15 November 2018

Review: Bushland

Mere Mortals – a series of works exploring death and dying
Arts House

French & Mottershead
Arts House, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria
9 November 2018
Royal Botanic Gardens
Saturday 2 and Sunday 3 December

Dying, dreaming and decaying.

Bushland takes place in the Royal Botanic Garden. It begins by wearing headphones and lying alone in a welcoming bed of dead leaves looking up at a canopy of green leaves – which will soon die, fall, decay and become part of the soil that feeds new leaves.

As would your body if you died alone under a tree.

Bushland is an adaption of a four-work series called Afterlife by Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead from the UK. With the assistance of forensic anthropologists, ecologists and conservators, it describes in delicious detail the decomposition of a body in different environments. In this case, in the Australian bush.

A gentle meditative voice being played describes what would happen to your body if you died under that tree. The flies would be the first to notice.

It's sounds gruesome, but it's not. Maybe parts of it are, but I found it fascinating and comforting. And very relaxing.

I'm now re-thinking if I still want to be cremated, one day.

It's only one for two days and only a small group can experience it at one time, so booking is highly recommended.

12 November 2018

Review: School of Rock, The Musical

School of Rock, The Musical
GWB Entertainment and S&CO
in association with KHAM Inc
by arrangement with The Really Useful Group Limited
9 November 2018
Her Majesty's Theatre
to 3 February 2019, the non to Sydney and Brisbane

School of Rock, the Musical. Brent Hill

I'm all for "sticking it to the Man" and treating children with respect and letting them rock in a total killer of a finale, but don't make me try and say that Andrew Lloyd Webber rocks. School of Rock, The Musical rocks about as much as an Andrew Lloyd The Man Webber musical.

The trend to bring popular films (School of Rock the film was released in 2003) to the musical stages isn't going anywhere. Sometimes the musical version captures the heart of the film and expands on character and theme to make something bigger, different and amazing, like The Lion King and Legally Blonde. Others strip away what makes a film work, forget why characters are loved, tries to put a film story structure onto a stage and adds a soundtrack that doesn't add much. Why watch a live version of a film we can watch at home? The shows that dig deep into the success of the original story and make it something new are the ones that rock.

School of Rock's a heap of safe fun; the film joke about ALW has even stayed. It's the story of Dewey Finn, a slack aging rocker who scams his way into a substitute teacher job at a posh school, because he needs the moolah, and forms a band with his primary school students. The musical looks like the film – without the stage dives – and Brent Hill is terrific as Jack Black. Dewey was created for Black and it would be kinda wonderful to see what actors can do with the role rather than being like Black.

The adult roles are diluted to ideas of characters with the likes of uptight angry girlfriend, angry dad who spends too much time at work, and teacher so dull I can't remember them. But there are great moments like "You're in the Band" when Dewey gets his class motivated and "Where did the Rock Go" that finally lets Amy Lepalmer take off her glasses – all repressed strict head teachers wear glasses – and remember that she can rock.

Grown ups aside, the child cast of students kick enough ass to make up for any dullness; a lot of the show is spent waiting for scenes with the kids. As does the the choreography (originally by JoAnne M Hunter) that never tries to make the kids move like adults and lets them dance like totally rocking kids. There are three casts of Melbourne kids – who all play their own instruments – and there will be people who go back to see all three.

School of Rock, The Musical doesn't "Stick It To The Man" rather than give him(s) another diamond-encrusted stick to lean on but maybe the totally-rock kids in the show and those who see the it (even the cheap seats are expensive, so that's few) will start listening to the bands mentioned (not played) and learn what rock really is.

PS. As Julian Downtown Abbey Fellowes adapted the film script for the book, I now want a Downton Abbey musical so much. So much.

PPS. The screen writer of the film (and film Ned) is Mike White, who is on the current American season of Survivor. #TeamMike

Review: While You Sleep

Mere Mortals – a series of works exploring death and dying
Arts House

While You Sleep
Sal Cooper and Kate Neal
7 November 2018
Arts House Melbourne
to 11 November

While You Sleep. Photo by Byrony Jackson

After dying came dreaming.

