28 January 2015

Review: The Jacobeans

The Jacobeans
Bagabus Inc
23 January 2015
Club Voltaire
to 7 February

Bagabus Inc are Hannah Malarski and Jack Richardson. They brought the delightfully dark Bushpig to the Melbourne Fringe in 2013 and are back for Midsumma with The Jacobeans, an equally dark and satirical exploration of the imbalance of power between men and women.

That makes it sound like it's all "hear me roar"; it's not. It's subtle and honest with a power that gently builds and packs its punch at the end as it circles back to beginning and the whole show is seen with a clearer perspective.

With a series of vignettes, it starts in the Dark Ages with a peasant woman dreaming of a day where she doesn't peel potatoes. It stays in the later-but-just-as-dark-ages with Freud and Jung knowing all about female orgasms; Saint Joan talking to God, who really doesn't care; a suffragette trying to explain her hunger strike to her husband who wants her out of gaol; and Julie Andrews dealing with Mickey Mouse and a three-toed sloth called Jeremy.

It can be frustrating to find the link in these mis-matched stories, especially as each is more short play than sketch, with its own tone, reflection and complete story, but there is clarity.

On a knife edge between satire and despair, or maybe anger, each looks at the love between women and men (platonic, comfortable, sexual, fearful and everything else along the scale) and how this love could be what keeps the power out of balance. But with or without love or not, the power isn't equal and even the strongest women are left knowing that they're not going to win – yet.

A dining chair and fake grass design lets each piece begin with a blank slate while the exceptional lighting, by Zoe Atterbury, declares the mood, creates vivid worlds, and makes the small and awkward space seem so much bigger than it is.

Which leaves Malarski and Richardson, who developed, wrote and perform the piece. They work beautifully together, bringing a complex understanding and empathy to all of their characters and ensuring that every character tells their own unique story. Both also know that the best clowning comes from an uncomfortable truth and that the best way to face and such truths is through laughter and story.

The more I think about this show, the more I like it. It's easy to enjoy the surreal stories and the terrific performances, but there's a deeper understanding that comes when it's seen as a whole, and I look forward to seeing this duo continue to develop new work.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

Review: Changeling

Camille O'Sullivan
Arts Centre Melbourne
22 January 2015
Fairfax Studio
to 24 January

Camille O'Sullivan knows that if she wants to move to Melbourne, she'll have adoring fans and endless friends eager to see her do anything, meow on the streets with her and invite her to dinner. She's something else. And then some. And there are only two more chances to see her Changeling at Arts Centre Melbourne.

O'Sullivan was last in Melbourne in 2013 in her solo performance of the Royal Shakespeare Society's remarkable The Rape of Lucrece. It left me shaking. I wrote: "... her voice comes from her heart and she sings with an emotion that comes from somewhere so deep and personal that it feels like every word was written for her."

What she said.

Changeling is an album and a stage show of songs O'Sullivan didn't write. They're songs from the likes of Tom Waits, Nick Cave, Jacques Brel, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen and Radiohead; she sings them like they were written for her. With a voice as lush and smooth as rolling naked in velvet that surprises with sharp and shining sequins, she takes male point-of view songs, finds the emotion at the heart of the song and turns it into something that celebrates everything about the original song while being almost unrecognisable.

And she shares the absolute joy of singing these songs. Emotion is laid bare and there are no barriers between her and her audience. A lot of work has gone into making the music and words hers, but she is her authentic self on the stage. At times she's turned up to 11, but there's no doubt that every emotion on show comes from something very real.

And that's how you reach the heart of everyone in your audience (even before we sang "Ship Song" together).

She's supported by three Australian musicians and a light show made from frocks, mirror balls, candles, fairy lights and a rabbit lamp. It's simple and so beautiful, and makes the formal Fairfax studio feel as welcoming and decadent as the Spiegeltent, where O'Sullivan first performed.

Arts Centre Melbourne is programming some terrific stuff in the Fairfax this summer. Tom Crouch's wonderful I, Malvolio has finished, Changeling is this week and Paul Capsis in Little Bird opens next week.

And if you missed Changeling, it's off to Brisbane and the Adelaide Fringe.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

25 January 2015

Review: Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom
Global Creatures et al
17 January 2014
Her Majesty's Theatre

Strictly Ballroom began when NIDA student Baz Luhrmann led a student-devised piece in 1984. This production went on to play at the Czechoslovakian World Youth Drama Festival in 1986 and, with new designer Catherine Martin, was performed in Brisbane and Sydney in 1988 by the new Six Years Old company, directed by Luhrmann. This led to the film that opened in Cannes in 1992, won a pool room of prestigious film prizes and ran for over a year in Australian cinemas. The musical version opened in Sydney in 2014 and this time the critical acclaim was silent. So it was tightened up before it opened in Melbourne.

