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 CafĂ©, 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)