Skip to main content

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.


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

You are far away: Agent Cooper and his troubling return to Twin Peaks

“What year is this?” Dale Cooper asks in the final scene of Twin Peaks: The Return, the last of many unanswered questions left as the 18-part feature film concluded a week ago.
It’s far from the first time we’ve seen someone who looks like Dale Cooper lost for answers over recent months. But it might be the first time we have definitive proof that he’s in over his head.
Mr C, Dale Cooper’s doppelganger, who was first seen in the original series’ finale back in 1991, returned to the town of Twin Peaks with a goal in mind. Mr C was flexible, though. He had to be; he’d set so many things in motion over twenty-five years, if he’d remained fixated, he would never have come as far as he did.
Dougie, Dale Cooper’s tulpa – created by and from Mr C, wandered aimlessly through life, but slowly made every life he touched better. Plans change and Dougie changed with them. Slowly but surely, Dougie pieced together Cooper’s past life and became richer for it.
Agent Cooper, the third part of this T…

Careful the things you say... Joe Wright’s HANNA & the combination of genres

Once upon a time... I tried to write a film script that melded noir and Grimm’s fairytales, where the femme fatale, clad in a slinky red dress, was also (in a way) Little Red Riding Hood. Where the lover of a hit man discovered his true identity from something hidden under his mattress. Evil (step)mothers, adopted children, hunters, princesses and family fortunes. Noir and fairytales have a lot in common and yet... I had real trouble finding the right tone for the piece. And, in the end, my script read too much like I was trying to get the concept to work, rather than telling a compelling story.

Joe Wright’s film HANNA, screenplay by Seth Lockhead and David Farr, finds the perfect balance between a high tension thriller and a fairytale coming-of-age story. And travels further into the story of this mysterious girl than the trailer suggests.
Going in, I was worried this might be too close to Leon or La Femme Nikita – the original films of which I throughly enjoyed, but would this new fil…

My Favourite Theatre of 2019

This year I saw some amazing theatre in Melbourne, as always, and I was lucky enough to visit London for the first time, where I saw some wonderful West End theatre and some really inventive off-West End and independent theatre.
The thing about the theatre in London is that is really seems to be working toward the ideal of diverse casting, even if behind-the-scenes (writers, directors) are still male-dominated. And it’s not just in reinventions of shows like Death of a Salesman, which was a mostly black cast; a lot of shows I saw there were female-focused with racially diverse casts.
That said, I did see a show that was ostensibly about race, which was all white.
I saw some shows again this year, which were as great as when I originally saw them, but they have been on previous year-end lists, so sorry to Hamilton, Muriel’s Wedding and Cock – you’re not on my list again this year.
The lists are in alphabetical order and links in titles to review where available.
TOP TEN 

All About Eve –…

REVIEW: SLUT by Patricia Cornelius

A man is dead, we’re told. A good man. A man with a job. Not a drunk. Not homeless. He’s a hero really. Just wanted to help Lolita and now he’s dead.
We’re told this story – this anecdote – by a trio of young women, friends of Lolita, who have known her from a very young age. In fact, there’s some question about who knew her better and who knew her the longest. Because the better they knew Lolita, the better they might understand her. And the more they understand her, the more righteously they can pass judgement.
Lolita was a carefree child. Used to love riding a bike. Ride it fast. Feel the ache in her legs and sweat on her face. All she had to worry about was staying on the bike and enjoying her lovely, lovely life. She stopped riding bikes when she was nine-years-old.
Her friends tell us that everything changed for Lolita when she turned eight and grew breasts. Huge ones. When she was eight years old. A child with breasts. And boys went into a frenzy. As did her grade five teacher…

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: THE AVENGERS assemble on the big screen

I like superheroes. I grew up with reruns of the 1960s Batman TV series. The Superman films were released when I was really young. The Amazing Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and The Incredible Hulk were nighttime TV shows. And one of the defining motion picture releases of my teenage years was Tim Burton’s Batman in 1989.
I was never a big comic book reader as a kid – I’ve probably read more comic books, uh, graphic novels in the last ten years than any time before that. But superheroes were always very cool. And Burton’s Batman took my favourite superhero very seriously. Well, until Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins appeared – taking it ultra-seriously and much darker than I’d ever hoped for.
As a non-comic reader, I find it hard to align myself as a DC (Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman) or Marvel Universe (Spider-Man, X-Men, The Avengers and its consitutent parts) person. They appeal to different parts of my brain. In effect, DC’s superheroes are often lone warriors and the Marvel Universe…

Walking out... I couldn't do it, could you?

