23 December 2019

What I Loved in 2019: The best of Melbourne theatre. And thank you

This year I saw a lot of new work and emerging artists, which is how I started writing about theatre. Many of those artists and companies from the early days are now on our main stages, where indie criticism isn't as welcome and masthead criticsm is reduced to an adjective. I do both.

Seeing new work and watching companies and artists develop is one of the most satisfying parts of being a theatre writer. When you see something remarkable in a tiny room, you come back and see them again and again. Watching other people discover that same remarkable is amazing.

If you have to choose between seeing one big show or 20 small ones, see the small ones. You'll feel better.

There's such a demand for indie critics and writers because, no matter how tough it gets, our indie performers, companies and venues keep making work.

Independent and emerging performers, if you want people to see your work and write about it, find the voices or publications that you like and read or listen to or follow. There will be someone who totally gets your work and will be the voice that describes your art in ways that makes other people want to see you.

If you don't know who those reviewers they are yet, read, listen to and follow indie voices!

If you want to write about or talk about theatre, just start doing it. Don't rely on it being a paid job and don't despair if you're not read by thousands. Keep going; it'll happen. Keep seeing work. And when you find those shows and artists that you totally understand, your work becomes part of the community.

(And, keep an eye out because I will be running more writing workshops and publicity workshops next year.)

If you're on those big stages and see work on those stages and wonder why all you ever see is star ratings, ask why and speak up.

Sometimes Melbourne celebrates nearly 14 years of writing about theatre in Melbourne.

I don't know what's going to happen next year, but it's time for Sometimes Melbourne to have a break. It's a difficult decision but I don't have the resources or support to keep it going. I'll still write for other publications, teach and see as many shows as possible.

Thank you to every artists and show I've seen. You're all amazing. Thank you for the messages and conversations. Thank you for your work. You make a difference.

And here are my favourite shows and artists of 2019. I'd see every one of them again.

Outstanding artists 2019


Zoey Dawson for Australian Realness at Malthouse

Emily Goddard, Chanella Marci. "Australian Realness" Photo by Pia Johnson

Bridget Mackey for Love/Chamberlain at Theatre Works

Rebekah Hill, Dana Miltins. "Love Chamberlain"

Special mention

Wil Greenway for Either Side of Everything at MICF

Will Greenway

Gabriela Tylesova for Muriel's Wedding: The Musical, Global Creatures in association with Sydney Theatre Company

"Muriel's Wedding"

Kate Davies/Emma Valente for Unwoman, The Rabble at The Substation

"Unwoman" by The Rabble. Photo by Pier Carthew

Clare Springett for Oil at Red Stitch.

"Oil". Photo by John Lloyd Fillingham


The cast of Anthem, Arts Centre Melbourne at MIAF

Maude Davey, Reef Ireland, Ruci Kaisila, Thuso Lekwape, Amanda Ma, Maria Mercedes, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Eryn Jean Norvill, Sahil Saluja, Osamah Sami, Eva Seymour, Carly SheppardJenny M Thomas, Dan Witton 

"Anthem" Photo by Pia Johnson

The cast of Unwoman, The Rabble at The Substation
Part I: Annalise Matthews, Toni Main, Robyn McMicking, Anna Nottle and Mattie Young
Part II: Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman
Part II: Yumi Umiumare
Testimonials ead by Mila Jennings

Special mentions

Helena Dix as Norma in Norma, Melbourne Opera

Nick Simpson-Deeks as George in Sunday in the Park with George, Watch This

Christie Whelan Brown as Tania in Muriel's Wedding: The Musical, Global Creatures in association with Sydney Theatre Company

Helena Dix. "Norma"

Nick Simspson-Deeks, Vidya Makan. "Sunday in the Park with George"

Keep an eye on

Luisa Scrofani in My Brilliant Career, the Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music, the Centre for Theatre and Performance and Monash Academy of Performing Arts in association with the Jeanne Pratt Musical Theatre Artists in Residence Program.

Luisa Scrofany. "My Brilliant Career"


Declan Green for Wake in Fright, Malthouse

"Wake in Fright". Photo by Pia Johnson

Everything they do rocks 2019

Everyone at The Butterfly Club for supporting, promoting and presenting independent cabaret, comedy, music and theatre more than anyone else in town.

Everyone includes:
All staff who program, promote and organise.
All the front of house.
All the bar staff.
Anyone I missed.
And everyone involved with Enter Closer, Crowded and the other managed venues during festivals.

The Butterfly Club. Photo by Stano Murin

The Butterfly Club celebrated its 20th birthday this year. After moving from South Melbourne, it's now tucked away in a three-level wonderland in Carson Place in the middle of the city (boxed by Swanston, Elizabeth, Collins and Bourke streets).

Every night there are between two and eight different shows that include regular nights, independent shows and venue-produced shows. They support indie artists from the application process to front of house staff and help with promotion and media.

Artists who perform there talk about being welcomed into a family.

Audiences love the place. From the changing menu of cocktails to hanging around and analysing at the minimalist decor*, it's a joy to be there.

(And one day, there will be some funding to deal with the access issues of a very old building with lots of stairs.)

*not minimalist. My favourites are the art deco cat lamp, the Ginger and Fred series of photos, and the framed and stuffed kitten tea towel.


Lessons with Luis

Lessons With Luis

I genuinely don't understand how Luis and his family aren't international superstars.

When I see a Lessons with Luis show, I forget about being a reviewer because I am so happy to be there. The work is so complete that the line between character and performer doesn't exist and they tell a truth about families and grief that is so real that I don't want to be confronted with the idea that it's a performance.

And Luis likes cats. 

This year I saw Stickin' Together at MICF and went to Yadna's 47th Birthday.

