28 February 2010

2007 Reviews

If you're nostalgic about 2007, reviews from that distant year are now uploaded.

It was the year
I discovered iOTA and Lally Katz,
Micky D told us about having colonic irrigation,
Kristy Edmunds presented the most amazing MIAF program
and my favourite play was Air Balloon Across Antarctica.

27 February 2010

Review: Furious Mattress

Furious Mattress
Malthouse Theatre
27 February 2010
Beckett Theatre, CUB Malthouse

In her program notes, writer Melissa Reeves says that the drafts of Furious Mattress took it “from farce to tragedy”. And it would seem that every real and imagined genre in between got a look in. No wonder I have no idea what this play is trying to be or what it wants its audience to feel.

Forget what reviews say, the best feedback comes from sitting with the audience in interval and casually standing around after the curtain closes. “Can we run?” “That’s a shocker.” “I can’t believe it was reviewed well.” Perhaps I just heard the ignorant souls who didn’t get it. Well, I declare myself with them.

I have no idea what Furious Mattress is. Farce abounds with multiple entrances/exits, obviously bad stage continuity (please be done on purpose), non-connecting face slaps and a giant rat masturbating an albino exorcist who is clad in short shorts. But it’s about a woman who is slowly tortured and violently killed by her husband and her church mates. That’s not intrinsically funny, especially as it’s based on a true story.

At times it explores the pure faith and religion that brings these normal people to act so far from themselves and their faith. But then, it indicates that the possession is real with a circus trick levitation, the giant rat and the angry bedding. If the possession is real, are we meant to cheer when they vanquish the devil and all its life force from her?

By trying to be everything and then some, Furious Mattress ends up as nothing. The opening scenes (which are mysterious and beautifully written) tell us the whole story and the subsequent 90 minutes tells us again. The story is: a woman dies after an attempted exorcism, which we know from the opening moments. The story urged us to go forward, but it took us back – when we’d rather have been taken for a drink.

The cast (Rita Kalnejais, Kate Kendall, Robert Menzies and Tom Wright) make us care as much as is possible with such contradictory material, but even wonderful actors can’t invent substance and truth that isn’t in the writing.

The exorcism stories that scare the bejesus out of us and make us reassess our own faith are those that put the possibility of evil and the redemption of faith at the centre. Furious Mattress seems to laugh at both, but never gets into the heart of why loving people could believe that killing was saving.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.
Photo by Jeff Busby.

Theatrenotes's Alison Croggin thought very differently about this show. I love her analysis, even though I had such a different reaction.

21 February 2010

What to see at the Adelaide Fringe?

Sometimes I'm in Adelaide, but not right now.

Almost everyone who loves festivals is. Melbourne seems almost quiet with so many artists and creators and audiences off in the Coopers-drinking city, wondering how Adelaide (yes dreary little Adels) can get its fringe and arts festival so right, while Melbourne (yes exciting, sophisiticated Melbourne) can't master the formula.

I'd be there if I could, and anyway - there's always next year.

But for all those enjoying the the bliss of The Garden of Unearthly Delights and everything else that is Fringe, here are some shows I've seen that really, really, really must be put on your must see list.

The show name links to their Fringe page and the review links to my review of the show.

The List Operators
The List Operators for Kids

Coles Girls

The Hamlet Apocalypse

Mickey D - Walking Home
Reviews. Ok, it's not a review of this show - but this one will be just as good.

Sammy J and Randy: Ricketts Lane
Reviews of other shows.

Spontaneous Broadway

The Boy with Tape on His Face

The Burlesque Hour

Circus Trick Tease

And The Little One Said

Dos or Duo
Review (it's top of my list for the Comedy Festival!)

Review: Dispatch

Barking Spider Visual Theatre
7 February 2010
fortyfive downstairs

'To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub.' Freud, Jung and countless others have tried, but that old playwright still said it best. Storytellers feed on dreams.

Shakespeare knew Hamlet welcomed and feared the state where our unconscious makes us feel what we most fear or most desire, while our logical consciousness tries to break through and make us feel safe. Dreams may be gone when we wake, but their pure emotion stays with us long after we’ve tried to make sense of them and the memory had faded.

Dream sequences abound in our published and filmed stories, but they rarely feel right; there’s too much logic and they make far too much sense. For all our analysis and dream interpretation, the horror and comfort of our dreams fails to fall into the step by step progression of our waking lives.

But storytellers still love dreams. The world of Barking Spider’s Dispatch is heightened and secret, hidden and intimate. It seems to make sense, even if logic and sense insist that it shouldn’t. A blue silk sea drowns and protects, a cradle of bones sooths, the suitcases of the lost reveal hope, a child near death creates a new world to resists the influence of her gods, her protectors, her demons and her puppeteers.

