Saturday, 14 April 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Annie Louey: Butt Donut



For a festival that most punters think of as a long line-up of stand-up comedians, the percentage of stand-up shows I’ve seen this Comedy Festival has been pretty low. I actually wonder if traditional stand-up has a degree of difficulty that makes it tougher than other kinds of comedy shows; fifty minutes of a performer and a microphone - a style we’ve seen so many times.

Annie Louey stands out in the stand-up crowd because she is a young woman with Asian heritage who can mine her background for rich stories of culture clashes and dramatic stories of life and death. This Aussie Chinese Millennial has some great tales to tell in a refreshing, honest style.

Annie can make you laugh about young love, travelling the world, her snake-soup-making Chinese family and their surprise that this Aussie girl can use chopsticks. She also has some pretty dramatic stories about fainting into a fire and the passing of her elderly father. But she finds humour in these dark moments, too.

I was a bit lost with some of the pop culture references she was making, but I guess the generation gap makes that kind of thing inevitable. And she was so old when she got her first computer – 12. Back in my day, kids didn’t get computers until much later. But that difference in perspective is what makes this show really special.

Butt Donut isn’t polished, though. Annie is still finding her way, even after seasons in Perth and Adelaide. But the material is there and when she grows in confidence, Annie will be one to watch out for.

Melbourne Comedy Festival – The Travelling Sisters: Toupè



There’s a lot to say about The Travelling Sisters are their upbeat intro song and their bizarre costume changes and the genius physical comedy combined with more wigs than I’ve seen in the rest of the entire festival combined. So many wigs, so well utilised.

But I’m fixated on the tap-dancing cactus who just wants to be held. Some comedians will go a long way for a gag; some shows think bigger is better. There’s something so wonderful in such a simple, beautifully executed bit like this. No wig in this one, though – but a great costume.

The crowd-sourced song by a child trying to please their mother was a highlight the night I saw the show, but I wonder if this is a high-wire act that might fall apart with another less funny audience. No matter, The Travelling Sisters have the rest of the act worked to a sharp point. There’s an oddball family band from Arkansas with deep dark secrets. And a trio of lollipop ladies who have a striptease for you.

The Travelling Sisters are an offbeat comedy trio whose humour mostly dabbles in the strange, but once you get on their wavelength, Toupè is an hour where you might hurt yourself from laughing. And I was worried they might hurt themselves to make us laugh. Totally worth it.




Melbourne Comedy Festival – Cindy Salmon: Empowerful


Cindy Salmon wants to empower you! She wants you to kick-ass when getting out of bed. She wants you to put all your energy into brushing your teeth. Every moment of every day, you need to be eating the patriarchy and smashing that glass ceiling (which is why she wears steel-capped boots)!

Welcome to Cindy’s very empowering seminar or, as she calls it, salmon-ar. Are you ready to take complete control of your life? To combat all of your fears? To change the world?

Cindy is full of jargon and tips on making life better. The comedy comes from the broad American accent and the ridiculous bits of wisdom she spouts. It’s entertaining for a while, but the jokes do get a little repetitive as the show goes on.

In a week where real-life motivational speaker Tony Robbins showed what dangerous delusions self-professed gurus can have, Empowerful feels a little safe; Cindy Salmon is treading water and not swimming upstream as she’d have you believe.


Melbourne Comedy Festival – Garry Starr Performs Everything



Garry Starr wants to save theatre, so he’s here to perform every style of theatre to encourage his audience to see more of it. It’s a Whitman’s Sampler of theatre genres for anyone who has ever seen Shakespeare done slowly or anyone who hasn’t. This show has something for everyone.

It’s actually tough to figure out who would get more out of this show – people who know nothing about theatre or someone who knows what a Pinter pause is. There’s enough silly word play and physical humour that you could love this show whoever you are, as evidenced by the eye-opening experience the two young boys in the front row got last night.

Actor Damien Warren-Smith writes and performs with such skill. He gives us rapid-fire Shakespeare, earnest Melodrama, ridiculous slapstick and even more ridiculous romantic comedy – each sketch more hilarious than the last. There’s a bunch of audience interaction, which ups the comedy stakes beautifully. I do wonder whether he can always find someone who knows what to do with a butoh drum without prompting, though.

This show is a solid hour of laughs. Will is save theatre? You decide. See this and as much of the Comedy Festival as you can. Every ticket sold helps.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Cameron Duggan: Sorry I’m Late


Cameron Duggan is very relaxed, in life and on stage. He’s often late for work; his record is four hours and they sent him home. He takes his time with his show, too. The audience gets no sense he’s in a rush. His stories are low stakes, really – he found some really cheap socks once and he’s not that keen on art galleries.

I do wonder what his other nights at the Festival have been like, though. He had some hecklers in the night I saw him and he took a pretty relaxed approach to them, too. A bunch of drunk Irish lads were in for a beer and a good laugh – and halfway through the show they left to get more beer. Cameron took it in his stride. (They came back and gave Cam a beer, too. So that was nice.)

When he asked if anyone in the audience was regularly late to work, the guy who responded first turned out to be a life guard. Cam thinks that’s probably the kind of job you wouldn’t want to be late for, but he got more worked up about how well built the life guard was than the fact he might have been deficient in his responsibilities at the pool.

