Thursday, 8 April 2021

You're Safe 'Til 2024: Deep History, Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre

 David Finnigan is one of those Canberra Artists who've exploded once he's left Canberra - his play "Kill Climate Deniers", which I described elsewhere on this blog as the only play to be improved by dramaturgical assistance by Andrew Bolt, combined big action movie ridiculousness with deep moral interrogation about the future of humanity, complex statistical thought and commentary on its own existence, and took Sydney's Griffin theatre by storm back in 2018 after an inaugral season as part of the You Are Here festival in canberra. This piece, part of an ambitious 6-show cycle that will apparently all play together in 2024 somewhere somehow, looks at the last 75,000 years of human history, the events of Chrismas 2019 in Canberra and its surrounds, Finnigan's father, the early days of his own theatrical career, his obsession with contemporary pop diva Caroline Polocheck and the environmental catastrophe that awaits us all. Accompanied by Reuben Ingall providing musical support, a large funnell and a power point presentation, he drags us into a story that's wideranging yet specific and emotive, personal yet global, funny yet heartbreaking 

The question may be asked "is this theatre". Well, yes it is - it's storytelling at its most basic, us being the tribe listening to a master storyteller - Finnigan knows how to drag us in, to swerve and vary his narrative to keep us guessing where it's going next, to find an attention-grabbing angle or image, to use metaphors in intriguing manners. It's a skillful piece and I'm very glad Canberra's courtyard theatre is fulfilling its potential here as a place where artists can experiment, develop and perfect their craft.

Saturday, 3 April 2021

Playing Beatie Bow, Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company

 Classic novel adaptations seem to be an easy way to bring box office for theatre companies - recently we've had "My Brilliant Career", further back it's "Grapes of Wrath", "To Kill a Mockingbird", "Dr Frankenstein"  and the forthcoming "Sense and Sensibility" locally, and interstate "Jasper Jones", "The Harp in the South", "Cloudstreet", "Portrait of Dorian Gray" and "Bliss". They give a familiar structure with room for the production crew to develop a narrative conceived in another form and bring it to new theatrical life. Some can also feel a bit risk-free, trading on familiarity, or give back less than they take from the source material - but at their best it can be thrilling to see a cast fall comfortably into the arms of a grand narrative

Kate Mulvaney's adaptation of "Playing Beatie Bow" is mostly in the latter category - telling Ruth PArk's story of a contemporary girl taken back to 1873 in Sydney's historic "The Rocks" area, it's a rollicking adventure of mysticism, romance, fate and strength. Mulvaney's adaptation brings the contemporary sequences from Park's 1980 to 2021 with skill, and also attempts to stretch the very Anglo-Celtic narrative to reflect a more inclusive historic Australia. This stretch does come at the cost of pushing the running time out to around 2 hours 50 minutes, and it feels like there might be a tigher, faster version of this story out there that's been lost to a show trying to accomplish more than it can naturally fit. 

Having said that, as a demo-reel for what the newly renovated Wharf 1 can do, it can't be beat. Using the full depth of a new massive space, Kip Williams creates gorgeous stage pictures on the David Fleischer's minimal set, with the help of Nick Schlieper's lighting, in a story that races from era to era, from cramped slum home to a cruise across the majestic Sydney Harbour. There's also powerful performancs, from Catherine Van-Davies as our lead, Abigail, a tormented teen with heart, energy and drive, from Sofia Nolan as the somewhat-feral Beatie Bow, from Heather Mitchell both as the embracing Granny and the socialite modern Grandma, from Rory O'Keefe as the adorable Himbo-ish Judah, from Claire Lowvering as the romantically longing Dovey, from Ryan Yeates as the impulsively snippy Gibby, from Tony Cogin as the unrestrained Mr Bow, from Guy Simon as the tormented Johhny Whites, and from Lena Cruz as Abigail's mum. 

This is a little bit indulgent but it's adorably indulgent, and it's a great show to wash over you - this was my first acquaintance with the story, and delving into its complexities was a deeply rewarding experience. If there were a couple of sharp tonal shifts, I'm not entirely sure that all of them aren't from the source material (in particular, the brothel sequence feels like the story is moving to a more Dikensian space than the rest of the story, but it's an entertaining sideline), and it's good to see something stretching itself with skill. A good start to a year of STC works

Friday, 2 April 2021

Stop Girl, Belvoir

Sally Sara's debt play takes the term "write what you know" to extremes - a drama about a returning foreign correspondent who finds the rhythms normal life a challenge after years away covering the events in Afghanistan, it uses simple staging and a set of strong performances to devastating effect.  It's impossible not to take a work like this as being deeply, profoundly personal, and Director Anna-Louise Sarks and her production team bring the work to life very strongly.