While You Sleep is as comforting, confusing and nightmarish as dreams.

I wonder if we all dream in the same ways. We can describe our dreams, but our descriptions never get near to what they are like, and our conscious brain does such a good job of making sure we forget what we go through when we sleep.

Co-creators Sal Cooper (animation, visual art) and Kate Neal (music and sound design) use the complex order of a musical fugue structure (I've put an explanatory video at the end of this) to explore the idea of the psychological fugue state, which is often called dissociative or reversible amnesia.

The clash of counterpoint and comfort of harmony in the music (strong quartet, piano and electronics) are supported by hand-made animation videos that feel natural to the music even when the subject matter doesn't from what's on the stage.

The quartet move with their instruments like a chorus or roll on wheeled-chairs, while screens show animations that range from the pianist playing a library of book to a horse being lifted with a crane. On the day after the Melbourne Cup when another horse was killed during the race, this image felt frighteningly spot on.

I don't remember all of what I saw because I was l finding my own way though the images and sounds. Which all brings it back to dreams and their illogical logic, conflicting images and confusing comfort.

It only had a very short season, but will hopefully be seen again.

11 November 2018

Review: The Infirmary

Mere Mortals – a series of works exploring death and dying
Arts House

The Infirmary
Triage Live Art Collective
7 November 2018
Arts House
to 18 November

The Infirmary. Triage Live Art Collective. Photo by Bryony Jackson

Dying, dreaming and decaying.

The first week of Arts House's Mere Mortals series was far more relaxing than it sounds.

Live art is personal experience. The work cannot exist without your active participation and its meaning belongs only to you.

The Infirmary begins with a triage conversation between each patient (10 per session) and a doctor/artist. It ends dressed in a hospital gown in a hospital bed where you have no control and can hear the beeping of a heart rate monitor slow down...

Or, we all know that it's impossible to be in a hospital bed without a cup of tea and a biccy.

Let by creator Katerina Kokkinos-Kennedy (Hotel Obscura), this experience is an opportunity to get close to an ending or a death. While you're in a bed in the blindfolded dark, and listening to voices on headphones, the only option is trust. Complete trust: physically, mental and spiritual.

In a work about death and dying, the need to trust that the artists aren't going to scar or scare is as strong as the need to be physically safe as your bed is wheeled away from your private room where you know where you are, and where your glasses are...

As it confronts death, each experience may be too personal to share. But I left relaxed. So relaxed that I'd forgotten many of the voices I'd heard as I was immersed in a world of light and sound. And movement and touch and a theatrical reveal so glorious that I would have cheered were I not so happy to be bed bound, silent and unable to move.

04 November 2018

Review: Astroman

Melbourne Theatre Company
2 November 2018
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 8 December

Callen Tassone & Kamil Ellis. "Astroman", MTC. Photo by Jeff Busby.

I've been singing "Eye of the Tiger" all weekend and am trying to change my earworm to the much cooler "Tainted Love". Astroman is set in 1984. Geelong, in 1984.

Playwright Albert Belz knows Astroman is his love letter to the 1980s and the decade he was a teenager and he wrote this story about a Maori family living in coastal Aotearoa (New Zealand). He moved New Zealand to Geelong in 2011 and, after later moving to Melbourne, relocated the story to the place that welcomed him to Australia. I'm sure he's a Cats supporter for life.

There's also a production of the play currently running at The Court Theatre in New Zealand. In a better arts funded and supported world, they could swap venues and let us all see both productions.

Teenagers Jiembra, Jimmy, (Kamil Ellis) and his twin brother Sonny (Callen Tassone) have just turned 13. The got a Walkman, a Rubik's cube, which Jimmy solves easily, and a BMX bike that no cop would believe "an abo owns". It's mostly a loving reflection of the mid-80s in towns away from the big cities. In this memory world, Sonny can proudly wear the Aboriginal flag on his sleeveless denim jacket and not get beaten up, but no one's forgetting that it wasn't all breakdancing, take away Kentucky Fried Chicken and acid-wash jeans.

