Friday, 28 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: The Mission by Tom Molyneux

The Mission by Tom Molyneux
Photo: Sarah Walker

The widespread use of Acknowledgement of Country throughout the theatrical community is a good reminder that we live and work and tell stories on a land that has been home to Australia’s Indigenous people for forty-thousand years. Any Fringe show presenting work on the lands of the Wurundjeri people in the Birrarung are continuing a very long tradition.

Performer Tom Molyneux’s Acknowledgement of Country feeds directly into the story of The Mission; “sovereignty has never been ceded” is a strong jumping-off point for a story about our Indigenous population’s autonomy.

This personal history begins thirty-thousand years ago at the forming of Budj Bim, a volcano in Western Victoria. The Budj Bim area is a very important one to the Gunditjmara people, a site where they developed a system of aquaculture, thousands of years before European settlement.

After European settlement, it was the site of Eumerella Wars, where the Gunditjmara were overwhelmed and killed by colonisers who had the support of Native Police – Aboriginal troopers under the command of a white police officer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe - Eggsistentialism by Joanne Ryan

Joanne Ryan in Eggsistentialism
Photo by Ken Coleman

Irish performer and playwright Joanne Ryan doesn’t know if she wants to have children. Don’t get her wrong, against the backdrop of Ireland’s history of restrictions on reproductive rights, she loves having a choice, she’s just having a hard time making a decision.

Eggsistentialism is a funny and frank look at a series of questions that must occur to all women at some stage in their lives. Do I want to have children? And what will that mean for my life? And what will it mean for the child?

Joanne knows that women from her mother’s generation had less choice in the matter; another woman her father got pregnant had to carry the child, only to have it taken away and given up for adoption. Her own mother would have been in the same situation, but she ran away to London and slept on a friend’s couch. That was in 1980.

One woman, one couch, a phone, a multi-media presentation and a brilliantly blunt voiceover from her mother, Joanne’s show is simple in its presentation and powerful in its execution. It explores her relationship with her parents and with a relatively new boyfriend. It explores the role of men in the household, both traditionally and how things mostly haven’t changed. It’s deeply personal and aggressively political.

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

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

Monday, 24 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Broke by Rowena Hutson



Rosie loves D.I.Y. She loves to fix things. She likes to bake cakes. She likes to work with her hands when she can no longer trust her mind.

Broke, much like Rowena Hutson’s earlier show Strong Female Character, feels very personal – even if she’s hiding behind Rosie the Riveter overalls and Princess Leia’s hair-buns. The anger and the passion could be acting but it feels blisteringly real. The details don’t feel written, but lived. The shouting is fueled by pain and confusion and a genuine need to name her illness and share it.

Ro cares about her audience, though. There are trigger warnings at the start and a concern that her description of a panic attack might bring on a panic attack. But there’s really been no panic attack quite like this showstopping rock number with a large rubber brain and flying tendrils of tinsel. Hutson, as one of the Fringe Wives’ Club, knows how to theatricalise even the most painful of truths.

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

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

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

Melbourne Fringe: HERE – Elbow Room

Emily & Angus are HERE at Melbourne Fringe

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

We’re in an era of film and television revivals. Star Wars is no longer a nostalgia trip. Twin Peaks has reawakened nightmares from a quarter of a century ago. And theatre’s ephemeral nature means you can never go back, not even in a remount with the same creative team. Things have changed. Emily and Angus have changed.

Elbow Room has changed.

Our two intrepid performers are trapped inside a machine that feeds off narrative; it takes and takes and takes. Emily figures it out early on, but she’s been inside the machine longer. She recognises the signs and the theatrical trickery of THERE is turned back on to figure out where they are and where they must head next.

HERE is about nostalgia and the fear of looking back. It’s also about context and the empathy gap and how an audience perceives a performer and how we perceive ourselves. It mines the history of THERE but also alludes to other shows Elbow Room have made, like Prehistoric and We Get It.

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Sleepover Gurlz by Emma Smith & Vidya Rajan

Emma Smith & Vidya Rajan in Sleepover Gurlz

Theatre can happen anywhere. It can happen in big rooms, small rooms, warehouses, carparks and shipping containers. I saw a show on the streets of North Melbourne once. And one in the back of a car.

Sleepover Gurlz isn’t the first play I’ve seen performed in a bedroom, but this one uses its space and its premise to great effect; the intimacy is vital and this show is as much about the bedroom space as it is about the women sharing it.

Before the show, the audience is ushered upstairs to a living area to colour and paste and find their inner child. It’s an irresistible moment of pleasure that you almost regret being dragged into the bedroom for the party itself.

