Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival – Opening Night Gala

Dolly Diamond, artistic director and host of
the Melbourne Cabaret Festival Gala
Photo: Sanjeev Singh

Now in its ninth year, the Melbourne Cabaret Festival opened last night in spectacular fashion at Chapel Off Chapel. Hosted by performer and artistic director Dolly Diamond, the opening night Gala saw the Chapel glitzed- and glammed-up for a sample of what is to come over the next two weeks.

The gala showcased a variety of cabaret acts that form part of the program. Where else would you see selections from a show by an ex-Sale of the Century hostess and another show about how to hydrate when you have dysentery? It was that kind of wild and crazy night.

Alyce Platt, star of Someone's Daughter
Alyce Platt gave a taste of her show, Someone’s Daughter, a mix of pop songs, original music and stories from the high life of being a TV celebrity in the madness of the 1980s. Platt has a powerful voice and doesn’t seem to have aged a day since she left the gift shop in 1991.

Max Riebl is a countertenor with expert vocal control, who is as comfortable with the arias of Handel, as he is with an operatic cover of Radiohead’s Karma Police.

From He’s Every Woman, friends Justin Clausen and Jamie Burgess, embrace the big- voiced, big-haired divas of recent history. Clausen’s rendition of “River Deep, Mountain High” was electric.

Perth duo Erin Hutchinson and Tyler Jacob Jones welcomed us to a world of stories about what people will do to survive in What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger. This pair showcased some amazing original songs with titles like “Army of Cats” and “Things That People Do To Survive,” which was delightfully subversive. Their show took some awards at Perth Fringe and got good notices at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
Justin Clausen, He's Every Woman

Two other shows previewed at the Gala were odes to the songs of Brian Wilson (God Only Knows) and those of Nancy Sinatra (You Only Live Twice). Danielle O’Malley has a suitably powerful voice to recreate a live TV special by Sinatra and her renditions of “Bang Bang” and “These Boots Are Made For Walking” were an awesome way to bring the Gala to a close.

The Festival includes a return season of Comma Sutra (a cabaret about punctuation), shows dedicated to Julie Andrews and Peter Allen, and a show that intrigues me in particular, Fire Walk With Us: The Music of Twin Peaks.

The Festival runs at Chapel Off Chapel until July 1st. Check out the guide and schedule two or three shows in a night. If the Gala is anything to go by, this year will be the Festival’s best one yet.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

Holy Cow! by the Bloomsday in Melbourne committee – Fortyfive Downstairs



June 16th is Bloomsday, named after Leopold Bloom, the central character of James Joyce’s novel, Ulysses. Bloomsday celebrates Joyce’s life and groups all over the world come together on the date the novel is set to honour the man and his magnum opus.

Bloomsday in Melbourne has been convened annually since 1994 and every year it constitutes a seminar, a lunch and a theatrical presentation. In previous years, the original plays designed by local Joyceans, have been performed at Trades Hall, the State Library and – as with this year – at Fortyfive Downstairs.

This year’s play, Holy Cow! is based on the fourteenth chapter or episode of Ulysses, “Oxen of the Sun”. In the novel, Bloom is visiting Mina Purefoy in hospital where she is about to give birth. While he waits, Bloom reflects on the birth of his children. He meets a man named Stephen who has been out drinking with his medical student friends and they are more interested in talking of sex and fertility and abortion than reflecting on the miracle of childbirth.

The shape and content of the chapter spill out onto the stage under the direction of Jennifer Sarah Dean, who keeps the action moving joyously throughout. Joyce’s notoriously difficult book is particularly dense in this chapter, where the writer attempts to discuss the entire history of English literature. This production takes on the huge task of translating this concept to the stage and it succeeds in a wild, gloriously messy way.

