16 July 2017

Review: Noises Off

Noises Off
Melbourne Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre
12 July 2017
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 12 August
mtc.com.au

Nicki Wendt, Louise Siversen, Ray Chong Nee, Libby Munro, Simon Burke. Photo by Stephen Henry

In Michael Frayn's Noises Off, the satire is as sharp as its farce is infuriating and it celebrates English sex romps as much as it loves the people who made them. It won the 1982 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and its original and revival Broadway productions (1984, 2001, 2015) scored Tony nominations. It's a safe programming choice, as it pretty much guarantees full house, and this MTC and Queensland Theatre production is very safe.

Noises Off is about a UK touring production of a 1970's UK sex-romp where Arabs in sheets are a hoot and the women are semi-naked and young, sex-deprived and middle aged, or batty and crones. The tour, funded by one of the actors as her retirement fund, starts badly in Act 1 when the dress rehearsal is a disaster. Act 2 is seen from backstage at a matinee performance when the onstage interpersonal relationships are stronger than those of the cast, and Act 3 is what the show has become by the end of the season.

It's still set in the 1980s, which makes for some nostalgic costumes but doesn't reference anything about Australia or our theatre. How good would it have been to up the meta by having a 2017 company performing a 2017 company performing a safe 1982 farce and questioning all of the questionable on-stage choices and wondering why they're producing a 1982 British play? This lack of relevance makes the plodding pace of Act one seem even slower as the obvious jokes are over explained and the not-really-important plot of the play-within-the-play is made to feel important.

Acts two and three find the natural rhythm of the work, especially as the slapstick and physical humour are hilariously choreographed and the terrific cast nail the tone. There are plenty of laughs but there isn't equal focus on how the characters' lives are falling apart as much as their production is. When the actor-characters, who are playing stereotyped characters, have "theatre" personas that are closer to stereotype than archetype, there isn't room for the contrast and counterpoint that adds complex stakes and a dose of reality to the farce about a farce.

Funded companies have the time and resources to explore texts and question what we see on our stages. This Noises Off will do well because it's Noises Off, but it doesn't question why it was chosen in the first place or add anything new to the work or the genre. It's skim milk with a level spoon of Milo when it could be an outrageous iced chocolate made with free-trade couverture and freshly churned ice cream that's too outrageous to finish.



15 July 2017

Guest review: Send Nudes

Send Nudes
Kissing Booth
4 July 2017
The Butterfly Club
to 9 July
thebutterflyclub.com

Guest reviewer: Jack Beeby 

James Hardy

James Hardy lays bare an autobiographical tragicomedy of fleeting sexual and romantic misadventures in Send Nudes at The Butterfly Club.

Hardy, a  20-something Melbournian is struggling to find meaningful fulfillment as he jumps between the daily drudgery of his hospitality job, his fledgling artistic career and the respective bedrooms of his various romantic partners. As the show traverses between different scenes of Hardy’s life, we meet a medley of supporting characters, from James’s long-suffering housemate to an all-singing all-dancing Mormon and a selection of Hardy’s squeezes (all played by co-creator Jake Stewart).

On the surface, Send Nudes is a very familiar cabaret show: a performer details a series of humoresque intimate exploits to a soundtrack of catchy pop and musical theatre bangers. It tells the story quite well, with charm, charisma and strong musical performances from both leads and accompanist Luke McShane.

What sets this show so refreshingly apart from so many others, however, is the unique flourish of style and wit with which it is executed. Stewart is already becoming well-known for his talent for rich, culturally aware observational comedy writing and, coupled with Hardy, the duo create something that is uproariously funny, intimately personal and, most importantly, theatrically relevant.

The show betrays an informed academic awareness of theatrical convention, both technically and culturally, which it utilises and subverts to exceptional effect. The show is relentlessly self-loathing and makes no apologies for its eviscerating critique of contemporary cabaret as “the gangrenous foot that’s been killing theatre for decades”. It lambasts the fact that it itself is yet another show about the tragicomical arena of sex and dating; it criticises its choice of songs and its adherence to and subversion of convention; and even questions the value of Hardy (a tall, slim, blonde, vaguely symmetrical, white, cis man from a middle class upbringing) as a viable ‘sexual underdog’.

For all the show’s frankness and candour, there are a few very brief moments where the text strays into the poetic, which honestly feels a little at odds with the tone and the performances of the rest of the show.

