Friday, 18 May 2018

The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini - Arts Centre Melbourne

The cast of The Bleeding Tree
Photo by Elesa Kurtz

A steep patterned uneven floor descends and ascends into the black void. No one is prepared for the deafening crack of a rifle shot that echoes through the farmhouse. A mother and her two daughters appear from the darkness; husband and father lying dead at their feet. A bullet through the neck.

Our three narrators loom above us, angry and defiant, shouting at the corpse of the man who abused them. They are glad to be free of him. But this story doesn’t feel triumphant; it’s steeped in fear and dread and a town closing in around them.

Mother and daughters must work together to get rid of the body and protect each other when other townsfolk show up, worried about the kind of man we so often hear described in the media as a “good bloke”. This small town feels complicit in the cycle of abuse that this gunshot has fixed for now.

Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree is darkly poetic in its language, crafting a fable of sorts. Its reaction and reflection on domestic abuse is visceral without feeling exploitative. The violence is off-stage and alluded to. This story is about how these women cope in the aftermath and we are witnesses to their stories and experiences; we are listening when, in reality, so many victims of domestic violence aren’t listened to.

The show, first produced at Griffin Theatre in Sydney, is intense from gunshot to fade out and I can only imagine how that would have been magnified in its original, intimate space.

Lee Lewis’ direction is sharp and clear and simple. The sloping stage (design by Renee Mulder) is effective in keeping the characters and the audience teetering on the edge; almost but not quite off-balance. The lighting design by Verity Hampton is precise; the characters are held in an oppressive cocoon of blackness and we are left to imagine the world pressing in around them.

Cerini’s text is lyrical and compelling and refuses to hold your hand; neither for the audience’s benefit or the actors themselves. The cast, led by Paula Arundell, is extraordinary. Arundell’s performance is a mix of coarse defiance as mother and masculine bravado as the men who come to the farm, looking for her husband – last seen stumbling out of the local pub.

Sophie Ross and Brenna Harding (new to this remount of the production) are incredibly good as the daughters, swinging wildly between being glad their father is dead, and worried for their wondering how they are going to get rid of the body.

There are moments of grotesque humour scattered throughout this lean, piercing seventy-five-minute play, allowing some relief to an audience that might have been looking for a way out of the story they were watching. I laughed less than most, overwhelmed by these women’s pain, emotionally gutted by their circumstance and enraptured by a show that edged close to perfection.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

BLISS by Tom Wright, based on the novel by Peter Carey - Malthouse

Toby Truslove & Anna Sampson in Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson
Harry Joy is dead but not for long. He’s quickly revived into a new life, one that resembles Hell or an advertising company pitch meeting. Or maybe it was like that all along?

Based on Peter Carey’s debut novel from 1981, playwright Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton have teamed up again – after Picnic at Hanging Rock – to adapt a classic Australian book to the Malthouse stage.

But where Picnic was sleek, sharp and focused, Bliss is leaden and long.

The early introductory scenes felt like Wright and Lutton were aiming for a poetic companion piece to their Gothic melodrama, with interlocking monologues picking apart the kind of Australia that is only reminisced about. Bliss is set in the 1980s, in the suburbs of Sydney. The costumes allude to the decade without being a parody of it. The local references evoke the era.

As Harry stumbles through this newly recognised Hellish existence, we’re treated to some wryly amusing meta-theatrical nonsense; he thinks his family are actors and he’s trapped on a revolving set. But embracing a Brechtian approach to Harry’s new life doesn’t gain the production much after a while. The trouble with Harry is – he and his family are hard to like. And their stories are mostly flat.

Which is a pity, because Lutton has assembled an exceptional cast to bring the Joy family and others to life. Toby Truslove brings a kind of dignity to Harry that is at odds with his wife Bettina’s wish that he had stayed dead. Amber McMahon is wild as Harry’s wife, injecting much energy each time she steals the spotlight.

Wright’s approach to the material seems to regard the original text with such reverence, for much of the three-hour running time it felt like the actors were reading the book to me, suggesting that I should have just read it.

There are moments of satire in this show but they are not sustained or built upon. I worried for Harry’s well-being for a while and then I stopped. I wanted something more for his family and then I found it difficult to care.

Late in the play, I was wondering how the rest of the audience was doing. I was concerned for them. I looked around, thinking about that regular criticism of critics – you hated it, but what did the rest of the audience think? I didn’t do a poll, but I did note that several people didn't return after interval and that for a supposed comedy, there was only a scattering of laughs the whole night.

I got some food stuck in my throat at dinner before I saw Bliss. Maybe I died and woke up, much like Harry Joy, in Hell. The only way for him to resolve his dilemma was to die again. At least I got to get up and leave the theatre.



