22 March 2017

MICF reviews 2017

I've been very quiet on here lately. Work has been taking up more time than usual and don't have the time to review as much as I'd love to. However, I am teaching and I can promise there are lots of terrific journalists excited about writing about theatre in the near future.

So, for the first time in ten festivals, I'm having a quiet(ish) festival. I'm still seeing shows, just not as many as usual. And I'm going to be tweeting instead of reviewing (ok, maybe some Age reviews).

I'm trying to answer every email and I'm sorry if some fall into the cracks in the internet.

It is difficult to get to all the emails. And all the arts writers in Melbourne face the same terrifying wall of emails. A couple of years ago I did  Top Ten Tips to Get  a Comedy Festival Review and here the are again.

Top ten tips to get a Comedy Festival review revisited

1. Make it personal

“Dear reviewer”, “Hey guys”, “To whom it may concern”  says, “I have no idea who you are and don’t read anything you write”. If you don’t know the name of the person you’re contacting, are you sure you want them to come?

Sending cut-and-paste individual emails isn’t much better. I’ve received emails asking me to review for publications I don’t write for and ones where my name has changed during the email.

And if you don’t know the person you’re writing to, introduce yourself. Let us get to know you.

2. Know what you want

Do you want your email to result in an interview, a listing, a review, an opinion piece, a news story, a ticket giveaway, an audition notice …

Tell the writer what you want.
And don’t ask for something that they don't do.

I’ve had complaints that I wasn't at shows I was “invited” to. Sending a media release with no other information is NOT an invitation.

3. Write a good subject line

Don’t write a witty or an obscure subject line, write a good one. A good subject line makes it easy to know what you want (and easy to search for when we need to check something).

For example:

Invitation: Name of show
Review/interview/listing request: Name of show
Reminder: Name of show (I appreciate reminder emails.)
Follow up: Name of show
Images: Name of show

Media release: Name of show? – see point 2

4. Put the information in the body of the email

A beautifully designed pdf is cool, but make sure that the vital info is also in the body of the email. Opening an attachment takes time, is annoying to do on a phone and is one more excuse to move onto the next message.

Plain text also makes it easier to cut and paste so that names are spelt right.

5. Check spelling and grammar

This festival, I want to read ONE – really, just one – email or media release that has been proofread.

Writers do judge you by your ability to use an apostrophe.

6. Do your research

Read the writer and the publication. What do they like seeing and writing about? Do they interview? Do they review? Who else do they write for?

And check if the writer had reviewed the show/artist before. I’ve had invitations to review shows I’ve already seen – and not liked. Google really is your best friend.

7. Who, what, when, where

If the name, time, date and place of the show aren’t on your message, media release, invitation, web page, flyer and everything else about your show, don’t be upset if people don’t turn up.

8. Find the magic time

There’s a time that’s not too early or too late to make contact. It differs for everyone. For me, it’s four to five weeks from opening. Too late and I'm booked up, too early and I'm not ready to commit.

Some writers, especially those with mainstream publications, need longer, but a last-minute request can work, especially during a festival.

The secret to finding the magic time: ask the writer.

9. Follow up

A follow-up email is a great idea.
A second follow-up can work.
A third is a waste of time.

10. Be nice

Over 500 other festival shows want reviews. As do the all the other shows on during March and April. Arts writers love seeing your shows (it’s why we do this, after all) and try to see as many as possible.

But this means that not everything will get a review.

This can be a kindness, or it can be because their brains imploded, the extra day in the week doesn't exist (it takes time to write reviews), they're sick or there wasn’t room to publish.

Never assume the worst, don’t get shitty and be happy with a tweet. And remember that a lot of word-of-mouth really is word-of-mouth.

Review: Faith Healer

Faith Healer
Melbourne Theatre Company

9 March 2017
The Sumner
to 8 April

Paul Blackwell. Faith Healer. Photo by Jeff Busby.

Faith Healer, directed by Judy Davis, at Sydney’s Belvoir last year was so successful that the MTC put it into the Sumner Theatre. While twice as many can see it each night, most can’t experience the intimacy that made it so successful and the production struggles to find its strength in the large space.