Cameron seems like a nice guy (he thinks he’d be on a list of nice guys) and his show was a pleasant way of filling in an hour between two shows I’d been asked to review. I admitted as much when he spotted me sitting alone in the audience, wondering what I was doing there. “I had an hour to fill in,” I said. I think he’s surprised when anyone turns up. He’s that kind of guy; loves a beer, always late to work, has a good sense of humour.

Saturday, 7 April 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Kaitlyn Rogers: Can I Get An Amen?


Cecil is a preacher and he wants to welcome you to the Cult of Sass. Cecil has travelled all the way from Goondiwindi to be with us in Melbourne tonight, to read from the gospel of Whoopi Goldberg, to teach you three simple lessons based on the three independent women of Destiny’s Child and to share with you the Holy sacrament… wine from a box.

Kaitlyn has the character of Cecil down pat; she’s met a few preachers like him. He ingratiates himself with the audience, with songs, and high kicks and references to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. It’s a heady mix of hilarity and silliness and audience participation. What else would you expect from an introduction to a cult?

There are songs we can all sing along to. There are call-backs we can shout with him. And famous film quotes some of us can finish – even when no one else ever has.

This satire of cults and preachers deliberately breaks down later in the show and it becomes clear that the sly digs at women not being allowed to preach is about something else. These men that stand on stages and proclaim what is and isn’t funny, that’s what’s at the heart of this.

Can I Get An Amen deftly plays with how men see women, how women see women and how drag queens know that if you can’t love yourself, how the hell can you love anybody else.

Forget the Church of Cecil. Forget the Church of Sass. Go worship at the Church of Kaitlyn Rogers. A true inspiration and a hell of a funny woman.


Kaitlyn Rogers is preaching sass and shouting back at Trades Hall until April 22nd.


Melbourne Comedy Festival – Hit By A Blimp: I’m Here


Hit By A Blimp is a sketch comedy trio, combining the improv/scriptwriting/acting talents of Tiana Hogben, Caitlyn Staples and Jayden Masciulli. I’m Here is the second show for the trio, after Who We Were at Melbourne Fringe in 2016.

The show starts with the trio reciting excuse after excuse for not attending a friend’s party – a list that we’ve all seen if we’ve ever created an event on Facebook. It gives us a good grounding for the pace at which the show will move; the show zips through its sketches like we’d scroll through our social media feeds.

A lot of the show is concerned with how we interact online and in person – and there’s a particularly insightful and hilarious bit about two people at a party, who only know the birthday girl and no one else, but they are forced to make conversation. Tiana and Jayden capture the awkwardness of trying to connect with nothing in common, while Caitlyn interjects with a musical commentary about how the two are getting along.

There’s jokes about waiting for texts, a dance sequence about Uber Eats, and a sketch about sexually explicit cocktails. There’s an odd bit about the language of attraction and dating amongst three buoys with a cameo from a flock of gulls, which was clever, except the trio all pronounced buoy as if they were Americans.

Some of the punchlines were killed by the transition music or blackouts. And while pace is important, some of the sketches could have worked better if the performers had been clearer.

Overall, though, I’m Here is delightful hour of sketches about young people in the digital age.


Melbourne Comedy Festival – Zoe Coombs Marr: Bossy Bottom



Zoe Coombs Marr is best known in comedy circles for playing Dave, an old-school misogynist male stand-up comic. She was so good at it, the last time she brought Dave to the Melbourne Comedy Festival she won its highest honour, the Barry Award. Playing a male comedian has done wonders for her career.

She is often asked, “What’s it like being a woman in comedy?” After six years of being Dave, she’s decided to try being a woman in comedy. See what it’s like.

Zoe assures us that the show will just be jokes. Her previous shows as Dave included costumes and lighting changes and meta-textual humour and props and guests and – none of that now, she insists. All of that gets in the way. It’ll just be joke, joke, joke, joke, joke.

And the jokes about being a lesbian in her early thirties (everyone is offering to help her and her girlfriend get pregnant) and about all the funny stories her family thinks should be in her show (and subsequently end up in her show) are hilarious. Zoe could give us fifty minutes of personal, observational comedy for her specific point of view.

But Zoe is struggling with stand-up. She took on the persona of Dave because she didn’t feel safe in comedy clubs and she didn’t feel supported. What’s a comedian/performance artist/theatre-maker to do? Is she going to fall back on call-backs or rely on digital media to give us her perspective of the audience? (She sees us every night, after all. We're all the same. The audience is the longest relationship she’s ever been in, she admits.)

Late in her previous show Trigger Warning, Dave brought out his “angry feminist character” named Zoe Coombs Marr. Now she’s sloughed off the Dave persona, she stands proudly in front of us, telling us jokes, but wrestling with the medium she loves and hates. And we’re better off having witnessed the battle first hand.


Zoe Coombs Marr is a Bossy Bottom at the Town Hall until April 22nd.

Thursday, 5 April 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Woah, Alyssa! 1


Colwyn and Filip are boyfriends and the sketch-comedy duo, Woah, Alyssa! After a couple of years on the Melbourne Improv scene and as part of another sketch comedy group, the couple have devised a show for themselves which they have already toured to Adelaide Fringe and Fringe World in Perth.

This is a fine debut for the pair, jumping from silly puns to physical humour to sharp satire. The boys push themselves, where even in two-hander scenes, they’ll jump into playing a third, fourth or fifth character that liven things up.

