Thursday, 17 January 2019

REVIEW: The Legend of Queen Kong by Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward as Queen Kong
Photo: Peter Leslie
There’s a star field and a band and a crawl of yellow text and we recognise these things, these elements, from our memories and our lives and our pop culture. These are helpful touchstones as The Legend of Queen Kong: Episode II – Queen Kong in Space begins.


Kong is immortal and has already lived for millennia; born from a dead ape and a volcanic eruption. Kong is taking us on a trip through the universe and into the future, leading to exquisitie revelations and existential crises.

Queen Kong is a new show from performer Sarah Ward, best known for the character of Yana Alana. But this Queen of the Earth, singer of rock songs, isn’t a simple character creation. It’s a creation myth. It’s as much about the Big Bang – an orgy of male Gods, as it is about the music we have put out into the universe.

Music is central, though. Queen Kong is the lead singer of a band, the HOMOsapiens, and the show is a concert and cabaret and a strange kind of storytelling. I was witness to a spectacle; a messy, lively, memorable spectacle.

Sarah’s Kong is dressed in a sparkly leotard, silvery pubic hair showing, a big fur coat wrapped around her. It’s a striking image birthed onto the stage, sometimes running into the audience, sometimes up in the balcony of the Fairfax Studio. A thrilling, memorable persona.

The audience is warned early on that things won’t always make sense and this is reiterated throughout. The Legend wants to expose us to new ideas, radical concepts and the unknowable forces of space and time – without getting bogged down by linear narrative storytelling. For me, I would have rather the show push further in either direction, giving us a little more story to hang onto – or to forget story altogether and spend time crafting mind-blowing moments.

Accessibility for a deaf audience is built into the design of the show; there’s a deaf performer on screen and all live text was signed in Auslan by a character called The Interpreter. There were also surtitles on the screen that explained the styles of music that was playing – but it wasn’t merely informational, that text also had its own moments of levity.

The combination of a large video projection, the live band, Ward’s always-astonishing singing created sequences that were hilarious and occasionally touching. There wasn’t a very satisfying shape to the show, though. There were times where it felt like things were wrapping up before the performance leapt in another direction. The final song, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, was beautiful rendered but it’s a pity the climax of the show wasn’t composed by the creators at the heart of The Legend of Queen Kong.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

REVIEW: Newk! The John Newcombe Story by Kieran Carroll

Damian Callinan stars in Newk!

It’s 2014 and Australian tennis legend John Newcombe is turning 70 and all the greats of the sport are arriving at his place for a barbeque he doesn’t have to cook for once. Old friends and players he’s coached are here to celebrate – and Newk is ready to reminisce over a glass of Chinzano, his body liberally sprayed with Aeroguard.

Comedian and comic actor Damian Callinan has grown Newk’s iconic moustache for the role and he’s perfectly cast as the laid-back champ, whose glory days are long behind him. Callinan is warm, funny and charming in the role.

Playwright Kieran Carroll has done a good job digging deep into Newcombe’s life, tracing his career from high school tennis player to Grand Slam champion. There’s a lot of interesting detail about the Wimbledon boycott of 1973 to the story of how he met his wife to an interview with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show to an advertisement for Newcombe’s How to Play Tennis album from K-Tel.

After a while, the roster of names that Newcombe drops gets a bit tiresome – it feels too much like boxes that Kieran thought needed to be ticked. But there’s still some wonderful drama inherent in a scene where Newk realises he’ll miss his father’s funeral for a tennis match, or the moment he beats his hero Ken Rosewall to win Wimbledon in 1970.

The anchoring device of the 70th birthday party is fun, an excuse to look back and keep things light. The show isn’t linear; Newcombe jumps around his life as a player before settling into his post-tennis career as coach and mentor.

The show seems aimed at people who remember Newcombe’s career; a lot of the audience reaction was recognition of names and places and wins. But there’s a healthy dose of laughs and some cheeky audience interaction by Callinan, who had the old folks in the palm of his hand.

There’s nothing inherently dramatic in the story of Newk – even as he tells us of the stroke he’s suffered, the play never really connects that with the life of drinking that went hand-in-hand with his career. Even the darkest moment, talking of the stages of a party-boy evening, when he turned from John to Jock to Jack, dissipates into laughs after he wakes the next day.