But it was all arcade video games. This amazing new technology let anyone kill aliens and pretend you were in Star War, Star Trek or Battlestar Gallactica. They also broke barriers of class, age and gender as everyone played them, be it at the local fish and chip shop or the arcade. If you has a 20-cent-piece in your pocket, you could play.

The brothers have recently moved from Townsville and live at their auntie's house with their mum (Elaine Crombie) and sister (Tahlee Fereday); Jimmy says their dad is away training to be the first Austronaught, Australian astronaught. They spend as much time as they can at the Astrocade playing games. Here, arcade owner Mr Palvis (Tony Nikolakopoulos) takes a liking to the boys, but they have their rival MJ (Nicholas Denton) to contend with.

What follows is as cool as seeing The Karate Kid for the first time. Director Sarah Goodes and Associate Director Tony Briggs (he wrote The Sapphires) know their 1980s culture, as does designer Jonathon Oxlade. There's a "world championship" competition with far more than a high score at stake, montages, dance sequences, an awkwardly placed gun, opposites-are-really-the-same romances, and a convenient solution that doesn't feel earned. Yeah, just like so many 80s movies and sit coms.

And, like those stories, the characters make up for any problems and let the metaphors of "seeing the patterns" and "making the most of your last life" resonate. It's an absolute joy to be part of this family for the night. When they sat down for dinner, I'm sure I wasn't the only person who wanted to be balanced on a plastic stool around the table and be the first to take the lid off the orange casserole dish.

But I have no idea how I know the words to "(Hey You) The Rock Steady Crew"; I didn't even like it in 1984.

19 October 2018

Melbourne Festival: A Ghost in My Suitcase

A Ghost in My Suitcase
Barking Gecko Theatre
18 October 2018
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 21 October

"A Ghost in My Suitcase". Barking Gecko Theatre

I've worked in the arts for ever because in the 1970 and 80s, my family took me to shows at festivals in Adelaide; some weren't for kids. There's been some wonderful shows and experiences that kids and enjoy with their grown ups this festival – the Lexicon circus, Fire Gardens or the delightfully creepy (and affordable) 1000 Doors – with the highlight being the premiere of Barking Gecko's A Ghost in My Suitcase.

The Perth based company make exquisite theatre for children that never excludes adults. One of my favourite shows last year was their Bambert’s Book of Lost Stories at Arts Centre Melbourne and I loved The Rabbits at MIAF 2015.

Playwright Vanessa Bates adapted Gabrielle Wang's novel, which won the 2009 Aurealis Award for Best Children’s Novel.

Celeste (Alice Keohavong) is 12 and arrives at the Shanghai airport where she's met by Por Por (Amanda Ma), her mother's mother. Celeste's mum has recently died and Celeste has left her little brother and French dad in Australia to take for mum's ashes back to the Isle of Clouds in China where her mum was born. Things don't go well when she meets Ting Ting (Yilin Kong), her grandmother's adopted daughter, but that's not as weird as finding out that Por Por is a ghost catcher. Or that Celeste might have the same ghost catching skills that are passed down maternal lines and that she'll need them when they go back to the family home.

The combination of projection – from the crowds of Shanghai to a boat ride through a rural village – puppetry (design, Zoe Atkinson; lighting, Matthew Marshall), live action and martial arts brings the story to life in a recognisable world where fantasy and the super natural feel natural and real.

Co-directors Ching Ching Ho and Barking Gecko's Artistic Director Matt Edgerton always find the heart of the story and its characters and make sure that the story of grief and letting go leads even when there are angry ghosts to fight and lives are in danger. It’s a little bit scary but so full of love and loving characters that the scary is fun.


Song For A Weary Throat

Presented with Arts Centre Melbourne
13 October 2018
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 14 October

"Song For a Weary Throat". Rawcus

Rawcus Theatre’s Song For A Weary Throat was missed by too many of us last year and it's wonderful to have indie theatre like this brought back for us by Arts Centre Melbourne and Melbourne Festival. Too many amazing indie shows are never seen again after short runs.