Irish playwright Brian Friel’s play of four monologues only lasted for 20 performances on Broadway (with James Mason) in 1979 but has since gone on to scoff at those first reviews and opinions.

In the 1950s, Irish faith healer Francis “The Fantastic” Hardy (Colin Friels) travelled through Wales, Scotland and Ireland with his wife, maybe mistress, Grace (Alison Whyte), and manager-cum-dogsbody Teddy (Paul Blackwell). As their monologues coincide in time, the audience can imagine them together and find their own truths, which sit somewhere between comforting and devastating.

Moving from places including village halls, a desolate roadside, and a pub that’s more of a lounge bar, they remember more about death than healing. And their memories are shaped by the conscious and unconscious tweaks that create a story that can settle in their own psyches, no matter how broken or blackened, and help them make the only choices that feel right for them.

Friels holds his emotion tightly with a heavy physicality that makes Francis feel every movement as pain. Whyte leads with Grace’s heart and shares the emotion that lets us into her thoughts. Blackwell’s Teddy connects with the audience as he also sees the couple from an outsider’s perspective and because he survives by finding the awkward humour that offers much-needed space to breath and reflect.

But while they talk to us, we don’t know who “we” are. We’re not Francis’s “fictions” or “despairing people” wanting to be healed or to give up on hope. Are they talking to judge, jury, friends, strangers or gods? Are we listening to a confession or a yarn?

This is questioned more as most of the audience have little direct connection the stage. Brian Thomson’s design of an empty town hall engulfed by storm clouds (that subtly change colour and mood with Verity Hampson’s lighting) is clearly made for Belvoir. So much that ther’s a Belvoir-shaped thrust staged and a couple dozen of the luckiest punters get to sit on the extra seats around this stage. But while most of the audience were so close in Belvoir, I felt too distanced in the closest third of the seating bank.

If post-show chat is anything to go by, those close and centre had a much more engaging evening, but it left me watching performances and listening to words rather than being so lost in the memories of the characters that their pain was felt.

This was on AussieTheatre.comaussietheatre.com.

27 February 2017

Review: The Play That Goes Wrong

The Play That Goes Wrong
Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, Kenny Wax Ltd and Stage Presence in association with David Atkins Enterprises and ABA International Touring
Mischief Theatre
24 February 2017
Comedy Theatre
to 26 March. Then touring

The Play That Goes Wrong. Luke Joslin, George Kemp, Nick Simpson Deeks, James Marlowe

The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society present The Murder at Haversham Manor. It goes wrong. Very wrong. So wrong that it's totally right.

The Play That Goes Wrong by Mischief Theatre was first seen in 2012 in a 60-seat theatre. With a new second act, it went to the Edinburgh Fringe and has now been swimming through tears of laughter for three years in London, where it also won a 2015 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. The Australian production opened in Melbourne on Friday and the Broadway production starts previewing in early March.

An inept local drama society have got enough cash – thanks to one of the actors (there are bonus giggles in the program) – to stage a 1920's murder mystery. Under the serious direction of Chris Bean (Nick Simpson-Deeks), who also plays the lead detective, lines have been (mostly) learnt and they're ready to open. If only the stage manager could find his Duran Duran box set and the crew could keep the set to stay together.

From the wobbly set to pratfalls, malapropisms, slapstick and every other joke in the book – and then some – the pace doesn't speed up so much as deliberately run you down, back up and do it all again. What begins with polite giggles and small gags develops into an insanity that breaks the most serious of reviewers as it celebrates every memory of atrocious theatre.

While Darcy Brown's dead body almost steals the show, Simpson-Deeks sets the tone as the unflappable actor, who loves his company and every show they have done – oh, to have seen CAT. The Australian cast (including Adam Dunn, Luke Joslin, George Kemp, Brooke Satchwell and Tammy Welle) are joined by James Marlowe from Mischief Theatre and are all so gloriously bad that they are wonderful.

My only complaint is that I wasn't bribed like some other reviewers.

This was on AussieTheatre.com .

18 February 2017

Review: John

Melbourne Theatre Company
16 February 2017
Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne
to 25 March

MTC. John. Photo by Jeff Busby

American playwright Annie Baker won a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for The Flick (seen at Red Stitch) when she was 33. Her writing's won Off-Broadway Obie awards and rightly declares a new Baker as a show to see. The MTC have the Australian premier of her 2015 play, John, and director Sarah Goodes guides a must-see production that revels in the ambiguity, mystery and too-close-for-comfort humour in the writing.

