30 December 2008

Melbourne 2008 - What I Liked

The 2008 AussieTheatre Melbourne Awards

There are no shiny trophies, no need to frock up and no one semi-famous to read out the nominations. In fact, there’s no prize at all, except knowing that this is the remarkable work that has inspired me over the last 12 months.

Theatre in Melbourne: even if I could go out every night, I would still miss something worth seeing.

Overall, I wish I wasn’t disappointed by so many commercial productions and wish that people who see commercial shows would also take a chance on the small, independent productions. It’s always going to be hit and miss, but this is where the best theatre continues to be created and it hurts knowing that it’s only seen by a lucky few.

That’s not to say it’s all been good, but it isn’t hard to remember the great stuff. These artists and companies challenge with their content, re-invent form, respect the intelligence of their audiences, and refuse to be bland. Some of them were visiting us from interstate and overseas, but most of this incredible theatre has been created here in Melbourne.

Before the drum roll, let me thank Jo, David, Laura, Karla, Kim and John (the wonderful team of Melbourne reviewers for Aussie Theatre) for their knowledge, their passion, their style and their from-the-heart opinions.

And thank you to everyone who lets us know that you appreciate reading what we have to say.

Outstanding Artists 2008

Adam Cass for Oasis Oasis
Sarah Collins for Nothing Extraordinary Ever Happens in Toowoomba. (Ever)

Benedict Andrews for Moving Target, Malthouse Theatre
Yvonne Virsik for Nothing Extraordinary Ever Happens in Toowoomba. (Ever)

Anna Tregloan for Venus and Adonis, Malthouse Theatre

David Franzke for Venus and Adonis, Malthouse Theatre

Paul Jackson for Moving Target, Malthouse Theatre

Melissa Madden Grey,  Venus and Adonis, Malthouse Theatre and Vamp, Malthouse Theatre

Daniel Kitson, The Ballad of Roger and Grace  and The Impotent Fury of the Privileged

Kristy Edmunds for her final, unforgettable Melbourne International Arts Festivals.

Outstanding Productions 2008

Reuben Krum's Naughty Show, Reuben Krum
A Suicide for Winter , The Tiger Lillies
Lea Delaria is Naked, Lea Delaria

Spontaneous Broadway

Blackbird, Melbourne Theatre Company

Three, Batsheva Dance Company

Sammy J In The Forest Of Dreams
Cell Block Booty, Sisters Grimm

Ollie and the Minotaur, foogle and 9minds
An Oak Tree, Tim Crouch/Melbourne International Arts Festival
Romeo and Juliet, OKT/ Melbourne International Arts Festival

The show that will stay with me from 2008 is:

The Ballad of Roger and Grace, Daniel Kitson and Gavin Osborn

(2012 update: Buy the ballad here.)

This story originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

20 December 2008

This is set in the future

This is set in the future
La Mama
December 2008

This is set in the future is a traditional Christmas tale of blood, cum and karma, complete with a pseudo Santa resplendent in a tight frock contemplating an even tighter noose. The publicity did say it was more festy than festive…

Glyn Roberts’s not-so-cheery tale explores the not-too-distant future where we could live forever. Will folk get up to acts of selfless good and create heartfelt joy? Not with Robert Reid directing.

As always, director Reid (theatre in decay) hides his hope behind a large wall of cynicism. He despairs in his program notes that Melbourne theatre has “gotten ever so samey”. Melbourne’s independent theatre would be a duller place without Reid and I’m not alone in my gladness that he is determined to produce original work.

With Sayraphim Lothian’s spot-on design and a cast of competitive alphas (Scott Gooding, Rachel Baring, Hayley Butcher, Joshua Cameron and writer Glyn Roberts), Reid guides the delightfully-dark script into a place where even the Christmas-cracker jokes would need a PGR rating.

There’s not much left in this future world beyond “fuck or punch”. It sets out to shock and this is where I think it just missed the mark. There were some moments where it could have gone somewhere very nasty and interesting, or somewhere even more outrageously, hilariously obscene – but I felt that the brakes were applied and what could have been jaw-dropping black was simply taken back to joke. They were good jokes, but didn’t have the expected effect.

It might have just been final night excitement, but the cast were enjoying the fun a little bit too much. The impact of having the crap beaten out of you is dulled if the actors make it clear that it’s meant to be funny. There’s no shock in “incest is the new gay” if it’s being said to create a nervous audience titter. The comic book style of performance was perfect for the script, but we needed to see more of the fascinating characters, rather than the terrific actors, because the telling of their story was lost. We were watching to see what the performers would do next, rather than what would happen next.

Reid declares that we shouldn’t “expect meaning from people paid to fake it”. It was clear that everyone involved in This is set in the future understood every nuance of meaning, but they could have shared their meaning just a little bit more with the audience.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Short and Sweet 08 Week 3 Wildcards

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 3 Wildcards
20 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

The final ten Short and Sweet Wildcards concluded the annual three-week 10 minute theatre fest. As with week three’s Top 20, they were undercooked and left a slightly bitter aftertaste.

Unready scripts aside, relationship is my issue de jour. To some extent, every piece suffered from this fundamental problem. In his must-read book 'Audition' Michael Shurtleff says, “Creating relationship is the heart of acting. It is basic. It is essential.” Relationship is also the heart of great writing. If there is no emotional, meaningful relationship with the people on the stage, the scene will always feel false and fall flat. Too many times, I had no idea what the relationships were between the characters. Without a sense of relationship, there’s no reason for characters to talk to each other, let alone a reason for us to care what happens to them. It doesn’t need to be explicit on the stage, but it needs to be in the writing and in the performances.

The Bullfrog was one of the better pieces, with a terrific ending, but needed to develop the characters further and develop a relationship between them. Did she fancy him? Did he fancy her? Did they even know the others names?

Little Star, Ticking Clock, Thankyou My Pongpat, Facing Away and even To Let all suffered from the same problem. These were all plays about couples, so there was plenty of material to work with.

The Russian Bride told an exposition story well, but I think it would have been more powerful if the guard had his own journey and character arc within the piece. As it was, it may have worked better as a monologue.

Genre Bender must have started life as an impro exercise and didn’t develop much further. Funny costumes do not create purpose or character.

The Mercy Kitchen was written well, but let down with the direction. We all know that if a gun appears on a stage, it’s going to be shot. Well, this is a play about swallowing poison and there were many props and a lot of action about cups of tea... We knew what was going to happen far too early, and it was too easy to predict the cup swapping.

The Cellar Children started life at the 48 Hour Play Generator and is still delightfully creepy.

Maybe Short and Sweet needs a year off to re-invigorate. The independent companies were fabulous, but the competition didn’t do justice to the theatrical talent of this town.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

17 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 3 Top 20

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 3 Top 20
17 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

The opportunity and support given to theatre makers by the Short and Sweet festival is incomparable and over the last four years, the festival has offered some of the most memorable moments on the Fairfax stage. So I’m not sure what’s going on this year.

With the exception of the independent companies last week, it’s clear that the more experienced level of local writers, actors and directors aren’t involved to the extent they have been in the past. This is opening the door for many people, but the lack of experience is really showing, and I really don’t understand how nine out of the ten short plays presented this week made it to the top 20.

Ernest Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Too many of these works felt like first drafts. The ideas were great, their synopses were tempting, and the words-in-a-good-order writing was there, but they didn’t tell engaging, authentic stories. They just weren’t ready. It felt like a painting by numbers, but half of the colours were missing in the pallet and replaced with beige.

