Saturday, 15 December 2018

My Favourite Theatre of 2018

Blasted
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.


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.


I had heard amazing things about this Griffin Theatre production over the last few years and was so glad it finally made it to Melbourne. An exquisite piece of theatre.

Calamity Jane – Arts Centre Melbourne

Another production from Sydney I’d heard amazing things about, only to miss it on its Melbourne debut earlier this year. Glad I finally got to see it from on-stage seating. Last show of the year, in my top ten. As I described it on Twitter – “Like the Doris Day movie, but gayer.”

Calamity Jane

An exceptional piece of queer theatre at Red Stitch; challenging and hilarious. Daniel Clarke’s production was superb.

Prize Fighter - Northcote Town Hall, Melbourne Festival

Yet another show that has travelled the country and I am glad to have finally seen. A tale of immigration that was about physical and emotional toughness. Unforgettable.


A musical comedy about romance, sexuality, narrative convenience and the “dead lesbian trope”. I hope this has a long life. I’d love to see it again.


Daniel Lammin’s treatment of Tommy Murphy’s play was subtle, nuanced and deeply moving. Superb.


An important story of people from the Torres Strait, a joyous celebration of family. Beautiful.


THE NEXT TEN (alphabetical order)


Little Ones took to the MTC stage and turned it upside. Incredible design, stunning cast, excellent production.

Abigail's Party
The Harp in the South, Parts 1 and 2 – Sydney Theatre Company

An epic Sydney story given the epic Kip Williams/STC treatment. A day to remember. The classic novel is set to be a classic stage play.

The House of Bernarda Alba – Melbourne Theatre Company

Patricia Cornelius did a wonderful job adapting Lorca’s classic play. Beautifully realised by director Letitia Caceres with an unforgettable cast of women.


post performed themselves and years of recorded conversations were elevated into something profound.


Trying to adapt this film to stage seemed like an impossible task but leave it to Matt Lutton and Declan Greene to pull it off with a performance for the ages by Eryn Jean Norville.

Melancholia
The Mission – Arts House, Melbourne Fringe

Tom Molyneux’s ode to his uncle and his ancestry was insightful and vital and very touching.

The Nightingale and the Rose - Little Ones, Theatre Works

Little Ones simple, effective adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s short story.

Prehistoric – Elbow Room, Meat Market

Elbow Room’s rocking work on Brisbane’s punk scene and the oppressive Bjelke-Peterson government.

Sneakyville – 45 Downstairs

Christopher Bryant and Daniel Lammin’s complex take on Charles Manson, his followers and the public’s decade-long obsession with the cult leader. Seared into my mind.



In the midst of despair, Rawcus’ moving work found hope in darkness.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

John Barrowman - Arts Centre Melbourne
Wild – Melbourne Theatre Company
Cock – Meat Market, directed by Beng Oh
An Ideal Husband – Melbourne Theatre Company
The Children – Melbourne Theatre Company
Elbow Room: There/Here – Lithuanian Club, Melbourne Fringe



PAST YEARS

Monday, 10 December 2018

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

"All the world will be in love with night..."
Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography
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, but the dramatic black clouds in the distance suggested storms on the horizon for these star-crossed lovers.

This production isn’t the original text; it’s Shakespeare by way of Baz Luhrman - though not his own Romeo + Juliet. This felt more like Moulin Rouge, modern songs used to elevate the mood, heighten the tension and amuse when deployed in an oddball context. The Montagues and the Capulets engage in Shakespeare’s classic taunts – they do bite their thumb at you, sir, but their song and dance battles reminiscent of West Side Story, also inspired by Shakespeare’s tragic lovers.

The comedy gets the audience on side early on; we’re amused by anachronistic music and local references. But we’re also treated to a female Tybalt (Emily Thompson) and a female Benvolio (Carly Ellis, who steals the show each time she’s on stage, especially post-party, when she’s recovering from a hangover). Another treat is Tref Gare’s doubling as the police Inspector and his show-stopping turn as the Nurse with a comically Scottish brogue.

This show hits all the romantic plot beats, but it chooses to slice out the political familial machinations. Montague and Capulet are tyrannical parents for their children to rebel against and that’s enough here. They are figures of fear, if not fully realised characters. But that’s fine; this production is light and accessible and full of inventiveness for most of its length.