The show zooms along, jumping from scene to scene – each situated with deliciously clumsy, pseudo-Brechtian signposting – but is reigned in by Lindsay Templeton’s expert directorial hand, which provides enough texture to offset the pacing and allow the audience space enough to breathe.

Hardy is new to cabaret and is evidently still finding his stride but with an authentic vulnerability to his performance and a powerful tenor voice, he is undoubtedly one to keep an eye on. Stewart is also exceptional, showcasing his considerable wit and dexterity and a strong command of his own musical performances.

Send Nudes is an intelligent and creative unpacking of what it means to not quite know who you are – a perfect allegory for both the na├»ve foibles of youth and the bastard-child art form that calls itself cabaret.

14 July 2017

Mini review: Paris

Paris - A Rock Odyssey (A tribute to Jon English)
Music Theatre Melbourne in association with Stella Entertainment
13 July 2017
Melbourne Recital Centre
to 15 July 2017
melbournerecital.com.au

Paris. Jordon Mahar, Brian Mannix, Jack Oriley

With only four performances, the concert version of Paris at Melbourne Recital Centre runs until Saturday. As a tribute to the late Jon English, it's made with the kind of love that proves what an experience Paris could, and should, have been.

When the recording of Jon English and David Mackay's rock opera Paris was released in 1990, there was hope of a full-scale show. When English released the amateur rights in the 2000s, there were some small scale productions, and it remains popular with schools, but it may never be seen as it was envisioned.

Telling the story of the Trojan War (Troy and the giant horse) around the love story of Paris and Helen, it requires a huge cast and a design that can encompass a bloody war, raging oceans and a giant horse. Who doesn't want to see that!

Musically and structurally, it's also a product of the 1980s and – like many of the shows we loved at the time – its story cliches, lyric rhymes and 80's-tv-soundtrack chords struggle to sit with contemporary expectations of music theatre.

But none of that matters, especially if you remember the 1980s as well as most of the audience did.
And none of which make this concert version anything less than wonderful.

With a large chorus and a knock-em-dead cast including Mattthew Manahan (Paris), Madeleine Featherby (Helen), Kerrie Anne Greenland (Cassandra) and Mark Dickinson (Menelaus), it's easy to see the show that was in English's mind when he wrote it.

Throw in some some bonus 80s and 90s rock casting with John Waters (Ulysses), Tim Freedman (Agamemnon) and a scene stealing Brian Mannix (Sinon) and it's even easier to imagine a time when hair was big, grunge and electronica were new, and the words 'rock' and 'opera' still belonged together.

Musically, it still packs a punch (I'm surprised at how much I'm still singing today) and dramatically, it finds the emotion, dilemma and tension that take it from 'we know this one' to 'what's-going-to-happen?'.

Maybe, it shouldn't be the show that never happened? It needs some development and to be brought into now, but it could be amazing.

And if you still miss Jon English, you don't need me to tell you to go.

13 July 2017

Mini review: Do Not Collect $200

Do Not Collect $200
11 July 2017
24 Moons Bar
to 14 July
Facebook event page


Do Not Collect $200 opened on Tuesday night and there's already a black market developing to get hold of sold-out tickets. Capitalism, you always find a way...

Developed from an original idea by Harley Hefford, Do Not Collect $200 is a live and immersive  game of Monopoly.

And it's so much fun!

In the darkness of the 24 Moons club in Northcote, groups sit around tables with modified Monopoly boards and play like they play on a holiday – do we ever play Monopoly when we're not on a holiday? Roll the dice, move your piece (a lolly; don't eat it) and hope to land well.

There are physical chance cards that can send you to the bank for a bonus, but the properties you buy are tickets to interactive performances and experiences created by the team of over 30, including SM favourites like Isabel Angus and James Jackson. 

The one-on-one and small-group experiences are about our relationships to money and a reminder that this game was originally made to criticise and question capitalism – until players embraced the greed.

You might score and buy a trip to the exculsive Club 2050 (the blue Mayfair square) or get sent to Centrelink. Both are recommend, but there are so many I missed and it's easy to want to go back to experience it all.

The game is designed to take away any concerns about playing with strangers (yay for rules) but what takes it to a level of awesome is the app – developed by Adam Whiteside –  that manages the experience.

Players download the app (that's easy to access on a website) to their phones and are given a personal code on entry. The app manages your banking (the rent flows in) and when you physically land on a square on the board, you click the corresponding square on the app and follow the instructions. You can buy or rent  or are sent to the likes of Relationship Counselling or Jail. When it's your turn to go to an experience, the app gives you a message complete with directions to the performance space.

