Thursday, 17 January 2019

REVIEW: The Legend of Queen Kong by Sarah Ward

Sarah Ward as Queen Kong
Photo: Peter Leslie
There’s a star field and a band and a crawl of yellow text and we recognise these things, these elements, from our memories and our lives and our pop culture. These are helpful touchstones as The Legend of Queen Kong: Episode II – Queen Kong in Space begins.


Kong is immortal and has already lived for millennia; born from a dead ape and a volcanic eruption. Kong is taking us on a trip through the universe and into the future, leading to exquisitie revelations and existential crises.

Queen Kong is a new show from performer Sarah Ward, best known for the character of Yana Alana. But this Queen of the Earth, singer of rock songs, isn’t a simple character creation. It’s a creation myth. It’s as much about the Big Bang – an orgy of male Gods, as it is about the music we have put out into the universe.

Music is central, though. Queen Kong is the lead singer of a band, the HOMOsapiens, and the show is a concert and cabaret and a strange kind of storytelling. I was witness to a spectacle; a messy, lively, memorable spectacle.

Sarah’s Kong is dressed in a sparkly leotard, silvery pubic hair showing, a big fur coat wrapped around her. It’s a striking image birthed onto the stage, sometimes running into the audience, sometimes up in the balcony of the Fairfax Studio. A thrilling, memorable persona.

The audience is warned early on that things won’t always make sense and this is reiterated throughout. The Legend wants to expose us to new ideas, radical concepts and the unknowable forces of space and time – without getting bogged down by linear narrative storytelling. For me, I would have rather the show push further in either direction, giving us a little more story to hang onto – or to forget story altogether and spend time crafting mind-blowing moments.

Accessibility for a deaf audience is built into the design of the show; there’s a deaf performer on screen and all live text was signed in Auslan by a character called The Interpreter. There were also surtitles on the screen that explained the styles of music that was playing – but it wasn’t merely informational, that text also had its own moments of levity.

The combination of a large video projection, the live band, Ward’s always-astonishing singing created sequences that were hilarious and occasionally touching. There wasn’t a very satisfying shape to the show, though. There were times where it felt like things were wrapping up before the performance leapt in another direction. The final song, a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock”, was beautiful rendered but it’s a pity the climax of the show wasn’t composed by the creators at the heart of The Legend of Queen Kong.

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

REVIEW: Newk! The John Newcombe Story by Kieran Carroll

Damian Callinan stars in Newk!

It’s 2014 and Australian tennis legend John Newcombe is turning 70 and all the greats of the sport are arriving at his place for a barbeque he doesn’t have to cook for once. Old friends and players he’s coached are here to celebrate – and Newk is ready to reminisce over a glass of Chinzano, his body liberally sprayed with Aeroguard.

Comedian and comic actor Damian Callinan has grown Newk’s iconic moustache for the role and he’s perfectly cast as the laid-back champ, whose glory days are long behind him. Callinan is warm, funny and charming in the role.

Playwright Kieran Carroll has done a good job digging deep into Newcombe’s life, tracing his career from high school tennis player to Grand Slam champion. There’s a lot of interesting detail about the Wimbledon boycott of 1973 to the story of how he met his wife to an interview with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show to an advertisement for Newcombe’s How to Play Tennis album from K-Tel.

After a while, the roster of names that Newcombe drops gets a bit tiresome – it feels too much like boxes that Kieran thought needed to be ticked. But there’s still some wonderful drama inherent in a scene where Newk realises he’ll miss his father’s funeral for a tennis match, or the moment he beats his hero Ken Rosewall to win Wimbledon in 1970.

The anchoring device of the 70th birthday party is fun, an excuse to look back and keep things light. The show isn’t linear; Newcombe jumps around his life as a player before settling into his post-tennis career as coach and mentor.

The show seems aimed at people who remember Newcombe’s career; a lot of the audience reaction was recognition of names and places and wins. But there’s a healthy dose of laughs and some cheeky audience interaction by Callinan, who had the old folks in the palm of his hand.

There’s nothing inherently dramatic in the story of Newk – even as he tells us of the stroke he’s suffered, the play never really connects that with the life of drinking that went hand-in-hand with his career. Even the darkest moment, talking of the stages of a party-boy evening, when he turned from John to Jock to Jack, dissipates into laughs after he wakes the next day.

Newk is a light-hearted look back at a champion of Australian sport – and if you get all the references, you’ll have a good time. And if you douse yourself in Aeroguard, you’ll avagoodweekend.

Newk is on at the Butterfly Club until Saturday January 19th.

John Newcombe

Thursday, 10 January 2019

REVIEW: Low Level Panic by Claire McIntyre

Phoebe Taylor and Gabrielle Sing in
Claire McIntyre's Low Level Panic

Claire McIntyre’s 1988 play about society’s objectification of women is a three-hander set in a share house, full of the drama and conflict of living with strangers who are almost friends and the struggles of knowing the right thing to feel when even your housemates tell you to toughen up.

Mary (Gabrielle Sing) is concerned about the nudie magazine she’s found in the bin. Jo (Phoebe Taylor) wants to enjoy life, but often retreats into fantasies about rich men and lorry drivers. Celia (Jessica Martin) seems shallow, oblivious to what is really going on in the house – swanning through life, to Jo’s dismay.

Thirty years from its first performance, Low Level Panic still feels vital, if very much of its time. As much as this production uses the props of 2019, some of the realities the play depicts feel dated. It’s not that the truth of objectification has changed, but being concerned about softcore girlie magazines in an era of internet-wide pornography casts Mary as a bit more na├»ve than really makes sense.

Director Kotryna Gesait’s production in traverse is intimate and hilarious, but never as confronting as it might be. The choice to direct Jo’s fantasies at men in the audience creates a real tension, but works mostly as comic value rather than digging deeply into what she is saying about men.

I was pleased with the choice to do the play in Australian accents; the universality of the story would suggest this choice should be uncontroversial, putting aside the British-isms conflicting with local place names like Berwick.

More oddly, the decision to have the characters take on other accents when discussing their fantasies puts the audience at a remove; some of those stories should be heartbreaking and they are reduced to comic runners.

There are moments when those walls come down, though. Sometimes the artifice is undone and we are shown below the surface of Mary and Jo – and the dramatic tension of McIntyre’s script is exposed to the audience. Gabrielle and Phoebe play off each other magnificently. Phoebe is confident and relaxed in the role of Jo, while Gabrielle slowly and subtly brings out the unease Mary has about the world.

Low Level Panic is a strong play with much to say. This production finds its truth about half of the time, muddled by odd choices in dramaturgy and direction.