Adapting Shakespeare, particularly cutting it down, is a tricky business. Turning much of Romeo & Juliet into a raunchy comedy, with matching slapstick, makes the dramatic turn a little harder to buy. Some of the local references took away from the dramatic moments; St Kilda feels like a suitable stand in for Verona, but as Mantua, Pakenham is too much of a distracting laugh line.

And yet, even if the cleverness of the production faded into the background, as the dramatic pieces started to fall into place, the power of the tragedy remains palpable. The audience got quieter. The ensemble pulled back from earlier antics. And Matthew Connell and Joanna Halliday, both striking in the central roles, take centre stage to fulfil the promise of the play’s opening stanza.

Melbourne Shakespeare has created a thrilling, memorable Romeo & Juliet; and the outdoor setting is an amazing backdrop. The sun set slowly last night, casting a pink light into the St Kilda sky. Nature is one hell of a lighting designer.


The cast of Melbourne Shakespeare Company's Romeo & Juliet
Burke Photography

Thursday, 22 November 2018

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

Brigid Gallacher, Simon Maiden, Emily Goddard in Jane Bodie's Lamb


“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 him to look after their mother, whose last years were marred by dementia. Kathleen is also sick, mentally impaired somehow, a child in a woman’s body. It’s tough on a farm in any case. For Patrick, it’s been a living nightmare; maybe singing his father’s songs has got him through it.

Lamb is advertised as A New Play with Songs. It’s not a musical, let’s be clear. The songs are songs the characters have written; songs they sing as songs. With music and lyrics by Aussie rock legend Mark Seymour, combined with the moving work of playwright Jane Bodie, this is a stellar example of the “play with songs” genre.

The play starts with the funeral and inches back in time, in memory and then lurches back into another generation at the start of Act Two. Brigid and Patrick do double duty as parents Mary and Frank, whose early relationship is troubled by the fact that Mary really wants to leave town to go protest in the big smoke.

Although the first half of this play is captivating, it feels mannered in a way the second half does not. Director Julian Meyrick helps the actors find the hidden depths to their characters in Act Two and the layers of regret built into the family’s foundations are exposed. The children don’t really understand what their parents went through before they were born; and the siblings are at a loss to reconcile what they do know after Mary’s funeral.

Emily Goddard is captivating, as always, even if the conception of Kathleen feels a little bit like a cliché – the mentally-ill sister who is really wiser than her impairment suggests. Brigid Gallacher’s Annie is the archetypical prodigal daughter, but once we get to mother Mary, we see echoes of each in both; a subtle and striking performance. Simon Maiden gives us a laconic Frank and a taciturn Patrick, showing most passion through the song a father wrote and passed on to his son.

Lamb is an intimate tale that’s spread across years. It’s a story of a family history that is imperfectly passed along, and a song that is sung and remembered and a shared passion that binds them all together even as they slowly drift apart.

Lamb is on at Red Stitch until December 16th. A strong final show for 2018, just before their 2019 season is launched next week.

Sunday, 11 November 2018

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

Brent Hill as Dewey Finn with child cast in School of Rock

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 of a headstrong nun teaching the children of the uptight Captain Von Trapp to sing, rebel Dewey teaches the children of Roz’s private school to rock the status quo.

Unfortunately, School of Rock doesn’t have many memorable songs. “Stick it to the Man” is catchy enough, working as the Act I finale and reprised at the end. Roz’s solo “Where Did the Rock Go?” gives Lehpamer a chance to shine, when most of the musical wastes her in the role of principal. The actual musical highlight comes when a shy child finds her voice and sings “Amazing Grace” in Act II.

Brent Hill is charismatic and full of life as Dewey, but he’s channelling Jack Black, as I guess one must in this role. It’s so strange to see this approximation of a film role that so suited Black, but the creation is fun enough that I enjoyed Hill’s cover of the original.

Expanding a 100-minute film into a two-and-a-half-hour musical has led to fleshing out the child characters, in a small way. We get a sense that all their home lives are tricky; none of them can live up to their fathers’ expectations. (In a montage of their struggles out of school, we don’t see any of their mothers. A strange choice and more on that later.) But with so many child characters, there’s still not enough time to really make them into interesting people.