People gather in what looks like the post-apocalyptic remains of a country-town community hall that was once set up for a dance (design, Emily Barrie; lighting, Richard Vabre). The chairs are breaking and the room is filled with dust and crunchy dead leaves, but everyone still comes. It’s what people do.

There’s noise (sound designer Jethro Woodward) but rarely voices, except for the remarkable Invenio Singers (Gian Slater, Josh Kyle and Louisa Rankin). The three voices create a live soundtrack that  feels like pure emotion. Like the weary throats that can’t speak anymore because no one listened, their singing isn’t what we expect from songs of joy or despair, but are sounds that are trying anything to be heard again.

It’s never clear – and doesn’t matter – when or where we are; what matters is that this group of people are together after a traumatic even. Some don’t want to be there, some don’t know what to do and some keep hoping because, even if no one will dance with you, when people are together, there’s always a way forward and dancing alone isn’t so bad.

Led by artistic director Kate Sulan, Song For A Weary Throat was developed and performed by an ensemble of 15 performers with and without disabilities.  Its exploration of trauma is personal without ever being specific, which makes it easy to put our experiences onto the stage and to feel the effects of trauma and to ultimately find hope and joy among the chaos.

Rawcas were formed in 2001 and continue to be supported by the Port Phillip Council – never forget how much local councils fund and support the creation of art.

14 October 2018


curious directive
presented with Theatre Works
12 October 2018Theatre Works
to 14 October

Everyone sits in a white plastic chair that let us swivel all the way around; I don't trust anyone who doesn't spin around as soon as they sit down. We're on the four sides of a rectangular stage covered in beige shag carpet, but the virtual reality headset waiting for us is far more interesting. Frogman is theatre made using VR.

But it starts on, and regularly goes back to, the stage – eyes need rests – where 35-year-old Meera (Georgina Strawson) is being questioned about the 1995 disappearance of her classmate Ashleigh. Meera still lives next to the Great Barrier Reef, where its assumed the girl drowned. As the evidence on cassette tapes is played, she remembers the sleepover she was having with her friends on the night divers searched for Ashleigh's body.

UK company curious directive self describes as "theatre through the lens of science". Led by artistic director Jack Lowe, the small company works with new people and organisations on every project, including the Brisbane Powerhouse for the 2017 development of Frogman.

The VR experience takes us into Meera's bedroom, with its beige shag carpet, and into the reef as the divers look for Ashleigh before the coral bloom destroys visibility. The combination of scratchy tape evidence feels perfect with the VR footage that's always a little bit blurry; its not-quite-focus feels like being in the faded memory with her.

The technology is fascinating – I reached out to touch things – and there are times when it takes us deeply into the world, but the story doesn't always take advantage of the technology. When the mystery story hints at magical realism, there's a possibility of diving into a world where children can breath under water and fire coral burns. We don't, and the story may be just as strong if played out only on the stage.

Technology is incredible and this early step into VR in theatre is an exciting beginning.

PS. My set stopped working twice, so I got to see the more fascinating spectacle of a room of people spinning in their chairs and reaching out to people who weren't there.


Prize Fighter
La Boite Theatre

in association with Darebin Arts Speakeasy
11 October 2018
Northcote Town Hall
to 21 October

"Prize Fighter". La Boite

I don't like boxing. I don't get the idea of violence as sport. And watching the cast of Prize Fighter warming up on stage by sparring with local boxers left me in a strange place of being in awe at their fitness and knowing that I could never – even when I was young and fit – defend myself against that kind of strength.

But this isn't a story about boxing.

It's about masculinity and its connection to strength and fighting.

Writer Future D Fidel is 28 and developed  Prize Fighter when he was playwright in residence at La Boite Theatre Company in Brisbane from 2013 to 2015. It opened at the Brisbane Festival in 2015, was performed at Sydney Festival and a novel of the story has  recently been released. Fidel was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DCR) and fled to Tanzania in 1996 after witnessing the death of his parents and being separated from his siblings. He spent eight years in a refugee camp before being accepted into Australia as a refugee. He spent eight years of his childhood in a refugee camp. He now lives in Brisbane with his brother and sister; it took him six years to find his sister.

