17 March 2018

Review: FOLA, Unknown Neighbours

Unknown Neighbours
Ranters Theatre, Creative VaQi, Theatre Works
15 March 2018
St Kilda
to 18 March

Soo-Yeon Sung . Photo by Andrew Bott

Developed by Melbourne's Ranters Theatre and Seoul's Creative VaQi over four years, Unknown Neighbours is somewhere between a walking meditation and sticky-beaking in stranger's houses and a stranger's head.

Four actors, from both companies, stayed in a house when the owners were away and were left to create. The experience begins at one of the houses; you get the address when you book.

In an Acland Street house – one that no one I know could ever afford – Korean actor Soo-Yeon Sung uses a hand-help projector to Google translate her thoughts about the house, the woman who owns it and how the plants in the garden know that they are loved.

While the house is clean and decluttered enough to be ready for an open real estate inspection, it's hard to hide personality. Still, the heart of the experience is about getting to know Soo-Yeon far more than getting to know who lives there. (Our group  knew that we had the people who lived in the house with us, which made the option of snooping and discovering awkward.)

And this is only part one work.

Next, we followed the performer down one of those streets that's so old-school St Kilda that it's possible to forget just how many chain stores are now open in the malled-up part of Acland Street or that renting here is now so expensive that the groovy people have moved to the burbs. There's the Secret Life of Us exterior block, 1940's deco apartments with round windows and dark staircases, 1970's brick boxes that are hideous on the outside and gloriously huge on the inside, and slick new buildings that blend so well that you have to actively notice them. Or it's walking to the next venue. Or stomping along and feeling a bit sad because you moved to the burbs.

So much of this work is the choice to make your own story. Or listen to the people around you; the things I heard about an actor!

The four house-groups meet in the park by the adventure playground that St Kilda people know about – that's now safe and less adventury. As the sun sets, we can see buildings built in the nineteenth century, and five performers ( I don't know how they were shared among the houses) gather in front of a tent.

There's a guitar, wind chimes and a dog.

I repeat, there's a dog.

On the way back to Theatre Works – there is a lot of walking –, a little girl waves from the window of a 1970s brick box. She seems shocked that only a couple people notice her.

After a quick trip through Anglican church built in the 1850s, it's time to sit in the theatre and watch as the pieces of the last couple of hours float into place and. And the dog totally stole the show.

16 March 2018

Guest response: A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer

 A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer
Complicite and Malthouse Theatre

8 March 2018
Merlyn Theatre
to 18 March 2018

A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer. Photo by Mark Douet

Guest writer: Andi Snelling

SM: I cried in Bryony Kimmings's  A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer; felt-tears-fall-onto-my-arm cry. It's a gut-kick emotional show that has led to having some amazing personal conversations about how we create art about illness and how we respond to work about illness.

Kimmings is from the UK and is well-known, and well-loved, by Melbourne audiences having brought us Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, Sex Idiot and Fake it 'til you make it.

It's possibly impossible not to have a personal connection to the ideas, frustration and raw emotion of the work. I started writing about my personal stories about cancer and it became very long. I'm not unique; the audience connection to the work is strong and immediate.

With a sequin-bedazzled cast, it begins as Kimmings's story about being commissioned to make art – a musical, naturally – about other people's illnesses. She finds a gendered mess of language, misinformation and naff fiction – that also makes me cry – and people who are so sick of being sick, and all the expectations that come along with being sick.

When Lara Veitch, who's not an actor, comes into the narratives and onto the stage, it becomes more personal and less hypothetical. And when Kimmings son gets sick, the distance between creator and topic no longer exists.

Here are Maxim's and Tim's reviews, but I want to share response by Andi Snelling. She wrote at 3.17 am.  Here's the link to her MyCause page.

AS: 3.17am has me playing that familiar Lyme game: WTF is that sensation and where is it coming from? Crawling, vibrating, squeezing sensations warming my heart area and machine gun rounds firing off in my right ear in a fireworks display of tinnitus which can be both heard and felt. My throat is dry and ticklish with the acidic taste of reflux because I broke my consume-nothing-after-8 pm rule because my granny o'clock dinner routine got interrupted by a 5 pm theatre show  A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer.

The show is pacing up my mind's corridor, tearing up the carpet and ceiling of my bedroom as the blur of my sickness-dreams comes into sudden sharp focus. The show was an ambitious rabbit hole dive which I loved on paper; a (rightly so) trendy, edgy, feminist artist facing cancer bravely from within whilst fuck you-ing patriarchal power as starkly as the white medical gown we will all wear one day. But it didn't work for me on a creative level somehow. And I wonder if that even matters because it did work for me on the level which it set out to be: a guide. Even when – especially when – it reveals there is no guide.