That said, the classroom scenes are full of life and fun; the young performers work well together and there’s nothing too precocious or saccharine about this lot. In contrast, the adults-only scenes – such as those in the Teachers’ Lounge – are leaden and dull. All of them are caricatures and most of the jokes in those scenes land with a thud.

School of Rock is a slick Broadway musical that is too long and lacks any real dramatic stakes; Dewey’s duplicity is hardly ever challenged and once the truth is exposed, the show still barrels toward a happy ending, the problems finally swept away without consequence.

You could take a kid to the show and they would enjoy watching kids rebelling in the classroom and forming a band and the ridiculous antics of Dewey Finn, but I really wish you wouldn’t. For one major reason…

School of Rock treats women very badly.

The two major adult female roles in School of Rock are the principal and the ex-girlfriend of Dewey’s friend, Ned. While Roz the principal is concerned about her students for good reason, she is still described as “ice cold” – a not-terribly-clever disguise for what Dewey is really saying, “frigid”. And she goes through the predictable story arc of learning to let her hair down and get her rock on.

Ex-girlfriend Patty is a shrewish nag, who doesn’t want Ned to be in a band anymore, for no other reason than she thinks it’s not adult. This means both Ned and Dewey must battle women to find their rock ‘n roll; and Ned’s triumphant moment over Patty is him screaming at her to “shut up”. It’s an ugly moment.

The show itself does throw in two lines of feminist commentary (two whole lines), perhaps as a way to balance out the sexism inherent in the rest of the script. But I’m not sure if I give book author Julian Fellowes that much credit here.

The show goes to great lengths to point out that The Man (who Dewey and the kids are sticking it to) can also be a woman – “but the woman would only get paid 70 cents on the dollar”, the girls of Horace Green shout. It stops the show, as does a later comment about gender representation in media discourse, but neither time feels genuine to the school girls’ characters.

The missing mothers from the student’s home life montage added to my sense that the show was so focused on venerating man-child Dewey and his battle against nagging women that women’s voices were being silenced or ignored. Comments on Mama Cass’ weight and a spit-take by Dewey into a female teacher’s face were just gross.

The low-point was a “stolen” non-consensual kiss by Dewey with Roz after which she jokes about giving “permission” – she’s really talking about consent to a field trip, not the kiss.

School of Rock seems like a feel-good show for kids and families, but this underlying suspicion of women not letting boys be boys was troubling.


Amy Lehpamer as Principal Rosalind Mullins in School of Rock

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Re-Member Me by Dickie Beau

Re-Member Me as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival

“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 show revisits performances by Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ian McKellan and other British actors who have not yet been knighted. Beau performs as Stephen Ashby, a former dresser at the National Theatre, who was working the night Daniel Day Lewis left the stage after Act 1, Scene 5, believing he had seen the ghost of his own father while performing.

Day Lewis was so shaken by the vision, he did not go back on that night, and Ashby had to take what was essential from Day Lewis’ costume so he could dress understudy Jeremy Northam, for Northam to finish the play. Later, in the same production, actor Ian Charleson took over the role – and that’s where much of Beau’s show is focused.

Where Day Lewis’ performance was recorded, Charleson’s was not. Where Day Lewis got rave reviews, Charleson’s performance as the replacement in the role may never have been reviewed, if not for friends convincing the Sunday Times’ chief critic, John Peter, to write about it. If theatre shows disappear, one of the few ways they can live on is in reviews.

Many of the actors that Beau lip-synchs as part of this show are gay men, talking about Charleson, another gay man, whose performance as Hamlet would be his last before succumbing to an AIDS-related illness weeks later. The discussion of the acting fraternity evolves into a discussion of the LGBT community, and these men’s struggles even amid successful stage and screen careers.

I’ve talked a lot about what this show is saying and what it is trying to accomplish, because I admire the thought that went into this performance of performance, this deconstruction of the pieces of acting – and putting someone’s own words into another man’s mouth. I found it baffling, though. It was a strange kind of documentary, without really allowing me to connect with any of the speakers, beyond recognising Beau is able to capture McKellan’s mannerisms, without having to mimic his voice.

Blending in songs from the Village People and Barbra Streisand upped the queer content and lay the groundwork for the real focus of the piece, without feeling like a particularly interesting commentary on the work Hamlet or the work of these various Hamlets. The show is intellectually heady and the disco beats brought in another kind of familiarity, but I still felt emotionally distanced through much of the performance.

