that desperately needs either to become the monologue it's eagerly looking to be, or to actually flesh out the rest of the people on stage. I really got caught up in Wyatt's monologue. but it either needed to be the whole play, or to be part of a show that let other actors get the chance to carry the action as well.

It's hard to criticise something as obviously drawn from the soul as this is. And this does have the raw material to be something great and interesting. But while Wyatt is one of Australia's great actors, he's not yet shown himself a great playwright. He has something to say, but here, he either needs to learn how to get that expressed by a number of characters, or to embrace his inner monologue and let it take over.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

Life of Galileo, Belvoir

I'll be honest, this was the one I was most marginal on in this year's Belvoir Subscription. The combination of the director of one of my least liked productions of last year and the adapter of another of my least liked production last year (both, incidentally, have left those shows off their bios for this year) uniting, on a play I've seen already (albeit 23 years ago in a very glossy Richard Wherrett production at the STC)? Still, it's a play I remember liking, an oddly intimate epic covering the emergence of Galileo as a scientific mind at the same time as it looks at his struggles against the church to continue his work. It's by no means an easy hagiography - Galileo is no science-for-science's-sake genius, he's always looking for ways to sell his ideas (from the military application of the telescope to see the enemy before they see you, to the financial benefits of starcharts that can allow navigation further from shore) - and he's not above a little chicanery (in particular in stealing the idea of the telescope from a young student's report of seeing it developed in Holland).

Eamon Flack directs this in the round, using a simple wooden stage with the occasional assistance of a cosmological model flown in from the roof and a chair. Tom Wright's adaptation is a tight distillation, occasionally a little too much so (there's one or two scenes that feel chopped off at the end), and a little too keen to signal the contemporary resonances with a key phrase or two. But dammit, this does move pretty well.

Colin Friels as the lead has the shifty, inquisitive wheeler-dealer type to a T - he's pragmatic, cunning, and just about smart enough to get away with his beliefs until the inquisition catches up with him. The supporting roles have a fine mix of performers, from Vaishnavi Suryaprakash as his closest follower Andrea, almost more dedicated to his cause than he is himself, to Peter Carrol shifting through a range of roles up to and including the pope, as imprisoned by his role as Galileo is by his. Some of the roles feel slightly squeezed in the trimming (Laura McDonald as Galileo's daughter, Virginia, in particular - I do remember her case for living an undisturbed life getting slightly more prominent presentation in the STC version) - and there's a few instances of fourth-wall breaking that feel like they should be building to more than they actually do. But in general, this is a solid rather than a remarkable presentation of an interesting text - but at least it'ts still interesting.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Prima Facie, ETC and the Canberra Theatre centre, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

This is a taught tense masterwork looking at the pressing issue of sexual assault and how it is prosecuted through the vantage point of one female defence barrister, Tess, who herself becomes the victim of sexual assault. It represents the coming together of three remarkable women - writer Suzie Miller, director Lee Lewis and actor Sheridan Harbridge.

There's a careful drawing-you-in during the first half, as Tess celebrates her legal victories, her place in chambers, rising out of her rough working class family and not only surviving but thriving at the bar. And then, as it's shattered in a moment, we get a Tess torn between past and present as she approaches her day in court, over two years later, rebuilding a different, less naive woman who seeks justice for the wrongs done her, even as she knows how the system is stacked against her.

I expect there will be many other productions of Miller's script - it's a skillfully written one woman show with a simple design of one platform, one chair. But I think this production, with this actress and this director, will be hard to beat - Lee Lewis has become my favourite Australian director with her ability to cut through directly to the heart and sole of a script, to know its rhythms and hit exaclty the points this needs. I suspect some elements of this in lesser hands could easily become diadactic or "worthy" theatre, but there's a sure sense of character and rhythm here that means this is the story of an individual, not an abstract case study. Sheridan Harbridge wasn't the actress originally cast for this role, but it belongs to her utterly - she takes control of every moment, every pause, every breath, as she tells her story with truth and honesty, charting the journey of Tess second by second with clarity and strength.