Newk is a light-hearted look back at a champion of Australian sport – and if you get all the references, you’ll have a good time. And if you douse yourself in Aeroguard, you’ll avagoodweekend.

Newk is on at the Butterfly Club until Saturday January 19th.

John Newcombe

Thursday, 10 January 2019

REVIEW: Low Level Panic by Claire McIntyre

Phoebe Taylor and Gabrielle Sing in
Claire McIntyre's Low Level Panic

Claire McIntyre’s 1988 play about society’s objectification of women is a three-hander set in a share house, full of the drama and conflict of living with strangers who are almost friends and the struggles of knowing the right thing to feel when even your housemates tell you to toughen up.

Mary (Gabrielle Sing) is concerned about the nudie magazine she’s found in the bin. Jo (Phoebe Taylor) wants to enjoy life, but often retreats into fantasies about rich men and lorry drivers. Celia (Jessica Martin) seems shallow, oblivious to what is really going on in the house – swanning through life, to Jo’s dismay.

Thirty years from its first performance, Low Level Panic still feels vital, if very much of its time. As much as this production uses the props of 2019, some of the realities the play depicts feel dated. It’s not that the truth of objectification has changed, but being concerned about softcore girlie magazines in an era of internet-wide pornography casts Mary as a bit more naïve than really makes sense.

Director Kotryna Gesait’s production in traverse is intimate and hilarious, but never as confronting as it might be. The choice to direct Jo’s fantasies at men in the audience creates a real tension, but works mostly as comic value rather than digging deeply into what she is saying about men.

I was pleased with the choice to do the play in Australian accents; the universality of the story would suggest this choice should be uncontroversial, putting aside the British-isms conflicting with local place names like Berwick.

More oddly, the decision to have the characters take on other accents when discussing their fantasies puts the audience at a remove; some of those stories should be heartbreaking and they are reduced to comic runners.

There are moments when those walls come down, though. Sometimes the artifice is undone and we are shown below the surface of Mary and Jo – and the dramatic tension of McIntyre’s script is exposed to the audience. Gabrielle and Phoebe play off each other magnificently. Phoebe is confident and relaxed in the role of Jo, while Gabrielle slowly and subtly brings out the unease Mary has about the world.

Low Level Panic is a strong play with much to say. This production finds its truth about half of the time, muddled by odd choices in dramaturgy and direction.

Saturday, 15 December 2018

My Favourite Theatre of 2018

Blasted
It’s that time of year again, when I look back over everything I saw on stage and put together a list of my favourite shows. I saw over 100 shows this year, mostly in Melbourne and a small number on one visit to Sydney.

I will link to reviews if I wrote one.

TOP TEN (alphabetical order)

The Almighty Sometimes – Griffin Theatre, Sydney

Kendall Feaver’s extraordinary debut play is about Anna, dealing with mood disorders and medication and the complicated relationship she has with the treatments and her mother. Superb cast and beautifully directed by Lee Lewis

Blackie Blackie Brown – Malthouse Theatre

Nakkiah Lui’s work is always amazing but this production, directed by Declan Green, was another step up for her – the satire sharper and bleaker and more hilarious than ever before.


Sarah Kane’s debut play from 1990s London is a tricky beast tackling difficult subjects but Anne-Louise Sarks nailed it with a superb production.


I had heard amazing things about this Griffin Theatre production over the last few years and was so glad it finally made it to Melbourne. An exquisite piece of theatre.

Calamity Jane – Arts Centre Melbourne

Another production from Sydney I’d heard amazing things about, only to miss it on its Melbourne debut earlier this year. Glad I finally got to see it from on-stage seating. Last show of the year, in my top ten. As I described it on Twitter – “Like the Doris Day movie, but gayer.”

Calamity Jane

An exceptional piece of queer theatre at Red Stitch; challenging and hilarious. Daniel Clarke’s production was superb.

Prize Fighter - Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne Festival

Yet another show that has travelled the country and I am glad to have finally seen. A tale of immigration that was about physical and emotional toughness. Unforgettable.


A musical comedy about romance, sexuality, narrative convenience and the “dead lesbian trope”. I hope this has a long life. I’d love to see it again.


