28 November 2018

What Melbourne Loved in 2018, part 1

This is my favourite end-of-year tradition. Melbourne's theatre community talks about what they  loved this year. We hear from critics, directors, actors, writers, designers and people who simply see a LOT of theatre.

This series reminds us how much reviews and criticism are just small part of the reaction to a show. Shows that didn't get great reviews are still loved and shows that got piles of those darn stars can be forgotten.  It also reminds us – yes publicists, I'm talking to you – that discussion and writing continue long after a season finishes.

We start with two SM regulars and a first timer.

I was going to wait until 1 December but Stephen talks so wonderfully about The Director, which is still on this week. I also adored this show.

Everyone is welcome to contribute. Your memories and moments don't have to have been something you saw on a stage, and sometimes one sentence is all you need.

Here's the Google form to write your contribution.

Stephen Nicolazzo
Little Ones Theatre

Steven Nicolazzo

Favourite moments in 2018

My favourite moment in Melbourne theatre happened just last night (now last week) at Lara Thoms's The Director (Arts House). This work was a deftly handled and emotionally liberating exploration of the ritual of death and inescapable grief. It was told with such openness that catharsis seemed to take place not just for the audience but for the performers as well. It was like a strange and intimate conjuring of grief and joy that no one saw coming. Experiencing a work that made notions of your own mortality both humorous and heart-breaking in a room full of your peers and strangers, unexpectedly struck a chord so deep within me I didn't think I could access such emotion. It was an astonishing thing. I am so pleased to have experienced The Director and grateful to the artists who created it. Its performance that while serious in some of its content, still had the smarts to laugh at it self and the thing some of us (including me) fear the most. I just found it so refreshing and absorbing as a result.

The other brilliant moment of 2018 was Joel Bray’s work Dharawungara as part of Chunky Move's Next Move 11. It was spectacular: a stunning, clever and moving rite of passage mixing story telling, dance and visual theatre. Designed by the glorious Kate Davis (of The Rabble) and with live score by Naretha Williams, this piece was a special one. New form, humour, and queer aesthetics all rolled into one piece. It was a divine and holy experience.

I also truly admired and love love love LOVED everything about Going Down by Michelle Lee (especially Catherine Davies's performance and the entire ensemble. It was just the funniest, brightest, smartest piece of theatre of the year!).

Other truly brilliant, touching and inspiring works were: Moral Panic (Rachel Perks and Bridget Balodis), Lone (The Rabble), Prehistoric (Elbow Room) and Samara Herch and Chambermade Opera's Dybbuks.

Looking forward to in 2019
I am looking forward to Dance Massive the most. I always find this festival so friggen inspiring. I'm also excited to see whatever is happening at Darebin Arts and Jennifer Vuletic's performance in Arbus and West at MTC. Golden Shield looks really interesting too!

SM: I first saw a Little Ones Theatre show in 2009. If I can, I'll keep seeing every show Stephen creates with his company, even if I don't gush every time. Stephen's had an up and down year with the critics. My favourite of his works this year was Suddenly Last Summer at Red Stitch, which I saw it on the last weekend. He queered a queer text; it was glorious. And great news that his Merciless Gods gets a return season at Arts Centre Melbourne in 2019.

Keith Gow
Playwright and critic
Keith Gow. Selfie

Favourite moments in 2018
Before I talk about what happened on stage, let me first give a shout out to Witness Performance – a new outlet for discussing theatre in Melbourne (and to a lesser extent, Australia), both critically and historically. Witness has brought Alison Croggon back to regularly writing about theatre and also given a platform to First Nation’s critic Clarissa Lee, as well as welcoming other new critics from diverse backgrounds throughout the year. As other avenues for critical writing shrink, Witness is putting out long form, thoughtful critical reactions to theatre that is vital for robust discussion, as well as being a strong historical record. Admittedly, I am slightly biased, having written for Witness a few times this year, as well as having Rob Reid review my Fringe show there.