Bloom and Stephen and Mina are all here, but the ensemble takes on multiple roles and costumes to pay homage to the great writers of British history – jumping from Thomas Malory to John Bunyon to Daniel Defoe to Charles Dickens and on and on and on and on and on and on…

The central story of Mina giving birth is protracted, while the men wait and tell stories. In this play, they are dictated to by the voice of James Joyce (played by Eugene O’Rourke OAM). As he announces another writer, costumes are pulled from large metal trunks, props are dragged on and off the stage, chairs are sat upon or upended and many, many drinks are consumed.

The ensemble cast each get their moments to shine in amongst the mayhem, with each scene or sketch building upon the last to create a whirlwind of drama, passion and comedy. Not every moment works but the sheer force of commitment in the production builds to a satisfying conclusion.

The two narrators, May Jasper and Paul Robertson, guide the audience into the world and do some hand-holding along the way. Dressed as a nun and a priest, their antics set the comic tone of the piece early on and continue to buoy the production – particularly as the energy flags a little around the halfway point of the show.

Bridget Sweeney plays an array of supporting characters throughout the show, properly stealing focus each time she comes on stage as a nurse or landlord or – of all people – Donald J. Trump.

The promotional material promises a show where James Joyce slaughters the sacred cows of English literature. In a world where parody and satire have taken a beating, this can’t feel as transgressive as it might have when the novel was first published in 1922. But as an adaptation of this one particular chapter, it brings the work to a wider audience with enough in-jokes for the Joyceans in the audience to be truly delighted.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

“Spies in our own lives”: THE AMERICANS ends as Russian tragedy

Matthew Rhys & Keri Russell
as Philip & Elizabeth Jennings, The Americans


SPOILERS for the final episode of The Americans

After six seasons, the Cold War spy drama The Americans finished its run in May. Set in the 1980s, the show is about a married pair of Russian deep-cover agents living in America. It found a way to delicately balance thrilling stories of espionage with captivating meditations on marriage and raising teenage children.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (played by real-life couple Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige and Henry, live in the suburbs of Washington D.C. In the first episode, Stan Beeman, an FBI counterintelligence agent, moves in next door. How well does anyone know their neighbours?

The premise is simple but the series got increasingly complex over the years, built on tensions both political and personal. As with any marriage, Philip and Elizabeth have their ups-and-downs at home and on the job. Living multiple lives takes its toll on a person and as the 80s wore on, it became harder for the couple to keep their secret or agree on the ongoing strategies for helping their homeland.

In a recent interview on the Scriptnotes podcast, which focuses on screenwriting, one of the producers of The Americans – Stephen Schiff – said of the show: “All of us are spies in our own lives.” For the writers, that was the key theme that informed the ongoing writing of the series.

The show is as much about Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage as it is about spycraft and espionage, but the series is concerned with the verisimilitude of both. The writers are as focused on the emotional character arcs as they are with recreating 80s technology or Styrofoam containers from McDonalds.

“Spies in our own lives” speaks to the idea that we often conceal things we don’t want other people to know about us, and the idea we might dig around trying to uncover truths about other people. Schiff goes on to say – "Another thing about a spy is that a spy has a cover. And maybe many covers as our spies do. And you're presenting that cover to the world... And I think something that we really try to feel in our show is what's it like to be inside the cover."

Week to week on the series, Philip and Elizabeth have goals to achieve, secrets to uncover and people to watch. But an equal part of their job is to wear many disguises, become other people and keep their dominant pseudonyms as parents and travel agents as unassuming as possible. The stress of the job and their lies wear on each other and their marriage and by the end of season three, it begins to impact their daughter Paige, as well.

Other, lesser shows might have had FBI neighbour Stan closer to the truth about Philip and Elizabeth earlier on. They might have upped the stakes prematurely, putting Paige and Henry in danger more often. For a show that had visceral moments of shock and horror (a body disposal in early season three was particularly difficult to watch and listen to), it was admirably restrained for much of its run. Its fifth season was criticised for being too slow, but in hindsight it was taking its time setting up its sixth and final season.