The opening sketch about the history of same-sex kisses on television should work better than it does, but perhaps they were shaking off nerves because they grew in confidence as the show progressed. Soon we are introduced to recurring characters: Barbara Binks, an over-the-top talent agent, and her assistants Paxton and Kroffner.

One of the smartest writing choices these boys have made was to connect the sketches with these three central figures and to build an ongoing narrative. This seemed to increase the urgency and hilarity of most of the situations, because the audience was getting the know the characters as the show progressed.

The sharpest piece of satire is the interview with Sir Michael, an actor who has made his career playing a female caricature named Velma Fanny. It’s one of the many digs the show makes at dated humour and how much sketch comedy, film and television have changed over the decades.

My absolute favourite part was the scene where Paxton is late to meet his friend at a bar because he’d been at rehearsal. Then it turns out, he was just rehearsing an argument with his boyfriend… and the scene rolls on from there. Hilariously clever.

The title Woah, Alyssa! 1 confidently suggests this won’t be the only time we see this pair on stage together, which is great. They have a strong script and after a slightly shaky start, the show kicks into high, hilarious gear. I expect they’ll get stronger over the season. And I look forward to Part 2.


Monday, 2 April 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Tessa Waters: Volcano


Tessa Waters is a comic volcano; firing hot balls of joke magma at the audience, while they run screaming for their lives. Wait, that’s a terrible metaphor. Things are rumbling under the surface and you never know when she’ll find that point where the audience will cross from silence to erupting with laughter. Yes, better.

Multiple shows I’ve seen at this Festival have joked about the upcoming Apocalypse, since the world is feeling on the brink of war or collapse. Tessa is worried about the children running the United States and North Korea pressing the nuclear button, partly because of the fallout, but mostly because she’s not sure what her role is in a dystopian future. She’s not good at woodwork and she’s worried you’ll want to eat her first. Especially her delicious thighs.

Volcano is Tessa pitching her various talents in an effort to prove she’ll be worth something once the bombs drop; she can keep everyone’s spirits up. Tessa is a woman of many talents; she’ll make you laugh as much from a joke as from physical gyrations or simply hiding her face in the corner. There are team games to get the audience involved; if the audience are fighting among themselves, at least she’ll live to joke another day.

She’s also an epic storyteller and that’s what we’ll need once Netflix and the internet no longer exists.

Get along to Tessa Waters Volcano before the end of the Festival and before the Apocalypse. No one will make you laugh harder or make you appreciate their thighs more.

Volcano is playing at the Greek Centre for the whole Festival, until April 22.

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Nikki Spunde: The Lazy Show


I’m writing this review from bed because Nikki Spunde has really inspired me to be lazy, to embrace it and relax. The Lazy Show is a 2:45pm show on weekends and public holidays during the Festival, the perfect follow-up to a lazy lie-in and a relaxed brunch and… that’s not for you, that’s just for Nikki. Even at quarter-to-three in the afternoon, she’ll still be recovering from the morning.

Nikki has been thinking about doing this show for a while and she’s only just getting around to it. Part of the show is to guess how long she has been planning to do stand-up and I don’t want to spoil the answer, but back then she was friends with hackers, learning to be a model and she was a dude. Just wait til you see the flashback costume change, it’s very minimalist.

As much as this show is about Nikki’s laziness, the show itself is tightly scripted and entertaining – from the lengthy introduction to the very smart conclusion. Nikki is warm and personable; stand-up has never been so fun as when she does it from a comfy leather chair, sipping from a china tea-cup.

The audience might identify with the central premise but they might miss how well thought-out and put together this show is. Sometimes there’s a benefit in taking your time – and maybe that’s not laziness at all?

Melbourne Comedy Festival – The Junior Mighty Little Puppet Show


Do you have kids? Looking for something fun for them to do during the school holidays? Take them along to the Town Hall for The Junior Mighty Little Puppet Show where children get to help make the characters and contribute to the story.

Devised by Rob Lloyd and built on his love of puppets and impro comedy, the Junior version of his Mighty Little show is wild and delightful. In the show I saw, Rob hosted and five expert improvisers took control of the Ritas – the faceless stars of the show. Rob invites children up to the stage to select from a range of eyes and noses to place on the Ritas and from there, the improvisers bring these new characters to life.

The audience also gets to contribute in other ways – shouting out favourite animals or names of the characters, which all feed into the stories that are created on stage. Yesterday, the audience was thrilled by a tale of a Man in search of chocolate, another story of cursed Egyptian artefacts and finally, Princess the Golfing Princess searching for her lost golf ball (Bally) in the forest of the Troll (don’t call him an ogre!)

Kids laughed and squealed with delight at the puppet antics and there’s an opportunity for them to get a photo with their favourite Rita after the show. Lloyd keeps everything moving and the kids entertained. And don’t worry, he also throws in jokes for the adults to keep us amused. How can you go past suggesting a cheetah’s favourite sport might be cricket? And when a child named Sophie has a to choose a puppet face, he assures us it’ll be easier for her than the original Sophie’s Choice.

Shout out to Jaklene, Petra, Scott, Jamie and Ryan, the wild and crazy improvisers who brought the puppets and stories to life. Every show has a new line-up and every show will be different. Go along more than once! A perfect school holiday treat.

