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My Favourite Theatre of 2018

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.
Blasted – Malthouse Theatre
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.
The Bleeding Tree – Arts Centre Melbourne

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

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, …

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

“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 …

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

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 …

Re-Member Me by Dickie Beau

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue…”
Creator and performer Dickie Beau isn’t here to speak the speech of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he’s here to lip-synch some of the great performances of Hamlet that have ever been recorded.
In the midst of his research, though, he became obsessed with Hamlets who have not been recorded, lost to the ephemeral nature of theatre – disappeared like the ghost of Hamlet’s father.
“Remember Me,” Hamlet’s father tells him before disappearing into the ether. It is the inciting incident of the play, leading the young prince to determine the truth behind his father’s death.
Dickie Beau’s Re-Member Me is about actors and acting and the performance of Hamlet, not about the play or the character itself. It is important to this show that this Shakespearean tragedy is one of the most produced play texts in the English language, because of the number of people who have played him and the various ways he’s been played.
The …

Song for a Weary Throat by Rawcus

“Dance with me,” she asked.
“Dance with me,” she insisted.
“Why won't you dance with me?”
She crossed the desolate space, walking from one ensemble member to the next, asking for a small moment of joy amongst the rubble and the carnage.
Some kind of cataclysm has occurred. The survivors are scattered around the stage. Whatever has happened, whatever trauma has taken place, it keeps happening. The deafening noise and the sharp explosions of bright light upends whatever moment of comfort we can glean when our eyes adjust.
And it happens again.
And again.
And…
How do you get up when the world keeps shifting below your feet? How do you find your voice and song again after it’s been drowned out by the din of destruction?
Rawcus’ new work, Song for a Weary Throat, debuted at Theatre Works in 2017 and has been programmed now as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. The work has been devised amongst a creative team and an ensemble of performers, under the direction of Kate S…

Witness Performance: Suddenly Last Summer

My review of Suddenly Last Summer by Tennessee Williams at Red Stitch is up at Witness Performance. Here's a taste:

The production is an odd mix of the hallmark qualities of these two companies: Red Stitch’s commitment to text-based theatre, and Little Ones’ reputation for stylised camp. Eugyeene Teh’s design – walls draped with long leaves, plants hanging from the rafters – plunges us into the mystery of the garden district of New Orleans. Even in the confined space of Red Stitch, the set bows to the Little Ones’ proscenium-arch aesthetic, with a widescreen look that evokes a feature film and somehow makes the space look bigger. Katie Sfetkidis’ lighting is elegant and moody, with layers of smoke and haze emphasising the oppressiveness of this family meeting.

On Broadway – Presented by Flourish Productions

Flourish Productions has been putting on concerts of songs from musicals for the last few years, mostly focused on particular composers: the songs of Cy Coleman, the songs of Ahrens & Flaherty, the songs of Alan Menken and the songs of local composer Matthew Robinson.
This weekend they presented On Broadway, a selection of songs from the last few decades of Broadway hits. It’s an eclectic mix shared among a cast of eight singers, four men and four women.
Director/choreographer Leanne Marsland has done a wonderful job pulling together a strong ensemble of performers to belt out songs in chorus or in pairs or as solos. There’s a seamless transition between songs; the ninety-minute concert flowed from one song to the next, without the usual feel of song, pause, song that can happen in this kind of group cabaret.
Starting out with “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story got the show off to a strong start. This is a promise of something to be fulfilled and “Lucky Be A Lady” was a fu…

My Name is Jimi by Dimple Bani & Jimi Bani

Artifacts and symbols of Indigenous Torres Strait Islander culture sit in glass cases around the stage, high above us, out of reach. Museum pieces kept a long way from the world where they were created. This is colonialism in its simplest form - culturally destructive but explained away as keeping history preserved.
As Jimi Bani explains, though, the history and culture of his people, the Wagadagam of the Western part of the Torres Strait, is kept alive by storytelling and language. Jimi’s father Dimple, who was at the forefront of creating this show before he passed away, was a linguist and the latest in a line of Wagadagam Chiefs.
Dimple spent a lot of his life finding ways to tell the story of his people, through documentaries and plays and stories and performance. He also tried to get those artifacts of his people returned from the museums of Europe, but even after promising they would return them, they never did.
Jimi is a performer in his own right, in a way that we recognise t…

Watt by Samuel Beckett – adapted by Barry McGovern

Samuel Beckett once described writing Watt as “a means of staying sane” while he was on the run from the Gestapo. From that experience, Beckett and Watt are grappling with experiences that they can't quite understand.
In this stage adaptation of his novel, you can see the character of Watt trying to make sense of the world, in all its fascinating complexities. This is a simple story, told in a simple way, through a performance that feels lived in and true.
Writer and actor Barry McGovern has spent lot of his career performing in Beckett plays. He’s been Vladimir in Waiting for Godot and Clov in Endgame and appeared in half a dozen other works by Ireland’s pre-eminent dramatists.
Watt travels on a train to Mr Knott’s house and becomes his manservant. He works on the ground floor and then moves on to working on the first floor. Then takes a train to somewhere, though perhaps this last train journey – to the farthest end of the line – is really just taking us back to the beginning o…

Witness Performance

In September, I had two reviews published on the Witness Performance website. I'm really pleased to be able to add to the conversation over there.