A script (short, long, stage or screen) isn’t an opportunity for a writer to rant or detail their opinion. It’s up to a writer to demonstrate their views by showing us what complex characters do when their world changes.

A character who is just expressing the writer’s opinion sounds like a badly written pamphlet. Black Eyed Susan was an exceptionally well directed and original breast cancer brochure, but it didn’t sound or feel like a story.

Some began or ended in the wrong spot. Falling, Praying would have been fabulous if it started as they jumped; the back story wasn’t necessary. Blue was beautifully structured and had a moment where it could have ended with emotion and left us wondering, but it kept going. Audiences are clever beasts who don’t need to be led to the very end.

Birdmonster and Permanently Engaged were tight and hilarious short sketches that were stretched out to ten minutes without adding more to the joke.

Legends and the Fall needed some sense of legend/myth/hero to give it the oomph and complexity it seemed to be aiming for. As Love and Light could have followed through with its metaphysical themes and used the ideas of ‘love’ and ‘light’ as more than just a joke.

Prime Angus Buttock and Alchemy relied on funny performances, rather than funny situations. A silly walk or a kooky voice only works when you’re a master of your craft and genre.

Luckily, Religion Shop saved the night. It began as a racially offensive and disrespectful piece of crap (and was I ready to rant myself) – then it turned on itself brilliantly. (And it included a metatheatre joke that made sense.) This is the kind of theatre that we expect from Short and Sweet.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

11 December 2008

Shane Warne: The Musical

Shane Warne: The Musical
Token Events and TrafficLight
11 December 2008
Athenaeum Theatre

I didn’t care for or about Shane Warne before the musical, and I still don’t, but Eddie Perfect can SMS me any time.

Perfect wrote this great Aussie musical and stars as its fallen hero. Being as Aussie as beetroot on a burger, Shane Warne: The Musical might not make a Broadway away tour, and it’s no good taking it to the West End, cos the poms will just whinge about it – but every Australian state, city and medium-sized country town deserves a leg of the tour.

We all know Warnie – he’s either the greatest spin bowler Australia’s yet to produce (don’t worry if you’re cricket illiterate, there’s a scene that explains that stuff) or he’s that twat who cheated on his missus, couldn’t give up smoking and was tempted by Indian bribes. Shane eventually grasps that these two parts of himself are connected, and is forced to accept, “I’ll never be captain, so I guess that’s that then”. He helped bring back the ashes, but his personal life ruined any chance he had of being a real hero.

Warnie’s the archetypal anti-hero, with his larrikin faults and inability to say no to temptation.  If Perfect and Co had pulverised him, it wouldn’t be fair to Shane; if they’d ignored his foibles, it wouldn’t be fair to us. Shane Warne: The Musical keeps hitting sixes with a remarkable balance of satire and celebration.

And, to be fair, it also takes the piss out of musical theatre, with numbers reminiscent of stage and screen favourites from Fame to Godspell to Sweeney Todd (it was “fucking beautiful” ) – and who knew AIS was even more fan to dance-spell than YMCA.

Warnie in song works so well because ultimately the jokes on us. Perfect makes us look at ourselves and how we all supported and created the spin around the spin. As the marketing chorus sing, “Everyone’s a little bit like Shane”. We can’t blame him for being just like us.

With a such an impressive creative team around Perfect – director Neil Armfield (demi-god of Australian directing), dramaturge Casey Benneto (Keating), choreographer Gideon Obarzanek (Chunky Move) and designer Brian Thomson (shows too numerous to mention, but this the design is reminiscent of his original Rocky Horror set) –  it would have been disappointing if Shane Warne: The Musical wasn’t this good. It proves that sometimes it’s a damn good idea to let those arty-farty types loose on a commercial show.

Perfect lives up to his name as Warne and it’s going to be interesting to see what happens when he’s had enough, as the show is very dependent on his appeal. The rest of the on-stage team are bonza, with Rosemarie Harris a standout as Simone.

Shane Warne: The Musical will become as legendary as its namesake. It’s not a celebration of Warne the cricketer or a gut-punch to Shane the man. It lets you laugh at him, laugh with him and ultimately cack yourself because his ridiculous, media-controlled, fame-driven life led to a Melbourne-based cabaret performer writing a musical all about it.

A note for patrons more used to stadiums
Last night there were a number of Warnie fans in the audience who didn’t get the concept of live theatre. It’s not like the MCG. Getting up in the middle of the first half (or “act”) and coming back into the theatre with beer for your mates isn’t acceptable “theatre” behaviour – and it just encouraged other blokes to do the same. Please wait for half time (or “interval”) and don’t do it again in the second half. Or, at least, come back with enough beers for the people sitting near you!

 This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

10 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 2 Indepedendent Theatre Ensembles

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 2 Indepedendent Theatre Ensembles
10 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

After a week of stewed tea and too much supermarket White Christmas, Short and Sweet Week Two is like a fresh espresso and a homemade chocolate ganache tart.
There’s a rumour floating around that the Independent Theatre section of Short and Sweet is going to be removed. NO! This week’s selection sent the program flying back up to inspiring, dizzying heights.
This selection of short plays was not about writers proving their vocab, but about using theatre to tell us wonderful tales. They filled the whole space with movement, dance, music, sound and design to tell their dramatic, intriguing and unique stories. Words are one of the greatest things ever invented, but theatre is not just about words.
After the Tower
The Town Bikes are always super-fab, and it would seem that they’ve found the ideal director in Maude Davey. From their arse-talking entry to the collapsing of the Rapunzel’s long hair, the Brothers Grimm would be thrilled to see such a delightfully-dark telling of this story.
The brothers G may well be dancing an after-life jig, because Company 13 were also inspired by a fairy tale - the one about Snow White and her mum. With pig noses, an accordion and song, this was a most original telling and interpretation.
The afterlife is always a very popular Short and Sweet theme. Itch Productions explored the celebrity death, with Marilyn Monroe visiting a nearly-famous actor who is “dying to be an icon”. Does he choose a posthumous Oscar or a sad career?
Last Drinks
Telia Neville (interior theatre) continues her fascinating exploration of the everyday. Without words or sound, five characters repeat what looks like a meeting at a bar. As the audience find their own meaning in the repetition, words and sound are added to give us a better picture - but all we hear are their thoughts. Telling it from a different perspective makes the most mundane situation an irresistible tale.
Morbid Porn
Sexy and just a little bit morbid, Skite Vikingr tell a story of love, lust, desire and rejection that fluidly links performer and puppet.
6 Hours Later
Hilarious, engaging, beautiful - watching Born in a Taxi is as wonderful as watching a litter of excited kittens explore a new room.
Tinsel Town
Split Second’s murder, mystery and horror story started funny and got funnier. From the Shelley’s chatting after dinner to Dracula floating on skates - and all with live sound FX. Why use a digital file when you can have a bloke breaking plates and blowing bubbles in a glass.
Tea for Two
Dislocate’s story is black, funny and brilliant. From stillness to did-they-really-just-do-that acrobatics, this is the kind of theatre you can’t look away from.
Finding Your Place
The Hounds kept us laughing (so that’s how a dishwasher moves), but the telling wasn’t clear. Now I’ve read the program, I see that it’s about Alzheimer’s – which I didn’t get when I watching it. I thought it was about writers who love the safety of their own fiction.
Penelope Bartlau’s Barking Spider Visual Theatre wonderfully and literally construct a malleable universe. The two characters try to sort out their own relationship, while creating a small and messy parallel world from lumps of clay. This is great stuff.

This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.