Daniel Lammin’s treatment of Tommy Murphy’s play was subtle, nuanced and deeply moving. Superb.


An important story of people from the Torres Strait, a joyous celebration of family. Beautiful.


THE NEXT TEN (alphabetical order)


Little Ones took to the MTC stage and turned it upside. Incredible design, stunning cast, excellent production.

Abigail's Party
The Harp in the South, Parts 1 and 2 – Sydney Theatre Company

An epic Sydney story given the epic Kip Williams/STC treatment. A day to remember. The classic novel is set to be a classic stage play.

The House of Bernarda Alba – Melbourne Theatre Company

Patricia Cornelius did a wonderful job adapting Lorca’s classic play. Beautifully realised by director Letitia Caceres with an unforgettable cast of women.


post performed themselves and years of recorded conversations were elevated into something profound.


Trying to adapt this film to stage seemed like an impossible task but leave it to Matt Lutton and Declan Greene to pull it off with a performance for the ages by Eryn Jean Norville.

Melancholia
The Mission – Arts House, Melbourne Fringe

Tom Molyneux’s ode to his uncle and his ancestry was insightful and vital and very touching.

The Nightingale and the Rose - Little Ones, Theatre Works

Little Ones simple, effective adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story.

Prehistoric – Elbow Room, Meat Market

Elbow Room’s rocking work on Brisbane’s punk scene and the oppressive Bjelke-Peterson government.

Sneakyville – 45 Downstairs

Christopher Bryant and Daniel Lammin’s complex take on Charles Manson, his followers and the public’s decade-long obsession with the cult leader. Seared into my mind.



In the midst of despair, Rawcus’ moving work found hope in darkness.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

John Barrowman - Arts Centre Melbourne
Wild – Melbourne Theatre Company
Cock – Meat Market, directed by Beng Oh
An Ideal Husband – Melbourne Theatre Company
The Children – Melbourne Theatre Company
Elbow Room: There/Here – Lithuanian Club, Melbourne Fringe



PAST YEARS

Monday, 10 December 2018

"In love with night..." and twilight: Melbourne Shakespeare Company's ROMEO & JULIET

"All the world will be in love with night..."
Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography
Two households, both alike in dignity, in fair St Kilda, where we lay our scene… 

In amongst the rose bushes of the St Kilda Botanical Gardens, two families are at each other’s throats and two lovers are falling for each other. The audience is separated into two halves, like the congregation at a wedding – one side the Montagues, one side the Capulets.

We are welcomed by a pair of Friars, Laurence and Mary, and a small band of musical players – a trumpeter, a pianist and a third on banjo. A rotunda sits in the middle of the garden and is the main focus of the performance space for Melbourne Shakespeare Company’s Romeo & Juliet.

Outdoors in Melbourne can bring all sorts of drama, especially in the transition between seasons. Yes, it’s summer now, but the city can threaten storms even after blisteringly hot days. Sunday was mostly overcast and threatened to rain – and that was the backdrop when we sat down for this production on Sunday evening. The sun was two hours from setting, but the dramatic black clouds in the distance suggested storms on the horizon for these star-crossed lovers.

This production isn’t the original text; it’s Shakespeare by way of Baz Luhrman - though not his own Romeo + Juliet. This felt more like Moulin Rouge, modern songs used to elevate the mood, heighten the tension and amuse when deployed in an oddball context. The Montagues and the Capulets engage in Shakespeare’s classic taunts – they do bite their thumb at you, sir, but their song and dance battles reminiscent of West Side Story, also inspired by Shakespeare’s tragic lovers.

The comedy gets the audience on side early on; we’re amused by anachronistic music and local references. But we’re also treated to a female Tybalt (Emily Thompson) and a female Benvolio (Carly Ellis, who steals the show each time she’s on stage, especially post-party, when she’s recovering from a hangover). Another treat is Tref Gare’s doubling as the police Inspector and his show-stopping turn as the Nurse with a comically Scottish brogue.

This show hits all the romantic plot beats, but it chooses to slice out the political familial machinations. Montague and Capulet are tyrannical parents for their children to rebel against and that’s enough here. They are figures of fear, if not fully realised characters. But that’s fine; this production is light and accessible and full of inventiveness for most of its length.