Creators Joel Fields & Joe Weisberg have talked about having an ending in mind since the end of season two. After the fourth season, the show was given two more years to plan and plot its finale. In a series focused on Russian spies pretending to be Americans, who have a kill or be-killed attitude, it was hard to see what a satisfying resolution might be.

From the recent precedents of shows focused on anti-heroes that were outright villains, do you kill your protagonist (Breaking Bad), let him escape (Dexter) or leave the resolution ambiguous (The Sopranos)? Fittingly, The Americans final season took some inspiration from Russian theatre and literature – twisting one and digging deep into the other.

“Chekhov’s gun” is a dramatic principle recorded by Russian playwright Anton Chekhov:

"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep."

For much of the final season, Philip is out of the spy game, trying to make a legitimate go of his travel agency. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is effectively doing the work of both of them, taking bigger risks, striking out more often and getting worn down by exhaustion and conflicts within the KGB.

In the first episode of year six, Elizabeth is given a cyanide capsule hidden in a necklace she is to wear. The missions she is sent on become increasingly dangerous and the pill hangs around her neck as a portent of doom.

It’s as clear a case of Chekhov’s gun as you can get; it’s placed on the wall in episode one and we’re waiting for it to go off all year.

Surprisingly, as Philip and Elizabeth plan to flee the country in the final episode, the couple cast off the fake passports and rings of their American life – and Elizabeth drops the capsule and the necklace into a hole in the ground. The gun never goes off.

But it’s end game now. The pair have decided to leave Henry behind, hoping he is able to remain safely in America, and flee to Russia with Paige. Stan has discovered their true identities, but he’s a broken man and can’t bring himself to shoot them in cold blood. Besides, Philip drops one more bombshell before he leaves, Stan’s girlfriend might be a Russian agent, too.

There’s a saying I’ve heard, related to theatre, but could equally apply to Russian literature: in Shakespearean tragedies, everyone dies; in Russian tragedies, everyone lives.

The plays of Anton Chekhov are often about Russian upper-classes struggling with their sense of a changing world. They’re bleak in the way the final scenes of The Americans are – a feeling of desolation and isolation hang over the character’s lives. And while Chekhovian characters are worlds away from Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the tragedy is they must live with themselves and the consequences of their actions.

Only a few episodes before the finale, I pictured the ending of the series much differently. These characters have committed murder in the name of their country and while Philip had tried to extricate himself from that life, Elizabeth was plunging deeper and deeper inside. For her, any disloyalty against the KGB was traitorous; there was no sense she would want to embrace an American lifestyle.

I had imagined a showdown between the couple. I had imagined a gunfight with Stan. And while the show often undercut my expectations, after six years of build-up, it wouldn’t have surprised me for this show to end in a cathartic bloodbath.

But as with the tragedies of Chekhov, the damnation for Philip and Elizabeth is they flee to Russia and must live – their children left behind in America.

In a tense scene late in the episode called “START” (named after the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), the Jennings are subjected to passport checks on a train crossing the Canadian border. Philip and Elizabeth aren’t discovered, but as the strains of U2’s “With or Without You” rise, Paige is seen alone on the platform – having chosen to leave the train, perhaps hoping to reconnect with her brother. It’s a devastating moment for both her parents and Elizabeth’s façade cracks. Have we ever seen tears in her eyes before?

The long final sequence has the couple travelling through frozen wastelands of Eastern Europe, eventually being met by a KGB agent who is on their side, transporting them back to Moscow. The rock music of the west is left behind and the sounds of mournful string instruments score their return to a place that they fought for over many years as The Americans.

Philip and Elizabeth are no longer deep-cover agents in America but they will spend the rest of their lives digging for clues in their own pasts, hoping they raised their kids right, forever spies in their own lives.

