Saturday, 19 August 2017

REVIEW: Surprise Party with Jem & Dead Max, La Mama Courthouse

Surprise Party with Jemma and Dead Max
Photo by Connor Tomas O'Brien

Recently, La Mama theatre in Carlton celebrated its 50th Anniversary of staging and producing innovative, diverse, independent theatre in Melbourne. It is supportive of all range of artists, from newcomers to old-hands and you never know what you are going to get when you visit either of its two spaces in Faraday Street or at the Courthouse.

As La Mama enters its second fifty years, there’s a surprise party happening, in a new play by Georgia Symons. The play has been assisted in its creation by a Hot Desk Fellowship at the Wheeler Centre, followed by a development as part of The Kiln at Arts Centre Melbourne.

We’ve all arrived at parties on time or a little late only to find the hosts are still setting up and that’s the case here. Jem (Anna Kennedy) needs help hanging streamers and blowing up balloons and the audience is happy to help; we’re welcomed into a festive space and pleased to have been invited.

As the title of the play suggests, the surprise party is for Jem’s close friend Max (Christian Taylor), who is dead. He would have been twenty-one-years-old today, if he’d survived the fatal head-on collision with a truck. But enough with the sadness, let’s get on with celebrating a very full life.

Jem and Max were close friends at high school; they attended parties and went on school camp and saw movies together. Jem makes a game out of reminiscing about their friendship, sending Max on a kind of treasure hunt around her house to find mementos of their time together.

The play mostly focuses on these two friends hanging out and having fun talking about old times – even if Max’s scars from the accident are clearly visible throughout. Hey, if he’s not worried about his early death, why should we be? Let’s have fun watching them having fun!

And there’s a lot of joy in seeing Kennedy and Taylor inhabit these energy-filled teenagers jumping around the stage, dancing and singing and drinking like there’s no such thing as a hangover. Only late in the play do we get much of a sense of danger, when Jem’s drink is spiked, though the play makes it clear she’s hiding something from Max throughout.

There’s a darker, more complicated surprise at the heart of Surprise Party. It’s about grief, of course, but not simply about the death of a friend, but about the death of friendship. What can we say to people who slip out of our lives? Where do we put our anger and outrage when they aren’t around to yell at any more?

There’s some strong dramatic stuff towards the end, though the overly complicated staging by director Iris Gaillard robs us of a smooth way into the story. For all the energy of the cast, there’s too much stage craft and “business”; we should be connecting more with these characters than watching them deal with dozens of props and many sets of chairs. These choices bog down the reveals in the closing minutes of the play.

Anna Kennedy’s Jem is a welcoming presence and makes us feel comfortable before pulling the rug out from under us. Her character is easier to get a grip on than the deliberately mercurial Max. Christian Taylor has the harder job, being as much Jem’s memory of Max as he is Max himself.

Symons’ script is layered and knotty and the story she’s really telling isn’t clear until the end, but it might feel better if it felt more like an inevitability than a surprise twist.


Sunday, 6 August 2017

Returning to a place I've never been: My Twin Peaks Festival odyssey



As I sit here, half a world away (I have the co-ordinates, but am no longer in the zone) and a day ahead of those in North Bend and Snoqualmie (is it future or is it past), I am reminiscing about my time at the 25th Annual Twin Peaks Festival. 

I wish it wasn’t over.

I have been a fan of Twin Peaks ever since it aired in Australia in 1991. I have dreamed of visiting the area where it was filmed all this time – and have known about the Festival ever since first reading about it in “Wrapped in Plastic” magazine many, many years ago. I wonder now why it’s taken me so long to make this trip, but I would not exchange waiting and experiencing this years’ event for anything.

Even attendees who have visited the Festival multiple times (some, nearly every year for a quarter of a century) had to admit that this year was unique. We’re in the middle of watching Twin Peaks: The Return and we watched part 12 with a room full of Twin Peaks fans at the Roadhouse in North Bend, which is the exteriors for the Roadhouse (or Bang Bang Bar) in Twin Peaks itself.