The meeting of puppet and controller/creator is fraught with clashes of logic, but in the Dispatch dreamscape, it makes complete sense and the meeting of tiny Sorrel and the giant Mama Brigitte and Gheda is both heartbreaking and beautiful, as they gently offer comfort and peace, as well as the secrets and pain of death.

Penelope Bartlau openly used her own dreams and the memories of her near death experiences as a child to create Dispatch. Her work continues to create delicate, intricate worlds where puppets reach our hearts and remind us what the great psychoanalysers, dream interpreters and bards keep trying to tell us – that we may all be connected by a world within our being that is forever out of our control.

Sleep tight.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

Review: Madagascar

Melbourne Theatre Company
17 February 2010
Fairfax Studio, the Arts Centre

This week the MTC announced that they have 20,000 subscribers. That’s ten full State Theatres, around 500 over-full La Mamas or nearly one quarter of a full MCG.

There’s always whinging about the MTC in foyers of independent theatres, on the blogosphere (I’ve done it myself) and in mainstream media, but 20,000 Melbourneites have chosen – and paid in advance – to see multiple shows by this company, so why should they care what a few disparate voices say.

I missed their first shows of the year, but season extensions tend to indicate that paying audiences enjoyed them and Madagascar will continue to keep the subscribers and their dinner party friends happy, and not just because it has a middle-aged academic, addresses the relationships between adult children and parents and explores the I-have possessions-but-what-have-I-done-with-my-life questions that face us as we start counting our years.

J.T. Rogers is an American playwright who doesn’t like American playwrights who write American stories, so he writes American stories about Americans out of America - that are still so American that no production can skip the accents. He writes a fine play though.

It’s so fine that the writing almost takes precedence over the story. The tale of a missing man and the impact of his disappearance on three people would sustain any telling. This telling is three monologues from different times that cross over and support each other. It’s intricate and detailed writing, but so good that it keeps drawing attention to itself and doesn’t give the story a chance to fly and, I suspect quite consciously, creates a distance with obvious imagery that forces the audience to keep looking for the patterns rather than lose themselves in the emotion of the story.

But, director Sam Strong and his cast (Noni Hazlehurst, Nicholas Bell and Asher Keddie whose performances are simply the best you will see) let the characters escape the tight control of the writer and create the emotional empathy that leaves audience caring and loving the characters more than their creator seemed to.

A creative team that create more than the writer ever imagined is the bliss of good theatre and I hope what all great writers (like Rogers) hope for when they bring new worlds into being.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

17 February 2010

Review: The Pyramid

The Pyramid
Three to a Room
7 February 2010
Northcote Town Hall

Independent producers Three to a Room continue to find perfect casts, encourage intelligent directors and present scripts that remind us why we go to the theatre.

The how-to-write books talk about bringing yourself to your stories and using your own experiences, and too often the subsequent writing reads like student political publications or shouts limited opinions to the converted or those who will never be converted. Then the playwrights wonder why anyone dares call their work boring.

Reading playwright Siobhan Colman’s program notes, The Pyramid appears as a very political work about social expectation and the violence so sadly inherent in many queer communities.

However, there is nothing in her work that shouts, bores or preaches. She brings personal experience and the experiences of her friends and community to the stage, but uses these tales to create a story with emotion and empathy that reaches far beyond its subject matter.

Her plot is original and told with a cleverness that catches its audience off guard. It’s told through three monologues. There’s Jack (Don Bridges), who got to sleep with his first love for 20 years and is happy to see the world on the television; Kate (Felicity Steel), who never lied to her husband about her first love, but he never asked the right questions; and Pete (Mick Lo Monaco), the Scotty terrier whose lust for the butch neighbourhood dogs is only surpassed by his loyalty to Kate. Each has its own tone and Aimee Blesing’s direction delicately guides the revelations that gradually reverse the audience’s sympathies, without detracting from the early experiences and empathies.

There’s obvious craft, skill and passion in Coleman’s writing, but ultimately The Pyramid is engaging and original theatrical story telling.

It’s also her first play. If this is what she’s writing for her first attempt, I can’t wait to see what she does next.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

15 February 2010

Review: A Narrow Time For Angels - The Musical

A Narrow Time for Angels: The Musical
Wishing Well Productions

Northcote Town Hall
11 February 2010

Like many others, I can see the gorgeous and funny loveliness of Cerise de Geder’s A Narrow Time For Angels, but it’s not hitting its mark on the stage yet.

