Thursday, 19 July 2018

Melancholia – Adapted to the Stage by Declan Greene, Malthouse Theatre

Eryn Jean Norvill on Marg Horwell's set, lit by Paul Jackson,
Melancholia at the Malthouse
Photo: Pia Johnson

Confetti, or maybe ash, falls from the sky. Justine, in a wedding dress, the trim of her skirts stained with mud, trudges out into the soft deluge. This is meant to be a day of celebration, but she can’t quite bring herself to be happy.

“You had one job,” her brother-in-law yells at her later, after an uncomfortable speech at the reception, where he reminds her of things she didn’t get done before she left work two weeks ago.

He’s talking about her happiness and the tagline for the campaign she was working on. Justine has failed at delivering both. It’s hard enough that her work life and her family life are intertwined. She is also suffering from depression. And the planet Melancholia is on a collision course with earth.

Based on the film of the same name, written and directed by Lars Von Trier, playwright Declan Greene and director Matthew Lutton have translated this epic story to the stage in a confronting and striking way. Their previous collaborations, Pompeii L.A. and I Am A Miracle, took the mundane and placed those stories into an epic tableau.

Melancholia feels like a companion piece to those earlier works; frail humans elevated to the sublime. But much like the flawed characters, the production is not flawless, it has faults or maybe just fault lines.

Before an actor steps foot onstage, Marg Horwell’s exquisite design tells us this is the story of the upper classes, a wedding inside a grand home, decorated with floral carpeting and a chandelier. The figure of Justine then appears, the first glimpse of Eryn Jean Norvill’s complicated, unforgettable performance.


Eryn Jean Norvill as Justine, Melancholia
Photo: Pia Johnson
Justine has moments where she is fully in control of her life and we see this most clearly in the lyrical, poetic monologues that Declan has crafted. We are captivated by this perfectly-coiffed, grandly-styled bride who holds our unwavering attention for many long minutes during the first act. She may not be wholly thrilled by the events of her wedding day, but she can see the beauty of the world and the darkness that is on its way.

Her family is there, of course, but not exactly to support her. Her mother doesn’t want to make a speech but then she drunkenly stumbles through one, in a scene-stealing performance by Maude Davey. Her brother-in-law wants to talk about work. Her sister, Claire, tries to wrangle everything so the day goes off without a hitch; she’s the control-freak of the family but maybe this is to mask a hidden pain, too.

The play, much like the film (which I haven’t seen), is divided into two acts. If Justine has any semblance of control in act one, she loses it to an extended episode of depression in act two. This troubled articulate woman fades into a figure who needs help to walk and to sit and Norvill’s abilities are even more impressive in the second half than the first. She has such a command of the language and of her body that each articulation, each twitch and movement, tells a deeper story. It’s a performance that will stay with me.

The second half of the production drags just a little, even as the story heads toward cataclysm. Brother-in-law John mostly attends to his and Claire’s child, after making such a strong impression in the first half. Steve Mouzakis plays him as mercurial; one minute he seems to be joking, and the next he’s going for the jugular. The mother character hangs around to little purpose later on.

The relationship between Justine and Claire is central, though, and fascinating. Norvill may be allowed to command the stage more often, but Leanna Walsman proves her match when they go one-on-one, dealing with their fractured family and the end of the world.

Horwell’s set goes through simple, subtle changes, while Paul Jackson’s lighting does a lot of the heavy lifting as moods and planetary alignments shift and change. There was a moment late in the show where subtle alterations in set and lighting states made it feel like things were undulating in front of me, as if parts of the theatre itself had become unstuck, unstable. It was deeply unsettling.

Melancholia is another arresting collaboration by Declan and Matthew, where beauty and darkness collide and both the epic and intimate can be mistaken for one another.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The Antipodes by Annie Baker – Red Stitch

The cast of The Antipodes at Red Stitch
Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

A group of writers sit around hoping to devise the perfect story. It’s purgatory with fluorescent lighting. It’s Satre’s No Exit. Hell is Other Writers.

It’s a creation myth birthed onto a boardroom table.

It’s the writers’ room of a television show.