This is theatre that takes confronting themes straight on with skill and care, brutal and honest and true. It should not be missed.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The World Goes 'Round, Canberra Rep

Canberra Rep has an intermittent history of revue and variety, most epitomised by the 34-year run of Old Time Music Hall, but also the four Jazz Garters shows. "The World Goes Round" does the songwriter-revue, using Broadway stalwarts Kander and Ebb in tribute to the first 30-odd years of their career (it skips the four shows that came after the revue was first derived in 1991, and only draws one song from the then-in-development "Kiss of the Spiderwoman"). Kander and Ebb's style feels both classic and modern - there's no co-incidence that their two best known shows, "Cabaret" and "Chicago" are both set in the late-twenties-early-thirties and use music in the style of those eras together with lyrics that are a little more frank and direct than the lyrics of those eras.

Imposing a unifying device on the material, Jarrad West brings this all into a bar staffed by particularly-talented-people and strangely unattended by customers, and perhaps less-strangely, therefore shortly to be closing. While this isn't a whole lot of narrative, it does mean that Kander and Ebb's spirit of mixed joy-and-melancholy has a bed to lie in, and it means that the five performers have something to play beyond the needs of each individual song. Fortunately, as well, Kander and Ebb's songs tend to be of the kind that will often feel narratively complete all on their own, so we feel like we're going on individual journeys with each song. The bar setting also gives a whole bunch of spaces for the performers to play in (from the main counter, to a corner table, to the cloak room), in Chris Baldock's adaptable and stylish set.

All five performers have great standout individual moments - Louiza Blomfield particularly shining in a variety of torch songs, Samantha Marceddo delivering a beautifully soulful  "Coloured Lights", Joel Hutchings getting the lion share of the romantic ballads, Isaac Gordon giving great comic timing to songs like "Sara Lee", "Mr Cellophane" and "Marry Me"and Julia Walker jazzing it up remarkably in "Arthur in the Afternoon". They also come together in wonderful harmonies, whether it be the three women in "There goes the Ball Game" (which sounds like the Andrews Sisters at their very best), all five in the vocal-jazzed-up "Cabaret", or in the montage sequences in both acts where two-or-three songs are sung in counterpoint.

Alexander Unikowski works a tight and capable quartet of musicians to great effect, and Caitlin Shilg choreographs for dance moves that reflect the needs of each of the songs, from gorgeous beauty to wild jazz. Joel Edmondson's sound design is the best I've seen with amplified sound in the Theatre 3 space (it's a space that, if you're going to mic, needs to be mic'd very carefully), and Helen Noseworthy's lighting design uses the lighting rig to give each song a very different palate. Fiona Leach's costume designs, largely in basic blacks with each performer getting a different point of colour emphasis, unifies while giving everybody space for their personality.

This is a knockout of a production that deserves wild and generous appreciation - showcasing 5 great performers in ways that make me demand to see them more (I'd already known Blomfield and Hutchings were great performers, but the other three are equally at their level and I definitely want to see them in anything possible). Funny and romantic and sweet and sharp and clever and brilliant, it's a show that demands you enjoy.

Friday, 31 May 2019

American Psycho: The Musical, BB Arts & Two Doors Productions, Hayes Theatre

Brett Easton Ellis' novel has done the transfer to film and now to musical - and while, certainly, psychopathy isn't entirely unknown to musicals (hi, "Sweeney Todd", greetings, "Silence!: The Musical"), the unique tone of 80's satire and murder gives this a pretty unique edge. It's a piece that requires immaculate surfaces and immense style, with the brutality hovering beneath, just waiting to burst out at surprising moments. Duncan Shiek's score is largely dissasociated electronica (with a couple of ring-ins of 80's pop hits, including the inevitable "Hip to be Square"), as the financial whiz kids wage passive agressive war on each other expressed through well-cut clothes, tight muscular bodies and perfectly designed business cards. Our guide is the dissociated Patrick Bateman, so invested in the surface details that the only human detail he has left is rabid jealousy of anybody who may possibly be slightly above him in the social strata.