I got to visit iconic locations – the Falls, the Double-R Diner, the Sheriff’s Station – while others, who had seen all these places, discovered new shooting locations for scenes that had just aired. In Part 11, which debuted the week before the Festival, we saw Becky hunt down her cheating husband at Gersten’s apartment – and fans found that location quick smart. So many stairwell shots from that building appeared over the weekend.

Next year’s Festival attendees will get to pull apart the entirety of The Return and actors will be able to answer questions in more detail. If Sherilyn Fenn returns in 2018, she’ll be able to talk about appearing in a show she’d been absent from until we saw her in the Roadhouse, though neither she nor Audrey made it there.

I don’t know that any other TV series could build an event quite like the Twin Peaks Festival. I can’t think of another series that has so many locations you can visit that still look mostly like they did twenty-five years ago or have been renovated to their former glory because of The Return.

Like Lucy, don't bother me when I'm at lunch
The original series only filmed in the Pacific Northwest for the pilot, but production returned for Fire Walk With Me and the new series has expanded the world of Twin Peaks in so many ways, including more and more locations around North Bend, Mt Si, Snoqualmie and Olallie State Park. I spent three days in the area and still didn’t see everything, which is reason enough to return some day.

Only three hundred tickets are sold to the Festival every year and they sold out in fifteen minutes this time. Three hundred people sounds like a lot but not compared to other TV and film festivals and conventions; three hundred attendees is intimate. We were all together at the Celebrity Dinner and the picnic, picking and choosing which places to see in between and when we might spend time talking to other fans and meeting the celebrities.

Can you imagine another festival/convention where you can just sit down with Sherilyn Fenn, chat for a few minutes, get a photo and not feel like a crowd is breathing down your neck?

People at the Festival love meeting the actors and the Executive Producer of their favourite TV series, but they are also excited by the fan art on display and on sale. As David Lynch says, anyone who creates is a friend of his – and there were a lot of Lynch fans/friends displaying their art, inspired by Twin Peaks and the Pacific Northwest.

with John Thorne,
co-editor of Wrapped in Plastic and Blue Rose magazines
I loved meeting Sherilyn Fenn and Kimmy Robertson and getting an epic photo with Chrysta Bell and Amy Shiels, but one of my favourite moments was meeting John Thorne, co-editor of “Wrapped in Plastic” magazine. Twin Peaks might have changed how I viewed television, but in the 90s, when I couldn’t rewatch the series, “Wrapped in Plastic” kept the fire of fandom alight. I found issue 6 in a local comic-book store and then purchased every issue through its final, number 75, many years later.

Over those years, I wrote to John and co-editor Craig Miller, many times. I had several letters and a couple of small pieces published in the magazine. In a time when I couldn’t revisit the series itself, reading theories and interviews with the cast and WIP’s detailed episode guides, reminded me issue after issue how incredible Twin Peaks was. Meeting John was a great moment. Seeing him in the Roadhouse after Part 12 and getting his immediate reaction to new Twin Peaks was very special.

Meeting fans and getting their thoughts on the new show was pretty wonderful, too. I spoke with fans from England and Japan and Germany and from all over the United States. Shout-out to Chris from Seattle, who drove my friend Amanda and I around the first day, and to Pete and his wife Kim from Virginia, who drove us around on the last day. Fans are so generous, showing off places they have already visited, willing to see them again to see the reactions of us first-timers.


After loving this show for twenty-six years, it’s hard to explain how it felt to see Snoqualmie Falls by day and by night, or to eat at Twede’s Café, or to walk through both the Twin Peaks and Deer Meadow Sheriff’s Stations. It was real and surreal. It was like stepping into the world of the show, a world that continues to open-up, its mysteries unfolding before us week-by-week.

Much like Cooper’s odyssey back to Twin Peaks in The Return, my trip to North Bend and Snoqualmie feels like it has taken twenty-five years and the wait has been worth it.