Outstanding productions 2019


Come From Away, multiple producers

"Come From Away". Photo by Jeff Busby

Special mention

Polygamy, Polygayou, produced by Clare Rankine at Melbourne Fringe

"Polygamy, Polygayou". Photo by Ling Duong


Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, parts one and two, multiple producers


Cassie Workman, Giantess at MICF

Cassie Workma
Special mentions
Patrick Collins Mime Consultant at MICF

Joshua Ladgrove pumps your bilge at MICF and Melbourne Fringe

Completely Improvised Potter, Soothplayers at MICF and Melbourne Fringe

Frobert and Ladgrove

"Patrick Collins Mime Consultant"

"Completely Improvised Potter". Photo by Mark Gambi


BOOBS by Selina Jenkins at Melbourne Fringe

Special mention

Garbage Monster by Alice Tovey, Hot Mess Productions and The Butterfly Club at MICF

Selina Jenkins

Alice Tovey


Collossus, Stephanie Lake Company, Arts Centre Melbourne at MIAF


Norma, Melbourne Opera

Best of the best 2019

The Butch Monologues, Theatre Works and Stage Mom at Midsumma

cast of "The Butch Monologues"
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, parts one and two, multiple producers

"Harry Potter and the Cursed Child"

Keep, Daniel Kitson at MICF

Daniel Kitson

Barbara and the Camp Dogs, Malthouse presents a Belvoir production

Elaine Crombie, Ursula Yovich. "Barbara and the Camp Dogs". Photo by Pia Johnson

Waterloo by Bron Batten at Melbourne Fringe

Bron Batten. "Waterloo". Photo by Theresa Harrison

My favourite show of 2019

The Living Room by Amrita Dhaliwal and Gemma Soldati at Melbourne Fringe

Amrita Dhalial and Gemma Soldati. "The Living Room"
 Which is coming back for comedy festival!

Past favourites.

21 December 2019

What Melbourne loved in 2019, part 11

My best of 2019 will be published on Monday.

Melbourne's most loved shows of 2019 are Daddy, Unwoman, Barbara and The Camp Dogs and Grand Finale.  

What an amazing selection! Two Melbourne indie shows, one Sydney/Melbourne company co-production show and one international festival production. (I haven't seen Daddy yet, but will do what I can to see it during Midsumma.)

Thank you so much to everyone who's been a part of the series this year and since 2012: I've loved doing it and love that so much theatre and so many artists can be celebrated and supported in ways that don't care about star ratings.

So let's finish with someone who has been here every year and whose ongoing support of independent arts and arts writing in Melbourne is unsurpassed: Richard Watts. (And me.)

Richard Watts
Performing Arts Editor at Arts Hub, presenter Smart Arts at RRR, bloody legend

Richard Watts at the Cliffs of Moher

As a result of taking long service leave from my day job at ArtsHub in August–September, I didn’t see as many shows as usual this year – I even missed the entire Melbourne Fringe for the first time in over 20 years, due to spending most of September holidaying in Ireland. I did see some great shows at the Dublin Fringe and Dublin Theatre Festival, but that’s a whole other entry

My many Melbourne highlights (not including the many shows I also saw interstate) included:

Barbara and the Camp Dogs. Co-written by and starring Ursula Yovich, this raw, electrifying, vital piece of theatre at Malthouse was skillfully directed by Leticia Caceres. One moment you were roaring with laughter, the next sobbing as an emotional gut-punch caught you unaware. Part sweaty pub rock, part theatre, and always thrilling.

Cock. Directed by Beng Oh at fortyfivedownstairs, this indie production featured the year’s most sensual sex scene – in which the actors kept their clothes on the whole time.

Mr Burns: A post-Electric Play. A triumph of independent theatre directed by John Kachoyan for Lighting Jar Theatre. Great performances, exquisite lighting by Richard Vabre, and Sophie Woodward’s sets and costumes were an absolute triumph.

Harry Potter and Cursed Child Parts One and Two. I went in cynical, I came out awed. Stunning stagecraft and some truly remarkable coups de théâtre which had the audience gasping – myself included. Yes, tickets are prohibitively expensive, but it really is worth it – and there’s always the Friday Forty lottery!

33 Variations. My god, wasn’t Ellen Burstyn amazing?

A View from the Bridge. Tension so tight you could hear the whole audience holding its breath, superb direction by Iain Sinclair, and judiciously minimal staging thanks to Christina Smith’s set and Niklas Pajanti’s lighting. Yes, there was a clear debt to Ivo van Hove's Spartan 2014 production, but instead of a stark white stage, here we got dark, brooding, electrifying minimalism. If Zoe Terakes and Steve Bastoni don’t get Green Room nominations for their performances in this production I’ll eat my hat.

Giantess. Cassie Workman’s imaginative, incisive and moving show at this year’s MICF was a thing of rare beauty: wryly funny, skilfully constructed and performed, and occasionally heartbreaking. So good I saw it twice.

The Aspie Hour. This clever cabaret about neurodiversity and musical theatre was another MICF highlight. If you missed it, it’s been programmed in Sydney Festival in January, should you fancy a trip north.

Magma. Also at MICF, Andy Matthews and Alasdair Tremblay-Birchall’s offbeat, intelligent and hilarious investment seminar was without doubt the funniest show I saw all year. I literally roared with laughter.

Neal Portenza is Josh Ladgrove. Bilge pumps! Bilge pumps! Bilge pumps!

Wake In Fright. My god, wasn’t Zahra Newman amazing?

Modern Maori Quartet. Initially this cabaret at Arts Centre Melbourne struck me as a trifle too slick for its own good, but about 15 minutes in it all clicked into place for me, and I was enthralled and delighted and crying and applauding rapturously.