The app is brilliant is ready to be used for what could easily become an ongoing event with new experiences in new places.

And unlike the official game rules, there are opportunities to break the system and do some good.

Meanwhile, keep an eye one the Facebook page for news about tickets and hold onto any that you have.

12 July 2017

Guest review: Pisca

Melbourne Cabaret Festival
Pisca
2 July 2017
Chapel Off Chapelmelbournecabaret.com
to 2 July

Guest reviewer: Jack Beeby

Picsa

Cameron Taylor is Pisca, a hapless gosling with a golden voice who has been charming the pants off Chapel Off Chapel as part of this year’s Melbourne Cabaret Festival shows in development series.

Pisca is the whimsical tale of a freshly hatched baby bird (Taylor) who, suddenly finding themself alone and must navigate a brand new and unfamiliar world. On their adventures, they discover the strange world of night time, revel in the colourful brilliance of spring, learn to fend for and feed themself, attempt (with varying success) to make friends, and evade the persistent looming threat of an unseen hunter.

Though Pisca is largely mute, save for an occasional plaintive quack, at the turn of a beat they croon and warble their way through a thoughtful selection of pop songs and jazz standards that lend a contemporary relatability to the narrative.

The relatively straightforward plot is nicely embellished with a few well-chosen and wittily executed side narratives, including the backstory of Pisca’s ill-fated parents (told through some less-than-conventional sock puppetry) and Pisca’s very physical encounter with a mightily formidable drop of water.

Stripped of spoken text, Taylor’s use of clowning and physical comedy is well crafted and captivating to behold. Their talent for conveying story without verbal language is strong and Pisca’s central character quickly impresses on the audience and proves to be heart-wrenchingly endearing.

Throughout the show, Taylor extends a number of gentle invitations for audience participation, from warbling a rendition of The Beatles’s "Black Bird", from the seating bank in pitch darkness, to literally fishing an audience member from the crowd and preparing them to be cooked and eaten.

The show’s design (also by Taylor) situates us in the simplistically evocative and playful world of storybook nostalgia. The set pieces – a nest, a tree and an awful lot of flowers – are largely used as conceptual signposts, and most of the actual world building is done through Taylor’s thoughtful gesture and clever lighting.

Almost every element is perfectly blended to create a whimsical world of simplistic beauty and charm. Taylor’s command and subversion of theatrical convention, along with the creation of a character that I’m sure will prove timelessly endearing, make Pisca a gorgeously entertaining show.

11 July 2017

Review: The Rapture

The Rapture
Finucane & Smith
1 July 2017
fortyfivedownstairs
to 15 July
fortyfivedownstairs.com

Moira Finucane


The Rapture is a new work by Finucane & Smith – do I need to say more – and a community of artists who continue to create space where art offers hope and audiences dance.

It’s mostly a solo work by Moira Finucane; solo that’s only possible with the support and contribution of many, including a Mama Alto, Clare St Clare, Shirley Cattunar and Miss Chief on the stage, and music by Darrin Verhagen and Ben Keene. And Jackie Smith.

In the hazy underground of fortyfivedownstairs, there’s a catwalk that rejects any thought that imperfect isn’t exquisite. Here, Moira channels every god and devil that’s ever been worshipped or dismissed as she explores the love and despair that makes humans search for more than what we think we are. Then in a blink, she’s the person maybe only seen at home when no one is looking. Never assume that the divine are more than human.

Here naked means nothing more than naked and cheap tomato sauce from the supermarket is as much art as the hand-sewn costumes and original music created from hours of frustration and joy.

Moira’s performance is uncensored – no, that’s not the right word. So much of what we see in theatre is created for others: for subscribers, critics, ticket buyers, boards, bosses and funding bodies. And if it fails to thrill, the “fors” are blamed for not getting it or daring to be bored or disconnected.

Moira’s performance is self-indulgent – that’s not it either. Self indulgence on a stage doesn’t welcome an audience and brings little more than pleasure to the self-pleasuring artist.

Self indulgence and self censorship are for self. This work is deeply personal, but if it were all for herself, it wouldn’t connect and there wouldn’t a growing community of audiences (all over the world, now) who know they are as much a part of the experience as the artists who create it.

