21 August 2017

How to Fringe 2017: Ruby Hughes

Ruby Hughes aka Ophelia Sol
Performance artist and actor

The Birth of the Unicorn Mermaid
25 September – 1 October
The Butterfly Club

SM: Ruby was terrific in Conviction last year, which is enough to convince me to see her new show.

Ophelia Sol. Photo by Benn Olsen

If you could invite anyone to your show (and you knew they would come), who would it be?
Katy Perry because I believe she would appreciate the costumes and the concept

The Melbourne Fringe in three words.
Entertaining Lucking-dip Adventure

A favourite Melbourne Fringe memory.
Marring myself and my audience in 24 different shows performed over one weekend in the 2014 Melbourne Fringe. Seeing people leave the show with a little plastic ring on their finger beaming so much self love!

Your experience as an independent artist being part of the Melbourne Fringe?
This is my third year performing at Melbourne Fringe. It's such a fantastic platform for independent emerging artists. The team at Fringe are incredibly helpful and host such an important event that allows all art forms to be celebrated in a supportive and encouraging environment. It's a one month long celebration of art and I love being involved.

What makes the Melbourne Fringe unique?
Melbourne has so many wonderful hidden spots, I love Fringe because it brings to life all these little venues you would have never expected to see a performance in.

Advice for choosing what to see in the Melbourne Fringe.
I like to think it's a bit similar to picking a winning horse in the Melbourne Cup. You must like the name of the horse and its number and the colour/pattern of the jockey's shirt. If it ticks all three boxes, it's your horse. I apply the same method to sorting through the Melbourne Fringe program.

Do you think there’s a better system than star ratings for reviews?
Always follow your heart, in everything in life and especially when choosing a Melbourne Fringe show; if it doesn't pay off its okay because at least you followed your heart. Stars don't always mean it's a winner

Five shows/events you won't miss at the 2017 Melbourne Fringe.
How To Kill The Queen Of Pop
KillJoy: Destroy the Fantasy
Becky Lou: Seen & Heard
Fringe Wives Club: Glittery Clittery: a conSENSUAL party

20 August 2017

How to Fringe 2017: The Travelling Sisters

The Travelling Sisters: Laura Trenerry, Ell Sachs and Lucy Fox
A comedy trio

The Travelling Sisters: NOO SHO
15–23 September
The Loft in the Lithuanian Club
Plus an accessible matinee performance on 23 September at Arts House – Underground

SM: I saw them at the comedy festival a couple of years ago. Loved 'em.

The Travelling Sisters. Photo by Dani Cabs

If you could invite anyone to your show (and you knew they would come), who would it be?
Oh gosh. Jennifer Saunders and Dawn French. The Mighty Boosh team. The ladies from Baroness Von Sketch. Although they would probably make us all way too nervous and it would be a disaster.

The Melbourne Fringe in three words.
Our first time!

What makes the Melbourne Fringe unique?
We’ve never been part of a festival that seems to focus so heavily on new work and experimentation, which is really exciting.

Advice for choosing what to see in the Melbourne Fringe.
If the blurb and the image give you something to dream around or make you feel a little silly or fun, see it!

Is there a better system than star ratings for reviews? 
Oh it’s so hard to know isn’t it. Maybe potatoes instead of stars?

Five shows/events you won't miss at the 2017 Melbourne Fringe.

Po Po Mo Co: Recreation & Leisure
Tessa Waters: Volcano
Josh Glanc: Karma Karma Karma Karma Karma Chamedian
Stuart Bowden: When Our Molecules Meet Again* Let’s Hope They Remember What to Do *Probably In Space
Fringe Wives Club: Glittery Clittery: a conSENSUAL party

18 August 2017

How to Melbourne Fringe 2017

How to Fringe 2017
Melbourne Fringe
14 September – 1 October

Fringe Furniture

Last week, the 2017 Melbourne Fringe program launched with a loud declaration of "Everything is Art – for 2.5 weeks".

Fringe is our biggest celebration of independent art and remains unique as an open-access festival that encourages and celebrates new independent work. This festival is the one where you'll see the shows that go on to tour the world, and the ones that will be remembered for only existing for a few hours. You can see work by established artists trying something new alongside artists who are doing their first show or exhibiting their first work in public.