07 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 1 Wildcards

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 1 Wildcards
7  December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

The hit and miss nature of the Short and Sweet wildcards is always their appeal. This week presented a couple of beautifully written stories about dying, too many that started and ended with stereotypes and, for the first time ever, one that I found offensive.

Generally, there was a concentration on form, forsaking the joy of story. I have a sticky note on my desk that reads, “Drama is conflict and change”. It’s what I look for in a story. Too many of these plays ended exactly where they started, even if they managed some conflict.

It is petty thing to mention, but too many of these afternoon delights were directed to the centre seats. The Fairfax space lacks any proscenium pretention, so you have to direct to the whole room. I was sitting on the side and could barely see the action in half of the offerings.

Job Specs
It appears that women with great breasts will always be the secretary in office sketches. We knew the entire story from the start and the telling was an office jargon email list and a couple of good jokes – but they were good jokes. It was a tale about cock-sure gen Ys. Well I may be just a cunt-unsure not-quite-gen-X, but I wouldn’t have hired either of them.

Nightmares and Daydreams
Delightfully performed, original and well written, but why did the director have to scream the ending to us so early? If she’s in heels and a frock, and rubber gloves and a pinny, we know she’s cleaning up a big mess. The script might also benefit from developing the dream lover character more – let us know why he’s so great.

A Time For Everything
A delicately written and moving piece played with a balance of love and humour, with a story that flowed at the right pace and ended at the perfect moment. The direction and performances could have come down a level but they would have settled had there been more than one performance.

The Park
Original and fun, with a promising premise about waking up in a dream and meeting some dream critters. However, I don’t know why they were animals – were they allegorical, metaphorical, archetypal, symbolic or just there so the actors could use their “be an animal” acting class skills?

Pinot Noir Noir
There isn’t an award for best title, but there should be! Some terrific jokes and slick telling hid the lack of story well.

The Dinner
It would have been worse being stuck next to these people at a restaurant, but it would also be easier to leave. Clichés, stereotypes and only-seen-on-US-made-for-tv-movies-about-oztrailia accents. Oh, and I’d almost forgotten how offensive it is to see a women presented like that. Seriously – it might have worked if they’d brought a blow up doll onto the stage – because at least it might have resembled irony.

Quality Control
Making fun of bogans at yoga is always fun. It was a cool sketch with lots of laughs, but I’m not sure what their story was.

Love Your Poison
Another well written work that told a complete story, developed complex characters, went beyond the obvious, kept some mystery and ended at the right time.

Prisoners’ Dilemma
It ended with the same question it began with, but it did make the audience try to answer the question for themselves. The direction needed to decide if it was comedy or drama though, as some actors played for the angst and others just for the giggles. The result was murky grey, rather than black.

Trevor’s Epiphany
If Trevor had an epiphany, I missed it.

This review originally apearred on AussieTheatre.com.

05 December 2008

The Santaland Diaries

The Santaland Diaries
Auspicious Arts Incubator
5 December 2008

Wikipedia says that David Sedaris has sold over 7 million books. More impressively, he’s number 25 at stuffwhitepeoplelike.com. White people love Sedaris. “They” also love plays, coffee, sushi, microbreweries, writing workshops, non-profit organisations, breakfast places, apple products, famers markets, organic food, apologies and irony. So it’s safe to say that Melbourne theatre goers will love The Santaland Diaries.

Before being embraced by white folk, Sedaris was poor and pathetic enough to be a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store in New York. The bloke with the big white beard must have been paying attention because David wrote an essay about his experience, and reading it on the radio in 1992 lead to that elusive break that so many of his fellow acting/dancing/prancing elves had hoped for.  Never say the American Dream isn’t alive, kicking and wrapped in a big red ironic bow!

In 1996 Joe Mantello adapted The Santaland Diaries into a one act play, which the Auspicious Arts Incubator team are presenting to Melbourne. It doesn’t take long to translate the American store to our own Magic Cave and Myers windows. And we know that Santa’s real name is Father Christmas.

Russell Fletcher (host of Spontaneous Broadway) is Crumpet. Fortunately, he doesn’t mimic Sedaris, but gives us the delightfully-fruity Fletcher version of the dismayed elf. However, I wonder why director John Paul Fischbach gave Crumpet an American accent, as it added unnecessary distance between the story and the audience. The tale is so middle-class universal that it doesn’t need a voice to place it in US culture. It’s loved because the Macy’s experience is the same as sitting on Father Christmas’s knee at Fountain Gate.

The Santaland Diaries is a must if your Christmas spirit is refusing to hang its stockings with care and considering conversion to any faith or culture that doesn’t force you to purchase secret-santa gifts, be polite to distant relatives or look thrilled when you open your fifth box of Roses chocolates.

After I saw the play, I enjoyed a Little Creatures ale, and went home early so I could be up in time for my pick of the organic food at the St Kilda Farmers Market before enjoying a coffee at a really nice breakfast place, while listening to my iPod. I’m also sorry if I’ve offended anyone.

This review appeared on AussieThearte.com

03 December 2008

Short and Sweet 08 Week 1 Top 20

Short and Sweet 2008 Week 1 Top 20
3 December 2008
The Arts Centre, Fairfax Theatre

It must be nearly Christmas - there’s reindeer shaped chocolate at the supermarket, fizz on special at the bottle-o and the Short and Sweet festival is on at the Fairfax.

Now in its fourth year, Short and Sweet continues to unearth unforgettable, damn good and not bad playwrights; whilst harnessing the wild herds of actors and directors that flock to the fertile theatrical plains of Melbourne.

Week one varied, with scripts generally seeming to grab one good idea and extending it to ten minutes of dialogue. The most memorable past entrants were those that told complex tales in their allotted time. There can be a lot of change, conflict and good old story in ten minutes.

Six Minutes and Counting - we knew the set up, the telling and punch line before the first minute was up, so everything in between was lost.

Tumbletots is an honest observation of contrasting new mums. There wasn’t any change or much of a story, but it came to life through lovely performances and included a very "special” joke. I would have liked to see the posh mum directed with a bit more love though, rather than having us always laugh at her. Surely, it’s a good thing that she loves her child.

Mandragora won my vote of the night. The character was immediately engaging and empathetic, and the story used mystery and tension to go to a completely different place from where it started. Great scripts aside, moving up the stairs “quietly” is just as distracting as tap dancing up them in a spotlight.

Drive is beautifully written, powerfully directed and lovingly performed. It would have been the stand out of the night, if we didn’t figure out what happened so early. In order to have the heartbreaking final impact, we need to think it’s about their relationship, not what happened to the child. The “subtle” clues in the script became bold, underlined, and highlighted on stage.

Kanat and the Red Army will come close in the audience’s pick of the season. Original, funny, poignant and epic; it covers 20 years, without missing any vital thread. The combination of direct to the audience and “live” action is a treat, and I even liked the turning point event happening off stage. Although the Beatles music is familiar to most audiences, the emotional impact on stage would benefit from more music, rather than discussion.

Cheesebuger and Fries used mystery so well that I still have no idea where they were, who they were or why we were watching them.

The Celine Dion Scrapbook should win something for original direction. I’m guessing that the author didn’t see the script in quite this way, but the outrageous style took what could have been quite a mundane story to somewhere unique and engaging – without losing its emotional intent.

Tipping Point is a gorgeous analysis of a break up from the perspectives of each lover. This type of story is always popular at Short and Sweet because, for all out arty pretentiousness, we really are big romantic softies at heart. And how could anyone resist the metaphor of a man trying to understand a woman’s feelings being like a dog trying to use the internet.