By the end, Beau has reconstructed – re-membered – a handful of mannequins which littered the stage early in the show. They stand as a fascinating tableau, in costumes that allude to Hamlet, but stuck in a hospital ward. It evokes both the Dane’s death scene (“the rest is silence”) and the AIDS epidemic (“Silence = Death”) that claimed a generation of gay men, and devastated theatre communities in London and New York. It’s a striking image.

The great Hamlets come and go. Ian Charleson is gone. Re-Member Me tries to resurrect both, but only does so superficially – stealing the voices of the men who knew them in a way that made me think hard and wish there’d been some other way to know this story.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Song for a Weary Throat by Rawcus


Song for a Weary Throat
as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival

“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 Sulan.

The company creates theatre that draws on dance and visual arts and for this show has collaborated with the Invenio Singers, who lend their exquisite singing voices to this very moving experience.

Jethro Woodward’s sound design and musical direction create a particularly memorable soundscape – unnerving and upsetting at times, loud noises keeping the audience on edge. Emily Barrie’s set design suggests a possible post-Apocalyptic bunker, detritus scattered across the stage, chairs and ramps and ladders slowly being woven into the fabric of the performances and dance.

The Rawcus ensemble includes performers both with and without disability and all are fully committed to realising Sulan’s vision – an impression and a representation of people finding the strength to stand up and speak up in a world that insists on making that harder every day.

There were joyous moments when most of the ensemble took a running jump off the edge of a ramp. And equally upsetting moments when one half of the ensemble watched the others struggling to crawl up a steep incline, unwilling to help them.

In the midst of despair, Song for a Weary Throat finds hope – something we’re in desperate need of in 2018.

Witness Performance: Suddenly Last Summer

Kate Cole in Suddenly Last Summer
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson
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.

Sunday, 7 October 2018

On Broadway – Presented by Flourish Productions

The Cast of On Broadway

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 fun follow up.

Some of the songs worked better out of context from their shows than others. “Someone to Watch Over Me” is a classic from the Broadway songbook, beautifully performed by Catherine Langley, one of the producers of the night. Alec Steedman’s “Wilkommen” and Ellie Nunan’s “Cabaret” from Cabaret made me want to see them in a full production of the show.

“Agony” from Into the Woods seemed strangely lacklustre, not garnering the laughs it would have in the show itself. Danielle O’Malley nailed “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and “If You Got It, Flaunt It”.

“Cell Block Tango” from Chicago was one of the absolute highlights of the night. The rendition itself was strong – everyone in full voice and embodying the merry murderesses of the musical. Of course, with a cast of four men and four women, this number was four women and two men, which gave it an added queer element which made it more delicious.

Much to my surprise, the later medley of Andrew Lloyd-Webber songs from Song & Dance, Aspects of Love & Jesus Christ Superstar was really thrilling. Kudos to Ellie, Lachlan and Danielle for their harmonies there.

Most of these songs are absolutely classics of the genre and it’s always a pleasure to hear them. But to have such a strong concept for the concert itself – solid choreography elevating the songs and helping the transitions, On Broadway was Flourish’s strongest concert series yet.


Flourish Productions presented On Broadway this weekend only at Chapel Off Chapel.

My Name is Jimi by Dimple Bani & Jimi Bani

My  Name is Jimi

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 that term – having performed in theatre companies across Australia and in film and television. He has taken up his father’s mantle and has toured this production extensively to get the word out. And the history out. And the dance out.

He’s not alone on stage, though. There are three generations with him: his mother and aunt, his brothers and one of his own children. Director Jason Klarwein has harnessed the joyful energy and truth of Jimi’s family and created a beautifully devised piece theatre that in moments is simply the performance of ritual dance or the donning of traditional costume and headdress.

There are moments of predictable culture clash – times when son Dimtri won’t put his phone down to listen to stories of his people’s history. But the idea that technology is merely a distraction to tradition is dramatically undermined by its use in the show – cameras used to film dioramas, to film dances, projectors used to retell ancient stories or project a vision of the night sky.

Jimi goes through a lengthy process of explaining his family tree early on in the show and promises there will be a test later. It’s a well-worn joke that actually works dramatically later on; we the audience have learned a little of his history and culture and the fact we can recite back some of the Wagadagam language late in the show is proof that a shared culture will never die.

