17 December 2011

What I Loved 2011

December really did sneak up this year. I still think it's August.

But the urge to make chocolate truffles and eat fruitcake tells me it's time for the What-I-Loved Awards.

Now in their fourth year, there's still no red carpet or sparkly statue, but feel free to put on your best frock and assume that you were nominated.

I've seen over a hundred shows this year, reviewed most of them and loved watching others without the critical hat.

As ever, most of my reviews are also written for the national site AussieTheatre.com, which welcomed new editors and owners Erin and Matt in July. Already they've increased hits by thousands and readers can look forward to a whole new look in 2012.

And please keep reading every other site and blog that reviews, comments or raves. Without them, we may not have had David W's magnificent hissy over nasty reviewers or Site Unseen may not have started a debate about the value of community cultural development.

My criteria for the What-I-Likeds is: how much I liked it.  The shows I remember (yes some are forgotten) are the ones that respect audiences enough to know that we watch theatre with our uncontrollable emotions. Even if our oh-so-clever heads appreciate a practitioner, get the joke or the reference and admire the structure, if our hearts and guts don't care, there's not much point in even being there.

For the first time, there's only one non-Melbourne show among the winners and most of this year's winners are independent companies and artists.

Outstanding Artists 2011

Angus Cerini for Save for Crying

Special Mention
Patricia Cornelius for Slut  in Tenderness, Platform Youth Theatre

David Samuel for MKA's season 1 (Sleepyhead, 22 Short Plays, The Horror Face, J.A.T.O)

Special mention
Gabriela Tylesova for the shoes in Love Never Dies

Paul Jackson for Little Match Girl

The cast of Aftermath

Daniel Schlusser for The Dollhouse

Tobias, Glynn and everyone from MKA.

Outstanding Productions 2011

Miles O Neil's World Around Us II
with bonus points to be shared with the rest of The Suitcase Royale for the Xmas song at the Last Tuesday Society's Occupy Xmas.

Smoke and Mirrors

Clybourne Park, MTC

Next to Normal, MTC
Flowerchildren, Magnormos

Special mention
Spring Awakening, MUST

Sweet Child of Mine, Bron, Jim and Linda Batten

Special mention
Negative Energy Inc, Ash Flanders

Best of the best
Namatjira, Malthouse Theatre and Big hART


I know there's a lot of noise outside but you have to close your eyes, I'm Trying To Kiss You

This extraordinary show never made it past a review preview, which said sucked in to anyone who missed it. Played in the crowded downstairs room of a Fitzroy terrace, word of mouth ensured that this Fringe gem sold out (and maybe pushed some overcrowding regulations).

I'm Trying To Kiss You are Allison Wiltshire, Anna McCarthy and Zoey Dawson. Remember those names.  Deeply personal, I know etc is a confronting and intimate revelation of young women's thoughts. Unafraid of gender, language and sex, the creators crafted a story of confusion, awkwardness and bravado that was willing to be honest.

It's development took 18-months and was assisted by the Melbourne Fringe Festival and Full Tilt Outside Eye mentor program.

I heard it described as confronting and scary; a friend of mine thought it was sad and lonely. I thought it was beautiful – and that includes its glorious bitchiness, darkness and anger.  Without being obvious, this work gently grabbed me by the heart and reminded me what it was like to be 20ish.

My favourite show of 2011

Ganesh Versus the Third Reich, Back to Back Theatre, Malthouse Theatre and MIAF

2010 Favourites
2009 Favourites
2008 Favourites

16 December 2011

The Classic Tale of Faust

The Classic Tale of Faust
RAG Theatre and the City of Port Phillip
16 December
Latvian House, 3 Dickens St, St Kilda
to 17 December (1.30 and 7.30)
Facebook page

No more reviews for 2011, but you don't need a review to be convinced to see RAG Theatre's The Classic Tale of Faust.

RAG Theatre is supported by the City of Port Phillip and creates opportunities for people who experience barriers to arts participation. In other words, this is theatre created by folk who aren't stuffy theatre people – and they want to have fun.

So drop all arty pretentiousness and get ready to enjoy yourself. And you get to play in the too-wonderful Latvian House in St Kilda with its mosaics, hand-carved wooden chandeliers and brown 70s decor (it's cooler than the Lithuanian Club).

Here, you're greeted by the suave and serious members of the company (who accepted me even though I'd worn orange Crocs) and you're free to chat about art and writing and sophisticated cultural shit before the main show.