Creators and performers Emma Smith and Vidya Rajan are six-year-old girls, welcoming the audience to their sleepover party. We are the other girls at the party, sharing snacks and interacting with the friends who have invited us over. It’s charming and funny and silly. There’s a game of “Chinese whispers” and the uninhibited thrill of girls just wanting to have fun.

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s incredible.


Thursday, 20 September 2018

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




As a child, Little Darling is cursed with potential. She must walk through dark woods fighting evil pixies named Doubt and Fear, trying hard to find the golden key of success.

But what does success look like? Little Darling is sure that if she just completes her list of tasks, success will be hers for the taking.

Poet and performer Telia Nevile has crafted a confessional piece of theatre that takes classic fairytale tropes and runs with them along the yellow brick road, through the forest of years and finds herself… where?

If the monomyth is flawed and narrative is fucked, Telia is conscious that even inspirational quotes – from Mark Twain, Arthur Ashe and Dax Shepard – aren’t going to put her on the right path. And she’s not where she thought she’d be at forty-one years old.

Untitled No. 7 is storytelling, singing and interpretive dance. It’s heartfelt and heartbreaking. There are moments of pure joy in the show; a combination of silly songs and a limber physicality, even if Telia’s self-deprecating about that. But as doubt creeps in, she’s equally vulnerable, on the edge of tears. And not even the tale of Bruce Samazan can leave us with the catharsis we desire.

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


Untitled No 7 finishes on Saturday.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Melbourne Fringe: Alone Outside by Liz Newell – Lab Kelpie

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

Daphne is on the road home. She’s been driving for so long she thinks she might be dreaming; this trip she’s made so many times before has slipped by. She’s going home reluctantly; visiting her ailing grandmother before it’s too late. But everything else in town, she’d be happy enough to miss that.

Liz Newell’s Alone Outside begins slowly; the writing is hesitant, like Daphne is. This is a story we’ve seen before – an adult who doesn’t want to face their past but must, for their family’s sake, and for their own.

There are some delicious details in there, though. Daphne’s first return to the country pub, punctuated by short, sharp smiles by actor Sharon Davis, is a fun bit of business. Bumping into her old high school girlfriends is uncomfortably funny, as you might expect from life or from a play such as this.

Director Lyall Brooks does a good job at finding a way to highlight Daphne’s isolation and loneliness. A large truck tyre evokes the outback. Bright white tiles suggest clean linoleum floors, but also feel like a box that Daphne is trapped in. The late confrontation between Daphne and her high school boyfriend Aidan is a rich mix of drama and hilarity.

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

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

Sunday, 16 September 2018

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



Lovely Mess, subtitled 48 stories of shame, is a new work by Riot Stage Youth Theatre that does find that exquisite kind of loveliness in the messiness of young lives.

Ten performers, all under twenty-five and one who is much younger, tell short stories of shame which are sometimes amusing and occasionally very dark. We’re told that the stories are true, mostly, but the way they are told they feel true – because variations on these kinds of stories must happen all the time. There’s not a moment that feels dishonest, even as we know this is theatre.

The set is just a line-up of chairs, with a few microphone stands to help these novice performers sound clear in the space. Even the smallest, nervous voices echo around the room.

The rhythm of the piece feels much like a group of friends sitting around at a party, telling their own truths about life. There’s some digital art on the back wall to remind us of how young these people were when these life moments happened. There’s a silent narrator to the side, illustrating the vignettes as they are told.

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

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

Melbourne Fringe: There by Elbow Room

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

In the beginning, there is darkness. A torch spotlights a pair of fingers walking across a black dais, exploring their domain. Another torch, another pair of fingers appears on the dais. It’s theatre and storytelling in miniature. It’s physical theatre reduced to the barest of elements. But this is only the beginning.

Elbow Room first performed There as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 2008. Ten years later, they are reviving the play, performing it in the same venue with the same cast – two of Elbow Room’s co-founders, Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant.

I didn’t see the original production of There but I have seen a lot of Elbow Room’s work since then, so it’s great to see one of their earliest shows, one that proves how strong their vision has always been. The show is almost deceptively simple in its way, as an exploration of the fear and elation of making and performing theatre.

It's not long before the two performers behind the fingers and the torchlight have discovered the rest of their bodies and their voices and each other. There’s a real frisson of energy and theatrical tension as the focus of the piece expands, gathering the full range of theatrical expression afforded by an indie theatre budget in the Loft at the Lithuanian Club.

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

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