Every so often, I think about walking out of a play, but I can't. I've never done it and I don't think I ever could. I've never walked out of a film, either. It's not in my nature. In the end, I'd rather suffer through the entire thing so I can criticise the entire play, rather than leave halfway and never know if it got any better or any worse.

This has come to mind now, not because I wanted to walk out of Terence Malick's big budget experimental film The Tree of Life, but because apparently walk outs are becoming a phenomenon with that particular movie. And in a packed theatre at Cinema Nova last night, the walk outs were notable by their absense when the lights came up at the end.

It certainly won't be to everyone's taste. It's very much an impressionistic film that explores grand ideas through mood and beauty, rather than telling a coherent narrative. But, even those moments in the film that were the most challenging on a "need for narr…

Streaming/Theatre: Thoughts and feelings on missing an art form

I miss theatre.

I miss a lot of things but theatre was a weekly fixture in my life.
I write plays and I review plays and even if I wasn’t reviewing, watching theatre was always an opportunity to learn more about how theatre worked. And to be entertained.
The experience of theatre is ephemeral. A play changes every night. It’s living and breathing. And once it’s gone, it’s gone.
And then it turned out the existence of theatre is ephemeral, too. And within a week in March, my thoughts turned from “should I be sitting in a large audience” to “wow, theatres are all closed, I wonder how long this will last”.
At the start of the pandemic, I made a pretty conscious decision that I would take time away from playwriting. The world had changed so suddenly and so had my daily life and trying to find the passion and energy for creativity seemed like too much of an extra burden. Fuck all this talk of Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague, I’d be kind to myself and put projects on hold.

Carrie Fisher: No More Postcards

Did I ever tell you about the time Carrie Fisher kissed me on the cheek? Stick around, I’ll tell it again soon.
Carrie Fisher was Princess Leia; no getting past that. Except, of course, she did. And then she stepped right back into being her last year. She was the right person to play Leia because she was the right age at the time and she is part of Hollywood royalty.
She was also the right person to have been Leia in retrospect, too. Can you imagine anyone else describing Jabba the Hutt as a “giant saliva testicle”? Anyone else who would bring an audience member up on stage to mount a Leia “sex doll” and whip it away before they get close enough to fulfil their childhood fantasy?
Actors, even those of Star Wars­­­-level fame, go in and out of the spotlight. Oh, you could spot Fisher on screen in the 1980s and 90s, but much of her hard work went on behind the scenes, as a script writer and script doctor. Hook, Sister Act, The Last Action Hero, The Wedding Singer, Scream 3. She had a h…

REVIEW: Chicago - The Musical

The real-life inspiration for the musical Chicago comes from nearly a century ago, when reporter Maurine Dallas Watkins reported on two unrelated court cases about women suspected and acquitted of murder. Watkins later wrote a satirical play about the attention both cases got, focusing on the media’s sensational headlines – something Watkins herself fed into.
The play became a silent film in 1927, a 1942 film named Roxie Hart (starring Ginger Rogers), and later the 1975 musical Chicago, for which husband and wife creative duo, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, struggled to get the rights to make throughout the sixties.
The original Broadway production opened to mixed reviews, as it was considered cynical and subversive – the opposite of what audiences wanted from musical theatre. But times change and this black satire about merry murderesses returned to Broadway in 1996 in a slick, pared-back production, directed by Walter Bobbie with choreography by Anne Reinking – “in the style of Bob Fos…

REVIEW: This Bitter Earth by Chris Edwards – Midsumma

A young man sips a glass of wine, waiting for us to file into the theatre, while Kylie plays. As we settle in, he’s a long way from settled – nervous, anxious, eager to tell us about a dream he’s had. Even though he knows that when most people recount dreams, they are dead boring.
He’s a country boy who has moved to the big city – let’s call it Sydney – for university. He’s sleeping on his uncle’s couch and after being shown the expected touristy sites, he starts to explore the world by himself.
He’s gay and he’s never seen a penis other than his own. He’s drawn to a busker singing “My Heart Will Go On” and shaken up by two dude-bros shouting at gay couple kissing.
“Stop shoving it down our throats,” they shout, unaware of how unintentionally homoerotic they sound. The guy whose story we’ve been following, decides to follow them.
And this is just the start of the first vignette in a series of short moments by Chris Edwards exploring queer sex and relationships in this fantastical ga…