But there are troubles backstage and the actor playing Mephistopheles has sent a replacement who doesn't know his lines. Luckily, there's a cafe where we can wait, the cast and crew can be convinced to share their festive acts and the Lativan Women's Group have left fresh pirags and vodka.

With acts including a maths quiz (finally!), poetry and delightfully atrocious Christmas sketches, each performer hints at the Faustian theme of soul bearing by letting us see the bits of their selves that they want to share.

Director Scott Gooding helped the RAG cast create their Faust in workshops and each have developed characters that are true to their skills, confidence and personalities. Everyone's performance starts with their heart, hints at secrets and shows us just how redemptive a wicked sense of humour really is.

And just when you think you know what's going on, there's twists that surprise and remind us that there's more to everyone's stories than what we think we know.

There's only three shows left, so if you can't go tonight, there's 1.30 or 7.30 tomorrow.

14 December 2011

Review: Musical Works

Musical Works:
Give My Regards to Broady
2 December
to 10 December

Hooray for Theatre Works. Along with their ongoing support of independent artists, they are supporting the development of new Australian musicals with the inaugural Musical Works season. Two developing shows were selected and working under the artistic mentorship of Aaron Joyner, from Magnormos, they have a season in St Kilda.

Give My Regards to Broady is about four friends, a Fitzroy share house and the dream to get off the couch and stay away from Broadmeadows – and break into the arts. It's been around for four years. I saw an early version. There were some terrific songs, but it lacked a cohesive story, was a wee bit self indulgent and its characters were inseparable from the performers. I wasn't keen to see it in the same form again.

But it's rare for a great musical to be a corker on its first or second outing. Until an audience react, it's hard to know what bits need to go. Lucky for us, Karin Muiznieks (writer, composer, producer) and James Simpson (composer) were happy to dump the "let's put on a show" tone and set about re-creating.

And what a change! With a snappy new cast (Claire Healy, Lauren Murtah, Leigh Jay Booth and Joe Kosky), the characters have developed the dimension that leaves them memorable, and helped by some solid direction by Scott Gooding, the story's getting some stakes and now ends on a well-earned punchline. Some old songs have gone, the best ones stayed (like "North Vs South") and new songs have appeared ("Snackulas" was a favourite), which all feel like they belong and generally add to the story.

Placed so firmly in Melbourne, with songs like "Half-built Ferris Wheel", it may not find a worldwide audience, but there are four million people in Melbourne who can potentially love it and can happily indulge in Muiznieks witty and clever lyrics.

If you've seen Give My Regards to Broady, it's so worth a new visit. There's still room for work, but it's well on its way to becoming a quintessential Melbourne theatre experience.

The second Musical Works piece is House Warming by William Hannagan-McKinna and Belinda Jenkin, which is earlier in its development.

This time we're in a share house in St Kilda, but without reference or relevance to place, it could be anywhere. Tommy (Daniel Benge) is home after a backpack around Europe, his granddad died and left him a house, and five friends (Rachel Rai, Elle Richards, Belinda Jenkin, Dave Barclay and Drew Collet) are moving in with their compulsory sexual tension, comparison of crap parents and revelation of secrets.

Musically, the six strong voices create a rich sound and dramatically, the six interacting characters allow for conflict and intrigue. The story's there, but its telling and plotting need work. It feels like it's establishing characters and their problems then jumping to the end. There's room for a lot more guts, more wrong turns and an extra act.

Too many shows never get past their first productions. Which means our theatre industry misses out on some awesome stuff. Like first drafts, first sex and first anything – shows need more experience, emotional distance and a bit of help to get it right. With the support of Theatre Works, both of these musicals are well on their way.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

11 December 2011

Review: The Economist

The Economist
3 December 2011
MKA Pop Up Theatre, Abbotsfod
to 16 December

The channel 10 news and the Herald Scum declared MKA totally out of line for presenting a play about Anders Breivik, the man who killed 92 people in Norway on July 22 this year. Goodness knows we don't want angry youngsters questioning and confronting a world that allows for such depravity. What if a Melbourne hipster was inspired and got a similar idea? On behalf of us with half a brain, I toast a "Fuck You" to news reporters who chase controversy.