The first was a review of Sydney Theatre Company's The Harp in the South:

The Harp in the South tells a vastly different story to David Williamson’s Emerald City or Gordon Graham’s The Boys or Jane Bodie’s This Year’s Ashes, but it feels fitting that the city itself finally gets an epic play – a prequel to the plays of Sydney that are a central part of Australia’s theatrical history. This production stands proudly and deservedly alongside its forbears.

The second was a review of Malthouse Theatre's Ich Nibber Dibber:

The formal poses of Hellenistic statues relax throughout the show and permit us to see the apparatuses upon which they’re posed. At one point, Natalie unstraps herself and pops off to the loo and the façade cracks a little. These figures aloft on pedestals aren’t angels or Venuses de Milo. They are women turning the…

Melbourne Fringe: The Mission by Tom Molyneux

The widespread use of Acknowledgement of Country throughout the theatrical community is a good reminder that we live and work and tell stories on a land that has been home to Australia’s Indigenous people for forty-thousand years. Any Fringe show presenting work on the lands of the Wurundjeri people in the Birrarung are continuing a very long tradition.
Performer Tom Molyneux’s Acknowledgement of Country feeds directly into the story of The Mission; “sovereignty has never been ceded” is a strong jumping-off point for a story about our Indigenous population’s autonomy.
This personal history begins thirty-thousand years ago at the forming of Budj Bim, a volcano in Western Victoria. The Budj Bim area is a very important one to the Gunditjmara people, a site where they developed a system of aquaculture, thousands of years before European settlement.
After European settlement, it was the site of Eumerella Wars, where the Gunditjmara were overwhelmed and killed by colonisers who had the su…

Melbourne Fringe - Eggsistentialism by Joanne Ryan

Irish performer and playwright Joanne Ryan doesn’t know if she wants to have children. Don’t get her wrong, against the backdrop of Ireland’s history of restrictions on reproductive rights, she loves having a choice, she’s just having a hard time making a decision.
Eggsistentialism is a funny and frank look at a series of questions that must occur to all women at some stage in their lives. Do I want to have children? And what will that mean for my life? And what will it mean for the child?
Joanne knows that women from her mother’s generation had less choice in the matter; another woman her father got pregnant had to carry the child, only to have it taken away and given up for adoption. Her own mother would have been in the same situation, but she ran away to London and slept on a friend’s couch. That was in 1980.
One woman, one couch, a phone, a multi-media presentation and a brilliantly blunt voiceover from her mother, Joanne’s show is simple in its presentation and powerful in its e…

Melbourne Fringe: Broke by Rowena Hutson

Rosie loves D.I.Y. She loves to fix things. She likes to bake cakes. She likes to work with her hands when she can no longer trust her mind.
Broke, much like Rowena Hutson’s earlier show Strong Female Character, feels very personal – even if she’s hiding behind Rosie the Riveter overalls and Princess Leia’s hair-buns. The anger and the passion could be acting but it feels blisteringly real. The details don’t feel written, but lived. The shouting is fueled by pain and confusion and a genuine need to name her illness and share it.
Ro cares about her audience, though. There are trigger warnings at the start and a concern that her description of a panic attack might bring on a panic attack. But there’s really been no panic attack quite like this showstopping rock number with a large rubber brain and flying tendrils of tinsel. Hutson, as one of the Fringe Wives’ Club, knows how to theatricalise even the most painful of truths.
This is a smart show that could use a little tightening in some…

Melbourne Fringe: HERE – Elbow Room

In the beginning, there is darkness. But it’s not the beginning. It’s ten years after THERE first premiered at Melbourne Fringe and a week since I first saw it. Emily and Angus are getting the band back together, but is that a good idea?

We’re in an era of film and television revivals. Star Wars is no longer a nostalgia trip. Twin Peaks has reawakened nightmares from a quarter of a century ago. And theatre’s ephemeral nature means you can never go back, not even in a remount with the same creative team. Things have changed. Emily and Angus have changed.
Elbow Room has changed.
Our two intrepid performers are trapped inside a machine that feeds off narrative; it takes and takes and takes. Emily figures it out early on, but she’s been inside the machine longer. She recognises the signs and the theatrical trickery of THERE is turned back on to figure out where they are and where they must head next.
HERE is about nostalgia and the fear of looking back. It’s also about context and the em…