Bliss went somewhere very interesting by the end, but was so caught up in trying to be funny and clever that the story became irrelevant. We needed to know more about both of them, and why she made the decision to act.

Polygamy was well performed and well written, but was just one joke. A bit of research about the various forms of multiple relationships (polyamory or polyandry, in this case) would also help get the title and expectations out of a Utah compound.

This review originally appeard on AussieTheatre.com.

30 November 2008

Sammy J’s Wagon of Friendship

Sammy J’s Wagon of Friendship
November 29 2008
The Speigeltent

Hail down Sammy J's Wagon of Friendship before it high-tails out of town and Sammy is forced to cut off his limbs in order to please his family for Christmas.

I first saw Sammy J early this year when he sang about shagging Brittney Spears and Germaine Greer (not at the same time). Now, after a journey through the Forest of Dreams, he’s singing about his soon-to-be wife, and not embarrassing her at all.

Every time I see Sammy, I like him more. In the course of a few months, I’ve gone from a (possibly condescending) ho-hum-to-OK to a (genuinely enthusiastic) oh-my-god-don’t-miss Sammy-J.

My cheap rhyme of OK with J was inspired by Sammy’s lyrics. Anyone who rhymes Ingrid with fingered has to be on the road to stardom - or infamy.

From his opening auction of a comic routine (a giggle won’t win, but try a chortle and see what happens) to the metaphor challenge and it’s devastating consequences, Sammy J effortlessly charms with his blend of slightly-naughty cabaret and I’m-trying-to be offensive-but I’m-just-too-nice stand-up. Even the cunt jokes are as welcome as the cute, furry shoulder-sitting mole meditation. (Not sure about the rape joke though. It needed more context to make it funny, rather than just under-grad annoying. Germaine would agree with me.)

We were expecting Sammy-J and his piano to be driving the wagon alone, but Randy (ably assisted by puppeteer Heath McIvor) insisted on a roadside hijack, decked out in a how-can-you-call-this-racists ‘Red Indian’ costume. Randy isn’t as loveable as Terry the squirrel (from the brilliant Sammy J in the Forest of Dreams), but he’s still pretty cool and the unique McIvor/J pairing is as endearing as Bert and Ernie – but with more swearing and less homoerotic undertones.

Along the way, Sammy’s wagon found Ali McGregor hitching hiking along Swanston St and offered her the guest-spot of the night (this time I loved the dress Ali), got the audience pushing when the road was a bit muddy, but failed to entice Geoffrey Rush into the cabin.

Sammy-J's Wagon of Friendship is parked at The Speigeltent until Saturday. You’ll only be disappointed if you decide not to go.

This review origianlly appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Spontaneous Broadway

Spontaneous Broadway
November 8 2008
The Speigeltent

The original Spontaneous Broadway premiered in New York in 1995. The Australian version has been around since 2000 and I’ve yet to see anything as consistently hilarious.

If you like your musical theatre original, controversial and topical, you could become a Spontaneous Broadway addict. There’s no Vietnamese-US angst or French class wars in these shows. Instead there’s the topical anger of a hopeless, privatised train provider that strands thousands of drunk bogans in their fascinators and tuxedo t-shirts, and the inner-city despair of a compromised couple whose relationship might not survive, “Inappropriate carpet burns”

If you feel the urge to release your inner-Sondheim or closeted-Lloyd-Webber, grab a ticket - because your work could be discovered, published, produced and performed at Spontaneous Broadway. The catch is - it’s a once only thrill, as every show is improvised.

Audience members place their song and musical suggestions into the ‘Bucket of Dreams’. As host-extraordinaire Russell Fletcher introduces the show, the cast select their finds. It’s then time for the wonderful Dame Helen Highwater (Genevieve Morris), Chad Bradley (Geoff Paine), Sally-Anne DeFinklestien (Julia Zemiro) and Gordon Supwell (Ross Daniels) to share their improvised numbers, accompanied by the musical genius of John Thorn.

Everyone is as-close-to-perfect-as-you-can-be-when-you’re-making-it-up-on-the-spot, but Thorn’s flawless creations never cease to astound. Zemiro asked for a dramatic, German, dark cabaret number and they created the never-to-be-forgotten “Vomit over my love”, followed by the cast’s rendition of the sing-a-long-in-the-car-until someone-pukes “Are we there yet, Mum” – which I’m still singing at inappropriate moments.

After the tease numbers, the ever-reliable audience clapometer selects the final, mini-musical. One has to wonder why anyone bothers to rehearse when shows this good can be made up in an instant. This week, Flemington was rejected for The Sneeze that Kills. Seeing train-provider Connex pummelled in song was tempting, but the visceral lyrics of “Spitting in the moat” refused to be resisted. And Daniels must be awarded the Rhyme of the Year award for survivor/saliva.

If you managed to miss Spontaneous Broadway at the Melbourne Fringe, don’t despair because there are still a handful of Saturday afternoon performances at The Speigeltent. Just get in early, because, when it’s this good - once is never enough.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

The Hypocrite

The Hypocrite
Melbourne Theatre Company
20 November 2008
The Playhouse, The Arts Centre

The Hypocrite is an ideal end-of year crowd-pleaser for the MTC. It’s cast with favourites, knee-slapping funny, pretty to look at and offers a neat interpretation of a work that most MTC subscribers read during their formal education.

Molière penned the original in French rhyme and Justin Fleming’s translation shines as brightly as the 22 fabulous chandeliers glittering over the stage. Fleming’s clever and intricate rhyme scheme changes as the content moves from hypocrisy to true love, and a very effective pattern differentiates Tartuffe. As Dr Seuss proves, none can resist the delight of a rhyming couplet, and beauties like knowledge/porridge, dig it/bigot and chassis/map of Tassie won many well-deserved cackles.

This Hypocrite is directed, designed and performed for laughs. It’s like a panto for grown-ups, with clownish performances, over-the-top costumes, big hair, closet jokes and well-known actors. Who’s not going to laugh at Garry Macdonald (Orgon) in thigh-high, lace up gold boots and a full length, lime-green velvet jacket? There’s even the ultimate “he’s behind you” gag, which becomes evident during the deus ex machina ending.

Kerry Walker is the stand out as Madame Pernelle. She handles the difficult language with ease and creates a grumpy and believable clown. It would be hard for Macdonald and Nicholas Bell (Cléante) to deliver anything other than great; Marina Prior’s comic timing was a welcome surprise; and Martin Sharpe (Laurent), Sara Gleeson (Mariane) and Chris Ryan (Damis) are delightfully petulant teenagers, but need to listen to Kerry in order to master the delivery of rhyme.

It’s also very rare for Kim Gyngell to disappoint. His performance is impeccable, but I wonder about some of the character and direction choices. He’s a sleazy, ridiculous and totally transparent fraud – which Kim does perfectly, but this doesn’t leave any doubt about the rightness of the family and the delusion of Orgon and his mum. It’s hard not to compare it with Malthouse’s recent version of the same work (Tartuffe), but what struck me about Marcus Graham’s Tartuffe was the creation of empathy and doubt. To feel the impact of Tartuffe’s deceit and downfall, we need to know why Orgon and his mother were so besotted with this man and wonder if the family’s opinion of him is selfish and misguided. (And, of course, it would be wrong to compare Kim’s underwear scene to Marcus’s.)

The Hypocrite is like indulging in a vanilla slice from a posh Toorak bakery. It looks scrumptious, is totally enjoyable at the time and much better than a cheap version - but the gratification doesn’t last and you know there are more substantial, nutritious or unforgettable options out there.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

22 November 2008

David Bridie and George Telek

David Bridie and George Telek
22 November 2008
The Speigeltent

David Bridie and long-time collaborator George Telek made the Speigeltent dance at their Australasian World Music Expo performance. There wasn’t actually room for the audience to dance, but the weather made the velvet canopy undulate for us, as the mirrors and coloured glass kept us safe and dry from the unseasonal Melbourne storm.