Upon leaving the Festival, I will miss the sights and sounds, the fans and the actors, but via social media, none of these people are that far away. And as we post our reminiscences and our highlights, we will continue to bond over the final parts of the 18-hour film that is David Lynch and Mark Frost’s return to Twin Peaks.

The original series was cancelled in 1991. It returned as a film and then went away for a long time. The Festival began and continued and, under the guidance of Rob & Deanne Lindley, goes from strength to strength.

In The Return, Dale Cooper is on his odyssey back to Twin Peaks. It’s a long, strange journey and one I will follow when I return to this Festival one day. Hopefully, it won’t take another twenty-five years.


with Kimmy Robertson (Lucy)

with Chrysta Bell (Agent Preston) &
Amy Shiels (Candie)

with John Pirruccello (Chad)
with James Marshall (James)
with Sherilyn Fenn (Audrey)

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Wrecking Ball by Action Hero (Arts House)


“Metaphor is bullshit.”

How do you create an authentic moment? How do you invent something out of nothing? How do you find truth with your camera when all you have is a model, a white backdrop and some cocktails?

James Stenhouse’s photographer welcomes us to his studio. He wants us to relax. He offers us a beer. He doesn’t want anyone to feel any pressure, especially not his model. Gemma Paintin is his model, his subject and someone who wants him to work miracles.

From the opening minutes of this play by UK company Action Hero, currently in residence at Arts House in North Melbourne, we can feel the power imbalance. The photographer has the audience on his side. If we’re not glancing at him, finding him at his makeshift cocktail bar or at his seat in the audience, we’re only staring at her. He’s subject and she is object.

The model, who needs a memorable photograph, a transformative album cover, acts like she is only there out of obligation. This might make her a star, but it’s also a chore. He’s trying to create magic and she’s pushing back. What is she to do with this pineapple? Is she really lying on a beach? What’s with this ice cream that doesn’t drip?

She rebels and we can see why. The photographer, for all his vision, lacks perception. He is treating her like a prop in her own photoshoot. A warm body who moves to his own amusement. And slowly the power shifts. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Wrecking Ball is a carefully drawn satire on creativity and commercialism. It’s also a fascinating commentary on objectification; when we stare at a celebrity in a perfectly posed photograph, are we seeing them or a thing the photographer has created?

Much of this play centres on how much we, as an audience, are willing to suspend our disbelief. The mounting tension between the photographer and the model, as he tempts her into more and more ridiculous scenarios, is palpable. And hilarious.

We all like to take photographs to capture moments. And we’re thrilled when we get the frame right and the light. Wrecking Ball swings wildly and smashes into the pretensions of trying to create something out of nothing. Of thinking capturing objects is enough and forgetting that the subject is the key.

A remarkable, insightful play about imagery and image.


Thursday, 25 May 2017

Hoke’s Bluff by Action Hero (Arts House)

Hoke's Bluff at Arts House
I don’t watch sport very often, but when I do, I often think of it as a kind of theatrical event. There’s drama on the field, on the court and on the ice. There’s a crowd invested in every movement and every shot at goal. Athletes are trying to give the best performances of their career every time they appear in front of their audience and fans.

Sporting heroism is at the heart of Hoke’s Bluff by British performance group, Action Hero, currently in residence at Arts House in North Melbourne. They’ve transformed the main room of the Town Hall into a stadium with bleachers and a court that resembles a basketball court, but the sport we cheer could be anything.

There’s a mascot and a cheerleader. There’s an umpire and a coach. And sportsmen going through tough training regimes, assaulted by a torrent of clichés and inspirational quotes. Small Town USA telling its young men that they can be the greatest; their young women cheering from the sidelines.

The repetition of the script, devised by performers Gemma Paintin, James Stenhouse and Laura Dennequin, is in turns energetic and trying. The writing fixates on certain turns of phrase and then tries out a myriad of reconfigurations. Small town kids are dreaming about the future, but the rote commands of coaches and teammates and friends almost guarantee they will go nowhere.