The Rapture comes from the very personal and reaches to places that are unknown but familiar. Even if you haven’t been in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles and swung between despair and ecstasy at the human capacity to grieve and to treasure, you know what it’s like to think what you’d give up if you had to. Even if you can’t see structural oppression, even if you cringe at imperfection, even if you don't love polar bears, there's a place where thought falls away and we connect – even if you have no idea why.

We know when we're struggling and we usually know why. The Rapture gives us no excuse not to hope. It doesn't get much better than that.




04 July 2017

Review: Merrily We Roll Along

Merrily We Roll Along
Watch This
30 June 2017
The Lawler, Southbank Theatre
to 15 July
watchthis.net.au

Nelson Gardner, Nicole Melloy & Lyall Brooks. Merrily We Roll Along. Photo by Jodie Hutchinson

My review is on themusic.com.au

27 June 2017

Review: Model Citizens

Model Citizens
Circus Oz
22 June 2017
The Big Top in Birrarung Marr
to 16 July
circusoz.com

Model citizens. Circus Oz. Photo by Rob Blackburn

I always leave a Circus Oz show feeling happy, remembering that the world is full of amazing people and knowing that I have to remember this when the boring dickheads seem to be in control.

Model Citizens is Artistic Director Rob Tannion's first major show with the company. He's taken everything that's loved about the company's ratbag attitude and rejection of social conformity and sent it spinning to a new level of theatricality and artistic cohesion. 

With a mostly-new troupe of simply amazing performers, this new work questions the idea and rules of being an Australian. Are we role models or all-the-same models that look and think like we're told to? What are the rules of getting through each day?

Some of the content is obvious – like a pink mohawk being questioned by the blue and white majority – but perhaps we need to be reminded that everyone is welcome here and we can do with some help in letting anyone who doesn't feel welcome know that we're trying to change the attitudes of the boring dickheads.

Michael Baxter's design (and Laurel Frank's costumes; Laurel is a founding member of the circus) distorts perspective. With a magnificent colour palette of 1950's blue, the design re-works and re-imagines traditional circus apparatus to look like oversized and distorted household objects – like the irons and safety pins that all belong in model homes.

Highlights include a glorious multiple slack-rope with violin routine, a credit card balance stack, and group aerial work that never ceases to amaze. And what show isn't made better with a song about a Weber barbie?

The Circus Oz world is a pretty amazing place to visit. Here anyone can be as strong and/or as pretty as they like, everyone is welcome and live music always makes everything better. Every rule about the world outside of the big top is questioned but once you're in, it's a place where support is met with support and everyone can fly because they trust and welcome everyone else.

Maybe the rules aren't that complicated after all.

24 June 2017

Guest review: The Very Worst of The Tiger Lillies

The Very Worst of The Tiger Lillies
Memo Music Hall
18 June 2017
tigerlillies.com
one night stand

Guest reviewer: Jack Beeby 

SM: I had a holiday (Japan is simply the best and I discovered Takarazuka Revue, who have ruined music theatre for me as much as Tokyo trains have ruined public transport), and Jack Beeby saw The Tiger Lillies while they were in town for one night. I remember how much I loved them the first time I saw them (and still do) and was a teeny bit jealous.

The Tiger Lillies


JB: The Tiger Lillies, international peddlers of peril, returned to Australia for the briefest of tours, including a one-night stop at St Kilda’s Memo Music Hall, to showcase the most sordid morsels of their 28-year canon in The Very Worst of The Tigerlillies.

For those who are yet to be indoctrinated into the band’s modest yet impassioned throng of followers, The Tigerlillies (in their current incarnation) are Adrian Stout, Jonas Golland and Martyn Jacques. Together they wrangle an impressive array of instruments, including a double bass, saw, guitar, theremin (Stout), customised drum kit (Golland), home-made electric ukulele, piano, and a sparkly green piano accordion (Jacques). Fuelled by Balkan-inspired time signatures and fiercely shrill vocals, these musical miscreants dispense a unique brand of grotesque punk cabaret, which has earned them a global cult following.

Through their songs, The Tiger Lillies almost exclusively conjure stories of human suffering and vice, often laced with macabre cautionary morals and told with visceral imagery that is most definitely not for the weak of stomach. Although the sadistic content and unflinchingly vivid depiction of these tales will certainly prove to be confronting for some, the group’s thoughtful composition, musical skill and theatrical delivery imbues each piece with an artistry that is wholly captivating.