David Bridie founded my second favourite 80s band, Not Drowning Waving, and (I think) favourite 90s bands My Friend the Chocolate Cake. With film soundtracks and solo projects, he’s continued to produce an ongoing supply of his evocative and haunting sounds, smooth voice and personal lyrics.

Telek’s web site describes Telek as “a band, a man and, in some parts of the world, a legend”. With legions of fans in Papua New Guinea, he has been at the forefront of the PNG music scene since the 70s.

David met George in 1986 when he was holidaying in Rabaul, PNG, and two years later Not Drowning Waving recorded Tabaran with Telek and other musicians from the area. David Byrne declared it his favourite album of the year and Peter Gabriel was so impressed that Telek performed at WOMAD festivals and has since recorded on Gabriel’s Real World label.

Journalist Jon Casimir describes Tabaran as, “Neither exploitative nor the slightest bit anthropological ... a genuine, joyous integration of cultures, a landmark album which sounds as startlingly right today as it did in 1990.”

I bought my copy after being gobsmacked by Telek and Not Drowning Waving one hot night in the gardens at WOMADelaide. The unique fusion of traditional with contemporary sounds didn’t diminish or demean either, and it was such a joy to hear the same music, so many years later, and realise that it’s still so original and powerful.

David also pleased the assembled fans with a selection from his most recent album Succumb and favourites “Dive” and “Salt” from Act of Free Choice. He performs with a sometimes disconcerting distance from his audience, but his passion for his music is absolute and addictive.

George, David and their band sent us back into the rain with “Melbourne City”, the first song George wrote when he came to Melbourne in the late 80s – and David insists that there are still beetle nut stains on the footpath alongside Elwood beach from that visit.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

19 November 2008

Death in White Linen

Death in White Linen
Full Tilt and High Performance Company
19 November 2008
Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre

The Full Tilt program finds the best independent theatre makers and lets them lose in the Arts Centre, so more people can see the wondrous works created in tiny venues across the country.

Death in White Linen was developed in 2003 at VCA and performed at La Mama earlier this year. Writer/performer Michael Dalley insists it’s all about “how you tell your story” and fortunately, he’s a compelling and very funny story teller.

In a balanced mix of sketch, narrative and song, Dalley plays all of the characters in a story that follows three generations of a family from post-war working class Liverpool to the pre-financial crisis property boom in Melbourne’s outer suburbs. He insists that it isn’t autobiographical, but there’s no doubt that it is his story.

As the likes of Barry Humphries prove, the snobbery and pretention of our suburban middle class is wonderful comic fodder, and each of Dalley’s characters has an authentic familiarity that is instantly recognised by anyone still coming to terms with their nouveau-posh suburban upbringing and schooling dominated by more class barriers than Marx ever dreamt of.

With stand outs like the “Mating habits of the bourgeoisie” song, the jolly undergraduate review, and his recollection of Melbourne at a time of ‘Einstein on the Beach, Kennet, colonic irrigation, South Bank and John Hewson’s fight back, Death in White Linen is on its way to even greater things.

Structurally and thematically, the work does need some shaping and a good script editor to help the narrative flow smoothly, take the “sketch show” feel away from it, tighten some of the characters and convincingly incorporate the title theme of death.

A decision also needs to be made about the role of the pianist. John Thorn is his standard fabulous self, but needs to be fully incorporated into the story, given a clear character or taken off-stage. As a semi-character and practical assistant, he was distracting, rather than enhancing. (And the time he got out a biro and wrote notes on the music when he thought no one was looking...If you are on the stage, someone is looking at you!)

Michael Dalley’s a total hoot and Death in White Linen is ready to be enjoyed with a brandy crusta or vermouth and dry; it just needs some development before it’s ready for its next big step.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

15 November 2008


Malthouse Theatre and Black Lung Theatre
15 Novemebr 2008
Tower Theatre, CUB Malthouse

I’m not sure if Black Lung’s Avast is the beginnings of pure brilliance or utter crap.

Malthouse Theatre let notorious independent company Black Lung loose in the Tower Theatre, bolted the doors firmly, and left them to see what would happen.

The Tower has been transformed into a death-themed kitsch hovel, where mounted animal skulls complement the crucifixes, and an atrocious velvet matador carpet seems perfect in the inbred atmosphere.

Avast opens as dense fog ascends and a large-cocked corpse breaks out of his coffin, shoots his widow and proceeds to watch his two sons discuss their existence. One son wears black jocks, a small gun and is covered with crucifix tattoos, while the other sports a long, well-worn leather coat and spends his time in a washing machine. They’re by no means derivative.

Black Lung don’t want to create a nice night at theatr". They like to shock and see just how far they can take their subject matter. After such a strong opening and following their Deliverance-meets-Neighbours Short and Sweet play, I was ready for something dark, slightly painful and hilarious. There were moments that got there, but overall, it felt a bit flat. Sure, everything supported the premise that “As a dominant form of communication, theatre has become absurd”, but sometimes the absurdity seemed to be there because it was fun for the cast and it didn’t resonate beyond their mates in the audience.

Nonetheless, my favourite moment was the ridiculous, unexpected, but oh-so-welcome appearance of the bi-polar bear from the recent Malthouse production of Kitten. I don’t think there was any deep or metaphorical reason for the bear’s cameo. In fact, I suspect he just wandered into the Tower and the Black Lungers offered him a large blue-flavoured slushy if he’d join the cast. I also think the bear should just hang out at random shows and wander on whenever the audience seem a bit bored.

There’s room for Avast to go to a deeper, darker, more violent and more shocking level, which I think would give it the kick-in-the-guts impact it seems to be striving for.  Avast II – The Welshman Cometh is also running, so perhaps they need to be seen together to get the full picture.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Lea DeLaria is Naked

Lea DeLaria is Naked
November 14 2008
The Speigeltent

Whether your tastes were with you from birth, influenced by your upbringing, or revealed as you grew older, Lea DeLaria will convert you. You may still be in denial, but by the end of Lea DeLaria is Naked you will be an out, proud, badge-wearing jazz fan.

Oh my, can this gal sing. With a 25-year career and rave reviews, she’s belted out tunes in Broadway shows, is no stranger to Carnegie Hall and her latest album is on the Grammy ballot. Her upbeat “Miss Otis Regrets”, bebop scats and swinging “Ballad of Sweeny Todd” brought the cheering Speigeltent audience to its stamping feet. (If perchance she misses the story of swinging Sweeny - stop the show and beg her to tell you the tale. Let me just say that it involves The Rocky Horror Show, Joan Jet, marijuana, free drinks, a piano bar full of first-year music theatre students, Mr Sondheim himself and a three album contract with Warner Bros.)

Often hailed as one of the greatest jazz singers of our time (check out her MySpace page to have a listen), DeLaria stuffs every stereotype of a precious jazz ingénue into a mincer, turns it into a burger and serves it up with the best damn sauce, salad and extra-large serve of hand-cut fries you’ve ever had.

Lea won’t be offended if I use the term big, fat lesbian; in fact, she may be offended if I don’t. In 1993 DeLaria was the first openly gay comic to appear on US television and her showstopper “Butch Woman Blues” lets anyone who wasn’t sure know exactly where her tastes and preferences lie. As she has been known to yell back at fuckwits, “I’m twice the man you’ll ever be and twice the woman you’ll ever screw.”