I saw the 1988 version in Sydney. I loved this small show and the story of Scott and Fran going against the rules of ballroom dancing to be their true selves. Made with heart and guts, it celebrated an authentic Australian suburban voice and told a story that, despite its inevitable ending, twisted and turned like the dancing it celebrated. It was also made with a budget that wouldn't buy the new seat covers of the musical.

The film took the heart and guts of the play, but let it be bigger and placed it firmly in Sydney so that the famous Coke billboard in Kings Cross is mostly known for being in Strictly Ballroom, and placed it so deeply in the hearts of Australians that it remains one of our most-loved films.

And it let Lurhmann and Martin go on to make more films that are very loved, and equally not loved.

The nostalgic passion for this little-film-that-did will sell tickets to the new stage version, which is, as much as it can be, the film on stage.

From the Coke sign to the dialogue and from the colour of the gowns to Scott's famous knee slide across the floor, this time carried on the shoulders of dancers, everything on the stage is recognisable and referential. Except there's more of it.

There's no new story or extended characters, but there's more music, incuding "Time After Time", from the film; "Perhaps, perhaps", made famous by Doris Day; and the Melbourne addition of a couple songs by satirical wonder Eddie Perfect. Unlike the cultural mish-mash of music that works in Lurhmann's films, on a musical stage, the lack of musical consistency distracts from the story. As characters stop to sing, the story stops and re-starts, losing tension and bringing it into the world of the original music. And that's before the new Baz lyrics; a rhyme is not a lyric. (If only Eddie had been brought in on day one.)

The apparent fear of not being the film also leaves little room for the performers (who are some of our best) to bring themselves to the characters and make them their own. A couple overcome this, but most have the consistent control that ensures that no one will notice when an understudy slips in, and most are copies of performances created over 20 years ago.

Being like the film, it's still set in the 1980s of wacky printed lycra and frizzy hair but it doesn't comment on the 80s or look at that time from today. The film story is known, so why not add something, twist it or tell a new story circa 2014? Scott and Fran running a dance studio that's stuck in the 80s and their own kids rebelling?

At its best, this lavish show celebrates the time and ballroom dancing. It's also at its best when it's satirising the time and the dance. But the tone jumps around so much that it's hard to know what we're meant to be feeling; laughing at them or laughing with them?

Where it can't help but shine is Catherine Martin's design. Glorious gaudy and made from enough sequins to cover Mount Kosciuszko, it celebrates the outrageousness of ballroom and turns the sparkle up so high that that any imperfections are lost in the glare.

But sparklier doesn't mean better. We don't have to look far – cough, Lion King re-opens in Melbourne very soon – to be reminded that a successful musical based on a film doesn't have to look anything like the film.

Strictly Ballroom has the kind of pedigree and talent and support that should let it be astonishing. It  should be the sort of show that re-defines Australian music theatre and runs for years. And there are moments, like the Spanish dance scene that closes Act 1 (after the Carmen re-write), where the show comes together and brings the audience into its world, but these moments of magic and heart also highlight how dull the rest of it is.

Sadly no amount of sparkle can cover dull. Let's hope that it keeps changing and is allowed to become the show it should be.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

22 January 2015

Mini review: Anton and Olaf, a fruity fairytale

Anton and Olaf: a fruity fairytale
La Mama
21 January 2015
La Mama courtyard
to 1 February

La Mama's Midsumma show for kids is Anton and Olaf: a fruity fairytale.

There's no squeezing into the dark theatre, as this puppet adventure made from cardboard and fruit uses  the outside courtyard – all the way down to the street. There are trees, big umbrellas and lots of coloured parasols for shade; cushions, rugs and chairs to sit on; water spray bottles; and frozen treats at the end. 

Chris Molyneux and Zenta Schuber tell the story about two kings and an empress (Jack Beeby, Russ Pirie and Annabel Warmington) who need to decide who's going to rule the kingdom. The cardboard sets and puppets are gorgeous, and the messages that women are powerful and that being nice is better than being mean are always winners. The performers are terrific, but the story needs to tighten up (including less impro for the adults) and have some real stakes.