Ben Gerrard's Bateman carefully avoids the trap of in any way glamourising Bateman, or playing him for sympathy - he's shallow, disengaged and petty, sometimes hilariously so, and, of course, in other places, terrifyingly so. The highlights of the cast around him are Blake Appelqvist as his chief rival, the blase Paul Owen, Shannon Dooley as his equally vapid fiance, Evelyn, and Loren Hunter as his somewhat more engaged secretary, Jean - but in essence this is a massively tight ensemble. Played on Isabel Hudson's immaculate shining set, continuously revolving, this is a weird case of an musical that uses the immaculate surface to undermine everything about its characters, to carefully pick them apart, as the tensions build to a rather shocking act one finale. Act two suffers a little from the material not quite knowing what comes next (there's not quite anything standing in Patrick's way, and the events slightly dribble away, albiet with a reasonably chilling finale as Bateman has to face himself) - but Alexander Berlarge's production is constantly intriguing (it's a rare case where a lighting designer becomes a director, but Berlarge's ability to pinpoint exactly the right action and know how to draw focus turns out to be exactly what this show needs). Costume design by Isabel Hudson gives us a wide range of stylish looks, and Yvette Lee's choreography takes us from hard corparate edges to creative club kid dances.

I tend to think that the basic material is about 50% of a great show (basically, it's got act 2 problems), but after directing one of my favourite shows of 2018 with "Cry-Baby", Alexander Berlarge goes two-for-two and makes me think he's a director I want to see as much from as possible.

Wednesday, 15 May 2019

Wicked Sisters, papermoon theatre, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

Alma DeGroen's 2002 play is a contained, "well-made-play" type piece, played out in real time as four friends come together after the death of the husband of one of them, to talk, drink, commiserate and uncover a few secrets along the way. It's an entertaining example of the genre, with a mixture of humour, rage, and with a fair range of ideas going on - looking at what happened to the women who fought for equality and liberation during the 80s, at fundamental questions about human nature, about aging, about contemporary society and about the nature of betrayals.

papermoon's production does a reasonably strong production of this, justifying the revival largely thorugh the four strong actresses in the leads. All four get their moment to shine  - Elaine Noon as the widow-with-more-than-one-secret, hiding under a layer of polite meekness until she breaks; Nikki-Lynne Hunter as the fashionable real-estate agent still seething over her divorce even after acquiring her own younger lover; Alice Ferguson as the PR woman whose attempts to gloss over the situations gets more and more desperate, and Lainie Hart as the one who's whose own morality serves as persistent irritation to the others.

This isn't quite a perfect production - there's a couple of moments where the play's shifting attentions feels a little like gear shifting - but in a case where opening-night-is-also-first-time-with-an-audience, this can only grow and develop further over the next few nights. This isn't a particularly showy production - the set and lighting are nicely functional - but it's a great showcase for the central four actresses who seize the opportunity to play with an evenly balanced set of four meaty roles. Worth catching.

Friday, 10 May 2019

Playhouse Creatures, Pidgeonhole Theatre, Theatre 3

Three years, two different casts, two interstate and one international tour later, it's the final show of one of my favorite shows in recent memory. And returning to it three years later, it's familar yet new, still full of life as four actresses and their dresser struggle with career, relationships and social position as they emerge during the Restoration as the first actresses to perform. There's distinct changes (Christiane Nowack's set has had a few alterations to make it more easily tourable, and of the main cast of five, 3 are replacements), but the solid bones of Pidgeonhole's production show strong, even as the changes mean the show belongs to the new cast as much as it did to the originals.