Between Tiny Cities. Contemporary dance that’s inventive, technically adept, passionate and accessible. I love the fact that it was programmed as part of Arts Centre Melbourne’s family program – watching an enthralled circle of kids watching such virtuosic b-boying was an utter delight.

Come From Away. If you don’t like musical theatre ,then go see this show. If you love musical theatre go see this show. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Gander in Newfoundland receives an immediate increase in visiting Melburnians as a result of this life-affirming, heart-warming production.

Overture. Comedy in dance? Jo Lloyd makes it work beautifully. I’m so glad that Jonathan Holloway programmed a return season of this work for his final Melbourne International Arts Festival.

High Performance Packing Tape. Thrilling contemporary performance at the Meat Market as part of MICF in which Phil Downing’s sound design played a critical part. Never has watching a balloon inflate been so anxiety-inducing.

Colossus. Choreographed by Stephanie Lake and created for the 2018 Melbourne Fringe, Colossus was remounted for MIAF, and what a delight it was. Featuring some 50 dancers on the small Fairfax Studio stage at Arts Centre Melbourne, this exquisite work explores everything from subsumed individuality and the frightening power of the mob to the sound of the body in motion – hissing breath, snapped fingers, pounding feet. Athletic and multi-sensory, courageous and profound, it can soon be seen at Sydney Festival in January and Perth Festival in February – don’t miss it.

Looking forward to in 2020.
So much! Joel Bray’s Daddy, Selina Jenkins’s Boobs, Campion Decent’s The Campaign and You & I by Casus Circus at Midsumma; Kim Ho’s The Great Australian Play at Theatre Works; Grey Arias, the long overdue mainstage season of Patricia Cornelius’s Do Not Go Gentle... , and, especially, Loaded at  Malthouse; Benjamin Law’s Torch the Place, Dan Giovannoni’s Slap. Bang. Kiss., Fun Home and, especially, Andrea James’s bio-play about Evonne Goolagong, Sunshine Super Girl at the MTC; À Ố Làng Phối, Metal and Black Ties at Asia TOPA – and so much more. Most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing our beloved La Mama rising from the ashes as construction of the restored and future-proofed theatre gets underway.

SM: Richard is the hardest working arts journalist that I know. He sees as much as he possibly can, writes about the issues that no other publications write about, is the chair of the La Mama board, and has been on RRR on Thursday mornings for Smart Arts for FIFTEEN YEARS – as a volunteer.

How cool would it be if for his every show of 2020, a different delicious cake, a strong morning coffee and a cold post-show cider (he doesn't like beer) were waiting for him at the station. This isn't a joke.

Anne-Marie Peard
Arts writer

Anne-Marie Peard at Lakes Entrance

Favouirte moments of 2019
Lou Wall as Satan in Oh No! Satan Stole My Pineal Gland! at Melbourne Fringe.

Joshua Ladgrove as Satan in The many names of Bilge Pumps at MICF and Melbourne Fringe and, especially, dealing with the crappest microphone ever at the final fundraising performance in Decemeber.

Gender Euphoria with Mama Alto and the most incredible casts at Midsumma and MIAF. If the absolute joy generated by this show could be shared, the world would be a much better place,

Harry Potter and The Cursed Child: The relief and complete toe-tingling joy at the first cape swish and knowing that it was going to be as good as I imagined it could be. It was better. One day, I'll win the lottery and get to see it again.

The now-gone gun in Bron Battern's Waterloo and watching audience members make a choice that would swear they would never make.

Nikki Viveca's bee dance in Wasp Movie at Melbourne Fringe.

Break up by New Zealand's Binge Culture at Melbourne Fringe. This year, I watched more of this five-hour impro show than I did last year, and want to sit through all of it one year.

Running workshops with indie artists and seeing them get media coverage as a result. 

Seeing students get published.

What I'm looking forward to in 2020
Asia TOPAPo Po Mo Co's Summer of the 17th Doll, and seeing all those first shows that introduce new artists to the Melbourne arts community.

But what I'm most looking forward to is that significant companies, funded organisations and commercial producers SUPPORT INDEPENDENT MEDIA.

There are many amazing independent critical voices out there and so many more emerging voices wanting to be heard and wanting to be advocates and supporters of the arts in Melbourne.

But these voices are rarely supported by the companies and organisations that have the resources to offer support. 

The best funded and supported companies in our town don't support independent voices, including  online sites, podcasts, radio shows, student publications and social media wonders. 

Writers aren't invited to shows, and if they do see work, their considered commentary isn't shared. 

I know where I'm welcome when I write for mastheads and not welcome otherwise.

There is lots of love about these companies in indie writing; none of which is shared by the companies with their audience. All the positive and supportive things said about any company with funding in this series hasn't been shared, liked or, possibly, even read by companies. 


I reckon that subscribers, sponsors and the artists would love to know that their work was among some people's favourite moments of the year.

These companies are also missing the opportunity to have commentary from people who see so many shows that they can write about the big picture over many years. There isn't room for this type of reflection in 300-worder in a masthead. They miss the voices of people who were  there when some of the biggest names on our stages were performing in tiny venues. These writers were the early support and encouragement and can write about work with an understanding and a history that can't be summed up in a star rating.

They miss out on being part of the history and the archive that indie coverage offers.

They miss out on writing that is more than a quoted word or phrase. 

By focusing on the potential short-term benefit of a review, they miss out on the long-term gains.

And what about all the new writers? Writers need to see work and need to write and be read. If they aren't welcome at shows, what does this say about your company?

If all you want is stars and adjectives, here:


Quote away.

I know how important indie voices are to artists; they talk to me and sometimes those messages and conversations are enough to keep writing.

So, here's to a year where every funded company invites EVERY indie voice, says yes to every student and emerging artist who would like to see shows, reads what they say and shares those voices.