The Junior Mighty Little Puppet Show is on all through the school holidays, every day except Monday.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit by Jean Tong



Margot Tanjutco and Louisa Wall star in
Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit

Go and see this show.

Is that enough? People listen to me sometimes. People don’t always agree with me. But -

Go and see this show.

Please, just take a second to book a ticket and then come back.

What else do you need to know?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single woman in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

And by the end of the narrative, one of them will end up dead.

The cast of Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit
Photo by Bede McKenna
Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is essentially Dead Lesbians: The Musical, a response to the “bury your gays” trope that has infected stories forever but stands out as particularly egregious on film and television in the last decade or two.

Have you booked your tickets yet?

Darcy (Louisa Wall) has just moved to fair Verona, where writer Jean Tong lays her scene. Darcy stands out because she is very tall and very white. Not that the rest of the diverse cast of characters is racist, they are just worried about how she’s going to fit in. And can she use chopsticks.

Juliet (Margot Tanjutco) is worried specifically about how Darcy fits into her life. Not because she’s gay (she’s not, she’s really, really, look just believe her, she’s not gay) but because maybe Verona just isn’t a place where they can find their dreams.

Of course, spoiler alert, Darcy and Juliet are going to see each other across a crowded room of gaming machines and one is going to offer to put a token in the other’s slot and… they’re going to end up at a queer performance art poetry slam. You know, that old story.

Narrated by a chorus of Incompetent Dead Lesbians (the wildly entertaining trio of Nisha Joseph, Pallavi Waghmode and Sasha Chong), the course of true love never did run smooth. But along the way you’ve got kick-ass, electro-pop tunes that subvert clichés, buck trends and urge you to fuck the narrative system that was designed to keep ladies alone and waiting for a man. But, as the saying goes, it’s not over until the Cat Lady sings!

Jean Tong’s script is clever, snappy, over-the-top and the satire cuts deep. Her direction keeps the show moving at a brisk pace on a cleverly designed set with an acting ensemble whose enthusiasm is infectious. The whole package is a revelation.

Tong is a talent to keep an eye on; that’s how good this show is. I hope this run is sold out and it might well be, so book those tickets now! And I wish this show a long touring life, because there are women who love women (and people who love them) who should see this now.

Go and see this show. Even if you don’t normally listen to me.


Go. See it.

BOOK TICKETS HERE AND NOW. Unless you've already done that earlier when I told you to.


The Incompetent Dead Lesbians in
Romeo Is Not the Only Fruit
Photo by Bede McKenna

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Rama Nicholas: Death Rides A Horse


Gather round, ladies and gentleman, Rama Nicholas has a story to tell you. It’s a one-woman Western musical filled with cowgirls, talking horses, whores with hearts of gold and a Spanish cowboy on his way to defeat Death… in Cancun.

Death Rides A Horse is a real gem, with Rama playing a dozen characters and narrating the show and singing the songs, sometimes in four-part harmonies, all by herself. But it’s not just an astonishing feat of performance, it’s supported by a strong script and an awesome musical score.

Caterina is from Coyote and she wants to be a famous cowgirl, but the women of her home town mostly make a living on their backs or on their knees. There’s a new and evil Sheriff in town and they are soon enemies, particularly after Caterina shoots him and gallops off into the desert.


This show is an hilarious pastiche of Western and musical clichés – and Rama is expert enough to make sure you’re never lost with who is speaking or what is happening next. With simple stage craft and excellent lighting design, this is a superb piece of comedy and theatre.

Melbourne Comedy Festival – Alice Tovey: Existential Crisis


Alice Tovey’s Existential Crisis is A Rock Opera where Alice hashes out all the issues she’s having during her quarter-life crisis. It’s hard out there for a millennial when you’re full of anxiety and not sure if your partner is right for the upcoming zombie apocalypse.

Alice is backed by a four-piece band, The Apostles, a hold over from her earlier show Personal Messiah, which was a lot more personal, given her Catholic upbringing, which I learned about in her first show, Malice.

While she rocks a slinky body suit with some impressive tassels hanging from her arms, the songs themselves don’t match up to her best work. In fact, the best song from the night “Australia’s Fair” is from another one of her shows.

Her concerns are those of a generation, which is a pity – because in the past her work has been more vital because we felt like we were getting to know her. I guess it’s fitting to end the review of a rock show by saying, in the words of Regurgitator, I like her old stuff better than her new stuff.

Friday, 30 March 2018

Melbourne Comedy Festival – #PickUp



In a world of dating and hook-up apps, much of the humour comedians find in Tinder stories stems from an old-fashioned view of the world. Remember when we dated like that, well now we date like this – isn’t that SO WEIRD?

The fun of #PickUp is the sex talk is frank and non-judgmental and the apps are just there to get to the really funny part – the sex itself and how to get your hook-up to go to sleep after.

Performers Alia and Colin are in a relationship, but they are polyamorous so they date other people. That’s a good set-up for a show in and of itself. As a non-traditional pairing, you get to be on their side as a team but also appreciate when they come into conflict. They don’t always find their needs met by one another.

#PickUp is a musical act first and foremost; the songs are the kind of rock and roll sexy that suits these two off-beat performers. There’s some fun audience interaction, mostly through people texting questions to them during the show.