Comparisons between then and now are almost beside the point - if, perhaps, when first watching the show there was a great sense of women launching into an unknown future, at the end of the run there's maybe a bit more weight to that uncertain future, and to this as an elegy of how each of these women ended their time on stage. The two returners show just as much strength as they did before - Liz Bradley still hilarious and touching as the slightly disrespectful Doll Common, and Karen Vickery being both an imperious terror in her prime and a touching figure as she finds herself sidelined by her husband. The replacements give different effects to their moments - comparing them you find one element is increased while another diminished, so Natasha Vickery's Nell Gwynne is perhaps a touch more naive, a touch less brash; Yanina Clifton has a different kind of hunger as Mrs Farley, so eager to hold onto the status she's only just acquired; and Lainie Hart's umbrage at her mistreatment as Mrs Marshall seethes differently. But it's still superlative theatre, and it's a wonderful farewell to a work that feels like it's expanded the horizons of Canberra theatre in all kinds of good ways.

The Miser, Bell Shakespeare, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

This is Bell Shakespeare's fifth go-round with Moliere (though only the second to do the grand touring thing - their versions of "Tartuffe", "Le Misanthrope" and "Les Femmes Savantes" (as "The Literati") only played seasons in Sydney or Sydney and Melbourne. All have been done with translation by Justin Fleming and ... I must admit, his translations are starting to pall a little for me - his use of somewhat relentless rhymes (yes, there is a varying rhyme scheme, but still...) has become pretty repetitive, with the gag of chucking in Australian colloquialisms becoming pretty damn stale (yes, I'm aware it's very easy to rhyme stuff with "shut your clacker", the question now becomes "should you"). And all this extra not-particularly-funny gagginess tends to drag what should be a short sharp incisive comedy out to around two and a half hours.

My other problem may be that the last two Molieres were at least directed by the superlative Lee lewis so they had incisive energy and skill applied to them, and this one is directed by Peter Evans instead. Oh, it's very prettily designed, and there's a couple of decent moments here and there, but it's fairly uninspired work. Of the cast of nine there's three performances I'd consider reasonably strong (John Bell has a pretty good grotesque lead performance, Michelle Doake steals scenes where she has anything to do but alas that's pretty much confined to one scene, and Jamie Oxenbould has a goofy charm as an impertinent servant). Otherwise, I must admit I found this fairly lumpen - trying to be "fun" but feeling largely forced.

And the final image is a fairly desperate reaching for poignancy that the production hasn't really earned and, for me, doesn't land.

If Moliere works (and yes, he can work, and potentially even in these clunky translations), it needs to feel fresh, lively and sharp. And this feels dull, clunky and forced. So this was a disappointment.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

Simon Amstell: What is This?, MICF, Farfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne

Simon Amstell's a british comedian whose best known work is probably the work he's trying to retreat from - his 2006-2009 run hosting the music panel show "Never Mind The Buzzcocks", where he spent much of his time mocking the various guests on the program. He's gotten very into analysis and self-help since, and much of his subsequent solo standup shows reflect this. His 2010 show "Do Nothing" is a pretty solid breakthrough, and his current show more or less continues as that goes on - albiet, perhaps, a bit less tight and a bit more rambly. It's not that this is a bad show, it's that it's ... familiar and it doesn't really show anything new. And yes, one could argue that he's basically the same person, and has basically the same set of thoughts (alibiet one now settled with a boyfriend and with a few new drug adventures) - but that doesn't mean that it's still not a disappointment that I don't think he's entirely found a new vein to work in or something richer or different. It's not a bad show so much as it's a familiar remix-of-similar-hits. And I enjoyed in the moment but I'm hoping for something a tad newer.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

#KWANDA, MICF, Melbourne Town Hall

"Q and A" is one of the more irritating programs on TV. Presented as a chance for the public directly to question politicians and other public figures, in the end it becomes a show about people avoiding saying anything other than their normal boring set pieces. It's an exercise in avoiding the truth more than in getting any of it.

