29 July 2016

Review: Conviction

The Zoey Louise Moonbeam Dawson Shakespeare Company
Darebin Arts Speakeasy
24 July 2016
Northcote Town Hall
to 6 August

Ruby Hughes, Caroline Lee, Troy Reid. Conviction. Photo by Pia Johnson

There's a point in self indulgence that's so personal that is becomes universal.

Writer (often director) Zoey Dawson and director (often writer) Declan Greene (The Unspoken Word is "Joe"are back together for Conviction.

Dawson said in her writer's notes:

"When I went to VCA to do my Masters, I was genuinely ready to embrace the real play and stop writing plays about myself. Partly out of concern for my financial future, partly because I thought I was doing theatre "wrong". But mainly because every time I wrote a play about myself, it really seemed to piss people off."

Fortunately, she didn't listen to herself. And has hopefully stopped listening to the pissed-off voices because there are a lot of voices who want to hear her voice – even when it's raw and indulgent, and especially when she's mouthy about women being pushed into the background.

Ruby Hughes. Conviction. Photo by Pia Johnson

Dawson's work is personal and it's the connection to the writer that's the pumping heart of her work. I remember seeing I know there's a lot of noise outside but you have to close your eyes in 2011 with another no-where-near-20-something friend, and we spent the rest of the night talking about how much the show made us remember being in our 20s and having a lot of sex.

Conviction was mostly funded by a Pozible campaign with donations – mostly reflections of how much theatre makers earn – from some of those not-pissed-off voices.

Funded by Melbourne's indie theatre community, Conviction's meta is meta.

Which means...

If you know what it means, I don't need to explain it. If you don't know what it means, it doesn't matter; it's still hilarious – except when it's confronting or scary. If you miss the theatre in-jokes or dark feminist satire, there are plenty of back-up laughs.

In an attempt to not write about herself, Dawson writes an Aussie settler drama-mystery with Caroline Lee, Dushan Phillips and Troy Reid and Ruby Hughes, who's a young woman who thinks she can write a story about herself as a young woman.

It doesn't work: the not writing about herself or the settler drama-mystery. Neither does the contemporary drama or the dystopian future horror. Is there any time when young women write about themselves?

Conviction. Photo by Pia Johnson

As genres smash into each other like some fringe theatre nightmare – made more real by the design by Romanie Harper (design) and Amelia Lever-Davidson (lighting) that reveals its own jokes and surprises – , we get closer to Dawson. Or maybe to Lee, Hughes, Phillips and Reid. We know she's over being expected to write "real" theatre, and also that she has a Gorman top that she never wears and that she once only slept with men with girlfriends.

And as it spirals into being more about Dawson, Conviction gets closer to its audience. Somewhere in her confessions there must be something everyone has done or felt, even if it's just having an endless inner-voice that we wish would shut up.

Greene's direction lets the inner voices run wild, until he yanks them back. The tone-perfect control in the chaos shapes the work into something that reflects the community and city that it made in and promises to reach beyond.

Sounds like real theatre.

25 July 2016

Review: Cain And Abel

Cain and Abel
The Rabble and The Substation
21 July 2016
The Substation
to 30 July

Cain and Abel. The Rabble. Photo by David Paterson

The Rabble don't make easy theatre, but it's an easy choice to see them.

Always starting with a well-known text – Orlando, Frankenstein, The Story of O,  Room of Regret (The Picture of Dorian Grey) – they deconstruct, bring the subtext to the front, and rework the text until it's distilled into something that's somewhat unrecognisable but holds the essence of the work. You don't need to know a text to understand a Rabble work, but when you do, you will have to read it again.

This story is Cain and Abel's; their chosen text is the Christian Bible. Cain was the firstborn of Adam and Eve and killed his brother Abel because God preferred Abel's gifts. There's a lot to unpack in those few verses. This is the text that explains and tries to justify so much of the hatred and violence that we're arguing about everyday on Facebook.