Adapting Shakespeare, particularly cutting it down, is a tricky business. Turning much of Romeo & Juliet into a raunchy comedy, with matching slapstick, makes the dramatic turn a little harder to buy. Some of the local references took away from the dramatic moments; St Kilda feels like a suitable stand in for Verona, but as Mantua, Pakenham is too much of a distracting laugh line.

And yet, even if the cleverness of the production faded into the background, as the dramatic pieces started to fall into place, the power of the tragedy remains palpable. The audience got quieter. The ensemble pulled back from earlier antics. And Matthew Connell and Joanna Halliday, both striking in the central roles, take centre stage to fulfil the promise of the play’s opening stanza.

Melbourne Shakespeare has created a thrilling, memorable Romeo & Juliet; and the outdoor setting is an amazing backdrop. The sun set slowly last night, casting a pink light into the St Kilda sky. Nature is one hell of a lighting designer.


The cast of Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography

Thursday, 22 November 2018

REVIEW: Lamb by Jane Bodie, Music & Lyrics by Mark Seymour - Red Stitch

Brigid Gallacher, Simon Maiden, Emily Goddard in Jane Bodie's Lamb


“You left a trail of broken bread
Across the old battle ground
Behind the veil of the living and the dead
You wrote your secrets down.”

There’s a song at the heart of Jane Bodie’s new play, Lamb. It’s the song of family history. A song full of heart. Of regret.

At times the music is a celebration of life. At times, it’s a meditation on loss. Mostly, it’s both. As great country songs can be or must be.

Farmland. Rural Australia. The wooden floorboards and the dust and the fridge full of beers.

Annie (Brigid Gallacher) has returned to her home town after the death of her mother. Sudden for her, but a drawn-out process for her brother Patrick (Simon Maiden) and their sister Kathleen (Emily Goddard).

Patrick sings a song in remembrance of his late mother, even though Annie is the singer of the family – she went to the big city to pursue her dreams. The reunion of the siblings is delicate, fraught.

Annie refuses to feel guilty for following her passion, but Patrick resents her for leaving him to look after their mother, whose last years were marred by dementia. Kathleen is also sick, mentally impaired somehow, a child in a woman’s body. It’s tough on a farm in any case. For Patrick, it’s been a living nightmare; maybe singing his father’s songs has got him through it.

Lamb is advertised as A New Play with Songs. It’s not a musical, let’s be clear. The songs are songs the characters have written; songs they sing as songs. With music and lyrics by Aussie rock legend Mark Seymour, combined with the moving work of playwright Jane Bodie, this is a stellar example of the “play with songs” genre.

The play starts with the funeral and inches back in time, in memory and then lurches back into another generation at the start of Act Two. Brigid and Patrick do double duty as parents Mary and Frank, whose early relationship is troubled by the fact that Mary really wants to leave town to go protest in the big smoke.

Although the first half of this play is captivating, it feels mannered in a way the second half does not. Director Julian Meyrick helps the actors find the hidden depths to their characters in Act Two and the layers of regret built into the family’s foundations are exposed. The children don’t really understand what their parents went through before they were born; and the siblings are at a loss to reconcile what they do know after Mary’s funeral.

Emily Goddard is captivating, as always, even if the conception of Kathleen feels a little bit like a cliché – the mentally-ill sister who is really wiser than her impairment suggests. Brigid Gallacher’s Annie is the archetypical prodigal daughter, but once we get to mother Mary, we see echoes of each in both; a subtle and striking performance. Simon Maiden gives us a laconic Frank and a taciturn Patrick, showing most passion through the song a father wrote and passed on to his son.

Lamb is an intimate tale that’s spread across years. It’s a story of a family history that is imperfectly passed along, and a song that is sung and remembered and a shared passion that binds them all together even as they slowly drift apart.

Lamb is on at Red Stitch until December 16th. A strong final show for 2018, just before their 2019 season is launched next week.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

REVIEW: School of Rock by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Glenn Slater & Julian Fellowes

Brent Hill as Dewey Finn with child cast in School of Rock

Based on the 2003 film starring Jack Black and Joan Cusack, School of Rock the musical follows the same basic premise – after being kicked out of his current band, Dewey Finn takes on the name of his teacher friend, Ned Schneebly, and gets a job at a private school. There, instead of educating the students in English, Math or History, he forms a band with the children so he can compete in the Battle of the Bands against his old band mates.