SM: A-M spends a lot of her year convincing me to keep doing this. She reads the emails and messages. She buys me dumplings and convinces me to see another show each night during a festival.

But it's time to say goodbye.  

I look forward to passing on the torch, teaching and mentoring new voices and putting my hand up as a date to shows.

18 December 2019

What Melbourne Loved in 2019, part 10

Today Kerith, Sarah and Zoey talk about deep-gut feelings that stay around long after the show has finished. And Kerith talks about how working on something you love has nothing to do with quotes and stars: "I guess it's so special because it feels very powerful to become a part of a community and accomplish something together. And help each other and cheer each other."

Kerith Manderson-Galvin

Kerith Manderson-Galvin. Photo by Cam Matheson

Favourite moment of 2019.
Last year I loved Skye Gellman's End Grain and this year I loved the exhibition they curated for Sidesault Festival, Subjective Spectacle. It was elegant and clever and still a bit funny, and a really interesting way to spend an hour. Beautifully curated as an event with multiple performances and one that also worked as one larger performance. I loved it. It was an honour to be there.

My other favourite: Tenfingerz and Famous Artist Sebastian Berto's Fast Fashun. It is probably one of my favourite things I've ever been to really. A tonne of clothing waste was refashioned by participants into outfits for runway shows. You could watch the shows or be a part of it. It was like being on Project Runway, but actually it was so much more than that. Tenfingerz's events are unique. Maybe people say this all time about other people – and it's possible I've said this about Tenfingerz in another year's what I loved – but I don't think there is anyone else that does what Tenfingerz does.

And this event was really special. I guess it's so special because it feels very powerful to become a part of a community and accomplish something together. And help each other and cheer each other. Gee, the more I think about it, the more impressive it was. And the fun! I had so much fun! It's SO. FUCKING. NICE. TO. HAVE. FUN. Also, I made a skirt out of a handbag and felt like a genius, which is also very nice. And I discovered my love of the bonnet. AND I have used skills that I learned at Fast Fashun after it ended, which maybe matters more. It affected the way I live my life.


Oh also. Mecha – Festival of Experimental Art was such a joy.

Looking forward to in 2020.
Fast Fashun 2.0.
Lydia LunchRetrovirus (again).
Ruby Jones's album launch that I have decided will happen next year.
Next Wave festival –  probably. I just went to their website and it was hard to navigate.
Are You Ready To Take The Law Into Your Own Hands. I won't actually be around to see but I would have been looking forward to it.

SM: I saw Kerith perform in A Normal Child by Disability Slapstick Plan and MUST's The Bacchae by Rob Reid at La Mama. Both shows I loved but wasn't able to write about. My moments with Kerith were a couple of hours in The Bacchae when their character was sitting on the side of the Courthouse stage and watching. They was so absorbed that I kept drifting back to watch them watching and listening, which made me even more aware of what they was watching and listening.

Sarah Collins
Writer, photographer, performer

"I’m not sure if this is an ok photo, but considering my other favourite theatre moment this year was getting to photograph Alison Bell and compare facial features at long last, it’s probably appropriate."
AB, Sarah Collins. Photo by John Leary.
Favourite moment of 2019.
Far and away the best thing I saw this year was a show by Amritha Dhaliwal and Gemma Soldati called The Living Room at The Butterfly Club, which came out from LA for the Melbourne Fringe.

I’ve never watched two clowns take an audience from hysterical laughter to fighting back tears in the blink of an eye quite so skilfully.

I’ve also never seen an audience taken on a ride quite so (unexpectedly) necessary.

This show stayed with me for weeks. It was so seamlessly performed that when reflecting back upon it I couldn’t even piece together how they’d pulled it off; I simply had these delightfully nutty, indescribably sad, and utterly joyous images in my head as keepsakes.


Looking forward to in 2020.
The Living Room! They’re coming back for MICF. Beg, borrow or steal a ticket. (SM: Or buy one.)

SM: Sarah's been working on a YA novel this year; I can't wait to read it. But my favourite moment was when we realised we'd both seen The Living Room. And her child's kinder photo that will haunt the families of her classmates.

PS: Sad to see that YouTube/Target have removed her boob ad from an earlier year.

Zoey Dawson
Writer etc

Zoey Dawson

Favourite moments of 2019.
WAISTD and EQUINOX (their opening to the Castlemaine State Festival) by Deep Soulful SweatsPoopie Tum Tums by The Very Good Looking Initiative, Barbara and the Camp Dogs at Malthouse, Unwoman by The Rabble, Wake in Fright at Malthouse, Subliminal Massage by Marcus McKenzie and Club Greg at Melbourne Fringe, Mullygrubs by Leah Filley and Harry Thompson at Melbourne Fringe.

So many other shows I didn't get to see! I was a woeful theatre goer this year and vow to better next year. But  the moments I most remember this year were all the stand out performances! So I am going to make a wee dedication to those, because fuck we have a talented city of THESPIANS:

Ursula Yovich in Barbara and the Camp Dogs. I was very sad to hear that Ursula is retiring from the stage, but also unsurprised after seeing this performance that came absolutely from the pit of her gut, and that's where I felt it. I feel so lucky to have seen her play the exquisite, damaged and hilarious Barbara and I won't soon forget it. And that voice; hooley dooley.

Jennifer Vuletic in The Rabble's My Dearworthy Darling at Malthouse. An actor at the absolute height of her powers, completely in and of her body and with a gravitas that makes you tingle from the inside out. I felt this performance was just for me, as I'm sure every other person in the theatre did. I had to have a lie down afterwards.