With Dana Miltins, Cain, and Mary Helen Sassman, Abel, they begin by re-imagining it as two sisters and placing the story deep within the implied and actual violence that women experience.

It far from easy to watch, but it's impossible to look away because the astonishing can occur at any time; blink and you could miss Abel putting glitter on her steak-covered eye.

With Kate Davis's design of white, red and silver, there are punching bags the size, weight and feel of humans. The sound when they are beaten is heavy enough to feel. And they bleed. There's a lot of blood. From the watery runny to the thick and clotted that hides its truth in the red.

The red and white belong together and are made more insidious with silver glitter. It's the stuff worn by drag queens and teenagers to make them shine, and it floats from above as a god comes back into the story and director and lighting designer Emma Valente makes it sparkle and change like it's a living swarm, and dares us to gasp at its beauty as it falls on the clots and floods of red.

Cain and Abel. The Rabble. Photo by David Paterson

Sassman and Miltins are remarkable. Working with Valente and Davis for many years, they have created a style of performance that encompasses everything in and around the text, but is internalised and cut back until it's a moment of truth; a moment that's felt as much as it's seen. It's like waking up from a dream that lasted seconds but felt like hours. They confront us and dare us to look away or to laugh at the horrific and to cheer – and maybe forgive – the side we're meant to despise.

Cain and Abel was first seen at Belvoir in Sydney and this second season has been developed at The Substation in Melbourne. The opportunity to develop original works and get them beyond a first season is crucial. Creators need multiple seasons and audiences to change and perfect work. Too much great work gets lost with single seasons and too many astonishing shows, like this, never have the chance to be shared.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

24 July 2016

Review: Retrofuturismus New World

Retrofuturismus New World
Anni and Maude Davey
8 July 2016
to 31 July

Teresa Blake. Photo by Ponch Hawkes
There’s a gap between nostalgia and embracing retro fashions, as there’s a chasm between the future world we want and the one we’re likely to have. This space in between is where Retrofuturismus New World create, dream and play; where they fill the emptiness with feminist performance art that questions itself and dares its audience to enjoy themselves even when they know that every thought and act is political.

Maude and Anni Davey host in gold jumpsuits with retro-future shoulder pads (they will be back), comfy rubber heels and hair buns that show man-buns how to bun. They don’t hide their 50-somethingness and don’t concede to any ideas that women in their 50s shouldn’t be astronauts or cockroaches, or that burlesque, cabaret or circus should adhere to dated ideas and expectations.

They are joined by Anna Lumb, who always brings the unexpected with hoops; Gabi Barton, who leaves everyone wanting to dye their ‘unsightly’ body hair bright yellow; and Teresa Blake, who remembers the phrase “shit a brick”, makes a reverse strip even more questioning, and knows that being naked isn’t always about sex or enticement.

Each bring themselves to their art and love that their work is so much the better by always asking why. They are joined by a guest artist each week, with Kura Puru (13–17 July), Yana Alana (20-24 July) and The Huxleys (27-31) July. But week one was Azaria Universe.

Azaria Universe. Photo by Ponch Hawkes

Universe performed on a single trapeze in frilly retro bikini and elastic bands that cut into her bare body every few centimetres. It must hurt, it exacerbates the fat on her strong and fit body and she smiles because she has to; why would a woman do that to themselves? Maybe ask the women in slimming underwear that doesn’t let them eat, or breathe, and shoes that they take off as soon as they sit down.

Retrofuturismus New World is a space that loves the future image of the past in the likes of Barabella but re-invents the way women are treated in the film. Theirs is a future that’s created by the best of now and one that re-invents any ideas that women are hysterical creatures that should never dare to be themselves.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

16 June 2016


Ash Flanders: Playing to Win
15 June 2016
Chapel off Chapel
to 19 June

Ash Flanders

It's nearly 10 years since I wrote one of my first reviews about a Fringe show with a young graduate called Ash Flanders.

And look where we are now!

My review is on The Age/SMH.