Melbourne Fringe: Sleepover Gurlz by Emma Smith & Vidya Rajan

Theatre can happen anywhere. It can happen in big rooms, small rooms, warehouses, carparks and shipping containers. I saw a show on the streets of North Melbourne once. And one in the back of a car.
Sleepover Gurlz isn’t the first play I’ve seen performed in a bedroom, but this one uses its space and its premise to great effect; the intimacy is vital and this show is as much about the bedroom space as it is about the women sharing it.
Before the show, the audience is ushered upstairs to a living area to colour and paste and find their inner child. It’s an irresistible moment of pleasure that you almost regret being dragged into the bedroom for the party itself.
Creators and performers Emma Smith and Vidya Rajan are six-year-old girls, welcoming the audience to their sleepover party. We are the other girls at the party, sharing snacks and interacting with the friends who have invited us over. It’s charming and funny and silly. There’s a game of “Chinese whispers” and the uninhibited th…

Melbourne Fringe: Untitled No. 7 by Telia Nevile – Arts House

As a child, Little Darling is cursed with potential. She must walk through dark woods fighting evil pixies named Doubt and Fear, trying hard to find the golden key of success.
But what does success look like? Little Darling is sure that if she just completes her list of tasks, success will be hers for the taking.
Poet and performer Telia Nevile has crafted a confessional piece of theatre that takes classic fairytale tropes and runs with them along the yellow brick road, through the forest of years and finds herself… where?
If the monomyth is flawed and narrative is fucked, Telia is conscious that even inspirational quotes – from Mark Twain, Arthur Ashe and Dax Shepard – aren’t going to put her on the right path. And she’s not where she thought she’d be at forty-one years old.
Untitled No. 7 is storytelling, singing and interpretive dance. It’s heartfelt and heartbreaking. There are moments of pure joy in the show; a combination of silly songs and a limber physicality, even if Telia’s …

Melbourne Fringe: Alone Outside by Liz Newell – Lab Kelpie

Daphne is on the road home. She’s been driving for so long she thinks she might be dreaming; this trip she’s made so many times before has slipped by. She’s going home reluctantly; visiting her ailing grandmother before it’s too late. But everything else in town, she’d be happy enough to miss that.
Liz Newell’s Alone Outside begins slowly; the writing is hesitant, like Daphne is. This is a story we’ve seen before – an adult who doesn’t want to face their past but must, for their family’s sake, and for their own.
There are some delicious details in there, though. Daphne’s first return to the country pub, punctuated by short, sharp smiles by actor Sharon Davis, is a fun bit of business. Bumping into her old high school girlfriends is uncomfortably funny, as you might expect from life or from a play such as this.
Director Lyall Brooks does a good job at finding a way to highlight Daphne’s isolation and loneliness. A large truck tyre evokes the outback. Bright white tiles suggest clean l…

Melbourne Fringe: Lovely Mess by Morgan Rose & Katrina Cornwell - Riot Stage Youth Theatre

Lovely Mess, subtitled 48 stories of shame, is a new work by Riot Stage Youth Theatre that does find that exquisite kind of loveliness in the messiness of young lives.
Ten performers, all under twenty-five and one who is much younger, tell short stories of shame which are sometimes amusing and occasionally very dark. We’re told that the stories are true, mostly, but the way they are told they feel true – because variations on these kinds of stories must happen all the time. There’s not a moment that feels dishonest, even as we know this is theatre.
The set is just a line-up of chairs, with a few microphone stands to help these novice performers sound clear in the space. Even the smallest, nervous voices echo around the room.
The rhythm of the piece feels much like a group of friends sitting around at a party, telling their own truths about life. There’s some digital art on the back wall to remind us of how young these people were when these life moments happened. There’s a silent narr…

Melbourne Fringe: There by Elbow Room

In the beginning, there is darkness. A torch spotlights a pair of fingers walking across a black dais, exploring their domain. Another torch, another pair of fingers appears on the dais. It’s theatre and storytelling in miniature. It’s physical theatre reduced to the barest of elements. But this is only the beginning.
Elbow Room first performed There as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2008. Ten years later, they are reviving the play, performing it in the same venue with the same cast – two of Elbow Room’s co-founders, Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant.
I didn’t see the original production of There but I have seen a lot of Elbow Room’s work since then, so it’s great to see one of their earliest shows, one that proves how strong their vision has always been. The show is almost deceptively simple in its way, as an exploration of the fear and elation of making and performing theatre.
It's not long before the two performers behind the fingers and the torchlight have discovered t…

REVIEW: Blasted by Sarah Kane – Malthouse Theatre

The dread sets in from the first scene. A foul-mouthed journalist (Ian) brings a young woman (Cate) to an expensive hotel room in the north of England. He wants sex and he believes, because she’s there with him, she wants it, too. They’ve had sex before, years before. She’s already much younger than him, so how old was she when this all began?

The play, at this point, is about expectation and transaction. Ian has brought Cate to this room for one thing and one thing only. It’s about consent and the dangers of the male ego. And you can see why the Malthouse programmed this now; in a time where we know violence against women has hit plague proportions, this one-on-one moment captures that violence in microcosm.
When Sarah Kane’s Blasted was first performed in 1995 at the Royal Court in London, it caused a scandal. This opening scene is confronting enough; Ian is racist, misogynist, homophobic and his work as a journalist does nothing to redeem him. And nothing prepares the audience for…