Designer Robert Cousins provides a nicely neutral, white space for the story to be enacted - a sheet of blankspace with a screen behind for projections as required. We start on the streets of Afghanistan, seeing reporter Suzie doing her day-to-day work on the streets, accompanied by a friend doing a puff piece about her and her Afghani translator. As she returns home we find her uncertain about how to handle day to day life but presenting the strong competent fa├žade to friends, family, and ultimately a therapist, meanwhile helping her translator chase asylum in Australia. There's strong writing here, even though I'm not entirely sure the right choice on where to end the narrative was chosen (one of the underlying traumas turns out to be a lot more mundane and personal than the ones inherent in her place and location). Still, all central performances are strong - Sheridan Harbridge leverages her recent triumph in "Prima Facie" to create another tough professional young woman breaking under the weight of accumulated trauma,  very different from her previous work but still with a great ability to show the faultines. Amber McMahon is an endearing best friend, honest and with her own issues to play against Suzie's dramas, Toni Scanlon is an engaging mum, very frustratingly perceptive in the best ways, Mansoor Noor as the translator is charming and endearing as he opens up to new possibilities on his arrival in Australia, and Deborah Galanos presents the therapist as practical, direct and never willing to take the back foot Suzie wants her to. 

This is a new Australian play of unusual strength and it's directed with care and skill - design choices through the set, lighting and video design bring the narrative to life carefully and well. I was brought in and felt full after a strong theatrical meal.

Thursday, 25 March 2021

Margaret Fulton: The Musical, Jally Entertainment, The Q

 This production is a touring version of a show that's been bouncing around various fringe festivals and smaller venues for about a decade, originally as "Margaret Fulton: Queen of the Dessert" back in 2012 with a cast of three - I honestly think keeping a title like that would have given better hints at the level of sophistication this show is going for, covering about 50 years of the life of Australia's queen of cookbooks in 80 odd minutes, with songs dedicated to things like Pressure Cookers, Jam and Bobby Limb as the plot rolls through her rise to success while surviving various husband's misdemenours, with advice from her mum and an old friend along the way. Writer Doug Macleod has a history largely in TV Sketch comedy like "The Comedy Company", "Fast Forward" and "Full Frontal" and composer Yuri Worontshak  has similarly been providing music for movies and TV shows associated with those teams for a while, and this is pretty much right in their field - not-too-demanding, not-too challenging, material which rises or falls on the strength of its performers, being elevated by a Magda Szubanski, a Gina Riley, a Jane Turner or a Marg Downey. 

Judy Hainsworth is a solid lead as Margaret, suitably natty in various conservative outfits with a powerful singing voice and a firm no-nonsense demeanour. Zoe Harlen as freewheeling friend Bea really doesn't get quite enough of an arc but manages to impress every time she shows up with her breezy manner, and Jessica Kate Ryan provides wide sage advice as Margaret's mum, mostly in ghostly form. The other three supporting cast roar through various roles as supporters, backupdancers, husbands, swinging Londoners and interlopers with speed and charm.

This is really middling material done by a reasonable cast, and honestly the reason I was seeing this is because I needed a fourth show in a subscription. But I've seen worse bonus-shows-to-fill-up-a-subscription at the Q before and this is a reasonably appealing undemanding night out.

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

Jersey Boys, Canberra Philharmonic, Erindale Theatre

 "Jersey Boys" is one of the better "jukebox" musicals, taking the song catalog of a famous band and wrapping a plot based on the history of the band around it. In this case, the plot's drawn from the previously not-very-well known story of how "The Four Seasons" rose to fame and combatted internal tensions, their own egos, family and money problems on their way to fame, fortune and glory Using a narrative structure that splits the telling into four, each section told by a different member of the group,  the original production benefitted from some propulsive staging from Des McAnuff as the story roars through around 30 years of personal history between the four band members, frequently not letting the audience break for applause after songs as the story keeps on roaring along. 

Philo's production captures a lot of the power of this, particularly through the performances of the lead four men, though it loses a bit on the propulsive staging - it's a little too indulgent of audience applause during the opening half which means you lose the magical explosion when the band finally hits the spotlight and the audience gets to let go of all that building tension immediately after "Sherry", and there's a couple of gaps between scenes which should be rolling into one another. The slower pace mean that it's possible to spot a few cheats in the storytelling - all three other band members manage to narrate story elements that really only relate to Frankie alone, describing things they shouldn't really know.

But all 4 leading men claim the stage with their various skills - Dave Smith is ingratiatingly sleazy as the self-proclaimed organiser Tommy DeVito,  Jonathan Rush goofily charming as songwriting genius Bob Gaudio, Zach Johnson lends a solid dependability to the harmonically skilled Nick Massi, and Jared Newell is miracle casting as the perfectly voiced, multi-octaved  Frankie Valli. There's also great support in the rest of the cast, between Bradley McDowell's flamboyant Bob Crewe, John Whinfield's energetic Joey, Jason McKenzie's intimidating Gyp DeCarlo, Nicole Wetselar, Kellee-Rose-Hand and Jessica Coote as three very different women in Frankie's life,  and elsewhere. 