A neat bit of foreshadowing from the final season of The Americans

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Fury by Johanna Murray-Smith - Red Stitch

Danielle Carter & Sean Rees-Wemyss in Fury
Photo: Teresa Noble Photography


In American Song, staged by Red Stitch in 2017, Johanna Murray-Smith explored gun violence in America and a father trying to come to terms with the actions of his son. It was a clear, probing insight into tragedy, guilt and the aftermath of both.

Murray-Smith’s Fury covers similar territory in a milieu the writer is more familiar with – the middle-class Australian suburban home. And it feels like the script is treading water.

Patrick and Alice’s son, Joe, has been caught defacing a mosque. What have they done to let Joe think this is acceptable? Or, more tellingly, what have they done to deserve this?

Their first instinct, which seems natural, is to blame Ethan, the other boy that was with Joe on the night of the incident. Ethan is from a working class family and is only at private school on a scholarship. Ethan’s parents, Annie and Warren, are rough around the edges; well, to be clear, they’re racists and it’s easy to see where their kid might have picked up some bad behaviour.

Joe, though, does himself no favours, ranting like a right-wing shock jock about Muslims and jihad. And soon it becomes clear that if Ethan is not to blame; maybe Patrick and Alice should turn the spotlight on themselves.

Fury takes on a lot of interesting ideas without really exploring them in much depth. What is the role of in the internet in all of this? How does the media feed into this paranoia? What more could the parents have done in this situation?

Much of the drama revolves around Patrick and Alice’s white liberal guilt, bringing up long-simmering tensions about their marriage and who sacrificed the most for each other’s careers. To take a dramatic situation like a hate crime and turn it into a kitchen sink melodrama is what Murray-Smith is known for.

Directors Brett Cousins and Ella Caldwell seem more interested in giving their actors free reign rather than interrogating the text. The play itself seems dated; arguments like this feel like they might have been cutting edge a decade or more ago. This is not to say the play is not relevant, but is it damning white liberal guilt or is it praising it?

Designer Chloe Greaves gives us an awkward revolving curtain around naturalistic set pieces; each scene change is a mix of blackout and the curtain dragged by a stagehand.

Sean Rees-Wemyss as Joe is wonderful as a privileged teenage boy, a character who unfortunately only has two dimensions. His relationship with his teacher (played by Dushan Philips) is spiky and their dynamic is the richest on stage; you never know quite where things will end up in their scenes.

Danielle Carter’s Alice has an early scene in the show where she describes a woman’s righteous fury in a patriarchal world and we get little further insight into this idea. Carter’s performance is mostly played at various levels of shouting, which Joe Petruzzi’s Patrick tries to be the calm rational one.

There’s another moment near the start of Fury where Alice physically lashes out at Joe. It upends the repetitious staccato dialogue of the show to that point and suggested things might spiral away from the strictly cerebral text it had been. But no such luck.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

My Sister Feather by Olivia Satchell – La Mama Theatre

Belinda McClory & Emily Tomlins
in My Sister Feather at La Mama
Photo: Sarah Walker

A vending machine stands sentinel in the prison yard. It says it’s out of order, but Egg explains to her sister Tilly the sign is there so they don’t have to refill it. It looks broken but it still works.

Tilly is visiting Egg for the first time in many years, so long estranged that Egg doesn’t even know their mother has died. Their meeting is tense to begin with; Tilly speaking for Egg as she stands silently regarding this woman who has been gone from her life for so long.

Tilly comes bearing two letters that their late mother has written to them. The only person who has read the letters is the prison guard who checked them on Tilly’s way in. Neither sister is in a hurry to read them, both certain they know what she has said and scared they didn’t really know their mother at all.

Olivia Satchell’s play My Sister Feather is a deeply searching two-hander that explores the dark recesses of memory and the fraught nature of fractured familial relationship. Emily Tomlins and Belinda McClory are brilliant as Egg and Tilly, both as reserved adults and uninhibited children. One minute they regard each other with years of suspicion between them and the next they are sitting on a table pretending to be “The Owl and the Pussycat,” singing the poem together.