10 June 2016

Review: Il Signor Bruschino

Il Signor Bruschino
Lyric Opera
9 June 2016
Chapel off Chapel
to 12 June

Il Signor Bruschino. Lyric Opera. Photo by Kris Washusen

Like many independent Melbourne companies, Lyric Opera consistently punch above their weight to produce work that deserves the financial support and the audiences that assume that great opera needs huge stages and velvet-covered seats. Their current production of Il Signor Bruschino, Rossini's 1813 operatic farce, is an absolute delight and proves that great opera can be made with little more than terrific singers, great musicians, and creatives who treat the score and text like it's new.

Set in an Italian fashion house, Gaudenzio (Matthew Thomas) has arranged for his daughter Sofia (Rebecca Rashleigh) to marry Bruschino (Cameron Sibly). But she's in love with Florville (Shanul Sharma), the son of Gaudenzio's rival, and Bruschino's father (Bruce Raggat) has had his drunkard son locked in a cafe owned by the easily-bribed Filiberto (Raphael Wong). As Gaudenzio's assistant, Mariana (Genevive Dickson) supports the lovers and local copper (Bernie Leon) unwittingly helps, Florville impersonates Bruschino and shenanigan's ensue.

With the audience on three sides of the stage, the action begins in the overture and Lucy Wilkins's strikingly gorgeous costumes set the tone and define every character before anyone sings. Using bold colours for each character, she draws on Italian couture from the 1940s through to the 1980s to create a look that's timelessly contemporary and outrageously fun.

Director Lara Kerestes (mentored by Suzanne Chaundy) makes excellent use of the open and intimate space to ensure that story drives the action, while the performers and conductor (Pat Miller) ensure that the music drives the characters and the emotion. As the audience are so close to the performers, individual parts and lyrics – it's sung in English – can be heard, and as they move around the stage, perspectives change. This lets the audiences see and hear individual parts and deconstruct how the complex sound of an opera is created.

At under 90 minutes, Il Signor Bruschino is a wonderful introduction to opera. Being beautifully sung and joyfully performed, it's also a welcome reminder that opera doesn't need to feel dated or stuck in the past.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.au.

27 May 2016

Review: Resident Alien

Resident Alien
Cameron Lukey presents
26 May 2016
to 12 June

Paul Capsis. Photo by Sarah Walker

My review is in The Age/SMH.

Review: Singin' in the rain

Singin' in the rain
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions,avid Atkins Enterprises, Michael Cssell Group, Dainty Group
14 May 2016
Her Majesty's Theatre
to 2 July

Singin' in the Rain. Photo by Jeff Busby

The success of Singing in the Rain' is its mix of homage, iconic film moment re-creation – it really rains! – and a sprinkle of surprising original moments.

Jonathan Church's UK production moved from The Chichester Festival Theatre to the West End in 2012 and was a hit. Church is also the new Artistic Director of the Sydney Theatre Company and – even though this is a re-mount – it's a good opportunity to see what might be in store for Sydney.

It's a theatre musical based on the 1952 Hollywood musical film set in Hollywood in the 1920s when talkies are introduced. Silent stars Don Lockwood (Adam Garcia) and Lina Lamont (Erika Heynatz) are in trouble because Lina doesn't sound as smooth as she looks, so Lockwood and his best friend Cosmo (Jack Chambers) scheme to dub her voice with that of Lockwood's new love Kathy (Gretel Scarlett).

It has been taken off the screen and made to feel like it belongs on a stage. Andrew Wright's choreography winks at the 1920s, embraces the ensemble identity of screen musicals from the 40s and 50s, but feels new; Simon Higlett's design has fun with the 1920s while showing how the same styles could be worn today; the newly-filmed screen scenes feel like being in the cinema in the 1920s; and the rain is so spectacular that the front rows are supplied with plastic ponchos.

The ensemble are a consistent treat and Scarlett, Heynatz and Chambers bring enough joy to their characters to let them love being who they are. They are rarely matched by Garcia, who shows little more than the Lockwood's superficiality.