But you will not be able to get to all 440 events. You can try – many have before you – but part of festivals is missing something you wish you'd seen, and seeing something you wish you hadn't.

To help us make some choices, a new SM series called How to Fringe 2017 will start next week.

We'll hear from Fringe artists and from members of Melbourne's arts community, especially those who did their first shows at this festival. They'll talk about independent art in Melbourne and share some stories about being in or going to the Fringe.

And everyone will share the five Fringe shows/events they will not miss. Find a couple of artists that you love and you've got ten unmissable Fringe experiences to add to your list.

If you want to be featured, send me a message and I'll send you the questions.

16 August 2017

Review: The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man

The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man
Malthouse Thearte
9 August 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 27 August

Daniel Monks. The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man. Photo by Pia Johnson

My first experience of Joseph Merrick's story was in 1980 with David Lynch's film The Elephant Man, on the big screen. I may have been too young to deal emotionally with the initial fear – and eventual love – created by Lynch, but it carved the story of the young man who few could see as human into my memory. Unlike the well-known stories of Merrick that run the gauntlet of extreme emotion and see Merrick with pity, director Matt Lutton and writer Tom Wright take us into Merrick's imagined thoughts in The Real and Imagined History of The Elephant Man at Malthouse.

The production begins in 1880s England with the audience being welcomed behind a giant sideshow curtain to gawp for the cost of our ticket. Once we're complicit freak gawpers, Merrick’s story is told chronologically from his impoverished childhood to circus exhibit to the questioned sanctuary of a hospital. Based on what is known about his life, each scene gets closer to his imagined thoughts until we're with Merrick and looking back at ourselves.

Daniel Monks performance as Merrick finds a personal and intriguing space where he lets the audience know that he knows he’s being looked at because he is an actor with a physical disability. Performing without prosthetics, Merrick’s “cauliflower squeezing into pigskin” growths are imagined and there’s much more power in his wearing and final rejection of his “gentleman’s” suit. It’s cool to be different as long as you’re trying to be the same as everyone else.

Marg Horwell's costume design stresses the sameness of Merrick’s world and her set (with Paul Jackson’s consistently-remarkable lighting) initially feels Lynchian with a wide-screen frame that opens in black and white. But any comfortable and safe idea of a flat and distanced world is dismissed when the smoke and fog of industrialisation can’t be controlled and makes the audience part of the world.

Having all other characters performed by women (Paula Arundell, Julie Forsyth, Emma J Hawkins and Sophie Ross) parallels the question about how we tell and remember stories though different eyes. So much of Merrick’s story is known because it was told by Frederick Treves, the doctor who brought him to the hospital. Treves isn't part of this story; this time it’s Merrick’s story.

Yet for all it’s visual power and emotional punch, the production is dramatically inconsistent and at times feels like it’s caught trying to reflect on perceptions of disability rather than exploring the imagined life of the man whose skeleton is still on display and is mostly remembered because of his moniker.

06 August 2017

Review: Looking Glass

Looking Glass
New Working Group
3 August 2017
to 13 August

Peter Houghton Daniella Farinacci. Looking Glass. Photo by Pier Carthew

One of the many things I love about Louris van de Geer's writing is that she forces her audience question everything they see on the stage, and that any story chosen by the audience can be far from from what the playwright and creators intended.

He new work Looking Glass is presented by the New Working Group, a network of 11 independent Melbourne writers, directors and designers, and received development funding from the Australia Council, Creative Victoria and the Angior Family Foundation.

Marcus (Daniel O'Neill, who alternates with Thomas Taylor) is about nine; a time when you're not a child or a teenager and are testing independence and the limits of family love. One day he lies face down on the floor and won't get up. His parents (Daniela Farinacci and Peter Houghton) turn to outside help in the form of tall and mysterious Josh Price, who could be the doctor trying to save them, every person they meet or everyone they wish they met.

It can be seen as a standard family-psychology story – van de Geer is inspired by Charles Cooley's 1902  looking glass theory about how we develop our sense of self based on how we see ourselves reflected through others – but nothing about this production is that simple.

The story is grounded by director Susie Dee creating a strong familial connection with the family. There's a genuine warmth between the characters and the audience, even if they are struggling to find that warmth or connection, or the reflection of it, in their lives.