My Sister Feather by Olivia Satchell
Photo: Sarah Walker
The games they played and lollies they ate and books they read were evocative of a childhood I recognised, making the broken adult relationship in the cold, sterile prison heartrending.

James Lew’s set is appropriately minimalist, but with deft lighting changes by Jason Crick, the young sisters can make whole new worlds from a table, chairs and a rubbish bin. Tom Backhaus’ sound design is rich and nourishing in moments of reflection and harsh and alarming in the present day.

Satchell is both writer and director and her work in both roles is impressive; the writing is sharp and clear and her directorial instincts allow the work to sing.

The vending machine stands sentinel. A camera watches the two sisters. The audience stares at them from both sides. The relationship of Tilly and Egg looks broken but it still works.


La Mama is seeking support on two fronts at the moment – fundraising for accessibility and to help stage upcoming works while they wait for the Faraday theatre to be rebuilt.

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Going Down by Michele Lee – Malthouse/Sydney Theatre Company

The cast of Going Down
Photo by Brett Boardman


This is the story of a writer, a woman, who has writer’s block and feels under pressure to write the next thing. She creates situations in her life to write about and ends up developing the show we’re watching.

The main character is a fictionalised version of the playwright and the play contains a crazy sex scene, fantasy sequences where the writer loses her mind and an important cameo by a member of the large cat family.

If you think all of these elements would add up to create a brilliant show, you’d be right. Except that brilliant show isn’t Michele Lee’s Going Down, it’s Lally Katz’s Atlantis.

The element that is unique to Lee’s show is her background and the key struggle she has is with the expectation that she must delve into her heritage to write her next work or any work at all.

Going Down is a reaction to Michele Lee’s experience with her book, Banana Girl, which received criticism from inside and outside the local Hmong community for not representing her “ethnic experience”. That is great central premise that threads through the show but is mostly lost in sea of heavy-handed, obvious jokes.

The play is a satire on Melbourne hipsters and coffee culture and art wankers and ethnic stereotypes and gender stereotypes and queer stereotypes and the self-indulgent struggle of writers’ block and the expectation that writers should explicitly write what they know.

All those subjects are ripe to be made fun of, but very little of it works very well.

“I’m never going north of Bell Street again,” the main character complains after a terrible time in country Victoria. This feels interesting but it’s not developed. (She talks of being "So-Bey" or South of Bell, which was my favourite joke in the show.)

“I’m come south of the Yarra!” the main character shouts, in the laziest Melbourne joke imaginable.

The play relies so much on references for the audience to “get” that it plays like an episode of Family Guy, a show that is more concerned with being a delivery system for pop culture parody than it is with telling a story. Much of the satire in Lee’s play is purely surface; the names of at least a dozen Melbourne suburbs are recited throughout and every time the Wheeler Centre is mentioned, the laughs got more and more muted.

I love writing that mines specificity of place to good effect. Christos Tsiolkas’ work gets a shout-out because his work is Melbourne-based and very aware of his cultural background, but to what effect? Is Lee criticising him? Or is it just another reference for people who go to book events at the Wheeler Centre to “get”?

Admittedly, even as I resisted the tick-box style of expected local jokes, I couldn’t help but chuckle when the main character shouts at her socially-conscious African-Australian friend “You grew up in Glen Waverley!” It’s funny because I grew up there, too.

The central conceit of a writer who resists embracing cultural touchstones out of fear she’ll stereotype herself is a fascinating one. Putting her up against a rival author who puts her ethnicity front-and-centre should make for a much more challenging work. And challenging can be funny, too.

Unfortunately, Leticia Caceres’ production (originally staged at the Sydney Theatre Company) plays more like a sketch comedy program that hits every joke too many times with performances that redefine over-the-top. Most troubling is Catherine Davies’ one-note central performance as Natalie, the Michele Lee stand-in. The rest of the cast fair better, notably Jenny Wu and Paul Blenheim, as a selection of different characters in Natalie’s life. Wu, in particular, carries much of the weight of the show as Natalie’s rival and later as her mother.