Unlike many journos, writer (and MKA Artistic Director) Tobias Manderson-Galvin read Breivik's diaries, manifesto and blog. He braved conservative writings and looked beyond the media image of the lone Aryan nutter. Until I saw The Economist, I passively went along with the terrorist kook theory. What am I saying, I'd forgotten about the attack a week after it happened and couldn't have named Breivik without the help of Google. But I know the name Martin Bryant, and an hour with MKA left me understanding and questioning so much more than any media report had.

The Economist is the fictional story of Andrew Berwick, whose life in Norway is remarkably similar to the other AB. He was a teased teenager who tagged and found steroids and the painless violence of World of Warcraft.  As he got older there was facial plastic surgery, gun clubs and "racist fox hats", misunderstood white pride folk music, sexless sex with prostitutes and a farmhouse filled with the ingredients for explosives. And he wrote and read the likes of John Howard. Yes, our Little Johnny.

Now there is nothing as dull as lefty preachy theatre. Be assured, there's nothing dull about this show and there's no hint of a sermon. Director Van Badham (whose writing I am so going read) subverts expectations starting with Zoey Dawson as Berwick. Clad in hideous beige trousers and red windcheaters, the cast set the uneasy tone and give us permission to laugh at a story that we know ends in unexplainable pain.

It's a complex story but Manderson-Galvin finds the moments that develop the full picture without forcing meaning and lets his audience enjoy the kind of mind fuck that leaves you wobbly and wanting more.

Great news is that the season has been extended.

This review originally appeared on AussieThearte.com

Review: The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself

The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself
Malthouse Theatre and Ride on Theatre
1 December 2011
Beckett Theatre, The Malthouse
to 11 December

Mary Maclane would be the kind of Facebook friend you'd be tempted to block in case she tried to chat, but you couldn't do it because her bi-hourly updates about her cleverness and despair were too funny.

Born in 1881, teenage Maclane moved from Canada to New York and at 19 she'd sold over 100,000 copies of her first memoir, The Story of Mary Maclane. It was mostly read by young women, who also wanted to marry the Devil, and was criticised by those who were not. She continued writing, but worked in advertising as her dreams of literary fame were shattered as her subsequent works were not as popular.

When Bojana Novakovic discovered this writing, which wasn't republished until 1993, she fell a bit in love with a lost voice that wouldn't feel out of time were she were an angry young blogger in the fallout of instant fame. And as her company, Ride On Theatre, were the Malthouse company in residence, she and director Tanya Goldberg saddled up You Am I's Tim Rogers as Mary's gentleman musician and composer and harnessed Mary's passion.

The Story of Mary Maclane By Herself is fashioned from Maclane's writings and her musings are musically embellished by Rogers with Andy Baylor and Dan Witton in Anna Cordingly's lush saloon-bar-cum-empty-courtroom design.  Here Mary's pretence of self belief is immediately recogniseable, especially by anyone who also begs to understand why someone as clever and emotionally empathetic as they are cannot touch the happiness that stupid and ugly people find so easily.

Mary's appeal is her conceit of genius and Novakovic lets her be confident but approaches her with a compassion that makes her unlikeability likeable. And with a meta nod to the miserable genius of young artists, she even lets Mary finds her portrayer's diary. There was room for more blurring of character and actor, but it's doubtful that Mary would have allowed her creators such an indulgence.

Ride On Theatre refuse to be dull and have created a unique and compelling story that Maclane herself might even have found a moment of happiness in watching it.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

For bonus reading, please head to Cameron and Alison's wonderful discussion on Theatre Notes.

Photo by Jeff Busby.

05 December 2011

Remembering David Branson

On Sunday 11 December, The Street Theatre in Canberra is hosting an afternoon to celebrate David Branson's memory.

It's been ten years since David died in a car accident in Canberra.

I met the unforgettable David in 2001 when I was working in Canberra as the Manager of FoCA5, the fifth Festival of Contemporary Art. As I was new to the city, it took David about a second to decide that he was to be my guide to independent artists in and from our capital.

Over the next weeks, he spent a lot of time in my Gorman House office or at the cafe telling me how wonderful everyone was. He was usually right and without his passion, his personal and professional support, and his active contribution, FoCA5 would have been a far less interesting event and I may not have smiled so much in the lead up.

For all his performances, my favourite remains a Saturday at the Gorman House Markets when he was busking with the newly formed Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. A group gathered on the grass as three besuited gents (it was just David, Mikel and Phil that day) charmed gold coins from us and hinted at just how wonderful this group would become.