This is a beautiful show that began at Queensland Theatre and has traveled to Darwin and Sydney and now is at the Melbourne Festival. I hope it continues to travel all over this country, because we need to hear Indigenous voices telling their history. And I hope it travels to Europe, because if stealing artifacts is part of their history, Jimi telling his story back to them should be part of it, too.

Watt by Samuel Beckett – adapted by Barry McGovern


Watt by Samuel Beckett
Adapted and performed 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 of Watt’s story, where he climbs out of poverty to make something of himself.

The stage is almost bare. A chair that is almost never used. A small hand trolley. Watt carries on luggage and takes off a bowler hat. Before a word is uttered, Tom Creed’s production feels Beckettian – revelling in a long silence before we know a thing about this lanky man and where he’s headed.

The Beckett Estate is very particular with how his stage plays are produced; they insist his stage directions are followed precisely. I wondered if adapting his prose allows for any chance to push boundaries, though the sparse action doesn’t call for anything more elaborate in set or costume.

Sinead McKenna’s lighting design is very effective, enhancing Watt’s journey – making us feel the coldness of the train platform or the cosiness of Mr Knott’s house without distracting from McGovern’s superb performance.

This show reminded me a lot of Eamon Flack’s production of The End, the Beckett short story that was performed by Robert Menzies. In both cases, I was captivated by early moments, felt a little lost in the middle, but was drawn back in as the shows ended.

I wondered if perhaps they might have been more effective as radio dramas and then remembered that the precise movements and subtle lighting state transitions and the bravura performances at the centre will be what I remember. This is theatre at its most minimal – where nothing seems to happen but a lot is said.

Monday, 1 October 2018

Witness Performance

The Harp in the South at Sydney Theatre Company

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 their gaze on themselves and asking us to actually listen to their experience. 

The details of the conversations might seem mundane but the accumulation of those experiences turns into something profound.

Friday, 28 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: The Mission by Tom Molyneux

The Mission by Tom Molyneux
Photo: Sarah Walker

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 support of Native Police – Aboriginal troopers under the command of a white police officer.

Around the same time, Budj Bim was renamed Mount Eccles after William Eeles; the original Indigenous name was displaced by the misspelled name of a war buddy of Major Thomas Mitchell.

The scene is set for Tom’s more recent ancestors to take their place in the story, the particular focus of which is Uncle Allan McDonald, who was born in the late 1800s and later fought in World War I.

The Mission explores Allan’s life in Western Victoria on the missions in and around Budj Bim and Warrnambool. And then we join him on the ship to Egypt where he will train along with other soldiers before fighting at Gallipoli and Beersheba, two of the most famous campaigns involving Australian troops during the first World War.

As a “half caste,” Allan is accepted into the military because he looks closer to white than black and has grown up around the “good influence” of white colonisers. His brother is deemed “not white enough” to enlist.

Tom’s performance is quite gentle in its approach to difficult history and incendiary topics, taking us along as a guide and, for most of the piece, giving a stellar performance as Allan McDonald. There’s a gentle burn of fury underneath; the way Allan is treated on his return is utterly heartbreaking and completely expected.

Director James Jackson gives Tom the space to move and play and explore this very personal story. John Collopy’s lighting design is subtle when it needs to be and striking in moments of surprise; Allan’s first view of Egypt is bright and overwhelming – for him and for the audience.

The script is strong; this land’s history is so integral to Indigenous culture and it’s vital to this piece. Tom builds a full picture of Budj Bim and the Christian missions and parts of Western Victoria I know so little about – and you can feel the distance from home when Alan travels to Egypt and the Middle East.

At the centre of the piece is a family story that is rich in culture and in place, but Tom admits has moments that wouldn’t be out of place on Neighbours. Allan lived a long life and saw his home and his country change a great deal. Early in his life, he was a young man fighting for his land overseas, continuing a tradition of his people fighting for that same land but losing it.

He may not have been respected when he returned from the war, but he lived long enough to see the day when Australia finally considered him a person – decades after he sacrificed so much for the colonisers of this land.

The Mission is a beautiful, touching and rich tribute to a man and his people and the land they fought and died for. A land his people keep fighting and dying for. Sovereignty was never ceded and Tom Molyneux’s new play and performance carries this truth with it. I hope it leads a long, strong life.