The counterpoint to this familiarity is the design by Kate Davis (set and costume) and Amelia Lever-Davidson (lighting) that never lets know where we are. A white floor is boxed in by heavy yellow plastic curtains – somewhere between sunshine and urine yellow – that define a room but don't fully conceal what's going on outside it' walls and allow anyone to enter or exit from any spot. The colours and mood change from a clinical clean whiteness, which could be hospital or prison, to underground dark black and reds that change any idea of yellow. It could a family home as easily as a dystopian future, an afterlife, a dream or anything we want, or need, to see reflected on the stage.

I chose my narrative early on and it worked for me – I thought the child was dead or had never been born – but there are many other interpretations of the story that are as logical and obvious.

Looking Glass is complex and fascinating theatre because it holds onto its answers tightly while creating the connection and emotion that begs for answers.

02 August 2017

Mini-review: You're Not Alone

You're Not Alone
In Between Time, Soho Theatre, Malthouse

2 August 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 13 August

Kim Nobel. You're Not Alone. Photo by Geraint Lewis

I went to You're Not Alone at Malthouse without any research and I'm not hitting Google yet because tonight's post-show conversations were about whether this black-comedy documentary-theatre is genuine.

Kim Noble's from the UK and has been touring this solo show for a couple of years. If it's fiction and we were taken for a complete ride, I think it's genius because he created a character that left me searching for a reason to like him, and grabbing at reasons to love him because he's a self-indulgent knob who thinks he's far more interesting than he is.

If it's authentic, it left me searching for a reason to love him and grabbing at reasons to like him because he may well be a self-indulgent knob who thinks he's far more interesting than he is. But some of the filmed moments with his sick dad let his mask drop and that was enough to question if stage Kim is the man he presents himself as.

As does the technical direction and the step-perfect audience interaction.

But I believed his pretending to work at IKEA.

What I love is that – right now – I don't know where this works sits on that spectrum between fiction and biography. I don't know where I want it to sit on that spectrum. And I don't want to know where it sits on the spectrum because it's that ignorance that's making me question what I saw.

Perhaps Kim made secret videos of his neighbours, stalked a supermarket worker and stole his undies, record other neighbours having sex, put his dead cat in the freezer, and convinced men to meet him for sex because they thought he was woman called Sarah. Or perhaps it's all theatre and his lovely girlfriend is waiting for him to come home.

Review: Merciless Gods

Merciless Gods
Little Ones Theatre and Darebin Arts Speakeasy 
28 July 2017
Northcote Town Hall
to 5 August

Jennifer Vuletic. Merciless Gods. Photo by Sarah Walker

Yesterday there were only a handful of tickets available for Little Ones Theatre's Merciless Gods at the Northcote Town Hall, so they've snuck in an extra matinee on Saturday (August 5). Book now because otherwise you will have to go to Sydney to see it at Griffin in November. Really, it's that good.

Director Stephen Nicolazzo approached Melbourne-based author Christos Tsiolkas to adapt his series of short stories, Merciless Gods (released in 2014 but is a collection of older work), he said yes, and long-time Little One's collaborator Dan Giovannini wrote the script.

So much of the strength of Little Ones Theatre's work comes from an ongoing collaboration with a core group of artists. And, as an arts writer, it's been pretty amazing to watch this group of artists find each other and develop over the years. One of the many reasons to see new work and emerging artists is that rare opportunity to see how original voices develop in on our stages.

As all good Melbourians have read at least one of Tsiolkas's books (The Slap, Dead Europe, Head On), there's an immediate familiarity with Merciless Gods – the first story onstage story about five middle class friends could be easily re-cast from the audience. The work feels like being inside one of Tsiolkas's books, but what makes this adaption so remarkable is that it's nothing like reading Tsiolkas on the page.

There's no attempt to recreate the sense of place in his books. Tsiolkas evokes and uses place so effectively in his writing. Northcote, Brighton and Moorabin in The Slap could be no other suburbs, but as a reader you don't need to know where you are to understand the attitudes that define the area. On stage, place is mentioned but it's only seen through the design by Eugyeene Teh (set and costume) and Kate Sfetkidis (lighting).