On stage, I will have seen over 100 shows by the time this year is finished. I saw amazing work all over Melbourne this year. From Hir at Red Stitch to Abigail’s Party at MTC to Blackie Blackie Brown at Malthouse to Prize Fighter at Northcote Town Hall to Songs for a Weary Throat at Arts Centre Melbourne to The Mission at Arts House to Sleepover Gurlz in a bedroom in Fitzroy to Sneakyville at 45 Downstairs to The Nightingale and the Rose at Theatre Works.

Perhaps the absolute highlight of the year was Angus Cerini’s The Bleeding Tree. After two sell-out seasons in Sydney (at Griffin and STC), I’m so grateful that Arts Centre Melbourne programmed this show. It's a stunning work about family violence and its aftermath. Exquisite writing, extraordinary performances. Bracing, upsetting and poetic.

And to bring things full circle, one of the great things Witness has been doing this year is hosting Live Nights after certain shows for audience members to discuss what they have seen. The Bleeding Tree was one of their Live Night events. As a critic, sometimes I need to sit with a show for a while to know what to say. I’m so glad to have had an outlet to discuss this show right after I saw it, because it was so good and we all had so much to discuss. I think I loved the show more after the discussion, even though there were definitely elements that needed examination – and hearing other people’s points of view had me considering things I hadn’t thought about. Great show, great post-show discussion.

Looking forward to in 2019
I’m looking forward to what Bryce Ives does at Theatre Works. I’m looking forward to hearing more about La Mama rising from the ashes of its devastating fire this year. I’m excited for lots of things the Malthouse are doing like Wake in Fright and Solaris and Australian Realness. And I’m glad Little Ones’s Merciless Gods is returning  at Arts Centre Melbourne.

SM: I always like Keith's reviews and have loved reading his writing for Witness this year. He brings a playwright's perspective to his criticism and isn't afraid to let his writing be a work of art in itself.

Andrea McCannon

Andrea McCannon. Photo by Alex Vaughan

Favourite moments in 2018
I think my favourite show has been The Bachelor S17 E5, presented by La Mama at the Brunswick Mechanics Insitute. It was a hilarious and unexpectedly moving verbatim rendition of an episode of the USA version of the reality TV show The Bachelor with a really interesting cast. It took something of no substance and made it say so much. My favourite moment was when the ditched drag queen de-frocked and unpacked their suitcase full of rose petals. It was beautiful and heartbreaking. I loved it.

I also want to say that the resilience of the La Mama team and the strength of their community has been totally inspiring this year.

Looking forward to in 2019
Lightning Jar Theatre are mounting Mr Burns: A Post Electric Play at 45 Downstairs in February and I’m so excited for this production. Their previous two shows, Stupid Fucking Bird and Venus in Furs, were brilliantly performed and they’ve assembled a wonderful cast for this show. It’s such a fantastic script – funny and affecting and so bloody clever. I can’t wait to see what they do with it.

SM: I've seen Andrea in more shows than I've written about seeing her in. This year, I saw her in the last performance of Just A Boy Standing in Front of a Girl by 15 Minutes from Anywhere (another one of my favourite indie companies). Hopefully this is a show that will also get a return season, with the same cast.




25 November 2018

Contribute: What Melbourne Loved in 2018

It's time for the those end-of-year best-of lists.

The Director. It's on at ArtsHouse this week. It's great! Photo by Bryony Jackson

Here at SM, we celebrate more than star ratings and adjectives and out-of-context quotes.

We share those moments that made us remember why we love theatre. We share our love for artists, creatives, writers, companies, makers, those who work behind the scenes, and all those everyone who make the theatre industry in Melbourne so damn awesome.

Everyone is welcome to contribute. I can promise you that people want to read about the shows, artists and moments you loved.

And, as I've had a quiet writing year, readers need all of your voices to build that archive of shows from 2018. (I might poke some of you so that I can write something about work of yours that I saw and wasn't able to write about.)

Last year, our most loved show was Nanette by Hannah Gadsby. This year, as she performed it in the UK and the USA and it was released on Netflix, the rest of the world agreed with us. Time has just declared it the best stand up show of 2018. SM readers knew this.

As always, all you have to do is answer these questions and send a photo that you like.

And if you want to hear from someone, ask them.

What was your favourite moment in Melbourne theatre in 2018? 

What are you looking forward to in Melbourne theatre in 2019?