The ridiculously wonderful children's writer Mem Fox says this about trouble (stakes) in children's books: "The trouble must be trouble on a grand scale. It must be the kind of trouble that works its way into the depths of children’s souls and makes their hearts sink into bleakness and despair. Momentary despair, of course!" The book she is talking about is Where is the Green Sheep, a picture book of 190 words.

Never compromise on story when writing for children; they'll love you all the more for it.

None of which makes thus fruity show any the less fun. Make your grown-ups take you.

Photos by Dorine Blaise

20 January 2015

Review: Softly Pouting ...

Softly pouting while walking into breezes
MUST, La Mama
14 January 2015
La Mama
to 1 February
Photo by Sarah Walker

Softly pouting while walking into breezes started as a MUST (Monash Uni Student Theatre) show that was so popular that it needed to be seen by more people and found its way to La Mama for Midsumma.

With vignettes of memories, it's story of first-love-gone-bad-before-it-ever-had-the-chance-to-be-good. Ben, who is played by all eight male and female cast members, is lonely and embarrassed and afraid that he blew his one chance (in the bad way).

Playwright Jake Stewart is off to VCA this year and is a writer to keep an eye on. With a conscious wit, he captures the intense over-sharing and over-analysing passion of young adulthood. It reminded me of the endless times I fell in love at uni; every one was real, those who still make me smile and those whose names are lost. He's still to discover the real joy of cutting his darling words, but the over-writing and over-referencing feels right with the over-thinking of the Bens about the boy he loves.

He also has another show on at Midumma: Sexy Dead Schoolboys.

The cast grab the script with all their hearts, which have each known the tingly exhilaration and sweaty humiliation of love. They all bring themselves to their Ben, which makes it feel like there is a part of everyone's story on the stage. Awkward love is for all, after all.

Director Jessica McLaughlin Cafferty ensures that all the Bens have their moment and never lets any Ben overshadow the rest. She and the design team take advantage of the intimacy of the tiny La Mama space, while never letting the it be too small for a song and dance or too big to lose a moment of closeness.

As the best selfies come from softly pouting while walking into breezes, this is a love story from the generation who grew up with smart phones, social media and over sharing – and they show that it feels no different from us who wrote notes in class and left messages on answering machines.

This was on AussieTheatre.com

16 January 2015

Review: I, Malvolio

I, Malvolio
Tim Crouch, presented by Arts Centre Melbourne
7 January 2015
Fairfax Studio
to 11 January

I saw Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree at the 2008 Melbourne Festival. It assured me that I'd see anything he created and I Malvolio has confirmed my commitment.

Crouch is from Brighton in the UK and he makes theatre that embraces and confronts the assumptions that audiences and performers take into a theatre.

This is the fourth work he's created in which he re-tells a Shakespeare story from the perspective of one character.  I, PeaseblossomI, Caliban and I, Banquo were part of a project for children and young people to discover Shakespeare in different and accessible ways. Although certainly welcoming for young audiences, I, Malvolio was devised for everyone and its 2014 Sydney and Brisbane seasons sold out.

Malvolio is the duped pompous servant in Twelfth Night who's easy to laugh at, in his yellow cross-gartered stockings, and easy to forget, when everyone else dances off to a happy-ever-after.

By unpacking the story as Malvolio sees it, Crouch invites us to see the clown as a man who glimpsed the one hope of love in his sad life and had it viciously ripped away. This re-telling alone is fascinating – almost like looking at the backstory preparation of an obsessive method actor – but it's not the brilliance of the work.

This Malvolio, who begins the show in fly-ridden underwear after the humiliating jest has been discovered, drops the convention that a performer is a character. As the friendly performer who loves his audience and the contemptuous character who wishes ill to all who watch him, he talks with the audience and makes even the reluctant a willing part of the story. He encourages humiliating laughter, dares anyone to trick him and, literally, invites a kick in the arse, but turns it all back on those by asking why we did it.

Why do we laugh at the duped, the ugly and the stupid? While Crouch is far from any of these, as the house lights never dim to the safely of darkness, each show becomes a one-off conversation about the strange cruelty of theatre audiences who are willing and eager to watch people suffer.

The good-looking and wealthy people in Twelfth Night are horrible to Malvolio, but they are the ones cheered for. Shakespeare knew why. So does Crouch. And we know we'll keep on cheering and laughing.

I, Malvolio is on at Arts Centre Melbourne until Sunday. Be warned that you might want to see it again.

This was on AussieTheatre.com