When comedy about gender politics and sexuality can so often be lazy, it’s great to see an hilarious sex-positive show that is a little bit educational and a whole lot of fun.

You can, uh, #PickUp at Tasma Terrace until April 8th.

Melbourne Comedy Festival – David Massingham: Sketch Me Like One of Your French Girls



Sketch comedy is hard, people. Filling your show with a dozen or more joke-filled sketches seems like it might be easier than crafting a fifty-minute stand-up routine. But it’s a tricky business.

David Massingham’s show is a mixed bag, utilising the full complement of a sketch comedian’s tricks – bad puns, terrible accents and audience participation. And that’s just in the first few minutes. But, as the saying goes, it gets better.

There are some gems to be found in-between the messy bits, though. Some fun satire with a small-town Mayor trying to play up the “Murder Capital” moniker his town has been branded with. A clever commentary on cultural criticism, centred around the “performance art” of a thief stealing oil paintings – capturing a real tension between law and order. And a Last Will & Testament video to a dying man’s three sons which is audacious in its complexity.

Sketch Me Like One of Your French Girls could afford to lose some of the groaners and try to find some more character-driven gems, which were the highlights for me.


Melbourne Comedy Festival – Hayley Brennan: The Procrastinator



It’s not unusual for a comedian to come out on stage to a song that pumps them up and gets the crowd excited. Hayley Brennan is already on stage when the audience enters, bouncing around, shaking off nervous tension and welcoming the crowd to “I’ll Make A Man Out of You” from Mulan

Hayley grew up on Disney films from their 90s renaissance, so you’ll have to forgive her if she tells you a few stories about that obsession before she starts the show.

Hayley is a unicorn, you see. Not that she’s magical or rare, though; she gets distracted by Netflix and YouTube like the rest of us mere mortals. She’s a unicorn because she’d miss getting on the ark due to the aforementioned shiny distractions.

I went to see The Procrastinator at the last minute, which feels like the perfect way to see this show – with a second’s notice and totally unprepared. Hayley bounces from topic to topic in a way that feels unplanned but is cunningly devised.

She’ll draw you in with a story about Princess Jasmine, then pull that magic carpet out from under your feet with tales of tequila shots, pee-stained mattresses and whatever the hell lunges are for.


Friday, 23 March 2018

Bare – The Musical by John Hartmere & Damon Intrabartolo

Bare - The Musical
Photo: Belinda Strodder

At St Cecilia’s boarding school, the students are going through typical high school angst, while rehearsing for a production of “Romeo & Juliet”. If you think that is a portent for mayhem and doom, you would be right. But there’s still a lot of fun to be had along the way.

Bare – The Musical has a cult following borne of its original Off-Broadway run in 2004. It’s been through a number of changes over the years, having originally been produced as bare: a pop opera, which is a much more interesting title than the one it’s now got under the current licensing agreement.

I originally saw bare: a pop opera at Cromwell St Theatre during Midsumma a decade ago. This was right around the time I was discovering not all stage musicals had to be multi-million-dollar budgeted with huge casts. I was overly effusive in my praise of bare at the time, excited to see a strong local production of a score I’d heard several variations of at that point.

Ten years later, I thought I was headed to Stage Arts’ latest production to see the updated version of the show. In 2012, Bare was produced as a book musical, which is a strange evolution for a sung-through musical to take. Luckily, this local production is much closer to a pop opera, retaining the original concept of Nadia, the “plain jane fatass” as she describes herself in song, one of the highlights of the show.

Stage Arts have been producing strong productions of niche musicals for a number of years now, having previously mounted In the Heights, Dreamgirls, The Color Purple and the excellent Falsettos earlier this year. I’d say Bare was a riskier venture, without the name recognition of the earlier shows or the history of a show like Falsettos. But given the crowd reaction at opening night, Stage Arts seem to be on another winner.

For me, though, while the themes and experiences are timeless, this is an early work by its writers and it shows. The central love story of Peter and Jason, two boys falling in love at Catholic boarding school, is intense as you would expect in a musical that alludes to Shakespeare and also includes drug taking, underage sex and teenage pregnancy.

But the characters themselves are flat, cardboard cut-outs jumping through the expected hoops of teenage melodrama. That doesn’t mean the show won’t tug at your heartstrings though, and Adam di Martino makes a lot out of Peter’s emotions – especially during “See Me,” a phone call to his mother.

Much more interesting are the previously-mentioned Nadia - Jason’s sister, and Ivy - who hooks up with Jason after her birthday party. Set against the backdrop of the central love story, these two characters seem less like clichés – especially in the hands of actors Hannah Grondin and Hannah McInerny. Nadia might lament about spending “A Quiet Night at Home” but when she’s invited out, she finds her voice and Grondin steals focus every time she’s on stage – and to good effect.

Ivy, who is oblivious to the love of Matt, falls for Jason, and must struggle with multiple teenage problems and while “Portrait of a Girl” suggests hidden depths, McInerny’s “All Grown Up” makes for the strongest performance of the night. It’s a rocking portrait of teenage girl whose Catholic upbringing hasn’t prepared her at all for growing up so quickly.

The production itself is superb, taking full advantage of the stained-glass window at Chapel Off Chapel and some wonderful lighting from Jason Bovaird, whose work must stretch from the intimacy of a confessional to the wild incandescent vision of a rave.