If I hadn’t seen Atlantis, maybe Going Down would have seemed fresher. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the work of a new writer to one of Australia’s great playwrights, but where Katz’s play made smart, bold choices, Going Down plays it safe. It makes fun of soft targets and does not dig into the dense subject matter that the main character – and the writer - is trying to avoid.

And, yes, even if that is part of the point, it fell dramatically and comedically flat for me.

Friday, 18 May 2018

The Bleeding Tree by Angus Cerini - Arts Centre Melbourne

The cast of The Bleeding Tree
Photo by Elesa Kurtz

A steep patterned uneven floor descends and ascends into the black void. No one is prepared for the deafening crack of a rifle shot that echoes through the farmhouse. A mother and her two daughters appear from the darkness; husband and father lying dead at their feet. A bullet through the neck.

Our three narrators loom above us, angry and defiant, shouting at the corpse of the man who abused them. They are glad to be free of him. But this story doesn’t feel triumphant; it’s steeped in fear and dread and a town closing in around them.

Mother and daughters must work together to get rid of the body and protect each other when other townsfolk show up, worried about the kind of man we so often hear described in the media as a “good bloke”. This small town feels complicit in the cycle of abuse that this gunshot has fixed for now.

Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree is darkly poetic in its language, crafting a fable of sorts. Its reaction and reflection on domestic abuse is visceral without feeling exploitative. The violence is off-stage and alluded to. This story is about how these women cope in the aftermath and we are witnesses to their stories and experiences; we are listening when, in reality, so many victims of domestic violence aren’t listened to.

The show, first produced at Griffin Theatre in Sydney, is intense from gunshot to fade out and I can only imagine how that would have been magnified in its original, intimate space.

Lee Lewis’ direction is sharp and clear and simple. The sloping stage (design by Renee Mulder) is effective in keeping the characters and the audience teetering on the edge; almost but not quite off-balance. The lighting design by Verity Hampton is precise; the characters are held in an oppressive cocoon of blackness and we are left to imagine the world pressing in around them.

Cerini’s text is lyrical and compelling and refuses to hold your hand; neither for the audience’s benefit or the actors themselves. The cast, led by Paula Arundell, is extraordinary. Arundell’s performance is a mix of coarse defiance as mother and masculine bravado as the men who come to the farm, looking for her husband – last seen stumbling out of the local pub.

Sophie Ross and Brenna Harding (new to this remount of the production) are incredibly good as the daughters, swinging wildly between being glad their father is dead, and worried for their wondering how they are going to get rid of the body.

There are moments of grotesque humour scattered throughout this lean, piercing seventy-five-minute play, allowing some relief to an audience that might have been looking for a way out of the story they were watching. I laughed less than most, overwhelmed by these women’s pain, emotionally gutted by their circumstance and enraptured by a show that edged close to perfection.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

BLISS by Tom Wright, based on the novel by Peter Carey - Malthouse

Toby Truslove & Anna Sampson in Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson
Harry Joy is dead but not for long. He’s quickly revived into a new life, one that resembles Hell or an advertising company pitch meeting. Or maybe it was like that all along?

Based on Peter Carey’s debut novel from 1981, playwright Tom Wright and director Matthew Lutton have teamed up again – after Picnic at Hanging Rock – to adapt a classic Australian book to the Malthouse stage.

But where Picnic was sleek, sharp and focused, Bliss is leaden and long.

The early introductory scenes felt like Wright and Lutton were aiming for a poetic companion piece to their Gothic melodrama, with interlocking monologues picking apart the kind of Australia that is only reminisced about. Bliss is set in the 1980s, in the suburbs of Sydney. The costumes allude to the decade without being a parody of it. The local references evoke the era.