Yumi Umiumare, Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman in Unwoman. I am such a fangirl of Mary Helen and Dana as an acting duo. I think they've been working together, what? Since they were born? And it was such a delight to see them smash it out of the park in the second act of The Rabble's incredible show.  This whole company is bloody soaring at the moment. My top draft pick for 2020. Full credit to the girls. Anyway, back to the ACTING.  I think I levitated with joy watching Dana and Mary Helen devour this visceral, graphic and hilarious material, and watching Dana describe her first poo after giving birth was absolutely my theatre highlight of 2019. Then Yumi Umiumare came along and did something that brought me back down to earth and made it cave in. Torturous, unending, beautiful; a profound physical performance that communicated something unspeakable.

Lou Wall as Satan in Oh No! Satan Stole my Pineal Gland!. Iconic. Masterfully underplayed, impeccable comic timing and deeply disturbing. I know she's basically still a teenager but can someone plz give Lou a major state funded theatre company to run and her own talk show immediately?

Charles Purcell as an anxious camel come drag-cassowary in Mad as a Cute Snake at Theatre Works was something very special to behold. Charles is always a beautiful performer, but this was like watching him emerge from his chrysalis as his very own, fully formed spirit animal. I wept. Are you supposed to do that in children's drag theatre?

The incomparable Zahra Newman in Wake in Fright. What even...? How does she...? How will we ever, as a city, be truly worthy of Zahra's talent? After seeing her obliterate canonical roles on the mainstage for years it was SO SATISFYING seeing her play a version of herself and tell us (some of) what she really thinks.

Marcus McKenzie in Subliminal Massage. Marcus is by far the most stone cold weirdo I know, as well as one of the most talented. I loved seeing him orchestrate this surreal beast that somehow condensed all of his bonkers energy into a sneakily very-moving show. He is such a generous and uncompromising and effortless performer and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Looking forward to in 2020.
Pretty much everything everyone else has said, as well as following around the above performers and makers to see what they do next. Can't wait for basically everything at the Malthouse; what a great season! And I am peeing my pants excited to see Declan Greene direct Nick Coyle's Feather In The Web at Red Stitch; a very very funny sicko play that made me lol so much when I read it. And Stephen Nicolazzo's Orlando with the criminally talented Chanella Macri! What else?? Everything! Asia TOPA! Next Wave! Artshouse! Western Edge Youth Arts! Probably heaps more things made in carparks and public toilets now that arts funding is in the bin! But I've happy to put on my warm coat. I just hope we keep making stuff.

SM: Another easy one. Zoey wrote Australian Realness. I don't think I've ever used this cliche, but what a journey! From the opening scenes and wondering if she really had written a very funny and very nice middle-class play to having no flipping idea where it was going to go and loving every twist, even when it was twisting and turning that bloody reality mirror in front of us middle class theatre goers. And watching an audience go from having comfortable expectations about a nice safe play to the walls falling down and having all those expectations shattered. More please.

16 December 2019

What Melbourne Loved in 2019, part 9

Last call to have your voice heard and share your love for shows and artists who may not have got meaninless stars this year.

Today we hear from SM favourite Ash, and Eugyeene and Cathy.

Ash Flanders
Theatrical annoyance

Ash Flanders. Photo by Pia Johnson, defaced by FaceApp

Favourite moments of 2019.
 I've been in hiding most of the year due to an ongoing legal skirmish with Anthony Callea's people (those people have no sense of humour) but the first thing that jumped to mind was watching Ellen Burstyn go rogue in 33 Variations, directed by Gary Abrahams.

Ok, let me take you there. Ellen has just noticed her daughter's (Lisa McCune) skirt is unzipping itself onstage and calls her over – by her character name, obvs – and says something like, "Your skirt, darling," and then the Comedy Theatre is SILENT as she wrangles the zip back into place. Ellen knows we'll wait – and we do. Lisa's a total pro, casually moving her hair out of the way, waiting calmly as if this is something they've done a thousand times in rehearsal, something deliberately placed to suggest something about the mother-daughter relationship. But then Ellen, this Broadway ICON, struggles for a second to remember what she was meant to be talking about. So Lisa asks her a leading question, in character of course, and suddenly Ellen's back on track again. It was a very small thing – 15 seconds tops – and besides the sheer gay drama of it all (OMG, first she had to deal with Regan MacNeil and now THIS?!). I loved seeing the solidarity between the performers and the way both of these people were taking care of each other. Actors being kind to other actors is my new favourite thing; I'll have to try it sometime.

And in the opposite camp I of course loved watching the entirely solo Zahra Newman (certainly not helped by those clumsy stage managers dropping water bottles carelessly every night) skillfully create the nightmare we call home in DG's Wake In Fright. The performance was so considered and arch and nasty and perfect. Of course it's boring for me to like Declan's work – especially because everyone does and I'm a contrary piece of shit – but that guy really does make stuff I enjoy...for now.

But, all in all, this was a quiet year for me and theatre. I loved what I saw but I didn't see nearly enough. I loved doing The Temple with some of my all time favourite performers and my new favourite Irish theatre company, Pan Pan. I also had a blast teaching some performance writing skills to students back at my old uni – and watching them take their own work onto the stage almost melted my heart.

Oh, I also saw a stunning piece of live art where my niece married Christ out in Keysborough; I think the work was called Layla's Confirmation.

Looking forward to in 2020.
I feel like everyone I know is even busier next year and I'm thrilled about it. Stoked for the Malthouse season,  especially Stephen Nicolazzo directing Loaded, my one true love Paul Capsis in Go To Hell and the verbatim show Is This A Room has me really excited. I'm also hoping to somehow see Anthem and The Rabble's Unwoman in 2020 (PLEASE LET THESE HAPPEN AGAIN*) as life got in the way this year. Side note: go listen to Emma Valente's story in Maeve Marsden's Queerstories podcast (not stage related, but damn it's good). Selfishly I'm really looking forward to presenting a bunch of new things that I've been spending this year writing.