I was moved but didn't sob as I had expected to. This does not mean anything, other than I clearly had expectations which have little use in art. I felt my own thought struggles around my illness reflected – the pressure for positivity, the brave face bullshit, the cycling of mortality fears and total "normalcy", the "it's-easier-to-pretend-it's-okay" facade, the anger at isolation, the futility of reaching out to disappearing friends, the devastation when your relationship sledgehammers your heart in its hour of need. All of that. And more. I don't even have cancer, but I do have an illness as dangerous as cancer, yet without the voice that cancer has.

And so, the show hovers with me as 4 am approaches, just as art should. A helicopter churns the sky outside and at first, I have to double-check it's really there and not inside me because it can be with Lyme. My heart, like so many nights of late, pounds away, thudding parts of my body with its palpitations, giving me the fear of death and reminding me that I am alive. In the black of the night. Just like the black of the stage.

MICF: The Music comedy festival edition

MICF 2018

We're counting down to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and getting some sleep in while we can.

If you haven't picked up a paper copy of The Music's MICF edition – look at that cover! – you can read it here on issu.com.

I interviewed Tessa Waters, Laura Davis and Showko, and there are a pile of great interviews with  SM favourites like Zoe Coombs Marr, Jean Tong, DeAnne Smith and Neal Portenza. And lots of others. If the festival guide is a bit daunting – bloody terrifying – start here and get to know the performers from more than just a blurb.

15 March 2018

Review: FOLA, Worktable

Festival of Live Art
14 March 2018
Arts House
to 25 March

It's the third biennial Festival of Live Art (FOLA) with events at curated by Arts House, Theatre Works and  Footscray Community Arts Centre, and new event partners West Space, Temperance Hall and The Substation.

I love live art. It's hard to define. For me it is art where the audience create the work with the artist and the experience is more personal than collective. It's about breaking down that wall between artist and participant, and maybe out a little bit about yourself in the process.

Live art can be as challenging as it is welcoming. I've been naked, I've walked the St Kilda and stuck labels on strangers, I've got into bed with Yana Alana, I've been in a bath in a shop window, I've danced with strangers – I'm down with the live art experiences. But I'm not twerking, wearing a onsie or hugging a stranger – which cut out a chunk of the week one program for me. That thing about finding out things about yourself...

The Arts House program isn't as busy as in past years. There's a new bar to hang out in – and they sell toasties – but aren't smaller shows or exhibitions to experience while waiting for your next show. This leaves it feeling a bit empty. So much of live art is sharing your personal experience with other people.

Kate McIntosh

Worktable is a live and growing installation that each participant helps to create. The creation starts with the choice to destroy. I want to do it again. And again.

The initial experience is individual and private, but it expands to include people who are there with you and all those who have been through before.

And, even if you try not to notice, it'll show you so much about yourself.

Step one: Choose an object from shelves that look like an outer-suburban op shop. There's crockery, handbags, toys, typewriters, books and even a packet of cigarettes (not from an op shop). You choose your object based on knowing you will be taking it apart.

I chose a film camera. It was from the 70s or 80s and I would never have been able to afford it.

Step two: Go alone into a room with your object. This is where you know why you signed a release before starting because there's tool-lovers wet dream laid out and begging to be used. Teeny screwdrivers, a vice, hammers and enough safety equipment to know that you CAN smash and not bleed.

But I wasn't going to smash – I could hear people smashing in other rooms. I started finding every tiny screw and undoing it. This went on for a while and I needed the vice to hold it still as I found the cogs and wheels and connection that I could see and understand.

But this was so well made that 20 minutes in, I still had no idea how the focus-puller worked.

It was then that I looked at the choice of hammers, chose the rubber mallet, put on some goggles and  smashed it. Tried to smash it. This camera wasn't coming apart. I put it in the vice and broke a pair of pliers trying to pull it open. I used a metal hammer and made indentations in the wooden work surface because this beast still wouldn't yield its secrets.

And before I could keep going, it was time to move into the next space with my box of broken bits.

Step three: Put your object down, choose another box of broken, sit at a fully-stocked craft table – I love a craft table – and put it back together in any way that you want.

I found a smashed gold and orange tea pot. I chose it because I'd looked at it outside and knew that I couldn't break it because I might have bought it if I'd seen it at the op shop.