With a colbolt blue wedge that literally stabs into the audience from a red curtain that's somewhere between blood red and fuck-me lipstick-red (Teh's use of colour to create emotion is always incredible), the eight worlds/stories place the audience as those merciless gods who watch and may want the unthinkable to take place in front of their passive gaze.

Instead of being comfortable in place, ranging from suburban backyard to a gay sauna, Giovannini's script lets us into the hearts and heads of the characters. There's no sitting back and letting environment control actions and this lets these stories find a humanity in people who are often ignored or seen as defective or inhumane humans.

These stories are about characters and people who are rarely seen on our stages and in our stories, or  those who are invisible or ignored in our lives. Along with the queer and Australian immigrant stories expected from Tsiolkas, are people whose circumstances or behaviours leave them fading or invisible. There's a middle aged woman dealing with her teenage son beginning to treat her like she's nothing, an older women watching male gay porn, a man in prison for a violent crime, a man who's chosen to end his life surrounded by his family.

Each are stories that confront – it's difficult to feel for someone whose behviour makes us want to ignore or hate them – but the production doesn't try to shock. Shock lets us distance ourself from characters. By finding common emotions and thoughts – we know the pain of grief, the irrationality of wanting revenge, the blindness of love –, it's much harder to say "that would never be me or mine".

All of which could fall apart if the cast (Sapidah Kian, Peter Paltos, Paul Blenheim, Brigid Gallacher, Charles Purcell and the incredible Jennifer Vuletic) didn't bring themselves to their characters. Again, they don't let the abhorrent or simply annoying behaviours of their characters create distance, and all find a personal connection with character that lets the audience find their own connection.

It's this connection that Nicolozzo ensures is always on the stage and this disturbs far more than anything the characters do. It's easy to connect with lovely people; it's confronting to connect with – and easily laugh with – people who you'd never look at in the street or are happy to pretend don't exist.

23 July 2017

Mini review: The Book of Revelations

The Book of Revelations
Black Hole Theatre
21 July 2017
to 30 July

The Book of Revelations. Alison Richards. Photo by Sarah Walker

The Book of Revelations was first seen at La Mama in 2013 and has developed into in an interactive installation, in the much larger at fortyfivedownstairs, that invites its audience to experience the confusion, fear and disarming beauty of dementia. What do you do when people in family photos have become shadows or mirrors?

Directed by Nancy Black, who has worked with a team of visual and sound artists, it's a 45-minute immersion that people can enter and leave at any time; it runs on a loop that doesn't have a beginning or end.

Wearing headphones that give an alternate voice offering options to explain what where seeing or feeling, it's easy to follow Ada (writer/performer Alison Richards) who sings and hides though moments of clarity and confusion. But make time (or stay for a second cycle) to explore the space and see the memories hidden in the kitchen cabinet or projected onto the walls.

The room is filled with Ada's memories. Some are recognisable and easy to understand, while others are made corporeal with video, sound, light and puppetry. No memories are safe as it's never clear if their delicacy comes from reality or is the beginning of a descent into something terrifying.

With projections of doilies (does everyone really fill their life with doilies as they age?), floating tea cups, and a soundscape that could be in your head or in the room, it's never clear if we're in Ada's mind with or as her or if we're parts of her distorted memories. This leaves us never able to be fully immersed in her confusion, which might be the point of the experience – being aware that you're not aware of the truth.

16 July 2017

Review: Noises Off

Noises Off
Melbourne Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre
12 July 2017
Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 12 August

Nicki Wendt, Louise Siversen, Ray Chong Nee, Libby Munro, Simon Burke. Photo by Stephen Henry

In Michael Frayn's Noises Off, the satire is as sharp as its farce is infuriating and it celebrates English sex romps as much as it loves the people who made them. It won the 1982 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and its original and revival Broadway productions (1984, 2001, 2015) scored Tony nominations. It's a safe programming choice, as it pretty much guarantees full house, and this MTC and Queensland Theatre production is very safe.