The Mission plays at Melbourne Fringe tonight and tomorrow night and will be part of a regional tour in 2019.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe - Eggsistentialism by Joanne Ryan

Joanne Ryan in Eggsistentialism
Photo by Ken Coleman

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 execution. It explores her relationship with her parents and with a relatively new boyfriend. It explores the role of men in the household, both traditionally and how things mostly haven’t changed. It’s deeply personal and aggressively political.

The history of Ireland’s laws relating to contraception and abortion is tied closely with the Catholic Church and on these issues it was a particularly regressive Western country even up until this year. Placing Joanne’s decision-making against this backdrop gives elevates the show, although the writing itself and her laid-back Irish demeanour can make you laugh and cry without the oppressive history that comes from the country where she was raised.

Eggsistentialism is a beautifully-formed autobiographical show that Joanne Ryan has given birth to. I’m glad she’s taken this baby of hers out into the world.

Monday, 24 September 2018

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 areas – certain phrases recur to the point of feeling repetitive. And while the connection between the patriarchy and Rosie’s anxieties seem clear, I would have liked that fleshed out a little more – especially in the moments when she projects her experience on the population at large.

If fifty percent of the audience will experience mental illness in their lifetime and two million Australian’s each year suffer some level of depression, Broke’s message of bringing things out into the light is essential and I look forward to seeing this show evolve to the next level.

All the pieces are there – hilarious, painful, feminist, confronting and comforting – Rosie and Rowena just need to find a way to construct this house a little better. But it's almost there.

Melbourne Fringe: HERE – Elbow Room

Emily & Angus are HERE at Melbourne Fringe

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 empathy gap and how an audience perceives a performer and how we perceive ourselves. It mines the history of THERE but also alludes to other shows Elbow Room have made, like Prehistoric and We Get It.

You can feel the history, even if you weren’t there. Angus knows. Sometimes Angus has watched from the dark and he knows what he’s been missing out on.

It’s hard to critique these performances; they resonate with such truth that it’s easy to believe these questions were wrestled with in the rehearsal room as much as they are on stage. Emily and Angus are Emily and Angus. They are in complete control, even as the machine groans away, ready to take another bite.

The original Elbow Room team, including director Marcel Dorney, have found their way back together. Their latest show is absurd and funny and moving and knows nostalgia is about pain as much as joy.

Mmaybe they aren’t playing the same music they once made, but the echoes of the past can be heard clearly and they’ve forged a new work that resonates with age, wisdom, experience and a deep love of theatre.

HERE runs until September 29th. Don’t miss it. It may be another decade before they do it again.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Sleepover Gurlz by Emma Smith & Vidya Rajan

Emma Smith & Vidya Rajan in Sleepover Gurlz

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 thrill of girls just wanting to have fun.

But little girls grow up and the seeds of their friendships and relationships are sewn at those earliest encounters. They keep having sleepover parties but there’s hierarchies built at six that might never change. It’s harder and harder for these girls to just have fun, especially when they hit puberty and they are worrying about looking the best and smelling the greatest.

And later, when these women’s sex lives begin, a sleepover becomes much more fraught – if he even stays at all.

For a show in a bedroom, with twelve audience members on chairs around the walls and the entire performance taking place on the bed, there was some impressive design choices made with lighting and sound (by Xanthea O’Connor) and video projection. These theatremakers didn’t slide by on a strange venue, they’ve developed a fascinating, complex theatrical work.

Sleepover Gurlz is funny on the surface but much more complicated underneath. This is a show about oppression and anxiety and women finding a way to function in a world that is not designed for them. It’s about retreat and safe spaces and joy and excitement.

In a world where the news and social media is a fuel for anxiety, this is a show about feeling tired and being tired.

And it’s incredible.


Thursday, 20 September 2018

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 self-deprecating about that. But as doubt creeps in, she’s equally vulnerable, on the edge of tears. And not even the tale of Bruce Samazan can leave us with the catharsis we desire.

Without a neat bow on top, the present that Untitled No. 7 gives the audience is that we can be happy, even if we’re not on the path to where we thought we would be.


Untitled No 7 finishes on Saturday.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Alone Outside by Liz Newell – Lab Kelpie

Sharon Davis as Daphne in Liz Newell's Alone Outside
Photo: Theresa Harrison

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 linoleum floors, but also feel like a box that Daphne is trapped in. The late confrontation between Daphne and her high school boyfriend Aidan is a rich mix of drama and hilarity.