#KWANDA breaks that fairly quickly - it's an episode of Q and A where, at some point, everybody on the panel, including the moderator, breaks and starts to rant about what they're really thinking. It's brutal, it's funny, it's disturbingly familiar, it pokes holes in every political sacred cow that's out there, and it's an absorbing 70 minutes of theatre. It's mostly a triumph of Tom Ballard's writing and, to some extent, some of the acting (in particular Emily Taheny as the Labour party representative disappointed by her party one too many times, Geraldine Hickey as the Tasmanian-says-it-like-she-sees-it-moron and Michelle Brasier as the right-on musician who unfortunately has never actually thought about any of her political positions beyond the easiest slogan) The staging is pretty basic (just one big desk with the cast largely behind it), but if the current state of politics needs an exorcism, this feels like the big comic one that allows you to laugh at things that have been making you internally scream for way too long.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Daniel Kitson: Keep, MICF, Malthouse Theatre

Daniel Kitson is a strange kind of genius, and "Keep" is the current manefestation of that genius. It's a show that is in some ways indescribable - what it looks like it's about isn't really what it's about, and much of the show feels like it's diversions that add up to something far more interesting than the ostensible subject. And it's astounding how well he plays his main instrument, which is his audience - part of the fascination in the show is him interacting with the audience in a very different way to how I've ever seen a comedian interact with the audience - it's like he plays back on our reaction to him and turns it into something that forwards his underlying plan. 

How can I describe the show? Well, it's certainly an unusual one - and it's longer than most previous standup i've seen - an uninterrupted 2 hour show - well, almost interupted, there's a deliberate break at the 15 minute mark so audience members who don't want to stick around for the full two hours can leave and get a refund (this appears quite seriously meant, and means that, if this isn't your kinda show, yes, you can bail early). And it means that everybody who stays is, by defininition, a willing subject. It's an ambitious show (even though it's basically one guy, a desk and a cabinet with a whole lot of index cards) - and it's one that absolutely fulfils those ambitions. And if this seems like a lot of words made up to not say very much about the show and what it's doing ... well, that's absolutely by design. The show is its own bundle of precious surprises and I'd be a crass idiot if I tried to ruin that for anybody going in cold. 

Friday, 26 April 2019

Greg Larsen: Useful Idiot, MICF, Melbourne Town Hall

This is only partially a review, and partially an explanation. You see, occasionally as a comedy festival goer you decide that it's a good decision to try to squeeze three shows into one night. After all, the times line up, the venues are reasonably close, and why not?

The answer is, because by the third show, your attention starts to wander a little and your head isn't quite in the show you're in. And you're slightly laughed out. So this is sorta an apology to Greg Larsen for not being a very good audience member during his show "Useful Idiot". I think there was basically a good idea behind this show, examining the young-ish urban activist type a bit deeper than we normally get. It looks at behaviour that's as concerned with looking good as it is with actually doing good, about the socially-aware but also socially-awkward, and ineffective ways to pursue your political passions. Larsen uses his gruff chunky demeanour to great effect, with some decent chuckles along the way. I'm not sure whether it's all the way to fully-working yet, as I think some of the gags seem like they could go back to the shop for further development, or whether, as formerly metioned, I was a bit comedy-tired by show three. I'm certainly willing to give Larsen another go as an audient if he's doing another show somewhere that I am.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Rhys Nicholson: Nice Things Nice People Nice Situations, MICF, Victoria Hotel

Rhys Nicholson is a young comedian at the top of his game. He works fast and incisive, barely leaving space for the audience to laugh before he's onto his next joke, constantly on the move. And his current show is a strong, if slightly unfocussed, pileup of comedy looking at modern life for a happily partnered gay man under 30. One of the things that's noted for Australian Comedians is that the cycle of doing an annual Melbourne Comedy Festival shows means there is a constant requirement to come up with new and different material - but it does sometimes mean that you get shows that are development points rather than perfectly honed shows all on their own. Nicholson's a polished and skilled comedian, and the show has a reasonable sense of structure, but I do want to see what happens when he has something stronger than just himself and his attitudes to focus on. It's good to watch him under development, but I want to see where he gets to.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Bob Franlkin: Sir Robert's History of Horror, MICF, Melbourne town hall

Bob Franklin is probably not the hippest or edgiest of comedians - his style of surrealist-dad-joke territory probably feels hopelessly old-fashioned to some. But I still like it - it's got a kinda retro-comfort to it, and he's never entirely resting on his laurels as I've seen some legacy comedians do. His latest show is a combined history-of-horror with its own side little horror story embedded in it. Part of the charm of the show is the obviousness of some of the jokes - and there's a good attempt to build atmosphere between the set, lighting and sound design. That atmosphere is slightly broken by location (a room on the corner of the Melbourne town hall means that it gets sound bleed both from the tram noises in the street, and a louder show elsewhere in the venue) - but Franklin still manages to get the tone between horror and comedy pretty much right - it's a show that keeps you right up until the final twist.