I sat at a table by myself and tried to put this broken-beyond-repair, no-longer-wanted, cheaply-made, not-at-all-significant, maybe-once-loved object back together. Maybe I should do the hugging a stranger one, wearing a onsie?

I gave up on glue and used sticky tape (and because the glue was getting mixed with the smear of my blood that I didn't notice until I was trying to put white sides together).

Other people made new objects from their chosen pieces. There was an amazing pink head piece – "It's very Machine Dazzle" someone said; we all got the reference – and a doll made from a paint brush. People sat together and chatted as they made something new.

I only got up and talked because I had to be at another show and couldn't stay any longer. If I wasn't time restricted, I wouldn't have left until I'd somehow stuck that tea pot back together.

Step four: place your new object with all the others that have been made earlier.

08 March 2018

Review: A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music
Watch This

1 March 2018
The National Thearte
to 3 March

A Little Night Music. Nadine Garner & JOhn O'May. Photo by Jodi Hutchison

Independent company Watch This are working their way though all the Sondheim musicals for us and if they could get some more financial support – musicals are expensive to put on – they'd be able to do them all and start again. We're not going stop wanting to see Sondheim shows. The only thing holding this company back is resources.

A Little Night Music had a very short run in Geelong and the so-gorgeous 1920s National Theatre in St Kilda, and finishes this weekend with a sold-out run at the Whitehouse Centre in Nunawading. How exciting to see shows moving out of the inner-city circle of theatres and reaching new audiences.

Nadine Garner's role defining performance as Desiree – "Send in the Clowns" – is unforgettable. She captures being middle aged and beginning to fade into invisibility, but still feeling 20 and searching for a slither hope in the jaded outlook she's developed to cope. Combined with exceptional musical direction and vocals, it's a production that should be welcomed back, after some time and development

Inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, A Little Night Music opened on Broadway in 1973 and won Tonys. Set in Sweden in a summer where the sun doesn't set and offer the relief and darkness of night, it's about the frustration and infuriation of love, sex and relationships – "love's disgusting, love's insane".

If you've seen, or are planning to see, the utterly exquisite National Theatre production of Follies, that still has some screenings at the Nova, Sondheim wrote A Little Night Music after Follies. Both have incredible roles for women, especially older women, and relationships – sexual, romantic and familial –  that are so complex that multiple viewings only reveal more complexity.

Music director Daniele Buatti creates a strong layered sound from the orchestra of five (despite having a problematic sound mix in the National) and lets individual voices shine and bring their own twist and sound to the music. How good would it be if they had the resources to record?

But there's a gap between the music and the direction and characters. The direction moves people around the large stage more than letting the relationships between characters control the action. While each performer brings originality and understanding, especially in the songs, the characters, and the world they are in, aren't consistent. The relationship space between them isn't filled with subtext and all the contradictory feelings that they don't tell each other; it's confusing to desperately want to shag someone you hate, or maybe love, or should never even think about.

And this is where support and money is so needed. There's too much amazing work in this production to focus on the elements that distract because they were limited.

The design suffered from feeling a bit too "community theatre" – and could have been more neutral than Spotlight bargain – but this show needs time in the rehearsal room to develop consistency and the tension that lets the audience get drawn into the world and question if what they see is what's actually going in.

28 February 2018

Review: Hand to God

Hand to God
Alexander Vass and Vass Production 
24 February 2018
The Alex Theatre
to 18 March

Hand To God. Morgana O'Reilly & Gyton Grantley. Photo by Angelo Leggas

Hand to God was nominated for a pile of Tony Awards in 2015, including Best Play (which was won by The Curious Incident of the Dog in The Night-time; which has just finished at MTC). Set in conservative, religious, small-town Texas, its success depends on a balance between its story of personal trauma and God-fearing repression, and the freedom of its God-damning, adults-only language and puppet-fucking irreverence. Yes, it's another Broadway show where puppets have raunchy sex – and it is regularly (and unfairly) compared to Avenue Q.

It's also regularly called "irreverent", and the focus on the naughtiness of being rude may be why this production hasn't found its emotional strength or empathy.

Recently widowed middle-aged Margery (Alison Whyte) is running a puppet workshop for teenagers in the her church hall. The only kids are her quiet son Jason (Gyton Grantley), bad-boy Timothy (Jake Speer), and pretty nerd Jessica (Morgana O'Reilly). The class is an inevitable failure but bumbling Pastor Gregory (Grant Piro) wants an in-church performance, Timothy has a super crush on Margery, and Jason will never tell Jessica that he likes her – until he's fist-deep in his puppet Tyrone.