I also remember being in my kitchen and hearing on the TV news that there was a car accident on Anzac Parade and deciding not to look. I wonder if I'd have recognised the green Tarago?  Early the next morning, I heard that it was David's life that was lost and Canberra's shaken arts community gravitated to The Street in disbelief.

It doesn't seem like ten years. I'm still friends with artists I met through David and have followed the careers of many others whose work he insisted that I see.

The Street is putting on a barbeque and there will be performances, stories and music to remember this remarkable man. It will be followed by a very special performance by Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen and I have no doubt that Senor Handsome will have his violin and join in.

David, I only knew you for a few months, but I still miss you and am proud to have been your friend.

Photo by 'pling

02 December 2011

Outland preview

Writer John Richards has been a guest reviewer on SM, but what's he been up to of late?

He's been spending time with the lovely folk at Princess Pictures and made a TV show that will on ABC 1 in February.


Outland has already been seen at the Seattle Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, where it won a people's choice award and John got a showbag.

Melbourne's movers, shakers and tweeters hit Gordon St for a preview screening on Wednesday night.

Melbourne's cultural mover and shakers

Outland is about a group of queer sci fi fans who are terrified of coming out of the nerd closet.

Richards's co-creator is Adam Richard (no relation; John has the plural surname), who also stars with Christine Anu, Ben Gerrard, Paul Ireland (The Slap), and Toby Truslove (Laid). It's directed by Kevin Carlin (Newstopia, BoyTown, The Extra) and produced by Princess Pictures (Angry Boys, Summer Heights High, We Can Be Heroes, John Safran's Race Relations).

Adam Richard and John Richards
I love this show. I laughed myself sick during every episode. That's all I can say.

Please Like away at the Facey page.

And tweet your excitement at #Outlandtv

The first fan-made fan site is Where's Outland?

And for the nerds who want to see where it all started out, the original short film is on YouTube.

Part one.
Part two.
Part three.

01 December 2011

Review: Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens
The Production Company
24 November 2011
The Playhouse, the Arts Centre
to 4 December

The cult fascination with Big and Little Edie Beale doesn't resonate as it does in the US, but it doesn't leave this pair any less fascinating. The Production Company present the Australian premier of the 2007 Tony-winning musical and with Pamela Rabe and Nancye Hayes cast, expectations were high.

The recluse and impoverished Beales were revealed in a 1975 documentary about the mother and daughter living in their filthy East Hampton mansion with raccoons, 50-plus cats, a metre high pile of empty cat food tins and endless fleas. Being the aunt and cousin of Jackie Kennedy-Onassis added to their notoriety and cousin Jackie soon paid for the cleaning of her relatives' house.

The original documentary is still uncomfortably irresistible in its welcomed exploitation, so the decision to re-tell it as a musical could be odd. Why re-tell a story that has already been told perfectly? But such eccentricity and dark sadness must be shared and Grey Gardens creates complexity by including a first act. Set 1941, Act 1 is a fictional afternoon leading up to Little Edie's (Liz Stiles) engagement party to Joe Kennedy (Alex Rathgeber where, cousin Jackie (Ariel Kaplan) runs about, Edie's daddy shows his colours and Big Edie (Rabe) sings and decides her daughter's fate.

For all the genuine affection of Act 1, its ending is played from the beginning, leaving little to draw the audience beyond the veneer of their world.   As it's known that Joe died in WW2, that Jackie nabs his little brother and how the Edie's end up, this act could filled with unfulfilled hope or be so dark that every note is a cruel stab at Act 2.

But it matters little, as Act 2 is what everyone wants to see. Taken directly from the documentary, Big (now Hayes) and Little (now Rabe) are as they will always be remembered. The music is forgettable, but their songs allow the subtext of the documentary to literally sing.

Hayes and Rabe are two of the best around and they surpass all expectations as the Edies bicker and fight for attention and try to find love in their bitterness and regret. It's easy to laugh at the quirks of old-lady eccentricity, but their story isn't easy to laugh with, as it's too close for anyone with parent problems or aging issues or a belief that two cats isn't enough. It's the honesty that Rabe and Hayes find that makes their Edies their own and so much more than remembered images from a tv screen.

With tiny budgets and short rehearsals, The Production Company always create something so much more than expected. Grey Gardens doesn't always grasp the tone and cultural impact of this story, but it's still a great night out and you'll not see better than Hayes and Rabe.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com

Photo by Jeff Busby