Jazz and stand-up isn’t the most obvious coupling, but don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. DeLaria had me crying, snorting, spluttering and almost begging her to stop just so I could catch my breath. She made me laugh, too.

There’s nothing G rated about her humour – unless we’re talking spots. If fisting demonstrations (and you will be showing everyone this at the bar after the show), pussy chasing, eating Sarah Palin’s Moose burger from behind, and fucking the Bush twins isn’t your style of giggle – just go along anyway and listen to her sing.

It is so liberating to see a totally authentic performer and person. There is not a millimetre of Lea DeLaria that is not her honest, genuine and meant-to-be self. Maybe if more people believed that there is nothing wrong with how they look, think or feel there would be a lot more very happy people and amazing performers for us to enjoy.

A two-night-stand with Lea wasn’t enough for Melbourne. We only just met her and she headed off to Feast in Adelaide (and perform at the Feast festival this week), but let’s hope she comes back soon and often because she’s fucking fabulous and I’ve no doubt that she’s also a ...

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

14 November 2008

The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac

The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac
14 November 2008
The Speigeltent

As thousands paid far-too-many dollars to encourage regression and waltz at the world’s largest transportable Viennese castle, sitting inside a sports stadium; an elite group filled the Speigeltent supporting Taylor Mac, his Pandora’s suitcase and his belief that we can over turn mediocrity with pizzazz.

Taylor Mac used to share his “plays” with fellow Americans, but success at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe has led him further afield. His plays are a fusion of ukulele accompanied songs and stand-up monologue. The Be(a)st of Taylor Mac is more than just a typo; he describes it as subversive juke-box musical of the best of his Bush-era work. (Having also seen Lea DeLaria earlier, can I say how glorious it is to see artists from the USA being proud of their country’s recent voting decision.)

Taylor believes whole heartedly in beauty, but not in perfection. He is among the many bringing drag out of the Danny La Rue closet into a world that embraces the masculine and feminine in all of us. Taylor’s “finery” includes outrageously coloured and glittery make up, fishnets, dread-locked wigs or his bald head, and a changing op shop collection of frocks and high heels (which may be oppressing to women – but to him they are liberating). There’s a lot of femininity about Taylor, but it never hides or distracts from his male self.

He’s incomparable and, as he says, “Comparisons are for people who don’t have enough adjectives in their vocabulary”. Fuck-me shoes, too-much sparkle and jokes about language and grammar – what’s not to adore!

However, Taylor’s work comes from times when he wasn’t adored and from the hate that has caused pain and death to people who dare to step away from the accepted middle line. There’s a lot of fun in this show, like his piece about having to masturbate to stereotypes, but it’s supported by a backbone of material about the loss of love, and sobering reflections like his song about the 2007 shooting of 15-year-old Lawrence King.

Taylor sings that the revolution will not be masculinised. Welcoming the hetero queers in the audience, he defines queer as, “Someone who was shunned by society so much as a youth that they can never shun.”  He knows he’s usually preaching to the converted, but reminds us that we go to church to be inspired.  By the end of the night the entire “queer” audience was inspired and reminded that, “Nothing is worth doing if it doesn’t make you feel nervous”.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

13 November 2008

The Women of Troy

The Women of Troy
Malthouse Theatre and Sydney Theatre Company
13 November 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

Barrie Kosky never wants his audiences to feel too comfortable and The Women of Troy is a relentless reminder that wars continue to strip women of power, dignity and hope.

Of course, he does it in true Kosky fashion; with blood, music and a mixture of discomfort, unexpected beauty and unsettling humour. It starts with confronting violence and never lowers its intensity. By the end, we accept the constant gore, gun shots and pain as normal. I initially thought this was a pacing problem, then I realised that it was probably the point – and it was a point made damn well.

Kosky describes Euripides’s ancient work as, “one of the most searing and moving antiwar plays ever written.” With Tom Wright he adapted and condensed the script to its core, telling of a post-war time after the city of Troy has been overrun by the Greeks (with a cunning plan involving a big horse) and those left alive can only see a future of humiliation, pain and violence.

For a director who loves words, sounds and music, the impact of a Kosky show is always the visual. The music and three-person chorus (Natalie Gamsu, Queenie Van De Zandt and Jennifer Vuletic) were stunning at the time, but I’ve forgotten what they sung, and I can barely remember the script.  But the images have remained.

The direction draws on unforgettable horrific images from our current wars, supported by Alice Babidge’s design of an endless warehouse of lockers and cabinets, where blood trickles and pools, and we don’t want to see what’s behind the closed doors. Here the bloodied and bruised women are treated as carcasses, ready to be shipped off to their new owners in boxes bound with packing tape.

Robyn Nevin (as Queen Hecuba) and Melita Jurisic (as Cassandra, Andromache and Helen of Troy) are riveting. Kosky directs his performers in a way that breaks down all public personas and shows us the uncensored thoughts of the person’s inner voices and unconscious. As classical works were written without thoughts of naturalism, it’s no wonder Barrie presents them so vividly.

The choice to cast Jurisic in the three roles continues to split opinions. If you know the work, each character is clear, but it is confusing if you don’t, or haven’t read the program notes. Either way, it distracts by focussing the show on her performance (which is superb), rather than the piece as a whole.

I’m never quite sure how to read a Kosky work – which is what I love about them. He understands his own intricate interpretation and directs with a detail that supports his every thought. So, to avoid confusion, I think its best to just sit back, let the experience flow and see how you feel at the end.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

11 November 2008

Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly
Opera Australia
11 November 2008
State Theatre, the Arts Centre

Opera Australia’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was first seen in 1997. Directed by Moffatt Oxenbould, it is still powerful and relevant today and is an ideal introduction to the sweeping emotion and grand music of this wonderful art form.

The archetypal story of Pinkerton and Butterfly was inspired by a short story, a novel and (possibly) actual events, and continues to be regularly adapted.  (Boublil and Schonberg loved it so much that they based Miss Saigon on the tale, and the inspiration of Puccini’s music is unmistakeable in Les Miserables.)

When a story is so well known, there is a tendency to play the end before it happens. I’d have liked to see Act 1 directed with a greater sense of hope and love, rather than foreshadowing the tragic end. Her death isn’t what make’s us cry, it’s her loss of hope.

Nicole Youl, nonetheless, shines as Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), playing her with the belief that she can and will fly. Vocally and emotionally she paces her performance perfectly; holding back to tame the melodrama, while letting the emotion flow to its extremes when needed. She is strongly supported by Sally-Ann Russell as her maid Suzuki. The relationship of these two sustains and drives the drama of Act 2.

The design by Peter England and Robert Bryan is an example of how opulence and simplicity can blend to create something outstanding. Surrounded by water and sliding screens, the wooden stage represents home, afar and isolation. Floating candles, brightly coloured kimonos and flickering stars create a beauty and grandness that transports the story out of the everyday into the universal. However, it wasn’t designed for the State Theatre and the sight lines from the front rows miss much of the overall picture.  Choose seats at least half way back in the stalls or head to the balconies.

My only concern with the beautiful production is movement. I don’t expect opera performers to be dancers, but they can be choreographed to be less uncomfortable as they sweep across the vast stage. The movement of the chorus was particularly rigid and lacked character and purpose. The chorus role is minimal, but they are vital to for the drama and visual impact of Act 1. Last year I sat in the same theatre watching Robert Wilson direct a rehearsal of The Temptation of St Anthony.  He ensured that the most seemingly insignificant person on that stage knew how essential they were to the stage picture and choreographed their every move. This attention to detail turned a beautiful production into something exquisite.