First performed at the Storeroom last year, a new creative team (Wishing Well Productions) took hold for Midsumma. The biggest difference is that it’s now billed as a musical.

When I heard about this, I thought that it may be the best way for this script to go. The themes of life, death, suicide and after life are epic and the nonsensical comedy of the chatting corpse, her frustrated lover and the repressed mortician open themselves up for heartbreaking ballads and comic sing-a-long tunes.

But the new songs didn’t add to the script. They didn’t tell us anything we didn’t know, didn’t let the characters say anything they hadn’t already said (not just in subtext, but in good old expositionary and explanatory dialogue), didn’t move the story forward, told unnecessary back story and felt like they were just pushed into the script. Too many of the songs could have replaced the dialogue that went before.

Great musical songs are like soliloquies that tell us what the characters can’t bring themselves to say. They show us their hidden longings and fears and draw us further into their story. The music didn’t feel natural and its uneasiness distanced the audience from the story.  I think that the non-musical version had more dramatic punch. 

A Narrow Time For Angles isn’t going to disappear. Apart from being a stunning title, its originality, mystery plot and comedy will keep drawing people to the script. And hopefully de Gelder will keep re-drafting (and perhaps bring in the tough love of a tough editor) and find the tone that has eluded the productions. The script is still deciding if it’s farce, romantic comedy, absurd comedy or pseudo-Tarantino-thriller, and sometimes the playwright’s opinion overrides the characters’ voices. Every writer wants their creations to express their own views of the world, but the skill is keeping it within the authentic world of the character.

Good plays take time to be great. I look forward to seeing what it turns into.

This review appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

11 February 2010

Terrific writing tips # 3a: The Writers Tale

The Writers Tale: The Final chapter

Sleeping, watching Dr Who and uploading holiday pics to Facebook weren't serving as adequate procrastination activities today, so it was off to the beach before summer runs out – and I took The Writers Tale:The Final Chapter with me, so that I could justify the lazing on the sand time as kind of work.

The Writers Tale began as an exchange of emails between journalist Benjamin Cook and writer Russell T Davies, as Benjamin thought he might put together a good magazine story about RTD's creation and writing of series 4 of Dr Who. He ended up with a book – and an extended version of the same book, which has just been released and takes us through to the end of series 4.

(For Australian readers, RTD and David Tennant's final episodes are on the ABC over the next two weekends.

And here is the cheapest way to get a copy of the book in Australia - and it will only take a week to arrive.)

I discovered RTD in 2003. A Scottish aerialist and actor was staying in my spare room (now the writing room) and came back from Out Video with Tales of the City (and a copy of the book), Will and Grace, Queer as Folk and Bob and Rose. Spot the theme?

Not only did I discover Armistead Mauphin and an American sit com that I loved, but I found the television writing of RTD.

It's not like RTD and I had similar lives. He spent his youth drinking too much and dancing with pretty boys in gay night clubs in Manchester. I spent my youth drinking too much and dancing with pretty boys in gay night clubs in Adelaide. Totally different accents.

We have different lives, but in his stories I saw someone who created a world that I believed. A world where the people and their lives were so recogniseable, even if I'd never experienced anything they had, I never doubted them and was drawn into their fictional lives like they were my own.

"I consider that I've something to say when I've thought of a person, a moment, a single beat of the heart, that I think is true and interesting, and therefore should be seen."                            The Writers Tale: The Final Chapter,  p 57
Needless to say, having watched Dr Who most weekdays of my childhood, I was bit too excited when he took on the challenge of bringing our Time Lord back to the BBC.

And rightly so. Fans don't need me to rave about the Dr Who. They know it's brilliant.

And so is The Writers Tale:The Final Chapter.

On opening the book at the beach, my procrastinating self was ironically confronted with RTD discussing procrastination, the fear of being crap, the excuses made not to write, not seeing family and friends because you're 'writing' (meaning NOT writing and hating yourself for not writing) and wanting to be more like Jeanette Winterson. He once read an interview with Jeanette (another one of my favourite writers) where she said writing was like flying. I'm googling around for it now, but glad I never read it, as I too feel the fear, fear not having the fear and will do anything to avoid the writing, even though its the one thing I want to do. I'm more comforted knowing that writers need a bit of temporary self-loathing.

I'm only 90-odd pages in (it's a mighty tome at 700 pages), but I can't imagine reading a better book about the process of writing. And I've read a lot of them.