The first act of The Very Worst solidly situates itself in the bygone world of ill-fated European carnivals, of ethically-barren sailors and transients, opium dens and brothels. Within this landscape, the group spin tales of desperation and devilry, of victims of extreme abuse and the perpetrators of horrific crimes. The content of this first act does not vary an awful lot. The pervasive energy of the set is slow and subdued and, while each story is its own work of narrative art, words like ‘corpse’, ‘whore’, ‘pimp’, ‘beat’ and ‘drugs’ are recycled from song to song with an almost tiresome regularity. With so much content to draw on from their 28-year catalogue, I found the lack of texture in this first set a little disappointing.

When the band return for the second act, we are treated to a selection of their more high-energy morality fables about religion, mortality and the bleak disaster of the human experience – songs that showcase the aggressive nihilistic passion and fierce musical punch for which they are so beloved and notorious.

Together, the three band members are a gaunt and gruesome visual spectacle. Their uniform of white grease paint and conventionally gentlemanly attire casts them as a chorus of grotesque phantoms, who find playful nuance in their strong individual characterisation – Stout is seedy and skeletal as he lurches over his upright bass; Golland is endearingly mournful as the group’s pallid percussionist; and Jacques is some kind of demonic clown, unleashing a howling falsetto that somehow manages to take over his entire elastic face.

While overall the energy of this performance seems a little more subdued than those of bygone decades, The Tiger Lillies’ deft musical skill and masterful talent for rich and evocative storytelling remains one of contemporary cabaret’s most wicked delights.

PS from SM: I still want "Getting Old" played at my funeral.

27 May 2017

Review: Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening
StageArt
20 May 2017
Chapel off Chapel
to 10 June
stageart.com.au

Spring Awakening. Photo by Belinda Strodder
Melbourne’s had the opportunity to see two adaptions of Frank Wedekind's 1891 play Spring Awakening this month. Stage Art’s production of the 2006 musical – which won eight Tonys, including Best Musical – is the better known and opened at Chapel off Chapel on the weekend that Daniel Lammin’s powerful Awakening closed its second season to critical love and full houses at fortyfivedownstairs.

The original play, sub-titled "A children's tragedy", was censored and banned for its confrontation of teenage sex, sexual ignorance, rape, abortion, abuse, suicide, depression and the failure of adults to educate and love the children in their care. It’s still performed because it still feels far too like now.

With its indie rock sound track, the musical, by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik, continues to develop a near cult following as it strips away the pretence of happy-ending music theatre. It talks as much to teenagers, who recognise a world where they are denied knowledge and power, as to the adults who let this happen.

Immediately striking for those familiar with the music is director Robbie Carmellotti’s change “from nineties rock to a modern music festival sound”. While letting the singers shine, it brings a new and more gentle perspective to the show and removes some of the anger and desperation of its expected rock.

Already less angry, the tone is set early with an inconsistent mix of humour and unearned emotional outpourings that tell the audience what should be felt rather than showing characters who feel. Hanschen doesn’t need to be high camp to like men, but, at least, the Hogan’s Heroes “I see nu-think” accents are more ridiculous than offensive.

There's humour in Spring Awakening, but the content is serious and too many laughs come from the melodrama of extreme emotion or from laughing at issues of sexual ignorance, violence and depression.

After Awakening, I have to discuss the end of Act 1 where teenagers Wendla and Melchior have unplanned sex in a barn and its dramaturgical choices range from rape to loving sex. The musical's book leaves room for interpretation; however, it also establishes that the 14-year-old girl knows nothing about sex and the 14-year-old boy thinks he knows everything about sex. Consent isn't possible – even if the characters think it’s romance. Awakening confronted with rape. It ripped the hearts of its audience by continuing to explore the aftermath from both points of view and reflected on every teen-rape story that includes “but he’s such a good young man”, “what about his reputation?” and “what did she expect to happen?”.

This sex is played as seduction, supported by the cast surrounding the couple with fairy lights. Act 2 opens where Act 1 ends, except she's naked; he's not. The teenage child with no experience or knowledge of sex is presented as a sexualised (implied post-orgasm) adult with all the control and power that accompany that knowledge and experience. In case there's any doubt, she lovingly holds his hand when she sings about guilt and confusion. Which makes for a much easier resolution for the hero Melchior.

Many choose to create a less-confronting Spring Awakening, but the choice to be safe supports the very issues that this powerful piece of theatre is trying to change.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.