SM: I too love Emma's Queerstory. Queerstories is one of my favourite car podcasts. But this is about Ash. I totally dug The Temple, especially when people in the audience had no idea what was going on and tried to find an easy story. But my moment with Ash was convincing him that he had enjoyed some theatre this year.

*Anthem is at Perth and Sydney festivals. Why The Rabble are not at every international festivsal is beyond my understanding.

Eugyeene Teh
Theatre maker and designer

Eugyeene Teh. Photo by Antoine Debrill

Favourite moments of 2019.
The Rabble’s Unwoman: timely, meditative and important work that needs to be experienced by everyone. Emma Valente and Kate Davis’s confidently composed images were searing. Yumi Umiumare’s solo performance of suffering in part 3 was a hard watch, but visceral and sensational, and, though wordless, speaks volumes and for me, was the moment (albeit 45 minutes worth of a moment) of 2019.

Jo Lloyd’s Overture for busting the male-dominated lens that has established our stage culture, particularly in the world of dance. It blatantly mocks the male gaze and belittles their conventions in a lighthearted, unrestricted reframing and celebration of women’s bodies.

Zoey Dawson’s Australian Realness at Malthouse. Having worked on her deliciously surreal plays before, I was looking forward to this one and it still managed to surprise and unhinge me, and really made me think about perceptions of reality.

Emma Hall’s World Problems: a beautifully crafted and gentle reflection on who we are among a generational existential crisis.

Anchuli Felicia King’s The Golden Shield at MTC: a rare piece of writing presented by a mainstage company that doesn’t portray China and its people as a force to be feared, but ingeniously flips the frame to reveal real, multi-dimensional Chinese people and their reckoning with a couple of American jerks. It is a play that decolonizes through subtexts. For me, it isn’t just a clever, fast-paced legal thriller. It is all about communicating and understanding a cultural language – something this country gravely lacks

Balit Liwurruk: Strong Girl at St Martins: a powerful and emotional declaration by 12 young Indigenous women on what it is to be a "strong girl".

Finucane and Smith’s The Rapture, Part II: an impassioned cry for help on behalf of our dying planet, and a genuine and urgent beckoning for real action, delivered by the iconic Moira Finucane, who just returned from watching the ice melt in Antartica.

The Very Good Looking Initiative’s Batmania at Melbourne Fringe: a very weird and hallucinatory show that really fucked with conventional theatrical form and offered an exciting glimpse into the future of theatre.

Jean Tong and Lou Wall’s Oh No! Satan Stole my Pineal Gland, from another company that is changing the idea of theatre. Apart from an extremely enjoyable night of ridiculousness, it’s also the winner of the "best title" award.

Andi Snelling’s Happy-Go-Wrong was an incredibly moving and beautiful celebration of life!

Looking forward to in 2020.
Susie Dee and Patricia Cornelius’s Do Not Go Gentle...  I missed the original season and always wished I didn’t.

Kim Ho’s The Great Australian Play, because Kim Ho and a horse. And what it means to be "Australian" and "Great".

Ra Chapman’s K-Box, obvs.

I was very fortunate to hear Stephen Armstrong (creative director of Asia TOPA) speak, in a small room at Tokyo Festival, very clearly about why Australia needs to connect with its Asian neighbours and why it is so important re-balance its cultural identity away from a dominant white identity. Therefore, all things Asia TOPA, particularly Double Delicious, Sipat Lawin’s Are You Ready to Take the Law into Your Own Hands?, post and Hong Kong Repertory Theatre’s Oedipus Schmoedipus, Akira Kasai’s Pollen Revolution and Mallika Sarabhai’s SVA Kranti: The Revolution Within.

SM: I remember the first show I saw that Eugeeyne designed; he takes every bit of subtext and theme and creates a physical world that lets you understand so much in a glance, while always bringing his own remarkable and distinct aesthetic. He's been doing amazing things away from Melbourne this year, so my best moments are easily talking to him before and after shows.

Cathy Hunt
Director, dramaturg

Cathy Hunt

Favourite moments of 2019.
Counting and Cracking, Belvoir at Sydney Town Hall, Sydney Festival: the epic scale of the storytelling knocked my socks off; the way each strand was woven in and the whole festival experience of it. This is a Sydney I recognise, where almost everybody has a strong tie to someplace else, with Coogee Beach and people who don’t understand their own family’s whole story yet because all they have known is this place. The moment before the end of Act 2 when one character was about to get on a refugee boat bound for Australia, and the whole audience was taut, you could feel extreme anxiety on his behalf, knowing what might happen. Beautiful and big and somehow still simple.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I queued with my friend Shannon one Sunday morning in January for free tickets to final dress rehearsals, we were numbers 500 and 501 in the snaking queue. Melbourne provided and it did not disappoint. I particularly loved the immersiveness of the staging, Paula Arundell as Hermione and Gillian Cosgriff, who was supreme in an unnamed role. But I say no more…

Barbara and The Camp Dogs, Malthouse and Belvoir directed by Leticia Cáceres written by Ursula Yovich and Alana Valentine. Truly stunning, raw, roughly beautiful and incredibly brave production that broke through defences and spoke straight to the heart about how simultaneously destructive and creative we can be as human beings. Powerful piece claiming the space to get angry and not shying away from the underlying reasons that keep producing that anger, underlining First Nations sovereignty while cranking out superb tunes and putting the audience on saggy couches like in any run down pub. Loved this!!