Actually, who they are and what they are doing is not made explicit, but it’s a commentary on storytelling by committee, which playwright Annie Baker seems suspicious of, even as she recognises the connections of telling stories in a group.

At the head of the table is the showrunner, Sandy; revered by every writer in the room. And he’s one degree of separation from a screenwriting legend – a man who knows how to create stories forwards and backwards.

Each writer in this team knows how lucky they are to have this job. To be able to create stories. To be able to tell stories. And, best of all, to make shitloads of money.

The close-quarters, pressure-cooker environment is played in traverse in Red Stitch’s always-intimate space. Eight actors squeezed around a long table, occasionally visited by Sandy’s assistant, Sarah (Edwina Samuels, in a thoroughly energetic and exciting performance). The production is cramped and uncomfortable, getting messier as the show goes on.

Baker’s play has a lot on its mind. In some ways, the characters themselves might be aspects of a single writer trying to put words on a page. I wondered if this was some kind of “Inside Out”-style deep-dive into the creative process; brainstorming ideas, throwing out every personal detail and trying to make sense of the wildest thought on a whiteboard.

The play also tackles the commodification of storytelling and the inherent risks of a workplace where people are expected to bare their souls and pick apart their personalities for the good of the script.

One of the most interesting aspects is the spectre of a writer who used to work in the room: Alejandra, a woman who the men remember only as a complainer. Not surprisingly, they never listened to her concerns about this unhealthy work environment.

The text itself asks a lot of those who collaborate on it. This isn’t only a commentary on writing as team sport, it is also an ode to the importance of storytelling in an era where we’re so distracted.

Sandy warns his underlings early on to put their phones away, to be present – and that is the double-edge of the writer’s life; we must write but we must live life. Trapping yourself in a room isn’t necessarily the most productive way of finding the perfect story.

Director Ella Caldwell has chosen to play the naturalism of the piece, missing Baker’s tendency toward heightened naturalism which later evolves into magic realism. This production seems so concerned with the details (the food orders, the drudgery of plotting, and the cans of LaCroix mineral water) that it misses moments of the divine.

The cast of characters is frustrating, on the whole. Ngaire Dawn Fair’s Eleanor is reserved throughout until she finds a moment to relate the first stories she wrote in childhood. George Lingard makes the most of Danny M2’s monologue about vulnerability, before becoming another outcast because he’s not ready to put his life on the line in service of the show.

Are all these writers islands in a stream-of-consciousness? They rarely connect with each other, determined that their addition to the fabric of the story is paramount. Brian (Casey Filips) has some amusing trivial asides. Harvey Zielinski is the right amount of desperate as Josh, who is not even getting paid to be there.

Late in the play, we realise these writers are trapped. It’s not just the repetition of days. They cannot go. They cannot move on. Not until they realise the perfect story. Never grasping that perfection is the enemy of the good. And that until they make choices, they’ll be spit-balling forever.

Annie Baker’s The Antipodes is about people telling stories about telling stories. It knows how important that is to help us define ourselves, our experiences and our lives. Baker knows it’s what we have when we have nothing else.

Red Stitch’s production captures the feeling of being trapped; the claustrophobia and the inability to measure time. Unfortunately, some of its other choices strangle this play’s apotheosis. The tone is stultifying naturalism. The magic realism doesn’t feel magical at all.

Wednesday, 27 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival: Fire Walk With Us - The Music of Twin Peaks



This week was the first anniversary of the premiere of Part 8 of Twin Peaks’ third season. Titled “Gotta Light?” the episode delves into the past of the world of the series, diving deep into the mythology of the creatures that haunt mankind from the woods around the titular small town.

It also contains two memorable musical moments: a performance by Nine Inch Nails of their song “She’s Gone Away” and an eerie sequence of a small town being infested by woodsmen, scored by The Platters’ “My Prayer”. Twin Peaks, as ever, is a study in contrasts.

The music – both songs and score – of the most recent season was a long way from the world of Angelo Badalamenti’s evocative compositions for the original series. The new episodes were a critique of nostalgia; viewers were denied much of what they wanted twenty-five years later.