The cast of Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson

Monday, 23 April 2018

Right Now by Catherine-Anne Toupin - Red Stitch

The cast of Right Now
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson
Alice and Ben are settling into their new apartment when their neighbours, the Gauches, invite themselves over to see what the couple have done with the place.

Juliet, Gilles and son Francois live directly across the hallway in an apartment that is the same, but the other way around. If Alice and Ben turn left, the Gauches must turn right.

Ben is a doctor who works long hours and Alice spends a lot of time at home, alone. And when she’s alone, she hears things. A cry in the dark that begins to haunt her even when other people are around.

Catherine-Anne Toupin’s Right Now is a domestic psychological thriller that mines its tension for dramatic and comedic affect.

When the Gauches arrive as a family, they are framed in the doorway like the perfect Gothic portrait of a haunted family. But once they cross the threshold, they are harder to pin down.

Francois enters with a wide toothy grin – both goofy and deeply unsettling. His relationship with his parents is complicated; his brother died when he was very young, and he’s uncomfortably close with Juliet and Gilles, though he’s sure he’s still not the favourite.

Gilles turns out to be an idol of Ben’s in the medical field. Juliet tells Alice she reminds her a lot of herself. The neighbours are like a fun-house mirror of Alice and Ben; a mirror on the wall of a haunted house.

Alice and Ben are still settling into their new apartment, but they are haunted by something in the past. This ideal place they have made for themselves, comfortable and perfectly appointed, will not let them forget where they have come from and the pain of their past is beginning to infect their waking lives.

The play itself is slippery; it gives you signposts but then turns them around. You may twig to what is happening to Alice early on, but then Toupin’s work twists into more complicated shapes. And the characters shift and change before our very eyes.

Katy Maudlin’s production ratchets up the tension with each glance and maniacal laugh. Daniel Nixon’s sound design gets under your skin and Richard Vabre’s lighting illuminates the characters and their shadows in uncomfortable ways.

The acting ensemble is uniformly excellent. Christina O’Neill’s Alice is opaque, but this makes her utterly compelling. What is going on inside her mind? Is what is going on inside her mind playing out in front of us?

Mark Wilson’s Francois is superb for the way he evolves throughout the play. As his character slowly encroaches on Alice’s life, he turns from comic relief into something much more disturbing and finally transforms into a much more complicated figure.

Dushan Phillips is compelling as Ben, who is pushed to extremes by his and Alice’s trauma and by the many ways he cannot say no to the far-too-friendly neighbours.

Rounding out the cast is Olga Makeeva and Joe Petruzzi as Juliet and Gilles, whose relationship at times feels like Morticia and Gomez Addams and at moments like they live in the same apartment building as Rosemary’s Baby.

Twenty-four hours after Right Now, I’m still thinking about what happened and what didn’t happen and which of those things matter the most. It’s the shadows of what’s not there that leave the deepest impression.

Tense and twisted drama that you’ll wrestle with for a long time after.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh - Melbourne Theatre Company

Benjamin Rigby & Pip Edwards in Abigail's Party
Photo: Jeff Busby

The middle-class dinner party that descends into chaos is a pretty classic theatrical trope and a mainstay of the Melbourne Theatre Company mainstage. Gather five people in a room, give them alcohol and some conflict and the drama writes itself. Most of the time, the troubles of wealthy inner-suburban types are typical First World Problems and often boil down to “we’re doing well, but we’re just not satisfied with our lives”.

Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is basically the same set-up but written in 1970s Britain, it’s about the aspirational newly middle-class – people who want what their neighbours have. People who are doing the done thing: marriage, kids, buying a house. But they’re not sure they belong and are desperately trying to fit in.

Leigh’s play is a bleak social satire but the tone of MTC’s production, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo (of Little Ones theatre company), is one of camp and farce. This is a world and decades away from the original play and the filmed BBC drama that starred Alison Steadman.

The audience is struck by a bold, uncompromising set on the Southbank Theatre stage. Looking something like a 70s game show, these are portals into another world. Small off-set windows into a bedroom, the bathroom and the garage frame the central space that is wall-to-wall shagpile and drapes. Everything is blindingly Fanta orange, where the dinner party guests are trapped for most of the show’s running time.

And trapped is the key to their predicament. Hostess Beverly (Pip Edwards) wants everyone to have a good time, to the point where she is desperate to control everything. Husband Lawrence (Daniel Fredriksen) wants to prove he can fit into this new neighbourhood, by quoting from literature and refusing to play Demis Roussos too loud.

Angela and Tony’s relationship seems even more fraught. They are brand new to the estate, having moved into a house from the furnished apartment where they began their marriage. Angela is a nurse and Tony is a computer programmer, but we get the sense their home life is unpleasant.