Director and set designer Dean Dreiberg keeps the show moving inside the simple, versatile set; and though the choreography is slightly indulgent in places, it all makes for a gorgeous visual treat.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Colder by Lachlan Philpott - Red Stitch



Colder
Photo: Teresa Noble

I’m there.

I’m sitting there in the dark.

Sitting there in the dark watching a play by Lachlan Philpott at Red Stitch.

A child has gone missing at Disneyland but nothing evokes Disneyland for me, not even the actors wearing mouse ears. Especially not the actors wearing mouse ears and affecting exaggerated American accents. I want to feel what the mother is feeling, while officious behind-the-scenes Disney workers assure her everything is going to be fine.

I want a sense of her being frantic and frustrated.

But I don’t get this sense because the language of the play is putting me at a distance. The expository monologues don’t paint a picture or flesh out a world beyond the very basic (“padded concrete, padded seats”) and the facile (“padded people”).

This choral arrangement of voices is not singing.

Eight-year-old David remains missing all day and we learn that his single mother has felt separate from him ever since. We aren’t given much of a hint of why. David, now 33, has come out as gay but has hidden his relationships from his mother and his best friend. But is that a symptom of the distance or the reason behind it?

What happened to him at Disneyland? Colder wants you to ask that question but resists answers and insight. When the character says that nobody really knows anybody else, I was disappointed the played turned on such a cliché.

The design elements of the production – both the set and lighting – elevate the material. The curved slats of the set, which resemble a wave about to crash on the characters, keep the actors on their toes for the entire performance. The lighting helps with changing moods, even as the characters are scattered across space and time, rarely, if ever, connecting with each other.

Early on, I wondered if Philpott had ever been to Disneyland. Then David, his sex partners and his boyfriend describe Sydney like they’d overheard someone talk of Potts Point, Surrey Hills and Oxford Street. Strange for a writer who is from there. 

When the parades of Disneyland and Mardi Gras are used as a recurring theme in David’s life, the play lost me. If it had ever had me.

I was there.

I was sitting in the dark.

Sitting in the dark, waiting for it to be over.

Left cold.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

Festival of Live Art – Rest Area, Kill Climate Deniers

Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan
Photo by Sarah Walker


The Festival of Live Art is back for the third year of nurturing and celebrating experimental, interactive and participatory artworks. You can learn to twerk, phone an artist, break things or push a button (True or False) in reaction to the statement “Capitalism Works For Me”.

I went to Arts House last night to experience a couple of the works.

Rest Area by S.J. Norman

A mattress and pillows in the back of a truck. Soft lighting. An intimate setting in an incongruous space. I climbed into the truck like I would approach any theatrical work of art – open to possibilities. But this space, while inviting, asks questions and put me on the back foot. How do I negotiate this moment with a stranger? Can I relax into this or will I be overthinking things?

Rest Area is a short, very intimate work that S.J. has performed on and off since 2007, when it first premiered in a truck outside Carriageworks in Sydney. We all bring our own baggage to any theatrical experience; this piece feels familiar and strange all at once.

I had a lot of thoughts running through my head, as I lay there – but after a while, I relaxed, stopped thinking and just breathed in time with the performer. And then it was all over. Hesitation, connection and release.

Kill Climate Deniers by David Finnigan & Reuben Ingall

How do you tell the story of climate catastrophe on stage without it feeling like a lecture? You run toward the science, challenge the media and make it a lecture. And combine it with a dance party.

David Finnigan’s play is provocatively titled and he’s still not sure if he made the right choice. It got him funding, but it also got him backlash. It got him attention, both good and bad. Finnigan’s work is always provocative and can be counted on to play with the theatrical form. Kill Climate Deniers was supposed to just be a play, but it’s become more than that.

It’s been an album, a film script, a walking tour of Parliament House and – most recently – it finally became a play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney. It’s still playing there. The lecture-cum-dance party version lit up Arts House in North Melbourne last night and plays again next Friday night; a hell of a way to end a week.

The story, such as it is, begins in 1988 – the year climate science and house music began. That’s not true, of course; both had precursors and predecessors that were as significant as the time global warming was first named in the US Congress and Black Box’s Ride On Time was released.

The show shifts and mutates in front of our eyes. It’s autobiographical and scientific; it elicits laughter and boos from the audience. And it tells the story of a fictional politician who must battle eco-terrorists at Parliament House in Canberra while Fleetwood Mac plays in the main hall.

But it’s really just agit prop with a sick beat.

Finnigan, writer and performer, is pitching you the show as he’s giving it to you. He’s prompting you to action while making sure he’s not inciting you to violence. And while Kill Climate Deniers has been script and music and live art, it’s also been hashed out by right-wing columnists and condemned by shock jocks – a strange performance art in itself.

The Festival of Live Art encourages participation, but it’s not just the dance party that brings this work alive: it’s the generosity of Finnigan as a presenter and performer, and it’s the fun of Ride On Time scoring a first-person shooter. And it’s the vital message to be engaged, but don’t literally kill climate deniers. Even though we know you want to.



Saturday, 10 February 2018

HIR by Taylor Mac - Midsumma, Red Stitch

Hir at Red Stitch
Photo: Teresa Noble

“The youth don’t understand you can’t mess with form and content at the same time.”