It's about war.

Foreign wars rarely gets more than a passing comment in our media. Fictional "African" gangs in Melbourne get front page coverage. Pants-on-fire racist bullshit gets talked about while millions of people living in horror isn't an issue. People forced to flee their countries because of violence and horror are spoken and written about like they had a choice. Theatre shows like this get little media coverage, but it's still more than the people whose stories this show is telling.

Its fiction is the story of Congolese refugee of Isa – called Steve "The Killer" to sound more Aussie – who literally fights his memories and experiences as he fights for a championship belt. Its truth is that it's based on Fidel's experiences and those of others who fled as refugees.

The DCR and neighbouring countries has been involved in civil war since 1996. It officially ended in 2003, but the violence continues.

Most of the fighting is over minerals, especially coltan. Most of the world's coltan comes from the DCR. Colton is used in smart phones, lap tops and TVs. I didn't know that until today. I had no idea how much I've benefited from this war I knew so little about.

I also didn't know that 5.4 million people – a quarter of the Australian population – died as a direct result of that war.

It's about child soldiers.

Isa "The Killer" was ten when his family was killed, disappeared and raped. He lived by becoming a soldier. Ten. Ten year old boys are forced to fight.

I took a nine-year-old to Lexicon, a French circus, last weekend. On the way home in the car, he asked me, "If you could change anything in the world, what would it be?". That's much harder to answer than "Can I please have some popcorn?".

Can I start by wanting to give every asylum seeker in Melbourne a day at the circus where the kids have as much popcorn as they can eat.

Prize Fighter is as harrowing as it is stunning. The flashbacks from the boxing ring – the boxing is real – seem an obvious device but director by Todd Macdonald and the cast of six – Pacharo Mzembe (Solomon and Marion) is Isa; Gideon Mzembe, Margi Brown Ash, Marcus Johnson, Ratidzo Mambo and Mandela Mathia play multiple roles – create an almost unbreakable tension that can only be broken with an emotional gut punch that's far stronger than any knock out blow.

It's a story about Australia.

This is our story and the more we see stories like this explored on our stages, in our art and in our media, the more we may begin to understand that they are our stories and we need to do a lot more to create some less traumatic endings.

11 October 2018


Fire Gardens
Compagnie Carabosse
Presented with Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria 
10 October 2018
Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria
to 13 October

Photos by the amazing Sarah Walker 

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

If you don't have a ticket to the Fire Gardens, I don't think there's any chance of getting one. It sold out, and the extra tickets sold out. And it's a flaming reminder that families and groups of friends and all sorts of wonderful people want to go to affordable spectacular events at festivals.

Last night, the Botanic Gardens was full of people rugged up in black coats, and this may be the only festival show many buy tickets for. For many of them MIAF 2018 will always be memories of fire in the the gardens This kind of event lets so many people experience the spectacle of art; it's so much more exciting than the Moomba fireworks.

My date for the evening was seven-year-old Isiah who totally accepted that the gardens would be full of fire, and live music, and old radios, and swing chairs, and kinetic sculptures made from old clocks that balance on high wires, and "whirlwinds of fire".

Because you are welcome to get close, we could see how the fires were lit, look at the coal in wire baskets, ask what liquid was being poured into the fire pits (acetone), and wonder how deep the water in the lake is and how they light the sculptures floating in the water (by boat; we saw their boats).

It's creepy and magnificent and coming around a corner to see spheres of fire on the lake makes you remember that we say breathtaking because you stop breathing for a moment.

If you've got a ticket, rug up, wear something that isn't black so that you can see your friends in the dark – it IS dark –, explore, sit, and imagine being in every apocalyptic novel you've loved or sci fi world you've imagined.

As no one can take a good phone photo of fire in the dark, here are some of Sarah Walker's amazing photos.

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker
Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

Fire Gardens. MIAF 2018. Photo by Sarah Walker

PS. We unintentionally queue jumped when we were getting chips at the end of the night – and are really sorry.