As Harry stumbles through this newly recognised Hellish existence, we’re treated to some wryly amusing meta-theatrical nonsense; he thinks his family are actors and he’s trapped on a revolving set. But embracing a Brechtian approach to Harry’s new life doesn’t gain the production much after a while. The trouble with Harry is – he and his family are hard to like. And their stories are mostly flat.

Which is a pity, because Lutton has assembled an exceptional cast to bring the Joy family and others to life. Toby Truslove brings a kind of dignity to Harry that is at odds with his wife Bettina’s wish that he had stayed dead. Amber McMahon is wild as Harry’s wife, injecting much energy each time she steals the spotlight.

Wright’s approach to the material seems to regard the original text with such reverence, for much of the three-hour running time it felt like the actors were reading the book to me, suggesting that I should have just read it.

There are moments of satire in this show but they are not sustained or built upon. I worried for Harry’s well-being for a while and then I stopped. I wanted something more for his family and then I found it difficult to care.

Late in the play, I was wondering how the rest of the audience was doing. I was concerned for them. I looked around, thinking about that regular criticism of critics – you hated it, but what did the rest of the audience think? I didn’t do a poll, but I did note that several people didn't return after interval and that for a supposed comedy, there was only a scattering of laughs the whole night.

I got some food stuck in my throat at dinner before I saw Bliss. Maybe I died and woke up, much like Harry Joy, in Hell. The only way for him to resolve his dilemma was to die again. At least I got to get up and leave the theatre.



The cast of Bliss
Photo: Pia Johnson

Monday, 23 April 2018

Right Now by Catherine-Anne Toupin - Red Stitch

The cast of Right Now
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson
Alice and Ben are settling into their new apartment when their neighbours, the Gauches, invite themselves over to see what the couple have done with the place.

Juliet, Gilles and son Francois live directly across the hallway in an apartment that is the same, but the other way around. If Alice and Ben turn left, the Gauches must turn right.

Ben is a doctor who works long hours and Alice spends a lot of time at home, alone. And when she’s alone, she hears things. A cry in the dark that begins to haunt her even when other people are around.

Catherine-Anne Toupin’s Right Now is a domestic psychological thriller that mines its tension for dramatic and comedic affect.

When the Gauches arrive as a family, they are framed in the doorway like the perfect Gothic portrait of a haunted family. But once they cross the threshold, they are harder to pin down.

Francois enters with a wide toothy grin – both goofy and deeply unsettling. His relationship with his parents is complicated; his brother died when he was very young, and he’s uncomfortably close with Juliet and Gilles, though he’s sure he’s still not the favourite.

Gilles turns out to be an idol of Ben’s in the medical field. Juliet tells Alice she reminds her a lot of herself. The neighbours are like a fun-house mirror of Alice and Ben; a mirror on the wall of a haunted house.

Alice and Ben are still settling into their new apartment, but they are haunted by something in the past. This ideal place they have made for themselves, comfortable and perfectly appointed, will not let them forget where they have come from and the pain of their past is beginning to infect their waking lives.

The play itself is slippery; it gives you signposts but then turns them around. You may twig to what is happening to Alice early on, but then Toupin’s work twists into more complicated shapes. And the characters shift and change before our very eyes.

Katy Maudlin’s production ratchets up the tension with each glance and maniacal laugh. Daniel Nixon’s sound design gets under your skin and Richard Vabre’s lighting illuminates the characters and their shadows in uncomfortable ways.

The acting ensemble is uniformly excellent. Christina O’Neill’s Alice is opaque, but this makes her utterly compelling. What is going on inside her mind? Is what is going on inside her mind playing out in front of us?

Mark Wilson’s Francois is superb for the way he evolves throughout the play. As his character slowly encroaches on Alice’s life, he turns from comic relief into something much more disturbing and finally transforms into a much more complicated figure.

Dushan Phillips is compelling as Ben, who is pushed to extremes by his and Alice’s trauma and by the many ways he cannot say no to the far-too-friendly neighbours.