Musically, this is a wonderful retro feast, with Caleb Campbell's orchestra sounding wonderful throughout, the harmonics of the four leads (plus 5 credited backup vocals) sounding clear and gorgeous. There's fine retro-performance moves in Madelyn White's choreography, some lovely costume choices from Jill McMullen and Chelsea DeRooy (in particular Bob Crewe's lounging pyjamas), a clear and smooth set from Ian Croker. It's a pretty solid presentation, I just wish it could have been a little bit tighter to achieve full impact.

Friday, 5 March 2021

Young Frankenstein, Hayes Theatre

 "Young Frankenstein: The Musical" is one of those shows that suffers somewhat from being a follow-up show to a huge success - in this case, it's the show Mel Brooks did after "The Producers". The original production hit Broadway in a giant-sized theatre and with then-record-high ticket prices, running a little over a year after uneven reviews. A recent London revision was trimmed down and drew better reviews but ran about as long. Now, slightly COVID Delayed, it hits the Hayes in a trim and ridiculously fun production inspired by equal parts Mel Brooks, High Fashion, surrealism and anything-for-a-laugh nonsense. 

The Hayes is a tiny theatre, and I've mentioned before one of the best way to work with that tinyness is, weirdly, to make it tinier by blocking bits of the theatre off. Isabel Hudson's set is a maze of twisty-turny escher-esque staircases, with plenty of hidden hideyholes for sudden appearances and disappearances. Despite the curtain adding a literal fourth wall, the performers never treat that too seriously, throwing in jokes referencing everything from star Matthew Backer's recent appearances on Play School, the obviously reduced cast of eight's inability to be a large angry mob when only two of the actors aren't occupied playing other roles, the ropey nature of some of the Transylvanian accents and the meandering plot. 

Matthew Backer gives the lead a nicely gormless innocence together with a fair amount of likability and intelligence, dealing with the shenanigans with exasperation and occasionally blinding rage. Ben Gerrard crossdresses gorgeously as blonde bombshell Inga, providing breathy lab assistance while looking good in a corset and filmy dress. Lucia Mastrantone as Frau Blucher has a great time looming, harranguing, and giving a great Marlena Dietrich in her solo. Shannon Dooley as madcap fiance Elizabeth is suitably ridiculous, glamorous and immaculate. Luke Leong-Tay's Igor is a a nonsensical sidekick with a good line in running gags; Amy Hack's Insector Kemp gives desperate inspiration to a character trying to find revenge and justice; Nick Eynaud's monster does a good job of not being upstaged by his spectacular costumes, either in his principal role or as the horse; and Olivia Chamralambous plays various and sundry roles with enthusiasm and vigour. 

There's continuous invention in Alexander Berlarge's staging (even when he has to invent reasons for characters to move beyond the curtain to allow scene changes), down to the spectacular deployment of ladles during "Roll in the Hay" and the clever uses of the many tiny exits. Andrew Warboys makes a 6 piece band sound rich, glorious and spooky, and Yvette Lee comes up with comic choreography that looks stylish and ridiculous. 

For all the skill deployed, there is still something where this is middling material being pushed as hard as possible - Brooks's score and script do feel like it's a tacked on and expanded version of the movie script without a lot of new interesting things added - everything interesting about the additions tends to be an invention of Berlage and his cast. And the delightfulness of the show feels like the kind of thing that works up close and personal in the Hayes and would disappear in a bigger theatre should this end up touring. But I think I can still say this is a damn good time and a delight to see.

Thursday, 4 March 2021

Lamb, Red Stitch and Critical Stages, The Q

 First you get the wolf, then you get the sheep.... at least, that's how the Q appears to be programming. This three hander marks some familiar territory - three siblings are reunited after the death of their mother in a remote country town, dealing with the implications of their common history and planning the next steps of their lives. Played on Greg Clarke's simple but effective set (a kitchen on one side, a pub on the other and a horizon and cyclorama in the middle), Jane Bodie's script employs a series of flashbacks to take us from post-funeral departures back to the events of the days before, unpacking the issues lingering between the siblings, big and small, and providing a few mysteries to be resolved. Mark Seymour's folkish songs fit in naturally, not making this a full-blown musical but very much in that "play with songs" territory where characters have a musical background and will occasionally sing at one another in a shared language.

It's a nice, meat and potatoes piece of drama - a familiar but well-made play setting up, exploring and resolving tensions with style and economy touchingly and movingly. The three performers carry their roles well - hitting all the tense and tender notes the piece requires.

I don't want to go on too long describing this show as a lot of the pleasure is in seeing how the story unwraps itself, in its small beautiful way finding gentle truths and making small personal discoveries, but I will say this is a perfectly polished gem with a gentle heart and a whole lotta soul.