Noises Off is about a UK touring production of a 1970's UK sex-romp where Arabs in sheets are a hoot and the women are semi-naked and young, sex-deprived and middle aged, or batty and crones. The tour, funded by one of the actors as her retirement fund, starts badly in Act 1 when the dress rehearsal is a disaster. Act 2 is seen from backstage at a matinee performance when the onstage interpersonal relationships are stronger than those of the cast, and Act 3 is what the show has become by the end of the season.

It's still set in the 1980s, which makes for some nostalgic costumes but doesn't reference anything about Australia or our theatre. How good would it have been to up the meta by having a 2017 company performing a 2017 company performing a safe 1982 farce and questioning all of the questionable on-stage choices and wondering why they're producing a 1982 British play? This lack of relevance makes the plodding pace of Act one seem even slower as the obvious jokes are over explained and the not-really-important plot of the play-within-the-play is made to feel important.

Acts two and three find the natural rhythm of the work, especially as the slapstick and physical humour are hilariously choreographed and the terrific cast nail the tone. There are plenty of laughs but there isn't equal focus on how the characters' lives are falling apart as much as their production is. When the actor-characters, who are playing stereotyped characters, have "theatre" personas that are closer to stereotype than archetype, there isn't room for the contrast and counterpoint that adds complex stakes and a dose of reality to the farce about a farce.

Funded companies have the time and resources to explore texts and question what we see on our stages. This Noises Off will do well because it's Noises Off, but it doesn't question why it was chosen in the first place or add anything new to the work or the genre. It's skim milk with a level spoon of Milo when it could be an outrageous iced chocolate made with free-trade couverture and freshly churned ice cream that's too outrageous to finish.

15 July 2017

Guest review: Send Nudes

Send Nudes
Kissing Booth
4 July 2017
The Butterfly Club
to 9 July

Guest reviewer: Jack Beeby 

James Hardy

James Hardy lays bare an autobiographical tragicomedy of fleeting sexual and romantic misadventures in Send Nudes at The Butterfly Club.

Hardy, a  20-something Melbournian is struggling to find meaningful fulfillment as he jumps between the daily drudgery of his hospitality job, his fledgling artistic career and the respective bedrooms of his various romantic partners. As the show traverses between different scenes of Hardy’s life, we meet a medley of supporting characters, from James’s long-suffering housemate to an all-singing all-dancing Mormon and a selection of Hardy’s squeezes (all played by co-creator Jake Stewart).

On the surface, Send Nudes is a very familiar cabaret show: a performer details a series of humoresque intimate exploits to a soundtrack of catchy pop and musical theatre bangers. It tells the story quite well, with charm, charisma and strong musical performances from both leads and accompanist Luke McShane.

What sets this show so refreshingly apart from so many others, however, is the unique flourish of style and wit with which it is executed. Stewart is already becoming well-known for his talent for rich, culturally aware observational comedy writing and, coupled with Hardy, the duo create something that is uproariously funny, intimately personal and, most importantly, theatrically relevant.

The show betrays an informed academic awareness of theatrical convention, both technically and culturally, which it utilises and subverts to exceptional effect. The show is relentlessly self-loathing and makes no apologies for its eviscerating critique of contemporary cabaret as “the gangrenous foot that’s been killing theatre for decades”. It lambasts the fact that it itself is yet another show about the tragicomical arena of sex and dating; it criticises its choice of songs and its adherence to and subversion of convention; and even questions the value of Hardy (a tall, slim, blonde, vaguely symmetrical, white, cis man from a middle class upbringing) as a viable ‘sexual underdog’.

For all the show’s frankness and candour, there are a few very brief moments where the text strays into the poetic, which honestly feels a little at odds with the tone and the performances of the rest of the show.

The show zooms along, jumping from scene to scene – each situated with deliciously clumsy, pseudo-Brechtian signposting – but is reigned in by Lindsay Templeton’s expert directorial hand, which provides enough texture to offset the pacing and allow the audience space enough to breathe.

Hardy is new to cabaret and is evidently still finding his stride but with an authentic vulnerability to his performance and a powerful tenor voice, he is undoubtedly one to keep an eye on. Stewart is also exceptional, showcasing his considerable wit and dexterity and a strong command of his own musical performances.

Send Nudes is an intelligent and creative unpacking of what it means to not quite know who you are – a perfect allegory for both the na├»ve foibles of youth and the bastard-child art form that calls itself cabaret.