Rounding out the cast is Olga Makeeva and Joe Petruzzi as Juliet and Gilles, whose relationship at times feels like Morticia and Gomez Addams and at moments like they live in the same apartment building as Rosemary’s Baby.

Twenty-four hours after Right Now, I’m still thinking about what happened and what didn’t happen and which of those things matter the most. It’s the shadows of what’s not there that leave the deepest impression.

Tense and twisted drama that you’ll wrestle with for a long time after.

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Abigail's Party by Mike Leigh - Melbourne Theatre Company

Benjamin Rigby & Pip Edwards in Abigail's Party
Photo: Jeff Busby

The middle-class dinner party that descends into chaos is a pretty classic theatrical trope and a mainstay of the Melbourne Theatre Company mainstage. Gather five people in a room, give them alcohol and some conflict and the drama writes itself. Most of the time, the troubles of wealthy inner-suburban types are typical First World Problems and often boil down to “we’re doing well, but we’re just not satisfied with our lives”.

Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party is basically the same set-up but written in 1970s Britain, it’s about the aspirational newly middle-class – people who want what their neighbours have. People who are doing the done thing: marriage, kids, buying a house. But they’re not sure they belong and are desperately trying to fit in.

Leigh’s play is a bleak social satire but the tone of MTC’s production, directed by Stephen Nicolazzo (of Little Ones theatre company), is one of camp and farce. This is a world and decades away from the original play and the filmed BBC drama that starred Alison Steadman.

The audience is struck by a bold, uncompromising set on the Southbank Theatre stage. Looking something like a 70s game show, these are portals into another world. Small off-set windows into a bedroom, the bathroom and the garage frame the central space that is wall-to-wall shagpile and drapes. Everything is blindingly Fanta orange, where the dinner party guests are trapped for most of the show’s running time.

And trapped is the key to their predicament. Hostess Beverly (Pip Edwards) wants everyone to have a good time, to the point where she is desperate to control everything. Husband Lawrence (Daniel Fredriksen) wants to prove he can fit into this new neighbourhood, by quoting from literature and refusing to play Demis Roussos too loud.

Angela and Tony’s relationship seems even more fraught. They are brand new to the estate, having moved into a house from the furnished apartment where they began their marriage. Angela is a nurse and Tony is a computer programmer, but we get the sense their home life is unpleasant.

Benjamin Rigby does a stunning job of playing the monosyllabic Tony, who cuts a fine figure in a bright white suit, taking up as much space as he can, manspreading at every opportunity. In a sea of characters in extremis, Tony is the most unpredictable – like he might erupt into a violent rage at any moment. And what did happen when he and Lawrence looked in on Abigail’s Party?

Yes, the titular party isn’t even the focus of the play. Angela is the teenage daughter of Susan, a single-mother who gets along fine with her ex-husband. She’s at Beverly’s dinner party to give her daughter a night to have fun. It’s the rest of the adults at the dinner party who are worried about what’s happening down the street.

Katharine Tonkin’s Susan is nervous and quiet and uncomfortable in this atmosphere. You feel for her every time she’s offered another cheese-and-pineapple canape. And it’s Tonkin’s descent into the madness of the other characters that makes a real impression; from not drinking too much on an empty stomach, to spilling her drinks with wild abandon like everyone else.

Inside this heightened experience, the actors and Nicolazzo do find the humanity within these characters, though. That’s a recurring motif in Nicolazzo’s work with Little Ones; inside the camp and the queer, there are people hurting by the roles society expects them to play.

There’s a moment in this production where everything seems to slow down, into a dreamlike state, and we get to focus on a long-held gaze and a look of disappointment and another of despair. The ridiculous, for a moment, gives way to the sublime.

This is the kind of experiment I hope MTC tries more often; take a classic work and let an indie theatremaker turn it on its head. There’s nothing I dread more than seeing a dinner party drama at the Melbourne Theatre Company, so it’s much more thrilling to see this bleak classic turned upside-down and pushed outside its and the audience’s comfort zone.

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