As writers, artists or people, we have constant chatter in our heads. Even as I do the dishes (on those rare occassions) I'm over analysing everything I've seen or heard that day (and my whole life), there's a few different stories trying to make sense in my head, a handful of characters trying to come to life, I'm writing and re-writing blogs and reviews, planning what I'm having for dinner, thinking who I could invite over for dinner and replaying everything past, present and future in dozens of different ways.

Our brains are never still and (luckily) we only ever let a tiny bit of that chatter leak out to the world.

The Writers Tale is a door to Russell's inner chatter. Reading his long, detailed emails is like hearing his brain at work.  You can see the seeds of wonderful scenes appearing as chat and minor ideas. You see episodes (and companions) that never were - and why they were scrapped.You see the doubt and the confidence and the craft and the skill.  He talks about the need to suffer and the total bollocks of the suffering artist.

As a writer, he talks to other writers about how they can write. Isn't that what we want to hear? That we can do it.

RTD is only part of the book. As a worthy companion  Benjamin Cook asks the questions. Every writer should have a Benjamin to question them. Writers could  just read Benjamin's questions to Russell and see how they answer them.

Amazing writing is meant to inspire new (and old) writers, but sometimes it just scares the bejesus out of me. As I watch or read something that is so far out of my reach as a writer, I'm more likely to head to the couch than the computer. Russell is one of those writers for me. His work scares me.

Reading this book is already taking away some of that fear and self-doubt. Seeing how he works and recognising so much of it, takes the halo off his head and brings him back down to the pub having a beer. And it is sending me to the computer (when I'm not on the couch watching his writing or reading this wonderful book).

If you are a Dr Who fan, there is no question of not owning this book. Like your K9 mouse mat and Dalek keychain, your life won't be complete without it.

If you don't dream of travelling in the TARDIS, but love television or just love writing, give this a go. The knowledge of the telly series helps, but not having it doesn't hinder.

However, you will then be compelled to watch all of Dr Who and Queer as Folk (UK version then US version) and Bob and Rose (still my favourite telly series) and The Second Coming and everything else Russell has touched, but you may also be inspired to get to the keyboard and see what stories are lurking in the chatter in your head.

Series 4 of Dr Who says farewell to RTD, but the new head writer is the equally marvellous Steven Moffat, who wrote my favourite episode of  Dr Who, 'Blink,' and he wrote the wonderful sitcom Coupling (that I love as much as Will and Grace).

So RTD, we will miss you, but we have no fear that Dr Who is going to be just as addictive. And I've just read that Neil Gaimen (yes, Neil Gaimen!) will be writing an episode of Series 6. Again, I'm a bit too excited.
PS - My Scottish actor friend is living in London and he would be a wonderful alien, companion or evil genius for Series 6.

08 February 2010

Coming Soon

I had great plans to blog while I was away, but that didn't even get near happening.

I managed some daily Facebook updates (so my mum knew that I was still alive), but blogging isn't a priority when you're collapsing exhausted or re-packing your case and wishing that the next bus or flight didn't leave at 7am. And blogging is no where near as fun as sitting on a tiny plastic stool in the middle of a polluted street drinking cheap beer with amazing people from all over the world.

But I'm back in Melbourne. The streets are so clean and the traffic is so sparse and so orderly. I can pat animals again, brush my teeth with water from the tap and I don't have to carry anti-diarrhoea tablets and a bottle of hand disinfectant everywhere. I am clean, I have access to a hair straightener and I'm not wearing my Kathmandu travel pants for three days in a row. And everyone is so white and fat and healthy.

That sounds like I don't love south east Asia. I do. I love the chaos, the madness, the wonderful people (even the rude bastards who yell and lie and try and get every dollar they can out of you) and being in places that are both beautiful and heartbreaking.

But I'm home, I'm eating Vegemite on multigrain toast, and coming soon (I'd like to say this week, but I make no promises) is:
  • A review of The Pyramid. Another wonderful, wonderful script presented by Three to a Room.
  • A review of Dispatch. A gorgeous and moving work from Barking Spider theatre.
(I knew I was home when I saw two shows the day I was back.)
  • A guest blog on Aerohaveno Tim Richards's terrific travel blog. I think it'll be about eating insects and spiders. Ok, I admit that I piked on the tarantulas, but I thought about it.
  • A review of The Writers Tale. I 've already started reading it and have over 700 pages of Saint Russell T Davies talking about writing Dr Who to go. And I have my 150,000 dong pirate DVD of seasons 1-4 of the new Dr Who to refresh my memory.
  • All old reviews from 2007 and 2008.
  • Some musing on Kuala Lumpur, Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Saigon, Hoi an, Ha noi and Ha long.