To make it even easier this year, here's a Google form.

Or you can email.



23 November 2018

Interview: The Director

The Director
Part of the Mere Mortals series at Arts House
Lara Thoms, artist
Scott Turnbull, funeral director

on until 2 December

The Director. Lara Thoms, Scott Turnbull, Photo by Bryony Jackson

A funeral director, a site-specific performance artist and a journalist walk into a bar…

It’s not the set up for a joke, but there’s been lot of laughing and unexpected joy at Arts House this month with the Mere Mortals program about death and dying.

So far, live art experiences have included dying in a hospital bed in The Infirmary, talking about end-of-life choices and going to a wake in vigil/wake, and lying under a tree listening to a description of how a body decomposes in Bushland (which also runs on 1 and 2 December – book; it's so cool).

This week, the wonderful Ridiculusmus present a show called Die! Die! Die! Old People Die! and there's the premier of a new work called The Director, created and performed by a funeral director and a theatre director.

I interviewed Scott Turnball and Lara Thoms, who will be co-artistic director of Aphids next year, for The Age.

The first thing Scott Turnbull asked me was if I'd brought beer to the interview. No. So, naturally, we went to the pub and talked about death and funerals. And laughed, a lot.

Opinion: #IStandWithEJ


EJ's headshot

I wrote this for ArtsHub a couple weeks ago. It's been read more than any review I've written.

Everything about this case and this situation is deplorable, except the support for EJ that's coming from the theatre industry.

The response shows just how important it is that we keep talking about harassment in our theatre and arts work places.

The stories that get written about barely scrape the surface of those that get talked about between friends.

It has to stop.

Know that if it's happening to you, you will be believed and supported. Even if everyone else in the room thinks it's ok, it's not. It's never ok.

Review: Rock Bang

Rock Bang: A Circus Rock Opera
Circus Oz in collaboration with Otto & Astrid
15 November
Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse
to 25 November

Rock Bang: A Circus ROck Opera. Otto & Astrid. Circus Oz

A version of this was in The Age.

Rock-huge speakers. A rock-black stage. A tiny rock-red drum kit. Get ready to “Make some noise, Mel-BAWN!” because Rock Bang is the circus rock opera we’ve been waiting for.

Otto are Astrid are a brother and sister indie punk-rock duo from 1990’s Berlin. They’ve toured as Die Roten Punkte (The Red Dots) since 2006 and are in Australia so much that it’s rumoured they are as Melbourne as Circus Oz.

Their fans don’t believe any such rumours and understand that, this time, the true story is they when they were performing in Azerbaijan – where the 2012 Eurovision party is still happening – they met the Circus Oz tour, fell asleep in some crates and woke up in Wagga Wagga. With a new circus family, there was only one thing to do: write some more songs and tell their epic story with a circus show within a rock concert. If only there were a double album to go along with it!

Their fairy-tale begins in rural Germany. They keep their rock make up and red lip stick but Otto wears shorts and Astrid has pony tails. And they have six acrobats and four musicians (including music-theatre-rock-wonder Casey Bennetto) to create their world and bring their songs to life.

As their tale fractures when Otto and Astrid’s parents are killed in an accident – there was a train, or maybe a lion – unicycles ride tracks, punk acrobats become relatives and friends, stunt Astrids tumble, and a gold angel straight out of that 1987 Wim Wenders’ film flies.

Their clowning and satire is so rock, so punk and so real that it’s impossible to even think that Otto and Astrid didn’t see the Berlin wall fall in 1989 or form the band after seeing Bowie in 1990 and finding toy instruments at a primary school.

With earworm hits like "Ich Bin Nicht Ein Roboter (I Am A Lion)" – now with a troupe of silver dancing robot lions! – success was easy. But Otto doesn’t understand Astrid’s love of sex and drugs because he just wants rock and roll, stability, and a straight edge vegan girl who’s into hard-core punk.

Otto and Astrid could win Eurovision, make CBGB re-open, and inspire a real an-arch-y. Or keep reminding us that rock’s really about love, red lipstick and flying in silver spaceship above a crowd of fans. And banging with a circus who know how to rock.

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 and begin to lay eggs.

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 on 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.