You’re Safe Till 2024, by David Finnigan. ventured to Bunjil Place on a stormy night to see David freak out a small and select audience with his theatre science presentation of the "Great Acceleration", which has occurred since mid-last century, including a truly terrifying visual explanation using water bottles and a Coles "recyclable plastic" bag of how chickens have stacked it on since 1945.

Wake in Fright at Malthouse. Declan Greene and Zahra Newman's nightmare journey through an Australia that felt all too horribly recognisable. Stunning technically and with a virtuosic flexible performance by Zahra as the narrator desperate for a drink of water who keeps having booze chucked unwittingly down their throat. Incredible collaboration from all involved.

View from a Bridge at MTC directed stunningly, sparely by Iain Sinclair with the heart-rendingly genuine performance of Zoe Terakes as Catherine.

World Problems by Emma Hall at fortyfivedownstairs, especially the moment when the memories tumbled over into the future and things started going awry, the fantastical imaginings of that whilst the effort of putting together a trampoline was enacted. (The night I went we got to go to a sustainable food workshop after, with permaculturist Kat Lavers and I took home her mum’s lime pickle: big highlight)

The Other Place by Christopher Bryant at Theatre Works directed surprisingly by Jess Dick and performed with precision and energy by the ensemble of five women. This play took so many circular routes towards tracing, mapping and imagining the different destinies of Betty Burstall and Buzz Goodbody. The way it kept not explaining, never being able to explain but just making another pass at exploring one possibility as to why some of us go one way, step out of the room and others are able to flourish despite every adversity, moved me so much. As did the writing in its choice of the stories told and the multiple modes of representation, even just the attempt to forge a connection and the focus on these two particular women’s inner and outer lives. Design in the large space was innovative and entertaining but I can imagine another incarnation of the play in a smaller space, like the rebuilt La Mama…

Pomona at Red Stitch directed by Gary Abrahams: a strange, potent production in which the choice to range the cast around the side of the space to bear witness intensified the exploration of violence. Such a stellar cast and great to see Jessica Clarke, Julia Grace and Artemis Ioannides be differently brilliant on that stage.

Control by Keziah Warner directed so intelligently by Julian Meyrick at Red Stitch. Brilliant writing exploring the ways we shape and structure each other and are unavoidably shaped and structured by our situations. Each of three parts so different from each other but gorgeous interrelationships in each, particularly in the last part where Esta (Naomi Rukavina) and Isabelle (Christine O’Neill) inhabit and subvert the pupil/teacher and servant/master power dynamics.

Thigh Gap at La Mama written by Jamaica Zuanetti directed by Alice Darling. Afrenetic fever dream looking at unattainable body standards self-imposed and friend-policed, performed excellently by Veronica Thomas and Lauren Mass. It went beyond issues and became performatively extreme. The physical comedy around the sudden serendipity of drunkly discovering a baguette is a moment I won’t forget.

UnWoman by The Rabble at The Substation: a work so entirely dramaturgically complete, supremely satisfying and symbolically resonant as if carved out of the stones that Yumi Umimare birthed in the final part of the triptych. Also very funny on the way through, thanks to Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sussman in the second part, waiting for their unnamed procedure ,and the strange soporific forest of the pregnant women in their round containment.

Looking forward to in 2020.
Red Stitch: A new production of Feather in the Web by the brilliant and hilarious Nick Coyle directed by Declan Greene. I saw it in Sydney when it opened and need to see this incarnation happening as part of Midsumma. Orlando by Sarah Ruhl directed by Stephen Nicolazzo. Anatomy of a Suicide by Alice Birch directed by the inimitable and wonderful Jenny Kemp,.

Asia TOPA: The Seen and Unseen – a collaboration by Melbourne based and Balinese theatre makers designed by Euygeene Teh lighting by Jenny Hector and dramaturgy by Adena Jacobs.

What Every Girl Should Know a new play by Monica Byrne set in 1914 in a Catholic reformatory,  at Brunswick Mechanics in February. Produced by Between the Buildings, directed by me, designed by Eloise Kent and sound designed by Jess Keeffe.

SM: Cathy's measured and help back direction of Love/Chamberlain at Theatre Works got into the hearts of its creators, on and off the stage, and  misjudged women it was written about. She removed the tabloid sensationalist lens and explored how and why women who dare step away from expectations are judged and hounded until they break.

12 December 2019

What Melbourne Loved in 2019, part 8

Today we hear from Charlotte, Beng and Christopher.

There's still time to contribute, but not much; it's not going all the way through the month this year. The form is linked on all the early parts. Or all the info is here.

Charlotte Strantzen Bair
Actor, presenter, theatre-maker and mother to two amazing humans

Charlotte Strantzen Bair

Favourite moments in 2019.
I'm thrilled that 2019 held more highlights than lowlights for me, with some really bright spots. My musical theatre picks for the year were Muriel's Wedding and Come from Away. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about Muriel.  Would the film translate to stage? Will it have aged well? Any cynicism in me was quickly washed away by the sheer joy of the show, with Kate Miller-Heidke and Keir Nuttall's music being ably performed by a fabulous cast (including, I discovered while watching, the wonderful Caleb Vines, whom I shared a stage with many times in the early 2000s in school holiday pantomimes! It made my year to see him all grown up and working in such a successful show). Come From Away was everything it was cracked up to be and more. It felt especially personal to us as my husband was in the USAA and away from family on September 11, so the emotional reaction was strong. I'm enjoying listening to the soundtrack now!

I saw some excellent kids theatre with my children, including ROFLSHALBOWCO by The Listies (not just for children!) at the Malthouse and Mad as a Cute Snake by Amelia Evans and Dan Giovannoni at Theatre Works. It's a real treat to see companies produce work that respects their young audiences and pushes the boundaries without making a big deal of it.