Saturday, 6 April 2019

How to Rule the World, Sydney Theatre Co, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre.

There was a big preoccupation with the state theatre companies during the 80s, 90s and early 2000s to "find the next Williamson". By which they meant "a socially conscious writer who can get large audiences to plays that speak to contemporary issues". Hannie Rayson was probably the closest we got for a while, writing very much in the Williamson style, reflecting the largely middle-class white audience back at themselves in various guises. More recently that style has slipped out of date, and the go-to-writer appears often to be Alana Valentine, who has a more in-depth, closely-researched style that adapts itself to the subject of the play more. But Nakkiah Lui gives the style to us in a modern remix - telling a story of three political operatives who decide they want to make a big statement and who get in over their heads as the forces of compromise, realpolitik and each other start to interfere.

Of course, it's a take that delves a bit deeper than later Williamson (who, well, started to contemplate his navel just a tad too frequently in his later years) - with our three diverse protagonists indulging in all manner of bad behaviour on their way to rediscovering their idealism and learning how to put it into effect. Lui, Michelle Lim Davidson and Anthony Taufa are an engaging trio of narrators/protagonists with just the right mix of cynicism and hope. Support is strong from Hamish Michael as the dupe-who-turns, Rhys Muldoon as an all-too-familiarly media-screened PM, and Vanessa Dowling and Garath Davies as every other character (and with particular congratulations to their costume designers and dressers who give split-second costume-and-wig-changes to get Dowling and Davies through their paces). There's a great score by Paul Mac and Steve Francis that makes sure this is a play that feels truly modern.

IF there are a couple of hiccups here and there (in particular, there's a slight sense that in having Lui in the cast, a couple of spots where her character is slightly underwritten haven't been noticed), this is still a strong piece of contemporary political satire with bite, and well worth the catching.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Canberra Rep, Theatre 3

Harper Lee's novel is a perennial favourite, almost 60 years after its first publication. Already a historical piece when published, it's a double-edged story of growing up in the American South in the 1930s as Scout faces up to her community's prejudices and how her family is affected by it in the light of a rape case that her father defends. There are certainly moments that could be considered sentimental (it's about a young girl remembering her father), but there's also moments that are still startlingly honest.

Christoper Sergel's adaptation has its hiccups - some subplots feel a bit skimmed through, and there's a narration that feels less easily integrated into the storytelling than a way to make sure exposition gets out there - but it gets the essentials right - particularly in the act two trial scenes and what comes after, it hits all the right points fleetly and effectively. Anne Somes' production realises those essentials well - drawing us into the community of Maycomb and making sure we feel all those brutal points when the community fails to live up to its ideals.

Michael Sparks IS Atticus Finch, in every essential detail. Kind but firm, aware of his age but with inner strength, and endlessly, endlessly compassionate to others. The three kids in the cast (Jade Breen, Jamie Boyd and Jake Keen) do have to do a lot of carrying of the first act plot, and there are a few slight issues with comprehensibility as the Alabama accents can get a tad thick, but when interacting with Sparks or the other adult characters of the play, they definitely hold their own. Antonia Kitzl, doing the narration, delivers it clear and precisely - she doesn't entirely remedy the "why is this woman who doesn't have much to do with the story of the show telling the story" aspect of the scripting, but she's a good presence. Tim Stiles as the oafish Bob Ewell is, in the best sense of the word, really dislikable - the thing that makes his performance work is that he's convinced that everybody around him, including the audience (who during the trial scenes basically become the jury - this pays off  wonderfully when the verdict is given and the cast's reaction to the jury's choice is played straight at the audience), agrees with his racism and is his best friend - it makes someone a thousand times worse if they try to make us complicit with their despicable actions. Stephenie Wilson as Mayella delivers a powerfully heartbreaking performance as a girl who has been so crushed that any generosity towards her feels more like condescension. Jack Tinga as Tom Robinson, the man at the centre of the trial, does well with a role that is kinda underwritten - giving him passion and seriousness and a real sense of the stakes this trial has for him. The rest of the large supporting cast do well with their roles as the various townspeople, giving a diverse sense of reality to the town.