The sheer implausibility of becoming a professional athlete never enters their mind; they strive to achieve and escape their mundane existence.

The trouble with Hoke’s Bluff is that it’s stuck in this routine and we don’t learn much about the central characters. They are stuck on the treadmill and the audience is right alongside; it’s not enough we are occasionally brought into the action by feeling like we’re part of the team or the roaring crowd, we must care about who wins and who loses.

We were encouraged to cheer, like we might at a sporting event, but not much in the show itself left me wanting to applaud these writer/actor/athletes. Not even for their awesome physicality and commitment.

Hoke’s Bluff is oncourt until Saturday night only. Action Hero is at Arts Centre this week and next with two other shows.


Monday, 22 May 2017

Wild Bore (Malthouse Theatre)

Adrienne Truscott, Ursula Martinez, Zoe Coombs Marr
sitting on their starring arses in Wild Bore

I’ve been thinking a lot about theatre criticism lately, on the back of the layoffs at Fairfax, who are threatening to scale back their arts coverage to virtually non-existent. It’s hard to find even now.

Arts criticism is important to theatre ecology. Good theatre criticism informs a readership about a work it hasn’t seen. Good theatre criticism can be helpful to the artist. Good theatre criticism can be used in a show’s publicity. Good theatre criticism is an art in itself.

If you take criticism away, you diminish the arts.

But criticism isn’t always good. Criticism, like the theatre, can be flawed. And Wild Bore’s challenge to theatre critics is to question themselves.

The dramaturgical intent of this show is clear – critics can sometimes talk out of their arse. The audience is bombarded with this imagery over and over again to hilarious result. But it would be a pity if that’s what this show is remembered for, a lot of bare arses on stage.

Adrienne Truscott, Ursula Martinez and Zoe Coombes Marr are all performance artists whose work doesn’t neatly fit categories. You might call them comedians, but you don’t get tradition stand-up at their solo shows, not even when Zoe is playing “Dave” – a male stand-up comedian.

Truscott’s previous show, One Trick Pony, was about the critical reaction to her previous show Asking for It. She wrestled with her critics there, but she also wrestled with the fact that her work defies neat summary. How do you critique a work if you’re not exactly sure if it’s stand-up, or cabaret, or performance art? And should that matter to her?

Wild Bore continues to pick apart the problems of theatre criticism, while critiquing the show we are watching as it happens. They read choice quotes from reviews of their own work, but also focus on some outrageous, almost meaningless criticism that is remembered purely for its vivid imagery.

There also seems to be a recurring criticism directed at these women’s work, though; a blanket statement that dismisses the choices they make - “for some reason”. Their critics don’t bother to interrogate why these performers might choose certain theatrical devices, they just underline the conceit and leave it at that. For some reason.

I almost wrote that Wild Bore defies criticism, but that feels like a lazy response. This is a smart, confronting, hilarious piece of meta theatre that questions its critics’ biases and then picks apart its own. Yes, even as the show worries about the dominant male critical voice, these three white women step aside for another voice to take the stage. A critique of the critics of the critics. Thank you, Krishna Istha, your voice is very much appreciated.

Wild Bore is a review of Wild Bore and a piece of subversive art comedy theatre performance that doesn’t disappear up its own arse. It just comes dangerously close. And it’s all the better for it.


Saturday, 20 May 2017

Happy Days at War by Leah Milburn-Clark (Northcote Town Hall)

Leah Milburn-Clark, writer, director, star of Happy Days at War
In the midst of World War II, a German’s couple’s relationship is tested when the husband lands a job with the Fuhrer and must question if he has a future with his blind wife.

Written, starring and co-directed by Leah Milburn-Clark, Happy Days at War tackles big ideas in an intimate setting. Studio 1 at the Northcote Town Hall has never felt so cosy, with the audience lined up along the edge of a trestle table, cradling props that are waiting for us on our seats.