There's plenty to love about this expensive production. Resources create spectacle, but it doesn't bring a contemporary or even a fresh vision to the story.

The old men slap women's bottoms and expect – and get – a laugh, the women are cast based on height and size, the men are cast based on height and size, the puddles left by the rain are deeper than the characters; and the inevitable happy ending is based on a woman being a bitch. For everything that's wonderful about it, it still feels as dated and dull as its pie-in-the-face gag.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.au.

22 May 2016

Review: After the Flood by Mikelangelo & the BSG

After the Flood
Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen
7 May 2016

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen. Photo by  Tim Chmielewski  

Mikelangelo and the Black Sea Gentlemen may have formed in Canberra 15 years ago, but their histories and song lines reach back in time and across continents.

After the Flood is their fourth album. Influenced by a residency in Cooma with Big hART, they tell their stories about coming to Australia from Europe in the 1950s, living in Cooma and working on the Snowy Mountains Scheme.

Today, Cooma is a stop before the snow fields, but there’s still the avenue of 27 flags representing the nationalities of the people who worked on the scheme. And it’s not difficult to imagine a town of 24-hour music and dance that balanced the back-breaking, life-risking work of tunneling through the mountains and bringing power to a nation. And I know why the best road-trip pie I’ve had was in Cooma.

The gentlemen, who share lead vocals on this album, find the hearts and souls of the migrants and refugees who made a home in mountains so far from where they were born. And they bring the music that travelled with them to find a new space for their extraordinary blend of polka, waltz, ballad, and rock and roll that always has room for an accordion or musical saw.

In Melbourne, the album launched in the lavish gold time-warp of the Thornbury Theatre; a venue that could have been built and decorated by the gentlemen in another time line.

Always in character, but never distanced from their audience, their mix of cabaret and theatre is a genre that’s owned and defined by this group.

While After the Flood brings a time and place to visceral life, the tour has a second act with the favourite songs that won the lust and wonder of their dedicated fans and unleashes the unpredictable passion of the magnificent Mikelangelo.

17 May 2016

Review & PS: Straight White Men

TheStraight White Men
12 May 2016
Fairfax Studio
to 18 June

Straight White Men. John Gaden and Hamish Michael. Photo by Jeff Busby

There's a PS after the clip.

"What would you be willing to give up to make a difference in the world?"

Young Jean Lee wrote Straight White Men because a three-act naturalistic play about straight white men was the last thing the Korean-American, New York–based, avant-garde playwright and theatre maker wanted to write.

The result is an extraordinary exploration of privilege that starts with four men who are so self aware of their privilege that they question their own self awareness of their privilege.

The "last show" motivation has been a relative constant in Lee's work. In 2012, the Melbourne Festival brought us her We're All Going to Die, in which the non-singer, inexperienced performer fronted a band in a cabaret show about personal loss and death. She had the audience clapping along in a crying and smiling mess as we sang "We're all gonna die". Last year's festival screened a filmed performance of her work The Shipment about being black in the USA, in which some audience members huffed out of the cinema without trying to understand why some of us were laughing so much that it hurt.

In Straight White Men, brothers Jake (Luke Ryan) and Drew (Hamish Michael) are back home for Christmas with their older brother Matt (Gareth Reeves) and dad, Ed, (John Gaden). Their mum is dead, but her presence remains in the likes of Monopoly game re-made as Privilege – donate $50 to the local gay and lesbian support group.

Jake knows that his success at work is because he's a SWM, Matt insists he's happy being a temp at community centre because he's useful, and Drew knows how much therapy and talking have helped him. They sing satirical racist show tunes, want to wear Christmas eve pjs, and stop to ask the brother who's crying if he's sick, hurt or wants to talk.

What lovely men.

So why is their behaviour so funny?

They are what so many people say they/we want our straight white men to be. Yet when we're given men like that, we laugh at them.

Director Sarah Giles, designer Eugyeene Teh – who includes touches like the home-made clay phallic sculpture and Jake's full-compression running clothes coordinated with multi-pocketted running shorts – and the cast nail Lee's tone. The best satire is played as straight as it can be, without any self-aware winks to the audience.