Jenny (Ursula Mills) and Elias (Johnny Carr) are as much trying to stay together as they are trying to break up when they weekend at a B&B in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, run by Mertis (Helen Morse), who wears a fanny pack and a doggy apron when she's working. The tourist area offers Civil War ghost tours, but the real unease come from the gaze of personal ghosts and gods, collectable American Dolls, and, sometimes, Mertis's blind friend Genevieve (Melita Jursisc), who's happy to explain that she's no longer clinically insane.

The heart of Annie Baker's writing is in the subtext: the white space on the page that creates the silences on the stage, the time between scenes, how characters listen and reacts, and the surprises in the design and sound.

Designers Elizabeth Gadsby (set and costume) and Richard Vabre (lighting) make the homely and welcoming B&B feel creepy. At a glance, it looks super naturalistic – in a world where floral carpet, chintz and kitch figurines are expected – but the detail reveals an out-of-time oddness that hints of the supernatural, or an ageing house with quirks. There are too many lights, the grandfather clock ticks but doesn't measure time without help, the flying ducks on the wall light up, the radio is a mini juke box that plays Bach and Vivaldi, and the pianola can't be trusted. The atmosphere is perfected with Russell Goldsmith's sound design of ticking, rustling and music that's as implied as it is heard

Morse and Jurisic perform like Metris and Genevieve  – oh, Genevieve – were written for them. With timing and pacing that define their years of experience and an ability to create character from the centre of their beings, they are as heartbreaking as they are hilarious. Mills and Carr use the silences to show more than "what yelling looks like", and let Jenny and Elias be so unlikeable that the moments when they show their true feelings change everything. All four hold onto the their secrets and let the audience keep guessing, filling in the unsaid through the two intervals, and talking about their own Johns late into the night.

John isn't theatre that explains itself and the temperamental room that Metris talks about might be the one you're sitting in. Baker's writing is as complex as life but she never wants her audience to forget that they are in a theatre. Goode's production lets this conceit pay off again and again, and, as the stories unravel and tangle, we're reminded how theatre can get inside our minds and stay with us like ghosts.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

16 February 2017

Review: Little Emperors

Little Emperors
Malthouse Theatre for Asia TOPA
15 February 2017
Beckett Theatre
to 26 February

Little Emperors. Photo by Tim Grey

Little Emperors was commissioned and developed by Malthouse Theatre for the Asia TOPA festival. Australian writer Lachlan Philpott (The Trouble With Harry) was flown to Beijing to work with director Wang Chong (founder and director of the Beijing-based experimental company Théâtre du Rêve Expérimental) to create "a piece about the connection between China and Australia ... appealing to both English and Mandarin speaking audiences."

Starting with the idea of exploring the cultural impact of China's one-child policy, a Chinese university-student (Yuchen Wang) is in Melbourne where he can live with a boyfriend, explore theatre making (it gets meta with Liam Maguire), chat with his older sister (Alice Qin) in Beijing on Skype, continue to ignore his mother (Diana [Xiaojie] Lin) and move on from being the second child who was ignored in public and sent to boarding school when he was too young. When he doesn't come "home" to Beijing for his mother's 60th birthday, mum and sis plan a surprise visit to Melbourne.

With an exceptional design (Romanie Harper, set and costume; Emma Valente, lighting and video), it's easy to get involved in the story as the design creates distance and/or intimacy between the characters and/or the audience. Set in a large pool of water that makes the simplest of movements difficult, a curtain of hand-written signs (maybe letters?) separates the onstage world from the backstage one that's seen through a live video projected onto the curtain. This allows for moments when you can see a character next to a close up of themselves; concurrently showing us so little and so much of the world.

The strongest parts of the work are the complex relationships between the family, especially between mother and daughter, but, while it touches on many issues – from expensive dumplings in Melbourne to the shame of having no grandchildren – it doesn't explore any of them in depth. It feels like the Chinese and Australian creative voices are being so polite to each other than no one dared mention the non-polite issues the work could explore or question whose voice was ultimately telling the story.