Cate Clelland's design gives a strong sense of place and time with one slightly symbolic tree, a swing-bench and a couple of see-through walls - and Stephen Still's lighting picks out the spots and moments in the play to give a sense of isolation and walls-closing in.

I don't think this is a perfect production - Sergel's script clunks a little bit too much in act one for me - but it has it where it counts, in the brutal demonstration of childhood innocence exposed to the worst sides of human nature.

Friday, 22 March 2019

Zoe Coombs Marr - Bossy Bottom, Canberra Comedy Festival, Street Theatre

Zoë Coombs Marr has been performing for the last couple of years under the persona of a bad male standup called Dave, but now she's back performing as herself, in a show she describes as having no gimmicks, just jokes, jokes, jokes, and a bit about cum at the end.

And if you believe that, I've got a harbour bridge to tell you. Of course there are gimmicks. Of course there's a shedload of ideas in here, and of course there is actually a bit about cum at the end. Coombs Marr's other gig is with Post, the post-modernist theatre collective who gave us the widely-disliked-except-by-me-and-people-from-Melbourne "Oedipus Schmeopidus", which took apart the principles of dramatic literature. And this, to a certain extent, rips into some of the conventions of normal standup, while letting Zoë perform without wearing a dodgy fake beard.

I don't know that this adds up to quite as much as the two Dave shows did - in some ways, this is the kind of show you perform while you're in waiting mode for the next big idea to come along. It's a very funny show even as it sniffs into some of the modern conventions of standup, but it is a show that doesn't, perhaps, reach every one of the goals that you can see it's reaching for. There's definately still room to go further with some of the ideas presented, and it's a show that makes me wonder what's next. But for now it's interesting enough to say that it's worth seeing anyway.

Randy: Live!, Canberra Comedy Festival, Big Band Room, ANU School of Music.

The last time I saw Randy Feltface onstage he was doing his double-act with Sammy J, about 8 years ago, in their show "Bin Night". As a team they had an intriguing dynamic - Sammy, the human, was more of a naive dreamer while Randy, the puppet, was a tad more grizzled and practical and a little intense. Now he's gone solo, and ... okay, the world of puppet standup is not exactly a massive part of the industry, but somehow with Randy it just works. The design of Randy as a puppet doesn't look that complicated (he's basically a pretty basic looking bald head with rod arms), but it allows for a cartoonish quality to be applied to material that, at this point, is pretty realistic - all of the stories told in the course of the show feel like things that have genuinely happened to Heath McIvor (the massively talented puppeteer who remains invisible under the desk making the face, arms and voice work). There's some reasonable effects from some of the practical challenges of working a puppet (removing a hood or turning the page of a book turn out to be a lot more effort than normal), and the ever-active face and body-movements certainly keep things lively. While thematically this show's theoretically focused on faith and belief, in many ways this is just a collection of humorous stories with a basic underlying message of mutual respect. But it's a show that's held together by a combination of compassion and oddity, a smart comedic voice and an engaging, if odd, way of simultaneously revealing a lot in the storytelling while being able to hide under the desk at the same time. It's great fun.