Demonic possession, inappropriate sex and blashphemous abandon follow. There are plenty of laughs, but many fall flat. The fast-paced direction (Gary Abrahams) revels in jokes, but it tends to play the joke rather than tell the story. And when it is telling the story, it isn't clear what it's really about.

Deep laughs – even the most inappropriate ones – come from feeling connection to character and caring about what happens to them; laughing at potty-mouthed idiots is easy, and forgettable. With a severely-traumatised child, deep grief, and unexpected heroes, there's plenty to make the audience care, especially as the tone shifts in the second half and it becomes clear what's really at stake.

Meanwhile, there's still plenty to laugh at and the tone is set by the wit and fun of the design, by Jacob Battista (design), Chloe Greaves (costime) and Amelia Lever-Devidson (lighting). When the curtain opens, it initially looks so much like a hideously familiar church hall that it takes a while to notice the gorgeously hilarious detail (read the posters, look at the costumes) and it comes into its own with a stage-within-the-stage-within-the-stage.

The shock and laughs in Hand To God don't come from its blasphemy or sex but from from wondering if we, too, would behave like that if our life took a similar turn. I suspect that this side of the production will develop as it runs and finds its connection to its audience.

22 February 2018

Beautiful opens tonight

Beautiful: The Carole King Musical
Michael Cassell in association with Paul Blake & Sony/ATV Music Publishing & Mike Bosner
20 February 2018
Her Majesty's Theatre

The Sydney cast of Beautiful. Photo by Ben Symon

Beautiful is the bio jukebox musical about the early career of singer/songwriter Carole King, who wrote so many American pop songs from the 1960s (and '70s, '80s and' 90s) that there could be endless Broadway musicals about her music. The show opened on Broadway in 2014, in London in 2015 and in Sydney in 2017.

I saw a preview, with understudy. Previews get wobbles out of shows and, even though they are as good as any other performance, aren't for reviewing.

But I look forward to reading the reviews from tonight's opening because this one is a joy.

We've seen enough under-written, under-developed bio musicals that don't respect their audience or the artists they are celebrating. Beautiful has found the sweet spot where nostalgia, story and character are balanced.

The music sounds like the 1960s but has been given a twist of now; as has the choreography and the design. The cast are a consistent delight who all bring bits of themselves to the people they are playing, and the story has enough fact and imagination to create characters who are loved, vulnerable and understood.

And if you love Carole King's music, there's no choice but to go; if you're not sure about her, you'll be devoted fan before interval.

PS. Never forget that understudies are usually as amazing as the performer they are covering.

Green Room Award nominations

Green Room Awards
9 April 2018
Comedy Theatre

Patron Julia Zemiro hosting the 34th awards Photo by Belinda Strodder

Melbourne's Green Room Award nominations for work in 2017 were announced this morning. This is the 35th year these peer-assessed awards have been presented. The panels change as new members come and go, but these are awards chosen by people who work in the arts industry.

Read them here.

And so begins the social media discussions about whether they are right.

After five years of being on the Independent Theatre panel, I'm having a break and am excited for new voices to join in the stimulating and exhausting discussions; panels really do talk about your shows – a LOT.  Everyone should be on a judging panel, at least once.

See you at the ceremony.

14 February 2018

Review: Siblings

Mikelangelo and Anushka
13 February 2018
The Butterfly Club
to 18 February

Anushka and Mikelangelo

Once upon a time, nearly 50 years ago, Mikelangelo existed before Anushka was in this world, but it was only for a short time – and his song about his time before having a sister is a magnificent tale of passion, mystery and balancing the contradictory advice of farmyard animals.

Once his sister was born, a new storyteller entered the family of musicians and storytellers, and every now and then, we are lucky to see them perform together.  

Siblings is a new work presented by The Butterfly Club, the kitchest and grooviest venue in town that supports new cabaret, new ideas, emerging and established artists, and the obvious idea that shows should have a matching cocktail. It doesn't matter what show you see, because it's always worth a visit  to explore the op-shop explosion of glorious tchotchke. (If the framed applique cat tea-towel ever goes missing, it will be me.)

With perfectly-quiffed Mikelangelo in a wide-striped black suit and cowboy shirt, and long-blonde Anushka in the soft greens from a rainbow and the gold found at the end of the bow, it's easy to slip into a world where women can escape glass boxes, the man in moon's cravat is always stylish, and fleeing the amorous determination of water nymphs on geese is expected.