Davis digs deeply in to the emotion of the piece. She’s as compelling playing Daphne’s wry sense of humour as she is with the character’s rawness and vulnerability later on.

Lab Kelpie has built a strong reputation for their solid productions of new Australian text-based theatre. Brooks’ production is strong, but I didn’t quite connect with the script.  Newell’s play leans a little heavily on touchstones we recognise without really uncovering a fresh take on the narrative of returning home.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

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 narrator to the side, illustrating the vignettes as they are told.

Occasionally one performer will interrupt another with a random question or interrogate them fully with a list of either/or suppositions supplied by the audience.

Lovely Mess reminds us of the superficial and the profound that happens to us in our youth, often at the same time and it’s far more lovely than it is a mess.

Melbourne Fringe: There by Elbow Room

Emily Tomlins & Angus Grant in There
as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival

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 the rest of their bodies and their voices and each other. There’s a real frisson of energy and theatrical tension as the focus of the piece expands, gathering the full range of theatrical expression afforded by an indie theatre budget in the Loft at the Lithuanian Club.

Once dialogue is discovered the physical theatre piece evolves into audience interaction and something that evokes improvisation but is very cleverly scripted by another Elbow Room co-founder, Marcel Dorney. Now the performers are at odds; the typical generosity of an improvisors “Yes, and?” is weaponised. Is there a table there or not? Where’s the window? Has your brother even left?

There is a deconstruction of theatremaking that is genuinely funny and a celebration of what intimate, small scale theatre can be.


Thursday, 30 August 2018

REVIEW: Blasted by Sarah Kane – Malthouse Theatre

Fayssal Bazzi in Sarah Kane's Blasted
Photo: Pia Johnson
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 the show being torn apart at the end of scene two: a soldier arrives and Ian and Cate find themselves in a war zone.

Kane’s work is rarely performed because it is brutal and uncompromising. It’s easy to see how this play and Kane’s brief career (she wrote Blasted at 25 and died at 28) influenced so much that came later.

I had read the script and knew what to expect. This one room in Leeds becomes a commentary on war and what society’s expectations of men can lead to. And what it leads to is all based in fact, but that doesn’t make it easier to watch. And no wonder the warnings from the theatre are so comprehensive:

This show contains
EXTREME VIOLENCE, SEXUAL VIOLENCE, COARSE LANGUAGE, NUDITY, SMOKE AND HAZE, LOUD AND DYNAMIC SOUND, HERBAL CIGARETTES
AND CONTENT SOME AUDIENCES MAY FIND CONFRONTING

Not surprisingly, this show and the content warnings reminded me of another play that changed theatre, at least in Melbourne – The Hayloft Project’s Thyestes. (Read my review of the original production from 2010.)

Director Anne-Louise Sarks made her name as part of The Hayloft Project in Melbourne before moving to Sydney to work at Belvoir. I’m not sure how much involvement she had in Thyestes, but it feels right that one of the creative minds from Hayloft be the guiding force behind this production of Blasted.

Given the subject matter, Anne-Louise’s steady-hand ensures the play doesn’t feel at all exploitative. That’s an incredible achievement in a story that encompasses rape, war crimes, torture and cannibalism.

Marg Horwell’s set design and Paul Jackson’s lighting work together to underline the dread of the piece and keep the audience on edge, not knowing what will await us after each blackout.

The actors – David Woods, Eloise Mignon, Fayssal Bazzi – are put through the wringer with this one. They earned the applause that came at the end, though they looked ready to collapse from exhaustion as they took their bows.

In some strange ways, Blasted is absolutely a product of its time, but the ripple effects this show has created in the quarter-century since its debut are still being felt. Publicity would have you believe that Kane’s first play changed the world, but if that feels like a stretch, it definitely changed theatre in London and, by extension, given Thyestes felt like its progeny, in Melbourne, too.

Blasted is a searing work, hard to watch and impossible to look away from. If the play itself is about transactions and expectations between characters, this production is about the transaction and expectation between the audience and Kane’s work. Even if you know what to expect, you may not know what you’ll be left with. Somewhere deep in the devastation, there is hope.


David Woods & Eloise Mignon in Sarah Kane's Blasted
Photo: Pia Johnson