Monday, 18 February 2019

Trixie Matell: Skinny Legend, In the Dark Productions, Playhouse, Canberra Theatre

Canberra has had a bit of a sudden inundation of Ru Paul Drag Race alumni in the last year or so - I can think of at least seven shows within the last 12 month or so (including the big "Werk the World" tour). But if you're going to catch just one, Trixie definitely has the skills to bring a full-length two show - hilarious lip-synching, witty banter, musical talent (including random acts of playing the clarinet) and extraordinary looks. Playing to a large appreciative audience, Trixie has us in the palm of her hand, whether trading quips about other Drag Race alumni, bears, growing up in the regional US and other forms of havoc. I will say it's not entirely polished (there's a bit of referring to the script-on-the-phone), but she's an extraordinary talent to watch, adore, be amused or moved by, and it's a rich, fantastic evening of fun.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

The Wolves, Red Line Productions, Belvoir Street Theatre

This 10-character play takes 90 minutes to tell of a group of young women preparing for games of indoor soccer over a series of weeks - and as it does so, we get insights into their hopes, fears, how they entertain each other, their jealousies, their understandings of the world and how they hold together in the face of disaster. It's an exraordinary production in a number of ways, starting with the credits - in the entire production team, there's only one man (Mandela Mathia, the actress's soccer coach) - otherwise it's all women. It's relentlessly physical as the pre-game rituals include continuous drills, stretches and training for the offstage games. The setting, largely astroturf with a few benches and a set of soccer nets between the audience and the actors (as, after all, these are actors, not trained soccer players, and a ball accidentally propelled towards the audience could prove disastrous), keeps everything focussed on the nine actresses in the team. Dialogue is naturalistic and frequently overlapping, as the girls muse on everything from their hopes for soccer progression to history and op culture trivia. And we get to know the seperate personalities, from the driven captain, #25 (Brenna Harding), to the sarcastic star striker #7 (Cece Peters) to the new girl in the team, #46 (Nikita Waldron).

I find it difficult to explain quite what I loved about this play except, perhaps, for the relentless energy and engaging nature of the cast, the deceptive simplicity of Sarah DeLappe's script and Jessica Arthur's direction, the chance to watch a number of actresses at the dawn of their career getting great meaty roles to bite into, the chance to catch a new play that celebrates and engages deeply in young women in a way I haven't seen in theatre in a while, and one that makes their perspective absolutely central. It's an extrordinary evening in the theatre.

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Counting and Cracking, Belvoir Street Theatre and Co-Curious, Sydney Town Hall

This Sydney Festival epic tells a story covering around 50 years of the lives of one Sri-Lankan family, taking place largely between Sri Lanka and Sydney, with a cast of 17 drawn from Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and France. By any measure, it's an ambitious work, and one that succeeds far more than it fails. It's true that in structure the most immediately relatable section is the first act (mostly set in Sydney, the first scene in Sri Lanka carefully selects the topic most immediately remember able to Australians, the cricket travails of Muttia Muralitharan). And some of the most interesting tangents of the first act remain unexplored (in particular, the question of how a family comes together after 21 years of separation is kinda squibbed, as the play instead looks into the background of how they became separated in the first place - acts two and three act more as a social history lesson of Sri Lanka). But there's a beauty to the staging and much of the writing - a simple deep thrust stage, a wide platform covered in earth and dust, where the characters sweep on and off, using meta-theatrical devices like actors on the sidelines translating for actors speaking in foreign languages, or performers becoming part of the setting. Dale Ferguson's set and costume design uses simple devices to locate us in time and place, and Damien Cooper's lighting creates mood and space within it.

I do think act three suffers slightly from the choice to show Columbo falling into disaster from the perspective it does - slightly removed from the action, with everything reported by phone call - and it's the one point where Eamon Flack's staging flags a little - more direct engagement with the subject matter seems called for here - we want to be where the action is, but instead are stuck inside an upper class compound just hearing about it.  And I kinda do wish the play stayed confidently with the perspective of the current generation family - it does feel like a separate play about the matriach's grandfather is trying to fight its way into the material, and, though that does indeed give it size, the two stories don't entirely naturally fit together. But still this is a feast for the eyes, the mind and the emotions, and sees Belvoir back on the right track after last year had me doubting them consistently.