Badalamenti’s theme song was retained, but his work is only selectively used throughout season three. But with each moment of reprise, memories rush back. Music helps us to re-enter the world we left so long ago.

Fire Walk With Us: The Music of Twin Peaks, a two-night only event as part of the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, plays on that nostalgia, but with various twists and a large ever-changing seven-piece band.

For an hour, the group showcases the songs and score of classic Twin Peaks and the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me. It begins with a fast version of the opening title theme for the film, music that haunts me when it’s deliberately slow.

A selection of female vocalists (Tylea, Lucinda Shaw, Mia Goodwin) take it in turn to tackle Julee Cruise classics like “The World Spins,” “Rockin’ Back Inside My Heart” and “Falling”. There’s also some welcome gender revisionism when S.S. Sebastian tackles “Into the Night” and Lucinda Shaw sings “Under the Sycamore Trees”.

Also welcome were a rocking version of “The Pink Room” and an odd but intriguing take on “Audrey’s Dance”. Trickier to get right was a performance of “Just You and I” (while from the original show, this performance felt more like a hat tip to the season three appearance) and an encore of “No Stars” – the only song on the set list from The Return.

Badalamenti and Cruise’s styles are so particular that covers of these songs are often difficult for me to appreciate. The originals are so set in my head, variations have a hard time convincing me. But Fire Walk With Us didn’t try too hard to reinvent the wheel and with a big band and rich ambiance and some truly haunting vocals and arrangements, this was another highlight of the Cabaret Festival.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Melbourne Cabaret Festival - What Doesn't Kill You [blah blah] Stronger

Tyler Jacob Jones and Erin Hutchinson
at the Cabaret Festival Gala


The genre of cabaret can be a lot of things, which What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger proves – it’s a lot of things all by itself. Focusing on a wide variety of real-life stories of people surviving near death experiences, the show is an historical, comedy, drama, documentary musical. It features an army of cats, man-eating hippos, the Titanic’s sister ship and to help us along the way: a series of survival tips throughout.

After winning a couple of awards at Fringeworld in Perth, the team brings their perfectly-executed piece of cabaret to Melbourne. Performers Tyler Jacob Jones and Erin Hutchinson are charming and witty, transforming themselves into dozens of characters, all while belting out clever, insightful and toe-tapping tunes. Jones’ lyrics are very sharp, playing with audience expectations and telling some fascinating stories.

Inside the one-hour show, which barrels headlong from song to song, there is also a fifteen-minute musical about a woman in a small rural American town who is hit by falling space debris. It’s a riotous story about fame and fortune and features an hilarious “I want” song from the meteorite itself.

What Doesn’t Kill You [blah blah] Stronger is a wild but tightly-crafted piece of theatre. Get along for the survival tips alone. Because, as Tyler and Erin warn us, some people might not even make it out of Chapel Off Chapel alive.


Second and final show tonight.

Melbourne Cabaret Festival: Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice

Danielle O'Malley as Nancy Sinatra
at the Cabaret Festival Opening Gala

It’s 1973 and Nancy Sinatra is filming a new television special; a night of classic hits and a touch of behind-the-scenes gossip.

After her sell-out showcase of the music of Cilla Black, Danielle O’Malley dazzles at Chapel Off Chapel with Nancy Sinatra - You Only Live Twice. The audience at home will see a slick television experience, with all the songs they know and love, but those of us in the room get something more personal and candid.

There’s a bit of fun talking about her parents, Frank and Nancy, and her brother Frank Jnr. She takes some pre-arranged audience questions about her hair style and her personal life. But even as we get to know her and her distaste for sponsor, RC Cola, what we’re here to hear is the songs.

O’Malley brings the right 60s go-go boot disco energy to Nancy, entertaining with “Something Stupid” and “Summer Wine”. She turns up the sultry for “Bang Bang” and Nancy’s Bond theme, “You Only Live Twice”. And we all know what those boots are made to do and O’Malley doesn’t disappoint there, bringing the house down with “These Boots are Made for Walkin’”

As with nearly all the shows at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival, Nancy Sinatra: You Only Live Twice, is a short taster of a season. Two shows only. 

Take your boots down to Chapel Off Chapel tonight. YOLO.

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.