Minor quibbles aside, this passionate production proves the vitality of opera, and I heard many opera subscribers declaring it the best Madama Butterfly that they had ever seen.

Finally, I have just heard about the sad and sudden passing of Richard Hickox. Hickox was the Music Director of Madama Butterfly, which continues to stand as a testament to his great talent.

This appeared on AussieTheatre.com

02 November 2008

Guest Review: Charles Dickens performs A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens performs A Christmas Carol
Eagles Nest Theatre
2 November 2008
The Speigeltent

Review by Laura Hamilton

This production tells Dickens’ story in a way I imagine is close to how he would have wanted it told, staying true to the traditional English way of performance.

Conveying a tale about the values of money versus humanity, Phil Zachariah is Charles Dickens, alone on stage for 2 hours as he enlightens us with a lively, animated interpretation of Dickens’ famous Christmas Carol story. In embodying Dickens, it is obvious Zachariah has done plenty of period characters throughout his acting career – he completely looks and sounds as if he belongs in the year 1840. In what is a massive undertaking for one actor, what Zachariah does best is personify a storyteller. With hardly any props or set, the challenge is obvious, and his changes in vocal intonation and physical embodiment meant he was incredibly successful in creating the illusion, the image; a very important factor in this type of show.

The Spiegeltent is an ideal venue for hosting a show with such traditional beginnings. It made it easier to imagine the creation of this production – I could see Dickens’ reading his own prose to an adoring audience of all ages in a quaint cabaret-type venue. At times this production had me slightly restless, but I think that is more a result of the action-packed, a-scene-a-minute type theatre that we are increasingly presented with in the industry. James Adler’s production of A Christmas Carol challenges the audience to rely on nothing but the script and the actor, and that’s certainly not a bad thing.

I really enjoyed seeing such an old story told to a packed out, thoroughly modern mix of audience members ranging in age from 6 to 86 – proving that so may years on, Dickens’s appeal still remains widely varied.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

01 November 2008


Company B and Malthouse Thearte
1 November 2008
Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse

The telling of stories is how we remember, grow and learn.  Yibiyung tells the story of writer Dallas Winmar’s Nan who lived at a time when, “You just did things because it was all you knew.”

I think I can safely say that the key demographics of the Malthouse audience are: liberal, middle class, over-educated, fond of Sauvignon Blanc and own “Sorry” t-shirts. So I wonder if “we” are the right audience for this story.

Yibiyung the most traditional “play” I’ve seen at the Malthouse in a long while. Its dramatic telling was predictable, the characters could do with some fleshing out and complexity, it followed a well-worn structural path, and told a well known story. Those unfamiliar with this story may have found it more compelling. It may actually be clear and bland enough for the likes of Little Johnny H to understand. (He’s got some free time now, but I’m guessing he still chose to watch “Dancing with the Stars” instead of going to that theatre.)

I wanted a more complex and ambiguous story, but I came back to director Wesley Enoch’s program notes.  “At the heart of every story lies the reason for telling it. Sometimes these reasons are personal and therapeutic, and sometimes the story takes on a social/political role – a national metaphor – and is told for the benefit of many. The stories of the Stolen Generation are like that.”

If Yibiyung was fiction, it would be a different story. Winmar is telling us her Nan’s story and has chosen to tell it with love, respect and honesty. Louise Gough’s dramaturgy crafted its telling, but never let Winmar’s voice become secondary. And it is Winmar’s story that is being shared with us, including the letters and official correspondence about Yibiyung (thanks to the Freedom of Information Act) and the Noongar language of Western Australia spoken without unnecessary translation.

Enoch concludes, “In a post-apology world the need to tell these stories has not evaporated.” Yibiyung is a story that needs to be told, but there’s room in the telling for some new layers.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

30 October 2008

Two Little Spiels: A Double Bill

Two Little Spiels: A Double Bill
We Could Live Here

A Preamble
Friday October 3 2008

There’s big glitzy shows at the Fringe hub, but don’t forget the little gems that are sparkling away in hidden corners of the city. Two Little Spiels is two shows in early stages of development: We Could Live Here, devised and performed by Bron Battern and Karina Smith, and A Preamble, devised and performed by Eva Johansen.

Both still have rough edges, but the shiny, glittery and diamond-hard cores of these works are clearly visible, and a tiny room above a Smith St cafe is the perfect place to see them.

No matter how much you rehearse, think and re-work a performance, theatre doesn’t live until it has an audience. Work in progress performances let artists discover where the connections are and what ideas should be developed.

Remarkably beautiful images emerge from the movement-based We Could Live Here. Battern and Smith use slowness, stillness and quiet to evoke memory and combine it with a slightly dark sense of humour that adds an almost bitter poignancy to the “tea with diamonds”. However, even though sadness and regret are delightfully contrasted with hope and imagination – I’m not sure if I was meant to walk away feeling hopeful or fearful about being a single, old woman.

Johansen is best known for her work with the wonderful kabaret troupe Caravan of Love. A Preamble is her first solo work, which she promises isn’t just about “women’s issues and post-coitalism”. An original balance of clown and ingénue, she effortlessly switches from slapstick routine to heat-breaking, room-silencing song. The contrast is sometimes contradictory, but the two sides will soon combine into a pretty amazing character, who will prove how it is possible to be sexy AND funny.

With such solid bases and obvious connections with their audiences, the next step for both shows should be external direction. To reach their full potential they need input from someone who doesn’t have the creators' personal attachment.

Be prepared for is quite a long break in between shows, but make sure you see both – and use it as an excuse for a piece of cake or a cocktail.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com.

24 October 2008


MIAF 2008
24 October 2008
Fairfax Studio, The Arts Centre

The lesson I learnt from Appetite is: Never have a performer dry hump a whole roast suckling-pig while your protagonist is pouring out her heart and soul.

With an artistic pedigree including director Kate Denborough, writer Ross Mueller, performer Catherine McClements; a long development process; and the support of MIAF and the Arts Centre, I expected Appetite to be the kind of work that would take these Melbourne-based creatives to the world.

Fusing physical theatre/dance with drama and music, it’s about 39-year-old Louise, who is struggling with aging, realising she’s a middle class urban cliché and wondering what happened to her youthful aspirations. This should have spoken to me (and most of the assembled audience) and left me a blubbering mess of self-recognition, empathy and inspiration.

Instead, I thought that the Emperor, the Empress and all the assembled court were all starkers.

There were some beautiful and remarkable moments. Denborough’s captivating dance pieces were physically inventive and showed us everything we needed to know about the characters and their relationships. McClements has never failed to engage me on a stage, and her performance was the best it could be.  But the good bits just made the less-good bits seem even worse.

I thought Appetite was under-written, under-directed, and filled with middle-class clichés and one dimensional characters. Louise’s middle class existence has become so middle class that she has everything she could ever need – but having family, friends, material excess, and a husband-who-turns-down-her-hot-sister all suck in her mind. She wants her life to have meaning and “remember how to smile”. So she miserably wanders like a ghost around her party, as her mates get pissed and behave like teenagers on schoolies week.

We learnt nothing about her that we didn’t know from the first scene. Nothing surprised me, moved me or made me care.  As Mueller writes superbly about loss and discontent, I kept waiting for her to lose something. Instead, her wealthy, good-looking hubby declares that he loves her and that they will embark on a “life like we are falling in love every day”. I’m afraid that we were meant to believe this – however nothing on that stage made me believe that he loved her and their party behaviour indicated that they would wake up hung over, and conveniently forget their drunken late-night promises.