This was on AussieTheatre.com.

13 February 2017

Review: Lifetime Guarantee

Lifetime Guarantee
Theatre Works
10 February 2017
Theatre Works
to 26 February

Izabella Zena & Julian Dibley-Hall. Photo by Pier Carthew

My review in The Age/SMH.

With apologies for getting Mark Constable and Julian Dibley-Hall's names mixed up.

Review: The Way Things Work

The Way Things Work
Red Stitch Actors Theatre
8 February 2017
Red Stitch
to 5 March

Joe Petruzzi & Peter Houghton. Photo by  Teresa Noble

My review in The Age/SMH.

10 February 2017

Reflection: The Intimate 8

The Intimate 8
Finucane & Smith, National Gallery Victoria
4 February 2017
to 11 February

Last year, Moira Finucane became the NGV's first Creative Fellow. It's an honorary role, but what an honour.

And what an absolute joy to be among the lucky few who have taken Moira's The Intimate 8 tour through the gallery. Over three Saturdays, groups of 20(ish) took a free whirlwind tour where hundreds of years of art saturated our souls and reminded us to look around, see what people make and live our life as a total work of art.

A gift. Porcelain Heart handcrafted by Catherine Lane and held by many hands. (I put it next to my cat's ashes.)

Guests wear headphones and follow Moira in her swishing long black gown with crystal straps. She tells us what she thinks about when she looks at the works, what she imagines the artists thought or what the characters in the paintings are thinking.

I saw pieces I've never looked at before, but some weren't new. Her imagined revenge on the ravens in Anguish – August Friedrich Albrecht's 1878 painting of the sheep with her dead lamb that always breaks me a little bit – was gory and glorious.


The headphones add a soundtrack (composed and collated by Darrin Verhagen and Ben Keene) to her commentary – like hearing "... then we take Berlin" (from Cohen's "First we take Manhattan") while looking at Great dancing pair by Erich Heckel, painted in Germany in 1923 at the height of the Weimar Republic, when the war to end all wars was over and no one believed that a greater hell was on its way.

It felt like being in a film; feeling distanced from everyone else in the gallery and being immersed in Moira's thoughts. Even though she's talking out loud, and others are listening, we only hear her through the headphones.

There's little time to contemplate, but it's easy it is to remember each work and its story – why don't I live in the Gallia apartment? –  and still have time to accidentally hold hands with a stranger while imagining afternoon tea served eighteenth century English silver. And watch gallery visitors watching us; we became as much a part of their gallery visit as the art.


What a way to introduce and share art. Imagine if there were tours like this through the gallery every day? Think of all the artists and performers that you'd love to take a tour with. Think of all the people – some who might have never been to the gallery – who would take the tours.

The six Intimate 8 sessions were booked out almost as soon as they were announced. There are two tomorrow afternoon, so if you're in the gallery after 2.30, you may want to follow a group of people in headphones following a magnificent woman in black.

09 February 2017

Review: 'Tis Pity

'Tis Pity: An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth
Victorian Opera
6 February 2017
Elisabeth Murdoch Hall
to 8 February

'Tis Pity. Kanen Breen & Meow Meow. Photo by Pia Johnson

The 2015 Victorian Opera production of Die Sieben Todsunden with Meow Meow took me as close to seeing how Brecht and Weil must have imagined their work. It was a highlight of that year and the newly devised 'Tis Pity song cycle reunites Meow and director Cameron Menzies, adds the rather divine tenor Kanen Breen and Richard Mills composing for a full orchestra. And it's about exploring the history of prostitution. All the ingredients are brilliant, so what went wrong?

Of course, Meow and Breen's performances are excellent. Their vaudeville-cum-Brechtian-cum-"Alan Cummings in Cabaret" clowns are backed by red velvet, three male dancers and Orchestra Victoria, with cheap shiny-red cardboard hearts on their music stands. The opening moments are full of hope as Breen sings that sex is both the question and the answer.

Sex? Sex.

What follows is ten vignettes about how women have been exploited by men for as long as records exist. Their order is drawn from a hat in convenient chronological order. This device is only slightly less annoying than the alarm screaching the beginning of each vignette.