Dewey (Brent Hill) is a bit of a loser, but he’s a free spirit, who loves rock and roll so much that he wants to teach his students to find their voices, embrace their talent and as all edgy rock musicians must do in rebellion – he teaches them to “Stick It to the Man”. The villain of the piece is The Establishment, the private school they attend – Horace Green Prep. The principal, Rosalie Mullins (Amy Lehpamer), is a stickler for the rules and is uptight, both of which Dewey abhors, of course.

It’s a gender reversal on The Sound of Music; instead of a headstrong nun teaching the children of the uptight Captain Von Trapp to sing, rebel Dewey teaches the children of Roz’s private school to rock the status quo.

Unfortunately, School of Rock doesn’t have many memorable songs. “Stick it to the Man” is catchy enough, working as the Act I finale and reprised at the end. Roz’s solo “Where Did the Rock Go?” gives Lehpamer a chance to shine, when most of the musical wastes her in the role of principal. The actual musical highlight comes when a shy child finds her voice and sings “Amazing Grace” in Act II.

Brent Hill is charismatic and full of life as Dewey, but he’s channelling Jack Black, as I guess one must in this role. It’s so strange to see this approximation of a film role that so suited Black, but the creation is fun enough that I enjoyed Hill’s cover of the original.

Expanding a 100-minute film into a two-and-a-half-hour musical has led to fleshing out the child characters, in a small way. We get a sense that all their home lives are tricky; none of them can live up to their fathers’ expectations. (In a montage of their struggles out of school, we don’t see any of their mothers. A strange choice and more on that later.) But with so many child characters, there’s still not enough time to really make them into interesting people.

That said, the classroom scenes are full of life and fun; the young performers work well together and there’s nothing too precocious or saccharine about this lot. In contrast, the adults-only scenes – such as those in the Teachers’ Lounge – are leaden and dull. All of them are caricatures and most of the jokes in those scenes land with a thud.

School of Rock is a slick Broadway musical that is too long and lacks any real dramatic stakes; Dewey’s duplicity is hardly ever challenged and once the truth is exposed, the show still barrels toward a happy ending, the problems finally swept away without consequence.

You could take a kid to the show and they would enjoy watching kids rebelling in the classroom and forming a band and the ridiculous antics of Dewey Finn, but I really wish you wouldn’t. For one major reason…

School of Rock treats women very badly.

The two major adult female roles in School of Rock are the principal and the ex-girlfriend of Dewey’s friend, Ned. While Roz the principal is concerned about her students for good reason, she is still described as “ice cold” – a not-terribly-clever disguise for what Dewey is really saying, “frigid”. And she goes through the predictable story arc of learning to let her hair down and get her rock on.

Ex-girlfriend Patty is a shrewish nag, who doesn’t want Ned to be in a band anymore, for no other reason than she thinks it’s not adult. This means both Ned and Dewey must battle women to find their rock ‘n roll; and Ned’s triumphant moment over Patty is him screaming at her to “shut up”. It’s an ugly moment.

The show itself does throw in two lines of feminist commentary (two whole lines), perhaps as a way to balance out the sexism inherent in the rest of the script. But I’m not sure if I give book author Julian Fellowes that much credit here.

The show goes to great lengths to point out that The Man (who Dewey and the kids are sticking it to) can also be a woman – “but the woman would only get paid 70 cents on the dollar”, the girls of Horace Green shout. It stops the show, as does a later comment about gender representation in media discourse, but neither time feels genuine to the school girls’ characters.

The missing mothers from the student’s home life montage added to my sense that the show was so focused on venerating man-child Dewey and his battle against nagging women that women’s voices were being silenced or ignored. Comments on Mama Cass’ weight and a spit-take by Dewey into a female teacher’s face were just gross.

The low-point was a “stolen” non-consensual kiss by Dewey with Roz after which she jokes about giving “permission” – she’s really talking about consent to a field trip, not the kiss.

School of Rock seems like a feel-good show for kids and families, but this underlying suspicion of women not letting boys be boys was troubling.


Amy Lehpamer as Principal Rosalind Mullins in School of Rock