Nicola Stratman’s set design evokes a period kitchen, with a working stove allowing the scent of dinner to waft through the space. We are in that room, sometimes inches from the actors as they eat, drink, knead dough and play with a new pet.

Leah has written a part for herself that is challenging; her character is blind and interacts with the audience (those holding props), as if she is trying to find them, even when the character knows where she's left them. This woman is about routine and Leah makes these simple gestures fascinating to watch.

Jay Peardon as the husband has the tougher role, though. He must appear sympathetic at first, believable as a doting, affectionate husband and then watch him transform as he is affected by Nazi propaganda. It’s a big ask for the audience to track that change in a seventy-minute two-hander, but Jay's performance is striking in its shifts throughout.

The two performers are engaging and the production is lovely to look at, with all its theatrical nods to “realism”. The play is compelling, as we watch the routine of two lives turned upside-down by government policy they have no control over.

The character of the husband goes through a much more interesting journey than the wife, who simply reacts to her husband’s changing moods.  As the tone of the play changes, the whole production should feel a little more dangerous than it does; the collapse of this couple is a metaphor for the collapse of the country they love.

Leah Milburn-Clark is a recent graduate of WAAPA and she should be commended for getting a strong team of emerging artists together and taking this show on the road. I couldn’t help but think that an outside-eye, a director who was not writer and performer, might have helped to raise the stakes and interrogate things in the text that the writer might have missed.


Saturday, 13 May 2017

SPENCER by Katy Warner (Chapel Off Chapel)


Scott is an AFL football player who is waiting at his family home to meet the son he never knew he had. Brother Ben is more interested in Scott’s career than the result of Scott’s one-night-stand. Mother Marilyn is excited to meet her first grandchild, while criticising daughter Jules for not becoming a mother herself.

Spencer, a new play by Katy Warner (A Prudent Man), is a rapid-fire comedy about expectations amongst family. While Marilyn’s focused much of her energy on Scott’s AFL career, she’s given up hope on her other two children. And, to be fair, they’ve given up too; on dreams both big and small.

There are a lot of stories about parents having high expectations for their children, but Katy’s new play also digs into children’s expectations of their parents. In some ways, Ben and Jules’ stories of losing faith in Marilyn are more compelling than their mother losing faith in them. And when their estranged biological father arrives, tensions are higher and the uncomfortable, sometimes brutal laughs come thick and fast.

Director Sharon Davis keeps the pace up for most of the play’s running time, only allowing the audience and the characters a moment to catch their breaths during the occasional fade to black. In some ways, Spencer plays like a domestic drama punctured by cutting remarks; if you played this story straight, it could be unbearable. But sometimes, with family, you gotta laugh.

There’s a lot of high energy work on the stage in this production, none more so than Lyall Brooks in the role of Ben. He’s the biggest disappointment of the family; divorced, living with his mother, coaching Auskick and a complete slob. Lyall bounces around on stage, lunging, stretching and eating M&Ms off his chest. His speech about coco-pops is both gross and hilarious and some late play business with a piñata is stellar physical comedy.

Jane Clifton’s Marilyn brightens up the stage in her colourful costumes even as she darkens her children’s days. She’s unhappy with Ben and Jules’ life, but she’s also struggling to understand why her successful son might not be enjoying the career she sacrificed so much for. It’s a truly remarkable performance; a mother you can’t stand but come to understand.

Rob Sowinski’s set feels like outer-eastern-suburbs chic from the 1970s that Marilyn and family have never updated. This family is stuck in the past in many ways, retelling jokes they’ve told all their lives and being unable to grow up.

Spencer is the child and grandchild the family is waiting for to arrive. They are already pouring their dreams into him, a child of two-years-old. Spencer captures a day in the life of a family who once had high expectations for each other and, now that they have failed, are excited to have a new family member that might make up for wasted opportunities.

And it’s bloody hilarious.