Isaac has been in the army; the weight of the war is still in his body, causing him to stoop, to not look people in the eye, to vomit. He’s returned home, hoping to be embraced by his parents and his sister. But his family has changed; this comfortable home is now a mess of clothes on the floor and dirty dishes, empty cupboards and piled up furniture.

This is not the reunion Isaac was looking for.

Father Arnold has had a stroke and mother Paige is feeding him a cocktail of pills to keep him docile. He’s on estrogen and made-up like a clown. Max, who was once Maxine, now identifies as transgender and insists on the pronouns of “ze” and “hir”.

The “hir” and “here” homophone is key to Paige’s many rants throughout the play; with all this brand-new information at her fingertips, she’s ready to change the world. And she’s starting with upending the patriarchal structure of the family home.

Taylor Mac is a performance artist whose most recent work in Australia was headlining the Melbourne Festival with his twenty-four-hour show, A 24-Decade History of Popular Music. judy’s queer sensibilities radically reimagined music and musicals from across America’s two centuries.

The play Hir echoes one of Paige’s pronouncements about not messing with form and content at the same time; much of the structure of this family drama is quite traditional. If not for the central LGBT content, the form of the story feels not unlike a kitchen-sink drama that might be staged at the Melbourne Theatre Company.

But the passages that feel like they could be teaching the audience abut a troubling messiness in the characters themselves. Paige and Max are trying to forge a new hir-story without really knowing what they are going to replace the patriarchy with. Paige insists on homeschooling Max, leading to lots of knitted craft on the walls and banjo playing, but leaves hir with no greater ambition than living in a commune.

Director Daniel Clarke has brought together a hell of a creative team to populate the tiny Red Stitch stage with a messy set and complicated characters. For a story that threatens to spiral out of control at any moment, he has a clear vision of what he wants, allowing us insight into the characters amidst the kaleidoscopic chaos.

Adrienne Chisholm’s set and costume design goes full-tilt rainbow realness; it’s a kind of absurd naturalism – you can imagine this was once a functional family abode until the family’s new sensibilities exploded. As Paige explains “We don’t do cupboards anymore. We don’t do order. Places and cupboards are what your father wanted.”

As Paige, Belinda McClory is her usual powerhouse dialled up to eleven, twelve and beyond. What was Paige like before Arnold’s stroke? There are hints, but what’s in that place now is incomprehensible to Isaac and a force of nature to Max, who sometimes feels as much of a victim of Paige’s newfound beliefs as ze was under hir father’s roof.

Harvey Zaska-Zielinski’s Max is a headstrong teenager given the ultimate power by hir mother to be themselves. His performance is remarkably complicated; shifting between excited at previously unknown freedoms and occasionally scared Max won’t live up to Paige’s expectations.

Ben Grant’s Arnold is mostly subdued and monosyllabic but he brings a vulnerability to his character that he shares with his just-returned son Isaac; they feel powerless in this new regime. And Taylor Mac’s play is at pains to be clear that tearing down society’s structures might be problematic if you have no true sense of what to replace that with.

If everyone is everything, what does that mean?

Jordan Fraser-Trumble as Isaac
Photo: Teresa Noble

As the literal and figurative straight man, Jordan Fraser-Trumble’s Isaac is withdrawn and stilted, his PTSD ready to explode out of him at any moment. Early on, Fraser-Trumble’s work seemed hesitant but then it became clear that was key to Isaac, the weight of history is on his shoulders; he is all men. His work here is amazing.

Hir is as thrilling and challenging a work as I have ever seen on stage. Its set up is simple and its premise is clear. But while it moves in ways you might expect in a family drama, the endeavour drives toward questions that are difficult to grapple with and answers to which are almost impossible to form.


Harvey Zielinski & Jordan Fraser-Trumble in Hir
Photo: Teresa Noble

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Falsettos by William Finn & James Lapine - Midsumma

The cast of Falsettos
Photo: Belinda Strodder

It’s 1979 and Marvin has left his wife Trina for a man named Whizzer. Marvin is trying to maintain a tight-knit family, somehow hoping to keep his wife and his son and his lover happy. His psychiatrist, Mendel, seems to be helping, until he falls in love with Trina.

William Finn’s Falsettos is somewhat of a cult musical; though it has been on Broadway twice, both runs were quite short. Finn is probably best known for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee and his most recent Broadway musical was an adaptation of Little Miss Sunshine.

Falsettos is, in fact, a combination of two shows that originated off-Broadway at either end of the 1980s, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. March feels like Stephen Sondheim’s Company, a kaleidoscope of songs from people who know the slightly-unlikable main character. Falsettoland has a more traditional story arc and while as a second act, it’s only set two years later in 1981, the world had changed dramatically for gay men when it was first produced in 1990.

The show is effectively a story and a sequel to that story. Two books separated by an intermission. And StageArts’ production is brilliant.

In a show as lyrically complex and demanding as Falsettos, an intimate production is fitting. The “small band” is a solo pianist (David Butler) who gets quite the workout over the two-hour plus running time. The set is minimalist, a black and white silhouette of New York, alluding to the chess that son Jason likes to play (though it’s hard to look at a chess board set in a musical and not think of Chess, which is the wrong mood the be in for a show like this).