There’s no consistent theme. From Ancient Greece to contemporary Hollywood, there are narratives – not structured stories with characters – about "whores", men using prostitutes, keeping wives away from whores, keeping women “subjugated”, evil menstrual blood and hypocritical religion.

The narrative voice is almost always male – even when delivered by Meow. When she does speak as a women, it's confirming the male narrative that working girls (with cockney Pygmalion accents) are selling their souls.

With little exploration of a female point of view and research that feels as deep as a Wikipedia introduction, perhaps Mills's boast that "This project was written at breakneck speed in the month of November" says it all.

‘Tis Pity is under developed and needs to find more heart than those cut from cardboard.

Also on AussieTheatre.com.

06 February 2017

Review: The Book of Mormon

The Book of Mormon
Producers listed here
4 February 2017
Princess Theatre
open run

The Book of Mormon. Ryan Bondy & Auguston Aziz Tchantcho. Photo by Jeff Busby
Oh, I believe!

The expectations of the Australian production of The Book of Mormon were higher than a stoner watching South Park – the Broadway run hasn’t had an empty seat since it opened, and won Tonys, in 2011. These expectations have been reached – and surpassed.

Seeing it once isn’t enough.

Elders Price and Cunningham are 19 and paired off for their two-year Mission, following the thousands of Elders who have set the stereotype of Mormons all over the world. Elder Price (Ryan Bondy) is the perfect Latter Day Saint son. He knows he’s one of Heavenly Father’s favourites and prays to be sent to Orlando, Florida, for theme parks and putt-putt golfing. Elder Cunningham (AJ Holmes) gets everything wrong, is mostly excited to finally have a friend, and has to be told that Uganda, their destination, is in Africa. When they arrive in a village that’s been devastated by poverty and the threat of a local warlord adds to the misery of most of them having AIDS, there’s hope for baptisms – but the villagers have strong opinions about the mercy and goodness of God.

I don’t think I have ever laughed so much.

It’s easy to praise Bondy and Holmes (they have played the roles in international productions and will be replaced by their Australian understudies) who win the undying love of the audience from their first ding dongs. But everyone on stage is as utterly brilliant. Zahra Newman (Nabulungi), Bert LaBonte (Mafala Hatimbi) and Rowan Witt (Elder McKinley) are unforgettable and have each brought an extra bit of themselves to make the roles their own; the background characters are as developed as the protagonists; and the on-stage energy could run a city power grid

Written by Robert Lopez (Avenue Q and the wonderful musical episode of Scrubs), and Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park), and co-directed by Parker and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (a pile of Broadway shows), the satire of the Mormons and their faith is merciless. It’s created by following the first rule of comedy: tell the truth. Today, about 15 million people believe that truth about the church founded in America in the 1830s, but a lot of truths seem a bit nutso when they’re described.

The Ugandans are equally satirised, but their truth is very different and always seen through the point of view of the Mormons. They aren’t real Ugandans, but an exaggerated version of the “nice” and “innocent” (or warlordy) Africans expected on music theatre stages. Their layer of truth is the poverty and diseases that America could cure today; the cost of an A-reserve ticket could feed a starving child for a long time.

As the super-white American Mormons and the Africans are brought together with a common hope and goal, they are always the heroes of their personal, and the bigger, story. Everyone – even General I-can’t-spoil-the-joke-for-those-who-don’t-know – is loved and always laughed with, far more than at.

This confrontation and shattering of expectations is carried though every element. Glorious, flat, shining Salt Lake City falls away as a rotting dead donkey is dragged through the village; the Mormon boys dance like showgirls; and music theatre nerds can spot the references-cum-homages to shows including Les Miserables, The Sound of Music, The King and I, Hamilton and, of course, The Lion King.

Or just enjoy the joyous obscenity and freaking language, the tighter-than-tight jokes, the foot-perfect chorey, magnificent singing, and insanely brilliant design (Scott Pask, set; Ann Roth, costume; Brian MacDevitt, lighting) that’s as complex and joke-filled as the script.

They’ve done something incredible.

Also on AussieTheatre.com.

As it's also a very expensive ticket (musicals don't welcome everyone), it's worth trying for the nightly $40 ticket lottery. You have to be at the theatre when it's drawn, but it could save you around $400 for two tickets.