Appetite obviously embraces food and hunger as metaphor, but it seemed to be used more for its joke value than its symbolism. (And it is unfortunate that it is on the same week as flour and bread are used so perfectly in OKS’s Romeo and Juliet). Louise’s character climax revolves around two monologues that might have been the most incredibly written and life changing words every uttered - but I couldn’t hear them because the audience were too busy laughing at the physical action. I can see how this was an ironic comic counterpoint to her revelation, but all it did was distract. The distractions were fabulously funny and perfectly executed – but nothing can compete with simulated sex with a roasted whole pig.

If Appetite was satire, I think it would have struck a stronger chord. I searched the program notes for a hint that it was meant to be funny, but it’s about Louise being “inspired to change”. Perhaps I just didn’t see what inspired her.

This review appeared on AussieThearte.com

23 October 2008

Romeo and Juliet

MIAF 2008
Romeo and Juliet  
OKT and Melbourne International Arts Festival
23 October 2008
Playhouse, The Arts Centre

With so many Romeo and Juliets out there, is it necessary to bring a three and a half hour contemporary Lithuanian production to Melbourne?

OKT was formed by Oskarus Koršunovas in 1999 and was awarded the status of Vilnius City Theatre in 2004. With a determination to find a new way to communicate with audiences, the company aims to "stage classics as if they were modern dramaturgy and modern dramaturgy as if they were classics".

Koršunovas said in the post-show Q and A that we are limited in what we can express with just words, and I really don’t have the words to adequately describe the complexity, depth and perfection of this Romeo and Juliet.

Layered and original, there isn’t a wasted moment in this production filled with the kind of imagery, metaphor and symbolism that prove the unrivalled power of theatre. As the stylised and highly choreographed direction swings from hilarious and crude to delicate and personal, the pure physicality of the performance is astonishing. Words and expression oppose each other, revealing the depths of the story and the hatred and difference that created their world.

The Shakespeare stereotypes are rejected for whole and surprising characters. This is a production where you feel as much for Mercutio, Tybalt and Paris, as you do for the young lovers, and see the tradition, the love and the hate that motivates every action.

This Verona is placed in two opposing but similar family pizza kitchens. This domestic, but public and familiar scene is a source of humour that gradually becomes the frame for the inevitable tragic events. The pain of life takes place in the everyday and familiar, as the bread and flour that sustain life become the symbol of poison and death.

I think the genius of Shakespeare is his complex and intertwining stories, not his iambic pentameter, and seeing a production in another language lets us focus more on story than language. The surtitles are there to be read, but they are an English translation of the Lithuanian translation, so the words become a reference, rather than the focus.

Arts festivals let us see and be inspired by the absolute best. OKS have set the bar pretty high and I now want to see theatre this good from our local companies.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

22 October 2008

That Night Follows Day

MIAF 2008
That Night Follows Day
Tim Etchells
and Victoria and Melbourne International Arts Festival

22 October 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

It’s comforting to know that all children add Earth, the Solar System and the Universe to addresses, and that little girls always tuck their skirts into their pants when they hand upside down. It is less comforting to see how much children are confused by, resent and are angry with adults.

That Night Follows Day is devised, written and directed by Tim Etchells, who directed Bloody Mess (Forced Entertainment) at MIAF 2005. His cast of 16 children and young people from Belgium speak as a chorus directly to the lit audience.

The script is a complex and remarkably structured list of what “you” (adults) do for and tell children and what “we” (children) promise to do. As adults we sing to children; we tell them about The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Spice Girls; we tell them not to drink bleach; and explain the plots of movies to them. In return, they promise to dress nicely, be as good as gold and not say asshole or motherfucker. It’s not hard to recognise the children in our own lives or the children we once were.

As an adult, it can be confronting to see and hear what children think of us. The loving recognition of calling kids “Pumpkin” delicately turns as their anger at forever being told “no” is exposed and the lies and tricks adults think they get away with are presented back to us.

This world clearly differentiates between the “us” of adult and the “them” of children. This was strange as 9-year-old and a 15-year-old expressed the same beliefs. The gap between these age groups is so much greater than a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old “adult”. The unasked question is when do these children and young people join our adult world, or when did we leave theirs?

The exceptional young cast contributed to the script, but are still very clearly directed and controlled by Etchells. There is no room for mistake or interpretation, even in the chaotic playground scene where the children do all the things adults don’t want them to do.

With such a strong adult directorial voice coming though the work, there is some doubt to the authenticity of the opinions being expressed, but not enough to lessen its impact.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

17 October 2008

El Automovil Gris

MIAF 2008
El Automovil Gris  
Theatro De Ciertos Habitantes and Melbourne International Arts Festival
17 October 2008
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse

Tonight I was very nearly involved in late-night violence on the 67 tram, as an outraged  80-plus woman nearly threw me out the door for not loving El Automovil Gris. Luckily, we both liked the Glass, otherwise there’s no telling what might have happened! At the half-way mark, this festival continues to evoke extreme reactions.

It really is black or white. People love or hate some of these shows. It’s beyond me how some folk scoffed at An Oak Tree, in the same way that my new tram-friend couldn’t fathom that I wasn’t enamoured by Mexican company Theatro De Ciertos Habitantes.

Their show is black and white. It’s a black and film. 

In Japan at the end of the 19th century, live presenters called the Benshi accompanied silent film. Adding voice and narration, the Benshi were often the drawing cards to the screenings as they added context, character and social commentary to these films made far away from Japan. This production is a contemporary interpretation and re-enactment of a Benshi accompanied film. In this case, the 1919 silent film El Automovil Gris, a semi-factual account of a band of thieves who terrorised Mexico City during the Mexican Revolution. The most fascinating thing about the film is that it incorporates the actual film of the gang being executed.

This Benshi commentary freely switches from Japanese to Spanish to English. The subtitles are just as freely interpreted, with changing fonts and languages, which get more and more visually interesting as the film progresses.

It all sounds really interesting – but I just didn’t get it. The performers were faultless, the live upright piano soundtrack was perfect, the idea is unique and there were some wonderfully absurd moments, but to me it was just funny voices, “cross-eyed” acting and laughing at the incongruity of the languages and cultural images. It is funny to see “mother fuckers” as a subtitle on a silent film, as we hear it said in Spanish or Japanese – but was there anything more to it than a series of strange jokes?

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com

15 October 2008

Circus Trick Tease

Circus Trick Tease
October 2008
Lithuanian Club

Circus Trick Tease bring circus to theatre and theatre to circus in their fresh, original and joyously naughty Fringe debut.

The Trick Tease trio are Miss Tinkle (Malia Walsh), the fickle and neurotic superstar; Mr Plonk (
Shannon McGurgan), the self-proclaimed sensitive new age strong man, with 70s porn star tendencies; and Ghazanfar (Farhad Ahadi), who is from overseas.

Their performance is a terrific combination of character clowning and super-slick circus trick. This alone is worth the price of a ticket, but the ongoing story of their raunchy offstage relationships takes this show to an irresistible level.

Their humour balances slapstick with a wet-fish slap of irony, and is almost as seamless as their jaw-dropping acrobalance. They compete for attention, compete with each other and play with the fact that acrobats really do have to see each other from extremely intimate and revealing angles. Highlights include Ghazanfar’s quaint balloon animal and juggling performance, accompanied by the shadows of Tinkle and Plonk’s backstage antics, and the final ménage-a-tois inspired swing number. 

It was a joy to discover such a highly polished and hilarious act. I can’t wait to see their next show.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com