There were a few technical hiccups on opening night with missed lighting cues, but that’s a minor issue when everything else is so strong. Director Tyran Parke keeps the pace up throughout the show, with some rather impressive theatrical trickery that effectively digs into the characters’ moods and psyches. Choreography by Madison Lee is stunning throughout, most memorably in “Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist” and “The Baseball Game”. Exciting stuff.

The cast is superb and it feels like they’ve been living with these characters for a long time. Sarah Shahinian’s Trina is the backbone of the first act and her two solo numbers are striking and heartbreaking. In a show that feels like a storm, with a family’s lives turned upside-down, Trina’s spotlight moments are intimate but no less complicated and messy. Shahinian’s performance is mesmerising.

Nick Simpson-Deeks as Mendel
Photo by Belinda Strodder
Psychiatrist Mendel is central to the complicated machinations of the plot but in lesser hands could have been forgotten at the fringes of this show; with Nick Simpson-Deeks in the role, this was not allowed to happen. His conflicted psychiatrist is fascinating; Mendel is both in and out of control. Simpson-Deeks shows us the inner workings of a man trying to help this family while also falling in love with Trina. He’s incredible.

Ben Jason-Easton is as great a performer as you’d want in the role of Jason, the son whose dad has come out and whose therapist is falling in love with his mother. Jason is at the heart of the second act, suffering through a more complicated adolescence than most. Jason-Easton knows his stuff; he makes us laugh and makes us hurt. His performance is remarkable.

Marvin feels like a narrator to his own life until late in the second act, when he must confront the failing health of his partner, Whizzer. Falsettos feels much like a frantic comedy with the occasional dramatic beat until deep into Falsettoland when Whizzer is dying from the unnamed AIDS. It’s 1981 and at the beginning of the crisis; this family’s life, as if it wasn’t already a mess, takes a darker turn.

Don Winsor and Sam Ward make a fine pair; their relationship is always complicated but they move in ways that make Marvin and Whizzer seem perfectly suited to each other, even when they are breaking up. “What Would I Do?” is a beautiful, tear-inducing finale that the actors nail.

Falsettos is a remarkable tale of unconventional and found families set at a time when this story could have quickly torn them apart. And in this production, it never hits a false note.


Father & son, Falsettos
Photo: Belinda Strodder

Friday, 26 January 2018

Strangers in Between by Tommy Murphy - Midsumma

Wil King as Shane in Strangers in Between
Photo: Sarah Walker
Shane (Wil King) is young. He’s run away from his family in Goulburn and he’s arrived in Sydney, finding a job at a bottle-o in King’s Cross. He can’t afford a fridge, doesn’t know how to cook and isn’t sure where coat hangers come from.

He’s dazzled by the wild nightlife, while being terrified of sex workers and drug addicts. He has no friends and no support in Sydney until he makes a couple of new friends who are buying alcohol – Will (Guy Simon) and Peter (Simon Burke).

Will is a young guy, ready to party and have fun with Shane. Peter is middle-aged and has seen a lot over his years but no less-likely to want to have fun with Shane.

Shane, though, is struggling with how to express his sexuality as much as he is wrestling with the simple parts of living an adult life far away from home. He’s also haunted by how he was treated by his brother, Ben (also Guy Simon); Ben beat him up when he discovered Shane having sex with a school mate.

Tommy Murphy’s play was first performed at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2005. It’s a period piece now, set in a time before smart phones and hook up apps – and in a world where posting a letter can be a prominent plot point. It feels no less relevant or authentic in the territory it covers, though; the decade or so since lends a helpful distance to the material.

Director Daniel Lammin’s choice to strip everything back is a solid choice and shows confidence in the script. Murphy’s writing demands strong actors to revel in the humour and dig into the emotion. Lammin trusts his performers and the text enough to get out of their way; some scenes are almost static, which heightens the tension and the drama.

Wil King & Simon Burke, Strangers in Between
Photo: Sarah Walker
Abbie-Lea Hough’s set and costume design is simple but striking. Strips of silver shimmer like the curtain on a nightclub stage; a bath sits in the centre, an inviting and an awkward meeting place. Rob Sowinski’s lighting is subtle but effective and vital to orienting the audience to where the characters are next.


As Shane, Wil King runs a mile-a-minute. His performance captures the nervous tension of the first day on a new job, being away from home for the first time, enthusiastically exploring his sexuality and having outbursts of anger and shame. A creation full of vitality.

Guy Simon and Simon Burke ably support Shane’s first taste of responsibility and a sexually transmitted disease. Burke’s Peter occasionally falls into stereotype, but this feels fitting for Shane’s story and his befriending a world-weary homosexual man who has watched friends die and King’s Cross change. He fits into that world in a way Shane is scared he never will.

Guy Simon playing the dual roles of Will and Ben gets to have fun with contrast; the costume change is the wearing and removal of a red flannel shirt. Will is as outgoing as Ben feels dangerous. And it’s great to see an Indigenous actor on stage in a role not written specifically as Aboriginal.

Strangers in Between is about the families we make as we move out into the world, whether or not we run away from our biological families at the same time. In the decade since this show was first performed around the corner from where it’s set, King’s Cross may have calmed down, marriage equality may be a reality, but coming out can still be a struggle – smart phones or not.

Guy Simon & Wil King, Strangers in Between
Photo: Sarah Walker



Note: another production of the play is currently on the West End in London. If you’re in London, you should go. It’s a well-reviewed transfer from off-West End from 2016. It closes next weekend.