In comedy, I loved Keep at MICF by Daniel Kitson – I could listen to his storytelling for hours (and have!) – and Hot Donkey by Northern Ireland's Paul Currie, which takes on particular significance this week after the death of his hero, Caroll Spinney. Months later, I still find myself randomly breaking out into "Pandas for hands, I've got pandas for hands!".

My heart was warmed to see my friend and colleague Andi Snelling back on stage with Happy-Go-Wrong, which, as  already  mentioned in this series, is a great achievement. And, whie it didn't hit all the marks for me, I really enjoyed Raw Material and Traverse Theatre Company's What Girls Are Made Of as part of the Melbourne Interntional Festival of Arts.

Looking forward to in 2020.
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, at long last! My brother and I are taking Mum for her 70th birthday...totally selflessly, of course! And, in a not-strictly-theatre sense, I am hanging out for My Dad Wrote a Porno in January and Tim Minchin's encore tour of Back in March.

SM: There are people who are always working and performing but we don't see them in our reviews and on the big stages. Charlotte makes theatre in homes and at parties and events. She (and her husband and colleauges) do murder mystery parties and theme parties and children's parties. They get to know their audiences in ways that few performers do. They make events become "the best day of my life". That's pretty great.

(PS. Are we allowed to start a count down to #MelbournePornoDay?)

Beng Oh
Director and theatre maker

Beng Oh

Favourite moments in 2019.
I didn’t see as much as I would have liked to this year but having said that, stand-outs for me include:

Ars Nova’s production of Underground Railroad Game at Malthouse. A funny, subversive and disturbing look at race relations with fully committed performances. Troubling in a good way.

Samah Sabawi’s Them at La Mama was beautifully directed by Bagryana Popov with a strong cast. It’s on the Victorian Premiere’s Literary Awards 2020 drama shortlist and is coming back in 2020 at the Arts Centre.

Also at La Mama, Rory Godbold’s When The Light Leaves was a timely piece as assisted dying laws came into effect. It’s a moving production that’s coming back for Midsumma 2020.

Declan Greene’s production of Wake in Fright at  Malthouse with Zahra Newman was simply brilliant and sucked you in right from the word go.

Opera Australia’s production of Aribert Reimann’s Ghost Sonata was a knockout. The singers sang some extremely tricky music with aplomb (and excellent diction) and Greg Eldridge’s production, in surreal designs by Emma Kingsbury, brought a really difficult piece to life.

Stephanie Lake’s Colossus with nearly 50 dancers was hypnotic and entrancing and I would have been happy to immediately watch it a second time. Still on dance, Hofesh Shechter’s exhilarating Grand Finale at MIAF really felt like the culmination of their work to date.

Anthem directed by Susie Dee at MIAF skilfully wove together five writers and a large cast into a memorable piece of theatre.

Last, but not least, Laurence Strangio’s The Year of Magical Thinking had a luminous performance by Jillian Murray coupled with exquisite lighting by Andy Turner.

Looking forward to in 2020.
Lots of things, not least of which are the Mozart Requiem by Romeo Castelluci, Robert Icke’s The Doctor, and Enter Achilles by DV8 (I can’t see it but I’m still excited by it) at Adelaide Festival.

Two shows in Melbourne stand out though. I missed it first time round and am excited about seeing Joel Bray’s Daddy. It’s queer, indigenous work with the lot. And sugar, lots of sugar. Not to be missed.

Susie Dee and Patricia Cornelius teaming up once more on Do Not Go Gentle... at Malthouse. I first saw the play in Julian Meyrick’s production at fortyfivedownstairs in 2010 and can’t wait to see what this latest production is like.

SM: I really enjoyed Beng's direction of Daniel Keene's Wild Cherries at La Mama, but what I remember most is how he let us see Cock though the hearts of the characters and brought a new reading to the well-known play. It was soooo hot that night in fortyfivedownstairs and, even while we melted, the audience were totally gripped by the story.

Christopher Bryant
Playwright, academic, sometimes performer

Christopher Bryant. Photo by Sarah Walker
Favourite moments in 2019.
I saw Barbara and the Camp Dogs and Underground Railroad Game at Malthouse in the same week and nine months later, I'm still thinking about them both. They both expertly navigated hilarity through some really dark places, and were all the more affecting for it.

The end of Working With Children by Nicola Gunn. I'd watch her eat cereal (but like, not in a creepy way), so, of course, I loved her performance. But the way it ended – kind of, leaving the audience in all these questions she'd raised, watching all these machine-based optical illusions work in silence – was oddly touching and a little bit magical. I didn't feel like the veil of "theatre" lifted until hours later.

House Sisters by Michelle Lee and the Monash Centre of Theatre and Performance: hilarious and kind of sickening in parts and genuinely kept me unsure where it was going to end up. Just really well made and written, directed and performed by some wonderful young actors.

Daddy by Joel Bray. Beautiful, beautifully made, and again, sat on the knife's edge between camp ridiculousness, intelligence and a deep well of hurt. He also navigated audience involvement/interaction incredibly well.

Looking forward to in 2020.
Loaded by Dan Giovannoni and Christos Tsiolkas (directed by Stephen Nicolazzo) and Prima Facie by Suzie Miller (directed by Lee Lewis) at Malthouse.

The Feather in the Web by Nick Coyle (directed by Declan Greene) and Orlando by Sarah Ruhl (directed by Stephen Nicolazzo) at Red Stitch.

The Great Australian Play by Kim Ho and Wellbless by Debra Thomas and Ella Roth Barton at Theatre Works.

SM: I got to see two new productions of Christopher's plays in the same week: The Other Place at Theatre Works and Disinibition at MUST. Both approached and directed in such different ways; both sharing his writing and themes and emotions in such different ways. What an amazing way to get to know a writer and their work. What an amazing experience for a writer!