Benjamin Rigby does a stunning job of playing the monosyllabic Tony, who cuts a fine figure in a bright white suit, taking up as much space as he can, manspreading at every opportunity. In a sea of characters in extremis, Tony is the most unpredictable – like he might erupt into a violent rage at any moment. And what did happen when he and Lawrence looked in on Abigail’s Party?

Yes, the titular party isn’t even the focus of the play. Angela is the teenage daughter of Susan, a single-mother who gets along fine with her ex-husband. She’s at Beverly’s dinner party to give her daughter a night to have fun. It’s the rest of the adults at the dinner party who are worried about what’s happening down the street.

Katharine Tonkin’s Susan is nervous and quiet and uncomfortable in this atmosphere. You feel for her every time she’s offered another cheese-and-pineapple canape. And it’s Tonkin’s descent into the madness of the other characters that makes a real impression; from not drinking too much on an empty stomach, to spilling her drinks with wild abandon like everyone else.

Inside this heightened experience, the actors and Nicolazzo do find the humanity within these characters, though. That’s a recurring motif in Nicolazzo’s work with Little Ones; inside the camp and the queer, there are people hurting by the roles society expects them to play.

There’s a moment in this production where everything seems to slow down, into a dreamlike state, and we get to focus on a long-held gaze and a look of disappointment and another of despair. The ridiculous, for a moment, gives way to the sublime.

This is the kind of experiment I hope MTC tries more often; take a classic work and let an indie theatremaker turn it on its head. There’s nothing I dread more than seeing a dinner party drama at the Melbourne Theatre Company, so it’s much more thrilling to see this bleak classic turned upside-down and pushed outside its and the audience’s comfort zone.

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Annie Louey: Butt Donut



For a festival that most punters think of as a long line-up of stand-up comedians, the percentage of stand-up shows I’ve seen this Comedy Festival has been pretty low. I actually wonder if traditional stand-up has a degree of difficulty that makes it tougher than other kinds of comedy shows; fifty minutes of a performer and a microphone - a style we’ve seen so many times.

Annie Louey stands out in the stand-up crowd because she is a young woman with Asian heritage who can mine her background for rich stories of culture clashes and dramatic stories of life and death. This Aussie Chinese Millennial has some great tales to tell in a refreshing, honest style.

Annie can make you laugh about young love, travelling the world, her snake-soup-making Chinese family and their surprise that this Aussie girl can use chopsticks. She also has some pretty dramatic stories about fainting into a fire and the passing of her elderly father. But she finds humour in these dark moments, too.

I was a bit lost with some of the pop culture references she was making, but I guess the generation gap makes that kind of thing inevitable. And she was so old when she got her first computer – 12. Back in my day, kids didn’t get computers until much later. But that difference in perspective is what makes this show really special.

Butt Donut isn’t polished, though. Annie is still finding her way, even after seasons in Perth and Adelaide. But the material is there and when she grows in confidence, Annie will be one to watch out for.

Melbourne Comedy Festival – The Travelling Sisters: Toupè



There’s a lot to say about The Travelling Sisters are their upbeat intro song and their bizarre costume changes and the genius physical comedy combined with more wigs than I’ve seen in the rest of the entire festival combined. So many wigs, so well utilised.

But I’m fixated on the tap-dancing cactus who just wants to be held. Some comedians will go a long way for a gag; some shows think bigger is better. There’s something so wonderful in such a simple, beautifully executed bit like this. No wig in this one, though – but a great costume.

The crowd-sourced song by a child trying to please their mother was a highlight the night I saw the show, but I wonder if this is a high-wire act that might fall apart with another less funny audience. No matter, The Travelling Sisters have the rest of the act worked to a sharp point. There’s an oddball family band from Arkansas with deep dark secrets. And a trio of lollipop ladies who have a striptease for you.

The Travelling Sisters are an offbeat comedy trio whose humour mostly dabbles in the strange, but once you get on their wavelength, Toupè is an hour where you might hurt yourself from laughing. And I was worried they might hurt themselves to make us laugh. Totally worth it.




Melbourne Comedy Festival – Cindy Salmon: Empowerful


Cindy Salmon wants to empower you! She wants you to kick-ass when getting out of bed. She wants you to put all your energy into brushing your teeth. Every moment of every day, you need to be eating the patriarchy and smashing that glass ceiling (which is why she wears steel-capped boots)!

Welcome to Cindy’s very empowering seminar or, as she calls it, salmon-ar. Are you ready to take complete control of your life? To combat all of your fears? To change the world?

Cindy is full of jargon and tips on making life better. The comedy comes from the broad American accent and the ridiculous bits of wisdom she spouts. It’s entertaining for a while, but the jokes do get a little repetitive as the show goes on.

In a week where real-life motivational speaker Tony Robbins showed what dangerous delusions self-professed gurus can have, Empowerful feels a little safe; Cindy Salmon is treading water and not swimming upstream as she’d have you believe.