With the very-hip and laid-back support of Dave Evans on accordion and piano, the siblings share and sing surreal stories that are so original and detailed that they are likely to be true. From the contents of a fridge stocked by their Croatian father to ensure that his family never suffer the starvation and need he grew up with to Anushka wondering how her children came to be, it's a work about the love of family, whether they are with us or not.

As Mikelangelo says, family remind us of what we love about ourselves – and those things that we'd maybe like to ignore – so we should never forget that love doesn't have to come from far away.

Siblings is delightfully original and loving, and the intimacy of The Butterfly Club (get in early to be up the front) and the genuine love between the performers and their love for their audience ensures that it takes moments to feel like we're all members of the family (and want a bowl Neopolitan ice cream).

Tickets are selling quickly because Melbourne knows how wonderful they are, so booking is recommended.

01 February 2018

Review: Priscilla

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical 
Michael Cassel Group and Nullabor Productions in association with MGM on Stage
30 January 2018
Regent Theatre

David Harris, Tony Sheldon, Euan Doidge. Priscilla Queen Of The Desert. Photo by Sam Tabone Getty Images

As a commercial film-to-juke-box musical. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical remains a high kick above the rest. Based on the 1994 film, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, the live show was developed in Australia in 2006 and has been beyond the empty outback to 29 countries and 134 cities, including New York and London. The universal language of dance pop, body waxing and sequins travels well.

For its tenth anniversary Tick (David Harris), Bernadette (Tony Sheldon, who has played the role all over the world and is heading to 2000 performances) and Felicia (Euan Doidge) are back on the bus and have pulled up in Melbourne before heading to Sydney, Adelaide and Brisbane.

Tick is Mitzi most nights in a Kings Cross drag club until his secret ex-wife invites him to bring a show to the Alice Springs Casino where she works. He's joined by former Les Girls star and transgender woman Bernadette and young performer Adam/Felicia and the trio drive an old bus, called Priscilla, from Sydney to the centre. Shenanigins follow as deep-bush meets inner-city, sass and sparkle reject hate, and chosen families create warm fuzzies.

Stephan Elliot's 1994 film did so much for bringing queer stories to the screen and popular narratives. It confronted assumptions, celebrated inner-city Sydney's queer community (when it was still called a gay community), increased queer visibility, and helped drag drag out of its not-so-comfortable portrayal of women with a super-fabulous leap of bloody-bonza-Aussie-original-fabulousness with Tim Chappel and Lizzy Gardiner's costume designs.

It also addressed violence, rejection, shame and hate and has an undertone of fear, bitterness and melancholy that makes it so much more than a flag-waving story about everyone being fabulous.

Twenty-three years later, Australia reminded us that we're still striving for fabulous and that queer communities and families are still considered different by a boringly-large chunk of the country – not just the bush bogans on stage – and our government.

This show welcomes updated technology to add to the outrageous colour, sparkle and Brian Thomson's bus design – and Chappel and Gardiner's costumes are still magnificently witty – but how amazing would it be to see the show updated to reflect Australia here and now? What if it confronted the problematic beneath the sparkle?

I don't understand why shows like this are so often stuck in a time and not updated beyond Kylie songs – there's a lot more Kylie in it now.

Priscilla is fun. The cast are amazing and its broad appeal that tones down sex and makes violence safe with a dance number guarantees success. If commercial theatre is about making money, it's the most successful Australian show around.

This same success seems to make it easy to ignore, or joke away, its problems – especially those that laugh at the very communities it claims to be celebrating.

The lesbian jokes would have felt awkward and dated in the 1970s, and there are trans jokes that are even older and more ignorant. Winking to the audience that "Uluru is sacred" only re-enforces the  unacceptable references to "Ayers Rock" and celebrating the offensive act of climbing it. And for the love-of-not-being-horrible, why keep the Asian, German and Scottish stereotypes – and the Australian ones? This is a show about love and acceptance that encourages laughing at difference.

Tick, Bernadette and Felicia don't make safe choices to find happiness. They risk violence, hate and rejection. It's sad that their show makes safe choices to risk what? Risk offending people who don't like theatre that makes them think for a moment?

The Midsumma festival is also on in Melbourne. There are shows that celebrate queer artists and queer stories and don't smooth away anything that isn't comfortable to acknowledge. If you're going to see Priscilla, make sure you see at least one Midsumma show as well.