Those winks are left to the glorious Candy Bowers, who welcomes the audience as a DJ – listen to what she plays – and is the woman of colour who watches and tweaks the men's world. Her constant presence reminds us that it's not about the men on stage; it's about everything that they are expected to be and about every one who laughs when they are not what we expect.

Like the playwright, she reminds us that we should be laughing at this world because we're part of it. We laugh because maybe we should feel as conflicted as they do when they're faced with giving up anything to help smash the system that has given them so much.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.au.

Have a listen to Candy Bowers and Hamish Michael talking to Richard Watts on RRR Smart Arts. They start about 1:40. 


I've read the tweets and the reviews about the plot and I don't understand why so many people can't see what this play is about.

It's not about straight white men.

If David Williamson wrote a piece called Queer Coloured Women, would anyone think it was really about queer coloured women?

Yet when a woman of colour writes a show called Straight White Men, so many people assume she's written a play about SWM. They don't see the very obvious clues on the stage – or even ask the even more obvious questions.

Excuse me while I attempt to mansplain.

The plot – the one that doesn't tie up nicely or feel quite right – is a complicated and genius joke. It's satirising the three-act psychoanalytic American plays, which tend to be about SWM.

The characters are part of the satire; they'd bleed irony if they were cut open.

When straight white men (or any variation of) write queer coloured women (or any variation of), the characters/situations/resolutions don't always feel real. At the extremes there's the black maid with a heart of gold (who isn't far from the noble savage), the Asian stranger who offers spiritual advice, the sassy gay best friend, the woman who sacrifices everything for her man.

We see these characters all the time. We hate them.

They are idealised and too perfect, or drawn from ignorance and not bothering to understand, or too afraid to show fault. They are "other".

Young Jean Lee wrote her straight white men like this.

They are idealised. They care about their Christmas tree, they ask each other about their feelings, they wear clothes that match. They may pretend to be SWM, but they aren't like any SWM I know.

She's written SWM as ridiculously as SWM write QCW.

Maybe it's hard to notice the huge cock on the mantle piece, but it's impossible to miss that a queer black woman welcomes you to the theatre, watches the show, interacts with the performers, and controls the scene changes. How are so many people missing that this is HER world? It's her perspective. She's in charge. She has the authority.

Is this idea that a QCW is in control of the SWM so out of the understanding of our theatre conventions that even when it's obvious, it's rejected?

Review: Dogfight

Doorstep Arts
6 May 2016
Chapel off Chapel
to 16 May


Independent company Doorstep Arts from Geelong and are known for their productions of musicals. They've brought Dogfight to Chapel off Chapel. Based on a 1991 film, the musical version (Ben Pasek, Justin Paul, Peter Duchan) was first seen in New York 2012.

It's 1963 and marines Eddie and his mates have a day in San Francisco, before going to Vietnam to become heroes, and take part in the traditional Dogfight – a competition to see who can find the ugliest date for a dance.

So we get to see the fat, the "Indian" in her plaits and fringed dress, the frumpy, the big nosed, the be-spectacled, the old, the dim witted, and the one who's clearly a man: all the uglies. This is a fascinating topic to look at – I remember boys from high school having competitions like this and I'm sure they still do – but what disturbed me was seeing how ugly was portrayed on stage.  Watching women perform as "ugly" women is ugly. Why fall into the stereotypes unless you believe they are true?

Act 2 comes together more solidly as Eddie (Alex Woodward) tries to apologise and make it up to teenage Rose (Olivia Charalambous), the girl he chose, while his mates get tattoos and try to rape a prostitute. It's not hard to guess the rest. Nothing in the story is surprising.

Woodward and Charalambous's performances are genuine and honest and both find something to make us care in a book that offers little. But the production doesn't offer a real sense of place or time, despite a Golden Gate Bridge and some hippy costumes, or bring the content into now.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.au.